Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Annie Get Your Gun

Because the writers of a musical create encore numbers, to be performed when the number itself gets lots of applause and the audience obviously wants more, this does not mean that those encore numbers should be performed routinely as part of the show.

Davis Musical Theater Company’s new production of “Annie Get Your Gun” is replete with unwarranted encores. With a show which runs just slightly under 3 hours, some thought might be given to leaving out the encores that aren’t demanded by audience applause.

Director/Choreographer Ron Cisneros has chosen to use the original 1946 version of the Irving Berlin classic (with book by Herbert & Dorothy Fields). The show was updated by Peter Stone in 1999 to be more politically correct, particularly in its depiction of Native Americans. The DMTC version, however, is the one we all remember from either Ethel Merman belting out “There’s No Business Like Show Business” on stage, or the M.G.M. musical, starring Betty Hutton.

Lauren Miller, last seen as the hormone-charged Ado Annie in DMTC’s “Oklahoma!”, is a spunky and vivacious Annie Oakley, the backwoods sharpshooter who can’t read or write, but who can outshoot almost anyone. Miller has a strident sound to her voice, which is perfect for the newly emerged Annie, in songs like “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” or “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” but which would be more pleasant if modulated somewhat in slower numbers like the lovely “Moonshine Lullaby” or “They Say It’s Wonderful.”

Annie’s little siblings are played by Petra Favorite, Arrin Graham, Sabrina Schloss and Matthew Fyhie, each of whom give engaging performances.

DMTC’s Renaissance Man, Mike McElroy (who designed the set and lights for last year’s “Titanic”) gives a solid performance as Frank Butler, the headliner of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. He is at his best singing “My Defenses are Down,” where his winsome appearance explains why all the ladies fawn all over him.

Annie is also taken in by Butler’s good looks and falls in love with him, though his tastes lean toward a more refined woman (“The Girl that I Marry”) and he is also threatened by her ability to shoot.

Claire Impens is the brazen Dolly Tate, Frank’s buxom assistant, who harbors an unrequited passion for Frank.

Paul Schechter is Charlie Davenport, the Wild West Show’s advance man. Schechter has a real flair for being a salesman.

Mary Young is suitably bombastic as Wilson, who runs the local hotel and has had enough of show biz folks messing up her fine establishment.

Adam Sartain is Buffalo Bill; Dan Linebarger is his competitor, Pawnee Bill; and Steve Isaacson is Chief Sitting Bull, who invests in Cody’s show and adopts Annie as his daughter.
The adoption scene was dropped from the 1999 revision because of the stereotypical image of Native Americans it presented, and the because of objection to Annie’s song and dance (“I’m an Indian Too,” with lyrics like “Looking like a flour sack / With two papooses on my back / And three papooses on the way” and names like “Battle Axe, Hatchet Face, Eagle Nose and Big Chief Hole-in-the-Ground.”

In 2007, and especially on the heels of the recent Imus incident, it can be an uncomfortable scene to watch, despite the fact that it is designed to be humorous – or perhaps because it is designed to be humorous.

Director Cisneros has made maximum use of the Hoblit Theater, bringing his wild west show in from the back of the house and down the stairs to the stage, which gives a bigger feel to what is going on, in this show which really needs to be a “spectacle.”

Costume design is by Jean Henderson. Steve Isaacson has designed the set, which, in the opening scene, appeared to wobble a lot whenever someone slammed the door to the hotel. Dannette Vassar has done a nice job with lighting design.

“Annie Get Your Gun” is a pleasant show which drags a bit, but is nonetheless enjoyable. It does not, however, warrant the number of encores contained within the body of the show, with the possible exception of “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” whose encore gives Mary Young a chance to join Annie in the song and dance.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Three Days of Rain

(this review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 4/19/07)

What if you stumbled across your parent’s journal, written at approximately the same age that you are currently? Our parents are always our parents, with all of the stern taskmaster persona that we remember from our youth. But what were they like when they were younger? What sorts of things would you read into the youthful scrawls of the parent, based on knowledge of the qualities of the adult parent?

This question is at the core of Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain,” now playing at Capital Stage on the Delta King Riverboat in Sacramento, directed by Peter Mohrmann.

Sometimes called “a puzzle in two acts,” “Three Days of Rain” was a runner-up for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, which may be apparent by the eloquent use of language by playwright Greenberg. It tells the story about how the life choices made by parents and the back stories crafted through the years affect the lives of their adult children. Of course, as in any gripping story, they are all members of a prominent, but dysfunctional family.

Walker (Jonathan Rys Williams) and Nan (Megan Smith), adult offspring of the legendary architect, Ned, who has recently died, have come together in Ned’s old apartment and are ready to go to the attorney’s office to meet their friend Pip (Gillen Morrison), soap opera icon and son of Ned’s partner, Theo, for a reading of the will.

The angst-ridden Walker has just returned from Italy, where he disappeared some time ago. “We thought you were dead this time,” says his sister, exposing the fact that “disappearing” is something Walker does rather than face his problems.

The early scene between the two is tense, uneasy, with a lot of unspoken emotion. Nan has always been the responsible one, who now lives in Boston with two kids and a husband and is still trying to keep everything together. Walker engages in flights of fancy and his speech becomes more and more expansive as he paces around the small room speculating about the life his father lived in this garret, at the start of his career.

He confides that he found his father’s journal stuck under the mattress of the room’s bed and he begins reading it, more, it seems, in anger at his father than in curiosity about the life of his emotionally distant parent. “You know, the thing is with people who never talk, the thing is you always suppose they're harboring some enormous secret. But, just possibly, the secret is, they have absolutely nothing to say,” he says, reading the journal’s cryptic opening entry: April 3rd to April 5th. Three days of rain.”

We meet Pip following the reading of the will, where things have not gone as Walker has expected and which sets Walker off into a depressive, uncommunicative mood while Nan and Pip reminisce about their childhood and reveal more than they intended.

Act 2 takes place 35 years previous, the weekend of the starting of the journal and we discover what the cryptic entries imply, all leading up to an ending so abrupt that the audience wasn’t really sure the show had ended until the cast came out to take its bows and the house lights came up.

This is a remarkable cast. Megan Smith has an amazingly expressive face, which runs the gamut of emotions from Nan, the stern taskmaster and loving sister to Lina, the free spirit. She creates two distinct characters, inhabiting each fully and making each unique through body language as much as through accent and actual script.

Gillen Morrison has an easy affability, a devil-may-care attitude which was as engaging in the father, Theo, as it was in the son, Pip. His dark moments are brief, but he makes the most of them.

But it is Jonathan Rhys Williams who will take your breath away, with portrayals of the tormented Walker and the shy, stuttering Ned so completely different from each other than it’s difficult to find the Act 1 actor in the Act 2 character. He is mesmerizing.

Rebecca Redmond deserves mention for her costume design, which so clearly delineates 1995 life from 1960 life.

“Three Days of Rain” received lukewarm reviews in its recent revival in New York, starring Julia Roberts, which is a shame because with the right cast this is an intelligent, emotional, often funny, thoroughly enjoyable play -- and Capital Stage has “the right cast.”

Thursday, April 12, 2007

New Kids on the Block

It’s always nice to feel you have the inside track on something very special that the rest of the world hasn’t discovered yet.

That’s how I felt when I went to see “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” at Capital Stage, on the Riverboat Delta King in Old Sacramento in December of 2005. Of all the shows I’d reviewed that year, this was my favorite. The production was so good that I continued to attend the shows through the 2006-2007 season and with each show, I came away with a real appreciation for the quality of the productions and the realization that there is more to quality than a fancy venue and a big budget.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with managing director and sometime actor Peter Mohrmann and with Megan Smith, who is starring in the 3-person play, “Three Days of Rain,” directed by Mohrmann, and set to open on April 13.

Both are Davis natives who left Davis, received their degrees in theater and then discovered that to find their heart’s desire (employment in theater), they didn’t really need to look farther than their own front yards. Both credit their successes to the good start they received at Davis High School.

“Dave Burmester and his Improv group had a major influence on my life,” says Mohrmann, who graduated from Davis High School in the mid 1970s. “That experience has stayed with me through all my years. The training that we did, being in the moment, thinking ‘right now’ has never left me as a performer. I worked with an amazing group of people that I learned from and played with at that time.”

“Peter was one of my favorite people,” commented Burmester. “As a freshman at UCD, he was my assistant director on the only Davis Senior High School show I ever did -- A Thurber Carnival -- which led directly to the founding of Acme. He was also a stalwart in Improv! while at DSHS.”

“Acme Theater was a big deal for me,” added Smith, who graduated in 1994, and who credits her role in an Acme production of “A Shayna Maidel” with setting her plans for a career in theater into motion. “Dave was a fantastic director. That was the moment when I definitely committed to being in theater for as long as I possibly could.”

She also joined the Madrigal Choir, under Karen Gardias. “Karen was quite a mentor, especially in my senior year,” she says, adding that Gardias has remained a good friend and great supporter.

While Smith was still in grammar and high school, Mohrmann was already learning the ins and outs of theater. He attended San Francisco State, but then returned to Davis to get his Bachelor’s Degree at UCD (“I just have Davis in my blood.”). He did all the things that aspiring actors do. He worked as a waiter at Brewster House and worked for a time at Davis Lumber (“I think everybody has to work here at some point, if you live here long enough.”)

Eventually he took an office job at UCD and realized he had a knack for administrative work, even then.

After a 3-year stint in Chicago, where he received his Master of Fine Arts Degree from DePaul University, he moved back to Davis to care for his ailing mother. “I thought that I’d get my Equity card quickly in Sacramento and then move on,” he laughs.

To support himself while he was working on getting his equity card, he took a temp job, which landed him in Sacramento Medical Center’s nursing administration department, which turned into a full time job as office manager. (“Office work tends to work well with theater when you are just starting out,” he notes.)

Eleven years later he was still working for Sutter and occasionally performing with theaters like The Show Below, Garbeau’s Dinner Theater in Rancho Cordova, Foothill Theater Company in Nevada City, and the Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. Then a bit of synergy changed the direction of Mohrmann’s life.

Along with a group of other artists, Mohrmann founded Synergy Stage, which performed several shows on the riverboat Delta King. One of the founders of the group was actress Stephanie Gularte, who eventually started the Delta King Theater and asked Mohrmann if he was interested in becoming managing director.

“I loved Sutter, but I’d been there eleven years – how did that happen?” He met with Gularte, “and all of a sudden I’m managing director.” It brought all of his training in theater and work in administration full circle.

Gularte was in the process of separating from the Delta King and forming a separate theater company, which would continue to perform on the river boat, but which would be it’s own entity. It was purely a financial decision. As the performing wing of the Delta King, the group had to be considered a for-profit theater group, which put limits on funding resources. As a separate theater group, they could be a non-profit organization and raise money through sponsorships and individual donations, something which was crucial to establish the kind of quality theater Gularte and Mohrmann wanted to create.

“Theater is not cheap. Art is not cheap,” said Mohrmann, wryly.

The biggest challenge for any theater company is always the money — continuously asking for donations, constantly trying to figure out ways to stretch the dollar. “People don’t realize that the ticket price is only 50-60% of what it costs to put on a show,” Mohrmann explained.

You start with the royalties (the money paid for the rights to perform a show) and add “all those things that could turn you into a republican -- workers comp, health insurance. I am proud that we are a company that pays union actors and pays non-union actors as well.”

The group negotiates with Equity and agrees to hire a certain number (usually 2-4) union actors , plus a union Stage Manager. Then there are designers to hire as well, which is not always an easy task. “Our space has some real specific limitations to it so it’s a challenge, but it can be interesting,” said Mohrmann, pointing out the low ceiling which adds to the intimate feeling for the audience, but can be a problem for designers.

Capital Stage works closely with the community colleges and with UC Davis and offers a strong opportunity for actors and designers to work together.

“Part of the mission of Capital Stage is to play an integral role in creating more opportunities for actors, directors, writers and designers so that our talented artists will stay here in our community,” says Gularte.

“I love working with Capital Stage,” says Smith, who has returned to Davis from San Francisco, where she now lives and performs, to work with the company. “I can’t stay too many positive things about how professional this company is and what an absolute delight it is to work with them.” She feels the intimacy of the small theater is “one of its calling cards.”

Smith points out that when she was growing up, the opportunities for professional actors in the Sacramento area were not as plentiful as they are now, especially for straight plays. “Sacramento Theater Company, B Street Theater and Capital Stage all complement each other. They offer wildly different options for people to see different sorts of theater.”

“We’re not here to copy STC or B Street,” explains Mohrmann. He adds that Capital Stage wants to do things that have not been done in this area, critically acclaimed pieces, not just award winners. “We want to make you think,” he says. “We’re not here to advocate a certain way of thinking but we’re here to illuminate other ways of thinking. We’re not here to say ‘this is how you lead your life,’ but to explore how others are leading their lives to help you understand their viewpoint.”

Smith feels that the current production, “Three Days of Rain” fits the bill perfectly. “When I first read it, I loved the quality of discovery about it, how all the characters in the first act are searching for the truth and they think they’ve found the truth about their parents. The challenge of the second act is to really tell the story in the moment so that the audience discovers those epiphanies with us.”

“Any play where you see people you relate to on stage making discoveries about themselves, is the kind of theater I’m interested in” she added. “It’s the kind of theater that makes people get in their cars and talk about it all the way home.”

I attended two rehearsals for “Three Days of Rain” and enjoyed watching the collaborative process between director Mohrmann and his actors. “Peter has a great sense of fun and discovery. Capitol Stage is choosing people who have the same artistic value that they do and can bring something new and fresh to what they’re trying to do.”

News of the existence of Capital Stage is slowly getting out to theater-goers in the Sacramento area. “It takes awhile for people to realize we are there,” says Mohrmann. “As we go out to make calls and ask for individual donations and for corporate sponsorships, people still ask ‘who is Capital Stage’? We’re the new kids on the block and it takes awhile.”

It would seem that the group has all it needs to make a success of things. An intimate venue in Old Sacramento, where parking is plentiful (the parking lot is only a block away), and there are lots of places for a pre-show dinner or an after-show drink. The group presents quality professional productions, and has experienced management and support staff.
We have consistently provided a quality product with our limited resources and the limitations that the theater physically holds for, but on the other hand we are continually growing. Our audience members believe that you make it good and they will come. Our subscribers are our biggest word of mouth,” concludes Mohrmann.

Friday, April 06, 2007


The “Greek chorus” in Sacramento Theater Company’s new production of Luis Alfaro’s “Electricidad” is really “cleaning up.”

“Electricidad,” directed by Susannah Martin, takes the classic “Electra” myth, told at different times by Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides and puts a modern day twist on it, setting the story in a barrio in Los Angeles.

The original tale is set after the Trojan War. Electra and Orestes are the grown children of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra. When Clytemnestra and her lover murder Agamemnon and seize the throne, Electra persuades her long-exiled brother to slaughter their mother and her lover in revenge. These guys put the “fun” in dysfunctional and are the poster children for family troubles, All are members the House of Atreus and every one of them either sleeps with a relative or murders a relative or does both.

The classic “Greek chorus,” traditionally used to give background information in order to help the audience follow the plot, thus becomes three neighborhood busy-bodies, with their hair tied in up in scarfs and their brooms busily sweeping the steps, and the imaginary ugliness that they find around them out of the street.

Therese Llanes, Nancy Silva and Irene Velasquez provide not only narration, but comic relief as well. But they keep up a constant conversation in their scenes which must be listened to very carefully, since their lapses into Spanish or barrio idioms sometimes masks the message they are trying to get across.

Saffron Henke, in the title role of the current production, may be playing her grittiest, meatiest character to date, the rage-filled Electricidade, obsessed with revenging the murder of her father. Henke’s anguish is palpable and the level of her fury fairly ignites the stage with its strength.

As her mother, Clemencia, Elisabeth Nunziato is riveting. Clemencia is a feminist who claims she killed her abusive, drug-addicted husband in order take over the barrio herself and turn it away from the crime-ridden place that it is now.

Electricidade is not buying it. She guards her father’s body, in the front yard of their home. She speaks to him, sings to him, and refuses to allow anyone to move the body, even though it has begun to decay.

"How many neighbors keep a body in the front yard as if he was a car without wheels, on cinder blocks?” ask the women of the chorus.

Electricidade’s grandmother, Abuela (Janis Stevens) and her sister Ifigenia (Katherine C. Miller), newly released from prison and perhaps “born again,” attempt to intercede. Abuela is an “old school cholo,” who isn’t above turning a trick herself or whipping out a joint to smoke with her granddaughter. She brings the wisdom of having lived a long life and having buried three sons, each a victim of gang violence in the barrio. Stevens gives Abuela an intensity that is both languid and fiery at the same time.

Gabriel Montoya appears in the second act as Orestes, a loving and devoted son, returning home after a lengthy absence in Las Vegas, where he was being toughened up by his tutor Nino (Roscoe [yes, Derrick--no last name]) to one day take his father’s place. He has no hint of the situation which is waiting for him, or how to deal with his sister’s insistence that he kill their mother to avenge the death of their father. She shames him by calling it an “honor killing.”

This is a play which is appropriately named. It crackles with electricity, it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go through the hour and 45 minutes of its performance. Anyone with a knowledge of the Electra myth knows people are not going to live happily ever after, but the performances make this worth watching.

Throughout the play we sympathize first with Electricidad and then with her mother until we realize that there is no “right” here, merely a bad situation and two different opinions about how it should be dealt with. Each of the women, in her own way displays dignity, pride, family loyalty, and an understanding of the cholo code. The tragedy is that there is no good solution and both, ultimately, suffer for being caught in the middle.

Steven Decker has created a lovely set within the small confines of the Stage Two theater, using muted adobe and blue tones, setting votive candles into slanted boards, and giving center stage to a Dia de los Muertos type altar, dominated by a likeness of Our Lady of Guadelupe.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


“Consider yourself one of the family” is more than a song lyric in The Woodland Opera House production of Lionel Bart’s classic musical “Oliver!” Several families have more than one member participating on or off stage ... the Stapp family alone has four members on stage, Samuel in the title role, his father Curtis as Oliver’s grandfather, Mr. Brownlow, and sisters Julia and Rachel in the ensemble (Julia also plays the milkmaid in the “Who will buy” number).

“Oliver!” is part of the opera house’s Theater for Families series, and they obviously take that title seriously.

Angela Shellhammer, Education Director for The Woodland Opera House, has directed this sprightly paced, delightful musical and, with Eva Sarry, has choreographed numbers with the professional precision.

The opening chorus, with the orphans entering the dining hall of the workhouse from some basement enclosure gives a hint of the quality to come. The kids have been drilled to a fare thee well, sing well and impress with their dancing.

Eight year old Samuel Stapp was the opening night Oliver, the orphan whose mother dies in childbirth, leaving him a ward of the state. He shares the role with Davis fourth-grader Devon Hayakawa, in her first role at WOH. Samuel is an absolute delight. He is the perfect age for the role, he is a good actor, sings well and hits all the right notes, especially when he sits huddled under a blanket on the floor of Mr. Sowerberry’s (Micail W. Buse) funeral parlor, to which he has just been sold by the workhouse beadle, Mr. Bumble (David Wilkinson) and wistfully sings “Where is Love?”

Emily Delk is delightful as the Widow Corney, the matron of the workhouse, who is sweet talked by Bumble. Their duet, “I shall scream” was funny, though her bouncing up and down on Bumble’s knee should elicit a bit more reaction from him.

Fagin, the seemingly good-hearted leader of a band of youthful pickpockets is given a very good, if not outstanding, performance by Jes Gonzales.

The talented Casey Camacho, who appears slightly older than the usual Artful Dodger, nevertheless brings a cocky assurance to the role of Fagin’s right hand boy, who introduces Oliver to the group. He is a good actor who moves well on stage and has a strong singing voice.

Simply stunning is the Nancy of Katie Ichtertz. She has a voice as rich as melted chocolate and her plaintive “As Long as He Needs Me” will break your heart. Ichtertz is only 19 years old and should have a long successful theatrical career ahead of her.

Jason Hammond infuses the character of Bill Sikes with the proper black soul and is the bad guy you love to hate.

Others in the cast worthy of note are Carver Simmons as Noah Claypool, employee of the funeral parlor, and Micaela Zambrano as his girlfriend Charlotte. Micail W. Buse is appropriately sepulchral as the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry, while his wife (Lynnette Blaney) is nicely overbearing. Kara Sheldon has the small role of Bet, Nancy’s young sidekick, and handles it well.

“Oliver!” like “Fiddler on the Roof” is one of those stories that you forget has a black side to it. Act 1 is much more fun than Act 2, which always appears to be one long series of tragedies after another. Shellhammer’s otherwise excellent direction fails her in the final scenes, where Oliver’s life is threatened by Sikes. The set (designed by Jeff Kean) is such that Oliver could easily escape Sikes’ clutches by running up stairs to the overhead bridge, though he stands still, as if waiting to be snatched by the villain.

The 9 piece orchestra, under the direction of Dan Pool does a serviceable job, though there were some difficulties with some of the horn passages.

Shellhammer and her cast have given us a better than average production of this Dickens classic, which should nicely fill the bill for family entertainment, especially since the good guys come out OK in the end.