Thursday, August 10, 2017

Damn Yankees

From left, Dennis O’Bannion as Vernon, Dallas Padoven as Rocky,
Justin Keyes as Smokey and Stephen Berger as Van Buren
sing a number in “Damn Yankees,” produced by Music Circus
at the Wells Fargo Pavilion through Sunday, Aug. 13.
Charr Crail/Courtesy photo

The Music Circus has hit a home run with its current production of “Damn Yankees,” the modern-day version of “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” set in the dugout. While this is the seventh time Music Circus has presented this show, it is only the second time in the Wells Fargo Pavilion.

This Richard Adler/Jerry Ross musical, directed by Charles Repole, features Jason Graae as the devilish “Mr. Applegate,” who enters from beneath the stage in a cloud of red smoke and carries his own smoke with him, in case you forget from whence he came. (How did they do that? Kudos to costume designer Heather Lockard.)

For a production of “Damn Yankees” to really soar, one must have a terrific Mr. Applegate, the role made famous on both stage and screen by Ray Walston. Applegate should steal the show, and steal it Graae does. His signature song, “Those Were the Good Old Days,” was an all-out production number using all of the Music Circus raised platforms. It was a high point of the evening.

Applegate has been summoned unwittingly by Joe Boyd (Jeff Howell), a lifelong baseball fanatic, who dreams of a winning season for his beloved Washington Senators. After a particularly painful loss, he cries that he would sell his soul for a winning season.

Enter Mr. Applegate, gleam in his eye and a contract for Joe’s soul in his hand. Not only will he give him a winning season, but he himself can become the player who saves the team. Naive Joe makes sure he has an escape clause in case he decides this life is not for him and agrees, singing a bittersweet farewell to his beloved wife Meg (Lynne Wintersteller, last season’s Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly”).

The transformation from middle-aged, balding, pudgy Joe to tall, young, virile Joe (now called Joe Hardy, played by Zach Trimmer) is pretty impressive.

Meanwhile, the team is suffering the depression that comes with yet another loss and gets a pep talk from manager Benny Van Buren (Stephen Berger), who reminds them that all a team needs is “Heart.”

Applegate, in the guise of Joe’s agent, coerces Van Buren to give his client an audition. Joe, of course, impresses everyone with both his batting and fielding and is signed immediately to the team.

A reporter sent to get a story on the team (Danette Holden), is fascinated by Joe and determined to make him a star. She sees him trying to find shoes that will fit him and dubs him “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” Holden’s role is small, but she’s fun to watch.

With Joe at the helm, the Senators make a big turn-around and are on top of the league, heading into the World Series, but Joe finds he misses his wife and his old life and even manages to rent a room in his old house so he can be around her (“A Man Doesn’t Know”).

As Applegate realizes Joe is about to exercise his escape clause, he summons Lola from Hades to be a seductress. Lindsay Roginski slithers and shimmies and does all she can to seduce Joe, who is only centered on his memories of his wife. It may be true that “whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,” but not in this instance. Instead, she and Joe become friends.

Applegate sets up more roadblocks to keep Joe from returning home, but in the end, true love wins out over evil and Applegate must return to Hades.

If you love dancing, this is the show for you. Choreographer Michael Lichtefeld has created some great numbers, including “The Game,” a raunchy reminder of what players give up in order to focus on playing the game.

“Damn Yankees” is a fun show that should appeal to baseball fans, their long-suffering spouses and anybody who just enjoys spending an evening watching a bunch of talented actors give it their all.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

My Fair Lady


“My Fair Lady” has been called “the perfect musical.” The Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” opened on Broadway in 1956 and set the record for the longest run on Broadway up to that time.

It was followed by a hit London production, a popular film version and numerous revivals. It has won countless awards for the show itself and for many of the performers.

Over its 60-plus-year history, “My Fair Lady” has been a staple of community theaters around the world.

The Woodland Opera House production, which opened last week under the direction of Andrea St. Clair (who also choreographs), can add its name to the list of outstanding versions of this theater classic. With an exceptional cast, amazing costumes by Denise Miles, and a skeleton, but competent six-piece orchestra directed by Lori Jarvey, this show is a definite audience-pleaser.

Over the years, I have seen Rodger McDonald play numerous roles and have the impression there is nothing he can’t do well. Henry Higgins is certainly a role that seems made for him. He’s no Rex Harrison, of course, but as the stern taskmaster who takes the cockney flower girl under his wing, intending to turn her into a “princess,” he’s excellent.

In the light-hearted moments (like “The Rain in Spain”) it’s fun to see Professor Higgins let down his hair, and his “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” will break your heart.

David Cross is solid as Higgins’ colleague, Col. Pickering, who agrees to pay for Eliza’s lessons as part of a bet between himself and Higgins. Pickering is the man who makes Eliza realize how a lady should be treated.

Jori Gonzales, as Eliza Doolittle, is simply loverly. I loved watching not only her cockney and her “lady” but also the midway point, which took perhaps more acting.

Her best acting may be in the scene where she says nothing at all. As Higgins, his staff, and Col. Pickering are dancing and celebrating the triumph of the ball, totally ignoring Eliza, the look on her face was poignant and heartbreaking.

But stopping the show — twice — is the bombastic Brian McCann, as Eliza’s profligate father, Alfred P. Doolittle. He brings down the house in both acts, with “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

Freddy Eynsford-Hill is a thankless role. He’s a lovelorn nebbish whose real job is to serve as distraction while the crew is changing the set. However, Alex Grambow has a beautiful voice and is so hopelessly in love with Eliza that you can’t help but love him.

Charlotte French has not been seen on the local stage in a long time and even in the small role of Mrs. Higgins, she reminds us of what a force she has always been. Her “Bravo, Eliza” was a short line but definitely memorable.

There are wonderful moments throughout the show, but everyone’s favorite is always at the Ascot races. The costumes are fabulous and the hats alone are worth the price of admission.

The production is a real winner for the Woodland Opera House and if you have never seen it — or haven’t seen it in a long time — by all means get tickets and give yourself a real treat.


Friday, August 04, 2017

The Odyssey


Acme Theatre Company opened one of its stronger productions this week.

“The Odyssey,” an irreverent and witty version of Homer’s classic tale by Mary Zimmerman, is directed by Alicia Hunt, former Acme member, who made an amazing impression in her one-woman show, “Grounded” at B Street Theater two years ago.

“I’ve worked them very hard,” Hunt said, and it shows. This is a strong cast and other than the vocal projection problems in some of the actors, always an issue with Acme, the production is very good.
Don’t expect any help from the program, though. The names appear to have been printed in reverse alphabetical order with no rhyme or reason as to who comes on stage when. Unless a character is called out by name (by someone who can project), it is impossible to know who is who, especially in a dark theater.

And it doesn’t help that there is a typo in the program. Two are listed as Zeus/drummer, when Giancarlo Gilbert-Igelsrud is the only drummer. His drumming is essential to creating many of the scenes. He’s a treasure, with the very best costume of the night. All percussionists should wear flashy gold.

But enough of the complaints. The show opens when McKella van Boxtel walks on stage as a tourist trying to get the history straight and is transformed by two muses (Cassidy Smith and Emma Larson) into the character of Athena, who will help Odysseus (Ryan Johnson) through his travels home from the Trojan War, which ended 10 years ago.

Van Boxtel does a wonderful job, a master of disguise who becomes the ever-present being in Odysseus’ journey.

Smith provides vocals in several spots and displays a beautiful voice.

Odysseus is eager to get home to his wife, the patient and wise Penelope (Garnet Phinney), but Poseidon (Mez) is holding a grudge and refuses to let the hero return home. Penelope spends the show fending off suitors.

Johnson gives a powerful performance as the tortured Odysseus, whose return home involves encounters with characters like the enchantress Circe, the goddess Calypso and the Sirens, beautiful creatures who lure sailors to their death by their singing (Gracelyn Watkins plays both Circe and Calypso as well as one of the Sirens).

Waiting at home with mama Penelope in Ithaca is Odysseus’ son Telemachus, played by the Chris Colfer look-alike Grey Turner. At only 14, Turner is one of the youngest in the cast, yet gives one of the strongest and most memorable performances. This young actor is going to be a pleasure to watch as he moves through his time with Acme.

There is also an absolutely fabulous Cyclops eye for which the tech crew gets high praise.

Odysseus takes this journey home with his BFF Eumaeus (Rocket Drew) who is there at the end to get rid of Penelope’s many would-be suitors and convince her that Odysseus is, indeed, finally home.
This is a perfect show for high school-age actors. As director Hunt says “they are enduring experiences that high schoolers viscerally understand: loss, isolation, searching, adventure and, above all, the pain and beauty of love.

We are very fortunate in Davis that we have such an organization as Acme, which can get high school kids excited about learning the classics and working so hard to bring them to life.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

9 to 5

Doralee Rhodes (Tricia Paoluccio) gives some payback to Franklin Hart Jr. (Paul Schoeffler),
with help from co-workers, in “9 to 5 The Musical,”
produced by Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion through July 30.
Kevin Graft/Courtesy photo

 Audiences are going to love the Music Circus’s new production of the Dolly Parton/Patricia Resnick musical, “9 to 5, the Musical.” Based on the popular 1980 movie, featuring Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, the story involves sexual harassment in the workplace of the 1970s, and how three women manage to get revenge on their boss.

This is a splashy, wonderfully choreographed (by Mara Newbery Greer) bit of fluff, directed by Glenn Casale. All the plot points are there, the fun is there, but the intensity and heart of the movie are not. Except for the title song, there are no songs you will remember (and with the continuing ear-shattering level of Music Circus sound, you probably will miss a lot of the lyrics). But that’s all irrelevant to the fun the opening night audience was having.

Judy Bernly (Anne Brummel) is a newly divorced woman with no office skills and no self-esteem who joins the staff of the company. She is taken under the wing of Violet Newstead (Vicki Lewis), who has worked for the company for years and is hoping to be given a promotion.

Doralee Rhodes (Tricia Paoluccio, the Dolly Parton role) is accepted to be the office slut and everyone thinks she is having an affair with the boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (Paul Schoeffler).

“We don’t like her,” Violet tells Judy, though Doralee is actually happily married and is constantly fighting the advances of her boss in order to keep her job.

The production makes wonderful use of the Music Circus movable stage and all those various platform levels and the tech crew does yeoman duty running sets in and out of the stage while many scenes take place in the aisles.

The show belongs to the women. Lewis is a force of nature, a bold, brassy, under-appreciated Violet who is trying to raise a teenager as a single mother and convinced that if she works hard enough, she can break through the glass ceiling. When the coveted position is given, instead, to a young man she herself trained, hell hath no fury like this woman scorned.

Paoluccio is a wonderful Doralee, making the role her own, while still echoing Parton. Her “Backwoods Barbie” was wonderful.

Brummel, in the least notable role of Bernly, has the show-stopping number “Get Out and Stay Out,” which is reminiscent of a song Elphaba sings in “Wicked.” That’s interesting because the actress has played that role all over the country in touring shows.

Kristine Zbornik has the small role of frumpy Roz, Hart’s sycophantic assistant, who has a secret crush on her boss and whose song “Heart to Hart” brings down the house.

When Violet accidentally puts rat poison in Hart’s coffee, the girls get the idea of kidnapping him and holding him hostage in his own home while his wife is on vacation to prevent him from reporting Violet to the police.

While Hart is tied up, the girls take over running the office, reversing his cruel policies, and turning the office into a pleasant place to work. At the same time, a little research uncovers a double set of books showing Hart has been stealing from the company for years.

Parton herself makes an appearance. When this show played the Broadway series in the Community Center, a huge projection on the back of the stage gave Parton the opportunity to introduce and end the show. The same technique is used here, to lesser effect.

While the video shows Parton turning to her left or right to indicate a character, in the round, often she is turning to the opposite of where the character really is. Again, the enhanced audio made her comments difficult to understand.

“9 to 5″ had a disappointing run on Broadway, but it has more than made up for it in the popularity of productions around the country, and the Music Circus Production is no exception.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

On the Town


After seeing Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s superb “Wonderful Town” and Music Circus’ sparkling “On the Town” — both by the team of Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein and both paens to the Big Apple — I have a strong craving for a slice of New York pizza.

The energetic “On the Town” burst onto the Music Circus stage this week, the 1944 musical as fresh as it was when it first opened on Broadway. The show opens with a lament (“I feel like I”m not out of bed yet”) by a workman (Joseph Torello) whose voice is clear and deep and wonderful. He appears as several other announcers throughout the show.

This is the story of three sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York City. It is the first time each of them has visited the city and they are determined to see everything and maybe pick up a lady along the way.

Chip (Matt Loehr) has a tour book his father used many years ago … and he’s determined not to miss anything. Gabey (Sam Lips) falls in love with a picture of “Miss Turnstyle” that he sees on the subway and is determined to find her. Ozzie (Clyde Alves) just wants to find a date because Manhattan women are “the prettiest in the world.”

The trio decide to split up and see if they can find Miss Turnstyle (real name Ivy Smith, played by Courtney Iventosch). They agree to meet up back in Times Square at the end of the afternoon.
Gabey steals the poster off the subway and is pursued through the rest of the show by an umbrella-waving little old lady (Karen Hyland) and a growing posse of police and others.

Chip is accosted by taxi driver Hildy Esterhazy (Jennifer Cody), who has just been fired from her job. She is a real firecracker, oversexed and determined to get back to her apartment for a little canoodling. Cody is marvelous and brings a real spark to every scene in which she appears.

Ozzie heads to the Museum of Modern Art, because he believes beautiful women love art. There he finds anthropologist Claire de Loone (really) played by Holly Ann Butler, who mistakes Ozzie for a prehistoric man. She is engaged to a famous judge, Pitkin W. Bridgework (Donald Corren), who has encouraged her anthropological studies as a way to sublimate her sexual addiction. He is very understanding when he sees her with another man because he knows it is just scientific investigation.

Gabey goes to Carnegie Hall, where the subway poster says Ivy studies, and he actually finds her, but is hustled out by her teacher, the tipsy Madame Maude P. Dilly (Susan Cella), who wants Ivy to keep her job as a cootchie dancer because it pays her bills for vocal instruction.

Through a parade of increasingly sleazy nightclubs, the group ends up on Coney Island, where Gabey finds Ivy again and all end up back on the dock, where we began. As our three heroes say sad goodbyes to the girls before boarding their ship, three fresh new sailors descend for their own adventure in New York! New York!

Original costumes for this dazzling production were by Jess Goldstein, with Music Circus designer Marcy Froehlich. They are wonderfully, colorfully ’40s, down to the seams in the stockings.
Choreography is by Mark Esposito and includes a dream ballet, an effect that would be used even more effectively a year later by Rodgers and Hammerstein in their “Carousel.”

“On the Town” is a lively, flashy production, last seen on the Music Circus stage in 1961. It’s been a long time — and it was worth the wait.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Wonderful Town

Ruth (Gia Battista) gets a lift from the Brazilian cadets in
Davis Shakespeare Ensemble's “Wonderful Town” on stage through Aug. 6.
Yarcenia Garcia/Courtesy photo

 The Davis Shakespeare Festival has strong entries for its 2017 season. Opening with “The Three Musketeers” and “Wonderful Town,” the festival will close in October with “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Sisters Gia and Gabby Battista play the Sherwood sisters Ruth (Gia) and Eileen (Gabby), who have “escaped” their childhood home in Ohio and come to the Big Apple for all of the opportunities they believe it offers.

Ruth is an aspiring writer, while Eileen wants to break into show business. Along the way they feel like fish out of water and have to learn how to become part of that crazy world that is New York.
The musical is based on the stories of Ruth McKenney and was first produced as a play (“My Sister Eileen”) by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov. The music is by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The festival director for this musical is Dennis Beasley, who made such an impression with “Bells are Ringing” last season.

“Bells are Ringing” has a “thin plot,” I said last summer, but the show was fabulous. If that plot is thin, “Wonderful Town’s” plot is even thinner. It is more a study of stereotypical New York types, and Beasley’s cast is so strong that it makes for an enjoyable production.

The girls first learn that lodging is much too expensive until they meet unscrupulous landlord Mr. Appopolous (Kevin Caravalho), who rents them a basement apartment recently vacated by Violet (Annie Dick), who was running a bordello. The apartment is below the street level within clear view of passersby who lean over and look through the windows, and is near periodic explosions from subway constructions.

The multi-talented Caravalho, who plays Cardinal Richelieu in the festival’s other production, “The Three Musketeers” also plays several other members of the ensemble (as do most of the actors). While Caravalho is wonderful in each of his roles, he has such a “unique” appearance, it is often not clear whether he is Appopolous or some other character.

Others in the apartment house include Helen (Andrea J. Love), living with her muscle-bound boyfriend Wreck (Brian Bohlender), who is not strong in the brains department but he sure could “pass that football” in his days as a player. The couple are trying to hide their relationship from Helen’s snooty mother (Jessica Woehler).

Eileen seems to be a dude magnet and all men who meet her fall for her. This includes Ian Hopps, as Frank, who works for Walgreens and sees that Eileen eats for free there every day. Hopps was the romantic lead in last summer’s “Bells are Ringing,” and while Frank is quite a different character, he still makes an impact.

Kyle Stoner is Chick Clark, a sleazy newspaper editor who has designs on Eileen, while J.R. Yancher is Bob Baker, reader for a magazine who lets Ruth know her stories have no chance of ever being published.

There are several beautiful songs, like the lush duet “Ohio,” sung by the sisters when they suffer homesickness. The Battista women have voices that blend together beautifully, like rich melted chocolate.

Gia has several moments to shine in her songs about “One Hundred Easy Ways” and the plaintive “Quiet Ruth.”

Choreography is by Katie Peters and includes everything from Irish jig to swing, to a lively “Conga” by Eileen and a bunch of Brazilian cadets. Music is provided by the on-stage seven-member orchestra, under the direction of David Taylor-Gomes.

From top to bottom, this is a fun production with a strong cast and it shows that the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble continues to grow and thrive.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Bad Jews

Over the years, I have seen actress Tara Sissom in many comedies and have long admired her talent for comedy. However, in Capital Stage’s production of “Bad Jews” by Joshua Harmon we see an entirely different side of Sissom. She is funny, yes, but also angry, poignant — and amazing. She dominates as Daphna, one of the grandchildren of “Poppy,” who has just died.

The four-actor play takes place in a cramped New York apartment where three grandchildren have gathered the day after the funeral of their grandfather, the lone family holocaust survivor. The stated plot concerns which of the three will get Poppy’s “chai,” a gold pendant signifying “life.”

It was given to him by his father, and while a prisoner in Auschwitz he hid it in his mouth for two years until liberation. When he had no money for an engagement ring, he gave it to his soon-to-be wife as a symbol of his love. After he was able to buy a ring, he wore it around his neck for the rest of his life, so this has tremendous meaning for his family.

Daphna is certain that he meant for her to have it after his death. Mild-mannered Jonah (Noah Thompson) doesn’t care and just doesn’t want to discuss it. But cousin Liam (Jeremy Kahn) — who missed the funeral because he was skiing in Aspen and whose mother fed-exed him the chai as his grandfather lay dying — feels it rightfully belongs to him.

There is longstanding enmity between Liam and Daphna and they can hardly stand to be in the same room together. Daphna feels that Liam is really a self-hating Jew who chooses “tapid little Bambi” creatures out of insecurity, since with them he can be arrogant and masculine.

As for Liam, “She is horrifying. Just listen to her. Every other word that comes out of her mouth is some unbelievably offensive insult that we’re supposed to pretend not to hear?”

Things explode when Liam (a self-described “bad Jew”) arrives with his Delaware-born girlfriend Melody (Chloe King). He intends to continue the family tradition and give the chai to her in lieu of an engagement ring.

Though the argument over ownership of the chai is volatile, it unearths a lot of long-held feelings about religion, family and tradition. For Daphna, the chai symbolizes the survival of the Jewish faith and to give it to a gentile is unthinkable.

But as this is basically a comedy, there are some very funny moments in it, like remembering when Poppy took them all to Benihana and everyone was struck with bowel problems. The memory brings the three cousins together literally rolling on the floor in laughter.

But then things that seem very innocent (Daphna asking Melody about her background, growing up in Delaware) suddenly turn ugly when she accuses Melody’s family of the genocide of the Native Americans.

Director Amy Resnick has kept the delicate balance between funny and serious so that you’re never quite sure which you are seeing.

But Sissom is a wonder and Kahn, a newcomer to Capital Stage, is a worthy match for her diatribes.
King’s Melody is innocent and totally ignorant of the seriousness and importance of Jewish history (“I don’t see why any of it matters, you know? Where people come from? People are just people.”) which further inflames Daphna, the rabbinical student and uber Jew whose dream is to go to Israel and join the army.

As Jonah, Thompson spends most of the play cringing, hiding and saying he does not want to be involved in the argument — though in the end it is he who has the biggest impact on everyone, on and off the stage.

This is a unique piece of theater, which ends Capital Stage’s “Love and War” season. It is perhaps my favorite of the six plays in the series of excellent pays. Capital Stage just keeps getting better and better.