Friday, January 13, 2017

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change

From left, David Crane, Melinda Parrett, Jennifer Morrison and Jake Mahler star
in Sacramento Theatre Company's "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.”
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo

 “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts, is now on Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock Stage, directed by Jerry Lee.

This is a show that ran for 5,000 performances off Broadway from 1996 through 2008 and has been a favorite of small theaters around the country ever since. It has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

It is a pleasant “boutique musical” — a term used by STC Education Director, Michele Hillen-Noufer — which is guaranteed to appeal to white, older, married empty-nesters. For other demographics, perhaps not quite so much.

The show, while dated, is a celebration of the mating game. Act 1 explores the journey from dating and waiting to love and marriage, while Act 2 reveals the agonies and triumphs of in-laws, newborns, trips in the family car and pickup techniques of the geriatric set.

The cast consists of two men and two women. Melinda Parrett, frequently seen at B Street Theatre, has performed with STC twice before, but it is a debut performance for Jake Mahler, David Crane and Jennifer Morrison (so poignant in Green Valley Theater’s recent “Last Five Years”), all of whom are wonderful additions to the STC family.

The four are accompanied by Samuel Clein (alternating with Chris Schlagel), conductor and keyboard, and Annie Coke on violin.

The actors rotate through the approximately 20 roles in the show, from angst of the first date …

Will my hopes be met? Will my fear dispel?
Will I captivate? Or will I repel?
Will I show him/her just how wonderful I am?
Or will I be a date from hell?

… through marriage and the problems of finding intimacy when there are children in the house, all the way through trying to find a mate after a messy divorce, using a dating service (Parrett is very funny trying to figure out the new technology) and finding another partner following the death of the first, though each still loves the departed spouse.

Girl: Arthur, there is something I have to tell you, when it comes, to you know, I’m not the type of person who jumps in bed like an acrobat, it takes time with me,
Guy: Uh oh.
Girl: That’s a problem?
Guy: Depends, how much time you talking, cause if you’re talking years I don’t think either of us has that long.
Girl: I was talking a few weeks maybe,
Guy: No matter, I can live with that.

The scene is a less funny and more poignant moment that will touch the heart of those of us “of a certain age” who have attended too many funerals lately.

The longevity of this show is proof of its popularity, and with a load of talent like Mahler, Parrett, Crane and Morrison, along with Jerry Lee (who was in the show when STC did it in 2012), it can’t help but be another hit for the company.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

42nd Street

Add cErnestine Balisi as Peggy Sawyer and Nathan Lacy as Julian Marsh
perform in the Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of “42nd Street.”
Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

 If you like tap dancing, you’re going to love Davis Musical Theatre Company’s sparkling new production of “42nd Street,” directed by John Ewing, with choreography by Terri Taylor.

This formulaic Depression-era story of a girl from the Midwest arriving in New York, determined to become a star, was first a Busby Berkeley movie vehicle for hoofer Ruby Keeler in 1933, with a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, lyrics by Al Dubin, and music by Harry Warren.

In 1980, David Merrick decided to bring the story to Broadway, under direction of Gower Champion. The stage version used only four of the songs from the original movie version and added songs from other musicals of the 1930s. The end result was nominated for several awards in 1981 and won a Tony for best revival in 2001.

The central figure of the story is Peggy Sawyer, played by Ernestine Balisi, with a sparkle in her eyes and a big Mary Tyler Moore smile. Peggy almost never loses her conviction that she can be a star and it’s hard to believe that nobody involved with casting can see that she’s a bundle of talent.

Wendy Carey is the aging diva, Dorothy Brock, who no longer has the talent she used to when she was the darling of Broadway. Though she has the belting ability of an Ethel Merman, they now have to get the chorus to dance around her to hide the fact that her steps are no longer up to par. Carey gives the role her all, and her final message of encouragement to Peggy is touching. (“Now go out there and be so swell that you’ll make me hate you!”)

Randal Costa and Monica Parisi play Bert and Maggie, the writers of the show, who step into the chorus when necessary. Parisi has the mannerism and voice of one of those old show-biz dames who have been around Broadway forever.

Kyle Jackson is Billy Lawler, the leading tenor with whom there is a hint of a romance with Peggy. Though the actor is 22 years old, he seems younger and the chemistry often appears forced. He has a fine voice, though had problems with his voice cracking on high notes on opening night, which contributed to the feeling that he is younger than the role called for.

Steve Isaacson had great fun as Abner Dillon, the Texas gazillionaire, sugar daddy to Dorothy. It’s the kind of role Isaacson loves to play and does so well.

But the standout performance was by Nathan Lacy, as Julian Marsh, the famous but acerbic director, who eventually sees the talent Peggy has and pushes her to the limits to step into the starring role after Dorothy has an accident. He gives her a pep talk when she gets nervous: “Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you. You’ve got to go on, and you’ve got to give and give and give.”

Surely that’s enough to calm her down! “You’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!”

When Lacy sings his signature song, “42nd Street,” it’s a show-stopping moment. The voice that was so memorable in the recent “Man of La Mancha” blew everyone away.

If there is anything negative to say about this Julian Marsh it is that his gray hair and the obvious age difference between him and Peggy make the one emotional moment between them a little creepy, where it would not have been with a more age-appropriate actor.

Perhaps the best part of this show is the nearly nonstop tap dancing. Choreographer Taylor has worked her chorus extremely well and there is nothing more thrilling than a stage full of tap dancers.

Someday, I hope DMTC finds its own sugar daddy so that when it does one of these better-than-average musicals, it can afford the sets to give it the look it deserves. The company does well with minimal sets, but oh for a bit of glitz and glam!

Monday, January 09, 2017

Pronoun

Dean (Meili Monk) lashes out at Josh (Ari Wilk) in the Acme Theatre Company
production of "Pronoun," on stage through this weekend.
Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

 He or she? Him or her?

We rarely think about pronouns as we speak to each other or about each other, but in “Pronouns” — the new play produced by Acme Theatre Company and directed by Emily Henderson — we are forced to think about the great meaning such simple words have.

This play, by Evan Placey, was commissioned as part of the 2014 National Theatre Connections Festival and premiered by youth theaters across the United Kingdom. It was written especially for young actors.

It tells the story of Dean (Meili Monk), a female-to-male transgendered teen in the middle of transition, trying to work through all the trials and tribulations, to say nothing of the hormonal effects of this change. While the issues that transgendered people, especially young people, encounter are many, this play focuses primarily on the interpersonal relations and how his transition affects not only Dean, but also his intimate circle of family and friends — his parents (Benton Harshaw, Sarah Thompson), his sister (A.J. Zaragoza-Smith), and his friends, especially Josh (Ari Wilk), his former boyfriend, who is still in love with the girl he dated for so long.

Dean’s idol is James Dean (Grey Turner), who appears in Dean’s fantasy life and gives him pointers on how to move and behave as a man.

While this is a serious work, comic relief is offered by Josh’s best friend Kyle (an exceptional performance by Ryan Johnson) and his girlfriend Amy (Cassidy Smith), who are planning the most ill-advised wedding you can imagine, arranged by Amy’s best friend Laura (McKella vanBoxtel).
There is also a comic touch added by the ensemble (Cory McCutcheon, Gracelyn Watkins and Megan Abbanat), who become school board members, doctors and any other group that Dean is likely to encounter.

Monk gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Dean. The actress’ hair is a bit of a difficulty in portraying the transgendered young man, but by the second act, we have become accustomed to it and she is more believable as a he. His impassioned speech to the school board on the subject of tolerance vs. acceptance is powerful and embodies the whole point of the play.

It is a little confusing trying to figure out why the playwright put a man in the role of Dean’s mother and a woman in the role of his father, but Harshaw and Thompson do well as the estranged couple, tolerant of their daughter’s transition but confused by using the male pronoun to refer to him. Their own transition, switching costumes on stage to revert to the proper genders, is one of the most impressive scenes in the play, thanks in great part to Wilk’s lighting design.

As I say in almost every Acme production, this company always has projection problems, even in a theater as small as the Pamela Trokanski Performing Arts Center, so some crucial dialog may be swallowed. If all of them projected as well as Johnson and McCutcheon do, it would be a much more successful production.

But projection issues aside, this is an important production discussing an issue that rarely gets such a sensitive and understanding treatment. It’s the kind of show that Acme does best.

There will be a talk-back after each performance, with director Henderson and a panel of four or five members of the cast, as they explain how they prepared for the show and answer questions from the audience.

(And as an aside, anyone confused by the growing label LGBTQAI, it stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, asexual and intersex, which should cover every possibility!)


Thursday, December 29, 2016

White Christmas


Comparisons are odious. But when there is a movie as beloved and iconic as “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” and it has been adapted for the stage by David Ives and Paul Blake, comparisons are inevitable. It’s obviously impossible to duplicate the familiar Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen combination.

Now at the Community Center Theater, this Broadway Sacramento production is flashy, colorful and a lot of fun. It’s also nowhere near on a par with the movie, so if you don’t expect that, you won’t be disappointed.

The story is familiar: The famous song-and-dance team of Wallace (Sean Montgomery in the Bing Crosby role), and Davis (Jeremy Benton) meet the aspiring sister act of Betty Haynes (Kerry Conte in the Rosemary Clooney role), and Judy Haynes (Kelly Sheehan), and head to a ski resort that turns out to be run by Wallace and Davis’ old World War II commanding general (Conrad John Shuck, a familiar face from countless Broadway and television roles), who has fallen on hard times and is looking at a bleak ski season, as Vermont is experiencing unseasonable warm temperatures.

The story turns into “find a barn and put on a show to save the general,” and it all ends predictably with beautiful snow on stage and in the audience.

However, there are plot differences from the movie, new characters and character twists, and additional Irving Berlin songs not found in the movie, such as the show-stopping tap number, “I Love a Piano” (which film buffs will recognize from “Easter Parade,” not “White Christmas”) and “Blue Skies,” to name but two.

One problem with the transition to the stage is that with the addition of songs, there is no time to develop characters or deepen relationships, so, for example, the “loathe him — love him” relationship between Betty and Bob requires a lot of suspension of disbelief.

My biggest disappointment, however, is that the finale of the movie, with Gen. Waverly being honored by his old platoon, packs a huge emotional wallop that cannot be achieved on stage without doubling the size of the cast. This production tries, and it kinda, sorta works, but it lacks a lot.

As for the performers, Montgomery is a pleasant Bob, but with a sharp edge to his voice that makes me long for a real crooner in the role. Benton, however, is a perfect Phil and pairs nicely with Sheehan as Judy, especially in the dance numbers.

Conte, whose bio says she has been playing Betty for 11 years, has certainly perfected the role by now. She’s a great chanteuse who gets a chance to display her vocal chops especially in the torch song “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”

The role of Martha Watson, the crusty but lovable dame who runs the general’s inn, is played by Lorna Luft. Martha was at one time known as “Motormouth Martha” in her old performing days. Luft belts out her songs and does credit to mama Judy Garland, especially with her “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”

The general’s granddaughter is played by twins Clancy and Samantha Penny. Clancy played opening night and was an audience favorite at the curtain call.

Making the most of a the tiny role of Ezekiel, the laconic stage hand, Frank Ridley was perfect.
The set design by Anna Louizos was spectacular with several very large set pieces to bring on or off throughout the show, though the pieces were so heavy it was impossible to keep the rumbling of the set change quiet during the filler scenes in front of the curtain.

Carrie Robbins’ costume designs were lush and wonderful, and worth the price of admission by themselves.

This is an enjoyable show that is a great break after all the busyness of the holidays.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Cinderella


Sacramento Theatre Company is bringing back its wildly popular “Cinderella” as a Christmas gift to audiences. Based on the British pantomime format, combining music, slapstick, cross-dressing and buffoonery, this version is written by Kate Hawley with music by local composer Gregg Coffin and direction by Michael Laun.

This particular production includes three students from Davis High School. In the title role is Emily O’Flaherty, who shares the role with Madeline Perez. Both are products of STC’s Young People’s program. O’Flaherty is lovely and everyone’s mental image of a Cinderella. Her transformation from scullery maid to princess is magical.

Another Davis High student is 10th-grader Jimin Moon, playing Knickers, best friend to Cinderella (with a big crush on her). Moon alternates in the role with Luke Crabbe.

Rounding out the DHS presence is James Hayakawa, a member of the show’s ensemble.

The cast is headed by the wonderful Michael RJ Campbell as the formidable stepmother Mrs. Baden-Rotten. In the days when STC also filled the roles of the evil stepsisters with cross-dressers,
Campbell was the whiny, pouty zaftig sister Goneril. He now fills his mother’s big shoes and is even more fearsome — the character you love to boo.

As Baden-Rotten’s daughters, Emily Serdahl as Goneril and Brandi Lacy as Regan are ugly, spiteful and utterly hilarious, especially the contortions they go through to try to convince the prince that theirs is the foot to fit that famous glass slipper.

Making his STC debut, Sam C. Jones is positively charming as the prince who would rather hunt than think about girls. He and O’Flaherty have a nice chemistry together, even if he can’t recognize her when she’s all dressed up at the ball.

His best friend is Brian Bohlender as Dandini, who enjoys a few hours wearing the princely crown so Charming can be just one of the guys.

Others in the cast are equally endearing, including Michael Coleman and Andrea St. Clair as the King and Queen, eager to find Charming a wife. St. Clair can be seen dusting the castle so well she forgets to take off her apron, and then is aghast that her guests might have seen her. Coleman is a laid-back king, with his crown sitting at a rakish angle on his head, more intent on letting Charming do his own thing.

Abigail Lambert (alternating with Jordan Taylor) was wonderful as the politically active anti-monarchy Little Bo Peep who wins the heart of Dandini. Her flock of sheep look more like Rockettes, as they sashay around the stage. They are a sight to behold, especially the black sheep, Leah Hassett.

Everyone’s favorite, though, may have been Jerald Bolden as the very-tall tap-dancing, picnic basket-stealing bear.

This show is certain to appeal to everyone. There is audience participation in the form of yelling out at certain times and waving hands in the air, and everyone loves the Prince’s search for the girl who will fit the glass slipper, as he goes through the audience trying it on several women and young girls.

With the opportunity to buy crowns in the lobby, everyone can feel part of the court, and after the show, the cast members line up for photos with people in the audience, particularly star-struck young children.

This is a fun way to share theater with children or grandchildren, with a show that has enough in-jokes and innuendo that adults enjoy it, too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Santaland Diaries

Crumpet would be the perfect elf for “Bad Santa.”
 
Crumpet is the name given to David Sedaris in his very funny “The Santaland Diaries,” now at Capital Stage, directed by Shannon Mahoney and starring Benjamin T. Ismail, who brings the proper blend of sardonic humor and outright sarcasm to the story.

Based on Sedaris’ experience working as an elf one Christmas at Macy’s Herald Square Santaland display, when he expected to be working on “One Life to Live” instead, Sedaris takes the audience through his interview process, “Elf Training” (using the very thick Elfin manual), and a tour of Santaland (“a real wonderland with ten thousand sparkling lights, false snow, train sets bridges, decorated trees, mechanical penguins and bears and really tall candy canes”).

He also learns about the “special areas” like the “Oh My God” corner, where parents can finally see Santa and realize how long it was going to take them to get to him, and the “Vomit Corner” where many kids throw up.

Next he is given his costume (designed by Mari Carson).

“My costume is green. I wear red-and-white striped tights, a yellow turtleneck, forest green velvet smock, and a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform,” he says wryly.
David realizes he’s not going to provide the bubbly enthusiasm of most other elves and that he probably will be a “low-key sort of elf.”

As Ismail progresses through this one-hour comedy, you appreciate his ability to make a special connection with the audience, his perfect comic timing and the agility that allows him to leap through the air with the grace of a ballet dancer.

Ismail may be better known as a director (most recently Capital Stage’s “August, Osage County”) but he also has an extensive acting résumé, everything from “Peter Pan” to “Tartuffe,” and is truly a jack of all trades.

This is not a show for children. Language and subject matter are inappropriate, to say nothing of revealing the whole Santa thing.

The show, written in 1992, was first read by Sedaris on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and nearly 25 years later parts of it seem as fresh as ever while, in these more politically correct days, description of disabled children and some minorities, while brief, will be offensive to some.

The set design by Justin D. Muñoz is indeed a real wonderland, which will cause gasps when revealed. It is complete with any toy a little one would want. (I watched Crumpet hugging a big floppy polar bear and wished for a cuddly Christmas bear myself!)

This is the third production of “The Santaland Diaries” I have seen in the past six years and I wondered how it would be on a third visit, but Ismail has made it as fresh and new was it was when I first saw it in 2009.

It’s a wonderful choice for anyone who wants to briefly get away from the militantly cheerful holiday shows to be found elsewhere.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A Christmas Story

There’s nothing better than a good story, beautifully written, except maybe that good story, beautifully written and perfectly narrated by the likes of the Woodland Opera House’s Rodger McDonald.

McDonald is the adult Ralph in Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story,” written with Leigh Brown and Bob Clark. It is a series of delightful Christmas vignettes from the life of Ralph Parker, looking back on the year when all he wanted was a “Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.”

The play itself was written by Philip Grecian and directed, in Woodland, by Steve Mackay. It is usually in everyone’s top five Christmas shows.

It takes us back to Hohman, Ind., in 1948, when life was simple, when kids didn’t have electronic gadgets to keep them occupied and actually played on the street (snow or no snow), when they still believed in Santa Claus, when Mom made meat loaf every night except for special occasions, and Dad was kind of inept, but loved his kids deeply. Ahh for the good old days!

Ralphie Parker (Jihan Moon) desperately wants his rifle and spends the entire play trying to give subtle and not-so-subtle hints that it’s the only thing he wants. Of course, everyone tells him he will shoot his eye out. Moon is great as that 10-year-old who lives in his own world, has his own gang of friends and a bully they finally manage to best.

(One of the most fun things about this play, I noticed this time and every time I have seen it, is how much fun the men in the audience have, obviously thinking back on their own childhoods and relating to Ralphie’s experiences.)

As Ralphie’s little brother Randy, Colton McClintock is cute as a button, with few lines to say, but says them repetitively. Randy spends most of his time hiding — in cupboards, behind clothes racks, etc. People just take it for granted that Randy is hiding somewhere and nobody thinks there is anything unusual about that.

Steve Cairns is “the Old Man,” Ralphie’s dad, who is nominally the head of the household, who never says anything profound and is a bumbling fixer of things, but obviously loves and is proud of his sons.

It really is Mother (Patricia Glass) who holds things together. She’s Beaver’s mother, Jim Anderson’s wife and Donna Reed all rolled into one. She runs the house quietly and efficiently, while all the time letting her husband think he’s in charge. She even supplies most of the answers to the quizzes the old man is forever entering, while letting him know how smart he is to have thought of the answer himself.

Ralphie’s friends are Flick (DJ Michel) and Schwartz (Brady Stephens) who act so natural you would think they didn’t realize they were on stage. Iris Harshaw made a big impact as Esther Jane Alberry, who has a crush on the embarrassed Ralphie.

Ryan Cristo has the unfortunate role of Scut Farkas, the town bully. Bigger than everyone, and not terribly bright, Scut lies in wait for Ralphie and his friends as they go to school. He finally gets his comeuppance at the hands of Esther Jane, cheered on by her friend Helen (Zoe Rosendale).

Nancy Farley plays the teacher Miss Shields who obviously can’t wait for Christmas vacation to start.

Set design is by Jason Hammond and is perfect for the Parker family home. The best effect of the evening is the “scene change” from inside the house to outside. It brought giggles every time.

The lighting design of John Bowles is key in this production and it is handled perfectly, along with the sound effects of barking dogs and other off-stage sounds.

But it is McDonald who holds it all together, his relaxed, homey style welcoming the audience into the story immediately, with the ease of Garrison Keillor taking us to Lake Wobegon.

This is a perfect family Christmas play and, based on how full the Opera House was on opening night, I suspect tickets will go quickly, so order yours as soon as possible.