Sunday, January 14, 2018

The White Rose

Young activist Sophie Scholl (Michelle Monheit) is accused of distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets
and is interrogated by Anton Mahler (Grey Turner),
Bauer (Skye McIlraith) and police chief Robert Mohr (Gracelyn Watkins).
Courtesy photo
The White Rose was an organization of German students founded in Munich in 1942, with the goal of exposing Nazi crimes and injustices. They wrote and circulated some 15,000 leaflets over the next year and then in 1943, some of the students were arrested for distributing treasonous material. The students were held and interrogated for five days, and then executed.

“The White Rose” is a play by Lillian Garrett-Groag, directed by Emily Henderson and performed by a talented cast of Acme Theatre Company actors at the Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre.

The play covers the arrest and interrogation of the students, mixed with flashbacks to the formation of the group, its growing passion, and increasing boldness in the name of nationalism.

When it debuted in New York in 1991, it was highly criticized by critics who felt it was overly dramatic and questioned its veracity. (“Fake news” as theater?) However, seen in the light of 2018, it perhaps takes on a bit more importance as we pay attention to the warnings it gives.

Acme has never shied away from asking difficult questions and giving the audience something to think about.

The program, for example, includes a helpful list of five early signs of fascism, which includes such things “Destruction of human rights,” “Controlled media” and “Corporate power being protected — when the rich or elite are voted into positions of power and then use the power granted to them to protect their assets.”

Director Henderson asks, “What do we do when each day brings a new erosion of democracy? What are we supposed to do now?”

She also asks, “What does it mean to be immersed in historical injustice and current inhumanity? To come of age under the reign of a delusional leader? How do personal faith, truth and honor operate when law and morality are in direct conflict? How do you proceed if your country becomes unrecognizable?”

She has a talented cast to try to answer such questions. There are eight characters in the play and two of the roles are double-cast, so 10 actors altogether bring the story of these students to life.
In the production I saw, Eleanor Richter played Sophie Scholl of the White Rose and Gracelyn Watkins was Robert Mohr, the police investigator who spends days trying to get her to confess to her crimes. These two are the heart of this play, Mohr wanting to save this young girl who is the age of his daughter, and Scholl, willing to give up her life to help save her country. Both actors are excellent and their final emotional interrogation scene is riveting.

Grey Turner is mesmerizing as Anton Mahler, the office Nazi intent on punishing the students in the extreme. The blond Turner is the perfect Aryan, with a growing sneer throughout the play and a “Heil Hitler” salute that is crisp every time. (It was nice seeing Turner in the talk-back at the end of the show as a normal, appealing young man and not the unlikable Nazi!)

Others in the show include Cory McCutcheon as Sophie’s brother Hans, Dezla Dawkins, Kieran Cubbage and Sophie Nachmanoff as the rest of the White Rose cohorts arrested, and Skye McIlraith as the guard who sits outside Mohr’s office and escorts the prisoners to and from their cells.
Michelle Monheit shares the role of Sophie with Richter and Garnet Phinney shares the role of Mohr with Watkins.

This is a play that should be seen by more people than I fear it will be. It has a message that is delivered powerfully and it leaves the audience with many things to think about as they watch what patriotic students would sacrifice to save the soul of their country.

Be sure to check out the lobby before or after the show to see the photos and read the bios of the real students whose story this play tells.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Musical of Musicals

David Taylor Gomes, Michael RJ Campbell, Kelly Ann Dunn
and Brad Bong perform in Sacramento Theatre Company’s
“The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!”
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo
  
Anyone who has ever written song parodies knows how difficult it can be. To write lyric parodies and melody parodies is downright brilliant, so Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart may be real musical geniuses.

“The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)” is making a return appearance on Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock Stage and is every bit as amusing and entertaining as it was when it first played here in 2011.

David Taylor Gomes acts as narrator and accompanist and explains to the audience that their beloved theater is about to be torn down because the actors can’t pay the rent. He begs the mean landlord (an offstage voice) to let them produce one more show and he’s certain they can pay the rent. Reluctantly, the landlord agrees and Gomes promises they can write a blockbuster.

The group then presents five possibilities: one in the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Corn”), one in the style of Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Aspects of Junita”), one in the style of Jerry Herman (“Dear Abby”), one in the style of Stephen Sondheim (“A Little Complex” — “nobody understands Sondheim”) and one in the style of Kander and Ebb (“Speakeasy”).

All five musicals have the same plot, a heroine (Kelly Ann Dunn) named either June, Junita, Junie Faye or Juny, who can’t pay the rent, and a sinister landlord (Michael RJ Campbell), who will have his way with her if she can’t pay the rent.

Then there is the hero (Brad Bong) who will save her and the older diva (Martha Omiyo Kight), who will deliver the epic advice song to help the heroine make the right decision.

While all performers are excellent, Dunn is particularly noteworthy for her ability to sing several musical styles, from the corny Rodgers and Hammerstein to the more operatic Lloyd Webber — and sound authentic in each genre.

What makes it all work is that the writers of this show not only understand each of the styles they are parodying, but they obviously respect them and love poking fun at them.

“Corn,” for example takes “Oklahoma” as its base (“Oh What Beautiful Corn”) but then tosses in shows like “Carousel” (there’s even a salute to clam dip), “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and others.

“Big Willie” sings a salute to corn in which he tell us that a lark learning to pray needs to be carefully taught, and later on that milking cows will leave him with a pound and a half of cream upon his face. He also, when unsure about things, tells us that they’re a puzzlement. Mother Abby sings “Follow Your Dream,” to encourage June to make her own decision.

In “Aspects of Junita,” Junita repeatedly sings “I’ve heard this song before,” a reference to the repetitive nature of many of Lloyd Webber’s musicals. The villain also becomes Sir Phantom Jitter, an opera impresario who wants Junita to sing one of his operas (She: You wrote it yourself? He: Do you know opera? She: No. He: Yes, I wrote it myself.)

“Dear Abby” is a salute to all those Herman heroines, like Dolly, Mame or Albin from “La Cage aux Folles” (Jitter is told to put some more mascara on), while the pianist explains that the audience wildly applauds before they’ve done anything.

The section on Sondheim (“It’s Complex”) takes place in an apartment complex called “The Woods.” There is a lot of “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park with George” about this piece.

The show closes with a salute to Kander and Ebb, which not only includes their famous musicals (“Cabaret” and “Chicago”) but also “Liza with a Z,” written for Liza Minnelli, transformed into “Julia with a J.”

With direction by Michael Laun and choreography by Michael Jenkinson, this becomes an evening of sparkling entertainment sure to appeal to any musical theater fan.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Spamalot

“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” was a hit movie in 1975. In 2005, a musical was adapted for the stage by Eric Idle and was a Tony Award winner. Now it is entertaining Davis Musical Theatre Company audiences.

I will confess my deep, dark secret: I’m not a Monty Python fan, though I had seen the odd bits here and there and one or two of the movies. But I had not seen “Holy Grail” nor had I memorized lots of favorite skits from the 45 television episodes. So I missed a lot of the “in jokes” in this musical.
Still, even for someone like me, this production has enough cheap shots, fart jokes and low-brow humor in it to make it an enjoyable two hours of nonsense.

The Historian (Steven O’Shea) sets the scene, giving a brief overview of medieval England with the precision of a weatherman, recounting where in the country there was plague (“a 50 percent chance of pestilence and famine coming out of the northeast at 12 miles per hour.”)

Following his announcement that this is “England,” the stage is, of course, filled with brightly costumed dancers singing about Finland and hitting each other with fish in the delightful “Finland/Fisch Schlapping Dance,” until the Historian reminds them that it is England, whereupon they leave the stage, disappointed, followed by a somber line of monks chanting in Latin.

The real story begins with the entrance of Arthur (Scott Minor), who announces his search for knights for his Round Table, with the assistance of sidekick Patsy (Tomas Eredia) and sets off on his quest, encountering ridiculous setbacks along the way, riding nonexistent horses and using coconuts to make the noise of the clopping hoofbeats.

Minor and Eredia make a wonderful pair, with Minor ineptly regal while Eredia is irresistible with his facial asides to the audience.

The duo encounter Lancelot (Quintin Casl) and Sir Robin (Andy Hyun), who is collecting bodies of the dead. They encounter the sickly Fred (O’Shea) and attempt to add him to the heap of bodies. When he insists he’s “Not Dead Yet,” they help him die to get rid of him so the two men can join Arthur’s knights.

Marci Maxey is a lovely Lady of the Lake, who gave Arthur his sword Excalibur, and just gets more beautiful as the show moves forward.

Python fans will be happy to note that the show includes a lot of familiar Python gags, like the Knights of Ni (led by O’Shea — his third role in this show!), and the killer rabbit.

A show highlight is “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” sung by Arthur, Patsy and Robin, explaining that you need Jews for a successful Broadway musical, following which there is a wild production number filled with “Fiddler on the Roof” parodies, including a bottle dance with Grails instead of bottles.

All ends with a community sing of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” and chuckles continue as the audience shuffles out into the parking lot.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Something Rotten

It is fair to say that “Something Rotten,” currently at the Sacramento Community Center, is the funniest show you will see all year (and this includes a year in which “Book of Mormon” is also included).

This hilarious musical, written by brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, with John O’Farrell’s assistance on the book, is, at its heart, an homage not only to William Shakespeare, but also to just about every Broadway musical ever written.

I would also add, as an aside, that this may be the first musical I have attended at the Community Center where there was absolutely no difficulty understanding the actors on stage.

The story follows the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel (Rob McClure and Josh Grisetti), playwrights in Renaissance England (“Welcome to the Renaissance” is a wonderful opening number led by the Minstrel, Nick Rashad Burroughs).

The brothers are determined to make a name in show biz, but they keep being overshadowed by that rock star William Shakespeare (Adam Pascal), who sneaks looks at Nigel’s notebook and steals all his best ideas.

Nick is married to Bea (Maggie Lakis) a Renaissance feminist who is incensed about the inequality of women and determined to prove that a woman can do anything a man can do (“Right Hand Man”).
Frustrated by Shakespeare’s popularity (“I Hate Shakespeare”), Nick grumbles about how “a mediocre actor from a measly little town is suddenly the brightest jewel in England’s royal crown.”

He takes the family savings and hires a soothsayer (Blake Hammond) to learn what the next big thing in entertainment will be — and what Shakespeare’s next project will be.

Nostradamus, the soothsayer, tells him he should write a musical, where a character, for no reason whatsoever, will suddenly break into song, which audiences will love because it’s easier to understand than iambic pentameter. Musicals are unheard of at the time and will guarantee an audience lining up to get into the theater, Nostradamus predicts. “A Musical” is by far the hit number of the show and earns a lengthy standing ovation from the audience.

Nostradamus also struggles to understand what Shakespeare’s next play will be about but misunderstands it and only knows it is “something Danish,” so Nick and Nigel set out to write the first breakfast musical, “Omelette.”

Having lost their backer, who thinks they are crazy, they agree to accept help from the moneylender, Shylock (Jeff Brooks), a Jewish man whose dream is to be in theater, though it is forbidden for Jews to participate.

There has to be a love angle and Nigel falls in love with the poetry-loving Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), whose father, Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote), a puritan preacher, is determined to shut down all theater (but who seems to be inordinately interested in the men involved …). Portia encourages Nigel to be true to himself.

This is a comedy which is rife with bad puns, gay jokes and phallic humor, though on a much milder (and possibly funnier) level than “The Book of Mormon.”

It is a thoroughly delightful evening that left the audience laughing even after the curtain came down. A must-see for Shakespeare fans and musical comedy fans alike.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

From left, Sarah Brazier, Brittni Barger
and Elyse Sharp perform in the
Capital Stage production of
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,”
on stage through Dec. 30.
Charr Crail/Courtesy photo
Attention, Jane Austen fans: Capital Stage has a wonderful Christmas gift for you. “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon is a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” and takes place two years after the book ends.
If you (like me) are not a Jane Austen fan, not to worry — this delightful comedy-drama featuring four of the five Bennet sisters coming together to celebrate Christmas is just as delightful. There are probably a lot of nuances and back story bits that pass you by, but you’ll never know it.

This show centers on Mary (Elyse Sharp), the middle Bennet sister who, some say, gets short shrift in the book because of her “pedantic air and conceited manner.” At 20, she’s a spinster and a bookworm. She is more interested in learning and longs for a bigger life outside the societal expectations of 18th-century women. She is uninterested in the frivolous romantic adventures of her sisters.

Sister Elizabeth Darcy (Brittni Barger), now married to hunky Mr. Darcy (J.R. Yancher, a Davis resident), is the mistress of Pemberley, the Darcy estate. The gorgeous set designed by Eric Broadwater is dominated by a real Christmas tree, which will be decorated throughout the evening. It is a novelty for all the others, as the indoor Christmas tree is just beginning to be the fashion in Germany.

The Bingleys arrive — the very-pregnant sister Jane (Andrea J. Love) and husband Charles (Kevin Gish). Jane is “the sweet one” and does her best to calm people down when things threaten to get out of hand.

The last sister, Lydia (Sarah Brazier) arrives without her husband, who was “detained in Bath,” she explains. Lydia is self-absorbed and flirtatious. Brazier gives a very energetic performance that is perhaps a tad too loud, but definitely obnoxious.

She sets her sights on Arthur de Bourgh (Aaron Kitchin), Mr. Darcy’s cousin, who recently inherited a large estate and has no idea what to do with it. He is there to celebrate the holidays, but as he is a loner who prefers books to people, he definitely feels out of place and more than a little overwhelmed with Lydia’s attentions.

Though the plot is predictable — how two shy bookworms find the courage to admit their attraction to each other, amid all the chaos around them — getting there is half the fun, and director Peter Mohrman has kept the pace swift and the dialog crisp.

Things are further complicated by the arrival of Anne deBourgh (Lyndsy Kail), who announces that she is Arthur’s fiancĂ©e (a surprise to him).

Though the actors gave uniformly excellent performances, my heart went out to Kitchin’s Arthur and his awkwardness. Similarly, Gish’s Bingley, while perhaps the smallest role in the show, had such a look on his face — like he had a fun joke that only he knows. It was quite appealing.

Sharp’s Mary was cold and controlled, but with a desire she had not dealt with before just below the surface. Watching both her and Arthur struggling with unfamiliar feelings was very sweet.
In the end, the love that the women have for each other overshadows all difficulties and it shines as brightly as the now-decorated Christmas tree.

“Miss Bennet” is a nice, unusual Christmas story, which I hope will become a staple in years to come. It’s fun to see something different for a change!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Christmas Carol

Matt K. Miller as Ebenezer Scrooge and Gregg Koski as the ghost of Jacob Marley
perform in Sacramento Theatre Company's 2017 production of “A Christmas Carol.”
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo

It is difficult to imagine a Sacramento Theatre Company production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ without Matt K. Miller as Scrooge. Performing the role for the sixth time, he is the stingiest, meanest, grinchiest Scrooge there ever was — but after his reformation, his child-like enthusiasm for having not missed Christmas after all is infectious and never fails to bring a tear every time I see it.

This musical version of the Dickens classic, directed by Michael Laun and Michael Jenkinson, is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and returns to the STC stage after a five-year absence. Sacramento Theatre Company commissioned this musical by Richard Hellesen and David de Berry in 1987. Since then, the work has been widely performed, with perennial productions in Rochester, N.Y.; Denver; Dallas; Baton Rouge, La.; and Phoenix; among other communities.

Greg Coffin modernized the music a few years ago, and re-orchestrated the soundtrack for the 25th anniversary production. (The orchestration is recorded; no live orchestra was used … but you’d never know it.)

This is a pleasant musical with tunes that might not be memorable, but are thoroughly enjoyable. There are 35 actors mentioned in the biography, but many roles are double-cast to allow more of STC’s Young Professional’s Conservatory program to appear on stage.

Miller’s real-life son, Max Miller, for example, appears as Tiny Tim, alternating with Miller Traum. Max made his stage debut in this role five years ago, at age 4, and is now a seasoned professional.
The set by Renee Degarmo and Jarrod Bodensteiner is a wonder, with large pieces that roll or rotate while actors walk across them, telling the Dickens story and morphing into the characters singing the songs about the story.

That it works without a hitch is a miracle, though there was a slight problem that stopped the show cold for several minutes the night we went. The actors left the stage and the audience went into the lobby, and when the problem was fixed, all returned and the actors continued as if nothing had happened.

Michael Jenkinson plays Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, who must endure the conditions under which he works because he has a family of six at home — his wife (Aviva Pressman) and five children, including Tiny Tim (a good performance by Traum, whose “God bless us every one” rang out clearly).

Despite the hardships of his job, Cratchit maintains a happy disposition and greets Scrooge’s ebullient nephew Fred (David Weidoff) with good wishes for the coming holiday, though Scrooge growls and sends his beloved sister’s only child away.

Dominique Lawson and Jake Mahler are the two subscription gentlemen, soliciting funds for the poor. Their reaction at the end of the show when Scrooge reveals the contribution he wants to make to atone for many years when he did not contribute is perfect.

Gregg Koski is the chain-wearing ghost of Scrooge’s old partner, Jacob Marley, returning to Earth to warn Scrooge of what is in store for him if he does not begin to mend his ways. His interpretation is perhaps more befitting a Halloween spook than a Christmas specter, but he puts his whole soul into it.
As promised, Scrooge is visited by three spirits. The first, the Ghost of Christmas Past (eighth-grader Sarah Arata in her first Main Stage production, alternating with 14-year-old Fiona Gillogly) leads Scrooge through the happy memories of his past where he sees himself as a child (Ian Kennedy, alternating with Sebastian Fernandez), and, first, apprentice and then young man (Will Block), who definitely shows the beginnings of the cold, unfeeling Scrooge that he will become in later life.
Scrooge enjoys reliving the festivities at the shop of his jolly employer Fezziweg (Jake Mahler), who shows how happy he can make his employees with not much money at all.

Scrooge then sees the sad change when money became all important to him, ruining his relationship with the love of his life, Belle (Tyler Traum). Hints of regret begin to tug at his conscience.

Jake Mahler returns as the exuberant Ghost of Christmas Present, showing Scrooge the reality of life in the present.

I have seen this show many, many times and have never been as affected as I was this time listening to this ghost talk about the children of want and ignorance: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

It has always seemed just a part of the script for me, but sadly in this day and age, with education programs and children’s welfare in danger, it seemed more prophetic.

By the time of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Zane Boyer) arrives, Scrooge is ready to atone for his past sins and lead a good, blameless life.

Sacramento Theatre Company’s “A Christmas Carol” is a long-standing holiday favorite and it is wonderful to see it back on the STC stage again. It’s the Christmas show that everyone should see, at least once.

Scrooge (Matt K. Miller) celebrates his new found outlook on life with Bob Cratachit (Michael Jenkinson) 
and Tiny Tim (Max Miller) in Sacramento Theatre Company's production of "A Christmas Carol."
Kelly Christoffersen/Courtesy photo

Friday, December 01, 2017

A Christmas Miracle

This was a feature article:


That Tom Fay is alive today is literally a Christmas miracle.

Fay was a familiar figure in the Davis music scene back in the 1980s, when his band, The Rhythm Kings, played many of the venues in town. They also played Picnic Day, and even performed for the reopening of the Varsity Theater as a concert venue.

One night in the early 1990s, Fay had a dream that eventually would save his life. He awoke at 3 a.m. with a song in his head — complete with music and lyrics — and he grabbed a pad of paper to write it down. The song was “The Santa Rhumba.”

In 1994, Dave Whitaker of Sacramento’s Studio Z wanted to raise money for AIDS. He gathered several popular local bands to produce a compilation album, “Believe: a Holiday Wish.”


Musician Tom Fay points out a poster advertising a benefit concert Tuesday, Dec. 12, at which he and other local musicians will perform. Courtesy photo

When funding became a problem, Fay made some phone calls and was able to get the necessary money to make the CD, which would feature “The Santa Rhumba.” There was a CD-release concert and the album raised $14,000. All proceeds went to the Sacramento AIDS Foundation.

Fay decided that holiday concerts to raise funds for charity were a good idea, and he continued to stage annual concerts for organizations such as CARES, the Sacramento’s Children’s Home and Boys and Girls clubs. The “Santa Rhumba” was always a popular part of the concerts.

In November of 2014, the 72-year-old Fay had a debilitating stroke, which left him with a feeding tube and a walker. The doctors believed he had reached his maximum possible recovery. “It was the bleakest Christmas I’d ever known,” Fay recalled.

But then, when he was watching “Good Day Sacramento” on Channel 31, announcer Mark S. Allen announced that he’d just heard this “really cool” song that was No. 12 on the Sirius Radio top 100 of alternative Christmas hits. Then he played “The Santa Rhumba.”

Fay called the TV station and confessed it was his band and his song. Allen was excited and said that if Fay could get himself into good enough shape by the following Christmas, he was invited to perform “The Santa Rhumba” on the show.

Fay took that as a challenge. He and his wife Cottie Johnson searched for alternatives to the liquid he had been receiving through his stomach tube and found an organic substance called “Liquid Hope,” which sounded promising. He began to feel better and eventually was able to remove the tube.
After months of physical therapy, he was able to throw away the walker and, in December 2015, he did indeed perform “The Santa Rhumba” on Sacramento television.

Now he has joined with Lawsuit’s Ned Sykes to produce the 2017 charitable concert. Craig Ashton of the law firm of Ashton and Price is the generous sponsor.

They have chosen the Front Street Animal Shelter as this year’s recipient of funds.

“We went back and forth. There are lots of benefits going on around the holidays,” Fay explained. “I thought animals really need help around Christmastime. The field gets a little crowded.”
He thought especially of the animals affected by the recent Northern California wildfires.

The concert will take place from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12, at Harlow’s, 2708 J St. in Sacramento. Bands joining Fay and The Rhythm Kings are Preoccupied Pipers, a Davis band featuring former members of the 1990s ska band Lawsuit; The Hucklebucks, Sacramento jump blues legends; Todd Morgan & The Emblems.

Jimi Morris of Mercy Me! Band will make a special guest appearance at 5:45 p.m. Doors will open at 5 p.m. for DJ music with Harley White Jr.

And Tom Fay will perform “The Santa Rhumba,” the song that saved his life and got him back on the stage.

From 5 to 6 p.m., representatives of the Front Street Animal Shelter will be out in front of Harlow’s with adoptable dogs and puppies, weather permitting.