Monday, July 31, 2006


This appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 7/31/2006

When I interviewed Erik Daniells last month about his fledgling company, “Artistic Differences,” he indicated that his goal was to produce small, lesser-known shows, and to cast them with top notch performers from all over the Davis-Sacramento area, in the hopes of creating quality theater that everyone would want to see.

If the first production, “Falsettos,” now playing at the Hoblit Performing Arts Center, is any indication, “Artistic Differences” should have a long and successful life. Each of the 7 actors is outstanding, the stage direction by Michael RJ Campbell is tight and keeps the show moving at crisp pace.

Gino Platina’s choreography is a delight, from the opening “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” to the hilarious “March of the Falsettos.”

“Falsettos” is, in actuality, the second and third acts (“March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland”) of the 1992 Tony Award winning musical, “Marvin Trilogy,” by William Finn. It tells the story of Marvin (Craig Howard), a 30-something Jewish man who has admitted to himself (and to his wife and son) that he is gay. He has taken a lover, Whizzer (Jerry Lee), but because Marvin is a good family man, he decides that Whizzer should move into the family home with his wife Trina (Margaret Hollinbeck) and that they all live as one big happy family. (“I want a tight-knit family,” sings Marvin.)

Not surprisingly, this sets up some conflicts for son Jason (Joey Harris), which brings all into therapy with psychiatrist Mendel (Kevin Caravalho), a situation further complicated by Mendel and Trina becoming romantically involved. Soon Trina and Mendel are engaged, and Whizzer leaves Marvin, which leaves Marvin feeling his perfectly constructed little world is falling apart.

Confused? Don’t be. The plot all hangs together. It’s a show about growing up, whether that takes place at 13 or at 30. It’s sweet and funny, touching, and full of heart. Musically, it’s a knockout.

This cast is exceptional. Craig Howard, as Marvin, handles his complex character with aplomb. Marvin is a man who, over the course of two hours, must grow from an irresponsible, eternally boyish man to one who one who embraces the maturity that the situations in his life demand. His relationship with Whizzer is tender and believable, particularly in their final scene, and he has strong, solid voice.

Jerry Lee is a handsome and endearing Whizzer, who brings depth and realism to the role, particularly “You Gotta Die Sometime,” the defiant cry of a man in his prime facing his own mortality.

Kevin Caravalho as the perpetually addled psychiatrist Mendel radiates electricity on stage. With his goofy glasses and expressive face, he’s provides the perfect comic relief from the very first note. Though supposedly the only “sane” one in the cast, he is riddled with his own eccentricities.

Marvin’s wife Trina is played by Margaret Hollinbeck, who also serves as the show’s vocal director, and may deliver the strongest musical performance of the show. She gives a bravura performance in “I’m Breaking Down,” which displays a wide range of talents, from the comedic to the dramatic.

Joey Harris is charming as Jason, trying to come to grips with the fact that “My father’s a homo,”and watching his family fall apart around him, all the while they are trying to plan his bar mitzvah. Harris is quite convincing as a troubled child trying to make sense of a quirky family.

The lesbians next door, don’t appear until act two. Jessica Stein is the kosher caterer Cordelia, always there to offer hors d’oeuvres to anyone in need. Kristen Wagner is her partner, the doctor, who notes that “something very bad is happening,” hinting at the age of AIDS, without actually saying the word (“Bachelors arrive sick and frightened/They leave, weeks later, unenlightened.”) The two characters add some needed additional humor to the darkening mood of Act 2.

The “teeny tiny band,” under the direction of Erik Daniells provide the perfect accompaniment to the action.

Falsettos is the story of immature people of all ages, with perhaps more quirks than most, confronting difficult situations and learning that one must grow up in order to deal with them.

The cast of the newborn“Artistic Differences” handles this situation with professionalism, maturity and a level of talent which predicts a successful life for the company.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

South Pacific

“Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bloody Mary,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Bali Hai,” “Younger than Springtime.” The list reads like a section from Broadway’s All-Time Greatest Hits, and that’s only Act 1.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1950 Tony-Award winning musical (based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Tales of the South Pacific”), which opened Tuesday night at Music Circus’ well-air conditioned Wells Fargo Pavilion, is an old war horse, but its popularity has not dimmed. At times the plot of this musical seems very dated. At other times, one marvels at (and is perhaps depressed by) the consistent timeliness of its message.

Amidst a backdrop of military hijinks on a Pacific island, it tells the more serious story of two couples -- Nurse Nellie Forbush in love with the French expatriate Emile de Becque, and the young Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable in love with Liat, a Tonkinese woman -- and the racial prejudices that affect all four of them.

Leland Ball, returning for the first time since 2005's “King and I,” has directed a first-rate production, with an outstanding cast.

Kerry O’Malley is an absolute delight as Nellie. She has a sparking effervescence that explodes off the stage. Her internal struggles over her attraction to a man who is so different from herself, her joy at discovering her love for him, and her later pain upon learning about de Becque's Polynesian children (Justin Schuyler and Heidi Schuyler) are sincere and believable. She also does a great shower scene (“I”m gonna wash that man right out of my hair”) and her talent show number, “Honey Bun” was delightful.

Samuel Smith is better known for his operatic roles, so he brings the same kind of operatic basso to the character of Emile de Becque that Ezio Pinza did to the original. He gives the role power and dignity. He may be a little lacking in the “suave” department, but this is more than compensated for when he opens his mouth to sing tunes like “Some Enchanted Evening.”

Will Ray is a handsome Lt. Joe Cable with a beautiful voice for “Younger than Springtime,” who effectively displays the bitterness of a conflicted man who realizes that though he loves a woman, his upbringing won’t let him get past the color of her skin (“You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.”)

Leanne Cabrera is Liat, the young girl, who has almost no lines and no songs, but who makes an impression just for being an endearing young girl swept away by a tall, handsome military man. Since there is a language barrier between the two, her part is mostly pantomime, yet somehow it feels bigger.

The Liat-Joe plot line feels strikingly inappropriate in this day and age, where there is such emphasis on sexual exploitation of innocent young girls. The lieutenant is taken to a remote location by the girl’s mother, where he finds a very young girl for what becomes an instant physical encounter. As the two embrace for the first time (this being a show from 1949, the manner of the encounter is only hinted at, when the lights go down and then come up on a shirtless Joe lying in the lap of a happy-looking Liat), there is such depth to the emotion that it does not ring true. But the plot line has been playing successfully for more than 50 years, so the audience must not mind.

Armelia McQueen is superb “Bloody Mary,” the wise-cracking, betel-nut chewing native woman selling cheap trinkets to the military, speaking broken English and cackling in delight with the seabees, yet she gives a haunting rendition of “Bali Hai,” as she describes the mysterious island just off shore, just out of reach. Mary is a wheeler-dealer who will even prostitute her daughter in the hope of making a good marriage for the young girl.

Simply outstanding is the performance of Robert Creighton as the scheming entrepreneurial seabee Luther Billis, always looking to make a deal, desperate to find a woman. A highlight was his performance of “Honey Bun” at the camps Thanksgiving talent show.

The ensemble is excellent, particularly the seabees, a group of men who each have small solos to sing and who each seem to have principal quality voices.

“South Pacific” is a show which addresses the issue of racial prejudice head on, in a blatantly dated manner, but which evokes situations and emotions still prevalent today. In the end, it is through the children that we see hope for a more tolerant tomorrow. A tomorrow for which we are still waiting, 55 years later.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Flag Touched the Ground

The folks at Barnyard Theater, now celebrating its third season at historic Schmeiser’s Barn, off Rd. 31, had the decided misfortune to open its new production, “A Flag Touched the Ground, or Thorlock’s Tale” by local playwright Nicholas Herbert, during the hottest week of the year.

The price of admission to the play includes free spritzing with bug spray to ward off bugs attracted to the light inside the building, but there is, unfortunately, nothing that can be done to cool off a hot barn, except offer ice cold bottled water at the concession stand and sturdy programs which nicely double as fans.

Temperatures had dropped slightly by Act 2, but not much.

Playwright (or “Dramaturge”) Herbert, who also plays Thorlock, gives his thought process in writing this play.

“‘A Flag touched the Ground’ takes place in Sebess, a city-state which exists in an alternative reality,” he explains, “which echoes, but does not necessarily parallel, our own. The play is not an allegory about the current war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or 9-11. ... [it] employs a wider concept of war - as both cyclical and escalating - as a way of exploring not only our current world, but the historical relationships between war-torn countries and their people.”

The temptation for the audience is to assume that the situation in the Middle East was the inspiration for the show, but as the action proceeds and we watch the orders given to the soldiers, it quickly becomes obvious that this could be any country and any war.

Chris Shepard, who plays The General, stands on a platform shouting encouragement to his troops and you realize he could be Gen. George Patton, Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden, or George Bush. The message is the same, the enemy is the same, the encouragement is the same. “They” are a danger to our community and “we” have to attack them, and too bad about the civilians who must die in the process.

Thorlock is a good man who lives with his daughter and his aging father (Josh Nielsen), a tyrant who feels Thorlock is a coward. Herbert’s performance as Thorlock is good in his interactions with the troops (all 4 of them), but is less convincing in the home scenes. Perhaps, as the author of the piece, he’s too close to it.

Fifteen year old Lila Wicker Hunt, the youngest person in the production, had some projection problems in the opening scenes, but she became more understandable later on. She had the unenviable task of spending much of the evening lying under a blanket.

At some point in the past, Thorlock’s wife Alice (Beth Bishop) “disappeared” after going out to the garden to pick mushrooms (in high heels...but let’s not quibble about costuming). Thorlock’s present life is a hunt for the missing Alice, whom he is sure he is going to find somewhere. The search for Alice drives his battle with the enemy.

I have to be honest. I didn’t much like this play. I felt much of the dialogue seemed stilted, though I freely admit that my discomfort in the heat of the barn may have contributed to my negative opinion about the show in general.

Performances overall were adequate, but did not live up to the promise of “My Avisia Winger,” this company’s first show, 2 years ago. Only Zoe Sophia Garcia, in the role of “The Chorus,” the narrator of the piece, rose above adequate. She gave her character a real sparkle.

In addition to those actors already mentioned, the Soldiers of Sebess were played by: Nathan Strickland, James Burchill, Mark Carpenter, Davis Wurzler and Lucas MacDonald.

The one part of the show that gets an unqualified rave is the scene change. I don’t know if the credit belongs to Set Designer Ian Wallace or someone else, but it’s brilliant. To explain it would be to spoil the surprise, so I won’t, but I think it’s fair to say that the audience has probably never seen anything like it before, at least not in this area.

“A Flag Touched the Ground” continues weekends through August 13.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Nobody had a bigger smile on her face at the curtain call than Montego Glover. The actress, playing the title role in Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida,” this week’s Music Circus production, had every reason to smile. She had just turned in a mesmerizing performance as the fiery Nubian princess, captured by Egyptian soldiers, who falls in love with her captor, Army captain Radames (Michael Hunsaker).

“Aida” probably has no songs you’ve heard before, but Glover gives a stunning, emotional performance of the first act finale, “The gods love Nubia” and a song from prison, “Easy as Life.”

As her lover, Hunsaker is a strong, virile, handsome man torn between his love of Aida and his duty to his father, Zoser (Adrian Zmed), whose dream is to see his son on the throne of Egypt and who, to that end, has arranged for his son to marry the daughter of the Pharoah (Mark La Mura)

The third member of this love triangle is Radames’ fiancee, Amneris, the Egyptian equivalent of a “Jewish American princess,” a woman best known for her “beauty, her wisdom, and her accessories,” who also acts as a narrator to the story. Kelli Provart is from the Broadway and touring productions of “Aida” and is simply excellent. She brings a comic touch to the tragic tale, but is also regal as the daughter of the Pharoah, who will assume her father’s throne upon his death and bring peace to the region.

An outstanding trio "A Step Too Far," which opens the second act with the three principal characters describing how they find themselves entangled in conflicted loyalties and emotions.

Though the story will be familiar to opera goers, John and Rice have introduced a new character, Mereb, the wise-cracking Nubian slave who delivers Aida from the slave ship to the palace, and suddenly recognizes her as his princess ("How I know you"). Edward M. Barker gives Mereb a nice balance between wheeler-dealer who really kind of likes his life at the palace, and dedicated Nubian who will protect his princess and his king at all costs.

In the small role of Aida’s father, Amonasro is popular local actor, James Wheatley, who gives a somewhat over the top performance, but who makes a fantastic escape in a boat designed by Michael Schweikardt.

Choreography by Todd L. Underwood is energetic, particularly in the Nubian dance sequences.

This is not a “happily ever after” story, the lovers meeting a tragic end, of course, but as a Disney production the writers can’t let people leave the theater depressed, so they cop out and toss in a “what if...?,” “maybe...” sort of ending to give everyone hope.

With all that is going on in the middle east this week, it seemed odd to be watching this musical, where so many of the lines seem applicable to the Israel-Lebanon conflict.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Artistic Differences

It is rare that one looks to the field of pharmacology for theatrical inspiration, but if it weren’t for the fact that the girlfriend of Davis Musical Theater Company music director Erik Daniels was attending pharmacology school in Stockton, we might not be looking at the birth of “Artistic Differences,” the latest Sacramento area theater company to get its start in Davis.

Daniels, a 23 year old music student in piano performance at Sac State, has been in theater most of his life. He played his first show with the DMTC’s Young Performer’s Theater at the age of 12. By age 13 Steve Isaacson had hired him as the resident accompanist for DMTC. For the past 10 years he has been musical director for most of the DMTC shows. He has also worked with the Woodland Opera House and the Runaway Stage, and produced shows at the Natomas Charter School.

But that didn’t seem to be enough. On his long drives back and forth to Stockton, he began to think of all the under-produced shows that he would like to produce himself. “I hadn’t really intended to start a theater company. It kind of happened in reverse,” he said.

“I’d be on these long drives and think that I wanted to produce a show. I had a list of 5-10 shows, some of which were a little ambitious (like “A Little Night Music”). A friend suggested ‘Falsettos.’ and I thought ‘It’s the perfect show.’

Daniels had seen the show at UC Davis and fell in love with it. “The score is incredible and it has a strong message about family and people overcoming obstacles, about life and death. I think the show is as relevant now as ever, talking about ‘what is a family?’ It may even be more relevant now than it was originally. And the music is wonderful.”

Once he’d chosen a show, ideas for a new theater company began to flow. He invited people he had worked with in other companies to audition for the 7-member cast. “I want to have a lot of actors from different areas, not just Davis.” Joining the cast for Falsettos, then, were Margaret Hollenbeck from Runaway Stage, Kevin Carvalho, Jessie Stein and Kristen Wagner, from DMTC, Greg Howard who has worked in Sacramento and at the Woodland Opera House, Jerry Lee, from Magic Circle in Roseville, and as Jason, who is the young boy in the show, newcomer, Joey Harris.

Finding a venue was never a problem. DMTC had blocks of time between productions, and Steve Isaacson was glad to give his young protege, whom he describes as “incredibly talented” an opportunity to mount his show at the Hoblit Performing Arts Center.

Speaking like a proud Papa, Isaacson said, “Doc Larsen at Sac State said something wonderful to his alumni: ‘go out and do theater.’ Jan and I have been able do that and now we can help give a venue to help other people grow and express themselves creatively.”

With the show chosen and cast, someone asked Daniels, “what’s the next show your company is doing?” “I thought ‘Oh--I’m not really a company, but ...oh...that’s an interesting idea...’” Just like that a company was born.

The fledgling company didn’t have a name, other than the unimaginative “Erik Daniels Productions.” “We went through some jokes and I suggested “how about ‘Artistic Differences’ because it implies conflict and why would you want to have that message? and I thought--wait! I actually like that name.’ So we stuck with it and here we are.”

To get the word out and publicize the upcoming production, Daniels staged a special preview show at the Hoblit Performing Arts Center, featuring songs from the upcoming production of “Falsettos,” as well as songs from a wide range of musicals from the contemporary: Tony Award winner “Urinetown”; the newly emerging: “The Last Five Years” and “A New Brain”; to the rarely produced: “Chess” and Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award winning classics, “A Little Night Music” and “Assassins.”

“It’s not that we’re competing with other theater companies for audience,” said Daniels. “We’re more set to complement other companies’ shows.”

The preview show was a great success.

“I accomplished what I wanted, which was to to educate people. There are so many shows out there that no one knows. I want to spread the awareness that there is more to theater than ‘Annie.’ People were coming up to me and saying ‘I’ve never heard of this show. I love it! I want to buy the soundtrack.’”

Despite his young age, Daniels has a solid head on his shoulders, and many years watching what works and doesn’t work in theater. He has set the wheels in motion for choosing an artistic committee to decide on future shows. He also knows he cannot function without a Board of Directors to handle the financial side. “One thing with the board is they have to agree not to be in a show. I definitely want someone who loves theater and wants to see this succeed, but who doesn’t want to be on stage. Someone very business minded who has new ways to make a theater company work. We have to do a lot of work with grant writing, so we have to spend a lot of time on that.”

Historically, Davis has provided a wonderful atmosphere for encouraging artistic enterprises and many a theater company has started small and gone on to flourish in this nurturing environment, (and some have not). Whether “Artistic Differences” will be one of those companies which “make it” or whether it will be short-lived remains to be seen, but if enthusiasm and organization have anything to do with it, I feel that we will see a lot more of “Artistic Differences,” as it settles into the theatrical community of Davis.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Fiddler on the Roof

There are a lot of flashy ways to open a musical show. Some use glitz to capture the audience’s attention from the start. One of the most famous stage and film musicals, “Fiddler on the Roof,” Music Circus’ opening production, opens, with a brief introduction by the milkman, Tevye (Ron Orbach) followed by a simple circle dance. “Tradition,” is the simple number in which all Jewish members of the small pre-revolution Russian village of Anatevka join hands and dance around the stage as each group describes its role in the life of the village (Papa earns the money, leads the prayers, and has the final say in family matters; Mama runs the house and tries to make life peaceful for Papa; the son studies and waits for the family to find a bride for him; the daughter learns the ways of running a house and also waits for the family to choose her spouse).

I have seen the circle dance dozens of times and I would be hard pressed to explain why I found this Music Circus staging so special, but it just stuck out for me. It foreshadowed the high energy production to follow.

“Fiddler on the Roof,” based on the 1949 stories of Sholem Aleichem, the 1965 Tony award winner for best musical, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and libretto by Joseph Stein, is a study in contrasts. There is the fun of Tevye’s personal conversations with God, the innocence of his daughters imagining their future husbands, the antics of the town matchmaker, the tenderness of first love and discovered old love, all contrasted with the bleakness of life in the village, the antagonism between the Jewish community and their Russian overlords. This isn’t a lighthearted comedy, but neither is it a story that is filled with nothing but sadness.

Ron Orbach’s Teveye is a bit more bombastic than I am accustomed to, but he handles the role well.

His wife Golde is played by Valerie Perri, who is quite surprised to discover, after 25 years of marriage that yes, she probably DOES love her husband. (“Do You Love Me?”)

Shannon Warne gives a strong performance as the oldest daughter, Tzeitel, the first in her family to break with tradition by marrying the man she loves (Motel the Tailor – Richard Israel) rather than, Lazar Wolf, the Butcher (Barry Pearl), chosen for her by Yente the matchmaker (an outstanding performance by Helen Geller). Warne and Israel are beautiful together and Motel’s “Miracle of Miracles” is a real ode to joy. Teveye’s love for his daughter is palpable as he gives in to her when she cries that if she marries Lazar Wolf she will be unhappy all of her life.

Tzeitel’s sisters give equally strong performances, Bets Malone as Hodel, who gives her heart to Perchik, the student (Shannon Stoeke) who moves into Tevye’s home to give lessons to his two youngest daughters, Shprintze (Francesca Arostegui) and Bielke ( Harper Junior High student Camille Totah, who will be familiar to Davis audiences); and Julianne Katz as Chava, her father’s favorite, who enrages him by giving her heart to the Russian soldier, Fyedka.

Director Glenn Casale has created a production, with many memorable visual moments. The Sabbath scene is particularly lovely, with Tevye and his family at a table on stage, singing the Sabbath prayers, while the stage rotates, and other members of the town joining in from all around the aisles of the theater.

Michael Schweikardt is credited with scenic design and his on-stage work is good (particularly the roof on which the fiddler (Ivory McKay) plays in the opening scene. Homes in the village are suggested by roofs hung from the rigging above the stage, but they are hung much too high to even be noticed, unless one is looking for them. Greenery, which is supposed to suggest outdoor scenes, is almost invisible and seems hardly worth the trouble to hang.

Choreographer Bob Richard gives us some delightful moments. The dance of the daughters as they sing "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" is fun, and the bottle dance at the wedding of Motel and Tzeitel is always a crowd pleaser. The dream sequence where Tevye convinces Golde that he has seen her grandmother, who disapproves of Tzitel’s marriage to Lazar wolf is great fun.

After a shocking end to Act 1, Act 2 is the darker act, when the reality of the condition of the people of Anatevka comes to light and the happy community is broken up.

This is not a "happily ever after" show, but it demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit and at its core is a salute "to life!"