Saturday, May 28, 2005

Much Ado about Nothing

It took director Dave Burmester 23 years to find the right cast to present William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing.” It was well worth the wait.

Acme Theater company’s 23rd annual free Shakespeare in the Park opened Friday at the Davis Art Center Outdoor Pavillion. It was a delight from beginning to end. It’s a story of love, hate, betrayal and redemption. It features everything from witty repartee to brief tragedy to hilarious slapstick highjinks.

In keeping with Acme’s tradition of using non-traditional locales, this “Much Ado” was set in nineteenth century Bahia, which gave the opportunity for a few colorful Brazilian dance numbers, choreographed by Laura Yen and Mollie Hope.

“Much Ado about Nothing” is one of Shakespeare’s better known comedies tells the tale of two couples, Hero and Claudio, who fall in love at first sight and who must weather a test of that love; and Beatrice and Benedick, who have been foils for one another since childhood and need help realizing that their biting, sarcastic remarks to each other are really hiding a deeper romantic feeling.

In any young persons’ theater production, you expect to find outstanding performances and merely competent performances. However, with “Much Ado,” Burmester has found a consistently excellent cast, starting with Anthony Pinto, as Leonato, the Governor of Bahia and father to Hero. Pinto handled the transition from serious to comic very well.

Betsy Raymond as Pinto’s sister Antonia, has a small role, but makes the most of it, and is allowed to shine in an act 2 scene.

Genevieve Moreno as Hero and Scott Scholes as Claudio are a very sweet love-sick couple, whose romance is momentarily sidetracked by the nefarious Don John (Josh Toliver), bastard brother of Don Pedro, who despises Claudio and is determined to foil his union with Hero. Don John is only unlikable character in the play (though Toliver’s performance itself was again excellent).

Maddy Ryen sparkles as Beatrice, an intelligent, feisty woman with a quick wit, eager to trade barbs with Benedick, a lord of Ceara, played by Andrew Conard. Ryen and Conard have marvelous comic timing and good chemistry between them. Their scenes together sizzled.

Don Pedro, the Prince of Rio, was played by James Henderson, in another very strong performance.

Dara Yazdani was the highlight of the evening with his over-the-top Kramer-esque interpretation of the constable, Dogberry, wearing a helmet with an impossibly large feather. Yazdani is tall of stature, with a body that at times seemed to be made of silly putty. From the moment he marched on the stage, chanting “Left, right...left, right...left right” (while actually always marching Right, left...right, left...right, left), he was impossible to ignore.

Dogberry’s entourage, Verges (Fiona Lakeland), Virges (Laura Flanigan) and members of the watch: Ali Moreno, Julieanne Conard and Ernie Hernandez moved with the precision of Rockettes and were very funny.

Lesser roles included Tatiana Ray as Margaret and Randi Famula as Ursula, two of Hero’s “gentlewomen.” Eric Delacorte was Borachio and Jack Leuchars was Conrade--both followers of Don John, who convince Claudio that Hero has been unfaithful to him.

Nate Strickland was Friar Francis, who advises Hero to pretend to be dead in order to win back the hand of her beloved, Claudio. (This friar’s advice was more successful than that given to Juliet in a different Shakespeare play!)

Victoria Gimpelevich was a Sexton. Lisa Voelker was a Messenger. Randi Famula, Laura Flanigan and Tatiana Ray also doubled as dancers.

Set design by Eric Delacorte and David Burmester and set decoration by Karlee Finch created a sense of being in Brazil, while light and sound board operator Cristina Granada helped to complement the mood with Brazilian music. The “trees” for Leonato’s Orchard were great!

Costume design was by Randi Famula, whose costumes for Dogberry and the wedding attire for the women were particularly effective.

The Art Center is a delightful place for an open-air production (except for the occasional biker or rollerblader passing through the middle of the audience). Acme’s annual Shakespeare is its gift to Davis in thanks for the city’s support through the years. One could not ask for a more rewarding thank you, or a more delightful way to spend a pre-summer’s evening. There will be performances Sunday and Monday evenings at 8 p.m. Don’t miss the opportunity to see this little gem.

As You Like It

For twenty years now, Davis residents have been able to pack up their folding chairs on a warm spring evening and head to the Pence Gallery stage to watch the young actors of Acme Theatre Company present a well-rehearsed, polished, fully professional show. For free.

Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” which opened on Friday night, is no exception. It would be hard to find a “weakest link.” While there are outstanding performances, the cast is uniformly excellent and it seems as if great care has been lavished on every aspect, from costuming to hair styles, to choreography, to the original music written (and performed) by Jessica Kitchens.

If there were to be any complaint it would be that the stage shares the air with train noises and the sound of the nearby air conditioner and cleanup at the garbage cans of Soga’s, which made it difficult to understand much of the dialog in Act 1, at least from the back of the arena, though the mics on the stage certain make a big difference over previous un-amplified years.

Director Dave Burmester, who likes to keep things fresh and new chose to set this production in 1803 in Alta, California, so the simple set reflected the adobe of a hacienda. The show opened (and closed) with the cast doing a flamenco or a tango, in the brightly colored costumes one might find at a Mexican fiesta. The choreography by Zoe Nutter and costumes loaned by the Davis Senior High School Ballet Folklorico (coordinated by costumer Emily Henderson) effectively created the proper mood from the start.

Burmester explains that “As You Like It” is a play about love: physical and intellectual love, sentimental and cynical love, love at first sight, love between friends, love between relatives, imagined love, and deep, lasting love. It is the roles we are often forced to play, either by circumstance or by societal pressure.

This joyous play concerns the lovely Rosalind's instant attraction to Orlando and their subsequent journey of love and confusion. Don Senior is living in exile in the forest while his sister, Dona Eleanora has usurped his dominions. Don Senior's daughter Rosalind is banished from Eleanora's court and travels to the forest in the company of her cousin Celia. Rosalind assumes a countryman's dress and takes the name Ganymede; Celia passes as Aliena, Ganymede's sister and they meet with Orlando who has joined the banished duke. Ganymede encourages Orlando to pretend to make love to her as though she were his Rosalind.

Eleanor van Hest’s Rosalind is a delight. She is a strong woman in total control of the stage. She and Catherine Curley, as her cousin Celia, light up the stage from their first entrance and they hold it firmly throughout the play.

Ben Pearl as Orlando was difficult to hear over the early night noises, but his performance was a solid one and he makes a dashing Orlando.

Emily Henderson plays both the haughty Dona Eleanora and the earthy sheperdess Corina with equal competence.

Chris Liaghat-Schmidt as the clown, Touchstone, who accompanies Rosalind and Celia into exile is delightfully droll and an outstanding performance of the evening, as is Zoe Nutter, in a gender-bending role of Jacques, the dour compatriot of Don Senior.

Jake Stoebel does double duty as Oliver, brother of Orlando, and Padre Diego, a drunken priest. Others in the cast playing dual rules include Steven Schmidt, who plays Carlos the wrestler in Act 1 and Don Senior in Act 2. The wrestling match between Carlos and Orlando was beautifully choreographed, and included a spectacular flip-over.

Alaina Boys was Senora La Bonita, in Act 1 and Audry, a country wench who catches the eye of Touchstone in Act 2. Nick Herbert was a courtier in Act 1, Luis, a compatriot of Don Senior and the delightfully lovestruck Silvius, who has lost his heart to Phoebe, played with wonderful humor by Caleigh Drane (who is also a courtier in Act 1). David Markman also carries three roles, as Dennis in Act 1 and both Juan, a compatriot of Don Senior, and Joaquin, another brother of Orlando, in Act 2. Dylan Myles-Primakoff is the servant Adam in Act 1 and William, a rustic, in Act 2.

Burmester has directed a lively production which keeps the audience entertained at all times, throwing in bits of swordplay, thanks to help by Simon Pitfield of the Davis Fencing Academy.

“As You Like It” is the perfect way to spend a spring evening. Bring your chairs or a blanket to sit on the lawn, bring the kids, bring a picnic and expect to spend a delightful evening.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Into the Woods

Into The Woods was Stephen Sondheim’s attempt to prove that not everything he wrote had to be heavy, loaded with gloom and doom and psychological undertones, and that he could also write light hearted material. He succeeded--half way.

A production, with book by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Sondheim, opened this weekend at Wyatt Pavilion, produced by Studio 301.

Act One of Into the Woods is the “happily ever after” portion, where Sondheim and Lapine blend several familiar fairy tales – Cinderella, Jack in the Beanstalk, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel, and The Baker and His Wife central among them. Each is dealing with a problem--Cinderella wants to go to the King’s festival, Jack and his mother need money, the Baker and his wife wish for a child, and Little Red Ridinghood wants to go to Grandma’s house. Throw in a witch and a mysterious stranger and a bit of magic and by the end of Act 1, everyone is living happily ever after. Or so we think.

But does anyone ever live happily ever after? Sondheim reverts to type in Act 2, with murder, destruction, agony, and enough melancholy to satisfy the most ardent of Sondheim fans.

There are strong performances in this production from actors who appear to be trained singers. Then there are the trained actors who also happen to sing and here the results are sometimes less than perfect, and in one or two cases downright painful to the ear, as notes are sung out of the singer’s register and at least one performer seemed to have trouble staying on key. Sondheim’s music is very tricky and may have been a bit ambitious some of the performers. It may also explain why there didn’t seem to be a lot of sparkle to the production.

Studio 301 is a student drama group, unaffiliated with the university’s Theater and Dance Department. In answer to the question “Why doesn’t Studio 301 do musicals?” producers Katie Baad, Molly LeGoy, and Syche Hamilton, with the assistance of a generous donor, purchased the rights to the Sondheim musical.

A company statement reads, “The production team has continued to expand, bringing on students of different backgrounds and strengths as we have learned what is necessary.
While we base our system on that which we know best - the UC Davis Theater and Dance Department - it still has taken trial and error for us to become the team we are today...and we expect to further shape ourselves as we move through the stages of production.”

With that explanation, Into the Woods has its strengths and it has its weaknesses, but it makes one want to follow the progress of Studio 301 as they continue to shape themselves.

Performances worthy of note are John Mothershead as the Baker and Jennifer Nelson as his wife. David Sawyer was a good Jack, with fun comic relief by Drew Phillips as his cow, Milky White. (Phillips also doubles as Red’s granny.)

Katie Baad was outstanding as Little Red Ridinghood, with a strong voice and commanding presence and Anna Rozzi was a scary witch.

Carter Mills was a lovely Rapunzel, while the two princes, Mario Castro and Jeffrey Frieders (who also plays the wolf in act 1) were wonderfully droll.

Brian Turner held things together nicely as the narrator. He also played the “mysterious man.”

Others in the cast include Molly LeGoy as Cinderella, Chelsea Kashin as Jack’s Mother, Casey Ledwith as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Natasha Tavakoli and Rosa Threlfall as the ugly stepsisters, Joe Ferreira as Cinderella’s father, Alissa Steiner is the Giant.

Director Syche Hamilton has handled the difficult structure of the Wyatt Pavilion stage well, with excellent use of the theater’s many levels, including placing the orchestra behind a curtain, their image projected on the back of the theater, to allow the performers to follow musical director Philip E. Daley.

Scenic Designer Chris Allison created a lovely fairyland, sparse enough to prevent the scenery from obscuring the view of the patrons in that always-difficult theater, but rich enough to set the scene. I particularly liked the way they handled Red Ridinghood’s grandmother’s house and her demise.

Allison’s design was nicely complemented by the lighting design of David Goldin.

Costumes by Molly Legoy and Lynly Saunders were quite good. My particular favorite was the costume for the wolf, vaguely in the vein of Julie Taymor’s Lion King (the look was less effective for Milky White)

Into the Woods is an ambitious project for this student company but the end results are very promising. It is definitely an enjoyable evening, though the production is not without its flaws.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Man of La Mancha

...and when she was good
she was very, very good...

Director Jan Isaacson’s production of the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s Man of La Mancha, which opened Friday at the Varsity Theater, is very good.

The Broadway hit, by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion is a musical drama, a play within a play within a play, which tells the story of Miguel de Cervantes, thrown into prison while awaiting examination by the Holy Inquisition for having the effrontery to foreclose on a church which had not paid his taxes.

Cervantes' fellow prisoners hold their own Inquisition, a mock trial, accusing the writer of being, among other things, an idealist and a bad poet. If "convicted," he will lose his belongings, which consist primarily of a trunk of theatrical costumes and props, and an unfinished manuscript. In his defense, the author proposes he act out the story of the manuscript, using other prisoners to fill in the roles.

It is the story of Alonso Quijana, an idealistic old man who imagines himself to be living in Medevial times as an errant knight, Don Quixote de La Mancha, who travels the countryside fighting beasts and rescuing damsels in distress. "He ponders the problem of how to make better a world where evil brings profit and virtue none at all; where fraud and deceit are mingled with truth and sincerity." He promises not to allow wickedness to flourish. The delusional Quijana is an embarrassment to his respectable family.

Without a commanding Cervantes, you have no Man of La Mancha, and in newcomer Byron Westlund (who played this role at Cabrillo Stage in Aptos), Jan Isaacson has hit a goldmine. He is tall, rugged and stately. He has a rich baritone and is an excellent actor. What more could one want?

As Sancho Panza, Cervantes’ manservant, Ryan Adame gives the character a boyish enthusiasm that is endearing.

Quixote sees things as he wants to see them, not as they really are. Thus a windmill becomes a giant beast to be attacked, a country inn becomes a castle, and Aldonza, the serving wench and town whore, becomes the lovely "Dulcinea," a fair lady whom Quixote insists on treating with dignity, gentleness and respect and becomes her protector.

Lauren Miller is a world-weary, jaded Aldonza, confused by the eyes through which Quixote sees her. Miller had a bit of trouble with her high notes, but otherwise gave a strong performance. Her rape scene was disturbingly effective.

Other noteworthy performances were Steve Isaacson as the “Governor” of the dungeon, who doubles as the innkeeper who agrees to make a knight of Quixote and gives him the name “Knight of the Woeful Countenance.”

John Hancock gave a high-powered performance in the dual roles of the Duke and Dr. Carrasco who, with J.D. Diefenbacher as The Padre, Dannette Vassar as the Housekeeper, and Emily Beal as Antonia sings the delightful “I’m only thinking of him.”

Ben Wormeli is the on-stage guitarist.

The ensemble is strong, and particularly lovely in the harmonies for the gentle “Little Bird, Little Bird.”

Set design by Steve Isaacson exhibited better production values than the usually-struggling company is sometimes able to afford, and the lighting (also designed by Isaacson and run flawlessly by first-time technician Julie Kuhlman) dramatically set the scene of an underground dungeon, with a window at ground level through which fog can be seen. The lighting is particularly dramatic when steps are lowered to permit new prisoners to enter the dungeon.

Long time company costumer Jean Henderson turned out her usual collection of good-looking costumes, appropriate to the period.

The fifteen-piece backstage orchestra produced a full sound that made a nice accompaniment to the on-stage action.

Man of La Mancha continues at the Varsity Theater through May 29.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Lion King

There’s no doubt about it – The Lion King is one impressive spectacle. The opening number alone is worth the price of admission.

The Sacramento Community Theater underwent massive revamping for this touring production of the Tony-award winning version of Walt Disney’s popular cartoon. Two new aisles have been created by removing 4 seats in each row, from the stage to the back of the house, giving room for characters to enter from the back of the theater. Two of the performers also begin the show in the balcony, thus putting the entire audience squarely in the middle of the action.

As the opening number, “Circle of Life,” sung by the wise old baboon Rafiki (Gugwani Dlamini) unfolds, the stage gradually fills with wildlife. Antelope jump, birds fly, giraffes stroll magnetically, cheetahs walk cautiously, zebras prance, an elephant lumbers onto the stage, followed by her baby and, as the gigantic sun rises the audience is transported to some African savannah and the story begins.

The story of The Lion King, by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi can really be described as “Hamlet on the Savannah”: the young prince whose father is murdered by his brother, the son’s angst and guilt, the father becoming a larger in life figure after death, his ghostly counsel giving the son courage to return to avenge his father. The comic relief characters of Timon and Pumbaa.

But the Shakespeare analogy fades into the background when confronted by such a feast for the senses. The Lion King relies more on costume and spectacular lighting design (by Richard Holder) than actual set pieces, and so the show is equally as impressive in a touring company as it was when I saw it in London.

Director Julie Taymor (the first woman in Broadway history to win the Tony award for Best Director of a Musical) also designed the costumes, which are an integral part of this show’s appeal. Faced with the task of bringing a cast of animals to life, she chose to make the human actors actually part of the animals themselves, without losing their “humanness.” And so it is that animal and human blend together so seamlessly that one is able to believe in the “animalness” of the characters.

This production features an outstanding cast. Dlamini is fresh from the London production and gives a broad performance that fills the hall. Rufus Bonds, Jr. comes from the Los Angeles production, where he also played Mufasa. He has perfected the moves of a big cat and his love for his young son is a touching thing to see.

Khaleel Mandel Carter was outstanding as young Simba, with high energy, yet convincing in this tender moments with Mufasa.

Larry Yando as Scar, the lion you love to hate, was appropriately haughty and dislikeable, as were hyenas Shaullanda LaCombe, Melvin Abston and Robbie Swift.

Derek Hasenstab added comic moments, as Zazu, the king’s right hand hornbill. He had some of the funniest lines in the show.

Phil Fiorini as Pumbaa and warthog and Damien Baldet as Timba, the Meerkat were very funny and were especially valuable in giving some substance to Act 2.

I suppose it’s sacrilegious to criticize this popular show. The music by Elton John and Tim Rice have become familiar to anyone with a child of a certain age. The costumes are some of the most ingenious designed for a musical production. And the production values overall can’t be faulted.

However, the meat of this show is all in Act 1. It has the best songs and most of the story has been told by the intermission. While Act 2 is necessary to bring things full circle, it has the feel of something that has been padded to the n’th degree. It has more of the wonderful choreography of Garth Fagan, and more of those antelope prancing across the stage, but the act seems lackluster in comparison to Act 1. It also has one of the most bizarre scenes--an aerial ballet for three couples during “Can you feel the love tonight,” which, while interesting and impressive to watch, seemed out of place--and the costumes didn’t really seem to blend with the rest of the scene. I found myself spending more time trying to figure out what in the world they were supposed to be than in actually enjoying the segment.

Even the performance of Wallace Smith as the adult Simba, while definitely above average, did not seem on a par with his younger self in Act 1.

None of this should detract from the overall impact of The Lion King, however. It’s worth every penny, though tickets are scarce at this late date. I am informed that there are still a few seats left and there is a waiting list for turn-back tickets, so it may be possible to catch it before it leaves. The show runs for the next six weeks, through June 5.