Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Guards at the Taj


Mohammad Shehata, left, and Rajesh Bose star in "Guards at the Taj,"

The year is 1648 and the location is the Taj Mahal, the night before it is unveiled by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to the public.

The play is “Guards at the Taj,” an award-winning script by Rajiv Joseph directed for Capital Stage by co-founder Jonathan Williams.

There is no indication at the outset as to whether this is a comedy or a drama … and the answer is “yes.” As the play starts, there is fear that it is going to drag because of long silences between the two characters. Then it becomes very funny and after nervous titters, there are deep guffaws, but then it becomes very serious and even shocking.

Rajesh Bose (Humayun) and Mohammad Shehata (Babur) are outstanding actors who make this play come alive. The two play imperial guards stationed at the gate of the Taj Mahal, tasked with the duty of making certain no one sneaks in and sees the edifice before its unveiling the next morning. They are to stand at attention all night and not speak or turn around to look at the building.

Humayun is the rules guy. He stands stoically, as his job description demands, and rebukes Babur, who wants to chat. Babur is the goofball of the two … they are a real Odd Couple. It is Babur who sees the ludicrousness of standing still all night when they are the only two people around.

Eventually, Babur wears down Humayun’s reserve and the two joke and chat together, though until they reach that point one does wonder if this play is going to drag because of the uncomfortable silences while Humayun refuses to talk.

About the time the audience has settled in to enjoy this comedy, suddenly things aren’t so funny anymore and turn terribly black. The two guards have been given an unspeakable job of horrific brutality. To follow orders will change their lives forever. Each man is shaken to his core and in the aftermath one suffers severe PTSD, and the other must make an even worse decision.

This is the story of a bromance that is tested to the extreme. Even in the brutality, there is a sweetness in the relationship between Humayun and Babur. In the testing, the idea of “beauty” is analyzed and we learn how friendship of the men both sustains and ultimately destroys them.

Even in the midst of the horror, Babur brings a note of lightness with his dreams of fantastical inventions and “flying to the stars.” Humayun wants to invent a “transportable hole” to carry around so that one can escape any unpleasant situation, and they discuss the problems with trying to carry a “hole.” Talk of their inventions keep the men’s minds off of their horrific task, at least for a while.
Stephen C. Jones’ scenic design is simple, but handsome, while Timothy McNamara’s lighting and Ed Lee’s sound design add much to the atmosphere.

Perhaps the heroes of this production are the unnamed tech crew who have some amazing jobs between scenes and who get a round of applause each time they exit the stage. Not sure who is responsible for the “props” in Scene 2 but they deserve a round of applause, too (an ironic idea, when you think of it!).

“Guards at the Taj” is not going to appeal to everyone … and if you can’t handle brutality, perhaps you should stay home. But that would be a shame because this is an excellent play that will hold your attention and make an impact. You will be thinking about it long after you have left the theater.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Rumors


Neil Simon wrote his comedy ”Rumors” at a time when he was at one of his lowest points. He was in the process of divorce from wife No. 3 (Joan Balm), and needed something funny to occupy his mind. Work was always cathartic for him and, having written many funny things, he decided to try his hand at farce, which is a different style of comedy.

Comedy is a work of art that is amusing and intended to be humorous. Farce, in contrast, is a type of comedy that is characterized by highly exaggerated and comic situations and crude and one-dimensional characterizations. It has no other aim than creating laughter. (Farce usually also involves a lot of doors!)

By its very nature, farce requires crispness of dialogue and a quick pace to the show. The funny lines (you can’t really call them “jokes’) should come fast and furious and flow one into the other.
The fine cast of the Winters Theatre Company production of “Rumors,” directed by Linda Glick, are probably presenting a comedy, but not really a farce. While the show is enjoyable, the spark that makes a farce pop is missing.

The situation involves a couple who have arrived at the home of friends, intending to celebrate their 10th anniversary with other friends. But nothing is ready, the wife Myra and the serving staff are nowhere to be found, and the husband, Charlie, is on the floor in the bedroom with a bullet wound in his earlobe.

Simon hits a bit of a sour note with the first scene in which a guest, Ken (Philip Pittman), is upstairs with the unconscious (and unseen) host and Ken’s wife Chris (Anita Ahuja) is downstairs waiting for a call from the doctor.

Ken, who is Charlie’s attorney, keeps asking if the doctor has called yet when he does, he tells Chris not to tell him anything and to get him off the phone. Both Ken and Chris are frantic, unsure what happened or what to do to protect Charlie.

In the meantime, the other guests keep arriving. Claire (Ana Kormos) and Lenny (Jim Hewlett) are in a state because someone just ran into their prized new BMW.

Ernie (Brad Haney) and Cookie (Laure Olson) are upset that there is no food available, so Cookie, who is a TV chef (and who wears the most amazing costume you’re likely to see) takes it upon herself to prepare something to eat.

The final couple are Glenn (Manny Lanzaro) and Cassie (Michelle Novello), who arrive feuding and who squabble throughout the play.

Each person has a secret he or she is hiding, which may involve themselves or a rumor they have heard about one of the other guests, and as the lies involved in keeping the others from learning their secret mount, so does the craziness.

All comes to a head when a police officer (Rodney Orosco) comes to investigate and is treated to a highly implausible but entertaining story by Lenny that brings the whole show to an end. Almost. The final minute is a surprise for all.

Excellent in this production are Kormer as Claire, who has a real natural presence on stage; Pittman as Philip, trying to find some normalcy in a situation that is anything but normal; and Novello as Cassie, who doesn’t really have much to do but be beautiful and angry, but does it very well.

The attractive set is designed by Gary Schroeder, Jesse Akers and Sally Alexander and yes, it has all those requisite doors.

The sound, however, is a shrill negative, as there is a telephone, a doorbell and a pager, and the sound crew never could seem to get which ring was which. Each ring was repeated endlessly and was very irritating, as everyone stood around talking about something ringing, but not doing anything about it. (And at some point, someone threatens to wrap the cord of the cordless phone around someone’s neck, which made no sense at all.)

Despite Simon’s stellar career, “Rumors” has moments when his writing is just sloppy. However, this production is still fun overall and the opening-night audience was very entertained by the zaniness on stage.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Tempest

Hope Luna as Miranda (also played by Monique Lonergan) and Matt K. Miller as Prospero |
perform in Sacramento Theatre Company’s “The Tempest.”
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo

 When you cast Sacramento Theatre Company favorites Michael RJ Campbell, Gary Martinez and especially Matt K. Miller in anything, you know you will have a hit on your hands.

Such is the situation with the current production of “The Tempest,” directed by Aaron Galligan-Stierle, his first as director. The production, however, showed no evidence of a newcomer.

Miller is wonderful as Prospero, former Duke of Milan, deposed by his brother Antonio (Ian Hopps) and left to die on a raft with daughter Miranda (Monique Ward Lonergan in the production I saw. She shares the role with Hope Luna). All he is given is a box of books from which he has studied magic. The raft lands on an island, where he and his daughter have been for 12 years.

Prospero has cast spells over the island’s inhabitants. The spirit Ariel (Emily Serdahl), previously imprisoned by the late witch Sycorax, becomes Prospero’s slave. Serdahl is lithe and fragile-looking, playing a guitar to indicate when she is casting a spell.

Caliban (Atim Udoffia), a monster half-human-half-fish, is also enslaved by Prospero and becomes his muscle man. He is a bitter slave whom Prospero describes as “got by the devil himself.”
(It is an interesting casting choice, with Miller the very-white Prospero and Udoffia the very-black Caliban, which may upset some.)

In the midst of a tremendous storm, a ship is wrecked on the shore of the island. The scene features great effects by scenic designer Eric Broadwater and lighting designer Jessica Bertine, though it’s interesting that all the shipwrecked passengers arrive in clothes, designed by Jessica Minnihan, which are neither wet nor torn. Maybe some of Prospero’s magic?

The storm is a marvel, with tremendous wind blowing stage-height panels, strobe lights making convincing lightning and the music accentuating the sound of the wind, all while the actors do their best to portray being shipwrecked.

By fortuitous circumstances, the passengers on the ship include Antonio, Alonso, the King of Naples (Gregg Koski), his son Ferdinand (Sam C. Jones), brother Sebastian (Kevin Gish), and his adviser Gonzalo (Gary S. Martinez). There are also the king’s jesters, Michael RJ Campbell and Jake Mahler, who provide comic relief throughout the play.

This gives Prospero a chance to use his magic and cunning wiles to get his revenge on his brother. Miller’s Prospero, above all else a loving father working to make a match for his daughter with Ferdinand, comes across as less a vengeful king, but more a brother getting back at brother.

As for Miranda, she has lived on the island her whole life and her father is the only male figure she has seen, so this handsome young man sets her pubescent genes pulsing instantly.

Though the inhabitants of the island now are actually in three different places, there is little to indicate that in the set design, and it was sometimes confusing to figure out where exactly the current scene was taking place.

All’s well that ends well, however, and Prospero regains his status as king, the brothers patch things up, Miranda and Ferdinand live happily ever after, Arial and Caliban get their freedom, and Prospero gives a moving epilogue to the audience asking them to forgive him for his wrongdoing.


Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Concussed: Four Days in the Dark


I love Jack Gallagher.

No, wait a minute. I like Jack Gallagher very much. I learned that he is very selective about the people whom he claims to love, saving that term for those in his most intimate circle. Still, I can’t help but think that I really do love Jack Gallagher.

The comedian is opening his seventh one-man show and sixth for the B Street Theatre, his last being 2015’s popular “5 Songs,” a show about which he talks in this current production, “Concussed: Four Days in the Dark,” directed by Jerry Montoya.

Anybody who likes to bike (and who in Davis does not?) will relate to this story, which talks about Gallagher’s biking habits. In fact, the stage is set with huge interacting gears and a bike and the paraphernalia related to his love of biking.

It was, in fact, his love of biking that changed his life, and that ultimately brought about this show. Three years ago, while riding his bike home, he was hit by a car and three days later was diagnosed as having a traumatic brain injury.

The doctor ordered him to bed immediately. He was to stay in a darkened room with no stimuli whatsoever. No TV, no iPad, no radio, no internet, no nothing. He needed to give his brain a chance to heal.

This play, which is both touching and very funny, is like a free association of all the things you think of when you are trying not to think. His biggest fear was that he had lost the ability to find words.
Words are his life, and knowing how to find them, manipulate them, and the ability to cut and paste in his mind while doing a show to match the response of the audience was something he had done all of his professional career. What if he couldn’t do it anymore?

He was 61 when the accident happened, so he talked a lot about getting older, and the predominantly gray-haired audience laughed and nodded in agreement as he recounted, for example, how one gets out of bed when one reaches a certain age.

He talked of parenting his two sons, Declan and Liam, and what he wished he had done differently as a father. In fact, as he began to recover he took trips across the country with each of the boys, the northern route with Liam and the southern route with Declan, just being a couple of guys enjoying being together.

The experience of having a concussion, he believes, was transformative, and he says he’s become a better person as a result. He has learned the importance of being in the moment, not always living for the future. He learned the importance of speaking your love to those for whom you really love, and he even learned a little humility, now that he needs a few notes on stage during his 90-minute shows, something he was proud of not needing before.

(He admits that he can’t remember much about “5 Songs,” though one would not have known there was anything wrong, watching that show at the time.)

Gallagher is a remarkable comedian in that he knows how to work an audience, especially one like B Street, where the audience sits on three sides of the stage. At no point did anyone feel that they were just watching the back of his head. He had a way of unobtrusively involving everyone without being overly obvious about it. It was as if we were guests in his living room and he wanted to include all of us in his conversation.

He also made you feel like he was baring his soul just for you, while telling you that he is a very private person who bares his soul only to his most trusted friends and family.

Most in the audience were middle-aged or older but I think Gallagher’s humor would appeal to just about anyone. Well, maybe not to the two 20-somethings sitting next to me, one of whom slept through the whole show while the other thumbed through the program for 90 minutes. They missed something very special.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

How to Succeed in Business

One undeniable thing about the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s new production of the 1950s-era musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is that, at nearly three hours, it is definitely long.

It is also important to remember, in the 21st century, this is a somewhat historical look at what life was like in the 1950s business world, where nobody thought anything about sexual harassment and women only worked so they could find a husband and settle down in the suburbs to raise a family and “keep dinner warm” for their hard-working husband, trying to rise to the top.

With that in mind, enjoy numbers like “Coffee Break” — what happens when everybody takes their break and there is no coffee. This is one of the better numbers in the show, and is a wonderful example of Ron Cisneros’ always-fun choreography.

There are outstanding performances in this production, directed by Steve Isaacson. Daniel Silva is wonderful as J. Pierrepont Finch, the window washer who decides to climb the corporate ladder with assistance from a 1952 self-help book by Shepard Mead. (David Holmes is the off-stage voice of Mead as he reads aloud what Finch is reading.)

Scott Minor is the perfect president of the World Wide Wickets Company, J.B. Biggley, whose overpowering presence takes charge so that you don’t even realize what a fabulous voice he has until he joins with femme fatale Hedy LaRue (Sarah Kraemer) in a beautiful duet, “Love From a Heart of Gold.”

Kraemer is a Kewpie Doll kind of escort and could easily play Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.” Her job is to be the dumb mistress trying to find a place in Biggley’s corporation, and she does it well.
Chris Colbourn is the detestable Bud Frump, Biggley’s wife’s nephew, the worst case of nepotism. But Colbourn has made this role unique and you can’t take your eyes off of him when he tosses off one of his quips. It is a very memorable portrayal.

This is also an excellent vehicle for DMTC veteran Danette Vasser as Smitty, best friend of Rosemary (Jori Gonzales), Finch’s love interest. Vasser is also credited for lighting design and her pin spots for the angelic-faced Finch throughout the show are much fun.

As for Gonzales, she makes a lovely girlfriend for Finch, but her delivery often did not reach beyond the first two rows and it was difficult to hear a lot of dialog.

This is a surprisingly heavy dialog show, for a musical. Act 1 seems to drag a bit because of the length of time between the musical numbers, filled with dialog that may or may not be audible to the audience.
In the minor role of Miss Jones, secretary to Mr. Biggley, Chris Cay Stewart is the perfect stereotypical corporate secretary until she cuts loose during “Brotherhood of Man.”

“Brotherhood of Man” may be the best known of this musical’s numbers, written by Frank Loesser. It is the penultimate number in the show and will send the audience out with solid ear worms.

Veteran Mary Young, who sings in the chorus, is invaluable, lending her voice just a bit louder on those rare occasions when the women don’t quite hit the notes right. Like a herding dog, she gets them all back in order almost immediately, and then fades back into the chorus. It’s a marvelous bit of teamwork.

DMTC has a fun production here and it should bring lots of laughs for the audience.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Diary of Anne Frank


It is ironic that the Woodland Opera House is presenting “The Diary of Anne Frank” at a time when our government is rounding up illegal immigrants and putting them in detention centers and there is such controversy over refugees seeking asylum in this country.

Frank’s family tried to escape the Nazis by coming to the United States, but that opportunity was blocked by the government, fearful of allowing Nazi spies into the country,

We know, of course, that Anne died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Her dream had been to become a famous writer, and her diary has been translated into more than 60 languages and is perhaps one of the most famous books in the world.

The current production, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, newly adapted by Wendy Kesselman and directed by Dean Shellenberger, is a beautiful tribute to Anne Frank and to her family and their years hiding from the Nazis in the secret annex above Otto Frank’s office.

Rachel Trauner (Anne) has been part of the Opera House’s “Broadway Bound” program for several years, though she has appeared in only two musicals before, says her mother, who sat in front of us for this show.

Taking on such a huge role must have been daunting, but she brought Anne to life beautifully, the spirited 13-year-old who grows into a thoughtful teenager during her two years of concealment. She is mischievous, serious and thoughtful, and the real spark — and sometimes bane —of the family.
Set designer Don Zastoupil has created the claustrophobic world where eight desperate Jews hid for two years, keeping silent during the day and daring to “live” at night. Watching the eight practically climb over each other, with never any “alone time,” one gets a sense of what it must have been like as the group dealt with hope and fear at the same time, sometimes allowing themselves to laugh, often grieving the life they left behind.

Jessica Hanselman plays Miep Gies, an employee of Otto Frank, who was one of the handful of citizens whose assistance was vital to keeping the group alive. Hanselman gives Gies a gentle, sensitive portrayal though occasionally her projection lacked oomph.

Colin Coate plays Mr. Kraier, who assists Gies in bringing food and news to the extended family.
Otto Frank is played by Steve Mackay, the guiding hand and often calming influence on the others. Otto was the only survivor of the group, and the one responsible for bringing Anne’s diary, saved by Gies after their ultimate capture, to the world.

Analise Langford-Clark is his wife, normally another steadying influence but occasionally the pressure gets to her, too.

Gil and Lenore Sebastian play Mr. and Mrs. VanDaan, trying to hang on to their upper-crust lifestyle, while Mr. VanDaan deals with insatiable hunger and Mrs. VanDaan can’t bear to give up her fur coat, the last remnant of her former life, even if it means more food.

As Anne’s sister, Margot, Sammy Caiola is the epitome of a nerdy teenager who is slowly disappearing into her self as the conditions of their self-imposed incarceration become more overwhelming.

Mr. Dussel (Paul Fern) is a late addition to the group, a grumpy dentist who is the most troublesome, as he complains about everything and causes more conflict than perhaps anyone else, with the possible exception of Mr. VanDaan.

Hayden Taillon has the small role of Peter VanDaan, whose role in Anne’s diary was much larger, but Taillon plays the young man as a friend of Anne and a referee of his parents’ many quarrels.

Through Anne’s diary, this band of people have come to represent the millions who either survived or died during the Holocaust. In spite of it all, Anne never lost her optimism and perhaps her famous quote — “… in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” — is something we desperately need to keep in mind these days.


Friday, February 03, 2017

Kinky Boots


What do you get when you mix singer/songwriter Cyndi Lauper with actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein? You get glitz and glam and a fabulous production, with a pair of shoes at the center of it.

The long-awaited “Kinky Boots” is now causing toes to tap at the Community Center Theater in Sacramento. It is a non-stop singing, dancing extravaganza with more sequins than may have graced the Community Center stage in years. The colors! The lights! The music! All pour out over the audience, which caught them with whoops and cheers.

The story (yes, there is one) is actually based on the true story of a five-generation family factory (W.J. Brooks) in Northampton, England. The whole town made shoes, but because of cheap imports that flooded the market in the 1980s and ’90s, many companies were going out of business and Brooks was forced to cut his staff by more than half.

Just as all seemed bleak, the current head of the factory received a call that would change his life. A fetish store in Folkstone commissioned him to create ladies’ shoes for men. Soon, Divine Footwear was born, a subsidiary of W.J. Brooks dedicated to making “kinky boots.” By 1999, the specialty shoes made up 50 percent of the company’s revenue.

(A sad P.S. to the story was that an American company dumped a big debt on Divine Footwear and they were forced to stop production.)

But proving that there is a silver lining to dark clouds, out of that story came an indie movie (non-musical) and now this amazing musical production showcasing the music of Lauper, her first-ever Broadway show, which won her a Tony for Best Musical and Best Original Score, as well as countless other awards.

“Kinky Boots,” however, is more than just the story of rescuing a factory and creating fabulous shoes. It’s about a guy who thought outside the box and took a chance on doing things a little differently. It’s about how unlikely people overcame their differences.

It’s about how two men come together and end up healing each other and accepting each other. And in the end they end up accepting themselves too.

Curt Hansen is Charlie Price, who really isn’t into shoes and who wants to break with tradition and go to London with his social-climbing girlfriend Nicola (Katerina Papacostas). But life changes for him when his father (Tom Souhrada) dies suddenly and Charlie must decide what to do with the factory, and its employees, who have been his lifelong friends.

J. Harrison-Ghee, as Lola, is a force of nature as he bursts though a shimmering curtain and joins the rest of the dancers at a seedy London club where he first meets Charlie. He inhabits the drag-queen role with every ounce of energy he has, and an assortment of gorgeous wigs and costumes. Seeing him on stage is worth the price of admission alone.

In the Fierstein-Lauper version of the story, both men are victims of failed parental expectations, which brings them a bond of understanding, beautifully highlighted in one of the show’s most moving songs, “Not My Father’s Son.”

Each man has his own signature song that comes from the depth of his pain. For Charlie it is “Soul of a Man” berating himself for not being as passionate as his father, and for Lola it is “Hold Me In Your Heart” an accept-me-for-who-I-am statement in the manner of “I Am Who I Am” from “La Cage aux Folles.”

Surrounding these two men are a host of talented actors, including Aaron Walpole as Don, the factory worker who, after a rocky start, learns to accept Lola for who she is.

Rose Hemingway plays Lauren, the girl who has a secret crush on Charlie and who is his biggest supporter when things go wrong. Her “The History of Wrong Guys” was gut-wrenching, and perhaps more lyrical than any other song in the show.

All’s well that ends well and Lola’s “angels,” a sextet of drag queens, save the day in the rousing finale, “Raise You Up”/”Just Be.”

After all, there’s no business like shoe business.