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.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Music Man

This appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 8/9/06

Leland Ball started in theater 46 years ago. He joined the Music Circus in 1976 and has been guest director, resident director, associate producer and producing director. He “retired” in 2002, but has directed one or two shows each summer for the past 2 seasons. However, he is finally hanging it up for good and next summer, his bio promises, he will return as a member of the audience only.

Ball chose to go out with the quintessential American musical, Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” which opened last night at the Wells Fargo Pavilion. What better way to top off a professional theatrical career than with 76 trombones (give or take a few), high stepping dancers, a barbershop quartet and a house filled with clappers and toe

John Hillner gives a top notch performance as Harold Hill, the traveling salesman who finds his life changed forever by an impulse stop in a little Iowa town, where he plans to work the “boys band” scam he has been running for years.

Sarah Tattersall is excellent as Marian Paroo, the librarian who is first suspicious of the smooth-talking stranger, and then falls under his spell.

Her mother, Mrs. Paroo, is broadly played by Brooks Almy, with a brogue so thick you could cut it with a knife.

As the mayor with all the verbal eloquence of George Bush, Patrick Quinn delights. He’s bluff and bluster and determined to “get that spellbinder’s credentials” if it’s the last thing he does.

Ruth Gottschall may have done more with the role of Eulalie McKecknie Shinn, the mayor’s wife, than I have ever seen done in many, many productions of this show. She has a face as expressive as Carol Burnett’s and with her impeccable timing, she gets the biggest laugh of the show with her line “I think he means peep.”

Robert Creighton is delightful as Harold’s old scam partner, now gone straight, Marcellus Washburn. When he leads the kids of the town in the “Shipoopi,” he’s great fun to watch, but he shines dancing around the stage while Harold sings about “The Sadder but Wiser Girl.”

Nine year old Matthew Gumley has an impressive set of credentials for one so young, but he seems to have been working steadily since age 4. He is the perfect Winthrop, the shy little boy with a lisp who can’t understand why his Daddy had to die, but who also falls under the spell of Hill. Gumley is one big ball of talent and is obviously enjoying every minute of the attention on stage.

Strong performances are given by Shane Rhoades as Tommy Djilas, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who “almost had perpetual motion once,” Manoly Farrell as Zaneta, the Mayor’s oldest daughter, who is giggily infatuated with Tommy, and Andrew Boyer as the anvil salesman, Charlie Cowell, who is determined to make sure that Hill gets his commuppance.

Add to this strong cast a chorus of singers and dancers as crisp and precise as a kick line of Rockettes and the end result is a delight.

Due to popular demand, a special Sunday matinee performance has been added on Sunday, August 13 at 2 p.m. Tickets for this production are being offered at $15 off to children, ages 4-11.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Good Person of Szechwan

(This appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 8/8/06)

Like Diogenes, the gods are searching for a good man...or, more accurately, a good person. Unlike Diogenes, they actually find one.

The search for a good person is the theme in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwan,” directed by Jacob Stoebel, with incidental music composed by Christopher Cook, presented by Acme Theater Company and currently running at the Veterans Memorial Theater.

This 1943 Brecht classic examines the effect of wealth on a good person in an imperfect society and creates a story which is able to illustrate Brecht’s Marxist leanings, while leaving the audience to decide for itself what the real message of the story may be.

Dara Yazdani is humble and earnest as Wang, the water seller, who explains to the audience that he has heard that several important gods are due to arrive and he is awaiting them at the city gate.

The three gods are represented by marvelously innovative 3-person puppets, designed by Nora Allen, and manipulated by Cami Beaumont, Heidi Voelker, Hannah May, Tatiana Ray, Atlanta Parrott, Geoffrey Albrecht, Celsiana Warwick, Vivian Breckenridge and Diana Castillo. They have been traveling, town to town, trying to find people who are still living good lives, but thus far have found only dishonesty, greed and selfishness.

Wang assures them that there are good people in Szechwan and goes off in search of someone who will open their door to the gods, so that they may spend the night. Wang is turned away everywhere except by the young prostitute Shen Te (Elsbeth Poe), who says that she has a small home and has a customer expected, but she cannot turn away anyone in need, so she will find a way to accommodate the gods. Poe nicely illustrates her character’s idealism and goodness.

As they leave, the gods reward Shen Te by giving her a bag of coins, a small fortune for the young woman. In truth it is as much of a test as it is a reward. Will her goodness persevere in the face of newfound wealth?

Initially, Shen Te uses her newfound wealth to do good, but she quickly begins to succumb to the power of money. With the help of the realtor, Mrs. Shin (Madelyn Ligtenberg), she purchases a tobacco shop, but her generosity quickly turns her small shop into a messy, overcrowded poorhouse which attracts crime and police supervision.

To keep from being thought of as a bad person. Shen Te adopts the disguise of her imaginary cousin, Shui Ta, who acts as her overseer while Shen Te is “away.” Shui Ta is able to make all those seemingly heartless business decisions that Shen Te is incapable of doing.

In the end, Shui Ta is suspected of murdering Shen Te and is brought for trial before the gods. Wang pleads to the gods to help in the search for Shen Te.

Again, in dialog which is as relevant to today as it was in the 1940s, the gods express disappointment at Shen Te’s disappearance, as she was the only good person they had encountered in their travels. “All over the world all we have found is poverty, debasement and dilapidation. Even the landscape crumbles away before our eyes...over the mountains we see great clouds of smoke and hear the thunder of guns.”

But they feel that “all will be redeemed if we can just find one who will stand up to this world.”

When Shen Te is discovered to be alive, the gods feel their work is done and they can return to their home because they have found that one good person, though Shen Te is filled with guilt for her duplicity.

It is, we learn, for the audience to discover how a good person can possibly come to a good end in a world that, in essence, is not good, or as narrator Anthony Pinto explains, “we had in mind some golden myth, then found the ending had been tampered with.” The plan, he says, is to leave the ending of the play open for the audience to decide for itself the meaning, as “frustrated audiences mean unemployment.”

“Our play will fail if you can’t recommend it,” he concludes.

Far be it from me to let the play fail. It gets a recommendation from this corner.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A Little Night Music

This appeared in the Davis Enterprise on 8/2/06

“The smile for the fools was particularly broad tonight,” says Mme Armfeldt (Barbara Rosenblat) at the conclusion of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” making its Music Circus debut this week.

I don’t know if those who remained for the entire performance were fools or not, but there were certainly smiles aplenty for those experiencing this near-perfect production. I can only assume that the seats left vacant after the intermission were either because of the chilly temperatures inside the Wells Fargo Pavilion (pay no attention to the outside temperatures; bring a light wrap to avoid being chilled by the air conditioning!) or because this may, perhaps, be the most “operatic” of offerings yet presented by The Music Circus in its 56 year history, which may not suit the tastes of some faithful Music Circus patrons.

Whatever the reason, the real fools were those who did not return following intermission.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” the plot of “A Little Night Music” could rival any modern day soap opera and hold its own. Fifty-ish year old attorney Fredrik Egerman (Paul Schoeffler) has married 18 year old Anne (Carolann M. Sanita), who is still a virgin, 11 months into the marriage. Anne finds herself attracted, not to her husband, but to her stepson, the religiously zealous Henrik (Jim Poulos), a young man with racing hormones and eyes for his stepmother, but hands and other body parts for Petra, the chambermaid (Melissa Dye), and guilt for any sexual feelings at all.

Meanwhile, Fredrik has never gotten over his old love, the famed actress Desirée Armfeldt (Nancy Opel), who has an out of wedlock daughter (Paige Silvester) and a jealous lover named Carl-Magnus (Christopher Carl), who ignores his own bitter wife, Charlotte (Elizabeth Ward Land), who is not only aware of his affair, but is willing to help him sort things out. All of these mismatched lovers convene for a weekend at the luxurious home of Madame Armfeldt, Desirée's crusty old mother, where romance, comedy and wonderful music ensue.

Director Stafford Arima has brought together some terrific principal performers, starting with the Liebeslieder Quintet – Quentin Darrington, Laurie Mitchell, Emily Herring, Michael Scott Harris and Allison Blackwell – who act as a kind of Greek chorus, setting the stage for the action which is to come, or augmenting the action that is taking place. The quintet opens the show, encircling the theater in a very effective, “Night Waltz,” which repeats throughout the show.

As Fredrik Egerman, the middle aged attorney trying to recapture his youth with a child bride, Paul Schoeffler is outstanding. He’s handsome, he has a magnificent voice, and his feeling for his lost love Desirée is palpable.

Carolann M. Sanita is hauntingly beautiful as the young Mrs. Egerman (Anne), who thinks she loves her husband but just isn’t quite ready for the physical aspects of marriage. (“You can’t force a flower,” Fredrik explains to Desirée in “You must meet my wife.”) Anne is struggling to find the maturity to be the wife of a prominent attorney, but prefers giggling with the maid over girl stuff instead.

Nancy Opel is a marvelous Desirée, an aging, but still charismatic actress, who has finally realized that Fredrik is her one true love. She gives a classic performance of the haunting signature song from this show, “Send in the Clowns.”

Christopher Carl is a bombastic Count Carl Magnus, totally insensitive to his wife, Charlotte (Elizabeth Ward Land), as he rants to her about his jealousy upon learning that his mistress has been seeing her former lover.

Jim Poulos is splendid as Henrik, tormented by his desire to give himself to God, yet wracked with temptations of the flesh, to which he guiltily succumbs.

As the family matriarch, a woman who has numbered kings among her lovers, Barbara Rosenblat gives a very regal performance. Madame Armfeldt alerts her granddaughter to watch for the summer night to smile. "It smiles three times," she says, "first, for the young, who know nothing; second, for the fools, who know too little; and third, for the old, who know too much."

Paige Silvester does an outstanding job of playing the child who is often more mature than her mother, who knows more of life than most children her age

Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt created some beautiful scenes, with hanging tapestries for the drawing rooms and a magnificent forest for the outdoor scenes in Act 2.

“A Little Night Music” is a story about love and growing old without the one ‘true’ love for which everyone is searching. It’s about realizing too late that the one that got away was the one most needed.

This production by Music Circus is simply outstanding, and will leave you, along with the other fools, smiling particularly broadly at its conclusion.