Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Blithe Spirit

Anyone who has enjoyed the many performances of Lenore Sebastian over the years will want to be sure to get tickets to see her as Madame Arcati in the Woodland Opera House production of Noel Coward’s ghostly comedy, “Blithe Spirit.” It may be one of her best performances.

Thanks to direction by Robert Cooner, costuming by Denise Miles and Sebastian’s magnificent inhabiting of the character, she has brought the eccentric medium to life delightfully.

Madame Arcati is brought to the home of Charles (Matthew Abergel) and Ruth (Patricia Glass) Condomine, to perform a seance for them and their guests Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Steve Mackay and Christine Deamer). Charles, a writer, needs material for a book he is writing about professional charlatans. All four think the seance will be great fun and laugh at the antics and gestures of Arcati.
All is great fun until Arcati somehow conjures up the spirit of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Analise Langford-Clark), visible only to Charles.

Charles has a difficult time convincing his current wife, who thinks he just had too much to drink, until he finds a way to prove to her that Elvira is really there — he convinces her to move a few objects.

Arcati has to admit she doesn’t know how to send Elvira back to the other side, and Elvira is having a lovely time back in her old house, taunting Ruth, who can’t see her but realizes that she really is there.

What to do with two women you love, but who hate each other, both inhabiting the same house, only one of whom is actually living?

Abergel makes Charles a not-so-lovable egotistical novelist who is rather enjoying having both of his wives around. As the play continues, he becomes irritated with them both, but you can see he is enjoying the game.

Glass, as Ruth, while obviously in love with her husband, also has hen-pecked him. She is more interested in appearances and showing off her perfect home (great design by Don Zastoupil), serving the perfect martini and making fun of Madame Arcati.

A victim of Ruth’s need for perfection is the maid Edith (Rachel Tauner, last seen as Anne Frank in last year’s “Diary of Anne Frank.”), who is overwhelmed by her boss’ demands but can’t run to keep up because that bothers Ruth, too.

Deamer is what everyone might think of as an uppercrust British “dame,” (that’s a as in “ahh” not “ay”) but sadly, much of her dialog is lost in the very, very British accent. A little less accent would be oh-so-much better. One misses her half of some very witty conversation with Ruth.

Mackay has no such accent problem and is the solid doctor who takes charge when Arcati collapses during the seance.

There is a lot of humor in this classic play, but it also has a sting to it, as it examines the difficulties within a marriage and what causes the disintegration of both of Charles’ marriages.

All in all, this is an excellent play by the Woodland Opera House, which is worth seeing on its own — but especially to watch Sebastian’s performance.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Diary of Anne Frank

Dale Lisa Flint (as Mrs. Frank), Maddy Wood (as Anne Frank)
and Eric Wheeler (as Mr. Van Daan) perform in
Sacramento Theatre Company's “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo
When Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl in Amsterdam, received a diary on her 13th birthday, she dreamed of one day becoming a writer.

Given that her famous diary has been translated into more than 70 languages, published in more than 60 countries and sold more than 35 million copies, her dream was achieved beyond her wildest expectations! Her diary appears on lists of the bestselling books of all times.

A play, dramatized by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, opened on Broadway in 1955, ran 717 performances and won several Tony Awards, including one for Best Play.

Now, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Anne’s receipt of the diary, the Sacramento Theatre Company is presenting an outstanding version of the story of eight Jewish people hiding in a secluded room for more than two years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

The production, directed by Casey McClellan, boasts a stellar cast, starting with Olivia Ingram as Anne (she shares this role with Maddy Wood). Ingram is perfect as the irrepressible young girl whose spirit cannot be dampened despite the circumstances of their claustrophobic incarceration.

During her time in the room, she works through problems with her mother, a first love and irritation with the other occupants, but keeps her positive attitude: “I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains,” and “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”

Michael Jenkinson is Anne’s father, Otto Frank, whose job it is to keep the peace among the disparate group forced to live together.

Mrs. Frank (Dale Lisa Flint) struggles with her relationship with Anne, and she is in charge of keeping the room running smoothly.

Kate Brugger is Anne’s older sister, Margot, quiet and shy. Brugger shares this role with Paige Johnson.

Otto’s business partner, Mr. van Daan (Eric Wheeler), joins the Franks with his wife (Natasha Hause) and son Peter (Nick Leras, sharing the role with Owen Larson). Mr. van Daan is perpetually hungry and tends to steal the small amounts of food the group has. His wife’s dearest possession is her fur coat, which she eventually must sell.

Peter is painfully shy to begin with and spends most of his time in his room with his cat (who must be the best cat in the world, since he lives in a small bucket without complaint!).

A late addition to the room is the dentist, Mr. Dussell (STC favorite Gary Martinez), arriving to spend a day or two, but staying for the duration. Dussell is persnickety and acerbic, allergic to the cat and resentful of having to share a room with Anne. Martinez is reminiscent of Leo G. Carroll.

Frank’s employee, Miep Gies (Kirsten Myers), and Mr. Kraler (William Oberholtzer) keep the secret identities hidden and bring supplies and news of the outside to the group weekly.

While this is a dark, depressing story, it is not without its lighter moments. There is a lovely Hanukkah celebration, where Anne reveals that she has made gifts for everyone, and the joy at hearing of the invasion of Normandy, which brings promise that their incarceration soon may be over.
But in the close quarters, nerves fray and little irritations take on greater significance, and though the audience knows how the story ends, the discovery of the hidden room by the Nazi soldiers is still heart-rending.

Anne died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but because Miep Gies saved her writings, Anne’s father, the only survivor of the group, was able to put her diary into shape to be published.

Anne’s message resonates with all of us today, as we look at all the problems we see around us: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Friday, September 29, 2017

Behind the Scenes

Stage manager Kimmie McCann, takes a peek onto the stage as actors wait backstage for her instructions during Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of "Jekyll & Hyde." Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

When an audience sits down for a local musical-theater show, they see a polished production — told by actors through words, song and dance — that allows them to escape into another time and place.
But what they may not realize is how much coordination and activity goes on during a night’s show behind the scenes: rapid costume and set changes, the orchestra playing on cue, lighting and sound technicians working with precision, actors doing last-second rehearsals in the wings, makeup touch-ups and mic adjustments.

The Enterprise spent a day at Davis Musical Theatre Company during its current production of “Jekyll and Hyde” to give audiences an inside glimpse into everything that happens before and during showtime that they don’t see.

Here is how a Sunday-afternoon performance unfolded:

The actors are called to the theater at 12:30 p.m., so I showed up at noon and found Conrad, from a professional cleaning service in Oakland, scrubbing the lobby and taking bags of trash out. The lobby smelled very clean.

Dannette Vassar, who would later appear on stage as Lady Beaconsfield, was in the ticket booth making final adjustments on ticketing for the day’s show.

I moved inside the theater itself and stage manager Kimmie McCann was smoothing out some problems with set placement the previous night. McCann, I would learn throughout the afternoon, is the real anchor for the show and seems to be everywhere at once, fixing problems along the way.
She conferred with costumer Jean Henderson about repairs she had made to a couple of costumes while Henderson was out of town.

“They aren’t your quality, of course,” she said. “It’s fun and games always,” she said to me as she went backstage.

Lights came on in the light booth and there was Vassar again. She’s also on the light crew and presumably was making last-minute adjustments there as well.

They sat me at a chair out of the way and it was fun to observe my surroundings — walls covered with writing from various people over the past years in the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center theater, each wall with a big “DO NOT PAINT” sign on it.

One wall is covered, all the way to the ceiling, with various chairs, which will hang there until they are needed. Shelving units are set aside for things like baskets of varying sizes or bottles, while a hanging shoe bag is used for smaller props.

Meanwhile, the actors started arriving backstage, and began getting out of their T-shirts and jeans and into costumes. The air-conditioning had gone out in the dressing rooms, so they could not close the doors and big fans blew air into the rooms.

“I’m not sure where we’re going to get the funds to fix it,” McCann said to me as she passed by.
To avoid crowding into the stuffy rooms, some of the actors were helping one another with costumes or makeup in the hallway.

Musicians started arriving at 1 p.m., including 88-year-old violinist Helen Mendel, who has been playing with DMTC for many years. Mendel chose not to climb all those stairs down into the orchestra pit, but took the small elevator. All the orchestra members volunteer their time and are “paid” a drink and a cookie at intermission.

The cast was called to the stage for the sound check. Some were doing individual vocalizations and then they did vocals in unison.

At the same time, a group walked in and across the stage with a leader, who was speaking to them softly. These were ushers for the show, learning what their jobs would entail. (There are different volunteer ushers for every performance — it’s a way to see the show for free.)

With the cast on stage, there also was a final check on lights and then everyone was backstage again while director and DMTC co-founder Jan Isaacson passed through each dressing room and gave final notes from the night before.

McCann announced that the house was opening, so the backstage lights were turned off and the orchestra started to warm up.

“Places, please,” McCann called, while Isaacson went out on stage to welcome the audience.

The actors paced back and forth in the wings or did stretching exercises while waiting to go on. I commented on Vassar’s costume and she confessed that she had a quick change coming up, so she had dressed in layers so she’d only need to remove her top layer when she came off stage.

The first set pieces came off stage, with the actors, and the girls of the ensemble quickly stripped McCann’s husband, Brian, of his bulky clothes and got him into the costume for the next scene. With three of them working, the change was accomplished in less than a minute.

Meanwhile, Kimmie McCann was everywhere — helping people straighten their costumes, moving set pieces and making sure props were put away immediately.

“I don’t say this just because she’s my wife,” Brian said, “but she’s the most actor-friendly stage manager I’ve ever worked with.”

There’s even time for a quick tender moment between the couple before Brian goes on for his next scene.

DMTC co-founder Steve Isaacson came backstage to tell me of a sound problem they had just solved. Tomás Eredia, working the light board, noticed a problem with the sound board, so Steve relieved him of his duties and the two worked to fix the sound.

In the meantime, Steve gave control of the light board to Jenna Karoly, a teen who has been learning how to run the system.

“She’s been with us since she was 8 years old,” Isaacson said, adding that her father helps with sets and her mother sometimes bartends for the theater.

He explained that there is a lot to running a sound board, especially when it’s a new addition to a theater. (This is only DMTC’s third show since sound augmentation was added.)

But it went off without a hitch.

“I was giving her cues,” Isaacson said. “She did the next scene without my saying anything. I didn’t have to worry. The show continued flawlessly.”

At intermission, I walked from one side of the theater to the other, backstage, surprised to find a near life-size elephant on the other side. This is a prop for the youth theater’s production of “Aladdin Jr.,” which is being presented at Saturday matinees.

Jan Isaacson explained that after the Friday evening performance of “Jekyll and Hyde,” those sets are pushed out of the way and “Aladdin” sets are moved into place. Then following the “Aladdin” performance the next afternoon, the parents of the young actors move those sets back in place and the “Jekyll and Hyde” sets are ready for Sunday’s performance.

As Act 2 began, some of the actors sat on set pieces in the wings, taking cat naps while waiting for their turn to go on stage.

In the meantime, the show continued to run like a well-oiled machine under the constant movement of Kimmie McCann.

Actors assisted in set changes, donning black-hooded capes before going on stage.

“They make the actors mildly unobtrusive,” Steve Isaacson said, explaining that there’s a light that reflects from the costumes onto the floor and this is a way of cutting down on their visibility. One actress nearly didn’t get to the stage in time to don her cloak — but McCann was there to make sure she did.

At the end of the show, there was thunderous applause. The cast stayed on stage to greet the patrons.
Meanwhile, Kimmie McCann made certain that everything was put back where it should be, and ready for the next performance.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is an American classic, first produced in 1962, winning the Tony and Drama Circle award for best play, the Pulitzer Prize for best play and Tonys for its stars.

In 1966 it was made into a movie, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and is one of only two films to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy Awards, winning five awards. It is preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

It’s heavy history for a local theater company to take on, but B Street Theatre is up to the challenge. Director Dave Pierini confided to the audience before the play began that to get permission to do an Albee play, the Albee estate has to approve the actors, the director, the stage design, costumes, etc. — so it is a real privilege to be given the rights to do this play.

The B Street production does not disappoint.

This story of George and Martha, the Bickersons of the 1960s, is an intense look at a marriage that appears to be falling apart, but what holds the couple together is their hatred of one another, and a dark secret they are holding that binds them to each other. Watching them go at each other for three hours (with two intermissions) is exhausting, but at the same time exhilarating.

Kurt Johnson and Elisabeth Nunziato are simply marvelous. Martha’s father is the president of a college and George is a professor in the history department (not the head of the department, Martha is fond of reminding him, as a way of putting him down).

It seems that everything she says has the intent of evoking some sort of a response from him that will lead into a further argument.

George is henpecked and knows it, but he can give as much as he receives in the verbal sparring with his wife. Both know how best to hurt each other and don’t hesitate to do it.

The play begins at 2 a.m. when George and Martha have just returned home after a party, obviously feeling the effects of the liquor they have consumed. Martha confesses that she has invited a new professor, 20-something Nick (Jason Kuykendall, Nunziato’s real-life husband) and his wife Honey (Dana Brooke) to drop by.

Nick and Honey aren’t quite sure what they are doing there so late at night, but the four consume massive quantities of alcohol. I was mostly impressed with Kuykendall, who got drunker and drunker very convincingly, while the others went from sober-sounding to drunk-sounding quickly.

Kuykendall’s reaction was not only in the slow slurring of his speech, but the changes in his body language, too.

The more he drinks, the more he drops the innocent young professor persona and displays his disdain for George, who has been at the college for years and still has not risen to the head of his department.
Honey, on the other hand is more childlike and in awe of George and Martha, but physically affected more and more as the arguments escalate. She also begins to realize that as much as George is a source of Nick’s contempt, so, too, is she. One wonders if in 20 years they will be the George and Martha of the campus.

Martha uses Nick to mock George by making sexual advances to the younger man, though after a tryst in the bedroom, she is not above pointing out that he is sorely lacking in his sexual prowess. George insists that they all play a game, a grotesque game that leave all four stripped bare.

The play comes to a dramatic conclusion with an agonizing monologue by Martha, performed by Nunziato with heart-rending authenticity.

Albee died in 2016. With the finicky restrictions on productions of his works, continued by his estate, one can only think that even he would be proud of this production.

The audience should be aware that herbal cigarettes are smoked throughout the evening.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Anne of Green Gables

I have a confession to make. I did something on Friday that I have never done before.

My plan had been to review the Woodland Opera House production of Noel Coward’s “Blythe Spirit” and I did indeed go to the Opera House, only to be very surprised when I sat in my seat, looked at my program and realized that I was about to see “Anne of Green Gables, The Musical,” one of the Opera House’s family series. No wonder the Opera House was so full!

Confused, I looked through the program and discovered that I was a month too early for “Blythe Spirit.”

But my error was fortuitous because while I rarely review one of the family series shows, this one was delightful.

This musical tells the story of Anne Shirley, the heroine of the Lucy Maud Montgomery books and her impact on her adopted family and the town in which she lives.

Gretchen Cryer has written the book and lyrics with music by Nancy Ford. The production is directed by Eva Sarry, with musical direction by Lori Jarvey.

Katie Halls has a monumental task carrying the show as the spunky Anne, as she is in just about every scene, as well as 12 of the 15 musical numbers. She is at her best as the young orphan longing for a permanent home after several unsuccessful placements. She is upbeat and loves everything about the countryside, her new home and the prospect of having people to love her.

This poses a problem for Matthew Cuthbert (Steve Cairns) and his sister Marilla (Nancy Agee), who had asked the orphanage for a boy to help with farm chores. But Matthew is taken by Anne’s enthusiastic and endearing attitude and really hopes to convince Marilla to keep the girl.

Agee is great as the reticent Marilla, a woman who has had her share of hurts throughout her life and does not want to give her heart to anyone, especially not a young girl. Though she finally relents and allows Anne to stay, she keeps the girl at emotional arms length while slowly growing to care for her.

Emily Jo Seminoff is Diana, who becomes Anne’s BFF. Watching Seminoff grow as an actress over the years has been part of the fun of being a critic. Her range of performances from Peter Pan to Helen Keller have all been top-notch and her Diana is no exception. Watching the two girls together is such fun, especially when they accidentally get into the wrong berry cordial and end up drunk.

Barrett Shepherd is Gilbert Blythe, the young man whose ill-advised comment on Anne’s appearance causes a rift between the two which lasts for years.

Mimi Walker is Rachel Lynde, the stereotypical town busybody, suspicious of everyone and determined to think the worst of orphans and especially girl orphans.

Maris Samsel plays several roles — everything from a school girl to Diana’s mother, all with the assistance of different wigs or hats, while Spencer Alexander — who recently won a best-actor award for his Seymour Krelborn in “Little Shop of Horrors” — is Mr. Phillips, the town teacher, who firmly believes in the adage “spare the rod and spoil the child.”

“Anne of Green Gables” is no Noel Coward, but it is a fun family show.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Jekyll and Hyde

Why should you attend the Davis Musical Theater productions?

Well, it’s not for the sets, which are often utilitarian, sometimes nonexistent. Funding is always a problem.  But when you have a cast of the caliber of the musical-horror, “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which opened this past weekend, who needs sets?

This may well be the very best cast I have seen in 33 years of DMTC productions.  Every single member is outstanding.“It’s Jan’s dream cast,” says Steve Isaacson, justifiably proud of his wife’s accomplishments as director for this show, described as a “gothic-pop musical.”

 J. Sing, as Jekyll could easily perform on any professional stage.  Apparently he performed with DMTC in two shows back in the 1990s and then left Davis.  That he has returned is Davis’ gain.  He plays the brilliant, but tortured Dr. Jekyll, determined to find a cure for his comatose father, lying in an insane asylum.  It is his belief that it was the evil in his father’s soul which caused his illness and if he can find a cure, a way to separate the good from the evil within a person, he can cure his father.

While every number is a stunner for Sing, “This is the Moment,” in which the scientist, his proposal to perform this experiment having been rejected by the Board of Governors, decides to do the experiment on himself is outstanding, as is his later “Confrontation,” a battle between his two personalities.

As good as Sing in, he is supported by a superb cast.

Rachael Sherman-Shockley is Jekyll’s virtuous and loyal fiancee, who doesn’t understand his obsession, but is willing to put up with anything because she loves and believes in him.  She has several wonderful duets, but none as beautiful as “In His Eyes,” sung with Lucy (Nicole King), a prostitute with a heart of gold and the only one who has seen both sides of Jekyll/Hyde.  King is amazing, a soaring voice giving full throat to “Someone Like You” and  “A New Life.” 

Richard Spierto is sir Danvers Carew, Emma’s father, who grows increasingly uncomfortable, to downright frightened at Emma’s resolve to marry Jekyll, despite evidence of his increasing mental derangement.

Scott Minor is Jeckyll’s attorney, John Utterson, who doesn’t understand what Jekyll is doing and resists some of his client’s requests because they make no sense to him.

Brian McCann also comports himself well as Rupert, Bishop of Basingstoke, another eventual victim of Hyde’s murderous rampage.

The show, by Leslie Bircusse with music by Frank Wildhorn had mixed reviews when it opened in 1997.  It was crticized for the discordant music, the loud rock sound, and “extreme vocal pyrotechnics,” but under the expert hands of director Jan Isaacson, it all comes together into an impressive, if frightening look at a man whose devotion to his father has driven himself to the point of madness.

Jean Henderson’s costume designs are appropriate, as always, but special kudos to whoever was in charge of wigs, which are amazing.

Isaacson also choreographed the show and has created some wonderful numbers.

This isn’t a light and frothy musical, but give this show a chance.  It’s one you aren’t likely to see on any other local stage, and it’s well worth it!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Sister Act

As a product of 12 years of Catholic school, all taught by nuns in habits, it did my recovering Catholic soul proud to see habited nuns singing and cavorting on stage.

“Sister Act,” with music by Alan Menken, brings to an end the successful 2017 Music Circus season, and director Glenn Casale pulled out all the stops to guarantee that patrons will leave the Wells Fargo Pavilion in good spirits and eager for the 2018 season to begin.

The musical is based on the 1992 film, starring Whoopi Goldberg, but it takes it over the top, losing the more personal, poignant pieces of the story — so flashy it’s like the nuns had moved from a low-income parish to the Vegas stage.

I did miss the heart of the movie, but you can’t help but love the glitz and the glitter. (Heck, even the pope loved it.) This is not to say it is without poignancy — just not in the same way that the smaller movie showed.

Zonya Love, who appeared as Celie in the original Broadway production of “The Color Purple,” is Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer whose career is going nowhere, who accidentally witnesses her criminal boyfriend Curtis (Rufus Bonds Jr.) commit a murder. Her life is in danger and she runs to the police to ask for protection.

Bonds is tall and menacing and you don’t want to mess with him.

Alan Wiggins is Eddie, an old school friend of Deloris, now a police officer who decides to hide Deloris in a local convent.

Wiggins is outstanding as the guy who has been in love with Deloris for most of his life. His poignant “I Could Be That Guy” built and built until it was a full-fledged stage number with the most incredible costume change of the night.

Love is extraordinary, a square peg trying (not very hard) to fit into a rigid round hole, but ultimately finding her place among the other sisters. She has a voice that will knock your socks off. And her costume for the finale is spectacular!

Lynne Wintersteller plays the Mother Superior, an old-school nun determined not to let the temptations of the world reach inside her convent. (You can imagine she was one of those ruler-carrying teachers in her day!) Wintersteller played this role in the show’s first national tour. Her anguished “I Haven’t Got a Prayer,” trying to ask God for guidance, was a stand-out.

Mother Superior assigns Deloris the task of helping with the convent choir which, under the direction of Mary Lazarus (Audrie Neenan), can barely hit a note that is not sour and is part of the reason why the church is about to be foreclosed. Neenan originated this role on Broadway, so it’s no surprise that she has perfected it.

Jeanna de Waal plays the postulant, Mary Robert, a mousy thing afraid to speak or sing out, whose life is completely transformed by her experiences in the choir.

Nikki Switzer is Mary Patrick, whose role is sadly not nearly as big as in the movie, and I missed that since she was one of my favorite characters. But Switzer is big and enthusiastic and you love her anyway.

Under the direction of Sister Mary Clarence (the name Mother Superior gives to Deloris), the choir is transformed into a show choir, going from black habits to black habits with sequins, and then white with sparkles lining the flowing robes.

They sing, they dance, they raise their arms to God as they sing “Take Me to Heaven” and “Sister Act.” Simple church songs become big glitzy show stoppers, but also the Donna Summer-like number at the beginning becomes a religious hymn by the end.

(This is where I had trouble with the show, it being too over-the-top and un-nun-like for me, but as an audience-pleaser, you could not ask for better!)

This has been a strong season for Music Circus and each show seems to be better than the last. “Sister Act” is definitely a crowd-pleaser.