Thursday, December 14, 2017

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

From left, Sarah Brazier, Brittni Barger
and Elyse Sharp perform in the
Capital Stage production of
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,”
on stage through Dec. 30.
Charr Crail/Courtesy photo
Attention, Jane Austen fans: Capital Stage has a wonderful Christmas gift for you. “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon is a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” and takes place two years after the book ends.
If you (like me) are not a Jane Austen fan, not to worry — this delightful comedy-drama featuring four of the five Bennet sisters coming together to celebrate Christmas is just as delightful. There are probably a lot of nuances and back story bits that pass you by, but you’ll never know it.

This show centers on Mary (Elyse Sharp), the middle Bennet sister who, some say, gets short shrift in the book because of her “pedantic air and conceited manner.” At 20, she’s a spinster and a bookworm. She is more interested in learning and longs for a bigger life outside the societal expectations of 18th-century women. She is uninterested in the frivolous romantic adventures of her sisters.

Sister Elizabeth Darcy (Brittni Barger), now married to hunky Mr. Darcy (J.R. Yancher, a Davis resident), is the mistress of Pemberley, the Darcy estate. The gorgeous set designed by Eric Broadwater is dominated by a real Christmas tree, which will be decorated throughout the evening. It is a novelty for all the others, as the indoor Christmas tree is just beginning to be the fashion in Germany.

The Bingleys arrive — the very-pregnant sister Jane (Andrea J. Love) and husband Charles (Kevin Gish). Jane is “the sweet one” and does her best to calm people down when things threaten to get out of hand.

The last sister, Lydia (Sarah Brazier) arrives without her husband, who was “detained in Bath,” she explains. Lydia is self-absorbed and flirtatious. Brazier gives a very energetic performance that is perhaps a tad too loud, but definitely obnoxious.

She sets her sights on Arthur de Bourgh (Aaron Kitchin), Mr. Darcy’s cousin, who recently inherited a large estate and has no idea what to do with it. He is there to celebrate the holidays, but as he is a loner who prefers books to people, he definitely feels out of place and more than a little overwhelmed with Lydia’s attentions.

Though the plot is predictable — how two shy bookworms find the courage to admit their attraction to each other, amid all the chaos around them — getting there is half the fun, and director Peter Mohrman has kept the pace swift and the dialog crisp.

Things are further complicated by the arrival of Anne deBourgh (Lyndsy Kail), who announces that she is Arthur’s fiancée (a surprise to him).

Though the actors gave uniformly excellent performances, my heart went out to Kitchin’s Arthur and his awkwardness. Similarly, Gish’s Bingley, while perhaps the smallest role in the show, had such a look on his face — like he had a fun joke that only he knows. It was quite appealing.

Sharp’s Mary was cold and controlled, but with a desire she had not dealt with before just below the surface. Watching both her and Arthur struggling with unfamiliar feelings was very sweet.
In the end, the love that the women have for each other overshadows all difficulties and it shines as brightly as the now-decorated Christmas tree.

“Miss Bennet” is a nice, unusual Christmas story, which I hope will become a staple in years to come. It’s fun to see something different for a change!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Christmas Carol

Matt K. Miller as Ebenezer Scrooge and Gregg Koski as the ghost of Jacob Marley
perform in Sacramento Theatre Company's 2017 production of “A Christmas Carol.”
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo

It is difficult to imagine a Sacramento Theatre Company production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ without Matt K. Miller as Scrooge. Performing the role for the sixth time, he is the stingiest, meanest, grinchiest Scrooge there ever was — but after his reformation, his child-like enthusiasm for having not missed Christmas after all is infectious and never fails to bring a tear every time I see it.

This musical version of the Dickens classic, directed by Michael Laun and Michael Jenkinson, is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and returns to the STC stage after a five-year absence. Sacramento Theatre Company commissioned this musical by Richard Hellesen and David de Berry in 1987. Since then, the work has been widely performed, with perennial productions in Rochester, N.Y.; Denver; Dallas; Baton Rouge, La.; and Phoenix; among other communities.

Greg Coffin modernized the music a few years ago, and re-orchestrated the soundtrack for the 25th anniversary production. (The orchestration is recorded; no live orchestra was used … but you’d never know it.)

This is a pleasant musical with tunes that might not be memorable, but are thoroughly enjoyable. There are 35 actors mentioned in the biography, but many roles are double-cast to allow more of STC’s Young Professional’s Conservatory program to appear on stage.

Miller’s real-life son, Max Miller, for example, appears as Tiny Tim, alternating with Miller Traum. Max made his stage debut in this role five years ago, at age 4, and is now a seasoned professional.
The set by Renee Degarmo and Jarrod Bodensteiner is a wonder, with large pieces that roll or rotate while actors walk across them, telling the Dickens story and morphing into the characters singing the songs about the story.

That it works without a hitch is a miracle, though there was a slight problem that stopped the show cold for several minutes the night we went. The actors left the stage and the audience went into the lobby, and when the problem was fixed, all returned and the actors continued as if nothing had happened.

Michael Jenkinson plays Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, who must endure the conditions under which he works because he has a family of six at home — his wife (Aviva Pressman) and five children, including Tiny Tim (a good performance by Traum, whose “God bless us every one” rang out clearly).

Despite the hardships of his job, Cratchit maintains a happy disposition and greets Scrooge’s ebullient nephew Fred (David Weidoff) with good wishes for the coming holiday, though Scrooge growls and sends his beloved sister’s only child away.

Dominique Lawson and Jake Mahler are the two subscription gentlemen, soliciting funds for the poor. Their reaction at the end of the show when Scrooge reveals the contribution he wants to make to atone for many years when he did not contribute is perfect.

Gregg Koski is the chain-wearing ghost of Scrooge’s old partner, Jacob Marley, returning to Earth to warn Scrooge of what is in store for him if he does not begin to mend his ways. His interpretation is perhaps more befitting a Halloween spook than a Christmas specter, but he puts his whole soul into it.
As promised, Scrooge is visited by three spirits. The first, the Ghost of Christmas Past (eighth-grader Sarah Arata in her first Main Stage production, alternating with 14-year-old Fiona Gillogly) leads Scrooge through the happy memories of his past where he sees himself as a child (Ian Kennedy, alternating with Sebastian Fernandez), and, first, apprentice and then young man (Will Block), who definitely shows the beginnings of the cold, unfeeling Scrooge that he will become in later life.
Scrooge enjoys reliving the festivities at the shop of his jolly employer Fezziweg (Jake Mahler), who shows how happy he can make his employees with not much money at all.

Scrooge then sees the sad change when money became all important to him, ruining his relationship with the love of his life, Belle (Tyler Traum). Hints of regret begin to tug at his conscience.

Jake Mahler returns as the exuberant Ghost of Christmas Present, showing Scrooge the reality of life in the present.

I have seen this show many, many times and have never been as affected as I was this time listening to this ghost talk about the children of want and ignorance: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

It has always seemed just a part of the script for me, but sadly in this day and age, with education programs and children’s welfare in danger, it seemed more prophetic.

By the time of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Zane Boyer) arrives, Scrooge is ready to atone for his past sins and lead a good, blameless life.

Sacramento Theatre Company’s “A Christmas Carol” is a long-standing holiday favorite and it is wonderful to see it back on the STC stage again. It’s the Christmas show that everyone should see, at least once.

Scrooge (Matt K. Miller) celebrates his new found outlook on life with Bob Cratachit (Michael Jenkinson) 
and Tiny Tim (Max Miller) in Sacramento Theatre Company's production of "A Christmas Carol."
Kelly Christoffersen/Courtesy photo

Friday, December 01, 2017

A Christmas Miracle

This was a feature article:

That Tom Fay is alive today is literally a Christmas miracle.

Fay was a familiar figure in the Davis music scene back in the 1980s, when his band, The Rhythm Kings, played many of the venues in town. They also played Picnic Day, and even performed for the reopening of the Varsity Theater as a concert venue.

One night in the early 1990s, Fay had a dream that eventually would save his life. He awoke at 3 a.m. with a song in his head — complete with music and lyrics — and he grabbed a pad of paper to write it down. The song was “The Santa Rhumba.”

In 1994, Dave Whitaker of Sacramento’s Studio Z wanted to raise money for AIDS. He gathered several popular local bands to produce a compilation album, “Believe: a Holiday Wish.”

Musician Tom Fay points out a poster advertising a benefit concert Tuesday, Dec. 12, at which he and other local musicians will perform. Courtesy photo

When funding became a problem, Fay made some phone calls and was able to get the necessary money to make the CD, which would feature “The Santa Rhumba.” There was a CD-release concert and the album raised $14,000. All proceeds went to the Sacramento AIDS Foundation.

Fay decided that holiday concerts to raise funds for charity were a good idea, and he continued to stage annual concerts for organizations such as CARES, the Sacramento’s Children’s Home and Boys and Girls clubs. The “Santa Rhumba” was always a popular part of the concerts.

In November of 2014, the 72-year-old Fay had a debilitating stroke, which left him with a feeding tube and a walker. The doctors believed he had reached his maximum possible recovery. “It was the bleakest Christmas I’d ever known,” Fay recalled.

But then, when he was watching “Good Day Sacramento” on Channel 31, announcer Mark S. Allen announced that he’d just heard this “really cool” song that was No. 12 on the Sirius Radio top 100 of alternative Christmas hits. Then he played “The Santa Rhumba.”

Fay called the TV station and confessed it was his band and his song. Allen was excited and said that if Fay could get himself into good enough shape by the following Christmas, he was invited to perform “The Santa Rhumba” on the show.

Fay took that as a challenge. He and his wife Cottie Johnson searched for alternatives to the liquid he had been receiving through his stomach tube and found an organic substance called “Liquid Hope,” which sounded promising. He began to feel better and eventually was able to remove the tube.
After months of physical therapy, he was able to throw away the walker and, in December 2015, he did indeed perform “The Santa Rhumba” on Sacramento television.

Now he has joined with Lawsuit’s Ned Sykes to produce the 2017 charitable concert. Craig Ashton of the law firm of Ashton and Price is the generous sponsor.

They have chosen the Front Street Animal Shelter as this year’s recipient of funds.

“We went back and forth. There are lots of benefits going on around the holidays,” Fay explained. “I thought animals really need help around Christmastime. The field gets a little crowded.”
He thought especially of the animals affected by the recent Northern California wildfires.

The concert will take place from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12, at Harlow’s, 2708 J St. in Sacramento. Bands joining Fay and The Rhythm Kings are Preoccupied Pipers, a Davis band featuring former members of the 1990s ska band Lawsuit; The Hucklebucks, Sacramento jump blues legends; Todd Morgan & The Emblems.

Jimi Morris of Mercy Me! Band will make a special guest appearance at 5:45 p.m. Doors will open at 5 p.m. for DJ music with Harley White Jr.

And Tom Fay will perform “The Santa Rhumba,” the song that saved his life and got him back on the stage.

From 5 to 6 p.m., representatives of the Front Street Animal Shelter will be out in front of Harlow’s with adoptable dogs and puppies, weather permitting.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wizard of Oz

Despite the slow pace and the interminable set changes, I had more fun at the Winters Theatre Company’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” directed by Anita Ahuja than I have had in a long time.

For starters there is perhaps the largest cast I have seen on the Winters stage (more than 30), including the Munchkin Hinojosa brothers, one of whom was a baby in a carrier, and the other a toddler, who had us all laughing when he escaped and ran off the stage.

Another favorite was Tibby Williams, as Toto, who had more on-stage time than most Totos do, and who, other than a few unexpected barks, was surprisingly good, though you could tell when the members of her real family came on stage in costume because her tail would wag furiously.

Alexis Velasquez was a perhaps too tall Dorothy, though she had that wide-eyed wonder one expects from a girl whose house has swirled through the air and landed her in a strange land. She also had a beautiful clear voice.

There must be something about putting a bizarre costume on an actor to bring out the best in them.  A case in point was Eleanor Yeatman, as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch.  Paint a girl’s face green and watch her eat the scenery.  She was absolutely marvelous.

(Yeatman is also credited as Assistant Director, set construction, costumes and props!)

Likewise, this may have been the best performance I have seen by Jim Hewlett as the Scarecrow.  He was completely comfortable in his wobbly body and became a great friend to Dorothy.

Robert Williams (from Tibby’s family) was a wonderful Cowardly Lion and even offered a pretty credible Bert Lahr during his “If I were king of the forest.”

A find for Winters was Loren Skinner, in his first ever theatrical performance, as the Tin Man.  He had the kind of voice that makes you sit up and wonder “where has this guy BEEN all these years?”  I hope we will see more of him on the Winters stage.

Elizabeth Williams was a younger than expected Glinda, the Witch of the North, but she was warm and wise in helping Dorothy when she needed help.

(Rounding out the Williams family was Jason Williams as Nikko, the Monkey Commander, who was a credible slightly evil sidekick to the witch, and also one of the mean apple trees.)

In lesser roles, Debra DeAngelo made the most of Auntie Em, a strict, no-nonsense farm woman, whose warm side shines through when she insists the farm hands have cookies so they don’t have to work on an empty stomach.  Her best, though, was her appearance inside a big glass globe while Dorothy is locked in the witch’s castle.    

[picky aside: Dorothy refers to her consistently as “Aunt Em” instead of ”Auntie Em,” which grated on my nerves until the end of the show when she finally called her Auntie.]

Jesse Akers was fine in the small role of the gruff Uncle Henry,

Tom Rost was a professorial Professor Marvel, and the Wizard.  He was wise in dealing with run-away Dorothy, and with granting the wishes of Dorothy’s three companions.

The young actors playing Munchkin, Lullaby League, and Lollipop Guild were well rehearsed, disciplined and sang well, as well as being very cute.  Josh Masem and Kenneth Matheson were notable as the Mayor and Coroner, respectively.

Ahuja decided to add back the Jitterbug, a number which had been cut from the movie and the dancers, Mikenzie Hapworth Eldridge, Elizabeth Williams, Julia Berrelleza, Christian Duran, Manny Lanzaro and Kenneth Matheson made fun work of the bugs dancing around.

The set for most of Oz (designed by Gary Schroeder) was pretty minimal, but there was a nice, solid farm house for the Gale family and a great storm cellar for protection from the approaching storm.  A nice touch was the lantern on the house porch, which swung wildly in the wind, without visible help from anyone.

It was a full house for opening night and we all had a wonderful time.  This was the first in-theater production since the death of co-founder Howard Hupe, whose presence was missed, and who was honored briefly before the start of the show.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Moving Day

From left, Tim Liu, Stephanie Altholz and
Kurt Johnson perform in B Street Theatre's
production of “A Moving Day.”
Rudy Meyers Photography/Courtesy photo
It is deliciously ironic that the very last production to be presented at the current B Street Theatre location — before the company’s move to its new digs, “The Sofia,” at 27th Street and Capitol Avenue, at the end of the year — is a play called “A Moving Day,” by Dave Pierini and Buck Busfield.
(“Dave did the writing; I fixed the commas,” Busfield joked.)

Though it’s barely past Halloween, this is another B Street original Christmas production, a 23-year old tradition. The company is going out with a bang with this funny, yet moving story, which finds its inspiration in the tradition of “moving day” in Canada, the date on which most residential leases begin. By the city’s estimate, about 115,000 of Montreal’s 1.6 million residents relocate every July.

The day before moving day, all previous leases end and occupants must be out of their homes, or face confrontation with the police. “Moving day” also became common in places like New York and Ohio.

And so the play “A Moving Day” is set in Cleveland where two movers, Frank (Kurt Johnson) and Casey (Tim Liu), are packing up a house while engaging in a spirited discussion about Casey’s unsuccessful love life. Their conversation is interrupted now and then by phone calls from Frank’s wife, who has just left Frank to live with her sister, but is willing to get together with him to discuss things, if he can make it to a certain location at a certain time.

As the movers are about to remove the second stack of boxes, they are surprised by the appearance of Patrick (Greg Alexander), who has apparently been upstairs, and announces that this used to be his house and he needs to postpone the moving for one more day until he can search the house for something special he left behind. Though he has not lived in the house for many years, it is still his family home.

While Frank and Casey attempt to remain uninvolved, Patrick’s arguments become very persuasive and they have to force themselves to continue moving boxes.

When only Casey is on stage, a young girl, who calls herself Mouse (Stephanie Altholz), wanders in. She is apparently homeless and also has been crashing in the house; she hopes they will postpone the move.

Patrick and Mouse work together to tear the house apart looking for the missing object that Patrick associates with his late sister and that has great sentimental value for him.

Jamie Jones makes a brief walk-on appearance (perhaps so the actress can appear in B Street’s last production in the old theater) as Frank’s wife.

As Patrick settles in more firmly, determined to have one last Christmas in his family home, and the movers’ resolve wavers, the audience waits to see how it’s all going to play out, perhaps not suspecting the clever twist in the plot.

With the caliber of actors in this play, most B Street regulars, it can’t help but be outstanding. Tim Liu appears to be new to B Street, but he is excellent as the anguished Casey, having been rejected (“ghosted,” as he puts it) by so many other women, trying to make his case with Mouse.

This is a comedy with warm dramatic overtones and sets the stage for the upcoming holiday season — though playing Christmas carols in the lobby before Thanksgiving is a bit unsettling.

Thursday, November 16, 2017


Jennifer Vega stars as Amy in “Gibraltar,” presented by the UC Davis department of theater and dance.
The show continues Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Nicholas Yoon/UC Davis/Courtesy photo

UCD’s historic Wyatt Pavilion is the location for a powerful play by Octavio Solis, directed by Kent Nicholson. “Gibraltar” explores the subject of grief and how we deal with it.

The first thing to notice on entering the theater is the attractive set, designed by John Iacovelli. The play is set in a San Francisco apartment — and as a San Francisco native, I appreciated the bay window with a window seat, something so ubiquitous in the city. (The design of the bay window is helped by the configuration of the pavilion stage.)

Artist Amy (Jennifer Vega) has just lost her husband, who drowned in San Francisco Bay, and her world is falling apart. She stands in her apartment with the enigmatic Palo (Benjamin Calleros), who is searching for his runaway wife.

The pair share stories about other couples’ troubled relationships that are played out in the dreamlike landscape of memory — an improbable reunion of an artist and a dock worker, the breakup of a policeman and his angry wife, a marriage irrevocably altered but not ended by Alzheimer’s disease. Each one has some connection to Amy’s past memory.

As they tell their stories, Amy and Palo struggle to confront their own losses.

But is Palo really who he claims to be? Director Nicholson, at the talk-back following the show, referred to the concept of the duende, a mythical creature from folklore, who frequently inhabits a house to either help or torment its inhabitants. Does Palo represent the duende sent to guide Amy through this rough time?

The supporting cast — Brandon Thomas, Victoria Casas, Anthony Castillon, Aubrey Schoeman, Charles Lavaroni and Heidi Masem — each gives a strong portrayal, with Thomas and Casas sadly tragic as the husband dealing with his wife’s Alzheimer’s.

“Octavio’s work represents the great cultural diversity of the Bay Area and the country,” Nicholson said. “By exploring the universality of love and death through multiple stories, and weaving them through a single narrative, ‘Gibraltar’ creates a new landscape for storytelling.”

There will be a talk-back following the Thursday performance.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Jesus Christ Superstar

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” the 1970 rock opera by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice, holds a special place in director Steve Isaacson’s heart. Isaacson’s Davis Musical Theater Company is now performing its third production, eight years after it was last performed.

The story is loosely based on the last week of Jesus’ life from just before the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and ending at the crucifixion. The story centers on the conflict between Jesus and Judas Iscariot, a story that is not told in the Bible.

You could not ask for a more authentic-looking Jesus than Nick Thompson (who played Judas in the 2009 production). You almost expected people in the audience to ask for his blessing.

But this is a stern, serious Jesus with little of the charisma that would show us why crowds were drawn to him. While he does not seem to have much of a change in mood, he’s at his best expressing his anguish at his upcoming suffering in the song “Gethsemane.”

Eddie Voyce is a marvelous Judas, tormented by “tormenters” Michele Stark-Burnett and Monica Parisi wherever he goes. Judas is increasingly upset that Jesus is starting to believe his own press and is getting too big for his toga.

Judas sees money spent unnecessarily that could go to the poor. He’s so upset that he goes to the Roman elite to turn Jesus in, but wants to be sure they know it’s for the best of all possible reasons:

“It’s taken me some time to work out what to do.
I weighed the whole thing out before I came to you.”

His anguish at being forced to sell his former friend for 30 pieces of silver is palpable.

A break-out performance in this production is Pablo Frias as Caiaphas. Though this is Frias’ first musical theater production, his booming basso voice and commanding presence make him the focus of any scene in which he appears.

Likewise, the old pro Gil Sebastian fully inhabits the character of Pontius Pilate, who tries so hard to get Jesus to talk, and who wants desperately to find a way to keep him from being put to death.

Rachael Sherman-Shockley, who made such an impression as Dr. Jekyll’s virtuous fiancée in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” goes in the other direction, playing the woman of easy virtue, Mary Magdalene, who doesn’t know what to make of her attraction to this Jesus.

“I don’t see why he moves me
He’s a man. He’s just a man
And I’ve had so many men before
In very many ways
He’s just one more”

Her “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” may be the best-known of the songs from this opera and she gives it all the intensity that it needs.

Comic relief from the more serous action is offered by Quintin Casi as King Herod, dressed as a modern-day lounge singer, with scantily clad Charleston-dancing girls as back-up. It was a favorite moment in the show.

In lesser roles, Kara Wall shines as Annas; Leah Frazier, with the Anne Burrell Hair, is a strong Simon Zealotes; while Timothy Dimal gives a credible performance as Peter and Richard Kleeberg does double duty as both a priest and a Roman soldier.

The ensemble — from their opening “What’s the Buzz,” through the Palm Sunday “Hosanna,” to the “Crucifixion” finale — are all wonderful, whether apostles, followers or sick people looking for a miracle cure. Pamela Kay Lourentzos has done a marvelous job of choreography.

There are no sets to speak of, other than a few platforms on the otherwise bare stage. In fact, the only “set” piece is the crucifix at the end. The show does not demand a set but lighting designer Isaacson has created some inventive lighting designs.

DMTC once again has done Steve Isaacson proud with this latest production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”