Saturday, September 14, 2019

Mamma Mia

“Mamma Mia,” now in its 21st year, was groundbreaking. The popularity of this “jukebox musical” based on the music of ABBA sparked a raft of similar musicals featuring the music of other musicians — like “Jerseys Boys” (music of The Four Seasons), “Beautiful” (Carol King), “Ain’t Too Proud” (The Temptations) and dozens of others. The stories are sometimes contrived in order to fit in as many songs by the featured musicians as possible.

“Mamma Mia” appears to be having renewed popularity. There have been several productions of it in the Bay Area and at least three in the Sacramento area in the last couple of months. And now a joyous production has opened on the Davis Musical Theatre Company stage.

Directed by Steve Isaacson, with choreography by Kyle Jackson and a cast of 40, this production is spectacular. (Never let it be said one cannot dance in swim fins!)

In 1999, Catherine Johnson decided to take 22 of the best-known ABBA songs (written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) and weave a story around the lyrics. Even if you think you don’t really know ABBA music, you’ll be surprised at how many tunes you’ll recognize — and if you are an ABBA fan this is a must-see show.

The story centers around single mother Donna Sheridan (Andrea Eve Thorpe) raising her daughter Sophie (Abby Lambert) on the Greek island where Sophie was conceived, the product of a liaison with one of three men. Donna has built herself a successful taverna and has no need of a man in her life.

But Sophie is about to be married to Sky (Kyle Jackson) and she wants her real father to give her away. Having snooped through Donna’s diary, she invites three men — Harry Bright (AJ Rooney), Bill Austin (David Muerle) and Sam Carmichael (Tate Pollock), all of whom had relations with Donna around the time of Sophie’s conception — to her wedding, unbeknownst to Donna. The men all arrive, thinking Donna has invited them. Sophie wants her real father to walk her down the aisle.
Also attending the wedding are Donna’s two friends, her back-up singers when the three were Donna and the Dynamos. Tanya (Laura M. Smith) and Rosie (Kasper Cummins) are delightful comediennes, and those costumes were great fun.

(The program gives an ABBA fun fact about those marvelous costumes. They were an easy way to save on the group’s tax bill. ABBA exploited a Swedish law which meant clothes were tax deductible if their owners could prove they were not used for daily wear.)

Andrea Thorpe gives a powerful performance as Donna and gets cheers for her very emotional “The Winner Takes it All.”

As Sophie, Abby Lambert is winsome and engaging, as is her fiancé Sky (Kyle Jackson), whose short shorts make him look leggy and somehow younger than he really is.

The three possible fathers are fun. Harry’s (Rooney) secret is suggested in his various costume changes. Bill (Muerle) is the adventurer, the first to accept Sophie as his daughter, while his duet with Rosie (Cummins) is great. Sam (Pollock) is the love of Donna’s life and, despite a marriage and children of his own, is obviously still in love with her.

Everyone in the show learns something about themselves and the wedding itself, though not quite as planned, is worth the two-act wait.

The three “bows” numbers — tacked on at the end because there was no place in the plot to put them — are great fun and have the audience standing and waving their arms along with the cast.

Do I recommend this production? Of course I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Yeomen of the Guard

“Yeomen of the Guard,” the 10th Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration is, strictly speaking, not a comic opera – it is a tragedy.  In fact, Gilbert & Sullivan themselves never called it a “comic opera” but rather “an entirely new and original opera.”

That’s not to say it’s not funny.  It’s very funny, but mostly gallows humor, since the entire story is about death.  It deals with beheadings, traveling performers,, mistaken identity, overlapping romances,...and not everybody lives happily ever after.

“Yeomen” has some of the most magnificent Sullivan music, and Light Opera Theater of Sacramento performs it magnificently.  With a 30 piece orchestra, under the direction of Anne-Marie Endres, which knows when to let the music soar (when no one is singing) and when to keep it low so the voices can be heard over the instruments, the orchestra alone is worth the price of admission.

And trust me, you want to hear those voices!  Robert Vann (double cast with Anthony Tavianni) is Colonel Fairfax, a man, wrongly accused, who marries a randomly chosen, blindfolded woman to divert his fortune away from the cousin who wrongly accused him.  He is one of those performers whose first appearance on stage makes you sit up wondering where he’s been all his life.  One place he’s been is performing with San Francisco’s Lamplighters, with whom he performed the role of Fairfax several years ago.  His performance is outstanding.

Timothy Power is quite good as Sir Richard Chomondeley, tasked by Fairfax to find him a bride before his beheading.

Carley Neill (double cast with Jadi Galloway) is Elsie Maynard, who comes to the Tower of London with jester Jack Point (Charlie Baad) to earn some money by entertaining the people.  Her mother is ill so when she is offered 100 crowns to marry the condemned Fairfax, she agrees, knowing that within an hour she will be a widow.  Neill’s voice is as outstanding as Vann’s and the two make the perfect pair.

The focus of the story, however, is Jack Point himself.  Baad gives a good performance, one of his most poignant moments being “A private buffoon,” wherein he describes the life of a funny man who must entertain no matter what tragedies are going on in his life.  “They’re exceedingly kind...they don’t blame you as long as you’re funny,” he sings, dripping irony.  The end of the story for Point has been the subject of debate among Gilbert & Sullivan fans ever since it was first written in 1888.

Sergeant Meryll, of the Yeomen of the Guard, is played by Mike Baad.  He succeeds in helping Fairfax escape, with the assistance of daughter Phoebe (Rikki Pratt, alternating with Paige Kelly).

Wilfred Shadbolt (Eric Piotrowski), the head jailer and assistant tormenter) has his eye on Phoebe, who uses that knowledge to find a way to help her father free Fairfax.  Wilfred is convinced that if Point can be a jester, he can too and their “Cock and Bull” is very funny.

Lenore Sebastian, familiar to Davis audiences, is Dame Carruthers, born and raised in the Tower and now its housekeeper, fiercely proud of its workings (“When our gallant Norman foes”), She is furious that a prisoner has escaped and nobody can find him. 

Rebecca Cox is her niece Kate.  The character exists mostly to add a fourth voice to the lovely madrigal “Strange Adventures.”

Scenic Designer Dwayne Slavin has made the most of the small stage with a lovely Tower of London, and Theresa Vann Stribling has credit for the lovely costumes, though the striking yeomen’s uniforms are from Valley Light Opera.

This rarely performed production, directed by Mike and Debbie Baad, is one of the best I’ve seen from Light Opera Theatre of Sacramento.  From the wonderful orchestra to the strong chorus to the beautiful visuals to the perfectly cast principals.

If you’ve been missing Gilbert & Sullivan, this is definitely one you’ll want to see.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Wiz

“The Wiz,” now at Music Circus, is a joyous, energetic, audience-pleasing musical with a cast that is mostly Equity members. The result is spectacular.

The history of this musical is older than one would think. Author L. Frank Baum always thought his “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” would make a good musical and, in fact, a musical was first presented in Chicago in 1902 and played for 12 sold-out weeks. It opened on Broadway in 1903 and ran for 18 months, and productions were held around the country.

However, it was not until 1939, when MGM created the iconic movie that we all know so well, that we formed our visions of what the story should look like. We all know what Munchkins are, that Dorothy follows a yellow brick road with her dog Toto, and that she wears the ruby slippers of the wicked witch whom she accidentally kills.

In the 1970s, disc jockey Ken Harper imagined what the story would be like if the cast were all African-American. With financial backing from 20th Century Fox, he selected playwright William F. Brown and songwriter Charlie Smalls to create a new script using the urban vernacular and music that was a mixture of R&B, soul and gospel.

After a 1974 opening in Baltimore and lots of tweaking, it opened on Broadway in 1975 and received mixed reviews, negative from the traditionalists and more positive from other critics. It went on to receive seven Tony awards, including Best Musical. This is the show that is now gracing the Music Circus stage and leading to a standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience.

There are great special effects, including a marvelous tornado. Music Circus also makes the best use (so far) of its new projection screens that surround the stage.

There is no “Over the Rainbow,” but Auntie Em (Christine Acosta Robinson) opens the show with a warm, wonderful “The Feeling We Once Had.” (Robinson briefly appears later in the show as the wonderful Glinda the Good Witch in a gorgeous costume.)

Toto appears very briefly, but Dorothy (Adrianna Hicks) makes the trip to Oz alone.

There is no gathering of little people to play Munchkins, but the costumes for the chorus are unique and they are led by Addaperle (Terry Burrell), the Good Witch of the North. Burrell, like Robinson, displays a magnificent voice and is dressed in another gorgeous costume (kudos to costume coordinator, based on the designs of Paul Tazewell).

As Dorothy “eases on down the road,” she meets the Scarecrow (Kevin Smith Kirkwood, returning to Music Circus after his starring role in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway), the Tin Man (James T. Lane) and the Lion (Phillip Boykin). Boykin has a magnificent voice which could easily shine in the opera world.

It is the Lion alone who gets hypnotized by the Poppy Girls.

Arriving in Oz, they must fight the royal gatekeeper (Jeff Gorti), determined to keep the quartet away from the Wizard until he sees that Dorothy is wearing the silver slippers from the Witch of the East (MGM changed the color of the slippers to “ruby” because they photographed better).

Alan Mingo Jr. is The Wiz and promises to grant their wishes if they will do one simple thing for him — kill Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. The encounter with the witch is surprisingly short, but Zonya Love makes the most of it.

The unmasking of the Wizard isn’t done by Toto but by a uniquely Music Circus effect, which is very clever.

Glinda encourages Dorothy to “Believe in Yourself,” and with clicks of her silver slippers, she is once again back in Kansas in the arms of Auntie Em, who must have had a very quick costume change.

This whole production, directed by Glenn Casale, with musical direction by Darryl Archibald, making his Music Circus debut, is simply a delight and a good choice for all ages. The theater was nearly filled on opening night, so tickets are selling well.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Peter and the Starcatcher

Acme Theatre Company traditionally does three shows a year: an intimate drama in January, a free comedy in the park in May and a large show where everyone gets cast in the summer. Acme members are in the ninth to 12th grade, so their time in the company is only three to four years and every few years, there is a new crop of actors. In the past, the years where the bulk of the cast are new to the company, the shows are less polished than they will be two to three years later.

Happily, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” directed by Emily Henderson, is the exception to that rule. With more “new” people in the cast than “old,” this “Peter” is outstanding. The show is double-cast, and I saw the performance on opening night. You would have thought it was a cast of veteran Acme actors.

Adapted by Rick Elice from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s 2004 children’s novel, this play tells the story of how a nameless, angst-ridden orphan became the immortal Peter Pan. The (air-conditioned) Wyatt Pavilion became a magical place, without the use of many fancy technical tricks. Sets were created using ordinary rope, a couple of ladders, a few household appliances, a couple of boxes, and, most important, the actors themselves.

In “Peter and the Starcatcher,” the young orphan and his mates are sent on a ship from Victorian England to a distant kingdom ruled by an evil king. There are some marauding pirates, a jungle tyrant, less-than-willing comrades and unlikely heroes. Best of all, there is a mysterious trunk in the captain’s cabin, which contains precious, otherworldly cargo. At sea, the boys are discovered by a precocious young girl named Molly, a starcatcher-in-training who realizes that the trunk’s precious cargo is star stuff, a celestial substance so powerful that it must never fall into the wrong hands.

Jordan Hayakawa is excellent as “boy,” who would later acquire the name Peter (Hayakawa alternates with Garnet Phinney in the role). We first meet him and his two friends Prentiss (Odie Lopez/Antonia Zaragoza-Smith) and the food-obsessed Ted (Sara Su/Gavin Pinnow) on a ship named The Neverland.

Molly (Megan Abbanat/Fiona Ross) is the daughter of an English Lord (Julie Knoepfler/Lee Libbet), and herself an apprentice starcatcher, a group of people dedicated to stopping the power of the star stuff from being used for evil. The two overcome bands of pirates and thieves in their quest to keep a magical secret safe and save the world from evil.

Molly’s father, on the ship The Wasp is a starcatcher and is guarding a trunk filled with magical star stuff to prevent pirates from stealing its treasure. Grey Turner is outstanding as the pirate Black Stache (alternating with James Hayakawa) and has one of the best moustaches ever, a trademark of his family.

Black Stache’s faithful first mate is Smee (Jemima Aldas/Wren Arellano)

Peter and Molly manage to dump the trunk into the ocean and jump overboard during the confusion of a storm. After the storm, everyone and the trunk wash ashore on an island inhabited with hostile natives and a giant crocodile (one of the most clever crocodiles you’ll ever see on stage, created using the plainest of materials).

The island natives are Cypher McIlraith/Rylan Valdepena as Fighting Prawn, Allie Gunther/Anja Nittner as Hawking Clam and Kira Cubbage as Teacher in both productions.

While not strictly a musical, there is a three-piece band, directed by music director Oliver Steissberg, for a couple of musical numbers.

Sophia Nachmanoff and Emma Larson are credited with costumes, and what a delightful assortment of colorful costumes they are!

Henderson’s direction results in a tight cast with no lapses in the action. The two hours pass quickly. This is a show that will delight adults and children alike.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Guys and Dolls

There are people who love Shakespeare and people who love Jane Austen. I love musical theater. I’ve loved musical theater all of my life. There are some shows I like better than others.

“Guys and Dolls,” currently at Music Circus, was never one of my favorites. It’s OK. I’ve seen the movie several times and have reviewed the stage show five times and was never blown away — until I saw this Music Circus production.

My word, is it wonderful!! I may have to move the show into my “favorites” category.
This musical by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows — based on short stories by Damon Runyon, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser — is set on the streets of New York in the 1940s, and the characters are so stereotypically delicious that we can’t help falling in love with them.

These are the lowlifes, gamblers, showgirls and gangsters, and the Salvation Army-like missionaries who try to save their souls.

While everyone in the show is terrific, the real “star” of the show is choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, who has created fabulous dance numbers that blend seamlessly with the storyline. Particularly wonderful was the dance during the overture.

Kudos also to costume designer Marcy Froelich for all those terrific 1940s “gangsta” costumes, especially the wonderful striped suit of Nathan Detroit (Jeff Skowron), desperately trying to find a place to hold his “oldest established floating crap game” in New York, now that Lieutenant Brannigan (Ron Wisniski) is hot on his tail and has managed to seal up all the “usual” places.

It is particularly necessary to find a place to accommodate “Big Jule,” in from Chicago and ready to play. Jerry Gallagher is a wonder. Head and shoulders above everyone else, he is a talented hulk who personifies someone named “Big Jule” and the actor’s bio says he has played this role all over North America and Europe and even on a cruise ship.

Into the world of the dedicated gamblers come the Salvation Army-type missionaries, trying to win souls for God, especially naive, idealistic Sarah Brown (Ali Ewoldt), under the guidance of paternal Arvide Abernathy (Lenny Wolpe), whose love for Sarah is expressed beautifully in “More I cannot wish you.”

Charming gambler Sky Masterson (Edward Watts), who has a girl in every port, sets his sights on Sarah.

From the first moment of their meeting, sparks fly between the two actors and the chemistry is magic.

Detroit has been engaged for 14 years to the long-suffering Miss Adelaide (Lesli Margherita), a singer and dancer at The Hot Box; she’s beginning to worry that they’ll never get married. Adelaide only dreams of settling down in a real home with Nathan.

Their duet, “Sue Me,” is a true crowd-pleaser.

There is a whole stable of wonderful cast members, led by Michael Paternostro as Benny Southstreet, Carlos Lopez as Harry the Horse, and Evan Harrington as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, who delivers the show-stopping “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

The popularity of, and enduring affection for, Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls” is easily seen in its award history. It swept the Tonys in 1951, the year it opened on Broadway (where it ran for 1,200 performances), winning not only “Best Musical,” but also awards for Best Actor, Actress, Director and Choreographer.

It had nominations again for Best Actor (Jerry Orbach) in 1965 and was nominated in 1977 for Best Revival of a Musical.

In 1992, it again won an award for Best Revival of a Musical, as well as awards for Director, Choreographer and Actress, with four additional nominations for the revival. In 2009, it was again nominated for Best Revival.

Various productions also hold Drama Desk awards, Olivier awards and Helpmann awards. It was picked to receive the 1951 Pulitzer Prize but because Burrows had been investigated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, the trustees of Columbia University chose to withhold the award, so no Pulitzer for drama was awarded that year.

Guys and Dolls has a number of familiar tunes (“I’ll Know,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “If I Were A Bell,” “Luck Be A Lady”). It would be surprising if the audience did not emerge humming one of them at the end of the evening.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Kyle Stoner gives a great performance in Davis Shakespeare company’s production of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” In fact, he gives eight wacky performances of members of a noble family, all of whom are doomed to die.

If the musical, by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, directed by Gia Battista, sounds familiar, you may remember seeing the Alec Guinness movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” also based on the 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” by Roy Horniman.

Daniel Sugimoto is Monty Navarro, writing his memoirs from prison. He recently learned that his mother was disinherited by her aristocratic family when she married the wrong man. She was forced to spend the rest of her days earning a meager living as a washerwoman.

Monty is actually the ninth heir to the D’Ysquith (pronounced DIE-skwith) family. To avenge his mother, Monty decides to kill each of the other heirs, leaving himself as the Earl of Highhurst. Stoner plays each of the heirs, which include the pompous Lord Adalbert (with the fabulously expressive mustache), the Reverend Lord Ezekiel, the dramatic Lady Salome, the charitable matron Lady Hyacinth, the fitness-obsessed Major Lord Bartholomew and an effeminate beekeeper named Henry.
Though Monty is a cold-blooded killer, Sugimoto’s performance somehow makes him a charming, likable character. An enterprising, ambitious and resourceful fellow, Monty sets out to eliminate his family members while at the same time juggling relationships with the two ladies in his life: his mistress and his fiancée.

Sibella (Kyra Kozlenko) is his oversexed mistress who admits to loving him, but who is more in love with the idea of marrying a wealthy man. “Has it ever occurred to marry for love,” Monty asks her. “Now you’re being cruel,” she replies.

Cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith (Alyssa Giannetti) is perhaps the only truly virtuous person in the show. She is determined to prove Monty innocent following his arrest for the murder of the only person he actually did not kill.

Both women give amazing performances with gorgeous lyric voices. Like Monty, Sibella has no moral compass or sense of fidelity. Though she married for money, the closer Monty gets to becoming the heir, the more attracted to him she becomes, and to heck with her husband.

Though there are no real familiar tunes in the show, perhaps the most famous scene from the musical is “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” performed at the 2013 Tonys, where the show won four awards. Sibella is in one room and Phoebe in the other, while Monty tries to keep both from checking out what is on the other side of the door.

The scenic design by Liz Hadden-McGuire is functional, with lots of moving set pieces, allowing the set to be used by both this show and “The Tenth Muse,” running in repertory. But the most clever scene for this show has to be the portrait gallery.

“Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying,” which opens Act 2, is wonderfully choreographed, and too bad it was not used as a publicity photo since it is so photogenic. “I’m utterly exhausted keeping track / And most of all, I’m sick of wearing black.”

Music is provided by the nine-piece onstage orchestra, under the direction of Tom Abruzzo.

From the leads down through the multitasking chorus, this is a superb ensemble, vocally and in their facility for verbal and physical comedy. And while Stoner has the most amazing role, there is a reason why he and Sugimoto take their bows together because Sugimoto’s performance is invaluable as the narrator of every scene.

Davis Shakespeare Festival has chosen two blockbuster shows for their 10th summer season, and if you like one, you are certain to like the other.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Tenth Muse

Davis Shakespeare Festival director Rob Salas explained to the audience that he had seen Tanya Saracho’s “The Tenth Muse” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a few years ago and had been waiting for the right moment to bring it to Davis. This is the right moment.

Set in 18th century Mexico during the Spanish Inquisition, three young women are admitted to a convent for their protection. Jesusa (Gabby Battista) is a “Mestiza,” a woman in danger because she is of mixed race. She has been living in a Carmelite convent, but is sent to help Sor Rufina (Susanna Florence) take care of Sister Isabel (Kelley Ogden), who is going blind.

Tomasita (Leah Sanginiti), a servant, is brought by her mother to be a slave for the nuns, who will protect her from the Inquisition.

Manuela (Talia Friedenberg) is a noblewoman with her own secret who is also seeking protection for reasons that will become obvious far too soon.

The nuns, particularly Sor Filomena (Laurie Strawn), are none too happy with the new residents and, with room scarce, put them in a basement, where they are told they can sleep but not to touch a large locked cabinet. Naturally, they do and in it they find the writings of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a famous protofeminist and intellectual who died 20 years before.

The convent was once a center of culture, and Sor Juana was one of the first advocates for women to have the right to an education and her library was one of the largest in the New World. But under the pressure of the Inquisition, Juana was forced to take a vow of silence and burn her books. She died aiding her sisters during the plague.

The women aren’t sure what to do about their find. At first, they are afraid to even touch the writings because it is forbidden for women to be educated (and only one of them can read well). But they eventually revel in the contents of the papers and even begin singing Sor Juana’s songs (to the accompaniment of a guitar hidden in the cabinet) and performing plays, an act which creates a bond of sisterhood among the three.

In a funny scene, the young women are trying on men’s clothes, costumes for one of Juana’s plays. It is such an unimaginable thing for women to wear men’s pants that they all feel very naughty.

By the end of Act 1, I was thinking this was a pleasant play and watching the growing friendship among the women was nice — but I wasn’t sure where it was going or what the point of it all was. The longer Act 2 answered all my questions.

The all-female ensemble was fantastic, each player highlighting the quirks of her character superbly. Battista lit up the stage with her effervescent Jesusa. (She is so chatty, it’s difficult to imagine her in the silent monastery!)

Ogden was a joy to watch as Sor Isabelle, who, unlike her fellow sisters who are terrified of the Inquisition, is clinging onto her last glimpses of music and art left by her beloved Juana.

Lisa Quoresimo plays a powerful and frightening Mother Superior (sadly a vision that many still have of women in her position). She is at her worst at the climax, which is a beautiful scene but a cruel decision on her part, which she truly believes would protect the sisters.

The many scene changes are hardly noticed because of the lovely quartet singing Gregorian chant: Margie Curler, Lisas Halko, Monica Vejar and a fourth nun (split between Strawn and Quoresimo). They are a highlight of the production.

This play resonates on many levels and makes us wonder what life would be like if we were deprived of everything that makes life worth living.