Thursday, July 26, 2007


Playwright Dan Goggins was once given the gift of a mannequin and a nun’s habit by some friends. He took to dressing the dummy in the habit and posing it doing various chores around the apartment, which his friends found hilarious. He came to the conclusion that nearly everything was funny if it was being done by a nun and thus was born the phenomenon that is “Nunsense” (this week’s Music Circus show), first presented off Broadway in 1985 and which has now spawned five sequels: “Nunsense II,” the country music-themed “Nunsense Jamboree,” the holiday show, “Nuncrackers,” “MeshuggahNuns” (which takes place on a cruise ship) and “Nunsense A-Men!” (the original production performed in drag). In May a “Nunsense” museum opened at the Campbell Theater in Martinez and the phenomenon keeps growing.

Music Circus last presented “Nunsense” in 1995, with the indomitable Joanne Worley in the lead role. Now it’s back, with updated material (Paris Hilton, the butt of one of the jokes, was only 4 years old when the original musical premiered, for example).

The story takes place in the “cafegymnasium” of Mt. St. Helen’s School, run by the Little Sisters of Hoboken, who are putting on a show to raise money to bury four nuns. You see, some time ago,19 of the nuns went off to play Bingo, and in their absence, Sister Julia (Child of God) prepared vichyssoise for the rest of the convent. The soup turned out to be laced with botulism, and when the Bingo players returned, they found their sisters face down in their bowls of soup. (We never see Sister Julia (Child of God), but she’s apparently still cooking for the convent.)

The remaining nuns held a greeting card sale and earned enough money to bury the dead nuns, but Reverend Mother (Alyson Reed) took part of the proceeds to buy the convent a TIVO and so they lack the funds to bury the last four nuns, who have remained in the convent freezer all this time. But the health inspectors are coming and things are crucial. This is their last ditch effort to finally send the frozen nuns to their heavenly reward.

We learn all this in the first five minutes. The rest of the show is music, stand up comedy, dance, slapstick and just a whole lot of fun. It pokes fun at Catholics, nuns, politics, celebrities, and just about everything that it can along the way. And, though the humor occasionally borders on the offensive (I could have done without the stories of the leper colony where they served prior to their relocation to Hoboken), they almost get by without a penguin joke.

The music is mostly forgettable, but ranges from hauntingly beautiful Gregorian chant to raucous numbers like “We’ve Got to Clean out the Freezer” and “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville.”

Director D.J. Salisbury has directed a sprightly production with a knock-out cast of five talented women. Alyson Reed is the beloved Reverend Mother who hails from the small town of Kilquirky in Ireland. Reed is so believable that she will have you sitting up straighter and answering “Yes, Sister” to all her questions. She is a marvelous comedienne who is as good at physical slapstick humor as she is with the one-liners.

Sister Mary Hubert (Allison Blackwell) is Mistress of Novices. She’s the real backbone of the convent but must try to keep her ambition to be Reverend Mother to herself. She and the “RevMo” have been friends forever and Mary Hubert leads a show-stopping “Holier than Thou” at the end of the show.

Sister Mary Leo (Taryn Darr) was a professional dancer before joining the convent and her interpretive dance, “Morning at the Convent” was very funny, but her Dying Nun Ballet (“Soup’s On”) die for.

Sister Robert Ann (Erin Maguire) is a child of a disadvantaged Brooklyn family, a tough street-wise nun with a heart of gold. It has always been her dream to be a star, but she is relegated to understudy. However, when misfortune befalls Reverend Mother, she gets her chance to shine, and shine she does. Maguire has performed with “Forbidden Broadway” in New York, and anyone who has seen that show will not be surprised at the breadth of her talent. Her Liza Minnelli impression is spot-on.

Sister Mary Amnesia (Michele Ragusa) showed up at the convent one day, wearing a habit but with no memory of her name or how she happened to be there. All she can remember is that a crucifix fell on her head. She’s a little spacy, but Ragusa is simply adorable and her quiz for the audience was very funny.

This may not be a great show for kids (the young man sitting next to me looked pretty confused), but it’s very funny and most people will love it.

Monday, July 23, 2007


Galileo Galilei’s mistake was in observing that the earth moves around the sun, in agreement with the theory of Copernicus, and daring to say so. His opinions were denounced as dangerous and “close to heresy” and he was ordered by Cardinal Bellarmin to neither advocate nor teach Copernican astronomy. It’s hard to believe, in this day and age, that such a simple (and monumental) observation would cause such controversy in the religious world. (But then it’s also hard to believe, in this day and age, that we would still be questioning the findings of Charles Darwin, so perhaps we can relate somewhat.)

Barnyard Theater’s fourth season showcases Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo,” directed by Steven Schmidt. (This is the only version of the play which was specifically written for an American audience, resulting from Brecht’s collaboration with actor Charles Laughton, and staged in 1947.)

While Barnyard Theater traditionally performs its summer offerings in “historic Schmeiser’s Barn” on County Road 31, each year brings new surprises. Last year it was a rotating platform for the audience, rather than for the stage. This year, the entire set has been moved outdoors, with the audience surrounding a rotating stage, flanked by tall platforms at each of the four corners, from which actors introduce each of the various scenes.

Setting this show, which covers the period of time when Galileo first looked at the stars through a telescope through the secret publication of his last book on astronomy, in an open field under the stars was brilliant. (Ian Wallace gets credit for set design and Steven Schmidt for the lighting design) Except for the unexpected arrival of a small plane heading for the UC Davis airport which required more then the usual suspension of disbelief, the audience could imagine itself back in the 16th century, discovering along with Galileo (Andrew Conard) and his apprentice Andrea Sarti (Lindsay Carpenter, as the young Andrea and Dara Yazdani as the adult Andrea), the wonders of the heavens.

Conard gives a solid performance in the title role, appropriately displaying the excitement for new discoveries and the frustration of being forced to compromise his principles to earn a living. This is a man who learns the danger of holding heretical opinions in the age of the Inquisition. Conard was always an actor to watch as he moved through roles with Acme Theater and it’s good to see him blossom as an adult actor.

Lindsay Carpenter does an excellent job as the young apprentice, sharing his teacher’s excitement, and looking on his mentor as a hero, which makes Yazdani’s disillusionment as the adult Sarti learns of the motivations that forced his teacher to make compromises his life understandable. Yazdani has always been a promising young actor and he does not disappoint in this role.

There are sixteen members in the cast, many of them playing several small roles. Some are better than others, but all are more than competent.

Bethany Bishop handles the role of Mrs. Sarti, Galileo’s outspoken maid well. She is a constant element of calm in the sea of controversy that often surrounds her master and she presents an air of respectful insubordination toward the man who has taken her son on as a pupil.

Virginia, Galileo’s daughter, devoted her life to her father, sacrificing her own happiness. Joanna Swan creates a loving, sympathetic character, who remains quite religious and continues to pray for her father throughout the play, even though his heretical views have broken up her marriage to Ludovico (Josh van Eyken).

Anthony Pinto, who is always perfect for sarcastic characters, is Federzoni, the Mechanic, the man who grinds lenses for Galileo. Federzoni represents “everyman,” as Galileo, who believed that science belonged to the common man, includes him in discussion of his discoveries and insists that all conversations be held in the vernacular, since Federzoni speaks no Latin.

A trio of cardinals are played by Maddy Ryen, Mark Carpenter and Alicia Hunt, with Hunt as Cardinal Barberini, who later became Pope Urban VIII. The scene of dressing the pope was well done.

Laurel Cohen gets credit for costume design, some of which are more utilitarian while others are quite luxurious, leading to the suspicion that some Madrigal costumes may have been borrowed for the production.

Again, Barnyard Theater has come up with an interesting, well directed and acted production. It’s worth the price of admission to experience the play under the stars, but be sure to bring a jacket and your mosquito repellant!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Who's "Tommy"

Let’s be honest: you probably don’t go to see “The Who’s Tommy” for the plot, right?

This classic rock opera by Peter Townsend and Des McAnuff is being presented in concert version by the Davis Musical Theater at the Hoblit Performing Arts Center through July 29, and you really don’t go to a concert version of Tommy for the plot.

Oh, the plot is there. It’s the story of six year old Tommy Walker, who witnesses the murder of his mother’s lover by his father and who then becomes deaf, dumb and blind because his parents tell him he didn’t see the murder, he didn’t hear the murder and he should never tell anybody about the murder. The boy grows up to become a pin ball wizard (“that deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball”), has a miraculous recovery of his senses, is hailed as a messiah, loses his followers, finds a way to forgive those who have done him wrong throughout his life. End of story.

But if you don’t know the story, the concert version of the plot will be very difficult to follow. In fact, darn near impossible.

A full stage version and the over-the-top movie are replete with dazzling costumes and sets and special effects. You won’t find any of that in this concert version. The cast sits in chairs on stage, in front of the seven-piece band or groups around microphones when time to sing. The few spoken words included are all but inaudible.

The costumes (coordinated by Jean Henderson) are simply black ensembles, with white for the performers who play Tommy at various ages in his life.

There are some projections on the back of the stage, but they are difficult to see because of the lighting and, if you don’t know the plot, they won’t make any sense anyway.

So if you have no costumes, no sets, and no discernible plot, what are you left with? Well, the music and the performances.

DMTC has not been known in the past for outstanding musical accompaniment, so I wondered how they would pull off a show where the orchestra would be the main focus. Quite well, as it turns out. With Director/Musical Director Steve Isaacson center stage, elevated on a platform with his drum set, there is a better than expected assortment of musicians. Jonathan Rothman and Erik Daniells are at the keyboards, Ben Wormeli and Tim Spangler are on guitar, Hal Wright is on the bass guitar and brave Scottt Sabian, on the French Horn does an excellent job of being a one-man horn section.

As for the singers, there are some who are outstanding and some who are not really up for solo rock performances, but fortunately the former outnumber the latter.

Peal Fearn and Kat DeLapp stand out from the rest as Tommy’s parents. Both have fabulous voices and rock out with the best of them.

Tommy is played at various ages by Maya Rothman (young Tommy), Sabrina Schloss (teen Tommy, who for some reason is not quite as tall as the younger Tommy), and Jon Jackson. The two younger Tommys have little to do but be the blind, deaf, mute boy and they handle that job well. Jackson is more a cerebral Tommy than a rocker Tommy, but he handles the task well. His “See Me, Feel Me” is very moving and his “I’m Free” gives him an opportunity to show his stuff.

(I will admit that the pinball number, without a pinball machine or any movement which would imitate someone playing a pinball machine was a little strange.)

Of the supporting cast, Scott Suwabe is outstanding in several small roles, as is Chris Peterson.

Abram Stein-Freer is appropriately menacing as Cousin Kevin, “The school bully,” and Steven Ross is terribly decadent as the child-molesting Uncle Ernie, who likes to “Fiddle About.”

Claire Impens is a somewhat subdued “Acid Queen” (I saw psychedellic graphics on the monitor of light board operator Arthur Vassar, but if there was an attempt to project them onto the back of the stage, it did not work.)

The enthusiasm of the cast for the show they are doing is apparent. The concert version works better than I thought it would. But if you want to know what’s supposed to be going on during the course of the show, I recommend renting the DVD first!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Les Miserables

The Wells Fargo Pavilion had the look of a special event. The crosswalks were jammed with people, there was a line of cars outside the parking lot and a long line of patrons waited to pick up tickets. Once inside the theater, it was apparent that the opening production of Music Circus’s 57th season, "Les Miserables," Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical adaption of the classic Victor Hugo novel, was nearly a sell-out.

Even before the lights went down, the audience was expecting something extraordinary. With theater companies all around the United States asking for production rights following the close of the Broadway production in 2003 (after 6,680 performances), and the end of the national tour in 2006, Music Circus was one of only 8 theaters in the country given permission to do its own production.

As if that weren’t special enough, this is the first production to ever be done in the round. How would the multi-million dollar production seen during the Broadway Series in 2003, translate to the fairly bare Wells Fargo Pavilion stage?

Under director Glenn Casale’s capable hands, it translated very well. The scenic design of Michael Schweikardt gave a sense of each scene, but not so much that it overwhelmed the stage, making sight lines difficult.

Additionally, the fact that all seats in the Wells Fargo Pavilion are close to the stage adds an intimacy that one misses in a proscenium production. It made subtle nuances easier to create and it brought a dimension to the production that I had not seen before. It made me wonder why the show is not performed in the round more often.

And it was a cast to die for. Ivan Rutherford, whom some may remember for playing Jean Valjean in the 2003 Broadway Series production, reprises the role of the man, released on parole after 19 years on the chain gang for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's dying child. Rutherford played this role 1,800 times on Broadway in addition to traveling across the country with the touring production.

In the role of Inspector Javert, the man so obsessed with the re-capture of Valjean following his disappearance from parole that he has chased him for more than 20 years, is Brad Little, whom patrons may remember as Music Circus’s "Scarlet Pimpernel." Little just finished 2,100 performances as the Phantom in "Phantom of the Opera," including appearances on Broadway, in Asia, and on tour.

The vocal richness of these two men alone was something very special indeed.

Add to that Andrea Rivette as Fantine, the single mother forced into prostitution in order to feed the child she has farmed out to others for safekeeping. Fantine is a small role with a huge song, "I Dreamed a Dream," which Rivette performs to thunderous applause.

Eight year old Isabelle Flores-Jones is an adorable young Cosette, Fantine’s daughter, whom Valjean adopts. Isabelle sings Cosette’s "Castle on a Cloud" in a perfect, clear, completely on pitch voice.

Comic relief is offered by the innkeeper Thénardier (Ron Wisniski) and his wife, Madame Thénardier (Mary Gutzi). Wisniski is a wonderful comedic talent, last seen as Lumiere in "Beauty and the Beast" and Marcus Lycus in last season’s "Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." In this role he is deliciously decadent, a guy who will pour your (watered-down) wine with one hand and steal the valuables out of your suitcase with the other.

Gutzi is the perfect complement to her husband, at her best when putting him down in her version of their duet, "Master of the House."

Michael Hunsaker is a handsome, sincere Marius, the idealistic young student who falls for Cosette (Laura Griffith).

Juliana Ashley Hansen is Eponine, hopelessly in love with Marius, but realistic about her expectations. Her "On My Own" was beautifully poignant.

Will Ray is Enjolras, the head of the rioting group. He has a strong voice and a commanding presence.

Andrew B. Wilson is a spunky Gavroche, the child who becomes a runner for the revolutionaries and is able to ferret out information that no one else can get.

The chorus for this show is outstanding, and most seem to have solo-quality voices. I was particularly impressed with the intensity of their character immersion when standing in the aisles waiting to make an entrance.

Credit is due to Lighting Designer Kyle Lemoi for creating with light what could not be created with set pieces. The design was perfect.

In fact, just about everything about this production is perfect. It could not be a better harbinger of shows to come throughout the rest of the season.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Music Circus

This was a feature article which appeared in The Davis Enterprise on July 5, 2007.

Carolyn Tucker boycotted Music Circus for nearly 50 years. “My boyfriend Bob promised to take me to a show,” she explained. But the couple had a fight and Bob took another girl instead. “I vowed I would never to go Music Circus,” she said resolutely.

Happily Carolyn and Bob patched things up and have now been married for nearly 50 years, but because of the bad memories, she steadfastly refused to attend a Music Circus production until someone gave them free tickets a few years ago. “I was thrilled!” she said.

She was so thrilled that they returned the following year to bring granddaughter Samantha to “the big tent” to see “Annie.” “We thought it might be her only chance to see a real stage show,” she explained. Samantha was able to get a backstage pass, to meet the cast and have her picture taken with Sandy, Annie’s dog.

Now the Tuckers attend productions regularly. Carolyn’s all-time favorite musical is “Cats,” while Bob “will see anything.”

As Music Circus gears up for the July 10 opening night of “Les Miserables,” a company premiere, the challenges are massive, but everyone rises to the occasion. This will be the first time that “Les Miserables” has ever been presented in the round and Music Circus is one of only eight theater companies in the country which has been given permission to do their own production. “We’re very proud of that,” says publicist Chris McSwain.

This is the kind of experience which appeals to Louise Wilson, who has performed community theater herself and is a seasoned theater-goer. She feels that theater in the round brings a new dimension to old favorites and she enjoys being introduced to new musicals, like “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” which she loved, and to new staging of old favorites, like “Les Miserables.”

For Lindsay Terry, Music Circus reminds her of her childhood, when she used to participate in school plays. Like Carolyn several years ago, Lindsay plans to introduce her five year old daughter Isabella to theater this summer, also with a Music Circus production of “Annie.”

California Musical Theater’s Music Circus is a Sacramento institution which has brought musical theater hits to the area for nearly sixty years and introduced many new generations of children to theater. Music Circus has offered productions of 157 different musicals, many performed more than once, with “The King and I,” “Oklahoma!” “South Pacific” and “Show Boat” leading the pack at twelve different productions each.

In addition to “Les Miserables,” the 2007 season will include two additional new productions, “Jekyll and Hyde” and “1776,”with old favorites “Nunsense,” “Kiss Me Kate,” and “Annie” filling in the rest of the season.

Music Circus history dates to 1949 when a man named St. John Terrell set up a circus tent in an empty New Jersey field and began producing musical plays. The enterprise was innovative, something that had never been done before, a theater that wasn’t quite a theater, a tent that was more than a tent. The experiment was wildly successful.

Russell Lewis and Howard Young were producers who had worked on Broadway and arranged national tours. Watching the success of Terrell’s “Music Circus,” they wanted to try the same thing on the west coast.

Enter Eleanor McClatchy, then president of The Sacramento Bee and the city’s staunchest supporter of all forms of theater. McClatchy felt that Sacramento audiences would support professional quality theater and she invited Lewis and Young to meet with her. It was a marriage made in heaven.

Lewis & Young Productions raised the Music Circus tent in the summer of 1951 and produced its first season, opening with “Show Boat” on June 19th. The choice of shows would set the tone for subsequent seasons–a mixture of well known titles and lesser known titles, musical and operetta: “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Brigadoon,” “The Desert Song,” “The Great Waltz,” “The Merry Widow,” “Naughty Marietta,” “The Red Mill,” and “Rose Marie.”

(The season does not begin until after the 4th of July and runs through Labor day, with generally a 7-show season, though it has included as many as 10 shows, publicist Chris McSwain says.)

Music Circus became an instant success and despite, the summer heat, people flocked to the big tent for a chance to see quality productions of shows they might never see elsewhere. It was “the” thing to do in the valley in the summer. (“I loved the tent – it was a wonder,” said Carolyn Tucker)

When the brand new 2200 seat Wells Fargo Pavilion opened in 2002, replacing with tent with a real building, the director’s chairs with theater seats, adding air conditioning and improving the sight lines it was a major change for Music Circus.

(“The new building is the difference of night and day,” says Louise Wilson. Lindsay Terry agrees. “There is no bad seat in the house. You never have to worry about something obstructing your view.”)

In 1993, Scott Eckern, then a professor of theater (among other things) at the University of the Pacific was hired as full-time general manager and in 2002 became the artistic director. He remembers the days when “name” stars, like Harv Presnell, Leslie Uggams and Alan Young took the lead roles, a practice which began to change in the 1990s. When they stopped casting familiar celebrities, it allowed them to choose the shows for each season differently. They didn’t have to choose shows by what celebrity was available, but they could hold open auditions for the shows they wanted to present. It allowed them to balance the season better.

“Our mission is to keep the classics alive and also help move the art form forward. You look at the classic pieces like Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Lowe and then add the shows that are the future classics or the newer pieces of musical theater,” explained Eckern. “We try to get a balance. The classics are classic because they are well crafted and they tell good stories, with a solid book. There is a whole generation of actors who haven’t performed many of them.”

Eckern auditions over 2000 actors for some 125 parts. He travels some 14 weeks a year and auditions people in New York, in Los Angeles. “We now cast Tony award nominees and winners, stars on Broadway. Music Circus is ‘the’ summer job to get in the theater.”

“People want to perform with Music Circus,” says Education Director Victoria Plata. “It is a great thing to put on a resume. In Sacramento we’re such an institution that we’re taken for granted. In New York we are considered one of the finest regional theaters in the country.”

(It’s not only the featured players who look forward to Music Circus. Richard Bulda is an example of one of the members of the supporting staff who arranges his summer around the season, and doesn’t make other plans until he’s checked to see into which shows he might fit.)

While Eckern is auditioning performers and Bulda is arranging his summer schedule, Plata is getting ready to welcome her new crop of interns. The internship program, which she “inherited,” allows students to learn about technical theater. Eckern developed a program through American River College where students would receive up to 6 units of theater credit for working 10 weeks during the summer.

Interns rotate through several departments -- costumes, scenic design, and props, and also work with the stage manager. They are also part of the technical crew, those unsung heroes of the Music Circus who run up and down the darkened aisles carrying huge set pieces. Occasionally interns may find themselves on stage in costume for brief periods.

My daughter Jeri worked two seasons at Music Circus, one year as an intern, and another on the paid staff. She found herself on stage several times, for example as part of townspeople raising a ruckus in “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” She also remembers Davis’ Stewart Mayhew playing the delivery boy from the bookseller in “Oliver!” “You don’t hire people to play roles like that,” she says.

Music Circus also has a large volunteer program, coordinated by Bryant King. Volunteers run scenery and work as dressers, for example. There may be some 40-50 volunteers working anywhere from one week or through the entire season.

The company has an arrangement with the local stagehands union and hires two professional stage technicians from the local union to oversee “an army of volunteers,” says stagehand Phil Sequeira. “Usually the hired hands get the biggest, heaviest, most awkward pieces to move.”

The combination of professionals on and off stage, interns, and community volunteers is a part of the flavor of what Music Circus is all about. “It’s a community based organization,” says McSwain, adding that the final component of the “community” is the audience. “I never stop bragging about our audiences,” he says, adding that even the national actors who come in for the Broadway Series in the fall are blown away with the support of Sacramento audiences. “Sacramento has the smartest, most responsive audiences,” brags McSwain.

Louise Wilson, Lindsay Terry and Carolyn Tucker have introduced their own children to theater through Music Circus, and there is a generational component to the tech crew as well. Tim Kunz, who currently works as a stagehand, is the son of Clarence Kunz, a former stagehand, who still comes to shows each year. Flyman Jimmy Lovelace, who has been working in the rigging since the tent days, is the son of Russ Lovelace, who also worked as a technician in the old tent.

On July 10, opening night of “Les Miserables,” the office will be full of flowers waiting to be delivered to the performers, the lights will go up in the Wells Fargo Pavilion, several generations of patrons will file into the theater, and the 2007 season will get underway.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Maxfield Inn

On a recent trip to upstate New York, we booked a three night stay at The Maxfield Inn in Naples, NY.

We chose the Maxfield Inn from the Internet for 3 reasons: the web page was inviting, the price was within our range, and it had wi-fi. With my new laptop computer, I was eager to take advantage.

We had no idea we would make such an incredible find. Starting with the elegant Grecian architecture, the line of white rocking chairs inviting us to sit on the verandah, the beautifully (yet comfortably) decorated interior and the welcome we received from our hosts, Linda and Earl set the stage for what would be an unforgettable experience.

We had booked the suite, which gave us a small bedroom and a small sitting room connected by a bathroom. We immediately noticed the little touches, which the previous review mentioned -- the CD player playing Nat King Cole softly when we arrived, with a selection of additional music for our enjoyment (from classical to jazz), the Lindt truffles (my favorite!), the chilling bottles of water in the ice bucket, the fluffy white bathrobes hanging in the bathroom, the heated massage chairs, which would become a godsend for me, in the sitting room and even the little Serta Mattress lamb waiting on our pillows. The shower was so high tech it should have come with an instruction book, but to step in was to go to another world. I wanted to bring it home with me.

We were invited to share wine and cheese in the dining room at 6 p.m., when we met other residents and discovered everyone was interesting and delightful. As this is a pet-friendly establishment, I was thrilled to find another dog-lover there and we had a good time swapping dog stories and pictures on the first evening.

In the morning, Earl delivered muffins and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee to our room on a beautiful silver tray and later we adjourned to the screened sun porch for the rest of our 4-course gourmet breakfast. Everything was cooked with such pride and Earl delighted in explaining how Linda created her recipes and telling us tales of the history of the area (in the back of the Inn is the remains of one of the tunnels used for the Underground Railroad).

I could not find a hint of a complaint about this place and cannot reccommend it more highly.

(Oh...and the wi fi works GREAT!)

D & R Depot

When I first set up this "In My Opinion" blog, I intended to review more than just stage shows, but other things as well. I've been falling down on that, so I'm going to try to pick up with a couple of reviews from our recent trip to Upstate New York.

In LeRoy, New York (the birthplace of Jello), someone recommended that we eat at D&R Depot, a converted railroad depot, which was reported as having the best home cooked food and "the best chicken pot pie" in town. I was encouraged when the menu boasted that the pot pie had "the flakiest crust." I'm a crust aficionado and was eager to try it.

The first course was salad, which came with hot rolls. The rolls had, unfortunately, been heated by microwave. As long as you ate them immediately, they were fine, but once they began to cool, they got so hard that you couldn't even bite into them.

When the pot pie arrived it, too, had unfortunately been heated in the microwave. The "world's flakiest crust" had all the flake of a hockey puck. I was very disappointed. The contents of the pot pie were quite good. What a shame that the restaurant had to ruin one of their apparently stellar dishes with microwave heating.

ADDENDUM: I actually had an e-mail from D&R Depot and they assure me that while they do use the microwave for their rolls, they do not use it for heating the chicken pot pie and that the toughness of "the world's flakiest crust" was due to weather factors. They also invited me to come back and try it again and were quite nice about it, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, though it seems unlikely I'll ever be in that part of the country again.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Fat Pig

"People are not comfortable with difference. You know? Fags, retards, cripples. Fat people. Old folks, even. They scare us or something... The thing they represent that’s so scary is what we could be, how vulnerable we all are...we’re all just one step away from being what frightens us. What we despise so...we despise it when we see it in anybody else."

The character of the unlikeable friend, Carter (Michael Wiles) has just summed up the message of Neil LaBute’s "Fat Pig," currently running at Capital Stage, on the Delta King, under the direction of Stephanie Gularte.

"Fat Pig" is a one-act, four-person play which centers on the growing relationship between Tom (Shaun Carroll) and Helen (Christin [sic] O’Cuddehy), two people who meet, by chance, in a diner and discover that they love the same movies and the same books, they have the same sense of humor and they just seem to click.

The problem is that Helen is fat (I will resist the temptation to use euphemisms like zaftig or Rubenes-esque or "full figured") and Tom is a tall, slim, handsome, successful businessman who has apparently used his looks to work his way up the corporate ladder. There is also an ex-girlfriend, Jeannie (Katherine C. Miller), who doesn’t realize she’s really an "ex" girlfriend and who can’t understand what Tom can possibly see in "that fat sow."

As a fat person myself, I found a lot of disturbing things in the script of this comedy, particularly in the mean-spirited comments that Carter uses to describe Helen. ("She’s off to the bathroom...with a basket of dinner rolls hidden under her skirt." "They didn’t just send her, did they?–not that she couldn’t eat for five...") – and especially the audience’s laughter at the jokes. But that was LaBute’s whole point. His program biography talks of his own battles with weight (a battle he claims that he is now losing, after a successful period of high self esteem when he was able to stick with a healthy lifestyle.) He wants the audience to look at appearance and our feelings about people who are "different."

Tom, Carter and Jeannie are the "beautiful people," and yet they are seriously flawed and each of them, on some level is unlikeable. Helen is the "different one." Yet she has a beauty about her which is unmistakable and ultimately she is the only truly "good" character in the play.

This is another strong cast for Capital Stage. Christin O’Cuddehy is magnificent. She has a self-assuredness that makes you look past her weight instantly. Like her character, she seems comfortable in her body and she knows she’s good. Her changing emotions throughout the play were beautifully handled, particularly at the end. It would be difficult to think of an actress who could have done this role better.

Shaun Carroll is a fussbudgety Tom, unsure of himself, knowing how much he cares for this woman, yet torn between his growing feelings for her and his fear of the derision he will receive at the hands of the rest of the world if he were to continue the relationship.

I want to say that Michael Wiles was terrible as Carter...but my negative feelings are only because he was such a good Carter. He created the perfect sleazeball, a snobby, snide, self-indulgent character who pretends to be Tom’s friend, but who is never there for him, except when he can have some fun at his friend’s expense.

Katherine C. Miller is a spitfire as the scorned Jeannie. Though she did a wonderful job in the role, I feel that LaBute’s scenes between Jeannie and Tom were overly long and repetitious. We never really learn much about their previous relationship (LaBute tantalizes us with whether there was actually a physical relationship or not), other than that it ended badly and Jeannie still hopes for a reconciliation.

While this is really a comedy, like LaBute’s other works (such as "Nurse Betty"), it has a distinct dark side to it. Throughout the evening, we wonder which will win out – will love conquer all, or will peer pressure force Tom to give up his one big chance at a meaningful relationship?

Throughout the journey, perhaps we can all learn a bit about ourselves and how we view the world around us, and give some thought to how we treat those who aren’t part of the "beautiful people."