Wednesday, August 20, 2014

DMTC at 30

Things are busy at the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center as the Davis Musical Theater company prepares for its 30th Anniversary Gala, to be held on Saturday, August 23 at 6:30 p.m.

“Last night we had a Young Performer’s Theater committee meeting in the women’s dressing room, the cast of “Shrek” was rehearsing the big tap number on stage, and in the lobby, singers were rehearsing for the Gala,” laughed Jan Isaacson, who added that set building and painting for the upcoming production of “Shrek” were also taking place on the dock in the afternoon.

The gala anniversary evening, at only $15 per ticket, will include hors d’oeuvres and a light dinner catered by Symposium Restaurant, followed by an evening of musical theater songs and highlights from dozens of productions that have been offered by DMTC over the years.

“I found people who performed from the beginning of the company,” says Jan, “so it will start off with ‘Oklahoma’ in 1987. Joe Anthony is coming back to perform ‘Oh what a Beautiful Morning.’ I picked selected songs from different decades. Mary Young is going to do ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ from ‘Gypsy.’ Jay Joseph lives in Las Vegas and he’s coming back to sing ‘Buddy’s Blues’ from ‘Follies.’ The pièce de resistance of the evening is going to be Ben Bruening’s half hour movie tracing our history from the very beginning to now.”

Mayor Dan Wolk, a long time supporter of DMTC will present a proclamation congratulating DMTC on its 30th anniversary and thanking the company for its commitment in making performing arts accessible for all in the Davis, California region.

"I am so delighted about presenting this proclamation to Jan and Steve Isaacson and DMTC. As someone who is an alum of DMTC, has been a performer in a number of musicals, and who recognizes the importance and joy of community theater, this celebration has particular meaning to me,” Mayor Wolk said.

Bob Bowen, Promotions Manger for the City of Davis. laughs ''If someone had told me, back in 1984, that DMTC would be around for 30 years, I'd have thought their gaffer's tape was wound too tightly, Having produced my fair share of theater, I know how demanding and stressful it is to raise money and produce theater in Davis. For DMTC to produce a series of adult and children's shows - every year, and for more than a quarter of a century - is a testament to the their passion and energy for theater."

Statistics show that many community theaters which get off the ground and achieve some sort of success generally begin to peter out around 30. The founding members start to get older and can’t do what they did 30 years before, the younger members don’t have the dedication. Ultimately they call it quits, throw a big party to celebrate a long and productive life.

At 30, the Davis Musical Theater is just hitting its stride. Last year their house was amazingly 91% full and they expect to equal or surpass that this year. The company appears to be healthier than ever with exciting plans for the future.

DMTC produces six Main Stage musicals and five Young Performers Theater musicals annually. That’s more than one hundred performances on the DMTC stage each year. What keeps things so vibrant and alive?

“There’s a real sense of family about the group,” says actress Dannette Vasser, who joined in 1997. “There’s not the backstage drama that you sometimes find in other theater groups. It’s a very comfortable place to be. Everybody gets along and a lot of that is due to the atmosphere Jan and Steve foster. They’ve created this to be a family place, where all different members of the community can work together to put on a show.”

“I consider DMTC my musical theater home,” says Mary Young, who has been with the company since she followed choreographer Ron Cisneros to Davis and performed Lady Thiang in the company’s second show, “The King and I.”.

Mary, who lives in Roseville, never thought she would ever drive to Davis to perform but once she started she “just never stopped.” “It has a lot to do with Jan and Steve. They are such good human beings,” she said. “I had a really bad car accident a few years ago and Steve just put me in the next show. Didn’t make me audition. It was my road to recovery. Physical therapy, mental therapy. What better place to go and just play.” Young will be performing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from "Gypsy" at the anniversary show.

Young’s daughter Wendy was in the fourth grade when her mother joined the company, and she literally grew up with DMTC. “She was one of the children in 'King and I,'” Young said, “and I remember washing black hair dye out of her blond hair.”

Young has had an opportunity to perform with not only her daughter but also her grandchildren on the DMTC stage. In fact, the upcoming “Shrek” will feature 3 generations of Youngs. “I haven’t been able to perform with all three of my grandchildren,” she says, “But it’s on my bucket list.”

She remembers when DMTC moved from the Veterans' Memorial Theater into a small theater they built in the Davis Commerce Park on Second Street, near Sudwerk ... and being escorted out to the Port A Potties during evening rehearsals.

People who started at the Second Street theater were like “the survivors, ” laughed Marguerite Morris, who joined DMTC out of high school in 1985 at age 19 to play Hodel in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

That was the show, Steve remembers, where Pat Piper bought the very first DMTC season ticket (she would later become DMTC’s first lifetime season ticket holder.)

Morrison remembers the difficulties working in that small theater and the company’s eventual move downtown to the Varsity theater.

The landlord of the Second Street facility eventually raised the rent so high that DMTC had to think about finding a new place to perform. Bob Bowen, who met Jan and Steve while all were in the Davis Players, proved a valuable friend.

'When they built their first theater in rented space over on Second Street, I got involved. I also got involved when they approached the city for a loan.

'Since DMTC still owed money on that loan, we negotiated a deal for them to use the newly renovated Varsity Theater, beginning in January 1993, so they would remain viable. I acted as their Varsity landlord until the Davis City Council changed the Varsity back into an art film theater.'

“One of the things that makes me want to do shows there is the people,” said Morris. “ I’ve made excellent long term friendships there. It’s a family.” Morris herself will be singing the Mother Abbess' "Climb Every Mountain" from "The Sound of Music" at the gala performance, one of her favorite roles.

Morris’ daughter Rachel performed in 8 shows, when she was 9-11. “There is always a tight knit group of kids as well as adults. There’s no real age barrier. A lot of the older kids take younger kids under their wing and show them the ropes.”

John Ewing, who joined as an actor in the late 1980 and moved on to become a designer and director and member of the Board of Directors, has a slightly different take on why he has stuck around. “One thing I like about DMTC is they’ve always been really great about being open to anybody, they always had open auditions. I get a real thrill out of taking something from nothing and creating a show for an audience. The great thing about the way DMTC does their shows is that so many ordinary people, not necessarily pursuing theater as a career, have the opportunity to experience it. You can’t get that anywhere else.”

Ewing points out that people come and people go, but he most values the ones who have stuck around, people like Lenore and Gil Sebastian, who were in the very first show Ewing did and are still around.

“I’m excited about Saturday’s Gala, that people who performed years and years ago have been invited back to perform again.”

As the company has grown, the expertise of the Young Performer’s Theater (started as “DMTC’s Children’s Theater” in 1987) both in its performers and its parents has grown and become an essential part of the DMTC family.

Jen Nachmanoff is a mom who came to DMTC because her daughter Sophia wanted to perform.”I’m a ceramic artist and have learned how to paint here at the theater, so I’m now a painter too. I didn’t know how to paint before I came here, but I’ve learned on the job. So I help with the scenic artistry. We find out we can do things we never knew we could do.”

Jen oversees the decorative tiles on the wall (continuing the work begun by Jeni Price). She helps families create tiles and has been overseeing the design and firing. I’ve only been here three years, but it feels like forever. It’s the volunteers who make DMTC.”

Children in the Young Performer’s Theater learn all aspects of theater, not just performing, and kids as young as 10 now run the light board for main stage shows. “They’re focused, they’re mature, they know what they’re doing. The kids who run the light board are phenomenal,” said Steve proudly.

Lighting is a big part of every production, and an aspect which the audience, for the most part, is unaware. Someone told me once that if the audience doesn’t notice the lights, the lighting designer has done her work well.

On October 18, 1985, when DMTC opened its first show at the “Old Theater,” which had no walls, insulation, heating or air, Steve remembers chaos on opening night, when Diane Wershing was running the lights. There had been no time for lighting rehearsal.

“I remember going to the theater for opening night and HOPING that they had hung lights,” Wershing said, “Luckily, it was a show that I knew inside and out, so as long as someone was going to hang the lights and hook up something for me to control them with, I figured I could wing it. I was hoping beyond hope that there was something for me to work with, and lo and behold there was. A little 6-dimmer board that I could hold in my lap in the back row of the audience. I ran the lights from there.”

More recently, in the final performance of “South Pacific,” the 10 year old light board just died. Light board operator Mia Piazza turned on the board and there was no response. They were faced with having to cancel a show that was sold out. But they were able to turn on the house lights and the work lights, and Steve went out to face the audience. “This was going to test how good a salesman I am. I explained that our light board died and someone in the audience cried out ‘the show must go on!’ We did the whole show with just the work lights on and the house lights on. When we finished a scene and we’d cry out ‘scene!” It was like a recital. The audience loved it!”

One thing that separates DMTC from many theater companies is it has been and remains an all-volunteer organization, and everyone works on everything. Actors know when they audition that they will be expected to help build sets or help in some other way.

“Except for the piano player we’re still all volunteer,” said Jan proudly. “We have the best volunteers around. People love it here. They’re here because they want to be here. It’s not a paid job. I always say we must be doing something right.”

They even have a complete all-volunteer orchestra. Nikki Nicola and Pam Thompson both get all the musicians. “We had 26 for ‘Les Miserables,’” Jan pointed out proudly. “We never have to worry about the orchestra. Ever. People ask ‘how do you get your musicians to volunteer.’ I tell them they all get a free cookie and a drink at intermission. The ushers go down, take the orchestra order before the show gets started, at intermission they bring it down there. They love not having to get dressed up.”

Steve adds, “Other music directors ask ‘how do you get them to volunteer?’ I say....uh...ask them?”

Costumer Jean Henderson has been with the company for 17 years and for her recent 70th birthday, a surprise party was held and she was told the theater had been renamed for her. “It came as a complete surprise,” she said. “I was so shocked.”

Henderson loves the DMTC family. “I don’t like to be with just old people. I like the diversity of age, I get to know what’s going on in the world. I’m not the retirement home kind of person.”

One of her new roles, since DMTC got a liquor license, is to handle the bar before the shows and at intermission. “People like being able to take the drinks into the theater. I try to find something that will represent the show.” For “Peter Pan” she found a drink that used Cpt Morgan rum. “We had ‘Barricade lemonade’ with vodka and sparkling water for ‘Les Miserables,’ a Spamarita for ‘Spamalot,’ and a Fa-Gin for ‘Oliver!’.

As the company has aged, the shows have gotten bigger. On April 14, 2012 DMTC’s second performance of “Titanic, the Musical” opened exactly 100 years to the minute of the sinking of the great ship. Ludy’s Main Street BBQ recreated the last 11-course meal served on the great ship, as a fundraiser for over 50 patrons.

Thanks to donations by many patrons, the company was able to buy mirrors for a spectacular production of “A Chorus Line” in April of this year

In June, Steve directed “Les Miserables,” the show he had dreamed of directing since he first saw it in 1988. The production was described by one patron as “the best night I’ve had in this theater.”

Though the Davis Musical Theater Company does not always get the respect or the attention it has earned, the fact is that they have outlasted every single theater company in Davis, that they are the longest-running, year-round, non-professional musical theater company in California, and that the quality of productions has continued to improve every year over the past 30 years, as evidenced by their loyal audience (40% of which comes from Davis and 60% of which comes from other areas). The company has proved that they are indeed doing something right.

As DMTC start its new season, the company is deserving of a hearty bravo! for a job well done

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

La Cage aux Folles



The Music Circus is closing out its 2014 season with a sparkling production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s musical, “La Cage aux Folles,” directed by Tony Spinosa and choreographed by Dana Solimando.
“La Cage” was a big hit in 1984, when it won six Tony awards (it had been nominated for nine). Revivals in 2004 and 2010 both won Tonys for Best Revival; it’s the only musical that has won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical twice and the only show that has won a Best Production Tony Award (Best Musical or Best Revival of a Musical) for each of its Broadway productions.

A scaled-down London production was produced in 2008 and it was this scaled-down show that opened on Broadway in 2010 and is what is being presented on the Music Circus stage.

The story is based on a 1974 French film of the same name and focuses on St. Tropez drag club owner Georges (Brent Barrett) and his longtime partner Albin (Alan Mingo Jr.), who stars as “Zaza” in the club.

The two have raised a son, Jean-Michel (Michael Lowney), now 24, who is Georges’ biological child whose mother abandoned him at birth. It is Jean-Michel’s announcement that he is engaged to be married — to a girl (“where have we gone wrong?”) — that sets the action of this comedy in motion.

It seems Jean-Michel’s fiancée Anne (Julie Kavanagh) is the daughter of the head of the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party,” whose stated goal is to close the local drag clubs.

Jean-Michel wants to bring Anne’s parents home to meet his own parents, but he wants to bring his real mother into the house and relegate Albin, whom he finds an embarrassment, to anywhere other than the family home.
The stage is set for comedy, tragedy and emotion.

This revised version of the show has some noticeable differences from the original, specifically in the tempo and genre of some of the familiar songs. “A Little More Mascara,” for example, was written as an up-tempo Broadway musical-sounding song, but in this version it is more a bluesy number. Likewise, there are dialog changes and plot points that make no sense (why are Anne’s parents spending the night, when in the original they were only coming for dinner?).

But these are minor complaints from someone familiar with the original version, which won’t be noticed by newcomers to the show.

There are wonderful performances in this production. Barrett is very strong as Georges. The actor has a very long theatrical history and he is the glue that holds the show together.

Mingo seemed to take a while to get his engine revving. He was perfectly fine as Albin, but there was initially little chemistry with Georges and he didn’t hit his stride until Albin’s signature “I Am What I Am,” a very powerful song of pride and defiance that closes Act 1 and brought cheers from the audience. Act 2 was his. From the moment he stepped onto the stage dressed as a woman, and introducing himself to Anne’s parents as Jean-Michel’s mother, his performance was golden.

Lowny is an uptight spoiled brat as he heartlessly tosses aside the only “mother” he’s ever known in order to impress his future in-laws, but he’s head over heels in love and has lost his head. Thank goodness he finds it before the end of the show.

Reggie DeLeon is the “butler/maid” (there seems to be some confusion about which he/she is), and plays the part in a much more subdued fashion than most actors I’ve seen in this role, but he is very funny anyway.
Kevin Cooney is M. Dindon, the uptight one-man moral majority. Watching him loosen up a little was a delight.
Mme. Dindon (Heather Lee) is a repressed political wife who seems only too happy to learn of the relationship between Georges and Albin and seems thrilled to be able to let down her hair for once. Literally.

Barbara McCulloh is Jacqueline, owner of a famous restaurant by the same name. One is never sure if she’s a good guy or a bad guy, but McCulloh plays her to the fullest and has a nice duet with Albin.

“Les Cagelles,” the dancers at the club (Brian Steven Shaw, Steven Wenslawski, Adam Lendermon, Steve Schepis, Thay Floyd and Christopher Shin), nearly steal the show in every one of their dance routines. However, I miss the days when there were more dancers and there used to be one or two girls mixed in with the guys, and the audience didn’t know who until the big reveal at the end.

This nicest thing about this musical has always been that it is a simple love story where the lovers happen to be of the same gender, and watching the Music Circus audience leap to their feet to applaud that is very refreshing.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Brigadoon


What is set in 18th-century Scotland, is filled with Highlanders in kilts with sporrans and swords, has lads and lassies in love with one another, bagpipes, hills of heather, good Scottish whisky … and was not written by Diana Gabaldon, author of the historical science-fiction adventure-romance “Outlander” series?

It’s Lerner and Loewe’s beloved “Brigadoon,” this week’s Music Circus offering, directed by Glenn Casale and featuring lively choreography by Bob Richard.

Brigadoon is a magical 18th-century Scottish village which, thanks to a 200-year-old miracle, rises out of the mist for one day every 100 years. Americans Tommy Albright (Robert J. Townsend) and Jeff Douglas (Jason Graae), lost on a hunting expedition in the Highlands, stumble across the village and, unaware of anything unusual, get caught up in the lives of the citizens.

Tommy is engaged to Jane back in New York but something is missing. He’s been looking for that elusive something that will make his life complete.

In Brigadoon, Fiona MacLaren (Jennifer Hope Wills) is “waiting for her dearie,” a man to complete her, who doesn’t seem to be among the local populace.

It’s almost, but not, quite love at first sight for these two as they gather heather on the hill for the wedding of Fiona’s sister.

Townsend’s Tommy is reminiscent of “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, tall and somewhat distracted, with his reserve melting as he finds himself attracted to this lovely lass he has just met.

Wills is a lovely Fiona. Her red hair gives a roundness to her face and you just know she must have freckles. She believably falls head over heels for this stranger and they have some beautiful moments together.

As Tommy’s sardonic friend Jeff Douglas, Graae has no depth of character, is bored with life and can’t understand Tommy’s attraction to Fiona. However, he has caught the eye of Meg Brockie (Tory Ross) and they have some funny moments together.

Ross is a lusty, larger-than-life Meg. She is very funny whether describing her mother’s wedding day or determined to woo and win some sexual favors from Jeff by describing to him “the real love of her life.”
Fiona’s sister, Jean, is beautifully played by Courtney Iventosch. As the story opens, it is Jean’s wedding day and the whole village is preparing for that evening’s wedding. Iventosch is positively ethereal as she dances with the other women and with fiancé Charlie Dalrymple (Brandon Springman)

Charlie is head over heels in love and can’t wait for his wedding (“I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean”).

Harry Beaton (Luke Hawkins) is the only person in the village unhappy about the wedding because he is in love with Jean himself and, because of “the miracle” he can’t leave Brigadoon without destroying everyone, so he’s stuck watching the woman he loves be so happy with the man she loves. Hawkins is dark and brooding, as befits his character.

Harry’s dad Archie (Ron Wisniski) is the village tailor, trying to unsuccessfully draw Harry into the business, while Rich Herbert is Andrew MacLaren, the father of the bride, thrilled to be hosting her wedding.

Gordon Goodman is Mr. Lundie, the village schoolmaster to whom Fiona brings Tommy and Jeff so he can explain “the miracle” to the two men.

Amanda Peet plays Maggie Anderson, who loves Harry and who performs an achingly painful funeral dance after Harry’s death.

There are wonderful moments in this show, such as the dance of the sword dancers (Eric Anthony Johnson, Adam Lendermon, Steve Schepis, Brian Steven Shaw and John B. Williford), performed at Jean’s wedding. It is amazing that they can dance in such tight spaces with such precision, and without glancing down at their feet in relation to the swords.

Special mention also needs to be made to bagpiper Josh Brown, who accompanies the body of Harry back to the village. If you love a good bagpipe (as I do), it was wonderful to hear.

Back in New York, Karen Hyland is Tommy’s fiancée Jane Ashton. Having seen Tommy fall in love with Jean, it’s difficult to see what he found appealing in this social-climbing ice cube and very easy to understand what “something” was missing for him in their relationship and why he is willing to risk everything to try and find it again.

Brigadoon presents a contrast between empty city life and the warmth and simplicity of the country, with the message that love is love even when there are centuries separating the lovers, which brings this review full circle and back to Diana Gabaldon!


Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Rememberer


Acme Theatre Company is presenting “The Rememberer” by Steven Dietz at the Brunelle Performance Hall at Davis High School through Sunday, Aug. 10.

“The Rememberer” tells the story of Joyce Simmons Cheeka, a member of the Squaxin tribe from the Southern Puget Sound area who, in 1911, was removed from her family and placed in a government-run Tulalip Indian school, where she is forced to give up her own language and the customs of her people in order to be “Christianized and civilized.”

The Indian boarding school movement began in this country after the Civil War. The Tulalip School was established in 1868 with only one dormitory, but by 1907 the school had a capacity enrollment of 200 students, ranging in age from 6 to 18.

The schools across the country reached peak enrollment in the 1970s, with 60,000 students enrolled. However, due to reports of abuse occurring in such schools, enrollment began to decline and by 2007, most of them had been closed.

In preparation for telling Cheeka’s story with respect, director Emily Henderson explains that a small group of students — the Dramaturgy Team — met regularly to study the Indian Boarding School system, the history of the Pacific Northwest and the Squaxin culture. This team then designed a series of weekly workshops to share the information they gathered with the rest of the cast.

I think the end result is a presentation that would make Cheeka proud. “The Rememberer” is the story of one woman’s journey through two worlds and the way she learns to weave them together.

As with too many Acme productions over the years, this play suffers from poor projection on the part of too many of the actors. While some of the more experienced actors did a wonderful job of getting their words out to the audience, some others, while getting the mood of a scene just right, tended to lower their voices, making it almost impossible to hear what they were saying.

Still, I was able to follow the story of young Joyce, who manages not only to learn the ways of the white man, but still honor her own heritage by becoming the “rememberer” for her tribe, the keeper of tribal history and lore.
Eden Tomich is the adult Joyce, who acts as a narrator for the play and who moves around the bare stage with the dignity of her character, remembering the time when she was young, learning the lessons of her people from her grandfather, Mud Bay Sam (Wil Forkin) and grandmother Emily Sam (Meili Monk).

The death of the grandfather is particularly touching because Joyce realizes that the job of being the “rememberer” now falls to her; it is what she was trained to be.

As the young Joyce, Camila Ortiz plays the role with a gentle dignity, a spark of fire as she speaks up for her rights, and always giving her character a nobility far beyond her years.

Andres de Loera-Brust was outstanding as Dr. Buchanan, the physician who founded the Tulalip School and also served as Indian agent for the reservation. He was empathetic, while still maintaining firm control of his students. He shows Joyce there can be kindness in the white man’s world.

Brian Stewart also turned in a strong performance as Mr. Conrad, the teacher you love to hate, in a battle of wills and ideology with a stubborn Joyce.

Cassidy Smith was the stern Superintendent who espouses the philosophy that you must “kill the Indian to save the man,” and Megan Kraft was Miss Brennan, the sewing teacher who won’t let Joyce sew a fish on a quilt, while Danielle Schlenker is the nurse who is more gentle and sympathetic to her young charges and who makes Joyce her assistant during a flu outbreak at the school.

Trevor Rinzler is a young Indian boy whom Joyce comforts while Chris Farmer is Henry, Joyce’s cousin whom she loves to tease.

A cast of nearly 40 actors bring this story to light, on a multi-level, mostly bare stage, but with nice touches such as the sinks at which the school girls line up each day to brush their teeth. Nice job by designer Brian Stewart.
The lighting design of Wil Forkin added greatly to the mood of the piece.

After 33 years, I despair of ever having an Acme show where projection is uniformly good, but I do wish it had been a bit better with this piece. Still, despite losing so many bits of dialog, this was an excellent production, giving an education to the audience about a piece of history of which we may not have had much knowledge before.
The members of Acme, and especially director Henderson, have done themselves — and Joyce Simmons Cheeka — proud.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

South Pacific

 It was some enchanted evening at Music Circus’ opening of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “South Pacific.”

This 1950 Tony Award-winning musical, based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Tales of the South Pacific,” is an old war horse, but its popularity has not dimmed. At times, the plot seems very dated. At other times, one marvels at — and is perhaps depressed by — the consistent timeliness of its message.

Rodgers and Hammerstein were not afraid to tackle the problems of the day, albeit in a musical way. They made a courageous statement about racial bigotry, which was not a popular thing to do in the 1940s, and yet the song “You’ve Got to be Taught” remains today — sadly, perhaps — an anthem to answer the bigots of every race, gender and sexual orientation.

“You have to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade. You have to be carefully taught. … You have to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6 or 7 or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate.” (It’s a simplistic explanation still today for the reason it is so difficult to achieve peace in many parts of the world.)

“South Pacific” is the odd musical that neither opens nor closes with a big musical number, instead opening on the veranda of the home of plantation owner Emile deBecque (John Cudia), where the children, Jerome (Matthew Feniger) and Ngana (Ayanna Navarro) — both adorable, disciplined and talented actors — are singing a French children’s song, the same simple song that ends the show as well.

DeBecque, a French expatriate, is entertaining Arkansas-born Nellie Forbush (Beth Malone), a nurse from the nearby naval base, with eyes toward making her his wife, to fill the loneliness of his life on the island.

Malone establishes herself as a winsome Nellie with her first song, “A Cockeyed Optimist,” with her Kellie Pickler-type accent and sparkly personality. She struggles with her feelings for deBecque, weighed against the reality of his life before she met him. She seems to have no problem accepting that he has killed a man, but can’t handle the reality of his late Polynesian wife.

When Cudia opens his mouth to sing “Some Enchanted Evening,” one has to gasp at the voice. I wish they had put some gray in his hair as he really doesn’t seem old enough to play this character, but there is no denying his talent or charisma, and there is no doubt why Nellie has fallen for him in a matter of only a couple of weeks.

Returning for her second appearance as the Tonkinese woman, Bloody Mary, is Armelia McQueen, who is simply marvelous. She will sell you cheap trinkets, grass skirts, shrunken heads or the body of her young daughter, if she thinks you’ll make beautiful babies together. Her “Bali Ha’i” is outstanding.

Mary has her eye set on Lt. Joe Cable (Eric Kunze, reprising his role), arriving on the island, hoping to enlist deBecque’s help with a covert mission to spy on the Japanese. Cable is young and handsome and, when offered Mary’s daughter Liat (Briahna Yee), he easily succumbs to the temptation, though when faced with the opportunity to marry her, he can’t so easily turn his back on his rigid New England upbringing. The anguish of his situation is painfully clear in his “You Have to be Taught.”

The Liat-Joe plot line feels strikingly inappropriate in this day and age, where there is such emphasis on sexual exploitation of innocent young girls. The lieutenant is taken to meet a very young girl for what becomes an instant physical encounter. As the two embrace for the first time (this being a show from 1949, the manner of the encounter is only hinted at, when the lights go down and then come up on a shirtless Joe lying in the lap of a happy-looking Liat), there is such depth to the emotion that it does not ring true. But the plot line has been playing successfully for more than 50 years, so the audience must not mind.

Providing comic relief is Jeff Skowron as Luther Billis, a Seabee who is a wheeler-dealer, out to make a buck whether it’s making grass skirts or doing laundry for Nellie (who praises his pleats). He has a big, mercenary heart and when he causes a diversion to allow Cable and deBecque’s operation to succeed and is chastised by the Commander, he’s thrilled to discover the unauthorized action cost the military $600,000 because his uncle told him he’d never be worth a dime.

While Skowron is a delight whenever he is on stage, he is at his best in the Thanksgiving show, doing “Honey Bun” with Nellie and the other nurses.

Music Circus stalwart and favorite Ron Wisniski turns in an outstanding performance as Cmdr. William Harbison, trying to keep everything on the base in order. He barks out orders like Mayor Shinn in “The Music Man.”

The ensemble is excellent, particularly the Seabees, a group of men who each have small solos to sing. As someone remarked on leaving the theater, “there is no weak voice in this cast.”

“South Pacific” evokes situations and emotions still prevalent today. In the end, it is through the children that we see hope for a more tolerant tomorrow, a tomorrow for which we are still waiting, more than 50 years later.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Grease


The Woodland Opera House sounded like the gymnasium of Rydell High School as the full house cheered, shrieked and wildly applauded the talented cast of “Grease,” that 1971 musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey that spoofs high schools of the 1950s (the story is set in 1959).

I will say at the start that this is a spirited production filled with outstanding performances, but I always have difficulty with this show. I like the show and I hate the show. I like it because it has wonderful musical numbers like “Greased Lightnin’,” “We Go Together,” “Born to Hand Jive” and “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” It has great dance numbers (handled beautifully by choreographers Crissi Cairns and Angela Baltezore).

But I hate the message. Sandy (McKinley Carlisle) met Danny (Donovan McNeely) over the summer and the two fell in love. But when school starts, she’s the new kid, and he’s the head “greaser” and is too cool to admit he likes her.

She joins the “Pink Ladies,” who would have been the “bad girls” in my 1950s high school. They’re the ones who smoke, drink and sleep around, yet you can’t help liking them. Not sure why they admitted Sandy, who has high moral values, dresses conservatively, doesn’t smoke or drink and doesn’t even have pierced ears (which, in my school in the 1950s, was a sure sign of a “bad” girl!).

Yet by the end of the show she realizes her only hope of being accepted by the Pink Ladies and Danny is for her to frizz her hair, put on skin-tight leather and lots of make-up, pierce her ears, start smoking and in general look like a slut. Or, as someone put it to me recently “A happy ending means changing yourself and compromising your morals for a guy.”

Then we can sing a reprise of “We Go Together” and everybody lives happily ever after.

Ironically, the popular film with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (which I watched when I got home from the matinee!) gave it a kind of O. Henry ending, with Danny changing to please Sandy and Sandy changing to please Danny. The original stage show does not do that.

That said, let’s get to the actual Woodland production, directed by Crissi Cairns, which is lots of fun. Carlisle is both the virginal Sandy and the bad girl Sandy and plays both full out. McNeely nicely balances the softy who fell for Sandy and the tough guy who has to cover up his feelings so his friends won’t think him weak.

Rizzo (Gabby Delgado) is the head of the Pink Ladies, a gruff, hard-edged girl who obviously has had a hard life and now is faced with a possible pregnancy she didn’t anticipate. She has the right attitude for the role, yet she managed to show her vulnerability as well.

Amy Miles plays Frenchy, who can’t quite make it in high school and only wants to be a beautician … and then discovers she can’t make it in beauty school either. She gets help from a Teen Angel (Sean Covell) whom she sees in a dream and who encourages her to go back to high school.

Marty (Abby Miles) has an eye for older guys and flirts shamelessly with slimy radio disc jockey Vince Fontaine (Mike Maples), who comes to Rydell to do a show from the boys’ gym and maybe get a little action on the side.

Emily Jo Seminoff, who has a long history with the Woodland Opera House, and other local theaters, is the always-hungry Jan. As usual, Seminoff lights up the stage and it is always such a pleasure to see her perform.
Horacio Gonzalez nailed the role of Danny’s best friend, Kenickie, and gave us an exuberant “Greased Lightnin’ ” in displaying his new/old car.

Tomas Eredia as Sonny stood out from the rest of the Burger Palace Boys. He’s obnoxious and the first one to make fun of someone, but Eredia’s performance makes him likable despite it.

Dalton McNeely is Roger, who has a thing for Jan, and is the buffoon of the group. His solo, “Mooning,” was very funny.

Seth Rogers rounds out the quartet as Doody, foolish and gullible.

You can’t have a high school story without the dweeb, and Cameron Turner as Eugene fits the bill to a T. His ruffled shirt for the high school dance (Denise Miles is the costume designer) was particularly fetching.

The program, printed to look like the Rydell High newspaper, is cute, but there wasn’t enough room to list the band, which is too bad because they did an excellent job under music director Lori Jarvey.

This is a show I really want to dislike, but when you have a good production like Woodland’s, that’s difficult to do. This show has been a popular favorite of community theaters and high school productions for decades and it’s easy to see why, though its message will always make me cringe.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Maple and Vine


Do you ever feel overwhelmed by a world that is filled with hundreds of emails, tweets and Facebook status updates; a world where the 40-hour work week is no more; where many are working 80 hours a week and consider that normal?

Is the stress getting to you, buddy?

Well, Capitol Stage’s “Maple and Vine” by Jordan Harrison, directed by Peter Mohrmann, may be just the escape you need. “May” being the operative word here.

Katha (Stephanie Gularte) an executive with Random House, and Ryu (Wayne Lee), a successful plastic surgeon, are a power couple living in New York but feeling the pressure of their jobs and the emptiness in their lives after Katha’s miscarriage a few months before.

Enter Dean (Jason Heil) and Ellen (Shannon Mahoney), a couple from the Society for Dynamic Obsolescence, a group of 1950s re-enactors who live in their own compound where every day is 1955, there are no cell phones, or computers. A time when wives didn’t worry about finding themselves because their job was to run the house and raise the children while fathers brought in the money.

Ryu is unsure about giving things a try, but Katha is enthusiastic and to save their marriage, he agrees to go along.
Hints of problems surface when Dean and Ellen refer to them as a “mixed-race couple” (Ryu is Japanese, though born in Long Beach) and say they will have to move to an area where mixed-race marriages are tolerated.

“We have everything in microcosm, yes. So there are areas with the spirit of the south and areas that have more the feeling of the north.”

Katha (who changes her name to Kathy to blend in more with the community) and Ryu begin studying 1955 so they can fit in better. They acknowledge that sometimes things will be bad and agree that if they need to remember the 21st century they will use a safe word — they decide on “Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

Ryu gets a job working in a box factory for floor boss Roger (Ryan Snyder), who is forever making references to Ryu’s Japanese ancestry.

The second act is more uneven than the first and sends the audience off in all sorts of directions — sexism, homophobia, racial bigotry. Kathy uncharacteristically instructs the members of her neighborhood about how to be intolerant of her Japanese husband in order to make the 1955 experience more authentic: “We don’t expect flaming crosses on our lawn; that would be out of proportion. But here are some ideas. You might stare at me in the supermarket. You might tell Ryu how much you like Chinese food. Your teenage boys could bang trash can lids outside our house … I know that we’ll be able to find even more ways to give each other an authentic experience.”
The big surprise reveal toward the end of the show comes from left field and leaves one wondering what is going to happen to these people as they grapple with 2014 problems in 1955.

The ensemble for this show is marvelous. Gularte gives an outstanding performance, both as the 2014 executive and the 1955 Stepford-ish wife, embracing all of the simplicity of an earlier time and even embracing the negative aspects of it.

Lee is wonderful as a man with a sardonic secret — that he’s really a plastic surgeon, when everyone else accepts him as a box maker, but so in love with his wife that he’s willing to follow her into this wacky old world.

Heil is a smarmy salesman who has an answer for everything and could sell refrigerators to Eskimos, though he doesn’t always practice what he so eloquently preaches.

Mahoney is a marvelous throw back to June Cleaver, the perfect 50s wife, while hiding a big secret.

Snyder is wonderfully campy in Act 1 as Katha’s gay co-worker, and in Act 2 barely conceals his feelings of superiority to a man he thinks is an Asian refugee unable to do more than put a box together.

This is billed as a comedy, and it is very funny, but it goes beyond comedy into areas you never expect to explore by the time it ends, and will give the audience something to think about long after the final bows have been taken.