Friday, June 23, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

Jessica Grové as Belle and James Snyder as Beast perform in
“Beauty and the Beast,” produced by Music Circus
at the Wells Fargo Pavilion through July 2.
Charr Crail/Courtesy photo

 The folks at Music Circus would like to invite you to be their guest (for a fee) at the opulent production of Disney’s family classic musical, “Beauty and the Beast,” through July 2.

The near-capacity opening night audience had a lot of little princesses, tottering about on jeweled heels, in royal garb with rhinestone crowns.

This excellent production is directed by Glenn Casale and features several Broadway veterans in the lead roles and sumptuous costumes from Casale’s European tour of this show.

The production inaugurates California Musical Theatre’s new state-of-the-art projection system, a series of screens that circle the upper portion of the theater and project things like the rooftops of buildings, trees in a forest, and parts of a spooky castle, allowing for fewer on-stage set pieces and giving the audience a feeling of being in the action.

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Broadway veteran James Snyder as the prince who is under the spell of a sorceress to whom he was once rude. He must live life as a hideous beast until he can learn to love another person and have that person love him in return.

A red rose charts his progress and if the last petal of the rose falls without a love interest in the picture, he will remain a beast forever.

Not only is the prince enchanted, but his entire house staff is as well. The maitre d’ has been turned into the candelabra Lumiere (Michael Paternostro) and the major domo is Cogsworth, a clock (David Hibbard), while Courtney Iventosch is Babette, the flirty feather duster, and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan is Madame de la Grande Bouche, the opera singer who is now a dresser, complete with drawers that open.

Dear Mrs. Potts (Shannon Warne), the teapot, sings the title song. Her son Chip (Cooper Miller, alternating with Mia Fisher) was very cute.

I was pleased to see that as the story progresses, the changes in the staff become more and more pronounced. I have seen community theater productions where this does not happen, so it was appreciated that this professional company follows those directions.

Jessica GrovĂ© is specializing in princesses at Music Circus. She was last seen as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” and plays Belle in this production. Belle is a feisty loner and bookworm in the little town where she lives with her inventor father Maurice (Gordon Goodman). She dreams of finding an enchanted prince who will sweep her away.

After Maurice is set upon by wolves and saved by the Beast, who then imprisons him, Belle agrees to take his place if the Beast lets the old man go.

It’s a rocky start for this eventually happily-ever-after couple, but with help and lessons in being a gentleman from the house staff, the Beast is able to tame his temper and a friendship slowly develops between himself and the young woman. His anguished “If I Can’t Love Her,” which ends the first act, is a tour de force for the actor.

In the meantime, there is the town hunk, Gaston (Peter Saide), who is in love with himself, but determined to have Belle as his wife. His sidekick LeFou (Jared Gertner) thinks of this as a real bromance and puts up with a lot of abuse from this man he admires.

When Gaston leads a band to go and “kill the beast,” it is up to Belle to save this beast she has come to love and, in the process, break the spell.

This is a wonderful production and a great way to start Music Circus’ 67th season. If I have any complaint, it’s that the volume is much too high. I have hearing problems and it bothered me, so I can only imagine what a person with normal hearing would hear.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Legally Blonde, the Musical

Omigod, you guys! Elle Woods has finally come to the Davis Musical Theatre Company, under the direction of Jan Isaacson.

“Legally Blonde” (music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hach) is as light and frothy as cotton candy — and just as pink. It has all the story of the movie with Reese Witherspoon, but without the depth. The scenes are so short (nine in the first act, eight in the second) that there is little time to get a feeling for the characters.

The songs aren’t memorable (except for the opening and recurring “Omigod, you guys”), but the cast is so enthusiastic and the dancing so infectious that you find yourself enjoying it in spite of yourself.
The story follows sorority diva Elle Woods, who came to the university to catch her man and discovers that she was only a chapter in his life. He’s going to become a famous attorney and politician and she … well … she just doesn’t fit into his view of a politician’s wife.

As he goes off to Harvard, flighty Elle does the only logical thing … she studies hard, for the first time in her life, and gets into Harvard Law too, thinking that, given time, she can win him back.
Her parents (Steve Isaacson and Dannette Vassar) are aghast. “You could have a film career out here,” her father protests. “There’s no movie studio there and the girls all have different noses.”

It’s a silly plot, but we get to watch Elle begin to think about things seriously and ultimately have more respect for herself than to want someone like the guy who ditched her.

Ernestine Balisi is the bleach-blonde, pink-clad Elle, with Mac playing her constant companion Bruiser, the Chihuahua. Last seen as Peggy Sawyer in “42nd Street,” Balisi brings the same energy and sparkle to the role of Elle. She and Bruiser work well together and neither had a misstep throughout.

Boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Jonathan Kalinen) is a real loser (to quote a current political figure) and Kalinen brings out all the worst in him until we don’t want Elle to get her man anyway!
Adriel Cruz is Professor Callahan, the womanizing hot-shot instructor who sets his sights on Elle. Cruz gave a subdued performance throughout Act 1 and it was difficult not only to understand him, but to find him all that menacing until he sings the very dark “Blood in the Water.” His performance improved in Act 2.

Mitchell Worrell-Olson is Emmett, Callahan’s teaching assistant, who takes Elle under his wing with a friendship that may grow into something deeper, as he helps her with her studies along with a study group that includes Erynn Kinch as the dark and brooding brainiac Enid.

Ashley Marie Holm makes a wonderful impression as Paulette, the cosmetician who becomes Elle’s friend, as the two of them support each other. Paulette dreams of marrying an Irishman and settling down in the suburbs (she sings the beautiful song “Ireland”). Then along comes the UPS man Kyle (Matthew Evans) to set her heart a-flutter.

Longtime Davisites may know the story of UPS delivery man Tim Spencer, for whom a downtown Davis alley is named. Evans is the epitome of Tim Spencer, in his macho-ness and his short shorts.
A real scene-stealer is Paulette’s dog, Rufus (played by Savannah), a bulldog missing teeth on one side of her mouth, leaving her tongue hanging out all the time. She was definitely a crowd-pleaser.

Rachael Sherman-Shockley plays the bitchy Vivienne with venom. Because the character changes as the show progresses, Sherman-Shockley gave a multi-layered performance and displayed a beautiful voice on “Legally Blonde Remix.”

Morgan Bartoe is Brooke Wyndham, on trial for killing her husband, defended by Callahan and his students. Brooke is an exercise guru and her exercise routine “Whipped into Shape” done with a chorus of women, each with jump ropes, is a highlight of the show. How they sing and jump and still have breath left at the end of the number is a marvel. (Choreography is by Terri Taylor.)

There is a Greek chorus of sorts, made up of Elle’s sorority sisters — Serena (Joelle La Guerra), Margot (McKinley Carlisle) and Pilar (Julia Hixon) — who become Elle’s cheering section.

The message of this musical is to be yourself and that you can be better than you think you are. And along the way, don’t forget to dress in pink!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Hand to God

From left, Margery (Elisabeth Nunziato) leads a church puppet workshop as her son Jason (Ryan Borses)
works his demon-possessed puppet, Tyrone, in “Hand to God”
on stage through July 23 at the B Street Theatre.
Rudy Meyers Photography/Courtesy phototion

When a critic goes to see a show, he or she is usually given a packet of information about the show, the playwright and other pertinent information. When the B Street Box Office handed me a packet for “Hand to God” that included not only a “history of puppetry” but also a “brief history of demonic possession,” I knew we were in for something … unusual.

Unusual is putting it mildly.

This hilariously funny play from the demented mind of playwright Robert Askins is everything a normal person should hate (and some in the audience did leave at intermission). It is raunchy and irreverent, and yet, we in the audience laughed uproariously and gave the cast a standing ovation.
The story concerns a puppet, Tyrone (who resembles a Muppet from the wrong side of the tracks), who is possessed by the devil and is manipulating the life of teenager Jason (Ryan Borses), a young man depressed about his father’s recent death.

Borses gives an outstanding performance as both Jason and Tyrone, who seems permanently attached to Jason’s arm. Borses is able to create distinct personalities for the two characters and accurately displays a range of emotions, including the depth of Jason’s depression and Tyrone’s anger, often simultaneously, in one fast-paced dialog between the two. It has to be seen to truly be appreciated.
The action takes place in a church basement where Jason’s mother Margery (Elisabeth Nunziato) is leading a puppet workshop, as part of Pastor Greg’s (Dave Pierini) outreach to younger people.

Also part of the group are Timmy (Andrew Mazer), the perennial bad boy who is more interested in making moves on Margery than on making puppets. Jessica (Stephanie Altholz) is the polar opposite to Timmy, a goody-two-shoes who tries to keep the peace, despite her own puppet’s desires.

Margery isn’t really interested in the workshop, since she has just lost her husband, and is trying to work through her own grief and depression, which does not include Jason, who turns to Tyrone for comfort.

Tyrone becomes more and more demonic as the play progresses, growing teeth and pointy ears along the way. He and Jessica’s creation, a busty puppet named Jolene, find a mutual attraction and the resulting puppet-on-puppet action, while hilarious, would earn the play an X rating if the beings involved actually had genitalia.

Everyone in this workshop eventually succumbs to their baser instincts and under Tyrone’s delighted cheering, they all give in to temptation to express the hate, lust, violence and fear that exists in all of them. The professional skills of the puppeteers, who keep up a running in-depth conversation while their arms are engaged in unspeakable action with each other, is remarkable.

This wildly irreverent but very funny play also explores the more serious topics such as the nature of grief and the repression of human nature, and ultimately finds redemption and a way to defuse the out-of-control Tyrone.

All of the actors are wonderful, with Mazer as the greaser who appears just dumb and horny, but actually longs for the love that Jason seeks as well. Nunziato’s grief at the loss of her husband is always just below the surface as she is drawn to her baser instincts and ultimately her realization of her feelings for her son.

Altholz is not as prissy “goody two-shoes” as she seems and has her own moments of audaciousness.
Rounding out the cast, Perini is a well-meaning pastor who has the hots for Margery, but manages to keep himself in check.

Samantha Reno’s set is a fun puppet workshop until Act 2, when Tyrone takes over and the change is very striking.

This is a play you really want to dislike and feel somehow you should not be watching, but you can’t help being drawn into the story and laughing uncontrollably throughout.

Monday, June 05, 2017


“Lungs,” a play by the young playwright Duncan Macmillan (whose “Constellations” was produced by B Street recently), may have been written with millennials in mind, but it has appeal for all ages.
It follows the lives of M and W (no names are given) through the rocky eras of their lives, an odd love story, but fascinating, in its many twists and turns.

Directed by Lyndsay Burch, this two-person, 100-plus-minute piece features the talents of the amazing Jahi Kearse as M and Dana Brooke as W.

The set by Samantha Reno pictures an amorphous outdoor scene. While the script calls for no set at all, the designer wanted to create an environment that could represent both inside and outside and “the circle of life.” Also, as questions of threats to the environment loom large in this work, this seemed appropriate.

As the action begins, the couple are in line at IKEA when M decides to broach the subject of whether this might be the time to start thinking of having a family. This takes W by surprise and she starts one of her many diatribes about the ethical issues of raising a child in an age where there is political unrest, where climate change is a major issue, and if you really care about the planet, even if you are a “good” person, is it right to have a child? Particularly when the carbon footprint of that infant will be 10,000 tons of CO2?

“That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower,” W wails.
On the other hand, maybe this child will be the one who makes major contributions to all of these problems.

But what about the in-laws, who are none too happy with the whole relationship in the first place? The discussion goes back and forth, agonizing over wanting a baby and worrying about if this is the right time — or if there will ever be a right time.

Both very funny, and then very poignant, these issues are at the heart of this play. The characters are maddening and lovable by turns, each with his or her own flaws, but always, no matter what happens, deeply in love with each other.

W is the more high-strung of the pair, while M is more laid-back, a good man desperately trying to figure out what he can do to make things better for the woman he loves, but not really understanding what she is saying most of the time (a situation any woman can relate to!).

The dialog would put the wordy David Mamet to shame, as it is smart, rapid-fire with impeccable comic and dramatic timing, which works only because of the talent of the two actors. Sometimes the monologues of one or the other of them leaves the audience breathless trying to keep up.

This is a moving, funny, always engrossing play raised to new heights by the talents of two actors. When Macmillan wrote this he was only 30 years old. One wonders what a career he has ahead of him.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Ju;ngle Book

Panthers, tigers and bears! Oh my!

It’s a jungle out there, as Acme Theatre Company presents its annual thank-you gift to the city of Davis on the Art Center amphitheater stage in the form of a free performance of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book,” as written by Acme alum Briandaniel Oglesby and directed by Emily Henderson.
Kipling’s 1894 book was a collection of fables using animals to give moral lessons, and Oglesby gives the story a modern ecological twist.

This version of the story was commissioned by Big Idea Theatre in Sacramento and opened its 2014 season.

The first thing to observe on the Art Center stage is the set, designed by Benton Harshaw, an innovative use of umbrellas of all sizes, shapes and types, painted in various shades of green and grouped together to form the jungle in which the action takes place.

Costumes designed by Cassaundra Wages are fairly minimal suggestions of costumes — ears and a tail, for example, but the most fun costume of all is for the vulture, Kite (Sophia Waxman) whose voluminous wings allow her to fly all over the stage area and Waxman has perfected the art of swooping and settling, quite vulture-like, on a tree stump.

It is the story of the young boy Mowgli (Gracelyn Watkins), orphaned after his parents were killed by the hungry tiger Shere Kahn (Dedrick Underwood). Mowgli is a puzzlement to the creatures of the forest and there is discussion concerning what to do about him until he is adopted by Raksha (Garnet Phinney), a wolf mother who recently lost her cub. She will raise the boy as her son and teach him to be a wolf.

Mowgli joins the pack of wolves, led by Akela (Ben Kimmel) and learns the ways of the forest, though he never quite “belongs,” and is taunted by his fellow wolf cubs. He is the perpetual outsider just looking for a home.

The story is told by the bear Baloo (Cassidy Smith) and his panther partner Bagheera (Cory McCutcheon), who take on the instruction of the young man-cub. Baloo explains that he is “tasked with the edification of the wolf pack. I teach them jungle law and the stories of us Jungle People.”
In his search for a place to belong, Mowgli briefly joins a pack of monkeys but is fascinated by the dangerous snake Kaa (Laura Britt). To escape, Mowgli flees to the nearby city.

The pace of life in the city, with everyone rushing by, is confusing to the young man-cub and when he is discovered by the humans, they, too, are confused by what to do with him, suggestions which include everything from experimenting on him to locking him up in a zoo.

But he is adopted by a wealthy socialite, DeeDee (McKella von Boxtel), who is determined to civilize him. (Husband Duke is played by Underwood, previously seen in the jungle as tiger Shere Kahn.

(In one of the more clever bits of set design, DeeDee’s home is decorated with paintings, represented by cast members looking through picture frames.)

Still finding himself an outsider, Mowgli can’t find a home with his own kind and decides to return to the forest, but in the years of his absence, the forest has been transformed by clear cutting and his old friends are losing their home.

The play ends on Mowgli’s solution for saving his friends and finding a new place away from the destruction of the forest.

This is a play that will delight children of all ages (I sat next to a toddler who was mesmerized throughout). What better way to spend a couple of hours on a holiday weekend than outside enjoying a delightful play?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The 39 Steps

There is only one way to describe John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps,” now at Wyatt Pavilion — silly, frenetic madness and mayhem.

This Patrick Barlow homage to the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film is based on a John Buchan novel. Described by UCD’s department of theater and dance as “a Hitchcock masterpiece with an action thriller, adding a dash of Monty Python,” this production, directed by Mindy Cooper, will have you gasping for breath between the laughs.

The production also celebrates the 110th anniversary of Wyatt Pavilion, the oldest building on campus.

It is a cast of five — Matt Skinner, Kelly Tappan, Daniel Ferrer, Matthew Murphy and Caitlin Sales — who create more than 100 characters, with lightning-fast costume changes, most in full sight of the audience. One actor may change character three times in a matter of seconds.

The only actor who does not change character is Skinner. He appears as the uber-British Richard Hanny, whose brief encounter with a glamorous woman he meets in the theater (Tappan — like Hitchcock leading ladies, she is a striking blonde) leads to numerous adventures that involve chases across moors, streams and bridges, false identities, and even murder (for which he is, of course, falsely accused).

Poor Hanny will be chased through two dozen locations before the play comes to its end.

The parade of police, spies, rustics, traveling salesmen, innkeepers, newsboys and railroad porters are all played by Ferrer, Murphy and Sales, who did not make a visible misstep despite the zaniness of the action. Watching them change hats, coats and accents is as much fun as watching the people they become.

Big kudos to costume designers Maria Delgadillo, Alisa Sakakura and Autumn Ward, headed by Roxanne Femling.

The creative team of Duke Durfee (scenic design), Pamila Z. Gray (lighting design) and Lindsay Putnam (sound design) create great effects, such as a tribute to Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” when Hanny is chased by a crop duster.

(To the best of my knowledge, director Cooper did not, like Hitchcock, have a brief walk-on, but who can tell with all those characters?)

The innovative use of things — like ladders to represent the Forth Bridge, or big photo frames that double as windows through which characters escape — is brilliant.

The pace is breathtaking and the laughs tumble over each other throughout.

Be advised that if you have difficult reading small print, bringing a magnifying glass is advised. The print in the program is so incredibly tiny that I was not able to read it until I got home and could see it under a magnifying glass.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Stupid F###ing Bird

If Conrad loves Nina and Nina loves Trigorin and Trigorin loves Emma while Dev loves Masha, who loves Conrad — we can only be in a Russian tragedy.

“Stupid F##king Bird,” currently at Capital Stage, under the direction of Michael Stevenson, is a hilarious yet reverential homage to Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

The title came about as a joke, playwright Aaron Posner explained. “I was saying how much I loved ‘The Seagull’ and how much I kind of hated it. As I left the room, I literally said, ‘I should do my own adaptation. I should call it Stupid F##king Bird.’ ” And so he did.

This is more or less the plot of “The Seagull” with the themes more or less the themes of Chekhov’s and, like the original, it is all about theater, including a play within a play in which the audience is invited to contribute ideas. But the lines between reality and stage are blurred and the characters often are not aware that they are actors in a play.

Yes, it’s a little confusing, but stick with it. It’s very funny and all comes together. Sort of. By the final bow.

The marvelous Ian Hopps is Conrad, the tortured playwright desperate to get his play appreciated, especially by his mother, Emma (Rebecca Dines), to whom the play is directed.

Hopps made a big impression in Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s “Bells are Ringing” last summer and does not disappoint in this production, filled with passion, self-deprecation and anguish about his unrequited love for aspiring actress Nina.

Brittni Barger as Nina is a hopeless romantic who longs for a stage career (but isn’t really talented). She is dazzled by the philandering literary legend Trigorin and believes he is her key to fame and fortune.

Dines plays the successful actress and family matriarch Emma, who has had a love/hate relationship with her son for all of his life, which explains a lot about Conrad.

Capital Stage favorite Jason Kuykendall is Trigorin, tall and cool, but easily swayed by the sexual advances of both Nina and Emma. (Warning to the audience: There is a bit of nudity in this show, as well as liberal use of the F-word.)

Comic relief is provided by Jouni Kirjola as Dev, with a smile that comes right out of a cartoon. His smile often hides a breaking heart but he is Con’s BFF and an essential part of his life. Kirjola offers the perfect blend of social awkwardness and charm.

A real find is Wenona Truong, as Mash. The actress comes out of the Capital Stage Apprentice Program and is perfect as the deadpan, perpetually depressed Mash, strumming her ukulele and singing bitter songs to express her unhappiness.

(“My heart has been broken, my heart has been burst / The best that life can offer me is more of the worst …”)

Peter Mohrmann is Dr. Sorn, Emma’s brother, whose role seems to be that of a detached observer, though he secretly has his own feelings of longing, if nobody on whom to focus them. He self-medicates with vodka. He is dying, but nobody knows it. This is the kind of role in which Mohrmann excels and he gives an expected strong performance.

Scenic design is by Timothy McNamara. The set is so impressive it is worth sitting through the intermission to see it changed.

Likewise, Glenn Fox does a good job of lighting, switching from theatrical performance to “reality” by means of lighting changes.

It is Con who tells this story and even as it achieves some success, he’s not happy.

“You know what f-ing sucks about a little success? It just feels like a set up for a new kind of failure — a more painful kind. Because now instead of just my family, I’ll get to have, you know … perfect strangers judging and pitying me, too.”

If the audience is any indication, there’s not a lot of negative judgment in this production. In fact it’s pretty f-ing brilliant.