Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Death of a Salesman

Ed Claudio
Fredric March, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman and Lee J. Cobb are some of the A-list actors who have played the iconic Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman,” now being presented by the Actors Workshop of Sacramento at the California Stage complex, under the direction of Eason Donner.

Now Sacramento’s grand old man of theater, Ed Claudio, has taken on the role of Willy Loman, a role that has been on his bucket list since he first played it for only two weeks 15 years ago. “It’s my favorite role. My favorite play,” says Claudio, who believes now is his time, before he gets “too old to do it.”

How fortunate we are that he made this decision. From the moment Willy shuffles through the front door, bent over with the weight of his grips, and wearily makes his way to the bedroom, Claudio is Willy Loman.

(No program credit is given for set design, but the cozy, if tired, two-story house of 1940s Brooklyn is perfect.)

This is not a happy play. It is the story of a man nearing the end of his life, beaten down by a profession that used to hold him in high regard, a son who failed to fulfill the promise his father had for him, and a life that just hasn’t turned out the way he expected it to.

Willy has been a salesman all of his life, and in his younger days was well respected by the buyers around the country, and was good friends with the owner of the company for which he worked.

But the world is changing.

New people don’t know him and don’t order from him, the boss’ son now runs the company and has kept Willy on because he has been there so long, but, at 65 he doesn’t have the physical stamina that he did years before. And so when Willy comes, asking to be assigned to the home office and taken off the road, he is fired.

Willy has a hair trigger and, as downtrodden and defeated as he can be, he can also explode in anger at a moment’s notice, and often does.

Claudio does well, bouncing back and forth between Willy’s present and his fantasy life with a brother he admired (now long dead), and son Biff’s (Matt Fairall) glory days as the high school football hero.

Willy’s brother Ben (Chris Amick) is the epitome of the American dream, having struck it rich in the diamond mines. “Why, boys, when I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out. And by God, I was rich.”

Lighting designer Alicia Thayer kind of dropped the ball here. In other productions I have seen, there is a definite change in light between the present and the dream world, but on the small California State stage, that change somehow got lost and it was not always immediately apparent in which world Willy was living.

Claudio is surrounded by a solid cast of characters from his theater workshop. Fairall gives a very strong performance as Biff, the kid on whose shoulders his father pinned all his hopes for success. But like too many high school athletic stars, Biff just doesn’t have the smarts for college or the drive to succeed. He handles the scenes where he is the virile young stud whose world was his oyster as well as the befuddled adult he has become, more interested in drink than in pursuing a career.

(Willy refuses to acknowledge that Biff’s discovery of his father’s affair on the road had a profound effect on the rest of his life.)

Younger son Hap (Kevin Frame) is a people pleaser, always trying to win his father’s approval, but lost in Willy’s obsession with Biff. Frame is not often the center of a scene, but he has a wonderful way of always being in the scene and never losing focus. Hap is a philanderer, going from one woman to the next with no desire to establish a permanent relationship.

Willy’s wife Linda is often seen as a world-weary woman, as beaten down by life as her husband, but Laura Luke is a life force, a fiercely loyal wife, protective of her husband, and ready to do battle with anyone not in his corner.

Darryl DeHart is Charley, the next-door neighbor, who likes Willy enough to lend him money to keep him afloat, though Willy never seems able to repay his loan. Bernard (Zach Coles) is Charley’s son. Though he will not admit it, Willy is jealous of the good father-son relationship they have and the success they have achieved in life.

The play moves toward its inevitable tragic conclusion and when the small group of four stand at Willy’s grave, one remembers his delight in imagining how people would come from all over his territory and there would be a huge crowd at his funeral.

For a “feel good” night of theater, this is not your cup of tea, but for an impeccable script and outstanding performances, this is one production that is well worth seeing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Beauty and the Beast

It was the lifelong ambition of Rachael Sherman-Shockley to play Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.” In this Davis Musical Theatre Company’s current production, she proves her ambition was a good one.

She is beautiful, warm, generous and loving, yet high-spirited and plucky. She sacrifices herself for her father and in the end falls in love with a hideous beast, for which she is rewarded with a handsome prince. She is a perfect Belle.

She sings well, too.

Celebrating its 32nd year of musicals, the DMTC production — directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson — is a fun, colorful, occasionally opulent one, with good talent, beautiful costumes by the remarkable Jean Henderson and a great-sounding orchestra, under the baton of Steve Isaacson (also credited with set design).

It should be noted that, with the addition of a new stage floor, which changes the opening for the under-stage orchestra DMTC, seems to finally have gotten the audio right and the orchestra has never sounded better — or sounded more a part of what is going on on stage.

Joining Sherman-Shockley is a strong cast, which help make this a very good production. Coury Murdock handles the Beast role beautifully, remote and querulous, brooding in his lonely castle, with only the companionship of his staff, who are, themselves, in the process of turning into inanimate objects, as part of the curse.

The most endearing scenes are those in which the staff attempts to instruct the Beast in how to woo a woman.

Murdock delivers wonderful songs, but none so moving as “If I Can’t Love Her,” the Act 1 finale.

Mike Mechanick heads the staff as Lumiere, the maitre d’, who is becoming a candelabra. He is assisted by Cogsworth (Hugo Figueroa), the butler who is turning into a clock, and the housekeeper Mrs. Potts (Marguerite Morris) with her son Chip (Sophia Farwell) as a tea set. All three are delightful.

Morgan Bartoe gets high marks for her flirty “Babette,” the maid becoming a feather duster.

As for Madame de la Grande Bouche (Cyndi Wall), becoming a wardrobe, I have to wonder — with that huge skirt and high wig and jewelry, exactly what part of the house staff she was, but she is a delight, and her “Carmen” aria was great.

And then there is the town bully, Gaston, a L’il Abner-looking buffoon who is so in love with his muscles that he likes to kiss them. Travis Nagler is marvelously over the top, singing such humble songs as “Me” while he attempts to get Belle to agree to marry him.

Gaston’s second in command is the weasely LeFou. Tomas Eredia gives one of the better performances in the show, just so sleazy that you almost like him because he’s so darn cute.

Steve Isaacson is also credited with set design and the sets are attractive, with the town background a huge piece that moves to bring in the castle. While not exactly opulent, they work well.

The trio of Silly Girls (Deia Farley, Kathleen Hornbacker and Lucinda Otto) are all vying for the love of Gaston and add a lot of fun to the town scenes.

Tracy Traum is credited as props designer. If that includes the famous “rose” whose petals fall slowly as the Beast comes closer to losing the chance to become human again, kudos. It’s perfect.

While the music of Alan Menken is less tuneful than others of his Disney repertoire, there are a few songs that you do remember.

This is a show that should appeal to both children and adults, though perhaps it’s more complicated for the very young kids.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

How to Use a Knife

Playwright Will Snider spent three years working in agricultural development in East Africa. He also was influenced by the book “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with our Families,” about the Rwanda conflict of 1994.

Out of his experiences in Africa, and his time working in a busy restaurant in New York, has come a powerful — and surprisingly very funny — one-act play called “How to Use a Knife,” now playing at Capital Stage, directed by Michael Stevenson, as part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.

The set by Brian Harrower looks like the set of any Food Network show, with a very real-looking stove, prep area and a sink with running water.

Heading the excellent seven-member cast is Harry Harris as the larger-than-life George, a former top chef, who has fallen on hard times and is given the job of kitchen manager by his former student Michael (Kirk Blackinton).

Harris is a marvel — big and bold and brash. He’s a take-no-prisoners disciplinarian who is determined to whip his staff into shape and maybe make it back into his old life again. He strides the kitchen like a colossus, his colorful language peppering the orders he gives.

Blackinton’s character has risen above the dirty world of kitchen work. He just wants someone to take over for him so he is free to sniff his wines, smooth the lapels of his designer suits, and see which beautiful woman he can seduce. He feels both grateful to and respectful of George, sorry for the bad times on which his old mentor has fallen.

Comic relief is provided by the two Latino cooks, Carlos (Willem Long), who speaks English, and Miguel (Eduardo A. Esqueda) who doesn’t. They are quick to point out that they are not Mexican, but from Guatemala, a fact of which Michael is totally unaware and couldn’t care less. He also doesn’t have a clue about the name of his dishwasher Steve (Adrian Roberts) and thinks perhaps he is not able to speak, since he has never heard him talk.

Rounding out the kitchen crew is Jack, the busboy (Cole Winslow). Jack is a white boy who George assumes comes from privilege, because of his attitude. He is caught pouring leftover wine into a cup so he can drink it during the day and has a very laissez-faire attitude toward his job. Winslow is a member of Capital Stage’s 2016-17 apprentice program and comports himself well in this, his professional acting debut.

Long’s Carlos is just wonderful as the wise-cracking cook who is amazed to learn, after all this time, that Steve actually speaks.

As for Esqueda, he is making his professional theater debut and is a great foil for Carlos, always making comments in Spanish about what is going on so the two of them can have their own private jokes. He understands more than he lets on.

Dishwasher Steve is a tall, articulate, dignified man who is above the commotion of the kitchen. It is only when he and George are alone in the kitchen after work that he confesses his desire to learn how to be a chef. The two men each are harboring deeply painful memories and as their friendship deepens, Steve shares his experiences in Rwanda during the conflict of 1994.

Roberts gives much a dignity and depth to his character. George, moved by his friend’s confession, reveals the reason for his own descent into alcohol and drugs and his fall from grace. Steve confesses that George is the first friend he has had in a long time.

It is when Kim (Kelly Ogden), from INS comes around, asking questions about East African workers, that George’s eyes were opened about exactly what his friend’s life was like in Rwanda and the guilt he carries around with him. Ogden is crisp and businesslike with a heart as hard as steel.

As with Snider’s previous play, “Death of a Driver,” “How to Use a Knife” explores “the limits of understanding another person, and what happens when personal and political obligations collide.”
It is one of those plays that may inspire the audience to learn more about the Rwandan conflict and ask themselves what they would do in George’s shoes.

This play is not recommended for those sensitive to the F-word, though they would be missing an otherwise excellent and meaningful play.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Music Circus has saved the best for the last, closing its 66th season with the magnificent “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Music Circus is one of only three companies in the country that the Disney corporation has licensed to perform this work this season, and this production fulfills the faith Disney has in the Music Circus.

This musical, the only collaboration between Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”) and Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked” and “Pippin”), is a darker look at the Victor Hugo classic.

The book by Peter Parnell follows the story, set in 15th-century Paris, more closely than did the lighter Disney cartoon (and thus it may not be suitable for younger children). Some songs in this production are from the film, though others are from a 1999 German incarnation, and a few are new.
It’s difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps with the sumptuous set by Stephen Gifford, who created a magnificent bell tower, and an interior of Notre Dame Cathedral, complete with elegant rose windows, difficult to accomplish in a theater in the round, but the scene is breathtaking. (Some of the special effects throughout the show were amazing.)

Maybe the ingenuity of the costumes of Marcy Froehlich, who turns actors into gargoyles and back into actors, when necessary.

Certainly a huge part of the magic of this production is due to the chorus, under the direction of Omari Tau, which fills the theater with marvelous Gregorian chants and other background music throughout the show. (Look closely and you may find Gia Battista, of the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble, in the group.)

The outstanding part of this excellent cast has got to be John McGinty in the role of Quasimodo, the misshapen hunchback, who has lived his entire life in the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral.
McGinty is a deaf actor, with extensive experience in deaf theater. He does speak, but he doesn’t sing, so Jim Hogan, a soloist with symphonic orchestras all over the world, blends in as one of the cathedral gargoyles, and, when needed, unobtrusively steps out to become Quasimodo’s voice for singing, and also for longer speaking sections while McGinty signs the words.

The two work together so seamlessly that they really perform as one person. Their first solo, “Heaven’s Light,” nearly brought down the house with wild applause.

As for McGinty, you will very quickly forget his deafness, so beautiful is his portrayal of the tortured Quasimodo. His final scene will tear your heart out.

But the plaudits don’t stop with McGinty and Hogan. The cast includes several top Broadway actors, led by Mark Jacoby (also a Music Circus favorite). Jacoby plays Dom Claude Frollo, who reluctantly takes in his brother’s deformed child on the brother’s death, but raises him in the bell tower, where he can’t be seen by others. Frollo is a grim disciplinarian and moralist who has his own weaknesses, as we discover when he finds himself attracted to the sensuous gypsy Esmeralda.

Lesli Margherita was last seen on the Music Circus as Aldonza in “Man of La Mancha.” Her Esmeralda oozes sexuality, but with a sharp edge to her. Yet she displays a tender side both in her love of Captain Phoebus (Eric Kunze) and her friendship with Quasimodo. She is able to see past his deformity and into his soul.

Kunze gives the Captain the typical bluster of a Disney oaf (think Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast”) but his character is softened by his attraction to and eventual love of Esmeralda (he’s a fast worker — he’s known her less than a day).

There is a scene at the top of the second act where Quasimodo, along with the gargoyles of Notre Dame, sing “Flight into Egypt” with the ghost of the decapitated St. Aphrodisius, who supposedly accompanied Mary and Joseph and the baby into Egypt to escape Pharaoh’s wrath (“For I kept safe and free, the holy family”). It is one of Quasimodo’s favorite stories, and the ghost is trying to encourage him to save Esmeralda, but the scene seems out of place.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” caps a successful season, which started with the frothy “Legally Blonde” — about as far from “Hunchback” as you can get. This shows the versatility the Music Circus, and its dedication to bringing both new and old musicals to the Sacramento area.

Whatever you do, do not miss this production. You’ll regret it if you do!

Thursday, August 18, 2016


Ryan Everitt and Jordan Hayakaya
in Woodland Opera House's
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.