Monday, January 20, 2020

Dear Evan Hansen

“Dear Evan Hansen,” the current Broadway on Tour production, is perhaps the most visually exciting show you will see this year. The set is a cacophony of social media: big screens, little screens, vertical screens, horizontal screens, which practically fill the stage, slide in and out and up and down and play various things from text messages and tweets to Facebook entries, to photos and videos and even a penguin or two. It’s tour de force for scenic designer David Korins, projection designer Peter Nigrini and the crew that make it all work.

But the set is only the beginning of this 2017 Tony award winner for Best Musical, which is perhaps a testament to where theater may be going in the 21st century.

Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony) is an isolated teenager longing to fit in. His arm is in a cast from, he explains, falling out of a tree on a summer job he was working, an incident which becomes more significant as the story progresses.

He is about to start a new school, is on medication and is regularly seeing a therapist, who suggests he write himself a letter every morning to talk about positive things that he expects to happen that day. His single mother Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman) cheerfully sends him off to school, with a suggestion that he have students sign his cast.

Things don’t go well, however, and the only student with whom he has an encounter is a guy named Conner (Noah Kieserman), who signs the cast with huge letters, and gets angry with Evan when he learns of the boy’s attraction to his sister. Three days later, Conner takes his own life, leaving his family bereft.

Anthony’s performance is astounding. He carries the show and has a couple of solos that are very moving, especially “You Will Be Found,” a message to every alienated person, and “Words Fail,” the ultimate apology song.

Connor’s family, father Larry (John Hemphill), mother Cynthia (Colleen Sexton) and daughter Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle) are the perfect grieving family. Cynthia is distraught and missing her beloved child, Larry is confused and angry at his son and doesn’t know how to express his grief, Zoe is furious and won’t even talk about him. She calls him a monster. The lie Evan will eventually tell them ultimately brings the three of them together as a family.

Unsure what to say to a grieving family, Evan hints that he and Connor were friends and that simple lie, as lies often do, grows and grows until it encompasses not only the family and the school but ultimately the whole country, as Evan is asked to speak about Connor at a memorial service and his nervous speech (“You Will Be Found”) goes viral on the internet and results in a GoFundMe site to raise money to reopen an apple orchard in Connor’s memory.

Helping perpetuate his lie are Evan’s cousin Jared (Alessandro Costantini), who provides humor to the story, and a friend Alana (Ciara Alyse Harris), who becomes the zealous co-president of the Connor Murphy Project.

As the lie begins to unravel, everyone is affected, particularly Connor’s mother Heidi, who, realizing how miserable her son has been, has a particularly moving and show-stopping solo with “So Big/So Small.”

Loneliness, bullying and suicide may not seem like ingredients for a hit Broadway musical, but Dear Evan Hansen has struck a chord, especially with younger people.

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Burials

The Martin family members — from left, Ryan (Grey Turner), Sophie (Morgan Hendrix-Chupa)
and Chloe (Rebecca Hirsch) — mourn after a tragic event occurs at Sophie and Chloe's high school.

Acme Theatre Company is opening its 40th season with an excellent, powerful play called “The Burials,” by Caitlin Parish, directed by Emily Henderson.

In its 40-year history, Acme has never shied away from controversial subjects and this play about a school shooting and gun control delivers another compelling message that will have the audience talking when they leave the theater.

In fact, leaving the theater, I heard one group talking about how it was “the most real thing I’ve ever seen” and another sadly remarking that “this is the way things are now.”

The cast of nine are uniformly good, with Morgan Hendrix-Chupa outstanding as Sophie Martin, the daughter of Sen. Ryan Marin (Grey Turner), who is running for re-election.

The play is loosely based on the Greek tragedy “Antigone” by Sophocles, in which a desperate young woman single-handedly defies an unjust law in order to bury her brother, and is punished by being buried alive.

This is a multimedia presentation, with three large screens over the stage and TV cameras on either side. The middle screen is for YouTube videos of Ben Martin (Sam Cubbage), son of the senator, leading up to his decision to go on a shooting rampage in his school and end his own life. The one problem with the videos is that the sound needed to be louder; they were not always easy to hear.
Ben begins his shooting rampage on voting day, as his father is on television being interviewed by reporter Zoe Lucas (Jemima Aldas, who also plays one of the schoolteachers, Mrs. Souder). The ability to see each individually on the large screens was a wonderful idea.

The screens are also used to display the many twitter and email messages received by the Martins, condemning them following the shooting.

Turner is excellent as the politician/father, though the character is extremely unlikable. His feelings about his son are hard to accept, as a parent, and his treatment of his daughter, whom he has taught to think for herself, when she has her own strong feelings about the shooting and about her brother, is just downright cruel.

While there is no violence seen on stage, there are vivid descriptions of what happened. We hear of a pile of bodies and attempts to escape. Chloe Martin (Rebecca Hirsch), Sophie’s sister, also has stained knees from kneeling in someone’s blood. (Hirsch has problems projecting and much of her dialogue is lost).

Parish’s script tries to tackle too many subjects for one play. The Martin family must learn how to deal with Ben’s actions and their own grief, to ask how they might have helped Ben and how do they move forward, but, in addition, they argue about what can be done about gun control.

The girls return to school, and face ostracism from other students. Only Sophie’s friend Janette (Wren Arellano Calderon) remains positive and supportive of Sophie, though Sophie wants only to be alone. Janette, it turns out, is hiding anger issues of her own.

Janette’s boyfriend Jayden (Maya Bailey) is angry with Sophie and seems to blame her for his pain at the loss of friends. The fistfight among the four was done very well.

Brianna (Sara Su), a survivor of the shooting, seems to have the most reasonable feeling about the shooting and seems to understand Ben. Sadly, however, Su spoke very softly, and we missed most of her dialogue.

The only negative thing about this show is that there were so few people in the audience. This is an excellently acted play with an important message and I hope that more people will come to see it.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Pump Boys and Dinettes

Any show with a tap-dancing accordion player has got to be fun.

“Pump Boys and Dinettes” by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann is now on Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock stage. This is a 1982 Tony-award-nominated musical written by a performing group of the same name. It became Chicago’s longest-running theater production for many years.

This concert-style musical centers around the story of four men — L.M., Jim, Eddie and Jackson — who work at a gas station and two sisters, Rhetta and Prudie Cupp, who work at a diner called the Double Cupp-all in an isolated, small-town road stop somewhere between Frog Level and Smyrna, N.C.

The show was conceived when two of the writers (Wann and Hardwick) were playing music in a restaurant in New York City and wrote of their experiences in the restaurant.

As Jim Wann said in a 2010 interview, “I was a scuffling songwriter/guitarist and Mark Hardwick was a piano player/actor … Mark and I were unemployed and happy to take a job playing five nights a week in the Cattleman Lounge, attached to a restaurant on one of the darker blocks west of Grand Central. Our mission was to play country standards to entertain the ‘tired businessman’ who had come for the drinks, the steaks, and the waitresses in classic Western saloon girl attire.”

On slow nights, they would play original music, gradually adding costumes, which gave them the look of guys who worked in a gas station.

This is more a stand-alone story tied together with music, but it spotlights each of the characters: Jim (Sam C. Jones), L.M. (Brady Wease), Jackson (Darrell Johnston), Rhetta (Rebecca Mason), Prudie (Sidney Raey-Gonzales) and Eddie (Michael LaPlante).  The men are postponing working on Uncle Bob’s Winnebago by singing, they say.

As for the girls, they spend their time baking pies and flirting with the men.

Each of the performers gets his or her turn to shine. LaPlante, as Eddie, sings a loving song about his beloved grandmother, whose photo hangs on the wall. Johnston rocks out to “Mona,” Wease brings down the house with his Dolly Parton memory. The women stand out in their song “The Best Man” about “the one who got away.”

The charismatic Jones, who is sort of the MC of the show, stands out in each of the songs in which he is featured.

While this does not sound like much of a show, the 20 high-spirited country-rock tunes make this a concert rather than a real musical play, and many have the audience clapping along while the girls dance in the audience. Some highlights include “T.N.D.P.W.A.M.” (“The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine”) by L.M., “Tips” by the girls, and a Menu Song. There is even a raffle for someone in the audience to win a new car … air freshener.

Scenic designer Andrew Fiffick has managed to create a complex set in the tiny Pollock theater, with half of the set in the garage and the other half in the restaurant. Costume designer Jessica Minnihan get stars for L.M.’s costume for the Dolly Parton number.

Director/choreographer Abbey Campbell has created a look that is special, with all of the musical numbers as precise and crisp as a military parade.

This show aspires to be nothing but a fun evening, to show off the talents of the cast. Add to that a collection of toe-tapping music and you have a show that will appeal to an audience.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Sister Act

“Sister Act,” the new show at the Woodland Opera House, directed by Jason Hammond, is an absolute delight from start to finish.

Based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie, the stage show adds music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater. The musical turns the story-with-music movie into a musical-with-story stage show. I missed some of the story of the nuns venturing out of the convent and into the community, but the musical numbers are so much fun, it makes up for it.

Woodland has amazing talent in the cast. Deborah Hammond is Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer under the thumb of her gangster boyfriend Curtis (David Ewey), who witnesses a murder he commits. Fearing her life is in danger, Deloris reports to police officer “Sweaty” Eddie (Erik Catalan), who remembers Deloris from high school and hides her in a local convent under the name Sister Mary Clarence.

Hammond is magnificent with a strong voice, captivating personality and quick comedic timing. Each of the 10 numbers in which she is featured is wonderful. Over the course of the two-hour show, she goes through a transformative process that makes her reevaluate her priorities.

The role of Mother Superior has been expanded from the movie version, and how lucky we are for that. Lenore Sebastian is vocally every bit Hammond’s equal. Mother Superior is frustrated with having to hide a woman of whom she does not approve, who is such a disruption to her quiet convent. Her anguished “I Haven’t Got a Prayer,” trying to ask God for guidance, was a standout.

To give her something to do, Mother Superior puts Sister Mary Clarence in the tone-deaf choir, a group so discordant it has driven parishioners away. With the addition of a real musician, the choir shapes up quickly and becomes so popular the church is filled again, though Mother Superior is shocked by the modern twist to some of the beloved hymns.

But Monsignor O’Hara (David Cross) is pleased with the popularity of the choir, which has removed the danger of having to close the church for lack of congregation.

Sister Mary Patrick had a somewhat larger role in the movie, but Judith Boreham still brings her personality out beautifully, and Jadi Galloway, as the postulant Sister Mary Robert, is shy and retiring, but when she comes out of her shell, she displays a wonderful, rich voice. Her “The Life I Never Led” was quite poignant.

Catalan also has a powerful voice and his Act 2 costume gets the biggest laugh of the night (kudos to Denise Miles and Kathy Dixon).

Gangsters Joey (Spencer Alexander), Pablo (Miles Meckling) and TJ (Michael Davis Smith) get laughs in “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” as they describe how their manly charms will affect the nuns and help them find Deloris.

With Deloris safe, the show ends gloriously, with the nuns in Vegas-worthy habits, receiving a well-deserved tumultuous standing ovation

The Drowsy Chaperone

Aldolpho (Brian McCann), seduces The Drowsy Chaperone (Chris Cay Stewart) as,
in Davis Musical Theatre Company's musical comedy production,
“The Drowsy Chaperone,” on stage through Jan. 26 at the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center.

The most celebrated musical of the 2006 Broadway season, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a completely original musical comedy, opened this week at the Davis Musical Theatre Company, celebrating its 35th year of musicals. The show is directed and choreographed by Kyle Jackson, also listed as co-musical director.

The show had its beginnings in 1997 when several friends created a spoof of old musicals for a stag party. It was so successful that it was reshaped for a theatrical performance and presented at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Over several versions, it finally opened on Broadway in May of 2006, where it won five Tony awards.

The character of “Man in Chair” opens the show, sitting in the dark, musing about his feelings for theater. He thinks of his favorite show, the 1928 fictional “The Drowsy Chaperone” and pulls out the original cast recording to play it for the audience. He reads, “Mix-ups, mayhem and a gay wedding,” then laughs “of course the phrase ‘gay wedding’ has a different meaning now. But back then it just meant ‘fun’ and that’s all this is — fun,”

As the music plays, the characters appear on stage, lights come up on the set, and the show begins, with Man in Chair providing a running commentary on the plot, the characters, and the actors who played them.

This show is a salute to those old 1920s musicals that were light on plot and heavy on comedy.
DMTC has the perfect cast to bring this show to life. Scott Minor as “Man in Chair” is wonderful. Just the kind of lonely theater queen you’d imagine. He is particularly good when the attention is on other parts of the stage and he is supposedly just listening to his record. His facial expressions are spot on.

Fans of DMTC’s Mary Young must see her turn as Mrs. Tottendale, the eccentric widow who is hosting the wedding of starlet Janet van de Graaff (Aimee Rose Santone) and Robert Martin (A.J. Rooney). Neither of them is completely certain they are ready for marriage.

Rooney has a great show-stopping tap number, “Cold Feets,” danced with his best man George (Hugo Figueroa)

Santone has her own turn to shine in “Show Off,” where Janet explains to the press, and others assembled, why she is giving up the stage for good. “I don’t want to show off no more,” all the while showing off for the cameras.

Steve Isaacson is Feldzieg, the harried producer of Janet’s show, who hired Adolpho (Brian McCann), a Latin lover, to discourage Janet from giving up the stage. McCann’s performance is over-the-top and hilarious, especially when he mistakes the Chaperone (Chris Cay Stewart) for the bride. Stewart is an Ethel Merman-like belter whose Chaperone is fond of her little flask and who gives Janet no real advice about whether or not to marry Robert, but merely explains how she has gotten through life by “stumbling along.”

Joe Alkire is great fun as Underling, the butler, who serves everyone in this Prohibition-era comedy “ice water,” which results in a very funny scene between himself and Mrs. Tottendale.

Andrea Bourquin is delightful as Kitty, the chorine with her eye on the prize, to be a leading lady if she gets her shot when Janet leaves the show. She has some of the most dazzling costumes (thanks to costumer Jean Henderson).

Tomas Eredia and Anna Cutshall are gangsters disguised as bakers sent to threaten Feldzieg if he is unsuccessful in thwarting Janet’s wedding plans, but it seems the worst they can do is exchange a lot of puns about baking.

Act 2 begins with a decidedly unpolitically correct number “Message from a Nightingale,” for which Man in Chair apologizes because it’s actually from a different musical. Be prepared for lyrics like “What is it about Asians that fascinates Caucasians … is it the won ton? The egg rolls? The rice?” It is a funny, if mildly offensive, take on “The King and I.”

Marika Rogers has a small, but pivotal role as Trix, the aviatrix, at the end of the show, with an impressive special effect.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” is a funny bit of escapist theater, which will be as enjoyable to the audience as it seems to be to the cast.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Wizard of Oz

The land of Oz has gone high tech, in the B Street production of “The Wizard of Oz,” adapted by Lyndsay Burch.   

Gone is the drab Kansas farmhouse and the evil bicycle-riding Miss Gulch.  In this adaptation, Dorothy (Tiffanie Mack) is a video game designer, building a virtual reality Oz game for a holiday release date.  But they have discovered a few glitches and Dorothy must enter the game to find and fix them.  The performance itself, when I saw it, had a few technical glitches of its own that the cast handled smoothly.

Thanks to the Los Angeles-based guest scenic and video designer Kamyi Lee, an exciting digital world has been created, complete with a digital Toto.       

Scary Dave Pierini eats up the scenery as the Wicked Witch of the West, Amy Kelly was the logical choice for the Cowardly Lion, the kind of role that she does so well.  Sam Kebede is the boneless Scarecrow, Greg Alexander is the Tin Man and John Lamb is the Wizard.  Each actor, except for Mack,  has at least one other role which must be most difficult for Elisabeth Nunziato, having to switch from Glinda to Aunt Em in an eyeblink at the end of the show.

But there’s no place like home, and Dorothy is able to fix the video game and return to her office in time for Christmas.

The show is geared for all ages from 5 up and is great fun for adults too. The kids like being included in several spots and love the chase scenes throughout the theater.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley

When friends Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon decided to take a six-hour drive from San Francisco to Ashland, the two Jane Austen fans began to conceive a post “Pride and Prejudice” plot that resulted in two delightful Christmas-themed plays. For the last two years, Capital Stage has presented “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Now comes its sequel, “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.”

For “Downton Abbey” fans, “The Wickhams” may at first take a little getting used to. For one thing, it’s the Jane Austen version of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” though this sequel takes place downstairs and features a housekeeper who has all the stern authority of Mr. Carson from Downton, while actress Stephanie McVay’s “Mrs Reynolds” looks more like Mrs. Patmore, the Downton head cook.

Those who saw last year’s “Miss Bennet” will recognize that we are seeing what happened downstairs before action appears on stage “upstairs.” For example, footman Brian (Noah Thompson) carries a big fir tree into the servants’ quarters, to put in the upstairs library as a surprise for Mr. Darcy (Rob Salas). The decorated tree in the library, a new German fad, was a big part of “Miss Bennet.”

Directed by Peter Mohrmann, this show moves at a fast pace, sometimes dizzyingly fast, with so many characters entering and exiting. But there is never a dull moment.

Brittini Barger is returning for the third time to play Lizzy Darcy, who has settled into her role as the lady of Pemberley, and knows how to keep things as calm as possible even when a crisis arises.
Melissa Brausch plays sister Lydia, a flighty, flirty airhead, there without her husband George (Colin Sphar), about whom she raves, but obviously things are not right. Plus Mr. Darcy has given strict orders that George is not to enter the house, though he crashes the party anyway.

Both Brausch and Sphar are making their Capital Stage debuts. While both are excellent and a wonderful addition to the company, Sphar stood out from most of the cast and was outstanding. He has a scene with Salas as Darcy, which may be the most powerful of the evening.

This being a Christmas play, there has to be a romance in there somewhere and, in this case, it’s footman and would-be inventor Brian with newly hired maid Cassie (Kate Morton), friends since childhood, who are beginning to feel those stirrings and will they? Won’t they? Cassie has a more 21st-century idea of love, however, and trains Brian how to treat a woman he likes, which includes really listening to her. “Love is about seeing someone and allowing them to be exactly as they are.”

While this is a thoroughly enjoyable pastiche, there is just something “missing.” Perhaps the plot goes by too quickly to really get emotionally involved in some of the major issues, perhaps the comings and goings are too many and too quick. I don’t know. I didn’t feel as fulfilled as I did after “Miss Bennet,” though I certainly enjoyed myself and I really wanted to steal some of those cookies they ate all through the show and left on the table at its conclusion.

Monday, December 09, 2019

A Christmas Carol

As important as Bing Crosby Christmas carols are to my enjoyment of the holiday season is the Sacramento Theatre Company’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” particularly with Matt K. Miller, playing the role of Scrooge this year for the eighth time.

This musical was commissioned by STC 32 years ago, written by Richard Hellesen with music by David de Berry, and has been an audience favorite ever since. This year’s production is directed by Michael Laun and Miranda D. Lawson (who also plays Mrs. Cratchit and Mrs. Fezziwig).
There are 35 named characters in the show and 39 actors, many of whom do more than one role and alternate with other actors throughout the run of the show.

The success of any production of “A Christmas Carol” is Ebenezer Scrooge himself, the miserly grump who finds holidays a “humbug” and just an excuse to steal money from employers by employees who take the day off to celebrate with their families, yet still expect a salary.

I have reviewed four of Miller’s eight performances. He just gets better and better. He has perfected the moments when the curmudgeon has a positive thought because of something he is shown. His absolute childish glee at the end, realizing that he has not missed Christmas after all is infectious, and his affection for Tiny Tim (Leo Bettinger, sharing the role with Kit Bettinger and David Ngirmidol) brings tears to the eyes.

In several reviews from previous years, I have complained about the reverberation used for the ghosts and I will complain again this year. Jacob Marley (Eric Wheeler) and the ghost of Christmas Past (Olivia Stevenson) were so reverberated as to make most of their dialog unintelligible, particularly bad for Wheeler, who gave an over the top dramatic performance that was lost due to reverb distortion. There was only minor reverb for the Ghost of Christmas Present (the effusive Ryan Blanning), and it was lovely to be able to hear him so clearly.

Blanning also plays an enthusiastic Fezziwig, Scrooge’s first employer, who makes working so enjoyable by the way he treats his employees. It makes the Scrooge of today have passing thoughts of how he treats his own clerk, Bob Cratchit (Mike DiSalvo).

Lexie Allison is a warm and loving Fan (Scrooge’s sister). She shares the role with Isabella Hernandez. The role of Ebenezer the child is shared by Lorenzo Lopez and Miller Traum. Sadly, I missed which actor played it on opening night, but he was quite good.

Griffith Munn plays Scrooge as a young man, in love with Belle (Maddy Grace Wood, who alternates with Elysia Martinez).

Devin Weiser is a street singer, who fills in many “change the scenery” spots. What a beautiful, clear voice she has. Lucy Lederer and Cara McIntyre share the role of the beggar child whom Scrooge attacks in his curmudgeon days.

The set by Renee Degarmo and Jarrod Bodensteiner is a wonder, with large pieces that roll or rotate while actors walk them telling the Dickens story, morphing into the characters singing the songs about the story. The smoothness of the transitions is due in large part to the lighting design of Jordan Burkholder, who directs the audience to one side of the stage while the technicians are quietly changing the scenery on the other side.

Costumes by Jessica Minnihan are lush, especially in party scenes, though I did wonder why so many of the guests at Fezziwig’s party were wearing glasses when there did not seem to be any other scene where glasses were so prevalent.

Charles Dickens described the holidays as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

As we move forward through this holiday season may we, like Scrooge, take those words to heart and be a little more kind, a little more forgiving, and a little more loving toward those around us.

Sacramento Theater Company’s “A Christmas Carol” is a 32-year-old Sacramento tradition and should be on everyone’s list of things to do to enhance their holiday spirit.