Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Camelot

he absolutely evil Mordred (Tomas Eredia) stirs up trouble
in the kingdom in DMTC’s production of Lerner & Loewe’s classic
“Camelot,” running through March 29.
From the court of King Arthur to the administration of John F. Kennedy, “Camelot” evokes something beautiful, opulent and democratic.

Steve Isaacson’s set design for the musical, currently at Davis Musical Theatre Company, may be a bit less than opulent, but it at least gives the impression of a castle. Yet thanks to the outstanding costumes of Jean Henderson, the stage is indeed beautiful and opulent.

Jori Gonzales alone, as Guinevere, had nine costumes throughout the three-plus-hour show. All are wonderful, but her first costume, simple with no jewel adornment, is tailored so perfectly and the material so beautiful that it was my favorite of the night.

Gonzales, happy to be performing her third Julie Andrews role, is exceptional. A beautiful, clear voice that can sing opera as well as musical theater, she embodies the character so well that the chemistry between her and King Arthur (Joe Alkire) seems so real that one wonders what she sees in Lancelot (A.J. Rooney).

Alkire is a wonderful, down-to-earth king, still not quite sure how he became king and uncomfortable about his upcoming marriage (“I wonder what the king is doing tonight”). He and Guinevere warm to each other and over the next few years he not only grows into his marriage but into his role as king as well.

Lancelot arrives at Camelot so arrogant that Guinevere hates him and arranges for him to battle three of her best knights, but when he beats all three, killing one and then bringing him back to life again, her heart is changed and they begin a secret affair.

It’s an odd affair since both Lancelot and Guinevere love Arthur and Arthur loves both of them, accepts their affair and pretends not to notice so that when Guinevere is tricked into revealing their relationship and is sentenced to death, Arthur helps the lovers escape, even though it brings down the beautiful democracy that he worked so hard to create.

Joel Porter plays Merlin, Arthur’s mentor. It’s amazing that he can speak through that huge mustache that totally covers his mouth (does he eat?). After he is lured away from Camelot by the enchantress Nimue (Andrea Borquin), the actor returns as Pellinore, a bumbling and endearing old man who becomes a permanent guest of Arthur and Guinevere. His buddy Horrid the dog (played by a confused looking Mrs. Bigglesworth) is very cute.

Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred is played by Tomas Eredia (who, somehow, is not listed in the program for that character). Eredia bursts on stage with a high level of energy and dominates his scenes, earning the boos his villain character receives.

Young Matthew Vallero is Tom of Warwick, the child who comes to join the Round Table, reminding Arthur of the ideals he was able to create, if only temporarily. Vallero, 10, has been in all the youth productions for the past two years but is making his main stage debut and is excellent.

This is a very long show that drags in spots, but overall is a beautiful production with some outstanding performances.

Friday, March 06, 2020

A Bronx Tale


I’ll bet when you think of Robert DeNiro, you don’t think of musical theater.

Yet, he was the original director, along with Jerry Zaks, of “A Bronx Tale,” the musical movie (It sounded to me like making “Godfather,” the musical). The musical theater production of the same name is this week’s high-energy touring Broadway show in Sacramento.

Based on the semi-autobiographical solo show by Chazz Palminteri, and the 1993 film (which DeNiro also directed and starred in), this tells the story of Calogero (“C”) (Alec Nevin) whose role model is mob boss Sonny (Jeff Brooks, whose charisma steals the show) and the struggle between Calogero’s father Lorenzo (American Idol winner Nick Fradiani) and Sonny for C’s devotion. Lorenzo is a hard-working man with great dignity who would rather work for a living than take dirty money.

C’s mother Rosina is played by Stefanie Londino, whose “Look to Your Heart” was very moving.
The curtain opens on an impressive set designed by Beowulf Boritt (love the name!), with projections and moving set pieces that accurately display the neighborhoods of the Bronx, including the “other side of the tracks,” where the African Americans live, with street signs for Belmont Avenue and Webster Avenue, which fly in and out, and versatile fire escapes, as well as the necessary “stoop” where all the action happens.

As the play opens, Calogero has returned to his old neighborhood to reminisce about his childhood, and the young Calogero is played by the very talented Anthony Gianni (some performances Trey Murphy takes the role). Gianni is making his national tour debut with this show and absolutely perfect for the role.

Impressed by the respect that Sonny gets from those around him, C turns his back on his bus driving dad (the role played by DeNiro in the movie) and becomes a kind of surrogate son for the mob boss and his henchmen like JoJo the Whale (Nathan Wright), Frankie Coffeecake (Mark Sippel), Tony Ten-to-Two (Daniel Rosenbaum), Sally Slick (Rhys Williams), Handsome Nick (Jacob Roberts-Miller) and Crazy Mario (Tyler Dema).

C falls in love with an African American friend Jane (Kayla Jenerson) and while Sonny is more tolerant of the relationship (“One of the Great Ones”), Lorenzo is more practical about the chances of the two becoming a couple. Their growing love causes “West Side Story”-like problems and C is faced with the question of whether it is better to be feared than to be loved, and almost loses his life in the process.

Ultimately, Sonny does a good deed that sends C back to his father (“Look to Your Heart”).
Doo-wop music by Alan Menken (perhaps best known for his work in Disney movies), with lyrics by Glenn Slater, and a 10-piece live orchestra under the baton of David Aaron Brown may not be the most memorable, but they are fun and the choreography recreated by Brittany Conigatti is athletic.

This is an entertaining production with a top-notch cast and first-rate staging. It is too good to be missed.


Thursday, March 05, 2020

Hamlet


I first reviewed Ian Hopps in 2016 in a production of “Bells are Ringing” for the Davis Shakespeare Festival. I called him “a dream of a leading man.” I have since seen Hopps in several productions in Sacramento and Davis, but he has now taken a huge leap and is stunning as Hamlet in the current Sacramento Theatre Company production. His rendition of the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy is appropriately mesmerizing, as a tortured Hamlet considers his options.

Directors Casey McClellan and Greg Foro have worked to make the show accessible and engaging for a contemporary audience. It is set in a modern-day Denmark, the set by Timothy McNamara being a series of long sheer curtains that the tech crew moved back and forth to set parts of the stage for different scenes. Costumes by Jessica Minnihan were contemporary.

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, “Hamlet” was his most popular play and still ranks as one of the most performed.

The well-known story is about Hamlet’s rage on learning from his father’s ghost that he was murdered by Claudius (Eric Wheeler), Hamlet’s uncle and the deceased king’s brother. Adding to Hamlet’s rage is the fact that his mother, Gertrude (Jamie Jones) has married Claudius. Hamlet plans revenge and, feigning madness, he stages a whole play to let Claudius know he is aware of his crime.

Wheeler and Jones may be better known in Sacramento for their lighter roles, but they are up to the task of Shakespeare. Jones is particularly moving in her emotional scene with Hamlet in Act 2.

Dan Fagan is Laertes, whose final sword fight with Hamlet was very believable, probably due to the fight choreography of Karen Vance.

Vance also plays Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest and their brief scenes together show a warmth and loving bond between them, destroyed by Hamlet’s “madness.”

Gary Alan Wright is Ophelia’s loving father Polonius, who provides comic relief but is accidentally murdered by Hamlet (not a good idea to hide behind a curtain during an emotional scene!).

Taylor Vaughan and Devin Valdez are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet, who pretend to remain his friends, though they are now working for Claudius to discover the truth behind Hamlet’s madness.

This is part ghost story, part political intrigue, with a doomed romance that unfolds as a murder mystery, some great sword fights and lots of blood. If you’ve been missing “Game of Thrones,” this production may be a nice substitute.

The one “good guy” is Horatio (Ian Capper), tasked by Hamlet upon his death, not to kill himself in sadness, but to tell his story.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Peter and the Starcatcher


The UC Davis production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” now at the Main Theatre, directed by Mindy Cooper and Granada Artist-in-Residence Toby Sedgwick is, in a word, spectacular. The directors say they had a delightful time “creating a potpourri of exciting elements — cavorting, sashaying, chuckling, galumphing and swimming our way into and through this wonderful adventure of a play.”
Everything about it is wonderful and, since technical people rarely get credit, I will start with the magnificent scenic design by Samantha Reno, lighting design by Michael Palumbo and projection design by Ian Wallace. The effect of being on a ship in a storm, with animated sea and perfectly synchronized choreography, was so good you almost needed Dramamine. The second-act rainstorm left me surprised that I didn’t get wet.

An especially delightful effect was tossing a cat from one ship to the other, which required several different techniques, real-life and animation — and worked flawlessly. The only disappointment was the crocodile, which was merely an animation and not a real croc, as it was in a recent Acme production.

Costumes by Kikyou Yan were bright and colorful. They made the stage fun to look at.

This book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson is a modern-day retelling of the 100-plus-year-old play about an orphan boy known only as “boy” (Nate Challis) who refuses to grow up, and how he became Peter Pan. He has never seen the sun and is uncomfortable around adults, but he becomes a hero and earns his name.

The 15-member cast is excellent, particularly Jennifer Grace as Black Stache, the pirate king, with unique facial hair and prone to malaprops, corrected by his right-hand man Smee (Tyler Pruyn).

Katie Halls is very good as Molly, an apprentice starcatcher, determined to prove herself to her father (Ben Carter), who is on a secret mission for Queen Victoria. Molly will become Wendy in the Peter Pan story, but is already a substitute mother for orphans Prentiss (Ashley Ricafrente), who thinks he is the “boss,” and Ted (Tiffany Nwogu), who is food-obsessed and very funny as he spends much of his time trying to figure out how to eat a pineapple.

Sophie Brubaker is funny as Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly’s very prim and proper Nannie, who is not quite so prim or proper around Alf (Sam Votrian), a flatulent sailor who falls instantly in love with her.
While not a musical, there is a musical duo (Graham Sobelman, keyboard and Adam Forman, percussion) who add to the effect of the action on stage.

This dazzling production is fun for both adults and children.


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Of Mice and Men


Stop what you’re doing right now. Immediately go the phone and call the Woodland Opera House to get tickets for director Gil Sebastian’s production of John Steinbeck’s classic “Of Mice and Men.” It will be the best gift you give yourself this month — or perhaps this year.

Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novella was first published in 1937 and was also presented on stage that year, a movie following in 1939. Over the many productions of this story, there have been many actors playing the roles of George and Lennie, two migrant field workers in California during the Depression, and many of them have been as good as John Ewing (George) and Jason Hammond (Lennie), but I suspect none have been better.

Ewing and Hammond have nailed the roles, Ewing the quick-witted man who has been Lennie’s guardian and protector for most of their lives. Though Lennie frustrates him, it is their mutual dream of having their own place where they can “live off the fat of the land” that keeps them both going.
Hammond’s program bio says he has wanted to play this role since he was in the eighth grade — and it’s easy to see why. He completely embodies the character. Lennie is a large, powerful man with the mind of a child. He loves soft things but has no concept of his strength. He lives for George’s story about their future life, which he asks him to repeat throughout the play, especially the part about tending to rabbits.

Hammond’s scene in the second act, where he knows he has “done something bad” is heartbreaking.
Ewing and Hammond are surrounded by an equally strong cast. Paul Fearn plays Candy, an aging ranch hand who has lost one hand in an accident and knows that his time on the ranch is limited. He begs George to let him be a part of the house dream.

Chad Fisk is Slim, the mule skinner, who seems the only good member of the crew. He and George become friends.

Curley (Patrick Jordan) is the boss’s son, a man with a quick temper who is fiercely jealous of anyone who looks at his bride (Jadi Galloway), identified only as “Curley’s wife.” Galloway’s character is already bored at the ranch and just wants someone to talk to, though she gives a seductive eye to everyone. Steinbeck considered her “not a person, she’s a symbol. She has no function, except to be a foil — and a danger to Lennie.”

David Guria, Jr. has the small role of Crooks (named for the crook in his back), who must live in his own small house because he is not able to live with the white ranch hands. Guria’s Crooks is bitter and cynical, but realistic, yet is fond of Lennie.

Others in the cast are Steve Mackay as The Boss, Scott Reese as Carlson (who kills Candy’s dog because he is old and stinky), and John Haine as Whit.

It is a shame that musicals get large audiences while excellent plays like this one don’t. “Of Mice and Men” is definitely an outstanding production and should be seen by anyone who appreciates good theater.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Alabaster



Do a Google search on “Alabaster,” the Audrey Cefaly play at Capital Stage, directed by Kristin Clippard, and you’ll get a list of “text words” to help describe it:

LGBTQ, PTSD, grief, recovery, alcoholism, same-sex relationships, natural disaster, Alabama tornado, farm life, goats …

Now, how, you wonder, does all that fit together into one play?

Surprisingly well. This is a very funny, but very dark comedy about two women, learning how to deal with the scars of life and begin to heal.

And it’s all narrated by a sassy goat.

“A play about suffering that cuts so deep — it also needs goats,” says Capital Stage literary manager Cathy Hardin.

There is a cast of four extraordinary actresses. Stephanie Altholz is June, a folk artist who lost her family in a tornado that destroyed their barn, ripped off the front porch of the house, and left June, the only survivor, scarred from head to toe. She has not left the house in over two years and spends all of her time painting.

Alice (Susan Maris) is a photographer who comes to the farm from New York to take pictures of June as part of a project of photographing scarred women for a book showing how really beautiful they are. She has her own traumas to deal with, following the recent death of her wife, who was four months pregnant with their first child.

And then there are the goats. Amy Kelly snuck over from B Street to make her Capital Stage debut. She is Weezy, the younger of the goats and it is explained that she speaks both English and goat. Her partner Bib (Janet Motenko) is an aging goat who only speaks goat.

Kelly is a talented comedic actress, whom I have watched play a host of characters, both human and animal. She has that certain je ne sais quois that she brings to everything she plays and this goat was a perfect role for her.

In California Stage’s “Italian Opera,” Motenko played several different very verbal characters. As Bib, the dying goat, she has little to do but sleep, and as she speaks only “goat,” she has no lines. Yet, Motenko presents a sympathetic character, whose dying days are eloquent, words or not. It is a beautiful performance.

As for the humans, kudos to costume/makeup designer Caitlin Cisek, who has created June’s scarred body, both burn scars on her legs and back and ribbed scars on her face.

June uses sarcasm, bitterness and isolation to protect her from her emotional scars, until a terrifying incident opens a crack in her wall and lets her open up to Alice. Altholz gives a riveting performance.

Altholz and Maris have wonderful chemistry together. Maris’ scars are more deeply hidden, but when June needs her, her raw emotional story is very moving.

The scenic design by Timothy McNamara, lighting design by Michael Palumbo and sound/projection design by Ed Lee make this a very believable story — and whoever painted June’s paintings was wonderful.

This is a show that will make you laugh and cry and cringe, but will make you very happy that Sacramento has such a professional theater that presents such wonderful productions.


Friday, January 24, 2020

Popcorn Falls


“Popcorn Falls,” the comedy currently at B Street Theatre, directed by Lyndsay Burch, is advertised to be “a side-splitting tour de force exploding with humor and heart!”

A small town in Michigan was playwright James Hindman’s inspiration for the show. The town was on the verge of bankruptcy until a theater opened. People responded and a couple of years later, the town had two theaters, a hotel and a restaurant jammed with people and the town was saved.

Popcorn Falls is a fictitious town whose tourist attraction is its namesake falls. When a corrupt politician turns off the falls to make it a sewage treatment facility, Mayor Trundle (Greg Alexander) discovers that the town will receive a sizeable sum of money if they can put on a play in a week. There’s only one problem — there is no theater, no play and no actors.

No problem, says Trundle, as he meets other members of the town to get a play produced, proving (as the synopsis in the opening monologue suggests) that “art can save the world.”

Alexander and Dave Pierini, two of B Street’s most popular actors, play more than 20 characters in this comedy, among them, Joe, a janitor; Becky, a bartender; Ms. Parker, the cat-loving town librarian; Floyd, the one-armed owner of the lumber yard; Mrs. Stepp, the chain-smoking middle school teacher and town vamp; and a bored teenager.

Unlike “Greater Tuna,” to which this comedy is often compared, there are no real “costume changes,” and each appearance of a character lasts only a few seconds. Pierini plays most of the characters by changing headgear, minor costume details, body language and accent in an eyeblink, while Alexander is the “straight man,” mostly the mayor and, briefly, one or two other characters.

The speed with which characters appear and disappear is both very funny, but also occasionally confusing since appearances occur so fast it’s sometimes difficult to keep the characters straight, though in the “plot” it hardly matters.

Nevertheless, it’s an amazing achievement, particularly for Pierini, and keeps the audience laughing throughout the 90-minute, one-act performance.

There’s even a kind of surprise ending, but I won’t give it away.