Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Whipping Man

Photo by Barry Wisdom
Whoever thought a guy named Lopez would write such a gripping play about black Jews in the South at the end of the Civil War? But playwright Matthew Lopez has delivered an unforgettable drama now on the Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock stage, under the direction of Buddy Butler.

The notion that there were a number of Jewish families living in the South during the Civil War is perhaps not surprising — though we rarely hear of them as a group apart from everyone else — so it is also not surprising that some of their slaves, particularly those raised from childhood with Jewish traditions, would have converted to Judaism, or that spirituals like “Go Down, Moses” would be an integral part of a Passover Seder.

The play covers three days in April 1865. Gen. Robert E. Lee has surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and young Caleb DeLeon (Sean Patrick Nill), wounded and barely able to drag his gangrenous leg, has returned to the family estate, to find the place in ruins.

His father and the rest of the family (including the now-emancipated slaves) have taken shelter elsewhere until it is safe to return to Richmond, Va. The house is being watched by former slaves Simon (Michael J. Asberry), and the younger John (Anthony Simone).

Simon, who has obviously been with the family for many years, is devoted to them and to keeping the house safe from looters, while the opportunistic John is thrilled to be looting the nearby mansions for little luxuries like liquor, candles, silverware and a mattress and rug that will help them to survive until things settle down and the family returns.

There is an uneasy reunion of the former slave and former master, as Caleb falls into his old habit of ordering the older man about. Simon reminds him that given his emancipated status, the boy should make requests rather than issuing orders. It takes a bit for this shift in relationships to sink in.

The rich are now poor, and the slaves are now free. Caleb has lost his faith, while Simon and John continue to believe and practice their adopted religion. Discussions of faith and religion take prominence as the three men try to make sense of this new, uncertain world.

“Were we Jews or were we slaves?” John wonders aloud to Caleb, recalling the years before the war.
“Were we the children of Israel or we just the heathen that were round about you? Because we couldn’t be both, that was clear. And now you say you’ve given up praying just as easily as that.”

It is clear that Caleb’s leg must be removed to save his life, but the former soldier refuses to go to the hospital, so Simon, with some little medical experience, assisted by John, performs the deed.

Fortunately for the audience, there is a convenient blackout to cover Caleb’s screams and when the lights come up again, the surgery is over and Caleb is lying comatose in bed.

As the two-hour play moves forward, tempers grow short, old wounds are aired, long-buried secrets are revealed and all comes to a head during a Passover Seder.

One could not ask for a better cast. Asberry imbues Simon with a quiet dignity in the face of the horror around him, and a hope that on his return, his former master will keep his promise to give him money so that he and his family can get their own little house.

His speech when he learns of President Lincoln’s assassination, given with tears running down his face, had many in the audience crying with him. He also sings bits of spirituals in several spots, displaying a deep, rich voice that left the audiences wanting more.

Nill gives a notable performance, and manages to handle the task of being bed-ridden and comatose for a long part of the action, though he is given the opportunity to express himself on two good legs in a flash-back scene.

Simone’s John is a cynical character who has a sense of style in the new duds he liberates from deserted mansions, and he has a devil-may-care attitude, until topics turn more serious and he shares his memories of “the whipping man,” to whom the father would take his slaves when they needed to be disciplined.

His character confronts reality when he finally understands that his feelings about the DeLeon family may have been mistaken.

This is a powerful play that not only examines a little-known chapter of Southern history, especially in the post-Civil War era, but also raises questions about race, religion and responsibility.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Year with Frog and Toad

I have heard for years that “A Year with Frog and Toad” with music by Robert Reale, and book and lyrics by Willie Reale, based on the popular series of children’s books by Arnold Lobel, was a wonderful show. So I was thrilled to find it on the Woodland Opera House schedule. I knew it was on their Family Theater schedule but I assumed it was adults performing for kids, as in the videos I’ve watched.

So it was a surprise to discover that this production, directed by Emily Jo Seminoff, was by talented child actors, some as young as second-graders, but to my delight, it was a charming production with strong actors, singers and dancers.

This delightful family musical is a series of vignettes taken from the Lobel books, which show two good friends living through four seasons and learning the value of friendship.

In the title roles are Bailey Robinson-Burmester as Frog and Jimin Moon as Toad. Continuing the family legacy, Robinson-Burmester gives a wonderful performance. This young man is already a veteran of many productions and his experience shows. He is totally at home on the stage and takes command of his character. He is assisted by a wonderful costume by Denise Miles, a sort of blend of a tailcoat and a sports coat.

Fourteen-year-old Moon, who performed solo at Carnegie Hall last December, is the more laid-back, sometimes petulant Toad, but every bit Robinson-Burmester’s equal as the two friends plant a garden, swim, bake cookies and ride a sleigh down a snow-covered hill (among other activities). The two even do a darn good tap dance for “He’ll Never Know.”

As back-up, there are groups of young actors as birds, lizards, moles, bees/squirrels, snow dancers and trees, some of whom also have solo roles as well. The bees/squirrels are the youngest group of kids and steal the show with cuteness whenever they are on stage.

Alex Romero, in her ninth production at the Woodland Opera House, is Mouse, a small role that she performs well.

Hattie Craven, who recorded her first CD at age 11, makes the most of her role as Snail, the mailman to whom Frog gives a letter to deliver to Toad because Toad is sad that he never gets mail. Craven’s role is a small one, but she brings laughs at every appearance and her song, “I’m Coming Out of My Shell,” is a good message for anyone:

“I thought, ‘I’m just a snail.
A lot of shell. A little goo.
But all of that has changed,
As now the following is true
I got something I do
Something I’m proud of
Because I do it pretty well”

James Hayakawa and Chloe Sears leave the birds’ nest for a scene in which they play Mother and Father Frog, with Alyssa Denman outstanding as Young Frog.

Seminoff, no stranger to children’s theater herself, gets high marks for her direction and choreography, which is exuberant without going overboard and all the kids do her proud.

John Bowles has designed a utilitarian stage with two blocks for the houses of Frog and Toad, which rotate to show different rooms of the house, or to blend into the grassy background, when necessary.
This is a show that gives its audience — and the Opera House was filled with exceptionally well-behaved children of all ages — a great time enjoying good songs, good comedy and plenty of heart.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Crawdads CD Release Party

The Putah Creek Crawdads are throwing a party at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 28, at the Palms Playhouse in Winters to celebrate the release of their second CD, “Rolling On.” Their first CD, “Going Back” was released in January 2009, which was the last time I met with the group for an interview.

The Crawdads are an acoustic vocal and string band, which plays folk, Americana, gospel and bluegrass music. They have been playing around Yolo County and beyond for almost 50 years. Members reside in Davis, Woodland, Knights Landing, Winters and Arbuckle. They span an age range from 45 to 93. They often can be seen playing at the Davis Farmers Market, at Ludy’s Main Street BBQ in Woodland or at a host of charitable events to which they donate their time and talents.

There is disagreement about the exact start date of the group, but agreement that the distant genesis was a yearly gathering held by members of the Unitarian Universalist Church over at Dillon Beach, when everyone would sit around in the evening and sing music.

Marc Faye, a farmer from Knights Landing, remembers that he and the other three original members —Ray Coppock, Cap Thomson and Oliver “Chip” Northup — started playing together in the 1960s when hootenanny music was popular and everybody seemed to be playing guitar.

The Crawdads eventually grew to include: Coppock, a retired information specialist for the UC Ag Extension and the senior member; Thomson, former director of Yolo County Mental Health and former director of Sutter Center for Psychiatry; Wayne Ginsburg, a retired English and journalism teacher, who now acts as the band manager; Kate Laddish, the fiddle player who learned to play the fiddle in order to be a Crawdad; and Northup.

John Rominger joined the group in 2011, having returned to Davis after his retirement. He had been playing guitar with various groups, and as a solo keyboard performer in the Bay Area.
“I had known Marc and Cap for many years and when I was talking to Marc I made a comment about looking for someone to play music with,” Rominger said. “They invited me to play a few times and after awhile invited me to join the group.”
At a recent rehearsal at the Thompson home, band members discussed why they decided to put out a CD now.
“Well, we have a very fine guitarist (Rominger) now,” Thomson said, with Coppock adding, “All we had before was Chip and me … and we aren’t really guitar players.”

“We’ve reconstituted and we’re celebrating that,” Thomson said. “We love to make music, and we were grateful for the opportunity.”

“Reconstituted” refers, of course, to the tragic loss of Oliver “Chip” Northup, one of the original Crawdads, who had played guitar and taken many of the lead vocals for the group since its formation 50 years ago.

“After we lost Chip, one of the things we did, was substitute duets for Chip’s solos,” Coppock said.
“Chip had a wonderful memory for words and for music,” Thomson said. The group laughed, fondly remembering their friend, but in agreement that Northup was religious about never changing the key, never modulating, never straying from the original way a song had been performed.

“There are certain songs we don’t sing any more because they were all Chip. Songs like “Strawberry Run” … he’s the only one who knew all the words!” Coppock said.

“There were lots of songs that I never had a role in singing and thus never learned the words,” Faye added.

The group paused to specify that the dedication of this album reads, “We dedicate this album to the memories of Oliver “Chip” Northup and Claudia Maupin. Chip was our lead singer for 48 years (1965-2013), and the warmth in his voice matched the warmth in his heart and spirit. They were two of the most generous and giving people we’ve known. We miss them deeply.”

Ginsburg also talked about the value producer Keith Little has had in the Crawdad history and in the production of this album.

“Keith has helped the group grow vocally over the last several years,” Ginsburg said.

They met Little at a band camp and he became their producer, coach and friend. In fact, both CDs were recorded at the Crockett recording studio of Little’s singing partner, Jim Nunally.

“One of the things that really shows (comparing) our pre-Keith days and now is our understanding of arranging and the difference in what you can do when you are performing versus what you can do in a studio, in terms of what is happening behind the singing,” Laddish explained. “When you listen to our recording now versus when we first went into the studio in 2007 there’s a huge difference.”

They called this album “Rolling On” because they knew this is what Northup would have wanted — that the group keep “rolling on.”

In fact “Rolling on” is a theme which parenthetically encloses all of the 17 songs in this new album, which starts with a traditional bluegrass song, “I’m rolling on,” first recorded by Bill Monroe, the granddaddy of bluegrass, in a special Crawdad version.

The final song is Woody Guthrie’s “Roll On, Columbia,” recorded by the Crawdads in 2007, but never released until now. This version features Northup. “Chip’s voice, as you will hear, was something special,” the album cover states.

In between are popular tunes like Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races,” and less familiar tunes like the instrumental “In Memory of Herbie MacLeod,” which features Laddish’s fiddle.

“Cap taught me the tune in about 2002, and we brought it to the full band when we were looking for an instrumental for this album,” Laddish said, explaining that it was inspired by the music of Cape Breton and was written by Jerry Holland in memory of Helen Thomson’s late father, Herbie.

After 50 years, what keeps these guys together is their enjoyment in playing together. Coppock remembers that he was told by Keith Little that the thing that drew him to the group in the first place was that they were the only group who had been together for a long time where the members all actually still liked each other.

Not to be found on this new album (but will be on the next CD, they promise) is a brand new song written for the Crawdads by John Rominger, which nicely traces the history of the group and sums up their popularity very well:

“Those crawdads have a knack for makin’ people want to smile.
They love to entertain their fans with a laid back down home style”

Come out to The Palms Playhouse on March 28 and get a preview of the new song, as well as the songs on the album. Let the Crawdads entertain you with their laid back style and let their music “soothe your mind.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015


I had not seen that many arms waving the peace sign in decades.

The Beatles Tribute band, Rain, has returned to the Sacramento Community Center with a new and improved Beatles tribute, and the hundreds of ecstatic fans were screaming and whistling and clapping as soon as the lights went down, before the curtain even went up.

Their excitement was rewarded by a two-hour homage to the Fab Four by a group that has been celebrating The Beatles phenomenon for longer than The Beatles themselves actually were together (the Rain band started in 1975).

Aided by an incredible multi-media presentation using LED and hi-def screens, “Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles” takes the audience through Beatles history, starting with their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” through the Shea Stadium concert, into their psychedelic years and their final concerts together, becoming more socially conscious and working to “give peace a chance.”

Included in this updated tribute are songs The Beatles recorded in the studio, but never performed for an audience. It’s all music, with no scripted dialog, though there are some clever asides to the audience now and then.

The audience whistled and cheered, clapped, waved their arms, sang along with familiar songs, got up and danced and in general had a fabulous time, all the while waving at themselves projected large on the screen on stage at the grand finale.

All four of the performers in Rain — Joey Curatolo (Paul), Steve Landes (John), Joe Bithorn (George) and Ralph Castelli (Ringo) — also performed in various versions of the Beatlemania band. All were profoundly affected by The Beatles at an early age.

Castelli knew from the moment he saw Ringo Starr on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that he wanted to be a drummer. He not only toured as Ringo in Beatlemania, but also played Starr in “Beatlemania: the Movie.”

Bithorn likewise was smitten after watching the Sullivan show and took up the guitar. He toured with Beatlemania as George until he joined Rain in 1983.

Curatolo, who taught himself to play the guitar at age 10, toured with the Broadway production after winning multiple McCartney sound-alike contests.

Landes is a second-generation Beatles fan who also taught himself guitar at age 10 by listening to Beatles records. He also traveled with Beatlemania and joined Rain in 1998.

The four are joined by keyboardist Mark Beyer, to fill in not only piano sounds, but also, when necessary, violin, harp and other instruments.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I was never a Beatles fan, so I cannot speak to the accuracy of arrangement or vocal imitation, though it all sounded pretty spot-on to me, and the audience loved it. These are talented musicians and they put on an amazing show.

The opening segment alone, with banks of TV screens showing clips from Ed Sullivan — the host and the group and then thousands of screaming fans in the audience — set the stage for what was to come.

Later, the Shea Stadium concert was given authenticity by a stage-wide projection of the audience at that concert that made you feel you actually were there in the stands looking at the audience on the other side of the field.

The clever introduction of period television commercials to entertain the audience while the group members change costumes was fun. (Who remembers that Fred and Barney were once spokespersons for Winston cigarettes?)

As the group hits the ’60s and ’70s, light shows enhance the psychedelic years along with “Yellow Submarine”-type animation.

What is best about this show for the audience is the shared experience, remembering back to those bell-bottom days. Everyone (except perhaps me) has their own memories of how they were affected by The Beatles and Rain gives them a chance to relive those days.

It doesn’t matter that these guys aren’t the real deal — they sound real, they look real and they sing the songs that became the fabric of our lives.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Rapture, Blister, Burn

The message of Gina Gionfriddo’s hilarious “Rapture, Blister, Burn” — now given a wonderful treatment at Capital Stage, under the direction of Shannon Mahoney — is “be careful what you wish for.”

Catherine (Megan Pearl Smith) is a beautiful, intelligent successful author, a darling of the talk show circuit, who was a recent guest on Bill Maher. She’s the author of books delving into “the connection between reality TV and the collective loss of national privacy, torture porn as a reaction to second-wave feminism, and the rise of degradation as entertainment in the wake of 9/11.”

She’s also single and “living the dream” in New York City.

Her former college roommate Gwen (Kelley Ogden) has it all — a beautiful home, two children, a hunky husband any woman would want.

Husband Don (Sam Misner) is the dean of a small college, counselor to students with behavior problems. He is also Catherine’s former lover. When Catherine went off to London for a year, Gwen moved in and married him.

When Catherine’s mother Alice (Phoebe Moyer) has a heart attack, Catherine decides, based on family history, that her mother’s death is imminent and she rushes home to take care of her in her final days (though Alice seems fine).

Concern for her mother brings the three old college chums together again, as Don uses his contacts to get a teaching job for Catherine while she is waiting for Mom to die. As the play begins, there is an awkward reunion of the trio.

Apparently, Catherine and Gwen had a telephone conversation which, owing to having drunk too much, Catherine does not remember, which prompted her invitation to visit the couple and which explains Gwen’s nervous constant chatter.

When Gwen leaves the room, it is apparent that the old sparks have rekindled for Catherine and Don.
Rounding out the cast is Madilyn Cooper as Avery, the baby-sitter with a black eye whom Gwen insists on firing because “we can’t let our son thinking this is normal, like someone punching out his baby-sitter is no big deal.”

The plot device of having Catherine teach a special seminar in her home to only two people — Gwen and Avery (with Mom on hand to provide martinis) — is contrived, but an efficient way to get to the meat of the show, which is feminism as viewed by three generations of women.

As each of the three gets fuel for her own particular fire, unhappy Gwen, who wishes she had pursued a career, agrees to switch places with unhappy Catherine, who misses marriage and a family. Gwen will take her older son, with whom she has a better relationship, and take over Catherine’s apartment and her bank account. Catherine and Don will move in together with the younger son, who is the problem child.

As expected, there is some crabgrass in that greener grass on both sides of the fence as each woman discovers that her heart’s desire may have been in her own front yard after all.

There is first-rate acting in this comedy. Ogden is a wonder as Gwen, her insecurity and people-pleasing personality leading to nervous chatter, changing to a dark mood when she realizes that Catherine wants her husband. The personality change is night and day, and wonderful.

Smith’s Catherine is self-assured and confident until hormones and suppressed longing take over and then she leads with her hormones and loses herself in the passion of what Avery calls “the love drunk.”

Misner’s Don goes along for the ride. He spends his time watching porn, with which he finds no problem. He drinks too much. He’s lost his ambition. He lusts after Catherine. He is unlikely to change his behavior, though Catherine is convinced that the love of the right woman can restore him to the man she knew in college.

Cooper’s Avery is the most level-headed one of them all, a young woman who rejects the feminism of Betty Friedan and her opposite, conservative Phyllis Schlafly, both of whom she finds outdated. Avery and the rest of her generation believe they have seen the mistakes made by the older generation and have learned from them.

Her observations are right on target, and she has a comment about Google maps that may be the funniest line of the night.

Phoebe Moyer is a jewel as Alice, Catherine’s mother, raising her child in the days before feminism became a “thing,” with some solid, down-home observations. She also is ready to make a martini at the drop of a hat.

If you suspend disbelief in some of the plot, and just enjoy the snappy dialog and the comedy, this is a very funny show, but one with a bit of substance to make one think.

And by the way, Sam Misner and Megan Pearl Smith comprise the popular Davis-based musical group, Misner & Smith, which is playing a concert at Capital Stage on Sunday, March 29.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Julie’s parents have always taught her to think for herself. As the 16-year-old entered adolescence, they were prepared for her to experiment with drugs or alcohol or with sex (gay or straight) and they were OK with that.

They are modern parents raising a modern kid, but when Julie decides to explore religion, specifically Christianity, all those parenting values come into question and set off an exploration not only of parent-child relationships, but the husband-wife relationship as well.

“Oblivion” is a comedy by Carly Mensch, perhaps better known as a writer for the popular Showtime series “Weeds” and “Nurse Jackie.” It opened, in its West Coast premiere, last weekend at the B Street Theatre, under the direction of Buck Busfield.

Dad Dixon (Kurt Johnson), a non-practicing Jew, is an attorney who just quit the profession when he had a nervous breakdown. Now he spends his time sitting in the house, wearing pajamas, smoking pot and writing what his wife thinks is a John Grisham-type novel, but in reality, porn. Dixon is the “dad-pal,” who cares more about being Julie’s buddy than about being her father.

Mom Pam (Elisabeth Nunziato) is an atheist, the high-powered breadwinner who works for HBO, making documentary films. She is also the disciplinarian in the family, the “bad guy” who battles Dixon when it comes to issues concerning Julie’s behavior.

The two of them are described by Julie’s best friend, wannabe filmmaker Bernard (Arthur Keng), as “the most open-minded, liberal people on the planet.”

The problem starts when Julie (Julie Balefsky) returns from a weekend with Bernard. She says it was visiting Wesleyan College, but Pam and Dixon think they know better and question her unmercifully. When they discover (through snooping through Julie’s diary and grilling the intimidated Bernard) that she has been attending his Baptist church and reading the Bible, all hell (or what passes for hell in an atheist household) breaks loose.

Julie’s curiosity about Christianity is only the jumping-off point for the more serious revelations that expose the cracks in the relationship between Pam and Dixon.

Like Mensch’s “Nurse Jackie,” this is a comedy with lots of dramatic overtones to it, so it may be more appropriately called a “dramady.”

Balefsky gives a fine performance as the rebellious teenager, trying to find her own path. Julie isn’t a bad kid. She’s trying to discover who she is, and is surprised that she has none of the sexual angst of many of her peers. Her friendship with Bernard is strictly platonic but she has a yearning to fill a hole in her soul and hopes that Christianity will provide the answer.

Nunziato is both strident and vulnerable in her portrayal of Pam. Her long-held ideas are falling around her and she is desperately trying to hold on to them.

Johnson's Dixon is laconic and detached from life. He has withdrawn from just about everything, but the crisis with Julie is slowly bringing him back to life, a life he may find difficult to adjust to.

Though Bernard seems an odd character in this dramady, Keng is actually the soul of the story — a geeky kid who wants to invent something “new” in film that has never been seen before. Critic Pauline Kael is his hero and he writes her heartfelt letters and holds imaginary conversations with her. He is devastated to discover that she died several years before.

The end of the story is almost a cop-out, though it is Bernard who kind of ties it all together.

This is an odd show, but with lots of laughs along the way.

(The multi-level set by Sam Remo is wonderful.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Italian opera

When playwright Leslie Lewinter-Suskind was a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, she wrote a play called “Italian Opera,” which won an excellence in play writing award.

Fast-forward through marriage, four children, nine grandchildren and travels around the world, and now the play has been rediscovered and graces the theater at California Stage, under the direction of Ray Tatar.

Why this gem of a comedy-with-music has lain dormant lo these many years is anybody’s guess, but how lucky we are that it has finally been revived to be enjoyed by Sacramento area audiences.

This is a farce that lampoons all of the excesses of elements of Italian opera, particularly of the 19th century. There are divas, love, affairs, murder, suicide — all that fun stuff that makes opera so enjoyable.

Everything about this production is perfect, starting with the set, designed by Niels Larsen and constructed by Buzz Weitz, a large living room with interchangeable pieces that turn it into a different luxury villa (a pillow, a hat rack, a floral arrangement, family photos). Funny and clever.

Then there is the dream cast, talented actors and singers all. Katherine Cooper is Lucrezia, barren wife of the sterile Mario (Jonathan Blum), having an affair with Nemorino (Michael R.J. Campbell), the philandering husband of Vestalina (Naomi Wilson), the mother of his nine children, all of whom look like their father.

And there is Janet Motenko, delicious as either the maid Zerbinetta or the maid Berta, depending on whose villa is being featured. Her performance as narrator and everything else (including parish priest) is so wonderful it has to be seen to be believed.

The costumes, from the 1930s era (designed by Jeanette Trimble), are perfect. Most wonderful is the costume switch from Zerbinetta to Berta and back again, which brings laughter every time.

There must be a plot to drive the action and give a reason for characters to break into song. Lucrezia discovers she is pregnant by Nemorino, but because she has not been intimate with her husband for more than three years, it’s going to be difficult to pass the child off as his.

The lovers conspire for ways Lucrezia can seduce her husband but hilarity ensues when Vestalina begins to get suspicious, and Mario reveals his own shameful secret.

The songs, also by Lewinter-Suskind (arranged by Peter Kagstrom and David Taylor and played by Jane Fanucci on the piano), are perfect examples of what you might hear in a real opera, from romantic arias to humorous duets and emotional death scenes. (It’s opera; of course everybody dies!)

In fact, the final death scene had me wondering, as Vestalina leaps to her death, if the whole thing had been a shaggy dog story.

The play is very funny, well crafted, wonderfully acted and a real treasure that I hope large numbers will come out to see. You don’t need to know (or appreciate) opera to enjoy this play. It stands on its own as a unique comedy with music.