Thursday, December 28, 2006

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas"

Ask anyone to name their top five Christmas themed movies of all time and it’s a pretty sure bet that “White Christmas” will be on the list for most people.

When you transfer such a well-known and beloved film to the stage, you’d best be very careful to do it well, because a large portion of your audience is going to be watching to see how good a job you do.

Judging by the enthusiastic response on opening night of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at the Sacramento Community Center, the experiment was an overwhelming success, despite what must have been a technician’s worst nightmare, with curtains that refused to cooperate (several times), lights that went on when they shouldn’t and off when they shouldn’t, audible banging from backstage, and set pieces that didn’t quite get into place on time.

Yet, the technical glitches didn’t seem to matter in this slick holiday pastiche, which will run through January 7.

While this show is, of course, based on the 1954 musical with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, don’t expect it to be a carbon copy.

The story of the famous song and dance team of Wallace (Michael Gruber in the Crosby role), and Davis (Greg McCormick Allen) who meet aspiring sister act of Betty Haynes (Christina Saffran Ashford in the Rosemary Clooney role), and Judy Haynes (Tari Kelly), and head to a ski resort which turns out to be run by Wallace & Davis’s old World War II commanding General (Stephen Godwin), who has fallen on hard times and is looking at a bleak ski season, as Vermont is experiencing unseasonable warm temperatures is familiar.

The story turns into a “find a barn and put on a show to save the General,” and it all ends predictably with beautiful snow on stage and in the audience.

However, there are plot differences from the movie, new characters and character twists, and additional Irving Berlin songs not found in the movie, such as “I Love a Piano” (which film buffs will recognize from “Easter Parade,” not “White Christmas”) and “Blue Skies,” to name but two.

Michael Gruber has a lovely crooning voice, displayed best in his “Count Your Blessings.” Greg McCormick Allen is a talented hoofer with a pleasant demeanor who is a good partner for Gruber.

Christina Saffran Ashford displays a lush voice with her emotional delivery of “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” and Tari Kelly (the role will be played by Taryn Darr beginning December 29) has a bubbly personality and gets a chance to shine in several dance numbers, especially the spectacular “I Love a Piano.”

Carol Swarbrick plays Martha Watson, the sardonic inn housekeeper immortalized by character actress Mary Wickes in the film. In this version of the story, however, Martha has a show biz background and when she belts out “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” she brings down the house.

Stephen Godwin was a world-weary General Waverly, who becomes a sentimental favorite as he tries to make the adjustment from military to civilian life, even 10 years after the end of the war. My only disappointment with this production is that “The Old Man,” Waverly’s surprise at finding all his old military outfit at the Inn, doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of the film.

Keaton Whittaker (who alternates with Olivia Spokoiny) is Susan, the General’s young granddaughter, who has show biz in her genes and belts out her own reprise of “Let Me Sing.” Whittaker is a real scene stealer and clearly an audience favorite.

Making the most of a the tiny role of Ezekiel, the stage hand, Clayton Corzatte was perfect and received an ovation at the final bow.

Anna Louizo’s set design was beautiful, with both detailed settings for the inn and splashy backdrops for the big dance numbers. The closing snow scene was straight from Currier and Ives.

Costumes by Carrie Robbins were straight out of 1954, with the huge crinoline skirts for the girls and shocking bilious green suits for Wallace and Davis’ first big production number.

The production is under the direction of James Rocco and David Armstrong and one of only four cities given special permission to present this new stage adaption during this holiday season.

Ticket sales are brisk, but there are a still few left to be had. Call now for a chance to take your family to see this delightful holiday gift to the Sacramento area.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Christmas Carol

You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry...Ebenezer Scrooge is coming to town. In fact, he’s already here, snarling his way around the stage at the Sacramento Theater Company as it revives the perennial favorite adapted by Richard Hellesen from the classic Charles Dickens novel, with music composed and adapted by David de Berry. The production is directed once again by Philip Charles Sneed.

The production will continue to entertain audiences through December 24

This is a real extravaganza for STC, with a cast of 40 (many roles are double cast) including six members of one family: Amanda, Caleb, Campbell, Christian, Colby and Cooper Salmon.

Though music is an important part, this is really more of a play with music than a musical. Extensive narration, straight out of the pages of Dickens’ original work, overlaps with the action, and the narration is delivered by actors who also move the set pieces around the stage as they verbally set up the next scene. The music is not intrusive, but adds just the right touch at just the right moment. The accompaniment is pre-recorded.

Once again, the scenic design of UCD graduate John Klonowski (with complementary lighting by designer Victor En Yu Tan) effectively twists, turns, and rolls around the stage creating minimal settings, which nicely suggests the fuller settings they represent.

As the show begins, Davis student Camille Totah, now 13, whom we have watched grow up in local theatrical productions slowly walks across the stage as a young beggar child, singing “Advent Carol,” as she asks for a donation from the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge.

This year’s Ebenezer Scrooge is played by veteran actor David Silberman (Jacob Marley in last year’s production), who makes everyone’s favorite curmudgeon a believable character, without becoming a caricature.

Don Hayden steps into the chains of Jacob Marley, come to warn his old partner of the pain that will befall him if he does not change his ways. Marley sets up the visits of three spirits who will help him to look back over his life in the hope of helping him make some changes before it is too late.

I never have understood why Dickens writes that the spirits will come on three successive nights, when the first comes on Christmas eve and the last leaves before Christmas morning...or what Scrooge does on the days between, but that answer is long-buried with the author.

Michele Hillen is the ghost of Christmas present (and later Mrs. Cratchit), who guides Scrooge to the school he attended, and his first place of employment, happier times of his life before he became so centered on money. Cooper Salmon plays the youngest Scrooge, Brennan Villados is Ebenezer the apprentice, and Colby Salmon is -Ebenezer the young man.

Anna Miles makes a strikingly lovely entrance as Fan, Ebenezer’s sister come to bring him home from school. As Fan sings the beautiful “Home at Christmastide,” there is a brief softening of the present day Ebenezer’s heart as he remembers the young beggar child whom he shunned the day before.

Scrooge visits himself as a young apprentice to the ebullient Fezziwig (Mark Standriff, who appears later as the Ghost of Christmas Present), and as the young man whose burgeoning love of money forces a break-up with his beloved Belle (Lauryn Caruso, who later also plays Martha Cratchit, and still later Belle’s daughter). Mary Baird is the equally ebullient Mrs. Fezziwig in an amazing costume.

Standriff returns as the jovial Ghost of Christmas Present and accompanies Ebenezer to the home of his nephew (George Schau), a man of modest means whose heart seems full of love for everyone, even his miserly uncle.

At the home of his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit (the delightful Gillen Morrison) and his wife (Gillen) Ebenezer has another tug at his heartstrings as he watches the crippled Tiny Tim (6 year old Campbell Salmon, whose brother played the role last year). Others in the Cratchit family are Carey Porter reprising his role as Peter, Amanda Salmon as Belinda, Cooper Salmon as Edward, and Caruso as Martha.

Zack Sapunor has no words to speak as the Ghost of Christmas yet to come but makes the most of the opportunity to look menacing.

By the end of the story, of course, Scrooge has come to see the error of his ways, makes nice with his nephew, sends “Turkey Boy” (Christian Salmon) off to buy the biggest bird in town and have it delivered anonymously to the Cratchits and we realize that the dire scenes projected by the Ghost of Christmas yet to come will be altered, everybody will live happily ever after, and Tiny Tim will grow stronger and live to offer many more “God Bless us every one”s

As for Scrooge, “His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Weight of Memory

Each season, the UC Davis Theater and Dance Department's Dancing on the Edge series brings new work by contemporary choreographers to the local stage. This year, Granada Artist-in-Residence Ellen Bromberg and choreographer Della Davidson have collaborated to create “The Weight of Memory,” a provocative performance piece combining image, movement, and language.

Bromberg has been creating dances for solo artists and companies for over 30 years. Since 1996 she has been working at the intersection of live performance and media, creating her own works as well as collaborating with other choreographers. In 2005, she collaborated with Della Davidson and John Flax on “A Dream Inside Another,” based on “The Stories of Eva Luna” by Isabel Allende.

Based on ten short verses by writer Karen Brennan that describe one woman's changing inner state as she transitions from sleep to wakefulness, “The Weight of Memory” features seven dancers - one man (David Orzechowicz) and six women (Jennie Amaral, Ann Dragich, Adi Hamou, Meghan Moyle, Randee Pauvfe and Whitney Peterson) - who move through the fluctuating landscape of the woman's inner life. At times dynamic, at times tranquil and meditative, the dancers' movements within an ever-shifting environment of light, video, and sound create a "visual poem" informed by Brennan's acute attention to sensory detail and her ability to capture a moment in time and expand upon it.

The focal point of the work is a bed made of “memory foam,” (accentuating the theme of “memory”), and each of the ten segments (called “the 10 birds”) begins “When I woke up....” and deals with both the man in her bed and the birds which surround her (the reason for which is revealed at the end).

“When I woke up the man beside me rolled over, as was his custom. It was as if he were telling me to go back to sleep. Too many birds in the room, now they were beside me, flicking their feathers.”

This work is a tour de force for the audiovisual department, working with the concept and video design of Ellen Bromberg, scenic design of Victoria Livingston-Hall, and lighting design of Javan Johnson. Three large, irregularly shaped and angled panels define the performance area, described as a “deconstructed room with fluid walls,” and a multitude of projections set the stage for trees blowing in the breeze, birds flying in the air, or simply someone tossing about in bed. The blending of text and dance is indicated before the performance begins, when the text of the narration is projected, and moves across the panels.

Projections of trees rustling in the breeze begin the performance, so well incorporated into the whole that the audience can almost feel the breeze blowing through the theater.

One projection which impressed me was a simple one of a man lying in the bed, next to the live female dancer. Her body made impressions in the foam mattress as she moved, as did his, so that it was difficult to determine whether it was a real dancer or a projection, as the live and projected images blended seamlessly into each other.

“When I woke up it was green and frightening...the birds had arrived and they were insistent...” precedes the most impressive section of the work, a section which would have pleased Alfred Hitchcock, as the lead character is surrounded by birds projected from above and below.

“The Weight of Memory” blends memories, associations, and images together, in a multimedia extravaganza which creates a unique theatrical experience.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Peculiar & Sudden Nearness of the Moon

(This was printed in The Davis Enterprise on 11/22/06)

According to comments in the pre-show talk, by Kyle Haden, Velina Hasu Houston is the country’s most prolific playwright. Since 2000, she has had world premieres of six different plays and will premiere four new plays in 2006 and 2007.

One of her newest works, “The Peculiar and Sudden Nearness of the Moon,” directed by Peggy Shannon, opened this week at the Sacramento Theater company, where it will run through December 24. While it is out of the workshop stage, the cast is still in the process of tweaking it and a final script won’t be printed until this run ends.

Many of the multi-racial playwright’s works deal with various aspects of race and “Moon” takes it in an unusual direction.

Sydney Spencer (Saffron Henke) and her husband Brad (Brett Williams) are an upper middle class couple who have planned the perfect life. They have the perfect home, the perfect jobs, and are expecting the perfect baby.

As her pregnancy progresses, Sydney is visited by “The Dark,” (Kyle Haden) a ghost-like figure, speaking all in rhyme, who describes himself as a “fugitive from history” and warns of dark secrets about to be uncovered.

When the baby is born, she isn’t at all what Sydney and Brad expected. Her skin is dark, her hair is black and curly and, not surprisingly, the very Nordic, blonde Brad assumes Sydney has been having an affair.

The baby, who was born prematurely, has some minor health problems and most of the first act takes place in the neonatal intensive care unit, with the baby’s incubator dominating the stage.

As the play progresses Sydney begins to explore some of the deepest meanings of life as she deals with questions of identity and “belonging” in the context of race, culture and class.

Sydney turns to her mother Jessica (Susan Andrews) for answers about her own lineage, but the mother refuses to discuss her heritage, so Sydney is on her own, following clues that lead her to an enigmatic man named Sydney (Vincent Dee Miles), who directs the woman’s questions to a woman named Grace-Maria Marquez (Irene Velasquez).

There is a great difference in “feel” between Act 1 and Act 2. Act 1 has a more spiritual, ethereal aspect to it while Act 2 seems to center more on who knew what when and who is willing to be open and honest, and how everyone reacts to the truths that begin to come spilling out.

The show ends with a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” situation and though questions are answered, the audience is left hanging as to the outcome for the new baby and her family.

Director Shannon has assembled a strong cast. Henke nicely handles the fear for the safety of her unborn child when “Dark” begins to confront her, the confusion about the baby’s appearance, and the growing love she feels for her child.

Sydney’s husband perhaps goes through the greatest character shifts, from supportive husband, to angry cuckold, to a father who begins to recognize his own child, and Williams makes the character a sympathetic one.

Andrews handles the brittle Jessica adroitly. Haden is outstanding as the enigmatic “Dark.”

While the play addresses very real, valid emotions, the work as a whole doesn’t quite come together coherently. Given experience with Houston’s work in the past, I am certain that as the cast, director and playwright respond to audience reaction, the final product will be a valuable addition to Houston’s total body of work.

Beauty and the Beast

Is Mickey Mouse king of Broadway? If you look at the new musicals to hit the New York stage it may seem that way. After a successful run on Broadway, “The Lion King” has been touring the country for awhile now, “Tarzan” is still playing on Broadway, “Mary Poppins” just opened, a production of “The Little Mermaid” is expected to open soon, and “Beauty and the Beast” released the rights for community theater productions a couple of years ago.

It’s pointless to argue whether there is any “there” there for these productions (I often feel they are much better as cartoons). They are larger than life and if the music isn’t exactly on a par with Rodgers & Hammerstein, who cares? They’re just plain fun.

A Disney production is designed as a big stage extravaganza and yet Director Angela Shellhammer (who is also credited with Scenic Design, along with Jeff Kean) has managed to give her small Opera House production the appearance of a “big stage extravaganza” without making things look crowded.

A narrator (James Shellhammer) opens the show with the story of the beast's origins: An old beggar woman (Taryn Huber) asks a prince for shelter from the cold, though she has only a single rose to give him as payment. Being selfish and heartless, the prince refuses her, simply because she is ugly. The old woman warns him that true beauty is within one's heart, not one's appearance. To teach him a lesson, she transforms the prince into a hideous beast, gives him an enchanted rose, and tells him that "if he can learn to love another, and earn her love in return by the time the last petal falls, then the spell will be broken. If not, he will be doomed to remain a beast for all time."

Troy Thomas is perfectly cast as the beast. His height is a boon to the illusion of a towering hulk of a creature and he has a magnificent voice to match. He learns to tame his anger as his love for and tenderness toward his “Beauty” grows. His struggles with his complex emotions actually make his “beast” more appealing than the handsome prince he ultimately becomes, and it is easy to see why Belle was won over.

Buffee Ann Gillihan is Belle, the feisty heroine of the story, a girl who is “different” from her peers because she loves books and lives a rich fantasy life, dreaming of a better life and a happily ever after. When her father (Rodger McDonald), an eccentric inventor, becomes a captive of the Beast, Belle offers to take his place, and thus the story begins. Like Thomas, Gillihan is perfectly cast as the idealistic Belle whose heart is touched by the Beast she begins to tame.

Not only is the Beast a victim of the witch’s curse, but also his entire castle staff, who will slowly become tea cups, candles, items of furniture, and other household items.

Laurie Everly-Klassen must have found this either a costumer’s dream, or a costumer’s nightmare. Her costumes for the household staff are simply wonderful. The only slight criticism that one might make is that in other productions of this show, as time progresses, the costumes become more elaborate, indicating that the characters are closer to becoming the thing they represent. Lumiere, for example, is a candlestick and should become more candle-like as the show progresses. However, it is but a very slight criticism because one can hardly fault the costume designs.

The actors themselves are all top notch. Kevin Caravalho is Lumiere, a deliciously fussy maitre d’ who is in the process of becoming a French candlestick.

Cogsworth, the castle’s major domo is played by Jim Lane, who may perhaps be giving the best performance I have seen him give to date, in his transformation into a clock.

Jodi Serrano is delightful as Mrs. Potts, the teapot who sings the show’s title song. Her son Chip, a teacup, is the adorable Abby Miles.

Amy Vyvlecka is charming as Babette, the feather duster.

Scott Woodard is Gaston, the town’s nefarious hunk who has set his sights on Belle and is determined to marry her. Gaston’s good looks are exceeded only by his ego. Woodard is the villain you love to hate, and as male chauvenists go, none can hold a candle to this Gaston.

Gaston’s hapless lackey, LeFou, was the delightful Bobby Grainger, a character with little brains, who is routinely slapped around the stage by Gaston.

This is one of those happily-ever-after stories that will make little girls want to go out and kiss frogs to see if maybe there really is a prince trapped inside. It is highly recommended family entertainment.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Beauty and the Beast

(This review was printed in The Davis Enterprise on 11/21/06)

Is Mickey Mouse king of Broadway?

If you look at the new musicals to hit the New York stage it may seem that way. After a successful run on Broadway, “The Lion King” has been touring the country for awhile now, “Tarzan” is still playing on Broadway, “Mary Poppins” just opened, a production of “The Little Mermaid” is expected to open soon, and “Beauty and the Beast” released the rights for community theater productions a couple of years ago.

It’s pointless to argue whether there is any “there” there for these productions (I often feel they are much better as cartoons). They are larger than life and if the music isn’t exactly on a par with Rodgers & Hammerstein, who cares? They’re just plain fun.

A Disney production is designed as a big stage extravaganza and yet Director Angela Shellhammer (who is also credited with Scenic Design, along with Jeff Kean) has managed to give her small Opera House production the appearance of a “big stage extravaganza” without making things look crowded.

A narrator (James Shellhammer) opens the show with the story of the beast's origins: An old beggar woman (Taryn Huber) asks a prince for shelter from the cold, though she has only a single rose to give him as payment. Being selfish and heartless, the prince refuses her, simply because she is ugly. The old woman warns him that true beauty is within one's heart, not one's appearance. To teach him a lesson, she transforms the prince into a hideous beast, gives him an enchanted rose, and tells him that "if he can learn to love another, and earn her love in return by the time the last petal falls, then the spell will be broken. If not, he will be doomed to remain a beast for all time."

Troy Thomas is perfectly cast as the beast. His height is a boon to the illusion of a towering hulk of a creature and he has a magnificent voice to match. He learns to tame his anger as his love for and tenderness toward his “Beauty” grows. His struggles with his complex emotions actually make his “beast” more appealing than the handsome prince he ultimately becomes, and it is easy to see why Belle was won over.

Buffee Ann Gillihan is Belle, the feisty heroine of the story, a girl who is “different” from her peers because she loves books and lives a rich fantasy life, dreaming of a better life and a happily ever after. When her father (Rodger McDonald), an eccentric inventor, becomes a captive of the Beast, Belle offers to take his place, and thus the story begins. Like Thomas, Gillihan is perfectly cast as the idealistic Belle whose heart is touched by the Beast she begins to tame.

Not only is the Beast a victim of the witch’s curse, but also his entire castle staff, who will slowly become tea cups, candles, items of furniture, and other household items.

Laurie Everly-Klassen must have found this either a costumer’s dream, or a costumer’s nightmare. Her costumes for the household staff are simply wonderful. The only slight criticism that one might make is that in other productions of this show, as time progresses, the costumes become more elaborate, indicating that the characters are closer to becoming the thing they represent. Lumiere, for example, is a candlestick and should become more candle-like as the show progresses. However, it is but a very slight criticism because one can hardly fault the costume designs.

The actors themselves are all top notch. Kevin Caravalho is Lumiere, a deliciously fussy maitre d’ who is in the process of becoming a French candlestick.

Cogsworth, the castle’s major domo is played by Jim Lane, who may perhaps be giving the best performance I have seen him give to date, in his transformation into a clock.

Jodi Serrano is delightful as Mrs. Potts, the teapot who sings the show’s title song. Her son Chip, a teacup, is the adorable Abby Miles.

Amy Vyvlecka is charming as Babette, the feather duster.

Scott Woodard is Gaston, the town’s nefarious hunk who has set his sights on Belle and is determined to marry her. Gaston’s good looks are exceeded only by his ego. Woodard is the villain you love to hate, and as male chauvenists go, none can hold a candle to this Gaston.

Gaston’s hapless lackey, LeFou, was the delightful Bobby Grainger, a character with little brains, who is routinely slapped around the stage by Gaston.

This is one of those happily-ever-after stories that will make little girls want to go out and kiss frogs to see if maybe there really is a prince trapped inside. It is highly recommended family entertainment.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Probability Theories and

Where can you go and hear, in the same night recorded music by Beethoven, folk singer Cheryl Wheeler, and Weird Al Yankovic? Where else but at Pamela Trokanski’s Fall Concert, “Probability Theories and”

Choreographed by Trokanski, the recital examines the world of dating, not dating, breaking up, living alone, and finding love through an on-line dating service. The dancers are: Caitlin Barale, Nicole Bell, Robin Carlson, Ai Hayasi, Trokanski herself, and Katie Lundgren (whose name was left out of the program).

Section I sets up the premise, comparing “love” to “probability theory,” the mathematical study of phenomena characterized by randomness or uncertainty. Was there ever a human emotion which more aptly fit a mathematical theorem!

The dancers are dressed in scarlet red outfits and first appear seated on stools while a voiceover explains probability theory and the pain of love betrayed. A perfect introduction to the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, which is danced with military precision as the dancers portray the anger of a jilted lover and the pain of trying to recover, including attendance at a lively support group.

Cheryl Wheeler’s “Addicted” follows.

She says she feels like she's addicted to a real bad thing,
Always sitting, waiting, wondering if the phone will ring,
She knows she bounces like a yo-yo when he pulls her string,
It hurts to feel like such a fool.

A piece for three dancers followed, a strident number by experimental performing artist Laurie Anderson, which can only be described as exploring the “prickly” feelings of a love gone wrong.

Following numbers by Lyle Lovett and James Blunt (which features a solo performance by Trokanski), the section closes with a delightful “Love Stinks,” by the J. Geils Band, where the dancers prove that anything, even toilet plungers, can work as props.

Section II examines the premise of living without love and asks if a woman can find fulfillment living with cats, without having to shave her legs. The opening “Moonlight Sonata” presents the dancers perhaps emulating the cat, with long, slow, stretched out movement.

A later piece, the charming “4 legs good, 2 legs bad”(Christine Kane) which asks whether it’s better to have animals or a boyfriend, gives the dancers the opportunity for some real fun mimicking pets (my favorite was the shaking leg response to a scratched tummy).

“Coin Operated Boy” by Dresden Dolls explores the possibility of finding satisfaction, if not exactly love, with an animated doll. It is fun watching how the dancers move so effortlessly from the fluidity of motion of household pets to the metallic precision of a robotic human.

This section ends with Weird Al Yankovic’s “One More Minute,” which embodies the rage of a woman whose lover done her wrong.

I'd rather have my blood sucked out by leeches
Shove an icepick under a toenail or two
I'd rather clean all the bathrooms in Grand Central Station with my tongue
Than spend one more minute with you

Section III, the final in the recital, explores the world of on-line dating and comes with a confession by the choreographer of having done “extensive research” at

The section opens with the beautiful Adagio from Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 (the “Pathétique”) and reprises some of the choreography from earlier sections.

Cheryl Wheeler makes a return with her “Arrow,” wishing for another chance at love

Oh, I wish I could fall in love
Though it only leads to trouble, oh I know it does.
Still I'd fool myself and gladly just to feel I was
In love

It is a wistful number, beautifully danced.

The evening ends on a more strident note with music by Kate Bush, which finds the dancers balancing precariously on top of the stools they have carried onto the stage, hoping to open their arms to love, while at the same time conquering their fear of commitment.

This is a short (1 hour) recital with great variety in both music and dance and everyone should find something to enjoy in it. There are two more performances, tonight and Saturday night, both at 8 p.m. at the Pamela Trokanski Dance Workshop and Performing Arts Center.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


This was printed in The Davis Enterprise on 11/14/06

The thing that you have to admire about the Davis Musical Theater Company, which opened a production of "Oliver!" this weekend, is that everyone is so sincere and so dedicated. The new fountain in the lobby displays a panel of big money donors, with another panel to be installed soon. The walls of the theater are lined with ceramic tiles,"decorated by individuals supporters. A long-time subscriber who has been watching from the audience for years finally decided to get his feet wet in this production.

Company members work long, hard hours, whether on stage or behind the stage. Love for DMTC is evident everywhere.

Unfortunately, sometimes love just isn’t enough.

When you see a production of a beloved musical such as Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” and the outstanding performer is Mr. Bumble (Brian McCann), the pompous, self-important beadle (minor church official) for the workhouse where Oliver was born, there is a serious problem.

McCann is almost equally matched by the voluptuous Monique McKisson as Mrs. Corney, the matron of the workhouse who lets Mr. Bumble worm his way into her middle-aged heart. Their scene together, ending with “I shall scream” was outstanding, and truly the highlight of the evening.

The production is directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson, who needs to remember that sometimes less is more. The opening number, “Food, Glorious Food” featuring the orphan chorus waiting for their morning gruel, was so busy that you lost sight of what the song lyrics were. Every phrase had a corresponding action which, after awhile, began to look like a game of charades where the participants forgot they weren’t supposed to be speaking. This style, unfortunately, was repeated in most of the chorus numbers throughout the show.

Isaacson has done much better than this in previous shows and her choreography and blocking for this production were a disappointing surprise.

Blake Thomas was a winsome Oliver. While he lacks the oomph to really do a first class rendition of a song like “Where is Love?” he is so perfectly visually cast and is such a competent performer, that it didn’t seem to matter.

Steve Isaacson is reprising his all-time favorite role, Fagin, the manipulative old man who leads a group of homeless children and teaches them how to pick pockets and steal to survive. Isaacson is good, but not outstanding. His performance seems to lack the energy we’ve come to expect from him.

Jennifer Bonomo, as Nancy, the girlfriend of the villainous Bill Sikes (not Sykes, a common spelling error) who ultimately becomes Oliver’s protector, at her own peril, does a good job. She has a strong voice and is appropriately emotionally torn in the lovely “As long as he needs me,” where she describes why she remains with an abusive partner.

Two young girls in the chorus, Laura Sitts as the rose seller and Karina Summers as the milk seller have lovely voices and stand out, in their small roles, among the peddlers walking the streets.

Michael Elfant makes the most of his small role as Dr. Grimwig, called to Oliver’s bedside after he is rescued from the streets by his benefactor, Mr. Brownlow (Arnold Loveridge).

Danette Vassar, in a larger role than I have seen her in the past, does quite a good job as Mrs. Sowerberry, wife of the undertaker. (Vassar and McKisson switch roles in other performances, McKisson playing Mrs. Sowerberry and Vassar playing the Widow Corney.)

Others in the cast fall short of the mark, at the show’s detriment.

Steve Isaacson designed the set, which mostly works except for a projection on the back wall, meant to represent London. While such projections worked exceptionally well to represent a New York tenement in the recent “West Side Story,” this projection sticks out like a sore thumb because it is not only distractingly inaccurate as far as being anywhere near done to scale (Big Ben sitting right next to the dome of St. Paul’s with some sort of a pillar rising up between the two of them--we never did figure out what that was supposed to be), but it leaves most of the back wall totally blank. Also, with the cast constantly passing back and forth over the elevated bridge at the back, they had to walk right in front of the beam of light, so that the city of London was projected on the actors themselves. It would have been far better to eliminate the projection entirely.

I have a soft spot in my heart for “Oliver!” and was disappointed that this one just lacked that certain “something” to make it all work.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Sweet Charity

This appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 11/2/06

Charity Hope Valentine is a girl with an indomitable spirit who, though buffeted about by the vagaries of love, somehow manages to keep her head held high.

“Sweet Charity,” is the musical developed by Bob Fosse for his wife Gwen Verdon in 1966, brought to film in 1969 starring Shirley MacLaine, revived on Broadway in1986, starring Debbie Allen, and again in 2005 under the direction of Walter Bobbie, starring Christina Applegate. The show is now touring the country, directed by Scott Faris with new choreography by Wayne Cilento and former brat-packer Molly Ringwald, now all grown up, in the title role. The show opened last night at the Sacramento Community Center Theater, and runs through November 12.

Loosely based on Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” this entertaining musical has a book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, a winning combination any day.

As the show opens, Charity is waiting for Charlie (Adam Perry), the man she is certain is going to propose to her (forgetting that little business about his wife, of course). She fantasizes about the wonderful life they are going to have together, and is obviously not prepared for his pushing her into the lake and stealing her purse instead.

Charity returns to the Fandango Club, where she works as a taxi dancer, dancing with any man who can pay for the privilege, and she sings about how she is through with men and won’t let herself be taken advantage of again.

Now hear this and get this
Hold this and Amen
This big fat heart ain't gonna be joined apart
Ever, ever, ever again!

Naturally this is a vow she cannot keep and soon she finds herself swept off her feet by the Italian film star, Vittorio Vidal (Aaron Ramey), trying to make his mistress (Angel Reda) jealous. A night of dancing at the ritzy and rather bizarrely decorated Pompeii Club and Charity winds up back in Vidal’s apartment, where she can’t contain herself at the thought of being with the famous heartthrob (“If they could see me now”), but just as things are heating up, the mistress arrives at the door and Charity is thrust into the closet to keep her out of sight. This gives Ringwald the opportunity to do some very funny physical comedy.

Determined to do better for herself, Charity attempts to take a class at the local YMCA and ends up stuck in an elevator for a long time with Oscar Lindquist (Guy Adkins), a shy, claustrophobic accountant trying to get to a class about self esteem. The elevator scene is one of the best in the show, with a box that moves upwards off of the stage. Adkins does some amazing gymnastics, as his claustrophobia worsens.

The two are rescued at the start of Act 2 and Oscar invites Charity to his Rhythm of Life church, a scene which seems quite dated and perhaps a throwback to the psychedellic 60s, as “Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck” (David Gilespie), with a huge Afro, sings “The Rhythm of Life.”

Oscar seems to be the man Charity has been waiting for all of her life, especially after she confesses what she does for a living and he tells her he doesn’t care, and that he wants to marry her anyway, but ultimately her past becomes too much for Oscar to accept and Charity finds herself back in the lake again, her hopes--and her body--doused once more.

Like Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, however, Charity won’t let it get her down and her final exit is a triumph of her spirit over her disappointment.

Ringwald has a winning earnestness about her which surpasses her limited dancing abilities. You can’t help liking her Charity. She has been sabotaged, however, by the costumer (William Ivy Long). While the dress she is wearing in the publicity photos is lovely and seems perfect for the role, she is instead saddled with a triangular shaped dress which makes her look bottom-heavy, and its red color seems to clash with just about everything, making her the odd man out in every scene.

Cilento’s choreography doesn’t have the sizzle of Bob Fosse, but there are excellent numbers, such as the taxi girls’ “Hey, Big Spender” and “There’s got to be something better than this,” a special for Charity’s friends Nickie (Amanda Watkins) and Helene (Kisha Howard).

“Sweet Charity” is an enjoyable evening, not without its flaws, but one which is entertaining and which answers the question “Whatever happened to Molly Ringwald...?”

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Boy Gets Girl

This review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 10/17/2006

It’s becoming more popular these days: blind dates. You can meet a potential mate through a dating services like e-Harmony, or check out an ad on MySpace or Craig’s list. The embarrassment of meeting a total stranger for the purpose of possibly finding a soulmate seems to be dissipating. But you always run a risk when going through an uninvolved third party. How much safer it would be to meet someone through a friend.

Theresa Bedell (Stephanie Gularte), an overworked writer whose last date was 15 months ago when her boyfriend left to go to Kuala Lumpur (“he didn’t ask me to go with him”) agrees to meet Tony (David Campfield) for drinks, on the suggestion of a mutual friend, in a Capital Stage production of “Boy Gets Girl”by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Jonathan Williams and playing now on the Delta King.

While both graduated from the University of Michigan, the similarities end there. Theresa has a quick, dry wit, loves sports, and is well read, while Joe’s level of intelligence seems to stop with People magazine. As the two make awkward conversation, one begins to get the notion that this is a Neil Simon-esque comedy.

Though things don’t click instantly, Theresa likes Joe enough to agree to a second date, for dinner, “in a few days.”

Joe, however, is not one to wait. Flowers arrive at Theresa’s office at World Magazine the next day and he calls to set the date that night. The two meet again and the disconnect between them is more apparent than before. Theresa decides to be honest, to let Joe know that it just isn’t working for her, and she leaves the restaurant.

That’s when her personal hell begins.

At first it is just annoying--flowers each day, each with a note hoping for another chance, then constant phone calls. Joe shows up at her office to invite her to lunch, clearly not taking no for an answer. She stops taking phone calls and he fills her phone message box with messages, each more angry than the next. As the level of threats escalates, the police are called in and Theresa finds out how powerless she is against her stalker. Detective Madeleine Beck (Tamara Walters) explains that her best bet is to change to an unlisted phone number, move out of her apartment, and change her name. All the police can offer her is a restraining order, with no guarantees that (a) they can find Joe to deliver it, or (b) that he will actually follow it.

As the play progresses to a conclusion which may or may not be logical, Theresa becomes increasingly incapacitated by Joe’s threats and actions and so this play, which has very funny moments, becomes an examination of what constitutes sexual harassment, what effect it has on its victims, and on the relations between men and women in the workplace.

Theresa receives tremendous support from her boss Howard Siegel (Peter Mohrmann) and co-worker Mercer Stevens (Harry Harris), but as the play progresses we discover first, how lightly the men initially take her complaints. In a very funny, yet very telling scene between the two men, they discuss how they view women, and the happily married Mercer even admits to having lustful thoughts toward Theresa.

There is also little sympathy coming from Theresa’s young assistant, Harriet, Michelle Murphy, who feels Theresa is just playing hard to get and aids Joe in wooing her.

At the same time, Theresa is sent to interview legendary porn director, Les Kennkat (Patrick Murphy) whose lecherous views about women leave little to the imagination, though he and Theresa strike up an unlikely friendship.

The play draws no real conclusions about where one draws the line between the relations between men and women and when it steps over the line and seems to leave that decision up to the audience, but you can’t help but feel that whether or not there has been any actual physical contact, Theresa is raped by the system and society over and over again and the play should lead to discussions about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior.

It also shows how people who may have a close working relationship with one another really know very little about each other, and how that may contribute to the underlying strain between the sexes. Theresa, for example, who has worked with Mercer for many years, had no idea he was happily married.

Capitol Stage has another feather in its capand continues to do what it does best--bring thought-provoking entertainment to the Sacramento area with a provocative play, a first-rate cast, and excellent direction.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Myth, Propaganda and Disaster (feature article)

“Remember, it’s about sex...and a bit about art,” laughed Jade McCutcheon, directing a scene from the upcoming “Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America,” by Stephen Sewell, opening at the Mondavi Center Studio on October 27. The characters are at a reception at the Guggenheim Museum and the air is filled with intrigue and sexual tension.

Billed as a “political thriller from Down Under,” “Myth” presents a compelling and disturbing view of the creeping erosion of democratic rights under the current U.S. administration and draws parallels to Germany as Hitler came to power.

Others have had difficulty with Sewell’s controversial play. Despite a successful run at theatres in Melbourne and Adelaide, no theater in Sydney would touch it. “I am being blocked, have been for some time,” claimed Sewell, “because I don't fit into their agendas, which is to reinforce their audience's beliefs.”

“In Australia, Stephen Sewell is on the political edge,” said McCutcheon. “This play represents only one view – an extreme one perhaps – of the events of 9/11 and subsequent reactions, but it’s important for all of us to step outside our comfort zone sometimes and see how another culture views us.”

This production is only the second in the United States, the first being in Reno in March of this year.

Edward Snyder, playing the central character of Talbot Finch, an Australian expatriate living in the United States, first heard that UC Davis would be presenting the play in March, when he interviewed with McCutcheon for admission as an MFA acting student. He asked her to send him a script. “When I first read this play, I thought it was terrible,” he said. Snyder explained that based on Sewell’s introduction to the play (that it was a response to what he considered the evils of the Bush administration), he expected it to be an indictment of the administration and, by association, the British and Australian governments. “I expected it to tell people ‘this is what you’re supposed to do, to know, to think,’” Snyder said.

He was disappointed when he found the play seemed to do none of those things, but as he worked with McCutcheon he began to understand the play’s power and what Sewell hoped the audience reaction would be.

“Jade re-framed, for me, what the purpose and intention of the play really are. She talked about upholding ambiguities in the play. If we are successful, the audience won’t leave the theater knowing exactly what to think, whom to indict, or how to behave. They will leave asking a lot of questions about what is true and what is real and what their place in reality is in relationship to what is going on with the U.S., British, and Australian governments, what is going on in the world, and in the war on terror.”

To successfully present this play, the cast had a lot of work to do, beyond the memorization of lines. For starters, there was all that history to absorb.

“The joy of directing in a university compared to when I was professionally directing is the permission to educate,” explained McCutcheon. “It becomes a learning tool. The cast had to research information about the Nazi holocaust, and study all the speeches that all the great leaders made, because that’s what Sewell is trying to do in the play, present a comparison of one dictator to another and how madness begins. It’s richer than a history course because the actors are embodying the knowledge. They aren’t just memorizing facts. They have to play a character and be influenced by that information.”

Snyder took immersion in his character very seriously. Professor Talbot is particularly interested in Nazi Germany and contemporary America. Snyder read Noam Chomsky and “The Rise and fall of 3rd Reich.” He studied the 9/11 report and Patriot Act. “Finding out what these things are all about and has been incredibly eye-opening and has transformed me as a person,” he said. “It has allowed me not only to do a better job as an actor, but I now have a better knowledge of what is going on in the world.”

Mary Anderson, playing Talbot’s wife, even did research on the neurobiological effects of torture, so she could understand what might be the effect on a man following a brutal interrogation.

“If Talbot is being tortured, whether it’s real or imagined (because there is that ambiguity in the play), we can actually imagine physically and physiologically what is happening to him.”

Such in-depth analysis of a character is integral to the way McCutcheon approaches the direction of a play.

Jade McCutcheon is perhaps the most interesting person I have ever had the pleasure of interviewing. This Australian-born director has lived a number of lives, with careers which include social worker in the slums of Melbourne (“I was knifed, I was beat up, I was spat upon”), Olympic gymnastic teacher, musician, car mechanic, barmaid, award-winning slalom canoeist, factory worker, and disc jockey. But she found her life’s calling in a pub in Adelaide when she met a group of traveling actors from Holland.

“They looked like they were from another planet, but guess what? My home planet! I had never seen theater in my life. They gave me tickets to Salome and they were brilliant. I nearly fell off my seat.”

By serendipitous coincidence, the group had just lost its stage manager and the actors encouraged McCutcheon to apply for the job. With no theater experience whatsoever, she interviewed with the company manager and within two weeks was packing her bags for what would ultimately be a two-year stint traveling around the world with the International Theater Research Group, an experience she describes as “profound.”

When she left the group after two years, she assumed that was the end of her theater life, so she took up a new career. “I joined a women’s healing center and I got into crystals, aromatherapy, and sound healing.”

She worked at this for a year and a half, but something was still missing, so she enrolled in an arts program at Wollongong University, where she majored in poetry, creative writing and theater. It was there that a play she directed won several awards, toured Australia, and led to her invitation to join N.I.D.A. (The National Institute of Dramatic Arts, which has produced such names as Mel Gibson, Judy Davis, and Cate Blanchett).

She emerged from the program as a freelance director, but after a year and a half found she was still dissatisfied. She had a burning desire to make a difference in the world, and that wasn’t happening.

“I thought-- this is just regurgitating the same old wasn’t going to help change anything. All this was was climbing up the star ladder, playing games with people.”

Instead she took a year off and, as she describes it, “ went to a rain forest and stared at my navel for a long time. Then I started doing the kind of theater I really wanted to do.”

The theater she really wanted to do included an innovative approach to character development, based on her interest in the traditions of Shamanism. “I focused my doctorate on re-languaging the permission for actors go into those places where no one dares to tread to actually start to build their inner self.”

McCutcheon is, in fact, in the process of writing a book about her work. “I’m using a process which uses body energy centers based on chakras to actually discover the character,” she explained. “I want people to feel a shamanic permission to engage with the earth and its forces. To listen in other ways. To consider we are all part of the one.”

“It’s working with your root, working with your belly, with you solar, chest, mind and crown,”said actress Alice Vasquez, playing the wife of the head of Talbot’s department. “It’s focusing on that part of your body and what it looks like to deliver a line, for example, from your belly, which is something more sensual, than if you’re giving it from your mind which is something that’s very straightforward or from your solar, which is more honest and direct.”

Mary Anderson adds, “we spend at least an hour, sometimes more, warming up every day. In order to kind of maintain a physical connection to each of those body energy center areas it’s really important for me to keep reminding my body what that feels like.”

The attention to body energy explained the electricity I experienced when I attended a rehearsal for “Myth.” Never have I seen a cast so focused, whether they were rehearsing or waiting. Anderson was doing push-ups against a wall, shaking her arms, and touching the parts of her body from which her next lines would come. The actress feels a more emotional connection to her character because of the extra imaginative work.

She explains that the actors take 30-40 minutes a day to lie down in a relaxed state and take a meditative journey to meet their characters in their lives. “We’ll walk around their apartments, they’ll cook us food and so I feel that we have a more textured relationship with our characters.”

This approach to character development and the collaborative work that McCutcheon and her cast are doing allows each character to react to each situation from a real place of familiarity, rather than from a strict set of staging guidelines, but Synder is careful to add that this freedom to make choices is set up under a set of very specific tools for the actors to work with. “As the process goes further along, Jade lays in more and more structure within which all of that play and freedom can occur.”

“Jade really loves to see the organic part of the process,” explains Vasquez. “Instead of setting specific actions for specific lines, she likes to see how things can change from time to time. She gives us options, and from there we’re able to analyze and realize the different dimensions of the specific line.”

“I’m allowed a lot of freedom and a lot of fun,” Snyder says “It blasts wide open possibilities that I can have within a role but it’s also an incredible challenge because I’m responsible for holding all of those possibilities, not just choosing a very narrow set of physical and vocal and intentional choices, but really upholding the full complexity and full range of each of those choices.”

Based on my discussions with McCutcheon and attendance at rehearsals, I feel the audience is in for an extraordinary night of theater, one which will challenge some beliefs, which may be slightly offensive (“The language may be seen as offensive to some. It’s really for mature audiences. There’s no graphic sex but there is violence and language,” warns McCutcheon), but which should definitely accomplish the director’s goal of “feeding the audience a great meal” and leaving them with a lot of questions, the answers to which will undoubtedly differ from person to person.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

To Kill a Mockingbird

This review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 10/11/06.

In 1960, Harper Lee published a book called “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It was an instant hit and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961. In 1962, a film directed by Alan J. Pakula won an Academy award for Gregory Peck, in a role which has become legendary, that of Atticus Finch, the quiet attorney from the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, who defends Tom Robinson, a local Black man, who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman.

In 1970 Christopher Sergel turned the story of that memorable summer in Maycomb into a stage play, and it is the tremendous good fortune for local audiences that the Sacramento Theater Company has decided to present Sergel’s adaptation as the opening show of the company’s 65th season.

Directed by Philip Charles Sneed, this production is first class from the moment the audience enters the theater and sees the beautiful set, designed by Troy Hemmerling and artfully lit by lighting designer Pamila Z. Gray, who uses subtle sky/cloud effects to mark the passage of time. The effect of a sleepy Alabama street is perfected by the amazing tree, built by sculptor Mitchell J.P. Martinez

The world never seems as fresh and wonderful, comforting and terrifying, as good and evil as it does when seen through the eyes of a child, and through the memory of the adult Jean Louise Finch, the girl who used to be called “Scout” (Carolyn Howarth), we are transported back to 1935 and the events of that memorable summer, as seen through the eyes of the young Scout (Paige Silvester) and her older brother Jem (Brennan Villados).

Silvester and Villados are considerably older than the 6 year old Scout and 8 year old Jem of the book (Villados is actually in college, though his youthful appearance works for this role), yet the two seasoned young actors are able to bring all the innocence and wonder that is expected to the roles.

As their new friend, Dill, who arrives in Maycomb for the summer, Jake Murphy is outstanding.

(All three children’s roles are double cast)

Taking on the role of Atticus Finch, one of the more recognizable figures in movie history, is a difficult one, yet Mark Standriff handles it beautifully. He is the wise father, teaching his children through his gentleness, yet resolute in standing up for his principles. (It is unfortunate that the material costumer Clare Henkel chose for his suit wrinkles so badly that when giving his impassioned speech to the jury, his pants looked like they’d been wadded up in the laundry bag).

Matt K. Miller is deliciously sleazy as the white trash Bob Ewell, insisting on retribution for the violation of his daughter Mayella (Katie Rubin), when it is clear to everyone that Mayella’s violation has been at Ewell’s own hands. (Miller also appears briefly as Mr. Radley.)

Rubin herself has few lines, but is the central figure of the Act 2 trial and her sullen demeanor leaves no doubt about what this poor girl’s home life is like. Rubin is a talented actress and she makes the most of her smaller speaking role.

Jamal Kelly is the gentle Tom Robinson, the defendant in this infamous trial, finding himself in an impossible situation, with clearly little doubt about his future in this southern town where feelings against the black community run high.

George Schau plays the mysterious Arthur (Boo) Radley, the Finches’ next door neighbor who never leaves his house, and who is the “boogie man” in the lives of the children. (“He eats raw squirrels and all the cats he can catch. There's a long, jagged scar that runs all the way across his face. His teeth are yella and rotten. His eyes are popped. And he drools most of the time.”). Schau also appears earlier in the play as Walter Cunningham, a client of Atticus with his own apparent deep hatred for the black community.

Linda Goodrich is Calpurnia, the Finches’ maid, who fills the disciplining role of the children’s late mother.

Others in this superlative cast include Georgann Wallace as the grumpy neighbor, Mrs. DuBose, Dan Harlan as Judge Taylor, David Silberman as Heck Tate, Wayne Cook as the Reverend Sykes, and Miles Miniaci as Mr. Gilmer.

This is a professional production in every sense of the word. It is a visual delight, the cast is top notch and for anyone who loved the movie, or for those who are not familiar with the movie, this play is a must-see.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Beijing Opera

The following review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 10/5/06

For two more nights only there is the rare opportunity to see the first world tour of the Shanghai School of Chinese Opera at the Wyatt Pavilion.

The 13-person performing troupe is visiting the campus through an exchange program between the Department of Theater and Dance and the Shanghai Theater Academy and will perform “The Colorful Essence of Beijing Opera,” which features extracts from five famous operas, “Farewell, My Concubine,” “Golden Monkeys Welcoming the Arrival of Spring,” “Madam Mu Guiying Becomes a General,” and “Yang Yuhuan Gets Drunk.”

In the Western World, we have a good idea of what to expect when we attend an opera. Leave those expectations at home as you enter the theater. Chinese traditional opera is a comprehensive performing art which combines singing, music, dialogue, acrobatics, martial arts, and pantomime. It is one of the three oldest dramatic art forms in the world and dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It represents the culmination and distillation of two thousand years of Chinese civilization.

Though it evolved from folk songs, dances, talking, and distinctive dialectic music, it is unlikely that most people in the audience will be rushing to buy a copy of music from Chinese opera to relax to some evening, as the sound is quite harsh to a western ear and in places may resemble a catfight.

(For this performance, the group uses recorded music (unfortunate in a couple of pieces where the sound system was rather mushy), primarily because of the expense of traveling with a band. The performers mouth the recorded words, though the recordings are of the actual performers themselves.)

But the music is only a small part of what Beijing Opera has to offer. (The term “Beijing Opera,” by the way, does not necessarily mean that it comes from Beijing. There are several types of Chinese Opera, and Beijing Opera has come to be regarded as the national form.)

The appeal of this performance starts with the large posters which line the walls of the Wyatt Pavilion. Next are the colorful, ornate costumes and the detailed make-up. Exaggerated designs are painted on each person’s face to symbolize the character’s personality, role, and fate. Generally, a red face represents loyalty and bravery; a black face, valor; yellow and white faces, duplicity; and golden and silver faces, mystery.

Finally, the actual movement itself, which can be almost balletic in its grace and beauty, as in “Tian Nv Scattering the Flower,” where Buddha has arranged for Tiam Nv (Sun Li) to scatter flowers for an unnamed ceremony. The costume for this piece includes two very long multi colored pieces of cloth which trail behind the actress and which she spins and snaps and twirls to represent the scattering of the flowers. It was my personal favorite piece of the evening.

At the opposite end of the spectrum would be “The Crossroads,” set in an inn at night. Though performed in full light, supposedly the characters (Ji Yongxin as Ren Tanghui and Li Mingyang as Lin Lihua) are in the dark as they perform a very complicated martial arts dance as they grope their way around the room trying to find the enemy who is supposedly lurking there.

There are 9 numbers in all (no intermission), each introduced in Chinese by Shang Changrong, the Chairman of the Chinese Theater Artist Association, and translated by a woman who struggled so with English that she was almost as difficult to understand as Mr. Changrong.

Some highlights included “Yang Yuhuan Gets Drunk” with Shen Yilang in the title role wearing the most ornate costume of the evening; and “Reed Marsh,” with Kan Xin as Zhang Fei, wearing black makeup round his upper face and still managing to make the best expressions with his eyes. “He is very good at kicking,” the translator told the audience, upon which Fei proved her right with some amazing high kicks.

My companion liked the opening number, “Golden Monkeys Welcoming the Arrival of Spring,” with bright yellow costumes, snapping and waving flags, an impossibly long set of feathers on the headdress of Zhang Shanyuan as Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, and acrobatics that would rival that of any Olympic athlete.

Several of the performers were only 13 years old and their precision, athleticism, and professional demeanor is a great testament to the school’s teaching.

In a full-length opera there would be more scenery, more people on stage, and live music, but for most of us, this may be the closest we’ll get to a full-length performance. It’s well worth the experience and at only and hour and 45 minutes, it’s a short evening, but you definitely won’t feel shortchanged.

On Friday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., the community is invited to a free costume and make-up application demonstration at Wyatt Pavilion.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Fiddler on the Roof

The following review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 10/4/06

The world is changing for the milkman Tevye (Jeff Nauer). Social mores are changing. Daughters are now falling in love instead of waiting for a match to be made for them. Pogroms and expulsions of Jews are occurring in the surrounding towns and it’s only a matter of time until the Tsar’s iron fist descends on Tevye’s little community of Anatevka. Tevye equates life in these unsettled times with being like a "fiddler on a roof,” trying to scratch out a simple, pleasant tune without breaking his neck.

"Fiddler on the Roof," currently at the Woodland Opera House, is the perennial favorite based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, directed by Jeff Kean (who also designed the scenery). This is a story is about change ... the changing relationships between parents and children, the changing political scene, the change in ... tradition.

Director Kean is fortunate to have a group of principals with experience and excellent singing voices.

Outstanding among them are Tevye’s three daughters, Bethany Pedersen as Tzeitel (she also plays the spirit of Grandma Tzeitel), Julia Mosby as Hodel, and Monika Joyce Neal as Chava. Each give superb performances. Their trio “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” is a delight, and they have sensitive interactions with their father.

Nauer is an engaging Tevye with a big voice and a sincere characterization which was a real crowd pleaser. He accepts his lot in life, but constantly tries to convince God that it wouldn’t spoil him if he were to have just a bit less strife and a bit more wealth (“If I were a rich man”).

Nancy Agee is Tevye’s wife of 25 years, Golde, who knows the way to make a proper home, a quiet home, a kosher home, and who seems surprised, when asked the question (“Do you love me?”), to discover that yes, she really does love Tevye, a thought which had never occurred to her before.

At 20, Joelle Lorin Wirth is a bit young to be playing Yente, the matchmaker, but with the help of make up and black garb she seems to pull it off, though at times it seemed more of a caricature than a believable character.

Clocky McDowell is making his Woodland Opera House debut in the role of Motel the Tailor, but he is not new to either the show or to the role, having played it previously at Runaway Stage Productions. There is an earnestness and a sincerity in his portrayal of this poor young man asking for Tzeitel’s hand in marriage.

Scott Woodward’s fervor for political causes was palpable in his role as Perchick, the student from Kiev who offers to teach Tevye’s daughters and ends up marrying Hodel.

The character of Feydka is described as “a literate Russian,” and Kyle Hadley adds an element of sweetness which appeals to young Chava, who shares his love of literature and, ultimately, falls in love with the soldier as well, the one sin her father finds unforgivable.

Costumes for this production are by Laurie Everly-Klassen and suitably depict the life of poor peasants in a small shtetl in Russia, so it is surprising that Tzeitel’s wedding dress, with its lace trim and netting and jeweled veil seems so out of place. Is this really what a young bride from a poor family would wear on her wedding day?

Eva Sarry’s choreography was enjoyable and the traditional “bottle dance” at Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding was the expected knockout.

Erik Daniells is musical director for this production. The choral work was particularly lovely, especially for the Sabbath dinner, with the entire cast, holding lighted candles, distributed along the stage, and in the audience, including the balcony. This is always such a moving scene and does not disappoint.

Program bios are generally forgettable, but given the tenor of the times in which we live, the bio for Micail W. Buse (who plays the Rabbi in this production) sums up the production beautifully: “The oppression shown in this show still goes on: in Sudan, Palestine, and on virtually every continent on the Globe. I ...hope that all people will live in harmony, without regard to race, religion or ethnicity.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” continues at the Opera House through October 29 and patrons should be advised that evening performances now start at 7:30, instead of the usual 8 p.m.

Monday, October 02, 2006

This entry brought to you by....

I received a request from someone who read my Wizard of Oz review and wanted to know if I'd be willing to review his videos, Me, Eloise and Eloise Little Miss Christmas. Unfortunately, I don't do movie reviews--I have no choice in the kinds of things I review, as it is an assignment by the newspaper (and my boss is the movie reviewer!). But the video excerpt on the web site looked cute, so I thought I might be able to help the video by posting that video here. So enjoy, and if it looks good to you, check out the web site yourself!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Movin' Out

With the California Musical Theatre’s Wednesday night premiere of the 2006-2007 Broadway Series, the Sacramento Community Center played host to the 1,000th performance of the “Movin’ Out” national tour, which premiered on January 27, 2004 in Detroit.

“Movin’ Out” is really a dance show with “strong musical content,” rather than a traditional musical. But there is choreography by the legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp to 22 songs of rock and roll legend, Billy Joel, loosely woven into a flimsy plot line to give the show logical progression from A to Z. It’s a short show. Even with a back-up in the parking lot, you’ll be back in Davis by 10:30 p.m.

Joel had been asked many times for permission to translate his songs to the stage, but had always refused until the call from Tharp. Whatever Twyla wants, Twyla gets. The two legends discovered that they shared a sharp eye for presenting stories in new and unique ways. Tharp felt that Joel’s songs were filled with emotional stories and specific characters that could be the basis for a compelling story. The show opened at the Richard Rogers Theater in New York on October 24, 2002 and played 1,037 performances before closing in December of 2005.

The massive yet minimal set by Santo Loquasto puts the “piano man” at the top back of the stage, along with a 10 piece band, while the action takes place below on the stage floor. Donald Holder’s lighting design plays a major role in creating mood and putting on a spectacular lighting show.

Darren Holden, the “piano man” sings the lyrics (if you’re not a Joel fan, it might be nice to get a C.D. or two and read some of the lyrics, because the lyrics are difficult to decipher) and has such nimble fingers that in the opening number of Act 2, “Invention in C Minor,” your eyes are drawn to the piano rather than to the dance that is going on on stage.

What little plot there is deals with a group of six high school friends and follows them from their senior prom until many years later in their lives. It covers loves lost and found, as well as sex. drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The guys go off to fight in Vietnam and one of them is killed. Those who come home have a difficult time adjusting, but ultimately it all ends happily at a high school reunion, with rekindled hope, love and friendship.

Eddie, the “bad boy,” the loner, the guy with all the problems, is danced by Brendan King, though if the audience thought he looked a bit different after he got off drugs and cleaned up a bit in Act 2, that’s because King was replaced by Lawrence Rabson for the last quarter of the show.
Eddie’s two buddies are James, danced in this performance by Sean Maurice Kelly, and Tony (David Gomez). The men (and all the dancers in the ensemble) are amazingly athletic (watch Eddie doing one-handed push-ups!) and yet do a lovely old-fashioned dance, tongue in cheek, to “Waltz #1 (Nunley’s Invention)” prior to their induction into the military and subsequent tour in Vietnam, where James is killed.

Holly Cruikshank plays Brenda, a femme fatale who is dating Eddie in high school but then finds herself drawn to Tony as the group begins to grow older and start their adult lives. Cruikshank has impossibly long legs and is at her seductive best in “Uptown Girl” and shines in her solo, “Air (Dublinesque)”

Laura Feig is Judy, the “sweet one” (the sweet ones always wear white gloves). She and James are engaged at the start of the show and her heartbreak following his death was beautifully portrayed in the first act finale.

Leave your thinking caps at home for this one, but bring some shoes that will allow you to tap your feet, because you’ll be doing that throughout. This is a visual spectacle, a choreographic triumph and just a darn fun evening for fans of either Billy Joel’s music, or great dancing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

West Side Story

Every chorus of male dancers should have Robert Coverdell at the head of the line. Coverdell, who plays Riff in “West Side Story,” the first production of the Davis Musical Theater Company’s 22nd season, was born to dance. He has a tall lanky body that moves with a fluid motion and he makes everybody look good (and some of those guys behind him were definitely not born to dance, but give it the ol’ college try).

“West Side Story,” directed by Steve Isaacson (who is also credited with musical direction) and choreographed by Dian Hoel is a continuous roller coasters of highs and lows. Just when the energy lags and someone can’t quite get the pitch right, along comes a number like “Officer Krupke,” the outstanding number from this production, where everybody – Henry Holloway, Andy Hyum, Ryan Warren, Alex Poe, and Edward Nelson – is right on the money ... and Nelson, as Big Deal, does amazing leaps and somersaults. This number has the sizzle that should be found in all the dance numbers, and sadly is not.

The show is a little difficult to review, with no musical numbers listed in the program (and hence no way to identify minor characters singing solos), and no biographies for the actors, but it appears that there are a lot of new names to the company in the cast..

“West Side Story,”is the classic musical with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, which debuted on Broadway in 1957 and set a musical style which moved musical theater in a whole new direction.

It is, of course, the Romeo and Juliet story, modernized and set on the mean streets of New York. Teri Kanefield is credited as “Scenic Artist,” and I’m not sure if that means she was responsible for the look of the entire show, but the opening bare stage was nicely designed with a brick wall at the back, and projected lights to hint at the fire escapes of tenement buildings. The upper level apartment balcony for Maria’s bedroom was perfect.

I wondered how it was going to go when I saw that there were only four people in the orchestra (Jonathan Rothman on piano, Isaacson on drums, Chris Weisker on oboe and Vicki Davis on bass), but somehow the orchestral arrangement was so well done that you almost didn’t miss the full orchestra for which Leonard Bernstein wrote the score.

The story revolves around the running feud between the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and the Jets (the native born Americans). Some of the material (particularly the barely censored language, such as “Gee, Officer Krupke--krup you” and “when the spit hits the fan”) seems a bit dated, but the hatred between gangs is, sadly, even more relevant today.

Colby Salmon in the role of Tony obviously has a very good voice and good stage presence, but had breath and pacing problems in his opening number. He appeared to grow in confidence as the evening progressed. He is a strong actor and worked well with Chelsea Baldree, as Maria.

Baldree, too, could use a bit more oomph when singing in her lower register but was a sensitive Maria, the innocent young girl newly arrived from Puerto Rico to marry her brother’s friend Chino (Nick Peters). Over the course of two hours, she learns how to hate, and Baldree makes the transition from innocent girl to angry girl nicely.

Bernardo, the head of the Sharks, is played by Davis Ott who, like Coverdell, presents a wonderful dancing figure and very believably portrays the leader of a Latino gang.

Amanda Morish is outstanding as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend who seems to spend most of the first act doing deep backbends as Bernardo continually sweeps her off her feet. She has fun with “America,” comparing the positives about this country with the negatives in Puerto Rico, and she is also able to bring out the rage of a woman who has just lost the love of her life in “A Boy Like That.”

Kayla Sheehan has the minor role of Rosalia, who argues with Anita about the pros and cons of Puerto Rico vs. the United States. She gives a solid performance throughout the production.

This is a big show for a small company and DMTC handles it adequately, though not outstandingly. I suspect that as opening night jitters fade with the principals, we will see more of the polished performances which are hinted at here, and as the entire cast settles into the run, there will be more precision to the dance numbers. All the elements are there and with a bit more energy this could be a good production.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Best of Broadway

Ask any theater goer to list the top ten Broadway shows and you’ll probably get things like "Oklahoma!" "Music Man," or "Sound of Music." It is unlikely that you’ll find "Martin Guerre," or the "Tonight’s the Night," the compilation musical, based on the songs of Rod Stewart (and described by one reviewer as "...starts in Hell and sadly doesn’t get any better.")

So one questions whether "Musical Mystique," the 34th annual "Best of Broadway" musical revue, now at the Luther Burbank Theater in Sacramento through September 24, is actually the best of Broadway, but there is no denying the sincerity of the participants, or the hard work and love that goes into this production. (There are nearly 100 names in the program listed as ushers alone, and 30 listed for the concession stand.)

Best of Broadway was conceived by David L. MacDonald in 1973 as a way to raise money for a local boys’ home, and has grown to become one of the largest non-profit, volunteer community shows in Northern California. The cast consists of over 150 singers, dancers, gymnasts and musicians, ranging in age from 7 to 70, who are chosen from open auditions. Many alumni of Best of Broadway have gone on to actually perform on Broadway.

While there are a few weak spots in the current production -- an inconsistent sound system that was too loud for some and not loud enough for others, and some performers who really shouldn’t have been given solos -- the strengths in this production more than compensated for its shortcomings.

David L. MacDonald is the producer director of this revue, with musical direction by Dan Pool and adult choreography by Diana Ruslin and Terri Taylor-Solorio, with Kat Bahry heading up the choreography for the children’s ensemble, numbering some 50 children. Bahry, along with children’s choral director Enrique Ruiz did a fabulous job with the children, some of whom were obviously born to perform.

Marji DuBois, Jim Crogan and Corey Rickrode are credited with choral direction for the adult ensemble and did an excellent job.

Special mention must also be made of the sign language interpreters. Cristie Pell is the chief interpreter and I have marveled at her work, now, for several years. Her three assistants were not listed in the program. Each took one of two numbers at a time to sign, but Pell did the lion’s share and one could easily see how she made music come alive for the non-hearing members of the audience.

This high energy production is filled with 52 musical numbers from 15 different musicals, and there were definite high points. The choreography for "Step in Time" from "Mary Poppins" was a knockout.

Dewight Mitchell and Elise Reese gave depth to two numbers from "Ragtime," with Mitchell returning later for two numbers from "Brooklyn, the Musical" and Elise Reese with an unbelievable wig for "You Can’t Stop the Beat" from "Hairspray."

Randy Solorio works overtime this year, with his Fonzie-esque presentation for two lengthy sections, the Act 1 salute to "All Shook Up," which features the songs of Elvis Presley, and the Act 2 songs from "Tonight’s the Night." Solorio can shake, rattle and roll with the best of them.

"Tonight’s the Night" also features Robert Lenzi on guitar, bathed in pools of light.

Marji DuBois has an outstanding voice and is featured in seven different numbers, all of which come alive because of her performance.

Josh Gonzales and Tae Kim sing the roles of Martin Guerre and Arnaud du Thil from "Martin Guerre." Both men have marvelous voices, particularly Kim, whose slender build belies the power and the depth of his voice.

Enrique Ruiz, Dewight Mitchell, Ryan Ritter and Aaron MacDonald do an excellent impression of The Four Seasons in the selections from "Jersey Boys."

The children’s chorus, which performs "Supercalifragilistic" in Act 1, returns in Act 2 looking like they ran wild in a Halloween costume shop, with the assistance of costume coordinators Cathy Carpenter and Joan Pohlman. Dressed as doctors, clowns, police officers, ballerinas, and just about any costume you can imagine, they did a very cute rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python’s "Spamalot." There is one little girl in green doctor scrubs with a stethoscope around her neck who is having such a good time you can hardly take your eyes off of her.

You can’t think about Best of Broadway without thinking about numbers--numbers of songs, numbers of people, numbers of costumes, numbers of volunteer hours which go into putting on this amazing production. It’s a visual extravaganza and an incredible labor of love for those involved.

And best of all, it goes to support many worthy causes.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Boxcar Children

This review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 8/29/06

“The Boxcar Children,”directed by Jeff Hammond, adapted for the stage by Barbara Field from the book by Gertrude Chandler Warner – and the first in the Woodland Opera House’s “Theater for Families” series for this season.

It’s a depression era story of four children, orphaned when their parents are killed in a boating accident. When the older twins discover that officials plan to split them up, they take matters into their own hands (“we stick together like glue”). They run away and set out to find a way to take care of themselves.

This may be the very best type of play for younger children, raised on the likes of “Sesame Street,” which plays to a child’s short attention span. The story is presented in many, many scenes (in Act 2 I counted 20 scenes; I am sure there were more in Act 1), each with a small bit of scenery (designed by Jeff Kean), whether a clump of grass or a pile of trash or a mailbox to signify a home, but all easily rolled in and out again. A “scene” may consist of only a few lines (some are, of course, longer), but there is no time for a child to become bored with the action on stage because it is constantly changing.

I was pleased to note that all the pre-show fidgiters and bouncers and chair kickers sat engrossed in the action of the play throughout both acts. I didn’t even hear any whispering in the audience.

There is a new look for the Theater for Families series this year. In order to raise the quality of the productions, the company is no longer casting shows only with children 18 and under. The casting is now age appropriate, with adult roles being played by adults.

In this production, however, there is absolutely no question about who holds the show together--it is the children themselves, especially the four title characters.

Rob Blake, as Henry, the oldest boy, is a natural for the stage. I wish that some of the otherwise excellent local actors around Yolo County could project as well as he can. Henry is the responsible one, the one who finds a job and brings in some money to help buy the necessities. Blake makes the role believable and he can be heard in the back of the Opera house, without making his projection seem forced.

Kimberely Casazza, Henry’s twin, Jessie, is the practical one, keeping the family together. She’s the idea person. Casazza has done several productions at the Opera House in the past two years, and her experience shows.

Erin Solomon is absolutely perfect as Violet, the “refined” child. When Henry has money, Violet asks him to buy toothpaste and soap and a tablecloth. She worries about her clothing getting dirty. She is the one who finds “nice” things at the dump to dress up their new “home” and asks if there is enough money to buy seeds because “Mommy always planted flowers.”

Though authorities feel he has special needs, there is nothing “slow” about little Benny (9 year old Drew Thomsen, making his stage drama debut -- he appeared in last year’s “Seussical, the Musical”), who learns to read under Jessie’s tutelage. You would never know from Thomsen’s professional performance that he has so little stage experience.

Charlotte Lenton is great as Myrtle, one of the homeless people the children encounter in their travels. Nicki Reiff is her friend Cookie, and also plays the Baker’s Daughter. Matt Reiff is “Kid,” who travels with Myrtle and Cookie, but who doesn’t speak.

In the adult cast, Don Solomon (Erin’s father) gives a lovely sympathetic performance as Dr. Sam Truman, who hires Henry and then begins to realize that Henry is not quite what he presents himself to be. Carin Beede is Mrs. Truman, giver of lemonade. Her concern for the children is evident.

Vanessa Zaragoza is quite good as Sarah Calder, the social worker who truly has the children’s best interests at heart and who works to bring them to the attention of “Mr. Aldin,” Gary Agid, with positive results.

Rebecca Baland is Mrs. Alberts, who finds the children to be a bother and just wants them out of her life. Alan Smuda is Officer Banning, the policeman charged with finding the runaways.

This is a lovely little family show, suitable for all ages. It continues at the Opera house through September 10. Take your children. Take your grandchildren.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Smokey Joe's Cafe

(This video is from "a" production of Forum not from "the" production of Forum that I reviewed.

This review appeared in the Davis Enterprise on 8/23/06

The Music Circus is ending its 2006 season with a high voltage production of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” directed by Barry Ivan and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood. This is a musical salute to the music of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller who, if not familiar names to the audience, have written some of the most memorable music of our lives. Songs like “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Poison Ivy,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Stand by Me,” and the song which brought down the house on opening night, “I’m a Woman.”

“Baby, That is Rock & Roll,” sang the company in the finale, with the middle-aged audience on its feet clapping and cheering its approval.

“Smokey Joe’s Café” is not a plot show. It is simply a revue with nine extremely talented people singing some 42 songs, making some incredible quick costume changes, doing some great dances, and entertaining an appreciative audience.

Inga Ballard, a UCD graduate (a number of years ago), has a big sassy sound and belts out Gospel with the best of ‘em in “Saved,” the first act finale. She does “Fools Fall in Love” in Act 1 and then, for some reason I could not fathom, repeats it in act two. But it’s a knockout number and perhaps worthy of repeating!

Montego Glover was seen earlier in this Music Circus season as the unforgettable title character in “Aida.” When she snaps her feather boa and climbs on, over and under a chair singing “Don Juan,” all thoughts of any Nubian princess will disappear. Her duet with Eric Jordan Young, “Spanish Harlem,” was absolutely stunning.

Deb Lyons, who starred in this show both on Broadway and in London’s West End, lays her heart bare in “I Keep Forgettin’” and tells the story of Pearl the piano player (“Pearl’s a Singer”), who was always looking for that one big break that never came.

The leather-clad Kasey Marino perfected his pelvic thrusts in Elvis fashion for the house-pleasing “Jailhouse Rock.”

Devin Richards, the man with the deep, deep, deep voice brought cheers whenever he went for the low note, but he displayed great comedic talent and was a fine dancer as well.

Harrison White, a great comedic talent, added depth to songs like “Love Potion #9,” “On Broadway,” and “Searchin’” (the first of many songs throughout the evening to bring applause as the audience recognized it).

Darryl Jovan Williams may be small of stature but this is a monumental talent. Whether burying his nose in Inga Ballard’s ample decolletage, “Shoppin’ for Clothes” with some unusual display suits, trying to get himself up out of the gutter as “D.W. Washburn,” or sizzling in “I (Who Have Nothing),” he never failed to be an audience pleaser.

Laura Woyasz must lose at least a pound a performance with her “Teach Me to Shimmy” number alone. Dressed in a white dress made entirely of fringe, she does credit to a Tahitian dancer as she makes that fringe move in ways the designer probably never intended. It’s quite a sight to see.

“Smokey Joe’s Café” is a tour de force for lighting designer, Pamila Grey, whose electric light changes and smokey pools of light created the ambience without the need for elaborate sets.

Steven Howard and Bob Miller deserve kudos for their delicious costumes (and the dressers deserve special recognition for getting the performers on stage with split second timing!)

In anticipation of the popularity of this toe-tapping revue, Music Circus has added an addition four shows to the run, so there should be no problem getting tickets. Get yourself to the Wells Fargo Pavilion while you still have the opportunity.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A Funny Thing Happend on the Way to the Forum

This was printed in The Davis Enterprise on 8/16/06

There’s only one word to describe Music Circus’ production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which opened Tuesday night: Zany.

This 1963 Tony award winner, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, and direction by Marcia Milgrom Dodge is based on the comedies of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, and the humor is bawdy and fast-paced. (“If I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times; do not fan the girls when they're wet! But you'll never learn, you'll be a eunuch all your life.”)

Set in a time where everybody had slaves, eunuchs were commonplace, courtesans were for hire, and virgins were seen as objects to be conquered, the action centers around three homes, the house of citizen Senex (Walter Hudson), his domineering wife Domina (Jessica Sheridan), and their love-struck son Hero (Ryan Driscoll); the house of Lycus (Ron Wisniski), a buyer and seller of courtesans; and the house of Erronius (Jim Lane), an old man who has been roaming the world for the past twenty years, looking for his son and daughter, stolen in infancy by pirates.

This is a stellar cast, but head and shoulders above the rest is James Brennan as the slave Pseudolus, slave to Hero. Pseudolus is a man who desperately wants his freedom and is always looking for a way to get it. Brennan has a list of theatrical credits as long as your arm, boundless energy, and brilliant comic timing. He also plays well with the audience and handles unexpected situations with aplomb.

Head slave in the house of Senex is the appropriately named Hysterium, a Charles Nelson Reilly-esque portrayal by the very funny John Scherer.

When Pseudolus learns that his master, Hero, has fallen in love with the courtesan, Philia (Ashleigh Davidson, daughter of John Davidson), he sees a way to win his freedom by getting the girl for him. ( “People do not go around freeing slaves every day.” “Be the first. Start a fashion.”)

There’s just one little problem with the plan. Philia, a virgin newly arrived from Crete, has been promised to the warrior Miles Gloriosus (Christopher Carl, last seen as Carl-Magnus in the recent production of “A Little Night Music”), whose name reflects his inflated opinion of himself.

Madness and mayhem ensue, including the plague, leprosy, a magic potion, a soothsayer, body snatching, a bride who is not as dead as everybody thinks she is, “and a happy ending, of course” as the opening number, “Comedy Tonight” promises.

The show could not keep up the rapid pace that it does without “the Proteans,” Venny Carranza, Brant Michaels, and Peyton Royal, who play dozens of roles, from the giggling eunuchs of the house of Senex to the warriors who accompany Miles Gloriosus, and everything in between. They are leaping, tumbling, rolling, running bundles of energy and masterful physical comedy. They were brilliant and hilarious.

Likewise, the courtesans of the house of Lycus each had her own moment to shine, and shine they did as Tintinabula (Melanie Haller), Panacea (Ann Cooley), the cat-like Vibrata (Mindy Haywood), the twins Geminae (Shiloh Goodin and Katie Russell) and the dominatrix Gymnasia (Alison Mixon).

Marcia Milgrom Dodge understands directing for theater in the round and kept her cast moving at all times, never once favoring one part of the audience over another. She worked well with choreographer D.J. Salisbury.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is fun, plain and simple. A funny book, fun songs, great energy, and a splendid cast. It’s the perfect divertissement for a summer evening.