Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bars and Measures

“Bars and Measures,” by Idris Goodwin, is a new play commissioned by B Street’s producing artistic director Buck Busfield after seeing Goodwin’s award winning “How We Got On,” a coming of age story of teenagers finding identity in the suburbs using hip hop duels in parking lots.

Busfield envisioned a musical play, based on true events, which would focus not on hip hop, but on jazz and the dueling of two brothers, one a classical pianist and one a jazz bass player.    The idea was sparked by a 2007 article Busfield read about the brothers in the New York Times. “It caught my attention because so rarely is real life more interesting than art,” Busfield said.

Bilal (Jahi Kearse), a passionate jazz musician recently converted to Islam, is serving time in prison on charges of conspiring with terrorists.  Brother Eric (Darian Dauchan) is a Christian and a budding classical pianist.

The love these brothers feel for each other is communicated through their common language, music, on Eric’s regular visits to the prison.  Eric wants Bilal to teach him the meaning of swing and break him out of the rigidity of his training. Their scat duets are some of the high points in this play, as Eric learns the rhythms, but Bilal is trying to get him to embody the feelings in his soul.  Their sessions are what is helping Bilal retain his sanity, while stuck in solitary confinement.  He is writing his story in jazz and he hopes Eric will be able to pass it along to the world.

Noah Agruss is the composer and musical director for this play and his work is crucial to the power and the fluidity of the story.

At the same time that Eric is working musically with Bilal, he is also working to get him freed on all charges, as Bilal declares his innocence and feels that the charge was an example of anti-Islamic profiling.

As the play progresses and the brothers come closer to the date of Bilal’s trial, the breakdown of Bilal becomes more visible, his nerves more in evidence and his body broken by anti-Islamic attacks, mental and physical, within the prison.

It becomes, then, much more than just a play about music, but a play that embodies family, race, religion, politics, and justice. 

The supporting cast includes Jazmine Ramay and Jimmy Sidhu, both of whom play several minor characters.  Both are particularly good in the trial scene.

But it is the powerful performances of Dauchan and Kearse, under the direction of Jenny Koons, which elevate this musical play from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Scenic designer Samantha Reno has created a simple geometric set which, aided by the spectacular lighting design of Stephen Jones lends stark realism to each of the scenes.

The audience gave the opening night performance an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Following its run in Sacramento, “Bars and Measures” will continue on with a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere at Boston Court Theater in Pasadena, Prop Theater in Chicago and Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. I predict that it will have a long life.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hair


Cast members of “Hair,” produced by Music Circus at the
Wells Fargo Pavilion through Sunday, perform one of their
memorable, lively numbers. Charr Crail/Courtesy photo
The moon must have been in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars because peace was guiding the planets and there was a whole theater full of very happy old hippies for the opening of the Music Circus’ final show of its 63rd season, “Hair.”

They came in tie dye shirts and dresses, in love beads, in headbands with flowers in them, and all over the theater these grey and balding folks were flashing peace signs at each other and grinning in anticipation for the start of this 1967 Tony-award-winning “Tribal Love Rock Musical,” with book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, directed by Glenn Casale.

They were not disappointed. With 38 songs (most quite short), many of which have become part of rock music history, there was lots to enjoy. Songs like “Aquarius,” “Donna,” “Hair,” “Good Morning Starshine,” and “Let the Sun Shine In” should bring back memories for just about everyone in the audience.

The mood was set before the first person walked on stage, with beautiful multi- colored and shaped lanterns hanging all over the stage, creating a magical environment from the moment one entered the theater. Cell phone cameras were raised all over the place before the lights went down. In addition to the lanterns, cloth banners were hung in the back above each section of the house, onto which special effects would be projected throughout the evening. Scott Klier (scenic design) and David Neville (lighting design) worked in harmony beautiful to create a total experience for the audience.

While this show, described as a “ground-breaking musical that defined a generation and introduced rock ‘n’ roll to Broadway,” is more about music than plot, at its core it’s the story of a community struggling to find its voice, to question authority, and to change the world to fit what they feel would make things better.

One would think that with a topical show written in 1967 and centered on the Vietnam War that it might be a bit stale by today’s standards, but with the protests about ending the war and reducing toxic pollution and other issues (though I suspect the “save water, folks” sign may have been new!), the struggle seemed as fresh as if it had been written today.

This is an ensemble show more than a star vehicle, but if there is any plot, it is the struggle of Claude, the nominal leader of the tribe, who has received his draft notice. Does he go off to war, or does he burn his draft card? Oliver Thornton gives an unforgettable performance as first the devil-may-care guy who wants to be from Manchester, England, to the mellow, free-loving guy smoking pot and having acid trips, to the young man agonizing about what to do about the draft. He does it all brilliantly.

Peter Saide as Berger establishes rapport with the audience the minute he drops his pants (asking someone in the audience to help him get his leg out) and shows his fringe loincloth. He’s the guy who wants to enjoy all of his tactile and sexual pleasures without paying a price.

Others who deliver impressive performances are, Stephanie Mieko Cohen as the pregnant Jeanie, Laura D’Andre as Sheila, in love with Berger, who sings the emotional “Easy to be Hard,” Bryonha Marie Parham as the powerful Dionne, who takes the lead in “White Boys,” and James Michael Lambert as Woof, who carries the torch for Mick Jagger.

The 24-member tribe is exuberant and have such a joyful camaraderie with each other that it’s difficult not to get caught up in their enthusiasm. In fact, at the finale, several folks were picked out of the audience to come up on stage and dance with the cast.

And yes, for those who know the show and wonder if family-friendly Music Circus was going to include the brief nude scene that ends Act 1, yes they do, and it’s done very quickly and very tastefully — and the show is better for it.

Take a step back to the 1960s and see how relevant the problems of that era are to today, and how well those old songs hold up. The opening-night house was full so tickets may be going fast, but it’s well worth your time to check it out.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Three Days of Rain

Photo by Yarcenia Garcia
Siblings Walker (Eric Baldwin) and Nan (Beth Edwards) are the central figures in Richard Greenberg’s engrossing drama, “Three Days of Rain,” now at Big Idea Theater, directed by Shaleen Schmutzer-Smith. It is about what Walker and Nan believe about their family history, particularly the mind of their emotionally distant world famous architect father, and what they want to find out, based on the father’s enigmatic journal Walker has found, which gives tantalizing hints about their parents’ past.

When the father’s will gives his prized accomplishment, a famous home once featured in Life magazine, to Pip (Ryan Snyder), the son of his collaborator, it is a blow that none of the trio can understand.

Act 2 is set 35 years earlier, with the actors playing their parents and giving the audience answers to the some (but not all) of the questions posed in Act 1.

This is a strong trio of actors.  Baldwin gives and honest and gut wrenching performance as Walker, but it is as Ned, his reserved, stuttering father, where he really shines.

Edwards is a strong Nan, who loves her brother, but can’t quite trust him, since he has disappointed her so often.  As mother Lina, she is less like the described “Zelda Fitzgerald’s less stable sister” and it is difficult to see how she became the mentally needy, alcoholic mother described in Act 1.

Snyder is wonderful as the suave handsome TV idol Pip, and also deftly plays the emotionally unstable Theo, whose untimely death will affect everyone forever.

Though the second act seems rushed, trying to fit in too much too quickly, following the more solid first act, this is a compelling drama certain to satisfy.

Four Stars

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mary Poppins

With just "A Spoonful of Sugar" Mary Poppins (Jori Gonzales)
can make even an unpleasant task a treat for Jane (Marley Michel)
and Michael (D.J. Michel) Banks in the Woodland Opera House production
of "Mary Poppins."  Courtesy Photo
“Prac-ti-cally perfect” is what Mary Poppins might have called the Woodland Opera House production of the Disney and Cameron Mackintosh version of “Mary Poppins.”

The show starts with the wonderful set by Mark and Christine Deamer. Things come down from the top, up from the bottom and slide in from side to side, thanks to the efficient and unobtrusive set crew.

Costumes by Denise Miles are either subdued period costumes or over-the-top fantasy costumes in a rainbow of bright colors for numbers like “Supercalafragilisticexpealidocious.”

Director Angela Baltezore is also the show’s choreographer and the dances are such fun, in addition to the aforementioned “Supercalafragilisticexpealidocious” with its ridiculously complicated hand, foot and arm movements, to the chimney sweeps’ tap dance, “Step in Time” which brings down the house and gives a much deserved and earned encore.

And then there is the cast. Jori Gonzales is more than practically perfect as Mary Poppins. From the moment she floats into the Banks household we take her into our hearts and believe in her magic.

F. James Raasch, in his first Woodland Opera House production, is the consummate Bert, the chimney sweep who has a special relationship we never quite understand with Mary. The man sings beautifully, dances wonderfully and is a magnetic force on stage. (My only complaint is that for someone who works in soot and ashes, his costume is entirely too pristine.)

Jeremy and Tamalisa Carlson make it a real family affair as George and Winifred Banks (their real-life children Kathryn and Brenden are members of the ensemble as Fannie and Danny). Jeremy, as George makes the transition from staid, stuffy banker to caring, carefree father beautifully, while Tamalisa holds the family together with her love for her husband and her children, though in “Being Mrs. Banks” lets us know the price she pays trying to balance her duties as a society wife and loving mother.

Real-life brother and sister Marley and D.J. Michel play the Banks children, Jane and Michael. (8-year-old D.J. was just nominated for an Elly award for his performance as Charlie in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). These kids are amazing, considering that they are in nearly every scene and act, sing and dance beautifully.

Longtime area favorite, Lenore Sebastian is a veritable gorgon as Miss Andrew, George Banks’ old nanny (“the old horror”). Almost unrecognizable behind the fabulous makeup, there’s no mistaking that forceful voice as she belts out “Brimstone and Treacle.” Even members of the audience may shrink in fear.

Likewise, seven-time Chesley Award winner Nancy Agee delivers on my personal favorite, “Feed the Birds.” as the street woman, sitting on the courthouse steps selling her bags of bird seed for “Tuppence a bag.”

Particular mention goes to J. Hunter LaMar as Neleus, the statue that comes to life. He holds his pose for a very long time and then gives full rein to his dance, both solo and with the other Hyde Park statues. My only comment on this character is — can someone please do something about that unsightly material bunching in an inconvenient place as Neleus stands facing away from the audience?

There is an eight-piece orchestra, which plays beautifully, but in venues like the Opera House, with no orchestra pit, the music seems to always be competing with the voices on stage. In particular, when sitting closer to the orchestra (we were in row B), the music under the spoken dialog almost always drowned out what was being said. This kind of battle has been waged in community theater houses for decades and there is no real solution, but it deserves mentioning again.

I don’t know if “Mary Poppins” is the most ambitious production Woodland has ever presented, but if not, it certainly must be near the top. It’s a huge production, but done practically perfectly.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Elly Nominations

Kevin Caravalho, as the curmudgeonly green ogre Shrek,
and David Ewey, as the overly enthusiastic Donkey,
perform a scene from last September's DMTC
production of "Shrek, the Musical."
This role landed Carvalho an Elly Award
nomination for lead actor.
Courtesy photo
Local theaters are among more than 430 Elly nominees for the 2014-15 season, which were announced at an informal nomination reception Sunday.

During the 2014-15 season, 240 shows were submitted by 76 theaters. Davis Musical Theatre Company and The Woodland Opera House led the field of local nominees with eight nominations each. Art Theater of Davis received its first-ever nominations — three.

Davis Musical Theatre
Company’s performing nominations went to Kevin Caravalho, lead actor, “Shrek, The Musical”; Jessica Mckillican, lead actress, “Shrek, The Musical”; Joel Porter, supporting actor, “Anything Goes”; Mike Mechanick, supporting actor, “Anything Goes”; Ana Chan, lead actress, “Peter Pan”; and Arieh Simon, supporting actor, “The Velveteen Rabbit.”

DMTC technical nominations went to Kaylin Scott for choreography for “Anything Goes” and LeAnne Carlisle for costume design for “The Velveteen Rabbit.”

For WOH, acting nominations went to Rodger McDonald, supporting actor in a comedy, “A Flea in Her Ear”; Erik Catalan, lead actor in a young people’s play, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”; D.J. Michel, youth lead actor for the same play; and Frances Thayer, youth supporting actress.

Woodland also picked up technical nominations: Darcie Neill for lighting design for “The Miracle Worker”; Denise Miles for costume design, “Hello, Dolly”; Mark and Christine Deamer for set design, “Disney’s My Son Pinocchio”; and John Bowles for sound design, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

DMTC lead-actor nominee Caravalho, who won the Elly in 2009 for “Seussical the Musical,” had not done theater in a long time “because we had more babies.” But in looking for something for his 3-year-old to watch on TV, he came across “Shrek, the Musical.” It became her favorite show.

He started getting the itch for theater again. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if Daddy could be Shrek?” He checked the DMTC website and found out that the company was planning to do “Shrek” next, so he auditioned and got the role.

“To this day, every time my daughter sees anything with Shrek, she says ‘Daddy.’ My performance came from the heart. I did it for my kids. I am forever enshrined in the ‘cool camp’ because of it,” he said, laughing.

The Elly nomination, though, does take a back seat to another event in his life — three weeks ago he became the father of twins, bringing the family’s number of children to six.

A newcomer to Elly nominations was the Art Theater of Davis, which garnered a supporting actress nomination for Joanna Johnson in “Hay Fever” and two nominations for group founder Timothy Nutter in “Hay Fever,” for costume design and set design.

Nutter was delighted to hear the news, as he had not attended the ceremony. Art Theater of Davis recently lost its theater, but, undaunted, is rehearsing for “Uncle Vanya” to be presented in the Veterans’ Memorial Theater starting Sept. 24. He hopes that YoloArts will be able to take the fledgling group under its wings.

It was also Johnson’s first nomination. Her casting in “Hay Fever’ was almost an accident, but she had lost a role in a musical she hoped to do and was free, so auditioned and was cast as the housekeeper, Clara.

“I loved the show,” she said. “It was a dream to work on. So much fun.”

Anita Ahuja and Dona Akers were both nominated in the supporting actress category for the Winters Theatre Company’s “Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” Winters has been nominated a couple of times in the past, manager Howard Hupe said, but not in many years.

“We used to actively participate, but don’t do that any more,” he said.

Ahuja, nominated for her acting, her first Elly nomination, also directed the show.

“That was not the original plan,” she said, but her original actress had a family emergency and had to drop out three weeks before the show opened. Ahuja stepped into the role, which was more like art imitating life, since her role was that of a wife having to direct a Christmas pageant because the original director broke her leg.

“In my personal life I have directed pageants at my church, so to do it on stage was such a hilarious experience,” she said. “I loved the show. I adore working with children and we had close to 20 children working.”

Named for the late Eleanor McClatchy, a devoted patron of the arts and former publisher of the Sacramento Bee, the Elly Awards celebrate excellence and the outstanding achievements of community theaters and artists in the greater Sacramento area.

Created 33 years ago by local community actors, the Elly Awards have grown from a local Sacramento tradition to now include theaters within a 70-mile radius.

In honor of the 33rd annual Elly Awards, Sacramento Area Regional Theatre Alliance will host two ceremonies this September. The Youth Elly Award ceremony will begin at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13, at Cosumnes Oaks High School Performing Arts Center in Elk Grove. The Adult Elly Award ceremony will follow at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 27, at the Elks Lodge No. 6 in Sacramento (Pocket).

For more information, visit www.sarta.com or call 916-443-8229. SARTA is a nonprofit theater arts service organization.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Best Brothers

Will Springhorn Jr., left, and Christian Martin star
in the B Street Theatre's production of "Best Brothers."
Courtesy photo
The lobby of the B Street Theatre was filled with dogs from Sutter Medical Center’s pet therapy program on opening night of “The Best Brothers,” a play by Daniel MacIvor, directed by Buck Busfield. The promotional material for the play promised that we would leave the theater wanting to get a dog. Sadly, the lobby dogs were the best part of the evening.

Billed as a “bittersweet comedy,” this play is more bitter than sweet, and comedic only sporadically. It tells the story of two brothers, Kyle Best (Will Springhorn Jr.) and Hamilton Best (Christian Martin) — both actors are making their B Street debut — brought together by the sudden death of their mother, Bunny, at a gay pride event involving a drag queen named PiƱa Colada.

As the estranged brothers meet to plan her funeral, they can’t agree on anything, from the writing of the obituary (should they call her “loving” or “beloved”?), to the date of the viewing (one day? two days? Should there be food?), who will give the eulogy (which ends up a physical struggle in front of the mourners), to what is going to happen to the third “son,” Enzo, the Italian greyhound Bunny adopted, who was her whole life.

It appears that this is a classic tale of “mom always liked you best,” as both men felt the other was her favorite for one reason or another, and Hamilton blames Kyle for their mother’s death. If Kyle weren’t gay, she wouldn’t have been at a gay pride event in the first place.

From time to time, each brother dons one of their mom’s hats and gloves and gives a soliloquy as Mother, which gives us insights into her life, and especially into the men in her life. The actors also briefly each play the invisible dog.

As they come together to go through the contents of her house, more is uncovered about the brothers and secrets are revealed about the relationship of each brother with their mother.

Perhaps the reason this play seemed so wooden was because it appeared that the actors were stumbling over their lines in part. Perhaps as the play progresses, things will smooth out.

The set by Shawn Weinshank was utilitarian, some chrome-framed chairs that moved around a lot. Costumes by Paulette Sand-Gilbert nicely gave a clue to the character of the two brothers, from Hamilton’s clean-cut suits to Kyle’s loud pastel plaid shirt with pink tie.

In the end, the best that can be said about this play is that it is only one act, and so is over in 90 minutes.

And I did not leave wanting to add another dog to our family.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

West Side Story

The Jets perform one of their many exuberant dance numbers for “West Side Story,”
produced by Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion through Sunday, Aug. 9.
Charr Crail/Courtesy photo

 There was a lot of testosterone bouncing off of the Music Circus stage during the opening number as “West Side Story,” directed by Bob Richard opened this week.

The Tony Award-winning musical — with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — may be one of the most energetic musicals around these days. With choreography by Diane Laurenson, based partly on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, this taxes the dancers to the limit, and the Music Circus cast is equal to the task.

The men flew through the air over and over and over again, climbed structures, rolled on the ground, popped back up and then flew through the air again. The ladies stomped, kicked their heels in the air and got spun around by the guys.

Without even thinking about acting or singing, the show is a hit on dancing alone.

This is, of course, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story, modernized and set on the streets of New York. It revolves around the running feud between the Sharks (immigrant Puerto Ricans) and the Jets (native New Yorkers). Some of the material (particularly the barely censored language, such as “Gee, Officer Krupke — krup you”) seems a bit dated, but the hatred between gangs is, sadly, even more relevant today.

There is a wonderful cast. Justin Matthew Sargent is a handsome Tony, with a powerful voice that has a smoothness of butter as he croons songs like “Maria” and “Something’s Coming.” Tony is determined to quit the Jets and find a normal job, and the fact that he has fallen instantly in love with a beautiful Puerto Rican girl strengthens that resolve.

Maria is played by Carolann M. Sanita. She has a glorious voice, and beautifully portrays the innocent excitement of a young girl falling in love for the first time. It is never more evident than in her giddy “I Feel Pretty,” as she prepares for her date with Tony, followed by the anguish of a young woman who feels her life crashing in around her.

German Alexander was the last Bernardo that Arthur Laurents cast, and so originated the role on the first national revival tour. He has a bravado and a swagger that work for his character and he is definitely the guy in charge.

Desiree Davar is a fiery Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Her duet with Maria (“A Boy Like That”) was outstanding, as she struggles to balance her grief at Bernardo’s death, her anger at Maria for being in love with his killer, and her love for Maria, understanding the depth of the girl’s feelings for Tony.

Naomi Morgan is Rosalia, living in America, but still longing for her native Puerto Rico. Her duet with Anita (“America”) and the spirited dance of the women singing about the joys of living in their new country, compared with the problems of the country they left behind, was outstanding.

Shane Rhoades, reprising his 2005 role, is Tony’s best friend, Riff. Riff is the leader of the Jets and is passionate about wiping out the “P.R.s,” as they call the Puerto Ricans, always itching for a fight with a hair-trigger temper.

Rich Hebert is Lt. Schrank, with a deep hatred of the Puerto Ricans. And though he doesn’t much like the Jets either, he’s willing to give them a pass as long as they don’t kill anybody. He’s backed by David Pierini (familiar to B Street Theatre audiences) as Officer Krupke.

Gary Lee Reed is Doc, the owner of the drug store that’s the Jets’ hangout. His anguish and anger following the deaths resulting from the “rumble” came from the depth of his soul.

Maria Briggs is “Anybody’s,” a diminutive tomboy who desperately wants to be a Jet and to prove she’s every bit as good as any of the guys. Her rumpled clothes and unkempt blond hair are in stark contrast to just about everyone else in the cast.

Scenic designers Scott Klier and Jamie Kumpf do a wonderful job creating the back streets of New York on a set in the round, with stairs that go up into the lights and set pieces that drop down from the ceiling to create other indoor scenes. The scene under the freeway — aided by lighting by David Neville and sound by Joe Caruso Jr. and Robert Sereno — is particularly effective.

“West Side Story” is classic American theater, and this Music Circus production does not fail to delight. Opening night seemed to have a full house, so tickets may be difficult to get, but it’s definitely worth your while to try.