Wednesday, December 12, 2018

In December of 2017, Capital Stage introduced Sacramento audiences to a new Christmas play, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” It was an instant hit and audience favorite to be repeated in 2018.

Written by Lauren Gunderson (“the most produced living playwright in America”) and Margo Melcon, and was written on a six-hour drive from San Francisco to Ashland, Ore., in 2016. The play echoes the format of Jane Austen, recalling what happens after “they lived happily ever after.”
The play is once again directed by Peter Mohrmann.

It is Christmas and the scene is the beautiful living room of sister Lizzie (Brittni Barger) and her husband, the hunky Mr. Darcy (J.R. Yancher). (It is worth noting that six of the eight characters are returning, after their performance in last year’s production).

The set is by Eric Broadwater, and one of the more opulent you will find on a Sacramento stage
The room is dominated by a real Christmas tree, the practice of bringing real trees into the house at Christmas being a new concept in England, though it was started in Germany. The tree becomes almost a major character in the show since it is decorated throughout the evening and everyone has comments to make about it.

Sister Mary (Elyse Sharp) is first to arrive for this family Christmas. She’s the “bookish” one who prefers to live alone, read books and play the piano (kudos to Ed Lee for his sound design which makes it difficult to determine if Sharp is actually playing the piano or not!).

She’s not much interested in the frivolous conversation of sisters Lizzie, the very-pregnant Jane (Jennifer Martin) and Lydia (Allie Coupe). (Sister Kitty is on holiday in London.)

Jane’s husband is Kevin Gish, whom Davis people may remember from his very funny role in “Gutenberg! the Musical!” His militant enthusiasm for everything, including his impending fatherhood, is infectious and makes him an audience favorite.

Mary’s life is shaken up by the arrival of Arthur DeBourgh (Aaron Kitchin), also a bookish loner who seems embarrassed to have just become fabulously wealthy on inheriting his aunt’s estate.

Sparks don’t exactly fly between these two introverts, given their reticent natures, but they are both reading the same book on metaphysics, so there is an instant attraction. Things are starting to get interesting when Arthur’s cousin Anne (Andrea J. Love) arrives to announce she is his fiancĂ©e.

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is a wonderful addition to the usual list of Christmas-themed theatrical productions and, performed so beautifully by Capital Stage, it’s a must-see for all those looking to get a little holly in their hearts before the actual day itself.

Saturday, November 03, 2018


“Annie” is one of those classic musicals that seems to come around so often that I groan at the thought of seeing it again. But then I go to the theater and remember why I really like this retelling of the Little Orphan Annie story, and why it is so popular, especially when done with the enthusiasm and talent of Davis Musical Theatre Company.

This latest production, directed by Steve Isaacson, with choreography by Ron Cisneros, has a wonderful, talented cast.

This show really rises or falls on the talents of Annie and in Katarina Detrick (in her first lead role) DMTC has a winner. She sometimes tends to be shrill, but she is a belter of the first order, and they probably can hear her out in the parking lot when she sings “Tomorrow.” She also is a good actress and professionally handles the dog Sandy (Cleopatra Graves) who is more interested in running into the audience, with tail wagging, than behaving herself on stage, despite the treats Annie kept in her pocket. Detrick never missed a beat and eventually got the dog under control.

Perhaps the moment that most impressed me was when billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Gannon Styles) is letting Annie know how she has wormed her way into his heart. The intense look of real love on her face as she watches him was just beautiful to behold.

Styles, with a solid theater background, is new to DMTC and what an addition he is. He gives great warmth to the character of Warbucks and has a great voice to boot.

Warbucks’ secretary, Grace Farrell, played by Chris Cay Stewart, is a warmhearted woman hiding feelings for Warbucks, and a great friend to Annie. Stewart also appears as part of the ensemble in some scenes, where her beautiful voice is easy to identify.

Rachel Hoover, a Davis native who performed more than 30 shows before she went to college (including some with the former Sunshine Children’s Theater), is a spectacular Miss Hannigan, the harridan who runs the orphanage where Annie was dropped off 11 years ago as an infant. She’s enough to scare anybody, and her musical numbers, particularly “Little Girls,” are outstanding.
Christopher Murphy, another DMTC newcomer, makes an impression as her brother, Rooster Hannigan, as does Bridget Styles as his girlfriend Lily St. Regis.

The orphans — Kiera Chang, Chantelle Holt, Vivian Li, Lexy Hutcheon, Sage Sigmon and Katherine Berdovskiy — are well- rehearsed, in good voice and perform their dances professionally. Each girl also has her moment to shine in the spotlight.

What I love about DMTC shows are the little unexpected “gems.” I found three under that category in this production. Amaralyn Ewey is great as the fresh-faced star-to-be, newly arrived in New York. There never was a better role for Marc Valdez than that of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But especially outstanding was Jan Isaacson’s performance as the silent sound man for a Gert Healy (Amy Woodman) radio broadcast. She is just perfect.

With familiar tunes like “Easy Street” and “Tomorrow,” in addition to a score of other fun songs and a cast of adorable little girls and funny bad guys, this is a show that will appeal to everyone, and DMTC makes it fun for all ages.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Darkness Into Light

Pamela Trokanski, a Davis treasure, has been choreographing, performing and teaching in Davis for 34 years. She has given lectures and demonstrations and, since 1994, has funded almost 10,000 free-movement classes for adults 65 and older. She has provided free dance classes for people with Parkinson’s Disease and their caregivers since 2010. At one time she wrote a dance column for The Enterprise.

When I started as a critic, she invited me to come and review one of her dance concerts. I explained that I knew absolutely nothing about dance and she said that made me perfect to review her shows because she meant them to be accessible to everyone.

Over the years, I don’t know how much I have learned about dance, but I certainly have appreciated how accessible they are to everyone.

“Darkness into Light” has one more weekend to play at the Trokanski studio. It is a most timely piece, opening the day of the Pittsburgh killings and a week after all the bomb deliveries. The message is about trying to find peace in this chaotic world in which we live, where we are bombarded by pressures and negative messages on all sides.

How do we find peace for ourselves when we are concerned about the health of the planet or the rapid changes in technology? How do we find balance in a world that feels increasingly chaotic and disorganized? We no longer worry about lions, tigers and bears (oh my) but politics, ethics and technology.

Trokanski’s printed programs are always frustrating because they are misleading. There are eight dancers, it says, but nine show up (the unlisted dancer is Trokanski herself). Music is listed in order of performance, but a piece by Pink (which I figured would help me figure out if I was keeping up) is No. 4 on the list and No. 7 in the performance. Company member stories are listed in order, but Allegra Silberstein (the only dancer I recognized) is No. 2 on the list and doesn’t speak until fourth or fifth.

Better to forget trying to keep it straight and just enjoy the dancing (unless you have to write a review of it).

Dancers, who range in age from young (maybe 10 or 11) to 87, are: Lila Boutin, Allegra Silberstein, Michele Tobias, Leela Ghassemi, Padyn den Dulk, Tracy Liu, Asher Habicht and Karen Block, along with Trokanski.

Dances are accompanied by Trokanski’s narrative or by individual dancers’ recorded “stories” of stressors in their lives, some of which set the stage for particular dance numbers.

In one number, the message is about the daily pressures of life: “Have I remembered to put everything in my purse?” “Where are my keys?” “Is there a traffic jam?” “Am I overwhelmed at work?” etc. She compares the stress to the Lucy/Ethel episode of working in the candy factory, with the ever-increasing speed of the conveyor belt. The dancers make the machine, with all the automatic actions while the recorded speakers dance the role of the overwhelmed person. It was an amazing bit of synchronized action that went on so long I don’t know how the dancers had energy to move to the next number.

After a couple of numbers which give suggestions for how to use meditation to slow down our rapid thought processes, there is a beautiful finale, with each dancer holding a lighted candle — and doing an amazing amount of rolling around just barely not touching the candles! They gather together to “Sleeping at Last” for their final bow.

This is a beautiful, meaningful recital, easily enjoyed whether you know dance or not. Just don’t try to follow the printed program.

Thursday, July 12, 2018


Who says that one young, insignificant poor kid living in the slums can’t change history?
That’s the story, based on true events, which is the subject of the Broadway at Music Circus current production, Disney’s “Newsies.”

At the turn of the 20th century, some 10,000 boys sold newspapers on the streets of New York, many of them orphaned and homeless. The boys paid to get the newspapers, and if they did not sell, the publishers would not buy them back.

During the Spanish-American war, when the desire for news was high, the publishers raised the price charged to the boys from 50 cents per hundred to 60 cents per hundred. But at the end of the war, when the interest dropped, publishers Pulitzer and Hearst did not reduce the price the boys paid, even though other publishers did. The boys demanded a return to the price that their peers at other papers were paying.

Under the leadership of a 15-year-old boy named Kid Blink, the “newsies” organized, held massive outdoor meetings and after two weeks, the publishers and the newsies compromised — they would keep the higher price, but would buy back any unsold papers. The stand-off was considered a major step in the child-labor movement.

In 1992, the story was made into a Disney movie, and in 2014 an award-winning musical with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and book by Harvey Fierstein. It is now a premier for Broadway at Music Circus.

Entering the Wells Fargo Pavilion is like walking into a Brooklyn tenement, with apartments over each doorway, all joined together in a spiderweb of clothes lines, each with laundry hanging from them.

“Kid Blink” (decidedly not the best name for the hero of this tale) is now Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro), an older teen (so he can have a love interest), but the basics of the story are still there.

For “heart” there is “Crutchie” (Blake Stadnik), who has been crippled and walks with a crutch and is a perfect victim for the goons of the publishers trying to squelch the boys.

There is a love interest, Katherine (Laurie Veldheer), a reporter trying to make it in a male-dominated world, and hiding a surprising secret.

There is Davey (John Krause) and his little brother Les (Josh Davis) who, unlike the others, have a home and parents, but who join the others in selling the papers and protesting the fee increase.

But this show belongs to the newsies themselves (if you look closely you can see Davis High’s Jimin Moon). The dancing is amazing and you do get the feel of their camaraderie as well as their desperation.

Paul Schoeffler is powerful as Joseph Pulitzer, who only cares about money and doesn’t have a bit of compassion for the kids (gee … where have we heard that lately?).

Music Circus’ ubiquitous Ron Wisniski has a short but outstanding appearance as a bombastic Teddy Roosevelt (then governor of New York), which earned him well-deserved applause as he left the stage.

The high-energy physicality and enthusiasm of the cast make this an engaging production — and of course the David vs. Goliath struggle is always good to keep an audience entertained!

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

7 Brides for 7 Brothers

Broadway At Music Circus is presenting a lively production of the 1954 Jane Powell/Howard Keel musical. While it is short on story, its strength is in the powerful dance numbers, of which there are many. The production’s book is by Lawrence Kasha and David Landay, music by Gene de Paul, lyrics by Johnny Mercer and new songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn.

There is little “plot” in this adaptation of the 1954 MGM musical. Seven brothers, the Pontipees — mountain men living in the Oregon wilderness — realize that if they had a woman around the place, she could cook and clean for them and keep the place tidy.

Since they’ve been unsuccessful in keeping a housekeeper, it is decided that one of them should find a woman to marry. It falls to Adam, the eldest, to go to town and bring back a wife, along with the other supplies he needs to pick up.

Edward Watts is an imposing Adam with a strong baritone giving a lusty performance.

Adam goes to town and finds Milly (Paige Faure), a fiesty waitress in a local eatery, who is tired of the pressure of serving food to demanding men all day long. What Adam lacks in wooing ability he makes up for in persuasion and Milly agrees to marry him that day and return with him to his wilderness cabin. (Adam just kinda forgot to mention the six brothers who share his home!)

Milly begins to civilize the brothers to the point where they are ready to get their own brides. However, after an altercation at a local dance hall, the brothers are banned from the town,
Lovesick and lonely, and with Adam’s urging, they sneak back to town at night and kidnap their would-be brides. An avalanche closes off the only road to the Pontipees’ spread, preventing the townsfolk from rescuing the kidnaped women, who are forced to wait out the winter with the men, though Milly runs a tight ship and makes sure that no hanky panky goes on until a preacher can come and marry them.

The production is directed by Glenn Casale and choreographed by Patti Colombo, whose numbers are so lively as to leave the audience breathless. “Social Dance,” where the Pontipee brothers begin to win the women away from the townsmen at the monthly town social, needs to be seen to be really appreciated. It stopped the show as the audience could not stop applauding.

Colombo has assembled a core of top-notch dancers in both the Pontipee brothers — Watts, Eric Stretch, Graham Keen, Brian Steven Shaw, Joshua Michael Burrage, Eric Sciotto and KC Fredericks — and their town rivals — Jordan Beall, Devin Neilson, Daniel Kermidas, Mateo Melendez, Eric Anthony Johnson and Cameron Edris.

The dance numbers were vigorously athletic and made this a daring, dazzling choreographic extravaganza.

The brides — Faure, Olivia Rene Sharber, Keely Beirne, Jaimie Pfaff, Elyse Niederee, Ashley Arcement and Rose Iannaccone — often acted as actual props to be tossed through the air by the men.

This is another winner for the second Music Circus offering.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Thanksgiving Play

Larissa FastHorse is a Native American playwright, a member the Rosebud Sioux tribe, Sicangu Lakota Nation. She has been involved with most prominent projects involving indigenous artists. She is most noted as a playwright-activist, having found many ways to bring indigenous stories to the American theater.

FastHorse explains, “I have again and again heard that my plays, after they are produced once, don’t get additional productions … because of casting. Theaters claim they don’t know any indigenous actors or they cannot afford to bring in indigenous actors …

“I would rather get the stories out there to give non-indigenous people the chance to learn about us, and to show indigenous people that there is a place for them in theater.”

And so FastHorse decided to write a play that would mock the attempts of theaters to deal with indigenous characters.

The result is the wickedly funny “The Thanksgiving Play,” now filling Capital Stage with laughter. FastHorse describes its success as “an opportunity to satirize one of the insidious problems in American theater: the fear of making mistakes or offending someone unintentionally.” In this ultra-PC era, its success is indeed both heartbreaking and bittersweet.

Logan (Jennifer LeBlanc) is a high school drama teacher trying to create a Thanksgiving play without an indigenous character. She is joined in this endeavor by her yoga friend Jaxton (Cassidy Brown), politically correct to a fault, who does street performances about composting. Logan is also vegan, and the very thought of a turkey dinner makes her ill.

Jaxton’s idea of how they are going to create the play is to “start with this pile of jagged facts and misguided governmental policies and historical stereotypes about race and turn that all into something beautiful and dramatic and educational for the kids.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Logan is proud of herself for getting a “Native American Heritage Month Awareness through Art” grant, which gives her funding to hire a professional actor. Based on a headshot, she hires Alicia (Gabby Battista) who, as it turns out, is an “ethnic looking” American who can play several cultures depending on how she is photographed. Her braids, a headband and turquoise jewelry led Logan to assume she was Native American.

The group is rounded out by Caden (Jouni Kirjola), an elementary school history teacher with Broadway dreams. He has lots of research, but no experience. He wants to start this play 4,000 years before the present, when European farmers held Harvest Home Festivals.

This well-intentioned quartet brainstorm ideas for the play, their discussion only showing how completely clueless they are about what they hope to accomplish. “Do you know how hard it is for a straight white male to feel less-than in this world?”

Interspersed throughout the play are four different videos of children from very young to high school performing some kind of Thanksgiving play. As I suspect these are not scripted, but real plays, each is funnier than the other.

Director Michael Stevenson keeps the action moving and the laughter constant. It may not yet be the Fourth of July, but this Thanksgiving gift is a wonderful crowd-pleaser.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Little Mermaid

There was no one who enjoyed the opening night performance of Davis Musical Theatre’s (DMTC) “The Little Mermaid” more than the 2 year old girl who sat in front of us.  She paid attention to the whole show, danced all the dances, waved her arms whenever the chorus did, tried to mouth the words to songs and applauded at the end of each, all without being disruptive.  Watching her joy was almost as much fun was watching the show itself.

There were a lot of children in the opening night performance and those I talked with after the show all said they loved it.

But don’t get the idea that this is a children’s show.  Though based on a Hans Christian Anderson fable and a Disney movie, this show has enough fantasy to keep the attention of a 2 year old and enough “meat” to entertain adults as well.

Arial is a mermaid princess who longs to go to the outside world, especially after she saves the life of a sailor who falls overboard and falls in love with him.  The sailor doesn’t remember what she looks like, but is haunted by her beautiful voice.

With the dubious help of her aunt the evil Ursula, the octopus, Arial agrees to exchange her voice for feet and goes to the surface, where she finds the object of her affections preparing to choose a wife, based on who has the best singing voice.

How this is all resolved, leaving only questions of  biological incompatibilities, is the plot of this show, and it is enchanting.

If you were asked to draw a picture of the Arial in your mind, chances are your picture would look at lot like Julia Hixon, who could not possibly be better.  She is charming and witty and never loses the subtle “treading water” hand motions throughout the show.  She also has the kind of beautiful voice that would enchant a man.

Prince Eric (Hugo Figueroa) exhibits a gentleness as he meets Arial but does not remember her, and realizes she has no voice, yet is strangely attracted to her.  He teaches her how to communicate through dance.

In the “Jiminy Cricket” role of Arial’s protector is Amaralyn Ewey, as Sebastian the crab.  Ewey’s performance is amazing, especially when I learned that this 9th grader only stepped into the role 2 weeks ago, when her father, originally cast, had an accident and was unable to continue. Her performance is so polished that you would never know she only had two weeks to rehearse...or that she was only a 9th grader.  Her “Under the Sea,” the show’s signature song, was delightful.

Arial’s buddy is Scuttle, a sea gull, the expert on all things “above” and teaches Arial, for example, that the strange thing she found (a fork) is used by humans to comb their hair.    

King Triton, father of Arial and her many sisters, is payed by Scott Minor, who is a towering, powerful and somewhat frightening figure.  Arial is obviously his favorite, and he makes allowances for her, though this latest obsession of hers may have gone too far.

Arial’s sisters, Morgan Bartoe, Rebekah Milhoan, Katie Krasnansky, Noah Patterson, Sierra Winter and Lorin Torbitt work as a single unit, though each girl has her own personality and all of them are competing with Arial for their father’s attention.

Gavin Mark is Ariel’s friend Flounder, who often adds comic touches to various scenes, and though his performance is quite good, he is so young, it’s difficult to believe his romantic feelings toward Arial.

As far as comedy is concerned, Cullen Smith is just great as Chef Louis, chasing Sebastian around trying to catch him to cook for dinner (“Les Poisson”).  Smith is a wonderful comedienne and her scene is a highlight of the show.

Cyndi Wall is the evil Ursula.  She is a commanding presence with evil oozing from her tentacles.  She is a perfect addition to the Disney catalog of villains.  She is aided in her evilness by Flotsam (Katherine Fio) and Jetsam (Brittany Owings).

Monica Reeve’s costumes run the gauntlet from the gentle, feminine dress for Arial to the realistic octopus costume for Ursula and everything from plain to very ornate costumes for the sea creatures.

Directed by Steve Isaacson and choreographed by Allison Weaver, this is a delightful production from DMTC, enjoyable for all ages.  Some performances are already sold out and tickets are going fast.

Take Grandma, take the kids.  This a family show that everyone will enjoy.

(And thank you, thank you, thank you, DMTC and program designer Danette Vasser for the bios and photos in the program!)