Sunday, September 09, 2001

Best of Broadway

Balloons fell from the ceiling, streamers fluttered from the balcony, a flag unfurled on the back of the stage, confetti was shot from cannons on the side of the stage, there were sequins and twirling batons and strobe lights and a glitter ball.

It was the 29th annual Best of Broadway production, opening September 7 and running weekends through September 22 at Luther Burbank Theatre in Sacramento.

This show is Aida meets Martin Luther King. It's the Davis Children's Nutcracker meets Busby Berkley. It's Broadway, Birmingham and Egypt. It's 100 kids dancing in Cat in the Hat hats and another 100 adult singers and dancers tapping, swinging, leaping, roller blading, and twirling. It's a blind chorister, a chorus of signers for the deaf. In other words, there's something for just about everybody. If you don't like what's happening on stage right now, wait 5 minutes and you'll see something different.

Best of Broadway is a not for profit arts organization dedicated to bringing a live theatrical experience to the community. It's goals are to educate through music, song and dance and to entertain and inspire local children, youth and adults. Judging by the nearly sell-out crowd, they have definitely met that goal.

Over 700 would-be performers auditioned for this show, which ultimately cast the best 250. These are the best of the best that Sacramento has to offer and it is a credit to producer/director David MacDonald, choreographers Kat Ashley, Diana Ruslin and Terri Taylor-Solorio and to the 150 volunteers who work behind the scenes that this musical extravaganza is able to be put together in only six weeks.

While there are a few weak spots, a sound system that was too loud and occasionally distorted, and some performers who were better than others, the strengths in this production more than compensated for its shortcomings.

Best of Broadway presents old chestnuts like "42nd Street" (the rousing show opener) and "Give My Regards to Broadway" (the finale), but in between MacDonald introduces the audience to new works they might not be familiar with.

By far the outstanding numbers of the evening were from "King," the musical story of Martin Luther King. Bill Miller as King brought down the house with his "Every Single Moment" and especially "I Have a Dream." As Coretta Scott King, Darlene Tellis-Muhammad could not have been better.

For those who cannot afford tickets to the touring company of Tim Rice's "Aida," Best of Broadway has devoted nearly half of the first act to musical numbers from this show. Yvette Gauff makes a regal Aida, and Ruben Serna is a studly Radames. Reggie Koffman is outstanding as King Zoser, singing "Another Pyramid." Irma Weldon completes the quartet as Amneris.

A lesser known musical getting lots of exposure in this production is "Grail: The Rock Opera of the Future." Excellent performances are turned in by Lea Shimonoff (in a wonderful black leather costume), Joshua Gonzales, and Justine Berger. A couple of dancers are to be complimented for performing on roller skates during "No There There."

Dancers also shine in "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" from "Mama Mia." Choreographed by Terri Taylor-Solario, this number features wonderfully graceful leaps.

Act 2 gives solo performers and small ensembles an opportunity to shine. Patricia Brennen, Kennaya Lambert, Annette Williams, and Angi Wolf were wonderful in "It's a Woman's World" from "The Full Monty." Brennen also belts out a wonderful "Over the Rainbow." Duane Lewis is impressive as he leads a chorus in "Gonna Build a Mountain" from "Stop the World"

A small group of dancers gyrates through a "Three Little Maids" from "The Hot Mikado" that both Gilbert and Sullivan would be hard pressed to identify.

Best of Broadway: A Musical Explosion is a technician's dream. More care is taken with lighting effects than one expects to find in a volunteer show. There are follow spots everywhere, and wonderful color combinations, all blending perfectly with the action on stage, and even turrets outlined in lights for the "Grail" segments. Lighting Designer Dion P. Cook has worked overtime putting this show together.

Costumes were coordinated by Karen Berman, Cathy Carpenter, Sheri Howe, Lenore Justman, Joan Pohlman, Diane Potter and Heather Strickler, who seem to have cornered the Sacramento market on sequins. This is a fabulous looking show and each number is more memorable than the last. When the entire cast appears on stage at the finale, dressed in red, white and blue and waving to the audience it is an amazing sight to behold.

Almost as much fun as the action on stage is the performance of sign language interpreters Christie Lindsay and Carol McConnell and a third woman who is unnamed in the program. Watching these women at work makes one understand how it is possible for the hearing impaired to actually feel the beat of the music and enjoy the rhythm of the production. Their unison interpretation of "Give My Regards to Broadway" should win all three Elly nominations.

The Herculean task of Production Coordinator is handled adroitly by Mary Taylor. Music Direction is by Mark Stivers, who also conducts the offstage band. Diane Ford is the adult choral director, and special kudos to Erin Johnson, the children's choral director.

Performances are held at Luther Burbank Theatre, 3500 Florin Ave. in Sacramento on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays through September 22. Ticket prices are $22 for adults and $16 for seniors and students. Tickets may be purchased by phone or in person via the Best of Broadway Box Office at 4010 El Camino Ave., Monday- Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 pm. or through any outlet. Call (916) 974-6290 or visit the web site at for more information.

Saturday, September 08, 2001

Sound of Music

At the curtain call for "The Sound of Music," which inaugurated Davis Music Theatre's 17th season, there were cheers and lots of flowers for the performers. The audience of friends, relatives, and long-time supporters were celebrating what DMTC does best: give local actors and actresses the chance to do what they love most. DMTC epitomizes the word "amateur" in its best sense: People who perform for the love of it.

And what's not to love in this popular musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein? The familiar tunes are those many have grown up with--"My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," "Edelweiss," and of course the title song.

"The Sound of Music," directed by Jan Isaacson, with musical direction by husband Steve, is a family affair. It features Wendy Young as Maria, the young postulant who leaves the convent to become governess for a family of motherless children. In her long history with DMTC, Young, who has been performing since age 7, played Liesl in a previous production of this same show. She has now grown into a mature young woman and was a warm and affectionate Maria.

Also in the cast is Wendy's mother, Mary Young as the blustery Sister Berthe, who struggles to find the answer to "how do we solve a problem like Maria?" Young has long been a favorite of DMTC audiences.

The Bruening family is represented by Ben, as an energetic Max Detweiller, the opportunistic entrepreneur who is determined to exploit the singing Von Trapp children for his own benefit.

Ben's wife, Noelle has several small roles, including the "Danke Lady," winning second place at the Salzburg musical festival. Her enthusiastic acceptance is very cute.

Two of the von Trapp children are played by real life brother and sister, Edward (Kurt) and Amber (Gretl) Bianchi. (the other children are Melody Davi as Liesl, Steven Garman as Friedrich, Maggie Roesser as Louisa, Julia Spangler as Brigitta and Ariel Pytel as Marta. Amber's mother, Jeannie, also plays the Baroness Elberfeld)

The von Trapp children are perennial crowd pleasers, and this group works together quite well, even if their harmonies aren't always right on.

Colby Salmon plays Rolf, the young Nazi torn between his love for Liesl and his dedication to the Fatherland. Colby's father Chris also appears on stage as one of the "Nazis/Party Guests" and also plays in the orchestra along with several other Salmons. (There are about as many Salmons in this production as there are von Trapps).

Reprising his role from the 1989 production, Warren Harrison is the rigid, widowed Georg von Trapp, a retired officer in the Imperial Navy. Since his wife died, von Trapp has strictly run his house like a militaristic, humorless naval ship - there is no time for play and his regimented children function like a troop of automaton-sailors. He learns from Maria what it is to be a father

Laura Parkes is outstanding in the supporting role of Elsa Schrader, who has her cap set for Georg until she realizes his obvious affection for the young Maria. This is Parkes' return to the theatre after a long hiatus, and one hopes this is the start of a long association with DMTC.

Dannette Bell, in the small role of Frau Schmidt, the housekeeper, is charming.

Janet McNeil, in her DMTC debut, gives a notable performance as the Mother Abbess, whose affection for Maria leads her to send the young girl off from the convent to find the will of God regarding her true vocation.

Cheryl Barker is making her on-stage debut as Sister Margretta, after years of playing piano in several DMTC orchestras.

The chorus of nuns has been well trained and brings back memories of Catholic school days and singing Gregorian chant. Their habits could be a little more uniform to make the picture complete, but one can't fault their singing.

Costume design is by Jean Henderson and one does have to wonder why the von Trapp children appear at the Salzburg Music Festival wearing the same clothes made from curtains which so upset their father in Act 1. But overall, Henderson has given us a good looking show--and Elsa's party gown is a knockout.

Sets by Steve Isaacson are minimal in spots, but the stained glass window for the convent was very impressive.

The notable thing about this production is the enunciation. Without exception every single performer could be heard and understood throughout the theatre. In these days of amplified performances, this is a rarity.

The expanded 19 piece DMTC orchestra, under Isaacson's direction, was excellent, and greatly added to the production.

Amateur groups don't always have the most trained voices or advanced acting skills but there's a quaint innocence and sincerity that lies at the heart of enjoyable theatre experiences. The connection between audience and performers at "The Sound of Music"'s opening night proves that this enduring musical will continue to draw large audiences. It's a wonderful show for children. And it is in the very best tradition of amateur theatre.

Stars: 3