Thursday, August 18, 2016

Footloose

Ryan Everitt and Jordan Hayakaya
in Woodland Opera House's
Footloose
 
There is no denying that “Footloose,” by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie, with music by Pitchford is a silly show.

Basically, it’s a plot about a town where all music has been banned because of a tragic accident six years ago that killed four teens. Then a new kid comes to town and turns everything else around and all join in the singing, dancing finale.

Hardly the stuff of great theater, not even musical theater, which is often known for its silliness.

However, under the direction of Crissi Cairns with choreographer Kevin Gruwell, the Woodland Opera House has created a first-rate show. Though this is not a young people’s show, the quality of Woodland’s many youth programs is evident in the number of excellent young people in the cast.

Leading the pack is Ryan Everitt as Ren McCormack, whose father has walked out on his wife, leaving the two with no ability to remain in Chicago. They move to Bomont (the state is never revealed) to live with her sister (Jennifer Goldman) where they discover that the local minister, the Rev. Shaw Moore (Michael Maples) seems to run the town.

After an accident killed four teenagers returning from a dance, he got the city council to rule that there is to be no dancing in the own of Bomont.

Everitt is a great actor, completely comfortable on stage. He has a wonderful voice and dances well.
As for Maples, when he opens his mouth at the first religious service, you sit up and go “whoa!” His presence is captivating and even when you hate the bible-thumping reverend for his rigidity, you can’t help but admire the talents of the actor.

Poor Ren can’t get a break. He’s cited for driving too fast, fired from his first job, bullied at school because he’s the new guy and picked on by the coach (Steve Cairns). What’s a guy to do? A devotee of clubs in Chicago, Ren has a need to just dance the frustration away.

He makes friends with the laconic Willard (Marcus Lucia), the reverend’s daughter Ariel (Jordan Hayakawa) and spitfire Rusty (Emily Jo Seminoff).

Lucia’s Willard is an “aww shucks, ma’am” kinda guy, quiet and shy, but a loyal friend whose life is changed by mutual attraction to Rusty. His “Mama Says” was a real audience favorite.

Seminoff is great at these spitfire roles, and this one is no different. She’s always fun to watch on stage.

Hayakawa is wonderfully stubborn in her fights with her father over his rigid-handed parenting. Though she is dating the town bad boy (Jonathan Kalinen), he is abusive and she is soon attracted to Ren. Her solo, “Holding Out for a Hero” is wonderful.

Others in the cast include Erica Levich as Ren’s mother, Erin Kelly as Principal Clark, and Steven O’Shea as Cowboy Bob.

The actor who received the biggest applause and the most laughter was Mary Dahlberg in the tiny role of Betty Blast, owner of a diner. Since her time on stage is slightly more than five minutes, the audience reaction must be something which Woodland people are aware of, not outsiders.

Music director Lori Jarvey leads an orchestra of six, and also plays the piano. When Woodland did this show in 2003, there was difficulty getting the voices of the singers over the music of the orchestra. Fortunately, there is no problem like this in this production. Everyone is easily heard and understood.

This may be the fullest I have ever seen the opera house and the response of the audience was tumultuous. There was no question about whether this show is a hit with the audience.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Every Brilliant Thing

Dave Peirini

 The words that strike fear and terror into this critic’s heart are “audience participation.” So I was terrified on entering the B Street Theatre for the one-man show, “Every Brilliant Thing.”

Members of the audience were handed numbered cards and asked to read out what was written on the card when their number was called. I was relieved that I didn’t get a card. (Some people also said no, but most participated.)

But I need not have worried. Actor Dave Peirini is such a likable and friendly guy that this unusual, very funny and poignant play was like sitting in his living room and having a visit.

British playwright Duncan Macmillan, has created a play — which isn’t really a play — that you will recommend to your friends (as I recommend it to you!).

Peirini’s unnamed character tells how he coped with his mother’s depression and many suicide attempts, the first of which occurred when he was 7.

While his mother was in the hospital, he started “The List” on which he attempted to list every thing in this life that made him happy — things as diverse as “ice cream,” “things with stripes” and “thinking about dressing up as a Mexican wrestler.” He felt that by sharing The List with his mother, he could make her happy.

It never did, but he continued keeping The List and leaving bits of paper around the house for her to find. Ultimately he continued the list and wrote a million brilliant things. The project sustained him throughout the most difficult (and joyous) periods of his life.

In addition to reading words when cued, Peirini invited people from the audience to play scenes with him. The show we attended had wonderfully cooperative people. The gentleman playing Peirini’s father, who was then to play Peirini himself while Peirini took the father role, was just to ask “why?” after every comment. He was marvelous, giving a different meaning to the word “why” each time. The conversation took place on the way to the hospital after the first suicide attempt and he gave depth to the confusion of a 7-year-old.

There was also a school counselor, a veterinarian, a teacher and the girl with whom he fell in love. All played their parts well, but the love interest particularly well. She had the longest role.

The narrator is also a great lover of music and fond of playing bits of old vinyl records that I remember from my childhood. I enjoyed hearing the Ink Spots again!

My innate terrors aside, there is nothing uncomfortable about this piece. Everything Peirini does is designed to put the audience, and especially his unsuspecting volunteers at ease.

This is a comedy, but it has its poignant moments too, as when the young boy first learns about death and loss, when his beloved dog had to be put to sleep. The dog is a prop he borrows from someone in the audience.

Anyone who has ever lost someone (or something) loved, or anybody who was ever a lonely kid or felt like an outsider as an adult will find something familiar in this work, directed by Greg Alexander.

And because the script is so cleverly written, we are taken in by Peirini’s pain at his losses, though he puts on a good front. We’re willing to enter into whatever he would like to have us do because we want to be a part of helping him feel better.

“Every Brilliant Thing” is, well, a brilliant thing. You’ll leave the theater thinking that you just spent 90 minutes visiting an old friend.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Nice Work if you can Get it

What better way to spend a nice summer evening than at Music Circus enjoying a fun, frothy musical like “Nice Work If You Can Get It”? This 2012 Tony Award-winning musical, directed by Charles Repole, is making its Music Circus debut this week and is an instant hit.
But then how can you go wrong with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, and book by Joe DiPietro?

It’s an old-fashioned Jazz Age musical, short on plot and long on song and dance. There are lots of chorus girls in sparkles, bootleggers and cops (usually the same actors) slinking around, trying to either avoid arrest — or make an arrest. There are young lovers, mismatched pairs and a finale that wraps things up nicely, all to the familiar Gershwin tunes like “‘S Wonderful,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” and the title song.

When the show opened in New York, the lead, the multi-married ne’er-do-well Jimmy Winter was played by Matthew Broderick, whom Matt Loehr in this production very much resembles. He has the same innocence about him, even while drunkenly womanizing with the chorines. He’s the guy any woman would fall for. Loehr’s dancing skills are first-rate, especially in his tap numbers (I do like a good tap number, and there are many of them to like in this show).

Jimmy, in attempt to win the approval of his wealthy mother, is finally going to marry someone of quality, after three failed marriages to chorus girls. But Eileen Evergreen (Paige Faure) is “the finest interpreter of modern dance in the world,” as she frequently points out. Faure is very funny and her exaggerated body movements and wonderful solo (“Delishious”) show her off well.

But Jimmy doesn’t really love Eileen, and, in fact, doesn’t really even know what love is until he meets Billie Bendix (Kristie Kerwin), a bootlegger who has no interest in Jimmy — until she winds up in his arms. Like Loehr, Kerwin is ultimately likable. There’s just something “magic” about her.
Her two partners in selling bootleg whiskey are Cookie McGee (Michael Kostroff) and Duke Mahoney (Mark Bradley Miller), each of whom is wonderful in his own way. The threesome, needing somewhere to stash a lot of unsold booze, break into Jimmy’s beach house, which he assures her he almost never visits.

When Jimmy shows up with his soon-to-be wife for a honeymoon, Cookie unwillingly becomes the butler, while Duke becomes a handyman. Kostroff was definitely an audience favorite, and may have received the biggest applause of the night. He’s the classic musical comedy “hood” and plays it to the hilt.

Others in the cast include Music Circus favorite Ron Wisniski (last seen as Herr Schultz in “Cabaret” earlier this month) as Eileen’s politician father. Rich Hebert is Chief Berry, on the trail of Billie and determined to arrest her. Holly Ann Butler plays Jeanie Muldoon, a somewhat dim-witted chorus girl in love with Duke, because she is convinced that he is British royalty and her one ambition is to be queen of England.

Jamie Jones, a favorite of B Street audiences, makes her Music Circus debut as Millicent Winter, Jimmy’s mother, a role she was born to play. It is Millicent who straightens out all the crazy knots the others have tied by revealing a couple of surprises herself. Her role is small, but pivotal, and of course Jones nails it.

Though this musical was written in 2012, some of the lines are perfect for today’s political climate and brought the longest laughs of the night.

There is nothing to fault in this show. It aspires to no great message, it just wants to sing and dance and entertain the audience, and in that it succeeds perfectly.

Music Circus warns that the last show in this season’s series, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is much darker than the Disney film and is probably not suitable for younger children.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The "New" Mikado



Gilbert and Sullivan wrote The Mikado in 1885.  It was, as are all of their 13 operettas, a satire on the British, but to make it different they decided to set it in Japan.  During the rehearsal period, there was a Japanese exhibition in London and they invited people from Japan to help the cast learn the mannerisms of the Japanese, so they would look as authentic as possible.

The show was a big hit and in no time was being performed all over the world, including Japan (in 1888 there were at least 150 companies, world wide, producing it)

For more than 100 years, it has been one of the favorites of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, but in this politically correct environment, there began to be some unrest among the Asian community that Caucasians would play “yellowface.”

In 2014, a Seattle production was attacked by a local newspaper, a scheduled production in New York was canceled due to threats, and companies across the United States were having to examine doing the show or face pickets, scathing newspaper publicity and other disruptive consequences.

San Francisco’s Lamplighters, who have performed The Mikado 21 times in its 64 year history, was confronted by two Asian-American theater groups who threatened to picket every performance, which resulted in the possible loss of the Yerba Buena Center, their San Francisco home, which did not want to be picketed every weekend.

They first extended an invitation to the Asian theater community to audition for the show, but few showed up (and the cast can be as large as 40 people).  Then they came up with what they hoped was a workable solution.  They decided to re-set the location of the work to Renaissance Italy (specifically Milan, which sounds enough like “Japan”), a period with opulent costuming opportunities, which would make for a beautiful tableaux.

The company rewrote the sections of the original which referred to Japan (it turns out it was less than 2% of the original script), and changed character names to make them sound Italian rather than Japanese.  The Mikado became Il Ducato.  Koko, the executioner, is now the Italianized Coco, and YumYum, his love, is now Aniam.  And so on.

Outrage from ticket buyers was instant.  The faithful weren’t going to have their Mikado messed with.  I admit to being one of the faithful upset at having my Mikado changed.  But I am – or at least was -- an official Lamplighters historian and I felt I should see it just to find out how bad it was.  I went in with an open mind and came out impressed that thy had left the integrity of Gilbert and Sullivan pretty much intact and without the backdrop of Japan it became blatantly obvious how very little “Japan” there actually is in the original, so that the political barbs and quips about British society stood out much more clearly.

It helps to have a first rate cast. Charles Martin makes an imposing, even coquettish Mikado with enough blood thirstiness in his bones to make him terrifying. 

His son NankiPoo (now called Niccolu), is played by Mason Gates, who has a magnificent voice, perhaps one of the strongest I have heard in a lifetime of Mikados.  His was the only Italian name that I did not like, actually.

His love Amiam (YumYum) was the delicious Patricia Westley, flanked by her two friends Pizzi (Michele Schroeder) and Pippa (Autumn Allee).  Schroeder was a particular delight to watch.  She had a sparkle that lit up the stage whenever she was on it.

The imposing William H. Neil was Pooba, Lord High Everything else.  Neil has played the role of PoohBah for, it seems, centuries and has perfected it.  He really was born sneering.

William Neely was Piccia Tuccia, a noble lord.  This is a thankless character, because he has little to do after the opening number, still Neely strides around the stage nobly and fills in on ensemble numbers beautifully.

Sonia Gariaeff was Catiscia (Katisha), the matronly gorgon who has set her cap for Niccolu and would rather see him executed than in love with another.  Gariaeff is a marvel.  Her voice filled the rafters of the Lesher Center and yet she was able to display her softer side in contemplating the suicide of a love-lorn little bird.


And then there was Coco, the Lord High Executioner of Tirmisu.  Of all Gilbert & Sullivan characters, this one is my favorite and I have seen good ones, bad ones, and so-so ones.  To my delight, F. Lawrence Ewing is one of the better ones. Over the past 25 years, Lawrence has made patter roles his own and his Coco is simply wonderful.  His wooing of Catiscia is one of the best scenes in the show,  His “shrink not from me, Catiscia” as she growls and lunges at him brings gales of laughter.  


His list song, part of which is rewritten to be currently topical–a practice which predates this “new’ Mikado--written mostly by the marvelous Barbara Heroux is not to be missed.

Coco on the right with Pooba
Yes, the Japanese influence has been replaced by the broader Renaissance swirls, the more open gestures.  Student fans have been replaced by school books and everywhere there are little differences, but the important thing is that the integrity of the original Gilbert & Sullivan remains, and if the G&S Faithful can look at this show in that way, they will find a thoroughly enjoyable “new” show with most of the things they loved so much about the original.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Nevermore


If Edward Gorey and Tim Burton were to collaborate on a show, it would “Nevermore,” by the Green Valley Theatre Company in its West Coast premiere, running through Aug. 28.

The full title is “Nevermore — The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe,” with book, lyric and music by Jonathan Christenson and directed by Christopher Cook. The author freely admits that he has “blurred the lines between fact and fiction” in creating the life of this iconic American writer.

This is an original, exciting, and yes, weird musical, which has an operatic feel in that there is minimal to no dialog and everything is either sung or given in recitative, somewhat like Poe’s writings itself. It is quite dark, but yet strangely entertaining.

Start with the beautiful set, designed by Cook. Green Valley has a small, intimate venue with a small stage, part of which is shared with the seven-piece orchestra. Yet Cook has managed to create a lush-looking interior room with a beautiful stairway to nowhere. It becomes several different venues with the addition of a couple of roll-on set pieces.

Add the wonderful Victorian-esque costumes of assistant director (and bass player) Meg Masterson and the choreography of Jacob Montoya.

Finally, add Cook’s creative puppets — “regular” puppets, imaginative shadow puppets and an unbelievable raven — and you have yet another layer of this remarkable musical.

A familiar name in the Sacramento theater community is Ryan Blanning, cast as Edgar Allen Poe. Blanning is surrounded by 13 other talented actors, each of whom plays many different roles, so nobody is identified by role.

However, a couple of names deserve identification, foremost among them Mark Ettensohn, who acts as a narrator throughout much of the play, and Sara Logan, who plays Elizabeth Poe, Edgar’s actress mother who actually died when Poe was a baby. She plays a big part in this fictionalized version of the writer’s life and establishes early on the running theme throughout the play, is that art as an immortalizing force.

Elizabeth’s death also sets up a number of losses in his life of women he loved dearly. It explains his morose “Annabel Lee,” for example — Elmira (Sidney Raey-Gonzales) in this version of the story. Indeed, we realize that had Poe had a happy childhood, we might never have heard of him.

The score is dark and spooky and relentless, with sudden breaks for truly wonderful songs like Poe’s song of “The Raven.”

Poe died at age 40 of unknown causes and all medical records of his death have mysteriously disappeared, including his death certificate, so it is anybody’s guess what brought his life to such an early end. But it seems that even in death, he left us with a mystery.

Sadly, the body mics of the Green Valley theater often muddle the sound, so while there is no problem hearing any of the performers, understanding them, especially when singing as a chorus, is too often difficult.

In all honesty, this is a show that would not be my cup of tea, yet I felt this production was surprisingly enjoyable — and can there be a better recommendation than that?

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Al and Homer: The Drone Play


Jerry Fishman, whose play “Al and Homer, The Drone Play,” opened at California Stage last week, is basically a librarian and a poet. But his growing anger and frustration with America’s drone program caused him to direct that anger into writing a play that explores the effect of drone warfare on the drone pilots and their families, and the lack of interest or outrage by most of the country.

It has taken 10 years to bring his passion to the stage, sponsored by Ovation Stage and directed by Penny Kline.

There are several good things about this play. First and foremost is the incomparable Janet Motenko as the clown who becomes the heart of the piece. She is mostly silent (unless she is singing or playing the kazoo), and she is in just about every scene. Her costume, make-up and catalogue of marvelous facial expressions make her the one to watch.

It was also a brilliant idea to add “Fred and Ginger” (Elias Martinez and Rayana Wedge) who, choreographed by Sunny Smith, dance to familiar tunes of the 1940s and ’50s to fill in the time between dramatic scenes. Moving scenery on or off stage is frequently choreographed into their dance.

“The Drone Play” is the story of two drone pilots, Al (Terry Randolph) and Homer (Brent Dirksen), sitting in a bunker in the Las Vegas desert, looking at a TV monitor all day as they zero in on their targets halfway around the world. Over the course of the play you see how the pressure of the job and their completely opposite personalities gradually take things to the limit.

This is the first problem with the play; at least I hope it’s just the play, and not reality. A man like Al, with as much revulsion at the notion of collateral damage, should really be in another job. But by the same token a volatile, hate-filled person like Homer, who revels in “killing all the ragheads,” also should not be in control of a program that could wipe out innocent men, women and children.

Homer is married to Amanda (Lynnette Blaney) and Al is dating Nicole (Aviv Hannan) and we watch what both the actual jobs and the animosity between the two men do to their loved ones.

David Kamminga plays Yamir Ribbons, a newscaster for Al Jazeera TV who reads several breaking news announcements about tensions between Pakistan and India. It is a shame that even holding what was supposed to be a bulletin in his hands, he still stumbled over his lines every time.

The main problem with the play, however, is that the dramatic scenes seem to get progressively shorter, and toward the end it almost seemed as if the dramatic scenes were the filler for the dance sequences. The stilted dialogue often gave the characters a somewhat wooden feel, despite their otherwise fine performances.

The ending also was predictable shortly into the second act, so the big shocker at the end wasn’t.
Fishman has taken an important subject and created an important play that could be better, but that nonetheless should be seen by a larger audience, especially those who have no idea about our drone program and need to be shaken out of their apathy.

This gets an R rating for very rough adult language.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Madwoman of Chaillot


From the moment you enter the Brunelle Performance Hall for Acme Theatre Company’s production of “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” you feel as if you are in Paris. The set design by Benton Harshaw is full of bright colors, with the tables and chairs of the outdoor cafĂ© painted in multi colors, accented by beautiful awnings and bright lighting (by Ari Wilk and Andre De Loera-Brust).

Immediately you begin to be introduced to the colorful, quirky villagers, The flower girl (Sylvie), who pushes her wheelbarrow across the stage; the street juggler (Garnet Phinney); the accordion-playing street singer (Maya Tripathi); the shoelace peddler (Patrick Foraker); an American in pastel plaid seersucker (Ryan Wiegt); and those wonderful whimsical bikes by Peter Wm. Wagner being pedaled back and forth across the stage.

This 1940 comedy by Jean Giraudoux was written during the Nazi occupation of France and is, in the words of director Emily Henderson, “part light-hearted fluff, party heavy-handed fable, part dense philosophy, part political protest, and part Dr. Seuss.”

It also, like some other revived stage shows, seems to have relevance to life today.

Early in the show, we are introduced to the bad guys, “The Machine” — Ari Wilk as the President, Chaitrika Budamagunta as the Baron, Mikaela Manzanzo as the Broker, and Michelle Monheir as the Prospector.

(It should be noted that this show is short on male actors, but the women playing men’s roles do an excellent job.)

They have discovered that there is oil under the streets of Paris and they plan to drill in the center of the city and make themselves rich.

A young man, Pierre (Giancarlo Gilbet-Igesrud), is sent to plant a bomb to start the plot working, but he has an attack of morals and throws the bomb, and himself into the river. The first thing he sees when revived is the waitress Irma (McKella van Boxtel) and it is love at first sight, though they are both too shy to do anything about it.

Aurelia, the eccentric heroine of the piece, who lives in the Chaillot district of Paris, learns of the nefarious plot and sets out to foil the plan and, with the assistance of her friends, real and imaginary, save the city.

Julia Smart-Truco, is a stand-out in her colorful costume and green hair (costume designers Eleanor Richter and Cassaundra Wages). It’s difficult to know if she’s fey or smarter than everyone … or a bit of both.

She enlists the help of her fellow “madwomen” — Constance (Cassidy Smith), Gabrielle (Garnet Phinney) and Josephine (Eleanor Richter) — to hatch a plot. It involves luring The Machine into her basement on the promise that the water is rich with petroleum. (Sarah Zaragoza-Smith gives another outstanding performance in the small role of Sewer Man.)

All of the villagers meet at Aurora’s home and conduct a mock trial, convicting the group without their presence. The Ragpicker (Chris Monheit) gives testimony in the person of the collective rich guys, with a wonderful long monologue in which he brags that “money adores me. It simply won’t leave me alone.” And then to prove he’s really a good guy, interested in the welfare of the poor, “It is a matter of fact faithfully reported in all of the newspapers I own that I spend all of my waking hours trying to get rid of my money.”

Despite the eloquence of his defense, the men are convicted and while the group leaves, Aurelia sets out to put her plot into motion.

When she has succeeded, she sums it all nicely by saying, “Nothing is ever so wrong in this world that a sensible woman can’t set it right in the course of an afternoon.”

Perhaps that will be prophetic.