Monday, November 01, 2004

The Laramie Project

“There are moments in history when an event occurs, and the event is of such power that it operates as a lightning rod. It brings to the surface all the ideas, the beliefs, and the philosophies that are permeating people's lives. I feel that the murder of Matthew Shepard was an event of that nature. Every year, more than 20 anti-gay homicides are reported; that means there are at least two or three times that many that are not reported. But for some reason, this one resonated. This one was a moment where we as a culture said, "Wait a minute. What's going on?"
--Moises Kaufman

Out of Kaufman’s feeling following the October 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard grew a play which would be called “The Laramie Project.”

Laramie wasn’t a special town and Shepard wasn’t a special kid but, as one of the characters in the play observes, Laramie became “a noun, a definition for people across the nation. Like Waco.”

Kaufman and a crew of people from the Tectonic Theatre Project in New York made six trips to Wyoming to conducted more than 200 interviews with the citizens of Laramie, and to produce a work which would explore how the whole world was feeling and thinking and talking, not only about homosexuality, but also about class and education and violence.

From the interviews, Kaufman, along with co-writers Leigh Fondakowski, Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti, and Stephen Waugh, developed a play which would ultimately be produced off Broadway and, in 2002, made into a movie. “Laramie Project” has also been performed by professional theatre companies, community theatre companies and high schools across the country.

I have seen the show several times, including in its original format, as performed by the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project who conducted the interviews. It’s safe to say that the production which opened this week, presented by the U.C. Davis Department of Theatre and Dance at the Mondavi Studio Theatre, under the direction of Peter Lichtenfels, is unlike any production I have seen.

For starters, each performance is preceded by a panel discussion on a specific topic. The night I attended, the topic was on law enforcement and hate crimes. Davis Police Officer Kierith Briesnick pointed out that people don’t think hate crimes happen in Davis, but she and Sheriff Ed Prieto assured the audience that they do. Briesnick mentioned the suicide of a young student recently, who had suffered depression as a result of taunts regarding his sexual orientation.

The production itself moves with the snap and precision of a marching band. Lichtenfels has done some interesting and innovative stage movements which I found very distracting, but grew accustomed to.

Lichtenfels also used a member of the panel discussion as a sort of narrator, sitting at a side table, reading from the script. The action on stage was so snappy and so precise that the addition of a non-professional who has not rehearsed with the cast was unfortunate. This particular reader stumbled over lines, was unsure of the right inflection, and slowed the action significantly.

In places the direction is distracting--such as an interview with two women, situated on opposite sides of the stage, with the reporter running back and forth between them for each question.

In other places, the visual is perfect, such as using two chairs, painted orange, to represent the defendants, Henderson and McKinney, who had appeared in court wearing orange prison garb. Likewise the bleakness of Shepard’s funeral is nicely represented by the crowd with open umbrellas.

Lichtenfels makes maximum use of the Studio Theatre, setting his action not only on the stage floor, but on the balcony above the stage, on the steps of the audience, and outside the wall of windows across from the audience.

There were overhead projections, which were extremely distracting for people sitting close to the stage. They may have been able to be integrated into the action if one were sitting higher up in the auditorium. When Dennis Shepard is reading his message to Aaron McKinney, text was scrolling on the screen, which was both distracting from the action, and made one unable to concentrate on either.

However, particularly effective was the appearance of the homophobic minister, Fred Phelps (Tom McCauley), blasting hate messages with a bullhorn from outside the theatre, while the action continued inside the theatre. (Joggers and people out for a stroll around Mondavi may have been surprised to find themselves part of the action of the play!)

It would be difficult to single out any one performer as outstanding. To do so would do a disservice to the entire cast, each of whom was outstanding. Chris Allison, Justin Cary, Rachel Cunningham, Rachael Devlin, Andrea Guidry, R. Andrew Hess, Geneva Lai, Tom McCauley, Shefali Nagrani, David Orzechowicz, Katie Rubin, Sam Tanng, and Tony Whittaker each played several roles, stepping in and out of character seamlessly.

“The Laramie Project” does not reach any conclusions or preach any message. It simply, and eloquently, gives a picture of how a violent and tragic event affected a small town, how the townspeople reacted, and how some opinions were changed. The effect is powerful, and it is hoped that the audience will do as Napa Valley College Trainer, Greg Miraglia suggested – take the story to heart and go back into the world determined to make a small difference, to work to bring acceptance and, in time, respect to all segments of society. It is a play that should be seen by every junior high and high school student--and their parents.

Monday, October 11, 2004


Everyone is in love with Phyllis. And why wouldn’t they be?

Davis Comic Opera company newcomer Kelly Mustain has the role of the young ward of Chancery in DCOC’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe,” directed by Jill Wright, which opened at the Veterans Memorial Theatre this week end, for a three week end run. Mustain is cute as a button, with a terrific voice to boot and it’s easy to see why everyone loves her.

Phyllis has a few problems. She doesn’t know that her fiance is half a fairy, the girl she thinks is his secret girlfriend is actually his mother, her guardian and all the noble peers are in love with her and it looks like she might have to marry an old man she does not love.

Not a good day for Phyllis.

“Iolanthe,” the seventh collaboration of the British dynamic duo, opened at the Savoy theatre in 1882. The Aristocracy had always been the target of W.S. Gilbert’s biting wit, but in this "fairy opera," the House of Lords is lampooned as a bastion of the ineffective, the privileged and the dim-witted. The political party system and other institutions also come in for a dose of satire.

DCOC gives a visually striking, often sprightly production that brought many laughs to the audience.

Marguerite Morris plays the title character, Iolanthe, a fairy banished many years ago for breaking the biggest fairy law: she married a mortal. Morris has a beautiful voice and brings much depth to the character, with an especially poignant and tender scene in Act 2.

Rachel Robinson, as the Queen of the Fairies, is an interesting bit of casting. Gilbert & Sullivan were famous for including a large matronly woman in each of their operettas--Little Buttercup in HMS Pinafore and Katisha in The Mikado, for example. The Fairy Queen is traditionally an older, larger woman (making the line “I see no objection to stoutness--in moderation” worthy of laughs). However, Robinson is neither older nor larger. And for once, the casting makes sense, since the dialog indicates that the nice thing about fairies is that they are immortal and never grow old.

The Fairy Queen is approached by fairies Celia (Rhiannon Guevin) and Leila (Savanah Scott) to forgive Iolanthe and return her to her fairy band. Guevin and Scott are delightful fairies, Scott bewitchingly impish and 14 year old Guevin coyly petulant. Both are consistently fun to watch.

As Iolanthe’s young son, Strephon, Roy Spicer is a likeable fellow who gives an energetic performance. From his first entrance, one has the sense that this is a professional at work. He has a strong baritone voice and there is nice chemistry between himself and Phyllis.

Craig Morphis’ Lord Chancelor is simply wonderful. Morphis takes command of any stage and never fails to deliver a memorable performance. The Lord Chancellor struggles with his love for Phyllis and his sense of duty, which will not permit him to award her hand to himself. Morphis’ rendition of the “Nightmare Song” was crisp and clean with every rapid-fire syllable understandable.

The Peers are led by Lord Tolloller and Lord Montararat. Peter Shack as Tolloller has never been better. He made the role his own.

Montararat is played by long-time DCOC favorite, Malcolm MacKenzie, who effectively portrayed the peer as a doddering old fool. MacKenzie was a late addition to the cast, replacing the original actor who was unable to continue, and had not yet learned all his lines, which he read from a notebook he carried around with him on stage. This may also explain why he lacked his usual forceful projection, having difficulty getting some of his lyrics over the orchestra.

Malcolm’s son Ken MacKenzie played Private Willis, the Grenadier Guard with the impossibly tall fur hat, who catches the eye of the Fairy Queen. Willis’ song does not fit comfortably within Ken’s vocal range but he made the best of it.

The orchestra, under the direction of Sean Bianco was full and rich and special kudos are due trumpeters Christopher Rumery and Paul Marenco for their competent handling of the introduction to the March of the Peers.

Sets were designed by Robin Houston, who has created an enchanting fairy glade, including a stone bridge arching over the orchestra pit. The second act, set in front of the Houses of Parliament includes a Big Ben so realistic that even the hands on the clock move.

The sets are enhanced by the intricate lighting design of Richard Williams.

Laura Coe’s costumes were colorful, with wispy fairy garb and rich fur-lined capes for the peers.

Will Phyllis and Strephon wind up together? Only Iolanthe, whose dark secret is the key to their happiness, knows the answer to that question. The peers and the fairies are virtually at war, and long friendships are nearly torn asunder. But in the end, it is the Legal Mind which comes up with a clever solution to the problem.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Best of Broadway

Tap dancing is alive and well in Sacramento.

The 32nd annual Best of Broadway musical extravaganza, Kaleidoscope, at Luther Burbank School 6 evenings and 4 matinees through September 25th, is very definitely heavy on the tapping, with lots of singing by lots of local talented folks thrown in for good measure. Students from 26 different performing arts studios around the Sacramento region are represented, 55 in the dance ensemble, 63 in the vocal ensemble, 45 children, 4 sign language interpreters and 3 program pages full of volunteers behind the scenes.

By anybody’s calculation, this is a monumental undertaking.

Best of Broadway was an idea conceived by David L. MacDonald in 1973 as a way to raise money for a local boys’ home. Thirty-two years later it is still under the direction of MacDonald and still raising funds for local charities.

“Kaleidoscope” features numbers from 23 different Broadway shows, some as well known as “Phantom of the Opera” and some as obscure as “The Card.,” with enough big numbers to make your head spin.

The opening number, “I want to be Famous” from “Fame” looked for all the world like a jazz choir performance taken to the extreme, and was followed by the first children’s number, “Come Along and Join Us” from “The Card,” with the children dressed all in black and red--a stunning visual picture.

There are nearly 60 different numbers which vary from the outstanding to the downright bad (fortunately more of the former than the latter). Some principals were clearly not up to the demands of a solo performance, but most gave outstanding performances, many at a professional level. Unfortunately there were some microphone problems on opening night which made volume variable, but the professionals in the group were able to overcome them and the problems were quickly resolved.

In the outstanding category were Roberta Mumm (long-time Davisites may remember her excellent performances with the Davis Comic Opera Company several years ago) and Lou Parell in three numbers from “The Phantom of the Opera.” Both gave first class performances worthy of any professional stage.

Bill Miller, who was a towering Martin Luther King in the last production I attended, was again powerful in two numbers from “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” and “Time to Live,” the first act finale from “Voices.” Miller has a huge voice and a commanding presence and is a force to be reckoned with.

Aaron Clemens also gave a powerful performance, along with Miller, in three numbers from “Don’t Bother Me...” as did Elise Reese singing “It Takes a Lot of Feelings” from the same show.

The incomparable Randy Solorio, a long time Best of Broadway performer, appeared in several numbers, including “Once Upon a Dream” from “Jekyll and Hyde” in the first act, and several numbers in the second act, ending with the rousing finale, “A Shout-Out to Broadway” from “Shout,” which had all cast members on stage and in the aisles, while the audience clapped along with the music.

The children’s second act number, “The People Tree” was just plain adorable, with the children dressed in bright primary colors, making a striking visual as well as an enjoyable musical number.

Gerardo Martinez and Ruben Sanchez added fun to “The Way it Ought to Be” from “A Tale of Two Cities” with their professional looking swordplay.

“That’s the Way I Like It” from “Boogie Nights” was fun, with all the disco costumes and the huge hair on the dancers.

A section of the show called “Broadway Goes Latin” was a lively non-stop tribute to many of the Latin numbers from several shows, including “Copacabana,” “The Boy from Oz,” and “4 Guys Named Joe.” Kathryn Skinner, Solorio, and Pelenta Forrest were particularly good in “Havana,” “I Go to Rio,” and “Macarena,” respectively.

A group with the unlikely name of the Public Apology Quartet (Enrique Ruiz, Matt Freeman, Matthew Holsinger and Dewight Mitchell) performed in several numbers and were fun to listen to, particularly in the first act “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” sounding for all the world like The Platters’ 1959 recording.

Special recognition should be given to costume coordinators Cathy Carpenter and John Pohlman for the consistently classy look throughout the show and to lighting designers Dion Cook and Kevin Arnold, who even gave the “pit chorus” (a group in a glass box off to the side who helped add some vocal “oomph” to many of the performances) their own special light.

Musical Director Dan Poole helped a band of 4 sound like a full pit orchestra.

This is a production that occasionally feels like watching a 3-ring circus, but, like the circus, offers something for everyone--and it benefits some good charities in the bargain.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Pirates of Penzance

When Joseph Papp mounted a modernized “Pirates of Penzance” in Central Park in New York in 1980, to commemorate the centenary of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta (the only one of the G&S operettas to premiere in New York), there was, to put it mildly, mixed reaction.  The “Papp Pirates,” as it came to be known, featured Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline.  It became the toast of Broadway that year, and won the Tony for best revival.  Suddenly everyone was talking about Gilbert & Sullivan again and the production moved to the screen, in the movie which was made in 1982.

However, there was lots of grumbling among Gilbert & Sullivan purists who objected to the new synthesizer-based orchestrations, interpolated lyrics, and liberties with dialogue.  Still, there is no denying that Papp breathed new life into the Gilbert & Sullivan chestnut and introduced a whole new audience not only to that specific work, but to the whole G&S canon.

I like to think Gilbert & Sullivan themselves might have approved.  After all, they wrote for a contemporary audience and their jokes were pertinent to the period.  Papp just brought the 1879 operetta up to date.

Judging by the standing ovation following Tuesday night’s opening of “Pirates of Penzance” at Music Circus, directed by Glenn Casale, Papp’s version is still finding enthusiastic audiences 20 years later.

This production is full of energy and moves at a frenetic pace.  From the opening sounds of thunder to the lusty chorus of pirates pouring the pirate sherry, it is obvious that this is not your grandmother’s Gilbert & Sullivan.

Frederick (David Burnham) has turned 21 and at his birthday celebration, he informs his pirate brothers that now that he is out of his indentures, he plans to give up the piratical life and devote himself to the extermination of those with whom he lived for the past 13 years.

Burnham’s Frederick has rock star quality.  He gets as much as he can out of his sex appeal.  When he later sings “Oh is there not one maiden here?” to the young girls he has surprised frolicking on the beach, the song comes complete with pelvic thrusts that leave the girls limp and fanning themselves frantically.

Music Circus veteran Paul Schoeffler is the swashbuckling Pirate King, who is at the same time a commanding presence and a bumbler, constantly nicking himself on his sword and stumbling over words.  Schoeffler gives a memorable performance.

Frederick’s nursemaid, Ruth, who misunderstood her instructions and apprenticed the young boy to a pirate instead of to a pilot, is capably played by Mary Gutzi.  The role gives her an opportunity to display both her vocal and comedic talents more fully than she was able to as the Wicked Witch in this season’s earlier “Wizard of Oz.”

Kimilee Bryant is Mabel, the girl who gives Frederick her heart.  Bryant has extensive Gilbert & Sullivan experience with the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players under her belt and she is the quintessential G&S heroine.

Major-General Stanley, father of Mabel and her many sisters, is played by Patrick Quinn.  Quinn cuts a fine figure as the Major General, and does well with the rapid-fire patter songs, but did stumble over many lyrics opening night, as well as leaving out a somewhat important line of dialog.  However, I suspect only G&S purists would notice.

Roger Preston Smith is the Police Sergeant, the head of a Keystone Cops-esque group who are too frightened to go out and fight real pirates.  The police are usually great crowd pleasers and while this crew got its applause, there was something about Mark Esposito’s choreography for the police which left something lacking.

In the smaller roles of Mabel’s sisters, Edith, Kate and Isabel, Christy Morton, Shannon Warne and Rachel Eve Moses were each unique characters and delightful to watch.  Kate’s solo bit in “Climbing over rocky mountains” was sung as practically a sultry torch number, quite a change of pace and very effective.

Papp added two songs to his version of “Pirates of Penzance,” the matter trio from “Ruddygore” (a patter song for Frederick, Ruth and the Pirate King), with slightly rewritten lyrics, which was beautifully enunciated by all, and a segment of Josephine’s aria, “Sorry her lot,” from “HMS Pinafore,” which had originally been added to give Linda Ronstadt something else to sing.  It fits so perfectly where it is situated in the story, following Frederick’s confession that he must leave Mabel and return to his pirate band, that, again, only a G&S purist would notice the insertion.

The Music Circus production is great fun and, as Joseph Papp intended, a great way to introduce a whole new generation to the music of Gilbert & Sullivan.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Romeo and Juliet

Was there ever a more perennial theme than teens in love? The ultimate teen love story is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the second Ghost Light Theatre production, opening at the Veterans Memorial Theater on Saturday, running through August 7.

Director Dave Burmester has set his play at some nebulous time in the future, a period many years after a cataclysmic event has decimated humanity and compromised what we currently consider civilization. The Verona of this future world has developed a dual power structure. Adults derive their power, as always, from money and influence. Young people resort to violent, though rarely deadly, conflict.

It appears that at all periods of time, there are tribal conflicts and the Capulets and the Montagues -- the Hatfields and McCoys of the Shakespearean world -- are still at odds with each other.

Bridging that enmity come the star-crossed lovers. Dara Yazdani is outstanding as Romeo, impetuous and intensely soulful, who falls in love at first sight and is driven to suicide at the thought of losing his love forever. He makes Romeo as up to date as any modern film filled with teenage angst.

Likewise, Genny Moreno as Juliet is as frivolous as any 13 year old girl, full of daydreams and ready to fling herself into the arms of her Romeo.

Josh Toliver gave a superb performance as the ill-fated Mercutio. He immediately set the scene as a hormone-driven teen with all the in-jokes and double-entendres in which young men engage.

The setting, looking like a back alley somewhere, with graffiti painted on corrugated metal walls, and boxes strewn about, lead to the logical comparison to West Side Story, especially when the rival gangs engage in hand-to-hand combat with very real looking fight choreography by Chris Oca.

As leader of the rival gang, Eric Delacorte as Tybalt is particularly effective in his fight scenes. He wields a mean stick.

Zoe Garcia as Lady Capulet had the sultry demeanor of a Catherine Zeta Jones, slinking around the stage in skin-tight black leather, showing only casual concern for her daughter.

More sympathetic toward the emotional life of Juliet is her Nurse, played competently by Bethany Bishop.

Davis Wurzler is Friar Laurence, the monk who performs the wedding ceremony for the two lovers and gives Juliet a potion to simulate death. Unfortunately, Wurzler tended to rush his lines too much and many of them were unintelligible.

Lighting design by James Henderson was excellent in setting the mood for each scene or spotlighting a particular grouping. Particularly impressive was the dance sequence (with choreography by Dana Snyder), lit in red tones, with bright white for Romeo and Juliet. Some of the actors had difficulty hitting their light spot on, so that bodies were illuminated but faces hidden.

This is a production which will have broad appeal, even to those who think they don’t like Shakespeare, and there is enough action on stage that it should be fun even for grammar school children.

Burmester gets an A+ for this one.

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Lady Windermere's Fan

Ghost Light Theatre Festival has opened at the Veterans Memorial Theater with its first of four mainstage productions, Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” directed by Emily Henderson.

This is a play which centers on the strict morals of Victorian England, when courtesy and manners were valued above personal conflicts. One did not air one’s dirty laundry in public. Into this world comes a situation rife with delicious innuendo and the whole town is talking about it.

Lady Windermere (Alicia Hunt) is about to celebrate her birthday and has received an ornate fan as a gift from her husband . She is visited by the gossipy Duchess of Berwick (Betsy Raymond) and her daughter Lady Agatha (Madelyn Ligtenberg) and told that her husband has been seen calling on a woman of bad reputation, a Mrs Erlynne. The Duchess intimates that Lord Windermere has been giving this woman large sums of money.

Lady Windermere finds her husband’s secret bank book showing substantial payments to Mrs. Erlynne and concludes that the rumor is true and that her husband has been unfaithful. What's more, Lord Windermere (Anthony Pinto) asks her to invite Mrs Erlynne to her birthday gathering. She refuses but her husband sends the invitation anyway and Mrs Erlynne (Maddy Ryen) comes to the party. There is a near confrontation between the two women.

Lady Windermere decides she can no longer live with her husband, and runs away to join an admirer, Lord Darlington (Blake Campbell-Hyde), leaving behind a good bye letter for her husband. The letter is intercepted by Mrs Erlynne, who pursues her and persuades her to return home without Windermere finding out. Unfortunately, Lady Windermere leaves her new fan behind.

Later the men gather at Darlington's place and the fan is found but Mrs Erlynne appears and says that it was she who left the fan, thereby ruining her own reputation by being in a gentleman’s apartment and also ruins her chances of marrying Lord Augustus Lorton (Davis Wurzler). The motive for this act of self sacrifice is revealed to the audience, but not to Lady Windermere, who never does learn that Mrs. Erlynne is the mother she thought died when she was a child.

The cast give generally fine performances, with one or two rising above the level of competent. Maddy Ryen as Mrs. Erlynne does an excellent job. We aren’t sure if she’s a sympathetic character or a blackmailing shrew, but in the end she discovers that she has a heart and has feelings for the daughter she abandoned long ago.

In the minor role of Mr. Cecil Graham, Nick Bettencourt gets the most out of the wit of Oscar Wilde. Wilde was the master of the bon mot and this play is rife with them. (“I can resist anything but temptation,” “It is absurd to divide people into the good and the bad. People are either charming or tedious,” “History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality,” “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes,” etc.) Unfortunately, many of them fall flat, but Bettencourt’s delivery is the most effective.

The scene is one of the strongest in the play, a group of men sitting around smoking, drinking, and discussing life.

Betsy Raymond, in her small role as the Duchess of Berwick is appropriately bitchy, as she revels in her opportunity to be the bearer of bad news to poor Lady Windermere. Madelyn Ligtenberg as her daughter gets the most out of a role where all one has to do is say “yes, Ma-ma.”

Costume design by Randi Famula is outstanding in the gowns for the women, though there were some problems with fit on the men’s costumes, probably because they were evening clothes pulled off the rack. Someone should make certain, however, that the actors wear the appropriate socks. Green socks and white socks do not go well with the evening attire, and when the men sit down and stretch their legs out, the socks are impossible to overlook.

This is a good production, not a great production. Director Henderson has done a good job of moving her cast around the stage and her vision of the play and the era is good. The main problem with it may be that Oscar Wilde needs an older, more seasoned cast to wring all the subtleties out of the script.

Lady Windermere’s Fan continues August 1, 4, and 6 at 8 p.m., and August 2 – the program says 11 p.m., but surely it must mean a.m.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

My Avisia Winger

Have you ever wished you could be in on the ground floor of something special? Imagine what it must have been like to have been at the first productions in the Old Palms Playhouse, to watch things grow and develop over the years, to see the fame spread, to watch people come from far and wide because everyone had heard of The Palms Playhouse.

Well, this is your chance to be present at the opening of another funky playhouse which certainly has all the potential, and definitely the enthusiasm of its founders, to continue to build on a solid beginning.

Barnyard Theatre at the Schmeiser Historic Barn on Rd. 31 is presenting My Avisia Winger, with remaining performances July 29-31 at 8:30 p.m.

It’s a new theatre company, comprised of Davis High graduates and Acme Theatre alums. It’s a new theatre, an old barn owned by the Hunt family, and converted by director Stephen Schmidt and crew into an interesting, if somewhat unorthodox theatre. And it’s a new play, written by Davis High graduate Brian Oglesby, expanding on a short story he wrote for Marilyn Hauber’s creative writing class, expanded into play format with the help of a UC Irvine research grant.

How much more “groundbreaking” can you get?

What’s more, it’s a good, well-acted play.

This is a tour de force for Nick Herbert, in the role of the husband. Avisia Winger (Jennifer Provenza) is his wife and the play centers around the effect that an accident, of which we initially do not know the details, has had on both Avisia herself and on her husband. It shows how who the husband is affects his response to the accident. Herbert’s opening monologue alone goes on for pages and he is the glue that holds this show together, with his narrative and his interactions with Avisia.

The time line becomes blurry and it’s not always readily apparent if we are in the here and now, or at some time in the past. Memories jump around from Avisia’s childhood to the days immediately prior to and immediately after the accident, to the present day, and back again. It’s not until the final scenes that we are able to put it all together (and the denouement will leave the audience mulling over the clues that were dropped along the way and wanting to come back again to see the show once more and try to put all the pieces together, knowing, now, what the final picture is supposed to be.)

Jennifer Provenza gives a solid performance in the title role of a woman born to privilege and exclusivity who becomes a famous philanthropist on the death of her father, and who has suffered a tragic accident. Following the accident, Avisia is dramatically changed. Her best friend becomes the imaginary Gazak. She tries to draw her husband into her fantasy, as he attempts to lure her back to his reality.

It is unfortunate that Provenza’s delivery is not consistent. Many of her lines, some of which had significant bits of information, get lost when she must turn away in order to play to all parts of this “theatre in the square.”

Others in the cast play multiple roles. Joe Cohen is the Doctor, Person X, and Beau. Colin Wallace is In-State, Mailman, and Deliveryman. Krystal White is Robin and Artist (she was also the costume designer for the show)..

Scenic design by Ian Wallace is unusual and makes good use of the configuration of the Schmeiser barn. The audience almost become guests in the house, sitting so close to the table or Avisia’s piano. (I might suggest a careful sweeping of spiderwebs in the audience area, however, as some of the upright beams in the section where I was seated were quite heavy.)

Tiffany Michael’s lighting design was dramatic, especially in the flashback scenes.

No specific listing is made for sound design, but whoever was in charge of the sound effects deserves a solo bow. In one spot specifically....well, to say more would give it away, so I won’t. But those who were there were still talking about it after the show ended.

The cast and crew of Barnyard Theatre have thought of everything, from the guy with the bug spray so that everyone who enters the barn can be well protected against the critters flying in from outside during the show, to the member of the crew who rounded up the farm’s dog and took him outside so the play could begin, to the crew with flashlights waiting outside afterwards to escort patrons to their cars.

One would hope that this is not the last that we will see of Barnyard theatre. It’s an ambitious and impressive beginning. They are off to a good start.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Fantasticks

Does a show, written in the 1960s and designed to celebrate a simpler time, still play in the cell phone, computer games, ipod 2000s? 

It does, if the show is the immensely popular “The Fantasticks,” the longest running show of any kind in United States history and the longest running musical in the world.  “The Fantasticks.” with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, is a legend of musical theatre, playing off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse from 1960 until its closing in January 2002.  It returns to Music Circus after an absence of 37 years.

What is the appeal of a show with essentially no set, save for two benches, no fancy costumes, no special effects, no razzle-dazzle lighting, and only 4 musicians in the pit? 

Perhaps it appeals to the youth in all of us.  The Narrator, in his opening song, asks us to “try to remember a kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow...”  We then share the fresh love of two youngsters, the beautiful falling in love, the painful falling out of love, the joy of discovering that love was there all along.

In less talented hands the story may not play quite so successfully, but electricity and chemistry fairly ooze out of the 8 members of the cast of this production.  They draw us in instantly and we are lost in this simple world, remembering our own kinds of September.

The Montagues and the Capulets could take a lesson from the two fathers in this play.  The parents want their kids to marry and figure that the way to drive them together is to forbid them to see each other. 

Don Mayo is Hucklebee, The Boy’s father.  He has a big voice and glides around the stage like melted butter. 

The Girl’s Father, Bellomy, is played by Steve Routman, fastidious man with the precision of an accountant.

Their second act duet, “Plant a Radish,” is delightful.

As The Girl (Luisa), Yuka Takara is irresistible.  From the moment she is introduced as a 16 year old girl, longing for her own true love and going through the dramatics that accompany teen age angst, she intoxicating.  She sings beautifully and her duets with The Boy are delicious.

James Snyder as The Boy (Matt) has an open honesty about him.  His love for Luisa is palpable.

The central figure is The Narrator (Norm Lewis).  Lewis is tall, commanding, and mesmerizing.  He holds the audience in the palm of his hand with his opening song and keeps them there throughout the show.

Debbi Fuhrman has an amazing impact as the mute who acts as the wall between the gardens of the two families, and supplies the minimal props that are used.
The buffoons, Henry (Sal Mistretta) and Mortimer (“the Man Who Dies”) played by Chris Weikel add a delightful Shakespearean touch to the story with their faux abduction of Luisa.

All’s well that ends well, and after some sadness, The Boy and The Girl discover that true love doesn’t lie any farther than the back yard.

If you have never seen “The Fantasticks,” by all means take this opportunity to acquaint yourself with theatre history.  If you have seen “The Fantasticks,” treat yourself to a new cast and a delightful production.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Damn Yankees

One of the more recognizable songs in the Richard Adler/Jerry Ross musical, Damn Yankees, ending the current Davis Musical Theatre season at the Varsity, is “Heart.” We’ve all heard the lyrics:

You’ve gotta have heart
All you really need is heart...

DMTC patrons will not be disappointed in Damn Yankees. It’s designed to be fun from the moment one enters the Varsity Theatre, with bios on the wall done in the style of baseball cards, and a vendor wandering around hocking raffle tickets as if they were peanuts and...well, I won't give it away, but let's say that the opening of the show--before the lights come up--is "classic.".
It’s a show with lots of heart. One would also wish for a bit more energy.

Director Steve Isaacson has created a good looking musical, with interesting dance numbers by choreographer Stephanie Skewes, all of which are executed well enough, but the show needs a bit more punch to make it sparkle.

There is a wide range of ability among the principals on stage, ranging from adequate to quite good. Some performers had problems staying on pitch opening night. Still, this is a show on which a lot of care has obviously been lavished, a lot of work has gone into it, and one can’t fault the earnestness of the result.

Damn Yankees is another version of the Mephistopheles story, it’s The Devil and Daniel Webster meet in the dugout. Joe Boyd (Billy Trainer) is a middle-aged man who has been an avid fan of the Washington Senators all of his life. His long suffering wife Meg (Gayle Wakefield) is resigned to losing her husband to the television “Six Months out of Every Year.” It is Joe’s fervent wish for the Senators to beat the “damn Yankees.” It is, he says to himself, something he’d sell his soul to see happen.

Enter "Mr. Applegate," (Mike McElroy) with an offer he can't refuse--The Senators will not only have a winning season, but, in exchange for his soul, Boyd can fulfill his childhood dream and be the player who helps them to victory. Boyd agrees, but insists on an escape clause in case he changes his mind. The predictable plot is set in motion.

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, but while McElroy is definitely a competent actor, he doesn’t steal anything. His signature song “Those Were the Good Old Days” is such a traditional audience pleaser that encores are written into the script. But McElroy had to encourage the audience to continue the polite applause, which subsided before he could start his first of two un-requested encores.

Tevye Ditter, as the strapping young Joe Hardy, is one of those in the “quite good” category. When he first appears on stage, confused about what has happened to cause his transformation, he is a commanding presence with a powerful voice and he holds the stage in each of his appearances. His love for his wife, to whom he cannot reveal his true identity (“A Man Doesn’t Know”) is poignant.

Another in the “quite good” category is Erin Jones, as Gloria Thorpe, the reporter who gives Joe his nickname of “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO” and vows to make him a household name. Her role is small, but she is fun to watch.

J.D. Diefenbacher, who did a fine job as Joe in Showboat, is well suited to play the Senators’ Coach Benny Van Buren and he does a good job of it. It is he who encourages the team members to have “Heart” in one of the more memorable numbers of the show.

Megan Soto is the sexy vamp, Lola, whose assistance is enlisted by Mr. Applegate to seduce Joe. Her famous “Whatever Lola Wants” was fine, but again, one would have preferred a bit more “oomph” to make it sizzle. Her seduction of Joe is unsuccessful--and whatever Lola wants, Lola doesn’t get.

Others in the cast include Jan Isaacson as sister and Dannette Bell Vassar as Doris, two middle aged Senators fans; Ryan Adame (Rocky), Arthur Vassar (Smokey), and Chris Baker (Sohovik) with a reprise by Billy Trainor as the Baseball commissioner.

The DMTC orchestra and the performers were sometimes in disagreement about the specific keys of certain songs, but one assumes that this problem will be solved next season when DMTC moves into its new theatre and the orchestra will have its own pit rather than a platform off to the side of the stage.

This Damn Yankees will not top the list of “Best DMTC productions ever,” but there is a lot to like--how can you miss with a show about romance, love, commitment, dreams, fantasies and America's favorite pastime? One cannot deny that the production has “miles and miles and miles of heart.”

Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Servant of Two Masters

If you had to choose one word to describe Acme Theatre’s delightful production of Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters” it would be “silly.” One can only imagine the hilarity that must have ensued during rehearsals as the cast and director David Burmester worked out the action and updated the 1770 script to make it relevant to today

As my husband and I walked home from the Davis Art Center Outdoor Stage (the temporary home of Acme’s summer production, now that they have lost the Pence Gallery Stage), he would periodically start giggling and burst out with “It was so funny when...?.” or “didn’t you love it when...?”

It’s that funny a show.

There also isn’t a weak performer in the cast.

The show centers around the servant Truffaldino, an opportunist who sees the possibilities of double dipping, by hiring himself out to two masters at once, neither of whom knows of his employ with the other. As Truffaldino, “an enigma wrapped up in a conundrum wrapped up idiot,” Andrew Conard exudes charm and devilment. He is especially endearing in his interactions with the audience.

Randi Famula and Dara Yazdani play the lovers Clarice and Silvio, who plan to marry now that they have received word that Clarice’s betrothed, Federigo Rasponi, has been killed in a duel. Famula gives a solid performance as Clarice and is especially good at being incensed. Yazdani has the “rubbery” body of a Ray Bolger, which is so perfect for such physical comedy, while having the haughty pout of Will & Grace’s Sean Hayes.

As Silvio’s father, Dr. Lombardi, Eric Delacorte may be seen as going a bit over the top--but then, in a production like this, can one really go over the top?

Anthony Pinto is both Clarice’s father, Pantalone Dei Biscotti and the manager of the traveling theatre company which is supposedly putting on this farce. He also gives a solid performance and becomes the glue that holds it all--however tenuously--together.

Truffaldino’s two masters are Beatrice Rasponi (Stephanie Rickards), masquerading as her dead brother Federigo, and her lover, Florindo Alfredo (James Henderson), forced to flee Turin after murdering Beatrice’s brother. Neither Beatrice nor Florinda is aware that the other is in Venice, which, of course, sets things up for almost continuous missed opportunities to discover each other.

The set construction crew gets special kudos for building four very solid doors that allow the cast to move in and out and slam the doors behind them without shaking the set. The chaotic meal scene, with Truffaldino attempting to serve both masters, each in a different room, at once was particularly zany.

Zoe Garcia is delightful as the maid Smeraldina, with the bottomless bodice from which she pulls surprising things to toss at the audience or around the stage.

Maddie Ryen is the sardonic innkeeper Brighella, who keeps Beatrice’s secret and tries to keep her inn running smoothly in spite of the insanity that is going on around her.

The supporting cast includes Connor Riley as Eliche (the first waiter), Max McComb as Farfalle (First Porter), and Colin Stack-Troost as Fedelini (Second Porter).

Dancers with the unlikely names of Gnocchetti, Fusili, Rigatoni, Tortellini, Vermicelli and Canneloni are played, respectively, by Karlee Finch, Betsy Raymond, Maia Kazaks, Laurel Cohen, Alicia Hunt and Courtney Siperstein-Cook.

The plot is thin, but irrelevant, and includes silly bits like the prompter for the show being mute and having to give actors lines using charades, and people on the roof of the building with noise makers to provide sound for various lines and actions. There are marvelous alliterative phrases delivered rapid-fire and groaning puns and enough slapstick to keep the little kids in the audience giggling.

Choreographers Jean Marsh, Maia Kazaks and Laurel Cohen have created fun dances as “filler” moments between scenes.

Costumer designer Laurel Cohen presents a colorful picture as one looks at the stage. Truffaldino’s patchwork costume is in the tradition of a commedia dell’arte harlequin.

There was some concern, following last year’s “Two Gentlemen of Varona,” about the future of Acme’s traditional outdoor production. The Art Center’s Outdoor Stage may only be a temporary home, but it has served this production well. Bring a chair, bring a blanket, bring a picnic dinner, and be prepared to spend a couple of hours laughing at this very funny production.

“The Servant of Two Masters” continues only until May 31. Don’t miss it!

Saturday, April 24, 2004

The Undressed Project

Is Davis ready for nudity?

We’ll all find out on May 6, when MFA choreographer Eric Kupers brings his “Night Marsh” to the Mondavi Center Studio Theatre, in conjunction with “Tiny Sky,” by Jane Schnorrenberg, as the UC Davis Theatre and Drama Department presents, “Flood.”

“Tiny Sky,” a series of short dances based on the stories of Barry Yourgrau is described by choreographer Schnorrenberg as “much shorter little pieces, little bites. Little nuggets of things. They are all separate little vignettes. It’s like a dream kind of thing.” “Tiny Sky” (in which the dancers will be clothed) is a much lighter work and opens the evening’s entertainment. “I’m the appetizer,” laughs Scnhorrenberg.

“Night Marsh” is the finished piece which began as “The Undressed Project” three years ago at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Kupers began to envision this piece shortly after the tragic events of 9/11.

“I felt like with all the fear around 9/11, everything was contracting. People were saying ‘be careful--you’ll be labeled a terrorist.’ I felt we need to take the opportunity to expand and really be ourselves.”

The idea of an entire dance performed in the nude actually arose, Kupers jokes, out of his difficulty with costuming.

“I was thinking about my next piece and thinking ‘what do I do for costumes?’ I couldn’t think of anything. ‘Why don’t we just go naked?’ So it was really more whimsical. Then as I started to talk to people they would say ‘I’m not going to get naked--I’m too fat, I’m too hairy, I’m too thin, I’m too old, I’m too wrinkly, I’m too pimply, I’m too whatever...’ So many people who had these bodies that I envied were afraid to be naked, so I knew I had to address that with the piece.”

In fact, the work begins with a prologue, narrated by April Tayor and danced by Kupers, which explores the stereotypical view of a dancer’s body and questions whether someone who does not fit into the mold and whose body has its own unique flaws, can actually be considered “a dancer.”

“We use words in such strange ways, like the word "beautiful" for example,” Kupers muses. “One person said, 'That's really great that you're dancing naked. But you know, people really do want to see beautiful bodies.' Others have said, 'Some of the bodies weren't perfect, and then there were some beautiful bodies.' There are things that are so unconscious in the way we talk about it all.” Kupers work tries to show that all bodies are “beautiful,” whether they fit into a stereotype or not.

“We’re beautiful and we’re ugly at the same time. Bodies are these gorgeous things but they’re also weird. “

Lucia August, one of Kupers’ older dancers, is a psychotherapist in her professional life, who deals with body image issues in her practice. “I’ve been dancing since I was 4 years old,” she said, “and I was always told that I could never go beyond a certain level because of my body size. But here I am!” Though one would never pick August out of a crowd as a dancer, she is beautiful to watch on stage. She had difficulty at first with the concept of dancing in the nude, but she finds the experience to be liberating and energizing.

Kupers looks on his work as a piece of activism, and of bringing people together for a common goal.

“My parents were radical leftist organizers and I grew up in an environment of radical activism. I left that and got into dance, but this piece feels like a return to my roots as a community organizer. There was lot of group process that went into the things that we’re doing, honoring different people’s experience, how you use language to describe bodies. People working out the things they find difficult or offensive, and then going forth into the community. It feels like a kind of activism.”

Kupers credits MFA choreography professor Della Davidson for being his most supportive mentor.

“Of all my mentors, she has been the one who has stuck by me through this piece and really stuck by the vision of it. Many of my other mentors have been threatened by it; they haven’t been real supportive.”

Kupers’ challenge was in creating a work that transcends the notion of nudity. “Once you lose the shock value then what do you do? How do you sustain it from there on? It’s this weird paradox of wanting the charge around nudity to go away, to dissipate, but then wanting there to be a charge on the nudity from a deeper level. I know for me it feels like there is something very spiritual about being naked. I just feel a sense of purity in a way, but like clearness and aliveness when we take off our clothes in rehearsal. A sense of ‘this is it. There’s no hiding’.”

Kupers says that his work is loosely based on the archetype of Alice in Wonderland. As his “Alice” (Debby Kajiyana) steps through her looking glass, will a Davis audience follow her? Only time will tell.

“Flood” runs May 6-9 and 13-16 at 8 p.m. No one under the age of 18 is admitted without a parent or guardian. Tickets are available by calling 1-866-754-ARTS.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Steel Magnolias

Louisiana-born lawyer/actor/playwright Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias originally as a short story as therapy to help him deal with the untimely death of his diabetic sister, his “best friend,” following childbirth. "My nephew was about to turn five," he explained, "and I suddenly realized that if I didn’t put down on paper what happened to his mother, he’d never know who she was."

While the story tells of a tragic event, Harling injected it with a heavy dose of Southern humor, filled with wonderfully witty banter and wisecracks (“If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!”). He set it in a beauty parlor, the mysterious and fascinating place where his mother and sister would disappear for a few hours each week with their friends.

Steel Magnolias premiered on Broadway in 1987 and was later made into a hugely popular movie with an all star cast that featured Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLean, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Julia Roberts.

The Winters Community Theatre has chosen Steel Magnolias as its spring production, directed by Howard Hupe.

From the moment the curtains open on the Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, thanks to the set design of Trent Beeby, Gloria Marion and Howard Hupe. we enter the world Harling created, and begin eavesdropping on the close knit group of women friends, these Southern belles whose shared camaraderie, joy and grief gives them the softness of magnolias, and the strength of steel.

The four-scene play takes place over a two year period of time in the late 1980s. All action takes place in the beauty shop under the direction of owner Truvy, played by Gloria Marion, who wields a comb with the professionalism of a real beautician (which Marion is in real life).

As the story begins, it is Shelby’s wedding day. Gina Wingard is a delicious Shelby, a headstrong young woman determined to have her own way, whether it is about the decorations for her wedding hairdo, or the decision to risk her life in order to have the baby for which she so desperately longs (“I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”)

New to the beauty shop is Annelle (Jennifer Hale), a young woman new to town, hiding a secret, and in need of a job. Hale seemed a bit unsure of herself in the opening scene, but grew more confident as the play progressed.

The marvelous Germane Hupe is Claree, an eccentric widowed millionaire. Hupe has wonderful comic timing and gets the most out of her biting sarcastic comments (“Very good, Annelle! You’ve spoken like a true smart-ass!”, “Ouiser could never stay mad at me; she worships the quicksand I walk on.”)

Maggie Burns is very funny as the crusty old spitfire Ouiser, who has a running feud going with Shelby’s father, her next door neighbor. (“The only reason people are nice to me is that I have more money than God.” “I’m not crazy; I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years.”)

Shelby’s social worker mother, M’Lynne, is played by Ann Rost. Rost was often the weakest in the cast, her lines spoken so softly they barely made it past the first row. However, she took command of the stage as the grieving mother, following Shelby’s death and had the audience in the palm of her hand, sniffles audible throughout the house. Her anger came from the very depth of her soul and was painfully familiar to anyone who has suffered the loss of a child.

This production of Steel Magnolias is a little rough around the edges, with some stumbling over lines here and there, but the six-woman cast forms a cohesive ensemble which combines to give a very real, funny, and moving experience for the audience.

Steel Magnolias continues at the Winters Community Center, 201 Railroad Avenue, Winters on weekends through March 28.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Guys and Dolls

It’s always good when you can walk out of a theatre thinking about something you’ve seen that really excites you. That “something” came in the person of Michael R.J. Campbell, Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of “Guys and Dolls.” Campbell is a talented young man with a big voice and his “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” combined with Michael Miiller’s energetic choreograpy was easily the high point of this production.

“Guys and Dolls,” the 1952 award-winning musical by Frank Loesser, based on the book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling (based on tales of Damon Runyon) is a light-hearted look at the darker side of 1940s New York, and the lovable gangsters who inhabit it.

Director Jan Isaacson has assembled a cast of remarkably strong singers. Without exception they give wonderful voice to every song. Some are better actors than others.

Steve Isaacson was born to play the lovable scoundrel Nathan Detroit, a wise-cracking wheeler-dealer who runs the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York. Detroit is faced with a problem. Lt. Brannigan (Michael Miiler) is cracking down and he can’t find a place to hold the evening’s game.

Detroit has been engaged for years to Miss Adelaide (“the famous fiancee”), a dancer at the Hotsy Totsy club. All Adelaide wants is to finally marry Nathan and live in a house “with a picket fence and bookends.” Lauren Miller is a delightful Adelaide and, second only to Campbell’s Nicely-Nicely, delivers some of the most memorable musical numbers in the show.

Brennen Cull plays Sky Masterson, a high roller who is one of Detroit's regulars. Nicole Burritt-Smith plays Sarah Brown, the dedicated Salvation Army worker who has chosen to live among the seamy characters off Times Square in an attempt to convert the sinners. A wager between Masterson and Detroit leads to an unlikely romance between Masterson and Brown.

Cull and Buritt-Smith are both newcomers to DMTC and add much vocally. If you close your eyes and listen to Burritt-Smith, you might think you were listening to a young Shirley Jones. It’s a delicious, clear sound. Cull has a strong baritone and he comes alive whenever he sings. Unfortunately, there is little chemistry between the two characters, which makes their passion unbelievable and gives little energy to most of their scenes.

Returning for a second time as Arvide Abernathy, grandfather to Sarah, Bob Eggert’s touching “More I Cannot Wish You” displayed an unexpectedly strong voice.

Others in the cast include Mike McElroy as Benny Southstreeet; Ryan Adame as Rusty Charlie, ; Ben Bruening as Harry the Horse; Heather Sheridan as General Cartwright and Michael Jones as Big Jule.

Dancing is sometimes one of the weak points in community theatre productions, whose members are often stronger actors than dancers. However, Michael Miiller does wonders with DMTC casts. He has created such tight dance numbers in this production that it’s difficult to tell who in the cast has dance training and who does not. Whether a small ensemble for Hotsy Totsy club performances or full cast living it up in Havana, each dance number is a gem.

Jean Henderson has done her usual competent job in the costume department, especially in the colorful ensemble for the Havana scene. However, perhaps her most striking visual is for the Hot Box dancers in “Take Back Your Mink.”

One tiny quibble – in a production where such attention has obviously been made to period, in costume and set design (by Jennifer Walley), it was surprising in the opening number to see a photographer holding a camera as if he were looking at the LCD screen of a digital camera, rather than through the eyepiece of a film camera. Disconcerting and distracting for an amateur photographer to watch.

Guys and Dolls has a number of familiar tunes (“I’ll Know,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “If I were a Bell,” “Luck Be a Lady” as well as the title song). It would be surprising if the audience did not emerge humming one of them at the end of the evening.

The production runs through March 28th at the Varsity Theatre.

Fiddler on the Roof

Tevye can't understand why the world is changing. The simple milkman from the little Russian town of Anatevka, in a strong portrayal by Davis Musical Theatre Company's founder and guiding light, Steve Isaacson, sits on his milk wagon -- the horse is lame again -- and asks his God why.

"Fiddler on the Roof," the perennial favorite based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, is at the Varsity Theater through Dec. 7.

The story is about change ... the changing relationships between parents and children, the changing political scene, the change in ... tradition. Some changes are easier to accept than others.

Mary Young reprises her role as Golde, Tevye's wife, who met him on their wedding day and who is surprised to realize, after 25 years, that she really loves her husband.

Their three oldest daughters are of marrying age and Golde turns to Yente the Matchmaker (played by Cathy Rasmussen) to find them a "perfect match."

The girls have other ideas. The oldest, Tzeitel (Lauren Miller) is secretly in love with Motel, the Tailor (Ben Bruening's best role to date), and begs her father to let her marry him instead of the older Lazar Wolf, the Butcher (Rick Simonson). Seeing how much in love the two are, Tevye gives his permission.

When it comes to the next daughter, Hodel (Wendy Wyse), Tevye reluctantly agrees to let her follow her love, the idealistic activist Perchik (Ryan Adame), to Siberia, knowing he may never see her again.

But when his favorite, Chava (Jillian Johnson) falls for a Russian soldier, Fyedka (played by Tevye Ditter -- that's really his name -- a man with terrific voice), the father draws the line and declares his daughter "dead."

The DMTC production, directed by Michael Miiller, is lively and fast-paced. The musical numbers are outstanding, particularly the opening number, "Tradition," involving all the townspeople in a circle dance and "To Life," a rousing song of celebration following Tevye's pact with Lazar Wolf to the marriage with his daughter.

The dream sequence, which Tevye concocts to convince Golde of the wisdom of the marriage of Tzeitel and Motel gives Jan Isaacson a chance to shine as Grandma and Dannette Vassar to make the most of the role of the ghost of Fruma-Sarah, the butcher's first wife.

(Kudos also to Rich Kulmann, the perfect Rabbi.)

Sets, designed by Isaacson, are utilitarian, but they work. It is unfortunate that the backdrop is not stretched tightly across the frame (and is badly bunched up in one corner), as the movement of actors backstage causes it to ripple badly and distracts from the action on stage.
The 16-piece band is under the direction of Andy Sullivan, and Noel Bruening does her own playing on stage as the Fiddler.

A nasty flu bug has been making its way through the company and affected some of the otherwise strong voices of cast, in both pitch and volume, a situation that surely will be cleared up by next weekend.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Jesus Christ Superstar

In preparing for his third production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Davis Musical Theatre Company director Steve Isaacson set out with one goal in mind: “put great voices on stage with a great orchestra and let people enjoy themselves.”

Judging by the standing ovation from the near sell-out crowd at the Varsity theatre, at the conclusion of Saturday night’s performance, he succeeded.

The 1971 Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice rock opera, running through February 1, essentially traces the story of Jesus from Palm Sunday through the crucifixion and has enough musical intensity that you need little other than a hint of set and a strong set of singers.

While the story is about Jesus’ last days, the central figure really is Judas Iscariot, who has become disillusioned with all the hoopla surrounding this man he has followed for so long. He feels that the followers of Jesus have become fanatical and unrealistic in hailing him a god. He’s afraid Jesus is starting to believe his own press (“You’re starting to believe all the things they say of you; you really do believe this talk of God is true.”)

As he watches his interactions with Mary Magdalen, his anger at the temple, turning on the money lenders, and growing weary of the cripples asking to be healed, he questions more and more the nature of this man...he sings “I just want to know...”

Judas, like Che in the later Weber/Rice musical “Evita” acts as the moral conscience for the show and one needs to have a strong presence in the role. Director Isaacson has found him in Brian McCann. This DMTC veteran has always given solid performances and he does not disappoint in this production. We feel his pain when she sings that he simply wants to “strip away the myth from the man.”

Fulfilling the promise he displayed in DMTC’s earlier “Showboat,” Tev Ditter makes a wonderful Jesus. This is a human Jesus, one who can be moody, who gets angry, who knows his death is approaching and is afraid, who is disappointed in his followers.

Amber Jean Moore is a long way from Ellie May (“Showboat”) or Sandy (“Grease”) in playing Mary Magdalen, but she’s perfect in the role. She obviously loves Jesus, but this is a new love for her and she can’t quite work out what it is. Her “I don’t know how to love him” was very tender and poignant.

One of the consistent problems of community theatre, especially in a town as small as Davis, is that there are more good women available than good men. Thus what was intended to be a predominantly male show is actually quite female-heavy. Eight of the apostles are women, including Simon (Melody Davi).

Likewise two of the priests are women and Lenore Sebastian as Annas makes you wonder why this hasn’t always been a woman’s part. She handles it with the professionalism she brings to every role. No one in the audience would be wishing that a male had filled the role.

As Caiaphas, JD Diefenbacher, in his second role with DMTC gives a commanding portrayal as the high priest.

Gil Sebastian was born to wear a toga. He plays the anguished Pilate, wanting to wash his hands of the whole business. “If this man is harmless, why does he upset you?”

Michael Miiller brings comic relief with his 1920s version of King Herod dancing with his “Herod Dancers,” Katy Fast, Katherine Gohring, Dian Hoel and Holly Newell, their flapper costumes in stark contrast with the solemnity of the Biblical costumes. (Good work by the always-professional costume designer, Jean Henderson).

The mood of the piece is greatly enhanced by the lighting design of Mike McElroy, whose pools of light for Jesus are particularly good.

Now that DMTC has been so good to Jesus, one hopes that Jesus will return the favor and give them a theatre with good acoustics. As always the Varsity Theatre swallows a lot of the words, especially bad in this show, with the orchestra right on stage. Even the body mics for principals I know from other productions have wonderful diction and project beautifully couldn’t help that problem and the chorus, which could have used a bit more oomph, was very difficult, if not impossible, to understand in spots.

Still, this is a strong DMTC production and provides a solid evening’s entertainment.

Friday, January 09, 2004


Following a devastating battle, a woman mourns the death of her two brothers. Etoclese, who, despise a promise to do so, refused to hand the rule of Thebes to his brother, has been buried with full state honors. Polyneices, who challenged his brother for the right to rule, is left on the battlefield for the dogs to eat.

The woman is Antigone, daughter of King Oedipus. In defiance of the edict of her uncle, the new king Creon, who assumed the reigns of government on the death of Etoclese, Antigone resolves to bury Polyneices with the same dignity accorded his brother.

At the heart of Antigone is an ancient yet timeless conflict: the rights, and the rites, of the individual when they clash with the needs of the state. Creon, newly crowned with a war-torn state to heal, can't afford to have his authority challenged. Antigone insists on dignity for her slain brother. Because she challenges Creon, she must die.

Great principles are at stake here: the rule of the state versus the rights of the individual, human versus divine law and so forth. (“Because I’m the king, that’s why...”) Plenty of parallels can also be drawn, to our current situation in Iraq.

Jean Anouilh wrote his Antigone at the height of the German occupation of France. The play mirrors the predicament of the French people under Hitler at the time. Acme director Dave Burmester, in his notes for the young people’s production of this masterpiece of the modern French stage, is astonished that the Gestapo, who governed Paris in 1943, were willing to allow the play to be produced at all. Perhaps it was because they found the play’s arguments for dictatorship so convincing.

Whether you look on the play from the viewpoint of Creon, trying to establish his authority, or from the viewpoint of Antione, following her conscience and the law of the gods to bury her fallen brother, Acme’s production is certain to evoke discussion about where authority ends and responsibility begins.

The play, directed by David Burmester, is running at the Veterans Memorial Theatre through January 17. It is a visually dramatic piece, with set by Karlee Finch and David Burmester which is stark and effective. The opening red lighting and recorded music (Shostakovich?), along with the precise, militaristic entrance of the cast is stunning.

Maddy Ryen’s “Chorus” is the glue that holds the show together, bringing us up to date with the story to this point, introducing us to the characters, and setting the stage for the inevitable tragedy. She handles the role with the self-confidence of a seasoned actress.

As the determined heroine Antigone, Alicia Hunt took a bit to get into her role, but as she grew more confident, she gave a strong performance. Her lengthy dialog with Creon was a tour de force for both actors.

Andrew Conard was a marvelous Creon, always in control, the tortured king who wants to save his young niece, but cannot tolerate her defiance of his law.

Others shone in smaller roles, such as Stephanie Rickards as Antigone’s beautiful sister Ismene and Dara Yazdani as Haemon, whose love for Antigone also leads to his own death.

James Henderson, as the First Guard gave a very strong performance and brought comic relief to the tragedy.

The cast is rounded out by Genny Moreno as Creon’s page, Shannon Larson-Maynard as Eurydice, Laurel Cohen as the Nurse, and Eric Delacorte and Josh Toliver as guards.

Antigone is a classic Greek tragedy which is as modern as today. At its core, it is a family tragedy about human failings with which we can all relate. As to who is right and who is wrong, it is up to the individual viewer to make those decisions.

The play runs some 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Unfortunately two patrons sat in the row near me and talked audibly through most of the show, making it difficult to become immersed in the story itself because of irritation at the rudeness of these two people. Someone else in the theatre was playing with a mobile phone, whose LCD screen would flash at inappropriate times.