Thursday, May 18, 2017

The 39 Steps


There is only one way to describe John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps,” now at Wyatt Pavilion — silly, frenetic madness and mayhem.

This Patrick Barlow homage to the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film is based on a John Buchan novel. Described by UCD’s department of theater and dance as “a Hitchcock masterpiece with an action thriller, adding a dash of Monty Python,” this production, directed by Mindy Cooper, will have you gasping for breath between the laughs.

The production also celebrates the 110th anniversary of Wyatt Pavilion, the oldest building on campus.

It is a cast of five — Matt Skinner, Kelly Tappan, Daniel Ferrer, Matthew Murphy and Caitlin Sales — who create more than 100 characters, with lightning-fast costume changes, most in full sight of the audience. One actor may change character three times in a matter of seconds.

The only actor who does not change character is Skinner. He appears as the uber-British Richard Hanny, whose brief encounter with a glamorous woman he meets in the theater (Tappan — like Hitchcock leading ladies, she is a striking blonde) leads to numerous adventures that involve chases across moors, streams and bridges, false identities, and even murder (for which he is, of course, falsely accused).

Poor Hanny will be chased through two dozen locations before the play comes to its end.

The parade of police, spies, rustics, traveling salesmen, innkeepers, newsboys and railroad porters are all played by Ferrer, Murphy and Sales, who did not make a visible misstep despite the zaniness of the action. Watching them change hats, coats and accents is as much fun as watching the people they become.

Big kudos to costume designers Maria Delgadillo, Alisa Sakakura and Autumn Ward, headed by Roxanne Femling.

The creative team of Duke Durfee (scenic design), Pamila Z. Gray (lighting design) and Lindsay Putnam (sound design) create great effects, such as a tribute to Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” when Hanny is chased by a crop duster.

(To the best of my knowledge, director Cooper did not, like Hitchcock, have a brief walk-on, but who can tell with all those characters?)

The innovative use of things — like ladders to represent the Forth Bridge, or big photo frames that double as windows through which characters escape — is brilliant.

The pace is breathtaking and the laughs tumble over each other throughout.

Be advised that if you have difficult reading small print, bringing a magnifying glass is advised. The print in the program is so incredibly tiny that I was not able to read it until I got home and could see it under a magnifying glass.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Stupid F###ing Bird



If Conrad loves Nina and Nina loves Trigorin and Trigorin loves Emma while Dev loves Masha, who loves Conrad — we can only be in a Russian tragedy.

“Stupid F##king Bird,” currently at Capital Stage, under the direction of Michael Stevenson, is a hilarious yet reverential homage to Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

The title came about as a joke, playwright Aaron Posner explained. “I was saying how much I loved ‘The Seagull’ and how much I kind of hated it. As I left the room, I literally said, ‘I should do my own adaptation. I should call it Stupid F##king Bird.’ ” And so he did.

This is more or less the plot of “The Seagull” with the themes more or less the themes of Chekhov’s and, like the original, it is all about theater, including a play within a play in which the audience is invited to contribute ideas. But the lines between reality and stage are blurred and the characters often are not aware that they are actors in a play.

Yes, it’s a little confusing, but stick with it. It’s very funny and all comes together. Sort of. By the final bow.

The marvelous Ian Hopps is Conrad, the tortured playwright desperate to get his play appreciated, especially by his mother, Emma (Rebecca Dines), to whom the play is directed.

Hopps made a big impression in Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s “Bells are Ringing” last summer and does not disappoint in this production, filled with passion, self-deprecation and anguish about his unrequited love for aspiring actress Nina.

Brittni Barger as Nina is a hopeless romantic who longs for a stage career (but isn’t really talented). She is dazzled by the philandering literary legend Trigorin and believes he is her key to fame and fortune.

Dines plays the successful actress and family matriarch Emma, who has had a love/hate relationship with her son for all of his life, which explains a lot about Conrad.

Capital Stage favorite Jason Kuykendall is Trigorin, tall and cool, but easily swayed by the sexual advances of both Nina and Emma. (Warning to the audience: There is a bit of nudity in this show, as well as liberal use of the F-word.)

Comic relief is provided by Jouni Kirjola as Dev, with a smile that comes right out of a cartoon. His smile often hides a breaking heart but he is Con’s BFF and an essential part of his life. Kirjola offers the perfect blend of social awkwardness and charm.

A real find is Wenona Truong, as Mash. The actress comes out of the Capital Stage Apprentice Program and is perfect as the deadpan, perpetually depressed Mash, strumming her ukulele and singing bitter songs to express her unhappiness.

(“My heart has been broken, my heart has been burst / The best that life can offer me is more of the worst …”)

Peter Mohrmann is Dr. Sorn, Emma’s brother, whose role seems to be that of a detached observer, though he secretly has his own feelings of longing, if nobody on whom to focus them. He self-medicates with vodka. He is dying, but nobody knows it. This is the kind of role in which Mohrmann excels and he gives an expected strong performance.

Scenic design is by Timothy McNamara. The set is so impressive it is worth sitting through the intermission to see it changed.

Likewise, Glenn Fox does a good job of lighting, switching from theatrical performance to “reality” by means of lighting changes.

It is Con who tells this story and even as it achieves some success, he’s not happy.

“You know what f-ing sucks about a little success? It just feels like a set up for a new kind of failure — a more painful kind. Because now instead of just my family, I’ll get to have, you know … perfect strangers judging and pitying me, too.”

If the audience is any indication, there’s not a lot of negative judgment in this production. In fact it’s pretty f-ing brilliant.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Treatment


What happens when you put three of Sacramento’s funniest ladies together and tell them to write a play? You get a lot of funny stuff!

B Street Theatre has just opened a brand-new play, “Treatment” by Stephanie Altholz, Tara Sissom and Amy Kelly.

“Buck (Busfield) got us all together and said ‘You’re all funny, despite horrible things that happened to you. I want you to write a play about how funny came out of it,’ ” Altholz said.

A year later, the play is on the stage under direction of David Perini.

Though apparently the life experiences the women have suffered were the inspiration for the play, one would be hard-pressed to figure out who has experienced what. This is a play about other women and can easily be performed by any set of wonderful comediennes.

To write the play, the women decided to go camping so they would have a good atmosphere for brainstorming. Not only did they get ideas, but they decided that this would be the perfect venue in which to set their story. In fact, Sissom took notes on their discussion and those notes became the frame on which they hung the rest of their story.

The setting is a campsite on the one-year anniversary of the death of Jayne’s mother. Jayne (Sissom) has had difficulty saying goodbye and letting go, but she is finally ready to spread Mom’s ashes and has brought her best, lifelong friends, Roxanne (Altholz) and Patricia (Kelly), with her for emotional support.

Roxanne must really love her friend because she is germ- and dirt-phobic, knows nothing about camping and hates what she knows. She looks like she would be more comfortable chairing the local PTA meeting. But she has shown up to support Jayne.

Patricia, on the other hand, loves being there but has brought as much comfort with her as possible, including a slow cooker. Kelly is a remarkable physical comedienne with a wide range of facial expressions that serve her well, expressing everything from glee to depression and just about everything in between.

Jayne wants to commune with nature and has not thought to bring things like tents or sleeping bags or anything else to make it easier to live in the wild overnight. She is centered on giving Mom the best possible send-off.

There is a lot of very funny physical comedy (particularly involving bears), which kept the audience laughing. But as the day passes and the women cope with the various problems that come up, and pass around a large bottle of Jim Beam, walls begin to fall.

Though these are lifelong friends, they discover there are very serious things that they don’t know about each other. Their friendship will be tested, but in the end it is their long-term association with and love for each other that will not only keep them together, but make the bonds stronger.

Oh yeah — and you’ll laugh a lot during the exploration.

The thin plot is not the strong point of this play — the relationship among the women is … and the real-life relationship among the three authors has produced a thoroughly enjoyable result.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Guys and Dolls

 Eimi Taoramina as Adelaide, Travis Nagler as Nathan,
Daniel Silva as Sky and Kirsten Myers as Sarah

 This is a frustrating time to be a critic. Some folks think that “critics” are supposed to find things to “criticize,” but lately the local shows have been so good I have nothing whatever to grumble at.
Another excellent opening this week is the Woodland Opera House production of “Guys and Dolls,” that delightful 1950s Frank Loesser musical, based on the 1920s and ’30s short stories of Damon Runyon. This production is directed by Jason Hammond and choreographed by Staci Arriaga, with musical direction by Jia-Min Rosendale and vocal direction by James Glica-Hernandez.

Set design by Don Zastoupil is minimal and based on a cartoon theme, which works surprisingly well.

It’s a dream cast. While everyone is outstanding, the real stand-out is Eimi Taormina, as Miss Adelaide, the nightclub performer who has been engaged to small-time gambler Nathan Detroit (Travis Nagler) for 14 years and is hoping to finally get him to the altar.

Taormina always has had a sparkle that makes her impossible to ignore when she is on stage. It has been very special watching her progress from “ensemble” to leading roles. This may have been one of her best. She recently announced her impending relocation to the Bay Area, which will be a tremendous loss to several local theater groups.

Nagler, as Detroit, commands the stage. He has the build and demeanor of a jazz-age thug, but underneath the gruff exterior is a heart of gold. He is particularly endearing when shepherding a group of low-lifes to the failing Save-a-Soul mission to help mission director Sarah Brown (Kirsten Myers) look good in front of her boss, General Cartwright (Nancy Agee).

Myers is a beautiful Sarah, with a gorgeous voice to boot. She is dedicated to her calling to bring sinners to God, but is reluctantly willing to compromise her principles if it will help keep the mission on its financial feet. She finds it surprisingly easy with the addition of several Cuba Libras, which she does not realize is an alcoholic drink.

The nefarious gambler intent on deflowering Sarah is Sky Masterson (Daniel Silva) who discovers that he, too, has a heart somewhere as he falls victim to Sarah’s innocent charms.

There are a host of New York characters with wonderful names like Nicely Nicely Johnson (Erik Catalan), Benny Southstreet (Gil Sebastian), Harry the Horse (David Cross) and Big Jule (Spencer Alexander).

It is Catalan who sings the rousing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” made famous by Stubby Kaye in the 1955 movie. Catalan has a powerful voice and gets not only the mission, but the entire opera house rocking with his unforgettable performance.

Bob Cooner is Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s grandfather and her second in command at the mission. He is wise in a grandfatherly way and offers the timely advice, “But more I cannot wish you than to wish you find your love / Your own true love this day.”

Lenore Sebastian is also fun to watch, first as a New York street person, and then as one of the members of the Mission band.

There are many songs in this show that became classics of the era — like “If I Were a Bell,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “Sue Me” and “The Oldest Established Floating Crap Game.”

Denise Miles’ costumes are fun, especially the costumes for Adelaide and the Hot Box dancers. Arriaga’s choreography is splendid throughout the show.

If this newspaper gave stars, I would give this production five stars. But we don’t, so all I can do is encourage all lovers of musicals to get to the Woodland Opera House and give yourself a treat.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Donner Party: The Musical


Just a short distance from Sutter’s Fort, the final destination of the 80-something settlers who started out from Missouri, intending to settle in California, Sacramento Theatre Company is premiering the musical “The Donner Party.”

The new American musical is by Eric Rockwell (music) and Margaret Rose (book and lyrics). The production is directed by Rose and Michael Laun, who have assembled the cream of the crop for the cast.

There is beautiful music in this saga. There is poignancy. There is humor. And there is deep sadness.
What there is not is consistency of tone. At times, with the crusty old grandma on her deathbed, looking for all the world like Ma Joad (Martha Omiyo Kight), it feels like “Grapes of Wrath” while with each “anthem” number (for want of a better word), it seems like something out of “Les Miserables.”

Then there are the “aren’t we having fun on this adventure” numbers, which could be from any musical comedy Western. What it desperately needs is to be unique and not derivative.

That said, this is definitely a must-see, if only for the wealth of talent and for the wonderfully stirring numbers like “Wagons Roll,” which comes early in Act 1 and caused me to whisper “wow!” to myself. It is followed by many (too many, at 19) numbers that are blockbusters, but too many that drag down the forward motion of the story.

A real plus for the show is the live five-piece band playing behind a screen on the stage, under the direction of Samuel Clein.

The Donner Party was led by two families, the Reeds (Michael RJ Campbell and Vivienne Cleary) and the Donners (Jerry Lee and Maggie Hollinbeck). The Reeds, including their four children, all made it to Sacramento, while both George and Tamsen Donner died while their five children survived.

Campbell and Lee are heroic characters who are obvious leaders whose voices boom out over the theater and make this a real experience.

Wives Cleary and Hollinbeck are less bombastic, but perhaps create more well-rounded characters and are the glue that hold their families together.

The children from STC’s Young Professionals are each wonderful, but I must single out Noa Solorio, who alternates in the role of Virginia Reed with Monique Ward Lonergan, as particularly good. She does not take a back seat to anyone.

Cat Yates is the pregnant Peggy Breen, carrying her bairn around for most of Act 1, but a plucky gal who is going to make it no matter what. (And records show that not only she but also her newborn managed to make it to Sacramento.)

The quartet of women — Tamsen Donner, Margaret Reed, Peggy Breen and Mary Ann Graves (Abbey Williams-Campbell) — provide a brief light moment with “He’s the Man I Chose,” laughing about the idiosyncracies of their respected spouses.

Graves has no spouse, but has fallen in love with Charlie Stanton (Sam C. Jones), who dies before they reach the Sierra.

As Act 1 ends, the group is realizing that they have started too late and they are going to be stuck until the snow stops — which is not until the spring thaw. The audience knows there isn’t going to be much levity in Act 2, but there are a lot (five) of reprises from Act 1.

Yes, the subject of cannibalism is handled tactfully (though apparently, recent excavations put that whole issue into question, as no human bones have been identified), but it is not a major part of the story.

I really want this show to be wonderful, and I think it has the possibility to be. I would love to see it go back to the drawing board to be tightened up and presented again in a couple of years.

I have no complaints about any of the performances, and I’d be willing to bet that many people who have seen the show have been googling the Donner Party to get more information about each of the characters they came to know during this show. Eighty-three started out on this tragic journey; 45 made it all the way.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Peter Pan

Armed with his trusty dagger, Peter Pan (Tyler Traum) leads
Wendy (Claire Quillen), Michael (Miller Traum)
and John (Isabella Giannetti) into Neverland

 The Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center was filled with children, parents and grandparents for Sunday’s matinee performance of the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of “Peter Pan.”
They were in for a real treat.

This “Peter Pan,” directed by Steve Isaacson, is a delight from start to finish.

Begin with the better-than-average DMTC sets, designed by Isaacson. From the lovely nursery to the two scenes in Neverland to the scary pirate ship in Act 3, the sets are not opulent, but oh so “just right” for this production.

Cynthia Krivicich has done an amazing job as choreographer. All of the child actors were spot on. In particular the “Ugh-a-Wug” dance of the Indians (which some may consider not politically correct in this day and age, but how can you do “Peter Pan” without those Indians?) was particularly impressive, with the girls as precise as the Rockettes.

New to this production are body mics, which worked flawlessly and unobtrusively. They gave just that extra oomph to young voices that sometimes can’t fill an entire theater, yet without any reverb or unnatural sound to them.

I suspect, however, that Tyler Traum (Peter Pan) didn’t really need a body mic. What a find she is. A product of Sacramento Theatre Company’s Young Professionals program, she definitely gives a professional performance as the young boy who doesn’t want to grow up.

She can convincingly be an obstreperous boy, a wistful orphan, a loving father to a group of lost boys and savior of Wendy (Claire Quillen) and Tiger Lily (McKinley Carlisle). And she flies, too.

The flying crew of Alex Hom, Mike Traum, Matthew Evans and Chris Colbourn do an excellent job of keeping their young charges in the air, using rigging designed by Isaacson.

Another outstanding job is done by Brian McCann, surely the perfect Captain Hook. From the scary pirate who is set on destroying Peter Pan to the terrified man stalked by a crocodile (Tomas Eredia in a marvelous new crocodile costume), McCann excels. He also plays the blustery Mr. Darling in the opening scenes, before his children fly off to Neverland.

Amanda Valli Spence is Mrs. Darling, a calm, serene mother whose job it is to make the house run peacefully and calmly so as not to upset her husband.

The three children — Quillen, along with Isabella Giannetti as John and Miller Traum as little Michael — do an excellent job. Quillen is particularly good.

Brittany Owings is a delightful Nana, the nursemaid dog, and Katie Smith-Induni is Liza is the Darlings’ maid, though I never did figure out how (or why) she got to and from Neverland with the children.

Kudos, too, to James Cubbage, who helped the fairy Tinker Bell flit about the stage so convincingly.
Julia Quillen and Jean Henderson comprise the costume crew and have done a great job, as always.

“Peter Pan” was the very first show that DMTC produced, 32 years ago. In fact, there is a replica of a ticket to that show printed in the program. Isaacson remembered that during Act 1 of that show, the set crew was backstage trying to finish the set for Act 3.

What a long way this treasured community theater company has come in 32 years.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Bodyguard


I never saw the 1992 movie, “The Bodyguard,” so in preparation for seeing the musical version now at the Sacramento Community Center Theater, I rented it. I was unimpressed, and did not have high expectations for the stage show.

I was very happy to have my fears erased. From the explosive first couple of minutes, guaranteed to wake the sleepiest of snoozers, the plot of this musical, while staying true to the film, takes a back seat to the musical numbers, a tribute to Whitney Houston without attempting to imitate her.

This is a good thing, because while Houston was undeniably a wonderful singer, the same was not true for her acting. Deborah Cox, who plays Rachel Marron, the superstar whose life is being threatened, is a fabulous singer and a much better actress than Houston. Songs throughout the evening are sometimes gratuitous, but often are part of a concert Rachel is giving.

Rachel is threatened by a stalker who sends ominous letters and then sneaks into her dressing room and steals a dress. Manager Bill Devaney (Charles Gray) hires former Secret Service agent Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) as Rachel’s personal bodyguard. Frank reluctantly agrees to take the job when he learns of Rachel’s young son, though he has no interest in celebrities.

Mills, who is fierce and stoic, is a former regular on the TV show “Walker, Texas Ranger” and also appeared in such TV shows as “Law and Order SVU,” “The X-Files” and “Dexter.” He is perfect for the emotionally detached Frank — and, fortunately, does not sing.

The role of Rachel’s sister, Nicki, has been expanded and actress Jasmin Richardson has some musical numbers of her own. She is easily equal to Cox in quality (and is, in fact, Cox’s understudy), giving the audience an abundance of talent to enjoy.

But the real scene stealer is young Douglas Baldeo (who alternates in the role with Kevelin B. Jones III) in the role of Rachel’s 10-year-old son, Fletcher. A rendition of “Jesus Loves Me,” which features Fletcher with his mother and aunt, is a sweet moment in the show.

It is the music that keeps this otherwise pedestrian plot moving forward, but there are some eyebrow-raising scenes that grate. Frank, who is such a stickler for security, not only takes Rachel to a karaoke bar without back-up, but even encourages her to sing.

And as it is hate at first sight between Rachel and Frank, it is strange to find the two in bed together after the ruckus that erupts at the bar.

It also seems strange that he would whisk the family away to a deserted cabin in the woods and not realize that they are being followed by the attacker. Such carelessness may explain why he is a former Secret Service agent.

The shocking confession in the movie is not in this musical and the identity of the attacker is also different, and known by the audience since the start of the show.

The show has its problems, but overall it is enjoyable. And for Whitney Houston fans, it’s a chance to revel in more than a dozen of her famous songs.