Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn

There is a moment in theater that I just love. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s magical. It’s that moment when the actor on stage has so engaged the audience and they are giving him or her such rapt attention that you can almost feel the silence.

Most of the time you hear people moving in their seats or other soft, unobtrusive noise. But in the magical moment, you can literally hear a pin drop.

I heard that moment several times at the opening-night performance of the world premiere of “Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn” by Rick Foster, now at the Sacramento Theatre Company, under the direction of Peter Sander.

Janis Stevens so embodies the character of Katharine, and gets more and more inside her as the play progresses, that by the last quarter, there is no longer any doubt about who is sitting on that stage talking to you.

It’s all Mitch Agruss’ fault.

The Grand Old Man of Sacramento Theater (whom some may remember from his television days as “Captain Mitch”) was watching a Katharine Hepburn interview a while back, when it hit him that Hepburn would make a great character for his friend Janis Stevens, who already had won critical acclaim for her one-woman shows such as “Vivien” (about Vivien Leigh) and “Master Class” (about Maria Callas).

So he contacted their friend, playwright Rick Foster (who had written “Vivien”), with his idea. Stevens was intrigued, Foster did some research on Hepburn, and now it has come to life on STC’s Pollock Stage.

The time is New Year’s Eve, 1999, and the setting is a bleak attic, where Katharine, age 92, sits in a wheelchair and begins speaking with the audience. She explains that she entered the “undiscovered country” of old age at age 90 and now, at 92, she’s trying to create a map for how the rest of her life should go.

Joining Stevens is Marty Parker in the small role of the long-suffering Mr. Rotterdam, a non-speaking role, but he is there to help Miss Hepburn and to be bossed around by her. Playwright Foster says we don’t know if he is a stage hand or a personal assistant or something else, but it is up to the audience to decide for themselves who he is.

As she begins her soliloquy, Katharine reflects on her family, who she assures us were perfect (though she also remarks sadly, several times, that she never made her mother proud and that her mother never saw any of her movies).

The Hepburns were the stiff-upper-lip New Englanders who were so detached from their feelings that after their oldest son Tom took his life when Katharine was 13 (she found the body), his name was never spoken in the family again, after his funeral. In fact, Katharine took Tom’s birthdate, Nov. 8 (coincidentally the date this play premiered, and the birthdate of Janis Stevens!) as her own for many years as a tribute to her brother, who still haunts her 92-year-old self.

She shares with the audiences her various romances with Howard Hughes (“yes, that one,” she says, coyly) and others, but saves her heartfelt feelings for Spencer Tracy, with whom she spent 27 years (and then would not attend his funeral out of respect for his wife). The ache of his loss is still visible on her face when she discusses him.

We get a picture of a surprisingly insecure Katharine, who pushed herself to step outside the box. She was the first artist to buy a property (“The Philadelphia Story”) for herself and go head-to-head with the studio bosses and not only win their battles, but an Oscar to boot.

The performance of Janis Stevens in this role is one you will long remember. She exudes Hepburn’s indomitable spirit without trying to become a caricature. She doesn’t just play Hepburn, she is Hepburn.

Treat yourself to this once-in-a-lifetime performance. You won’t be sorry.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

My Fair Lady


They could have danced all night. 

Under the capable hands of choreographer Ron Cisneros, the cast of Davis Musical Theater Company’s production of “My Fair Lady” danced around Covent Garden, the Ascot Races, and an Embassy ball, and they got Alfred P. Doolittle to the church on time.

Directed by Steve Isaacson, this production brought the DMTC faithful to their feet with a standing ovation at the end of the show.

This is a show that has a special place in Isaacson’s heart because it was his first memory of music.  He remembers the iconic album cover of Al Herschfeld’s drawing of George Bernard Shaw as God manipulating the puppet strings of Rex Harrison, manipulating the puppet strings of Julie Andrews.  “For years I thought God looked like George Bernard Shaw,” he says.

Isaacson’s love of this Lerner and Lowe musical is apparent in every scene.

It had been Jori Gonzales’ dream to play Eliza and her dream comes to life as she dons the rags of the flower girl Eliza, later struggling to learn her vowels, and finally making a triumphant appearance at an Embassy ball, ultimately finding her voice and pride in herself as a woman. Gonzales has a beautiful voice and one loves to float along on her high notes.

John Haine takes a little adjusting to as Henry Higgins, but once one realize he is only going to use a barely perceptible British accent and can concentrate just on his performance, he does a beautiful job. Better no accent than a bad accent.  This Higgins has little concern for the rules of social conduct, cares little for his appearance (rumpled, ill-fitting trousers), and treats everyone badly, but his fun side comes out in the classic “I could have danced all night” and his petulant confrontations with his mother (the always delightful Dannette Vassar).

Richard Kleeberg is Higgins’ sidekick, Col Hugh Pickering, without whom Eliza might never have consented to subject herself to Higgins’ relentless elocution lessons.  Kleeberg is a blustery Pickering, with Arthur Sullivan-like mutton chops.  But he is the eternal gentleman, who (almost) always treats Eliza with dignity and respect.

Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, the dustman who is not above selling his daughter to Higgins–but not for too much money, because too much would change his life, is given a royal treatment by the marvelous Brian McCann. McCann is always a delight to watch on stage and he does not disappoint in this production.

Scott Scholes is the lovesick Freddy Eynsford-Hill, so enamored of Eliza that he prefers to spend all of his time “on the street where she lives.” Scholes brings a clueless innocence to the role and a tenor voice that is outstanding.

Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce is given a fine performance by Catrina Ellis.  Mrs. Pearce is critical of much of what Higgins does, but she is a loyal employee and follows his directions to the letter.

“My Fair Lady” must be a costumer’s dream (and nightmare!), with all those elegant gowns for the ball, fun costumes for the dustmen of Covent Garden and the spectacular black and white costumes for the Ascot races.  Jean Henderson does a wonderful job with this show and Ascot, in particular, is memorable.  Eliza’s white gown and red coat for the Embassy ball are dazzling.

Isaacson also designed the sets, which are utilitarian, though not outstanding.  Higgins’ study, with its elevated “library” is quite nice and the steps entering the ball look steep enough that one is glad there is a bannister for the women in high heels to hold onto!

“My Fair Lady” is a classic piece of American musical theater and DMTC has served it up in good shape for the Davis audiences.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Miracle Worker

I will admit to having some concerns when I learned that Emily Jo Seminoff was going to be playing Helen Keller in the Woodland Opera House production of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker.”  I have watched Ms. Seminoff move from talented child actor into adult roles and I wondered if she could pull off the role of the young Keller child.

I need not have worried.  This talented young lady made the role her own and her age and height were irrelevant  She was Helen Keller.

Every bit her equal in the role of Annie Sullivan, the young woman hired to teach Helen, was Patricia Glass, whom Opera House faithful may remember as Miss Tweed in the recent “Something’s Afoot.” Glass’s Annie is full of spunk and fire and, despite her inexperience, is willing to fight for her pupil. She is passionate about giving Helen every chance to fulfill her potential, despite her handicaps.

(I once had a friend who was blind and deaf and who insisted she was not “disabled,” but merely “handicapped, like in golf.”)

The intense battle scenes between Helen and Annie, as the latter attempts to teach her pupil manners and to try to get her to understand the concept of “words” were wonderful and must have left both actresses exhausted.

A scene in the Keller dining room in particular, which ends act 1, owes much of its effectiveness to set designer John Bowles, who has created such a solid set that bodies falling against walls or doors or knocking over tables and chairs works so well that nobody so much as shakes and the furniture withstands the abuse it takes.

The whole set by Bowles is a marvel, on that small opera house stage, since it is designed on several levels, including an upstairs bedroom, and a downstairs area later used as a detached cottage where Annie and Helen spend 2 weeks alone together.  While things are cramped, they still all work wonderfully.

The supporting cast all handle themselves well.  Richard Lui as Captain Keller, who loves his daughter, but, along with the rest of the family, makes too many allowances for her bad behavior, which undermines Annie’s work with the child. He is frustrated that Annie doesn’t have her under control in a matter of an hour or two on her first day.

Sara Wieringa gives a lovely performance as Helen’s mother Kate, whose love for her daughter is palpable, even as she fears some guilt over Helen’s condition.  She vacillates between wanting to support Annie, but hating to see Helen suffer under Annie’s stern hand.

Anthony Raddigan makes a striking, sardonic James, the only person  in the family who sees that Annie’s approach to the girl is vital to her progress.

In smaller roles are Emily Delk as Aunt Ev, Melissa Dahlberg as the maid, Viney, and Belle, a specially trained and certified Assistance Dog from Canine Companions for Independence , who plays Helen’s dog Lacey, and handles herself very professionally on stage.

The audience is taken on such a roller coaster of emotions in this production, directed by Dean Shellenberger, that when Helen finally “gets” the notion that things have words and words have meaning, there was a lot of sniffling and wiping of eyes in the audience.

Annie Sullivan went on to live with Helen Keller until her (Annie’s) death in 1936.  Helen’s list of accomplishments as an author, lecturer (she eventually learned how to speak), and political activist is impressive.  She was one of the founders of the ACLU, campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, and birth control. She died in 1968 and was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971.

One wonders what might have happened to that blind, deaf, out of control little girl if there had not been an Annie Sullivan in her life.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grapes of Wrath


John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The Sacramento Theatre Company, the oldest professional theater company in Sacramento, has chosen the Steinbeck classic to open its 70th season, a season dedicated to “Legends, Epics and Icons.”

STC gives us a powerful production, with all of the emotion of the original book, thanks to a talented cast and the original period-style music of Sam Misner and Megan Pearl Smith of Davis, who also appear as several characters throughout the show.

The adaptation of Steinbeck’s story is by Frank Galati; it won a Tony Award for best play of 1990.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is an epic tale of one family’s enduring spirit in the face of incredible hardship. Set during the Great Depression, the play follows the Joads, a family of tenant farmers who are driven from their Oklahoma home to California due to drought, economic hardship and agricultural changes incited by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Was there ever a more perfect time for the revival of this story? The climatic change was the yearly dust storms that rolled across The Plains, killing off crops and making the soil uncultivatable; the migrant workers of the 1930s were “Okies,”coming from Oklahoma to California on the promise of farming work, as welcome then as are today’s Mexican migrant workers; and haven’t there always been heartless bankers ready to foreclose on a family’s mortgage in order to line their own pockets?

Kirk Blackinton is Tom Joad (the Henry Fonda role in the 1940 movie), recently released from prison after killing a man in self-defense, and returning home to find that his family homestead is abandoned. With the house slated for demolition by the mortgage holder, the family has packed up and decided to move to California, where they have hopes of jobs and better living conditions.

As the play progresses, Tom, a good man, who at first just wanted to reunite with his family and resume his life, becomes more and more filled with rage as he and his family are beaten down by a system that seems to target the poor for extra punishment. There are messages here for the revolutions we see around the world today.

En route home, Tom meets Jim Casy (Kurt Johnson), a preacher who has lost his faith and now is a wanderer, getting help where he can. Casy becomes the moral voice of the piece, Johnson giving a flawless and riveting performance.

Heading up the Joad family are Matt K. Miller as Pa Joad and Laura Kaya as Ma Joad. Miller’s character is stoic and subdued while Kaya’s character is the heart of the piece, fighting for her children and hanging on to the belief that if they just work hard enough, things will be better.

Granma Joad is played by Vada Russell as a crusty old woman, devoted to her ailing husband (Phillip Ryder). Ryder later appears as the mayor of Hooverville.

Alissa Doyle is “Rose of Sharon,” the newly married, newly pregnant young daughter, who endures more tragedy than most people many years older, with the desertion of her husband and the death of her baby. In the end it is she who brings a semblance of hope to everyone. It is a delicate and lovely performance.

Misner and Smith each take several roles, including adding music to the piece. Misner is particularly moving as the “Man going back,” giving up on the promises of a better life in California.

Smith gives a marvelous performance as a 1930s version of a born-again Christian. She also appears as other anonymous members of various groups that the Joads meet along their journey.

The young Joad children are from the STC Young People’s Company, each role double-cast. Opening-night performances were by Owen Larson (alternating with Elliott Thomas West) as Winfield Joad and AJ Welker (alternating with Haley Finerman) as Ruthie Joad.

Likewise, Arcadia German alternates with Sydney Christoffersen in three other roles.

We really want things to improve for the Joad family, for something promised to actually come to pass, but it never does. However, the important thing is the family love and loyalty that binds them and their indomitable pride and dignity, which appear unsquashable.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hello, Dolly

Well, hello, Dolly.  It’s so nice to have you back in town!

Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi (Lisa Quoresimo), the lady who “arranges things” (like furniture and daffodils...and lives) has marched onto the stage of the Woodland Opera House and taken possession.

This production of the Jerry Herman/Michael Stewart musical based on the book by Thornton Wilder was directed by Cheryl Watson, with choreography by Staci Arriaga. Quoresimo gives Dolly energy and heart as she sets her cap for the curmudgeonly “half-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (Steve Mackay) and in the process manages to pair up a few other couples as well.

Dolly is coming back to life after a period of widowhood and is searching for a “sign” from her previous husband Ephram that it’s OK to marry again.

Mackay is a low key misogynist who appears to want a replacement for his deceased wife only as someone who can clean the house. (“It takes a woman all powdered and pink / To joyously clean out the drain in the sink”)

At the same time he is determined to prevent his niece Ermengarde (Devon Hayakawa) from marrying the love of her life, Ambrose Kemper (Cameron Turner) because he feels the young artist will not be able to provide a steady living and that Ermengarde is too immature to be married.

Hayakawa’s character has very little to actually speak, but she whines beautifully.  I have been impressed with Hayakawa whenever I’ve seen her on stage and she does not disappoint in this role which is perfect for her.

Vandergelder owns a hay and feed store and his two employees are chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Eddie Voyce) and Barnaby Tucker (J. Hunter LaMar). Both are excellent, especially Voyce, who commands the stage whenever he is on it. 

The two men, who have never left Yonkers, decide to blow up some tomato cans in the basement of Vandergelder’s store to make it uninhabitable for a day, and go off on an adventure in New York, while their boss is marching in the Fourteenth Street Association Parade.  The thirty-three year old Cornelius vows not to come home again until he’s kissed a girl.

“The girl” turns out to be Miss Irene Molloy (Dani Barnett) who runs a millenary shop with her clerk, Minnie Fay (Emily O’Flaherty).  The women, convinced Cornelius and Barnaby are eccentric millionaires, spend the day with them. O’Flaherty, a 9th grader at Emerson Junior High, nicely balances a giggily young girl with a more mature woman in her performance.  I would not have guessed that she was so young.

Mollie Smith is perfectly cast as Ernestina Money, the girl in the bizarre outfit, hired by Dolly to annoy Vandergelder and set him up for her own eventual conquest.

Most of Act 2 takes place at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, “the fanciest place in New York.”  The choreography for the waiters has always been one of the most memorable parts of “Hello Dolly” and this production is no exception. Head waiter Rudolph (Spencer Alexander) prepares his service crew for Dolly Levi's return: their usual lightning service, he tells them, must be "twice as lightning". The waiters in this production are up to the challenge and the “Waiters’ Gallop” is something to behold.

Dolly makes her entrance to the title song resplendent in a gorgeous sequined red gown.  Kudos to costume designer Denise Miles.

The orchestra does well, under the capable hand of James Glica-Hernandez, and congratulations to the program people for getting (almost) all of their names in the program.  (Sorry, strings!)

By now, “Hello, Dolly” is a beloved old war horse that is a sure fire audience pleaser, and the Woodland Opera House gives her all the respect that she deserves.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Shrek

 The Davis Musical Theater Company has opened a lively, splashy, thoroughly enjoyable production of “Shrek, The Musical,” directed by Steve Isaacson and with choreography by Ron Cisneros. This is a show that is sure to be a hit with audiences of all ages. In fact, the full house on opening night was a nice mixture of children, parents and older adults, all laughing and applauding enthusiastically.

Based on William Steig’s book “Shrek!” and the DreamWorks animated film, this is the story of everybody’s favorite ogre, with the message that everyone is worthy of true love. It is filled with familiar nursery-rhyme characters, double entendres, great costumes, fun dance numbers, and more belch and fart jokes than I’ve ever seen in one show before.

This is not an instant stage classic that we will be seeing again for decades, nor does it have memorable music (except for the closing number, Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer”). But for what it is, it delivers.

Essential to the success of any production of “Shrek” is an actor who can convincingly become the title character. DMTC is blessed with the talented Kevin Caravalho, who is so convincing you’re surprised to discover there is a real man under all that padding and green make up. I would be hard-pressed to think of any actor who could do better with this role. This production is worth seeing if only for Caravalho’s performance.

Fortunately, Caravalho is backed up by a host of equally talented performers. There is hardly a weak link in the massive cast. Shrek’s sidekick is Donkey, played for all the broad comedy the role requires by David Ewey, despite some costume problems opening night (it’s hard to hold your ears on straight when you have hooves, not hands, to work with!) Despite the costume malfunction, Ewey was consistently funny, worming his way into curmudgeonly Shrek’s heart, whether the ogre thinks he wants a friend or not.

Travis Nagler is the diminutive Lord Farquaad, scheming to make Princess Fiona his bride so he can become king and steal her kingdom. The actor does well playing the role on his knees, with fake legs dangling in front of him. He is even able to dance.

Jessica McKillican plays an enthusiastic Fiona, thrilled to be released from the prison where she has spent her entire childhood, confused about who Shrek really is, but eager to meet her intended husband to be … and also hoping to keep her own secret hidden. No shrinking violet, this heroine is equal to Shrek in every way.
Lizzie Carey and Mia Piazza play Fiona at young and teen ages and the transition from one age to the next is done flawlessly.

Jonathan Kalinen is very funny as Pinocchio and his growing nose was hilarious. My only problem with him is that his high pitched voice sometimes made it difficult to understand him.

This is also a three-generation production, with Mary Young playing several roles, including Mama Shrek, who sends her young son off to live on his own. Daughter Wendy Carey Young is Gingy, the Gingerbread man, and Lizzie Carey is Wendy’s daughter and Mary’s granddaughter

There are some outstanding dance numbers in this production, particularly by the Duloc Dancers in incredible costumes rented from the Theatre Companyof Upland. 



Fiona also does a wonderful dance number with the Pied Piper, played by Tomas Eredia, and his rats.

The marvelous dragon (her name is Donisha, Director Isaacson tells me), was designed and built by River City Theatre Company and lent to DMTC by Granite Bay High School. She swoops and flies and turns in circles on stage and is amazingly believable.

This is another winner from DMTC and should be popular with everyone. Kids in particular will love the bright costumes and the chance to see a “real” dragon. By the end of the show, everyone will want to give the lovable ogre a big hug.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tribes

What does it mean to “hear”?

Can you hear if you are deaf, by understanding the world around you through lip-reading or sign language? Can you be deaf to those loudly speaking around you, though your hearing is just fine? Can you hear with your eyes, reading what others are signing?

These are some of the questions explored by playwright Nina Raine in her powerful play, “Tribes,” now at Capital Stage in Sacramento, under the direction of Jonathan Williams.

It is the story of a dysfunctional Jewish British family, headed by parents Christopher (Lol Levy), a retired academic, and Beth (Jamie Jones), a wannabe writer. Their grown children are , Daniel (Benjamin T. Ismail), who is writing a thesis arguing that language doesn’t determine meaning; Ruth (Elizabeth Holzman), an aspiring opera singer; and Billy (Stephen Drabicki), just home from university.

Sylvia (Brittni Barger) is the woman who enters their lives and turns long-held perceptions on their head.

As the play begins, the family is seated at the table, engaged in an argument. There are actually several arguments going on, each seemingly nastier than the next.r whines continually that he can’t find any good nuts in the nut dish, while Daniel is upset because Ruth is dating a man nearly her father’s age. Daniel is also upset that all of his grown children are still living at home with their parents and repeatedly asks when they are going to move out.

Daniel whines continually that he can’t find any good nuts in the nut dish, while Christopher is upset because Ruth is dating a man nearly her father’s age. Christopher is also upset that all of his grown children are still living at home with their parents and repeatedly asks when they are going to move out.

The F-word is sprinkled liberally throughout the play.

Through all the cacophony of the arguments, Billy sits calmly, reading, his back to the audience. Through dialog of the others, we learn that Billy is deaf, but he is proficient at lip-reading. In fact, we learn later, he knows nothing of sign language, because his parents didn’t want to raise him to be handicapped.

This becomes a major theme of the play when Sylvia, who is losing her hearing, enters the picture and attempts to teach him how to sign. Billy begins to realize that life can be lonely and frustrating when he has to rely on lip-reading, but that his social life opens up significantly when he becomes part of the signing community.

The actor playing Billy is crucial to the emotional arc of this play and Drabicki, who played the role in the Canadian premiere of the play, is perfect. A hearing-impaired actor himself, and member of the New York Deaf Theater and the Association of Musicians with Hearing Loss, he embraces the conflicting emotions of a deaf man living in a hearing world and the complicated relationships within his own family.

I found that I wondered how difficult it must be to learn to speak with a British accent when one is hearing-impaired.

Barger, as Sylvia, beautifully conveys the strain she is under, as the child of deaf parents who is now, in her adulthood, losing her own hearing. She becomes the translator for both the hearing and deaf members of the family.

As Billy moves deeper and deeper into the signing world, this production adopts a beautiful artistic quality, as the words that are projected on the wall to translate for non-signers in the audience have an almost choreographed quality to them.

Other members of the cast are equally strong, with Ismael’s Daniel outstanding as he fights the voices in his own head and displays his own mental problems, though his love for his brother is painfully apparent.

One scene particularly displays the worlds in which each brother is living, when Christopher turns on the radio to help drown out the voices in his head and Billy begs him to turn it off because it causes buzzing in his ear through his hearing aids.

Director Williams has molded a complex family whose emotions, whether they are loving or angry, are over the top and which shows each member in his or her own little tribe, keeping the others out.

By the end of the play, we might all be questioning how we relate to others, and whether we are really communicating as clearly as we think we are.