Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Flea in Her Ear

There’s a whole lot of laughing going on at the Woodland Opera House by an audience enjoying George Feydeau’s farce, “A Flea in Her Ear,” directed by Rodger McDonald.

This frenzied and hilarious comedy relies on the razor-sharp characterizations of a top-rate cast and the crisp direction of MacDonald (who also plays the libidinous doctor, Finache).
The play was written in 1907, at the height of La Belle Epoque, a period that ended with World War I, in which life was peaceful and the arts flourished. The current production was translated from the French by Barnett Shaw.

The story, told in three acts, is set in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, when Raymonde, wife of Victor Emmanuel (Analise Langford Clark) begins to suspect her husband may be getting a little romance on the side, since their previously active and apparently quite satisfying love life has suddenly come to a screeching halt. (This suspicion is the “flea in her ear.”)

(As an aside, I will mention that the printed program for this production is extremely frustrating. Actors aren’t listed in order of appearance, or alphabetically or, it seems, even in order of importance. Most characters are not called by name by the other characters, and when you have a character named “Raymonde” who turns out to be a girl, and a character named “Camille,” who is a boy, your head can go spinning. (They say you can’t tell the players without a program, but in this production, I had difficulty telling the players even with a program!)

But I digress. Back to the show. Raymonde confides in her best friend, Lucienne (Kirsten Myers), who suggests that her friend play a little trick on her husband to see if her fears are confirmed. She suggests that Raymonde send him an anonymous letter from a secret admirer, offering to meet him at the local seedy hotel, Le Coq D’or (“door,” not “di-or,” as some in the cast insist on calling it) for a little rendezvous.

Raymonde likes the idea, but knows that her husband will recognize her handwriting, so Lucienne writes the letter for her. As Lucienne is married to a hot-tempered and passionate Spaniard, Don Carlos Homenides de Histingua (Gabe Avila), we can see what is coming when all of the mixups occur in Act 2.

Standouts in this production include Steve McKay as Victor Emmanuel and, later, his doppelganger, the Coq D’Or bellhop Pochel. His transformations — which involve both quick costume changes and personality changes from the prim and proper Victor to the laconic and confused Poche and back again — are wonderful.

Another outstanding performance is by Brent Randolph as Camille Chandebise, Victor’s nephew who suffers from a speech impediment leaving him unable to pronounce consonants. I don’t know how long it took Randolph to perfect the impediment, but he does it eloquently, broadly and impeccably, giving long speeches that are all but unintelligible until he is given a little instrument to insert in his mouth to correct it. When he loses it later, in mid-harangue, and immediately switches back to his old impediment, it’s brilliant.

McDonald himself, always wonderful, does not disappoint in this role. The women, Clark and Myers, carry most of the first scene and are prim and proper and somewhat soft-spoken so one had to strain to understand them. There was none of that problem with MacDonald, who confidently strode in the door and took over the stage, and we could all heave a sigh of relief knowing we were in excellent hands.

Gil Sebastian plays Victor’s best friend Romain Tournel, smitten with Raymonde and delighted when she turns up at Le Coq D’or, thinking she is finally going to give in to his amorous advances.

Avila, costumed in the bright red and yellow of a Spanish soldier about to do battle and wielding a long sword, is in stark contrast, both visually and temperamentally, to the rest of the cast. He makes the most of the chance to be outrageous.

Tim Gaffaney is Ferallon, the manager of Le Coq D’or, who spends most of the second act kicking Victor/Poche in the backside.

The meat of the show occurs in Act 2, which is reminiscent of the second act of “Noises Off,” with so many coming and going, so many things going wrong, and so many misunderstandings, so many doors. It will leave the audience breathless with laughter, especially the diversion while the set crew changes back to the first-act set in the brief stay-in-your-seat second intermission.

So when all the world is a hopeless jumble and the raindrops tumble all around, leave your troubles outside and come to the Woodland Opera House for a good two hours of fun and laughter.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat


Andrew Lloyd Webber was only 19 years old when he was asked to write a piece for a local school choir, to sing during an Easter service. He asked his friend Tim Rice (then 22) to write the lyrics, and the two settled on the Genesis story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. As originally performed by those children, the work was only 15 to 20 minutes long.

After a number of additions, changes and performances by amateur companies, the full production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” opened on Broadway in 1982. Now it has returned to the Sacramento Community Center Theater.

The show, the retelling of the beloved Bible story, is full of all those things that make for a fun musical – sibling rivalry, betrayal, fratricide, deception, slavery, seduction, imprisonment, execution, and famine. A natural for a fun evening.

The new production, under the direction and choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler, is a lively, energetic 90 minutes of nonstop singing and dancing. In creating a version of the musical more to 2015 tastes, Blankenbuehler has eliminated a children’s chorus, present in many productions (since this was essentially a children’s story that is told as a dream of the lead character) in his cast and has replaced them with scantily clad women and bare-chested men, which the audience didn’t seem to mind at all.

Though there is a graphic seduction scene it is done so tastefully that even the little 3-year-old sitting in front of me wouldn’t realize what was going on, so it’s quite kid-friendly.

In this day of digital effects, one does not have to have expensive sets to create an elaborate setting. The actual set pieces for this show (designed by Beowulf Boritt) are curtains, moveable blocks and steps, but the projections on the “walls” and in one instance the costumes of the performers are pretty spectacular and make you forget that there are actually no impressive sets on the stage. All are enhanced by the lighting design of Howell Binkley.

But if there were savings on the set, there was none in the costumes of designer Jennifer Caprio, especially the coat of many colors itself (particularly in its second appearance) and the costume of the Pharaoh.
Leading the cast are newlyweds and former American Idol contestants, Ace Young as Joseph and Diana DeGarmo as the narrator.

It is DeGarmo who keeps the story flowing in the most demanding role of the show. She’s energetic, cute and funny and has a set of pipes on her that rocks the house, though it tended to be shrill, which hurt my ears.

Young is a fine Joseph, looking tall and handsome with a charisma that charms the audience. He gets the opportunity to display his voice in the solo “Close Every Door.”

But the supporting cast actually make more of an impact. Brother Reuben (Brian Golub) takes the lead in “One More Angel in Heaven,” a salute to country and western music, while brother Simeon (Paul Castree) shines in “Those Canaan Days” (a parody of French ballads) and Judah (Max Kumangai) heads up “Benjamin Calypso.”

The show stopper, though, is always Pharaoh’s song, “Song of a King,” sung by Ryan Williams in the manner of an Elvis Presley. Williams gyrates and thrusts his hips, courts the audience and pays homage to the King of Rock and Roll. His encore is built into the song and the audience loved it.

There is stunningly precise choreography in several numbers. Particularly outstanding is “Canaan Days,” with the antics that go to divvying up a rat into 11 portions to serve for dinner.

The show’s final number is the ballad “Any Dream Will Do,” a beautiful duet between the Narrator and Joseph, and it set up the finale, “Megamix” with all the cast dressed in white. It seemed to be as long as the entire second act and had the audience clapping and bouncing along with the cast.

This show is always fun and this production does not disappoint.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ideation

When Aaron Loeb’s “Ideation” premiered at the San Francisco Playhouse in 2013, critics called it everything from “a demonically dark comedy” to a “psychological thrill ride,” a “taut locked-room mystery,” a “gripping satire” and both a “corporate farce” and a “corporate thriller.”
Capital Stage’s production, adroitly directed by Michael Stevenson, proves that this very funny play is indeed all that.

Loeb, senior vice president of Kabam, a free-to-play video game company in San Francisco, writes plays as his second profession and has earned seven Emerging Playwright Awards. He explained that his video gaming experience, combined with his wife’s work as an international human-rights lawyer at San Francisco’s Center for Justice and Accountability, is the inspiration for this Glickman Award winner for Best New Play of 2014.

It is difficult to talk of the specifics of the plot, since they are better revealed in their own time, but the setting is a generic corporate office, with set design by Jonathan Williams, featuring a conference room table designed and built by Marc Foster.

As the show begins, Hannah (Carrie Paff) in her red power suit, is setting up for an important meeting that is about to take place. While it is obvious that Hannah is the brains of the group about to discuss a thorny corporate problem, she is “just” a woman and has to play her cards very carefully.

She first butts heads with Scooter (Russell Dow), an office boy hired because he is the son of one of the corporation’s board members. Scooter believes the work for which he was hired is beneath him and wants to be part of the serious discussion, leaving Hannah with the problem of how to handle this upstart who has no respect for her authority.

The trio of Brock (Jason Kuykendall), Ted (Peter Mohrmann) and Sandeep (Jimmy Sidhu) arrive, fresh from a trip to Crete, in high spirits, laughing and high-fiving about the complicated deal they have signed that will make the stockbrokers rich while causing financial difficulties for Greece. Laughter and good-ol’-boy hilarity ensues.

The dialogue comes fast and furious, and don’t try to figure out what is going on — it may be irrelevant at this point. The beauty of Loeb’s script is how he crafts the action to slowly build tension. Just when you are horrified at what you are hearing, a new element is added and the picture changes completely, and then the paranoia begins and the story evolves even more.

This play needs skillful hands to make it work, and in this cast, Stevenson has that in spades. Kuykendall’s Brock is a Don Draper-like alpha male, arrogant, sure of himself and a take-charge guy. His subtle body language changes throughout the play are brilliant.

Mohrmann is at his finest as the blustery Ted who is the numbers guy, who wants to get on with the discussion so he can get out of the room and make it to his daughter’s soccer game in time. By the same token, he realizes the enormity of the ethically ambiguous project they are tasked to design; his thoughts about it ultimately change everything.

Sidhu is the Indian Sandeep, here on a work visa, who is committed to seeing the project through to completion, though he is having second thoughts and realizing that to disagree with his colleagues risks his legal standing in the country.

Patrick Murphy is the disembodied voice of “J.D.,” the CEO who has demanded a completed project plan in 90 minutes and puts additional pressure on the committee members, all of whom are obviously terrified of incurring J.D.’s displeasure.

“Ideation” challenges the audience to weigh their moral values against global responsibility. Do the needs of the many outweigh the desires of the few — and whom can we really trust when we are making these decisions?

This is a top-notch production of a play that makes you laugh, cringe and question all at once.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

5 Songs

Jack Gallagher is the busiest Renaissance man whom you may never have heard of.

This three-time Emmy Award-winning playwright and comedian has played every comedy club in America (or so it seems from his bio), was a regular at The Improv in Los Angeles, appeared in movies, co-hosts the popular nationally syndicated public television show, “Money Track,” starred in his own sitcom (“Bringing up Jack”) and had a recurring role on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
He’s been on a number of talk/variety shows, including “The Tonight Show” (with both Johnny Carson and Jay Leno) and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” He was even the host of the California Lottery’s “Big Spin” from 1996 to 1998.

Yet, all I knew of him was that he was the friendly guy in the old Crystal ice cream commercials.

Gallagher’s new show, “5 Songs,” is the fifth show commissioned by the B Street Theatre, where it opened this past weekend and will run for the next six weeks. It is outstanding.

The central theme is the music of our lives, how sometimes it only takes a few notes of an old song to transport us back to another time and place, with memories that may be pleasant or may be unpleasant, but you can’t escape the story that accompanies that particular song.

The walls of the B Street Main Stage theater, by scenic designer Meg McGuigan, are lined with titles of songs that have special meaning to Gallagher. The audience is given a choice of four from a list of seven or eight. Each of the four sections of the audience selects a song, Gallagher selects the fifth, the rest are removed and the show is on.

Your show may be quite different from mine, as it will change every night, depending on the songs chosen.
With the accompaniment of Tommy Dunbar on guitar, Gallagher begins to reminisce about his memories connected to each particular song. The first song opening night, for example, was Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man,” which evoked a visceral reaction and then led to a lengthy description of what it is like to be the opening man for such names as Snow, Dolly Parton, Paul Simon and Tony Bennett, among many others, living life on the road and being the guy nobody wanted to see because everyone was there for the headliner. Some experiences were very bad; some were not so bad (and Bennett, apparently, was the best).

Gallagher has an easy delivery that makes the audience feel as if they were sitting in his living room listening to this delightful man tell them stories from his past.

The most poignant of the songs discussed was “Danny Boy,” which brought up stories of his complicated childhood, his relationship with his parents and how their idiosyncracies shaped his life and turned him into the parent he has become to his two now-adult children. It a beautiful piece and anyone who shares some of the experiences he describes will be moved to tears.

Junior Walker’s “What Does It Take?” opened the door to Gallagher’s memories of his first job, working 13 hours a day in an ice warehouse at age 15, and of developing a work ethic that has followed him the rest of his life.

This is a two-act show, the second act being much shorter than the first, but the time flies by and when it ends, you wish you’d had a chance to hear what he had to say about the songs that did not get selected.
It was a delightful evening spent with a likable guy, who makes doing something very difficult look very easy.
But I missed the ice cream.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Nunsense

Dan Goggin apparently enjoyed his Catholic school upbringing so much that he decided to honor those wacky nuns of whom he was so fond. He penned a cabaret show called “The Nunsense Story,” which opened for a four-day run and was so popular it was extended to 38 weeks.

Encouraged, he expanded his original concept into a full-length comedy called “Nunsense,” which opened off-Broadway and ran for an unbelievable 10 years, the second-longest running off-Broadway show (after “The Fantasticks”). By the time it ended its run, it had been translated into 26 different languages and had seen more than 8,000 productions worldwide. It has even spawned five different sequels.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of this show, the Sacramento Theater Company is bringing it back to the Pollock Stage.

The story involves the Little Sisters of Hoboken — who once worked in a leper colony in the south of France — who are now living in New Jersey, after having been ousted by Protestant missionaries.

While several of the sisters were out playing bingo with a bunch of Maryknolls, their cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, accidentally poisons 52 of the nuns with her tainted vichyssoise. The remaining sisters managed to bury all but four of the departed when they ran out of money and discovered that the Mother Superior took some of the funds raised to buy a flat-screen TV. So the four remaining are being kept in the freezer (“blue nuns,” you might say) and the health department is beating at their door.

They have decided to put on a show to raise the rest of the money so they can finally bury their fellow sisters … and thus is the set-up for the rest of the show. In a somewhat strange explanation, the nuns feel their frozen sisters can’t get to heaven until their bodies are buried … which isn’t what I learned in Catholic school, but let it pass — it’s a plot device.

While the material may be somewhat dated and the jokes real groaners, this two-hour farce kept the audience in stitches and praise was heaped on the show as people left the theater, so it’s obviously a humor that people still enjoy.

Heading the nuns is the marvelous Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, an STC favorite. Her Sister Mary Regina is strongly in command, except for that little episode at the end of Act 1 which gives the perpetual understudy, Sister Robert Ann (Gina Coyle), her moment in the spotlight as she reminisces about what it was for her “Growing up Catholic.” It is a beautiful and poignant song about changes in the Catholic Church, which Coyle delivers beautifully.

Miranda D. Lawson is the Sister Mary Hubert, Mistress of Novices, the second-in-command who, in previous productions of this show that I have seen, has delusions of grandeur and desperately wants to be No. 1, though in this production the two women seem to have a good relationship. Hubert’s “Holier than Thou” is the show-stopper of the evening.

Kiki Burns and Bella Coppola are double-cast as Sister Mary Leo, the novice. Burns played the role on opening night. She is very sweet and wants to be the first ballerina nun. I’m not sure what the Little Sisters of Hoboken are doing with a Daughter of Charity cornette, but Mary Leo dons the headpiece and dances for all the world like The Flying Nun.

Rounding out the gang of five is Sister Amnesia (Amanda Goldrick), who can’t remember who she is but who ultimately comes up with the solution for the burial of the blue nuns just in the nick of time.

Some of the material is mildly offensive (I didn’t like the song about the leper colony) but there is no denying that the audience loved it.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Stop Kiss


Acme Theatre Company has never shied away from controversial material, and with its production of “Stop Kiss” by Diana Son, directed by Betsy Raymond, the company has done it again.

Raymond explains that the play is a 360-degree love story, “one that plops us down in the middle of the action and invites us to explore in all directions. This play jumps backward and forward in time within a period of months, pivoting around a kiss and an assault, both of which challenge Callie and Sara’s lives.”
We watch the relationship between Callie (Danielle Schlenker) and Sara (Eden Tomich) develop from acquaintance to friendship to something deeper. It is a story told with sensitivity and one that anyone who has ever fallen in love can identify with.

Schlenker and Tomich give polished, adult performances through which we understand their growing affection for one another and feel heartbreak at the gay bashing that changes the lives of both forever.
Callie is a traffic reporter for a New York TV news station. She rides around in a helicopter and confesses that she isn’t really a journalist. She lives in a spacious, if perpetually messy, apartment.

One of her good friends is George (William Forkin), a former boyfriend to whom she often turns for a meal, a date, words of comfort or for casual, friendly sex.

Into her life steps Sara, whose cat Callie has agreed to board. Sara is an elementary school teacher from St. Louis who is new to the city and eager to be shown around. She left her family and former boyfriend back in Missouri to take a job in the Bronx. She is focused and loves a challenge. She is Callie’s exact opposite.
The women quickly become friends, a friendship that gradually morphs into a different kind of attraction. Schlenker and Tomich handle the relationship adroitly as we watch the approach/avoidance as both are feeling attracted, but both afraid to voice (or act upon) their feelings. The sexual tension comes in the form of gestures started, but not completed, meaningful looks, statements started, but not finished.

The deepening rapport between these women is touchingly restrained. Their faces during a sleepover date when Sara asks Callie to share the couch bed with her in hopes of luring the cat out of hiding convey their feelings clearly.

Callie finally decides to confess her feelings while the women are walking alone in a park at 4 a.m. and gives Sara a kiss. Rather than being a “happily ever after” kiss, as it would have been in normal romance, the kiss turns into a nightmare for the women, and displays the ugliness of violence as well as the tenderness and joy of a first kiss.

This play was written in 1998, and while it has a fresh feeling that is sadly relevant to today, there are things that make it feel dated. As Callie is giving her statement to the police detective (Andres de Loera-Brust), the detective is looking for the salacious, and seems to be blaming the women for provoking the attack. I would hope that this insensitivity would not be the case in a city like New York today.

DeLoera-Brust gives a good performance as someone who is trying to be sympathetic while at the same time barely hiding his own prejudices about the situation.

(There is also a scene where Sara is taking vinyl records from a bag and discussing them, which is not relevant to the plot, but which is somewhat jarring in this digital music era.)

We watch Calllie’s feelings for Sara deepen during the latter’s hospitalization, when she comes to accept and admit publicly her feelings for Sara.

Forkin, as Callie’s casual boyfriend, and Ricky Houck, as Sara’s ex-boyfriend, give restrained performances as the confused men who are trying to wrap their heads around the relationship between their former girlfriends. (Forkin has some wonderful lines, i.e., when he hears that Sara won her two-year teaching job in the Bronx by placing first in a contest in St. Louis, he asks, “What did the loser get in this contest?”)

Also in the cast, giving fine performances, are Tina Simson as Mrs. Winsley, witness to the attack, and Eliza Buchanan as the sensitive nurse who cares for Sara. She is the only person who really understands the feelings between the women and gives Callie the opportunity to be more open about her emotions.

Before seeing this play, I wondered about its relevance to such a progressive community as Davis and whether it was as important to be performed here as, perhaps somewhere in the Midwest. However, during the question-and-answer session following the show (there is one after each performance), I realized that maybe we aren’t quite as enlightened a community as I thought we were.

While no one was judgmental of the two female characters, some of the questions seemed to rise out of an unawareness of the level of hatred against the gay community, and perhaps this play is one way of raising the awareness to different levels.

Congratulations to all involved in the presentation of this important work.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Anything Goes


A patron stopped me on my way out of the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center at the conclusion of Davis Musical Theatre Company’s new production of “Anything Goes.”

“If you weren’t having fun during this one,” she said, “you should check your pulse because you might be dead.”

I agreed. This sparkling, toe-tapping, high-kicking, silly musical by Cole Porter (with book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton), directed by John Haine and choreographed by Kaylin Scott, is a delight from start to finish.

And guess what? DMTC has an orchestra! They’ve been telling us for years that they did, but now they have put the musicians front and center at the top of the simple, but attractive ship deck designed by Steve Isaacson. Hearing them with no stage floor to muffle their sound was wonderful, and we found out what a really good band they are.

It’s a dream cast. Everyone is first-rate, even 15-year-old Anthony Swaminathan, a member of DMTC’s Young Performers’ Theater, who is one of the ship guests, but also comports himself well in the role of a reporter at the start of the show.

Adam Sartain is the blow-hard Wall Street banker Elisha Whitney, with an eye for the ladies and a taste for good spirits.

Billy Crocker (Andy Hyun) is Whitney’s best boy, who sneaks aboard the ship to woo his girl Hope (Katherine Tracy) away from her stuffy fiancĂ© Evelyn Oakleigh (Joel Porter). It’s nice seeing the talented Hyun in such a big part and he sings, acts and dances up a storm. He handles the rather difficult and odd song “All Through the Night” like a pro.

Tracy plays the dutiful debutante well, allowing her true feelings for Billy to slowly rise to the surface.
Her mother, the stuffy socialite Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt, is played by Cyndi Wall, who has the best disdainful glance ever.

As for Joel Porter, he’s just a delight as the pompous Brit, marrying American aristocracy, but gradually finding his taste turning to the dynamic Reno Sweeney (Chris Cay Stewart), who is more his age and who brings new life into his predictable routine. Their duet, “Let’s Misbehave,” is a highlight.

Stewart is a dynamite Sweeney, an evangelist-turned-nightclub singer. The role was originally written for Ethel Merman and, even if you didn’t know that, you would guess from just listening to the songs. Stewart makes the role her own and shines throughout, particularly when her religious roots come out for “Blow, Gabriel Blow.”

Mike Mechanick is con man Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #13, disguised as a minister, who has some of the best lines in the show and delivers them perfectly, to the delight of the audience. His “Be Like the Blue Bird” is not to be believed.

His girlfriend Bonnie is given a wonderful performance by Jessica Arena, who lit up the stage at every entrance. The character of Bonnie was a minor one in the original 1934 production but expanded for the 1962 revival and how lucky we are that Arena was given the expanded version to play. She is a real firecracker who is such fun to watch explode.

Costumer Jean Henderson has outdone herself for this production. From the various skimpy costumes for Sweeney’s “Angels” to Reno’s dazzling Act 2 gowns, everything was perfect, even the ingenious disguises for Billy, as he tries to keep from being picked up as a stowaway.

And for DMTC regular audience members, have a good time playing the DMTC version of “Where’s Waldo,” spotting favorite Mary Young among the passengers.

This is a wonderful way to start the 2015 theater year.