Sunday, August 24, 2008


Move over, Hannah Montana, there’s a new girl in town and her name is Tracy Turnblad.

An irrepressible Joline Mujica bursts onto the Music Circus stage as Tracy in the season’s rousing closer, “Hairspray” (a Music Circus debut for this show) and she worms her way into everyone’s heart. She’s a girl with a big dream who isn’t going to let the fact that she can’t fit into a size 2 rain on her parade. She believes in the goodness of people, the equality of everyone, and in taking a stand for what you know is right.

The phenomenon of “Hairspray” began as a non-musical movie, written and directed by John Waters, in 1988. It gave Ricki Lake her first big role and featured Divine in the cross-dressing role of Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad. Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan adapted the movie for the stage, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. It opened on Broadway in August of 2002 and won eight Tony awards (out of 13 nominations), including an award for Best Musical. More recently it’s been turned back into a movie – a musical this time – starring John Travolta as Edna.

The setting is Baltimore of the 1960s. Tracy is an avid fan of the afternoon “Corny Collins Show,” (modeled after American Bandstand, and featuring John Scherer as the Fred Willard-esque Corny Collins). Her dream is to win a regular spot on the show in still-segregated Baltimore.

When she does and then discovers that her friends won’t be permitted to dance with her, because they are African-American, she becomes determined to get the station to let the white kids and the black kids dance together. Her controversial statement on national television, that “every day should be Negro Day”causes an uproar. Tracy is color blind when it comes to dancing partners and learned her best moves from Seaweed J. Stubbs (Wilkie Ferguson) and his pals, with whom she has spent many hours in detention.

Paul Vogt, who took over the role of Edna Turnblad in Las Vegas from Harvey Fierstein (who originated the role on Broadway) has also played the role in Boston and on Broadway. Edna is a laundress who once had dreams of fame and fortune, but as her weight has soared, her self esteem has dipped so low she “hasn’t left the house since Mamie Eisenhower rolled her hose and bobbed her bangs.” The loves of her life are her daughter Tracy and her husband, Wilbur (Dick Decareau), a novelty store owner. Edna is afraid her little girl is going to be hurt by trying to follow her dreams in a world where thin is in.

Vogt is a veteran comedian who has played a lot of roles in drag (e.g. another Edna, Edna Garrett from “The Facts of Life” on NBC’s “The Rerun Show”) and his comedic talents are never better displayed than when he is cavorting with veteran Decareau in the show stopping “Timeless to Me” (the two have an easy, appealing rapport that earns them the show’s built-in encore).

Tracy becomes the bane of existence for “Corny Collins Show” producer Velma Von Tussle (Joanna Glushak), whose life revolves around her daughter Amber (Heather Nichole White). Von Tussle is determined that her daughter will win the title of “Miss Hairspray” and she will do whatever necessary to make that happen. Glushak and White are the villains you love to hate and they succeed in their goals.

Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton is played by Haley Podshun. It’s a small, supporting role, but Schwartz is delightful as the fun-loving, if not overly bright best friend whose most endearing characteristics are her love and loyalty. She begins to come into her own when the sight of Seaweed Stubbs sets her heart going pitter patter.

Her mother, Prudy (Stacey Scotte) is appalled when she discovers that there was “a Negro in the house,” because now she will never be able to sell the place. Scotte does a nice job playing the uptight Prudy, which makes her transformation, later in the show, as she begins to appreciate Seaweed’s physical attributes, very funny.

Seaweed’s mother, the rhyming couplet spouting Motormouth Maybelle is given a dazzling performance by Inga Ballard, whom Music Circus regulars may remember from some of her other show-stopping performances in shows such as “Smokey Joe’s CafĂ©,” “Ragtime,” and “Show Boat.” She brings down the house with her “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Ron Wisniski plays several small roles, from the “Corny Collins Show” sponsor, hairspray magnet Harriman F. Spritzer to the principal of Tracy’s school and does them all well.

“Hairspray” owes a lot of its popularity to the grossly exaggerated look of the 60s hairstyles, those impossibly high beehives and the Jackie Kennedy bob. Jason Hayes gets well deserved kudos for his hair and wig design. A bow was (I assumed inadvertently) left off of Tracy’s wig on opening night, which made the look rather bizarre and it was amazing what a difference it made just adding that little element in the next scene.

This show promises high energy, delightful performances, and energetic choreography by Bob Richard and delivers on all counts.

“Hairspray” takes the audience back to a more carefree time and when the cast sings the finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” Tracy has won the hearts not only of Baltimore, but all of Sacramento as well.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tom Sawyer

Few stories could be more perfect for a good, old-fashioned family musical than Mark Twain's 'Tom Sawyer.'

Ken Ludwig thought so, when he conceived the idea and adapted the novel. Don Schlitz thought so, when he wrote the music and lyrics.

And Amy Vyvlecka thought so, when she agreed to direct the show to debut this year's Woodland Opera House Theater for Families season. The energetic production delights on many levels, despite some shortcomings in the Ludwig/Schlitz book.

While all the familiar stories are present - the whitewashed fence, the friendship with Becky Thatcher, the specter of Injun Joe, Huck and Tom attending their own funeral, and so forth - they all feel more like sorta connected vignettes than a single, smoothly flowing storyline.

The music is enjoyable but forgettable.

Although Twain never gives his Tom a specific age, the character is this play is a bit older than one's traditional mental image of the lad; this choice was made by Ludwig and Schlitz, so they could add a budding romantic relationship - and a love song, 'To Hear You Say My Name' - between Tom (Casey Camacho) and Becky Thatcher (Kara Sheldon).

The play's central relationship therefore is between Tom and Becky, rather than Tom and his best friend Huckleberry Finn, which changes the feel of the original story.

All that said, Vyvlecka's production is charming, largely due to a cast of good - and some outstanding - actors.

Asking a 14-year-old to carry a show is a tall order, but Camacho, a Woodland High School ninth-grader, is up to the task. He has it all: He sings and moves well, and has great energy and charisma on stage; you just want to smile while watching him. He bursts onto the stage during the opening number, 'Hey, Tom Sawyer'; with very few exceptions, he's in almost every subsequent scene.

Huck is played by UC Davis student Elio Gutierrez, but the age difference between the two actors isn't apparent. Gutierrez is an equally strong presence: He has his own moment in the sun with 'I Can Read!,' which he sings with the Widow Douglas (Katie Ichtertz), who has taken the homeless boy under her wing and given him a sense of family for the first time.

The song is a genuine highlight, and will leave you thinking of 'The Rain in Spain,' from 'My Fair Lady.'

Nancy Agee is a lovely Aunt Polly, often exasperated with the mischievous Tom but able to show her affection for him in 'Angels Lost.' She sings this duet with Judge Thatcher (Wayne Raymond) after Tom and Becky get lost on a school outing through nearby caves, and are presumed dead.

Alex Stapp is nicely smug as Tom's annoyingly perfect younger half-brother, Sidney. Kirk Parrott is tall and menacing as Injun Joe, while Chris Taloff turns in a good performance as attorney Lanyard Bellamy. Eric Alley is lovable as the perpetually inebriated Muff Potter.

Vyvlecka's simple set design works wonderfully. By flying in a roof, she can indicate a church or a school. When assisted by Jeff Kean's inventive lighting design, she creates a wonderful graveyard whose boundaries extend beyond the edges of the stage. It's one of the most impressive (yet simplest) scenes in the play.

Dim lighting and a suggestion of stalactites hanging from the top of the stage beautifully convey the interior of a cave, without having to go overboard on set pieces.

Vyvlecka and Tyler Warren share credit for choreography; the moves are simple and occasionally repetitious, but they allow untrained dancers to look comfortable and experienced, thereby adding to the energy on stage.

The small, five-piece pit orchestra works well for accompaniment.

'Tom Sawyer' is far from being the newest 'great American musical,' but this Woodland Opera House production is a lot of fun. It's certain to delight young and old alike.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


“Evita,” this week’s Music Circus production, is the third and final collaboration between British musical theater legends Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice and was the Tony Award winner for best musical in 1980. This show, which is more than a musical and less than an opera tells the story of the rise of Maria Eva Duarte, the child of an unwed mother in the rural areas of Argentina to a show business career in Buenos Aires, to her ultimate position as Eva Peron, wife of President Juan Peron, and first lady of Argentina.

The Music Circus production is under the direction of Glenn Casale and features Julie Murney in the title role. Murney turns in a lovely performances and there are moments which really shine, first of which being her arrival in Buenos Aires, an (almost) innocent young girl with the whole world ahead of her and just so excited to be in the big city.

The second, of course, is the show’s signature song, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria”), on the occasion of Juan Peron’s (Scott Blanks) assuming the presidency. Murney runs the gamut of emotions for the adoring fans outside the Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace. At first she seems shy, overwhelmed by the crowds, then warms to them, then becomes strident in her justification for her lifestyle and underscoring her love for and belief in her husband, and finally, again shy and overwhelmed. It’s a first class delivery.

Scott Blanks, who has played Juan Peron in two different touring companies of “Evita” has a smoldering chemistry with Murney in the scene in which Peron and Eva first meet, leaving no question about how good she would really be for him. Thought he sometimes thinks it’s not worth all the effort, he allows himself to be molded by his wife until he successfully wins the support of the working class, the “descamisados,” and with it, the presidency.

Eric Kunze returns to reprise the role of Che, which he played at Music Circus eight years ago. While Che is described only as “a revolutionary,” it is clear that he is modeled on Che Guevara (whose path never crossed Eva Peron’s in real life). The character makes an effective narrator of the story and Kunze is a powerful presence, pointing out the duplicity of Eva’s character, and mocking the Peron administration and its manipulation of the lower classes.

Philip Michael Baskerville is deliciously sleazy as Augustin Magaldi, a cabaret singer who becomes the first of a series of increasingly influential men Eva uses to sleep her way to the top.

Kari Yancy plays the young girl who was Peron’s mistress until Eva shows up. Her song, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is very sweet and plaintive and Yancy gives it a lot of heart.

A group of military men and a group of upper class citizens play a big role in this show, expressing their displeasure at Eva’s role in Peron’s life. The problem with a small stage is that it does not give the opportunity for the close-order drill that made the original production so spectacular, but choreographer John MacInnis has created some interesting visuals that work well and convey the same message.

Marcy Froehlich’s costumes are nicely representative of the period, and I particularly liked Eva’s patterned dress, as she arrives in Buenos Aires, surrounded by muted browns and tans. A lovely visual portrait.

This is another winner for Music Circus, which only has one more show (Hairspray) to go before the end of this outstanding season.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Twelfth Night

There is a phrase used in the arts, that sometimes the appreciation of an art form requires “suspension of disbelief.” That is, the audience agrees to suspend judgement in exchange for a promise of entertainment. In theater, there is smoke and mirrors, makeup, costumes and magic. We believe a 40 year old balding tenor is actually a 20 year old hunk; we believe the blonde, blue-eyed girl is really a native of a south sea island; we believe the skinny guy can really lift that huge set of weights.

It is recommended that people leave their disbelief at the Buckhorn before going across the street to see the Winters Community Theater production of William Shakespeare’s comedy, “Twelfth Night,” continuing through August 16 in the amphitheater behind the Winters Community Center, under the direction of Howard Hupe.

Janette Dahn and Dominic Orlando play twins, Viola and Sebastian, shipwrecked off the island of the shores of Illyria. Neither knows the other has survived. Viola decides to dress in her brother’s clothes and pass herself off as a young page named Cesario, under which guise she enters the service of Duke Orsino (Trent Beeby). She finds herself attracted to her new boss.

Orsino is in love with Lady Olivia (JoAnn May), grieving the death of her father and brothers. Orsino sends Cesario with messages of love to Olivia, who wants nothing to do with Orsino, but finds herself attracted to the young page.

After a lot of back and forth, intrigue and conniving, Viola and Sebastian are reunited and the citizens are shocked -- I tell you shocked – to realize that there are two of them, when they look identical

And herein lies the suspension of disbelief because not only are the twins different genders, but Sebastian is head and shoulders taller than his twin sister, a little matter the woman he has just married seems not to have noticed!

But we suspend disbelief in exchange for promise of entertainment, and entertainment there is in this rollicking production. Though fighting the sound of motorcycles riding back and forth across the bridge into Winters and wind that blew the on-stage trees over several times, the cast continued on gamely and turned in an evening worth the drive out to Winters.

The production is edited and lasts just two hours (including a 20 minute intermission) from start to finish. “We say the beautiful poetry, but we cut some of the extraneous scenes to make it run well,” says Germaine Hupe, who also acts as narrator and plays Maria, Olivia’s gentlewoman. “Gentlewoman” is an apt description of Hupe, who is gracious and “gentle,” whether she’s setting the scene, tending to Olivia, or plotting a fiendish trick on Malvolio (Michael Barbour), Olivia’s pompous head steward.

Trent Beeby is Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, and gives a solid performance.

But perhaps the night belongs to Larry Justice, as Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, whose drunken revels are legendary. Justice is over the top and very funny, as is his foil, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Philip Pittman), who puts up with a lot in the hope of an opportunity to woo the fair Olivia.

Dahn turns in a fine performance as Viola, completely believable in her male garb and in her feelings for Orsino.

JoAnn May is a controlled, regal Olivia, finding her grieving heart reawakened by her growing feelings for the young Cesario.

Barbour is less malevolent as Malvolio than pompously righteous, and later downright silly as he plays into the hands of the crew determined to bring him down a peg or two.

Kirsten Myers is particularly enjoyable as Feste, Olivia’s jester. She displays a lovely singing voice and her laughter as she plots with Maria, Toby and Andrew to make a fool of Malvolio is infectious

Director Howard Hupe shows up in two brief roles, as a Sea Captain in the opening scene, helping settle Viola onto the island, and later as the priest who marries Sebastian and Olivia. Though Hupe is generally in the director’s chair, even in these two small roles, his acting talent is apparent.

Others in the cast include Maureen Hallett as Orsino’s valet and, later, a police officer, Stephen Catanio as Antonio, a friend of Sebastian, Colleen Hallett as Olivia’s servant, and Tom Neely as a police officer.

The setting is lovely for this summer’s evening comedy, with a stage nestled along the banks of Putah Creek, and a nice terraced seating area (though patrons might be more comfortable if they bring chairs). At $5 per ticket, it’s definitely an affordable way to spend the evening. All children under 12 are admitted free, if they come with a responsible adult.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Longtime Jewel In Winters' Crown

This feature article appeared in the Davis Enterprise on 8/7/08

Fortunately for the town of Winters, and the outlying communities, Howard Hupe, one of the founders of the Winters Community Theater, and a regular director there, decided against taking a 14 year old bride.

Hupe, a native of Pittsburgh, PA met Davis resident Germaine Walgenbach (whose father, Jake, the owner of Jake’s Plumbing since 1948 was a beloved town character) on a blind date. Howard was attending the Army Language School (now called the Defense Language Institute) in Monterey and Germaine was doing her first year of teaching in Pacific Grove They fell in love and became engaged. Hupe went off to Saudi Arabia, as the first American other than embassy personnel in that country.

He traveled around the country with an interpreter and, as Germaine recalls the story, happened to notice one day that the interpreter looked particularly happy. The interpreter replied that he had just returned from his second honeymoon.

Howard said "Oh, that's a lovely custom...we do that, too, in our country after several years, we take off with our wife" and the interpreter said "No--this is my new wife. She's 14 and my mother just arranged her and she's absolutely wonderful."

The interpreter then said that he would be very happy to have his mother arrange for a wife for Howard as well, but Howard explained that he had a fiancee back in the states.

“This guy said ‘do you have a picture of her?’ -- this 'old bat' of 22 -- me – so Howard hauled out a picture of me and he just shook his head and said, "tsk tsk...her father must have many sheep and goats!!”

Howard returned to the States, and married Germaine in Georgia, where he was sent to another special school. The two traveled extensively with the Army and lived for three years in Tehran, where Germain taught at the English language school, just before the fall of the Shah.

Germaine recalls having to have armed guards traveling with them on school field trips and one particular occasion when the school bus was being bombarded with rocks. Everyone was lying on the floor to escape the bombardment and their son looked at his mother and said “Don’t ever tell me that Grandpa had to walk three miles to school when he was a kid.”

In addition to giving the Hupes a unique world view, their Army experiences also gave them an introduction to theater. Germaine had been a drama major, but “Howard’s theatrical experiences had been limited to playing a tree in his fourth grade play.”

“It was high school,” Howard corrects his wife. “I was much more advanced.”

They were living in Missoula, Montana when they were first married and saw a notice that a group was auditioning for roles in a play. “I wanted to try out, so I dragged Howard along,” said Germaine. “They took one look at him (he was a hunk)...and had that voice...and they cast him and me. That was the beginning of it.”

The Hupes continued to be active in theater wherever they were stationed because almost every military post had some sort of a theater, usually run by the women’s club, who would get their husbands involved as well.

When Howard retired, after 25 years in the military, they moved back to California, where Germaine’s roots were. Howard planned to go to graduate school to get a Masters Degree in counseling, and Germaine applied for a teaching position in 17 different locations. She was hired to teach English at Winters High School.

“I was only going to stay two years while Howard completed graduate school but I fell in love with the town and the people.”

When he completed his degree, Howard also joined the faculty of Winters High School as a counselor.

Though they lived in Davis, the couple became quite active in the social life of Winters. A few years after the Hupes’ participation in the 1976 Centennial Festival in Winters, there was a movement to start a theater group. Howard explains, “It was Shirley Rominger, who has since died; Linda Glick, our current theater group president; Jeannie Vaughn; Germaine’s brother Wayne; Germain and I who decided to form a group.”

They sought permission from the city of Winters to use the community center, currently under construction, for performances, and it was granted. In fact, the very first production was a benefit for Yolo Family Service Agency, and Howard explains that “the kitchen floor was still unpaved. Just dirt. And there were no stalls in the bathroom, so it was a unique experience.”

But the fledgling company took root and began putting on 4-5 productions a year. With the demise of the Davis Comic Opera Company, the Winters Community Theater is now the oldest continuously running community theater in Yolo County.

Elly Award winning actor/director Gil Sebastian got his start with the Winters Community Theater.

“When I was in high school I had no desire to do theater,” he said. “I was really shy and didn’t like performing in front of people. But I had a girlfriend at the time who was the city clerk in Winters. They were doing a melodrama and she said there was a role for a butler and that I would only have two lines. I said it scared me to be on stage, but she dared me and I went out, delivered my two lines and I’ve been doing it ever since -- 27 years now!”

Sebastian explained that the Hupes made a very comfortable environment. “Howard was more than just a director; he was like a surrogate father. I learned so much from him–his demeanor and attitude. I even learned how to tie a tie (I was 28 years old at the time). It was always that family atmosphere, always a family group.”

It was that comfortable environment that drew Amy Vyvlecka, now a director with the Woodland Opera House. “Howard and Germaine are just delightful people, and it reflects on their whole theater experience. What loved about doing shows in Winters was that it made theater fun again.”

Vyvlecka was a theater major at San Francisco State and when someone dropped out of a production of “Twelfth Night” in Winters, she was asked to take over the role. “I didn’t know Shakespeare. I didn’t even like Shakespeare, but I agreed to do the role.” And she began to learn how to perform Shakespeare.

“Both Howard and Germaine have this love of Shakespeare and of teaching and they let people explore characters. Now I do love Shakespeare,” says Vyvlecka, pointing that she has performed in three of the summer Shakespeare productions.

“Germaine’s love for Shakespeare is just incredible,” added Sebastian “She is so thorough. She does an incredible job.”

But Shakespeare is only the summer production. There are all those plays at the community center throughout the rest of the year. Winters has been fortunate to have enormous community support.

“By the time we put on our 25th play, which was something like 20 years ago, more than 600 people had participated,” Germain remembers. “Now we’ve done more than 100 productions and it must be up to about 1500, in terms of either acting or helping to build sets or being spear carriers or helping with costumes and this kind of thing, which is pretty amazing for a town that size.”

“We’re pretty much non-threatening and we welcome new people without any hesitation. If there’s a part for them and we think they’ll do well, we’ll put them on stage,” says Howard.

The group advertises in all the outlying areas, but their core of members come from Winters Woodland and Davis. “They get a talent pool from within the community that’s pretty consistent,” Sebastian says.

“We don’t have a very large pool to draw from that a lot of the other local theater companies do,” says Howard. “I attribute that to the fact that their venues are a little bit more sophisticated than the community center and there is the added distance, particularly during the winter months. That additional 12 miles in the fog and the rain is enough to dissuade some people.”

“It really has a good diverse representation of community members,” said Vyvlecka. “One of my favorites is Larry Justice, who was the sheriff for the town for years. He is a sheriff but he’s so funny on stage.”

Joannie Bryant, a stay at home mom currently serving on the 13-member Board of Directors, has been performing with Winters Community Theater for several years now, her first production a two-woman play directed by Linda Glick, followed by“Twelfth Night”in the summer of 2004. “Howard asked me if I would be interested in being on the board, and I agreed,” she said, adding that “It’s fun–but my husband might not agree, since I spend a lot of time doing publicity.”

Publicity must be working. Seventy-six children auditioned for the recent production of “Sound of Music.” They double-cast the children’s roles, to give as many children as possible a chance to perform.

“Costuming in that play was a killer because we double cast,” remembers Germaine. “We tried to get the most talented kids and generally hoped they’d fit the costumes, but they didn’t always, so I ended up making 13 matching capes for the final scene where they perform at the concert and then take the trek across the Alps into Switzerland.” She also had some dirndls from their four years living in Germany, which she put to good use along with “an armload of clothing” donated by a Austrian neighbor.

Costuming has been a learned art for Germaine. “I did not sew. I came from a family of beautiful seamstresses. Whenever I needed something, I just said ‘mom, can you fix it?” When we got involved in the theater I found that I had to, so I started stapling hems and that kind of thing. Then we got some talented seamstresses who were willing to join our group and they taught me a few things, so I now know not as a seamstress so much as a “rigger.” I can take three Salvation Army dresses and make a decent costume out of them by rigging. It’s been a great experience; I’ve loved it.”

They rent storage space in Winters to house the costumes and set and prop pieces. The Hupes are always on the prowl for something that might work in a future production. “I will buy the weirdest collection of things,” said Germaine. When Lawrence’s Department Store closed in Davis, she spied a shield and some swords that were being used for decoration. “They were nothing but papier mache but they looked wonderful and I bought ‘em all for $10 and we’ve used them many times. I knew if we ever did a period play we could use them or a modern play set in an old castle. We’ve used them for that too.”

Gil Sebastian performed in twenty-five productions in Winters, and returned later to direct for the company. “It’s difficult to do staging at the community theater,” he said, “There are no wings and no backstage.” “The Wizard of Oz” was a huge production and they built extensions out into the audience. “It was tough, but we did it.”

Howard’s dream is a new performing arts center. “One of our goals right now is to try to work with the city to come up with a performing arts center, not just for us, but the high school needs it, the elementary school needs it, Parks & Rec needs it–something that can be theirs and they can work with, where they have graduated seating and things like that. I think it will eventually come to fruition in Winters because I think the town wants it and the city is behind it. It’s just a matter of finding a suitable venue and finding enough money and getting the grants.”

Like most community theaters, money (or lack of it) is a constant problem. Royalties alone take a huge chunk of admission revenue. The royalty for “Sound of Music,” for example, was $2,000, which is a big chunk of money when you only charge $10 for a ticket. Sometimes you have to be creative with finding funding.

“We had an antique auction once,” remembers Howard. “One of our supporters arranged for an auctioneer and we raised several thousand dollars on that auction which was actually attended by a lot of dealers.”

“And we’ve had a few ‘angels,’” says Germain, with a smile.

Bryant says that the board is working on their five-year plan and their ten-year plan. “We’re hoping to catch up with the rest of the world,” she laughs.

The Winters Community Theater is a little gem of an institution which owes its longevity to the dedication of a core group of people, primarily Howard and Germaine Hupe.

“I adore Howard and Germaine,” says Amy Vyvlecka. “ I think what they’re doing is really wonderful. It gives people the opportunity to do really great plays. It gives people a chance to try out some of these roles. So many people have this opportunity to be part of this family they’ve created.”

Gil Sebastian agrees. “Performing for Howard (who directed all of my 25 shows there) taught me some valuable life and work lessons, as well as theater etiquette. The confidence I gained, the ability to stay calm amid chaos, the ability to engage and hold an audience, the importance of humor, to respect others as you wish to be respected –– all have made me a better person, and I seriously owe all of that to Howard.”

Imagine how things might have changed in Yolo County, had Howard accepted that offer of a 14-year-old bride.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

My Fair Lady

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Music Circus’s new production of “My Fair Lady,” directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, and running this week at the Wells Fargo Pavilion. This is a show that I have seen many, many times and have a special fondness for and in order to impress me, it has to be done exceptionally well. Fortunately, this production has done the Lerner & Loewe musical exceptionally well.

Right off the bat with the sparkling choreography of Josh Walden, the audience knew that it was in for a treat.

I was not sure, at first, how I was going to feel about Richard B. Watson as Henry Higgins, the brilliant, arrogant linguist who agrees to give lessons to the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Kate Baldwin) so that she can become “a lady in a flower shop.”

Anyone who has ever seen the original stage play, or the movie, with Rex Harrison and either Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn has a mental image of the age difference between Higgins and Eliza as being significant. Higgins is a crusty older man and Eliza is a sweet young thing.

In this production, however, Watson and Baldwin appear much closer together in age, so a romance between them does not seem implausible. It adds an extra air of sexual tension to the scenes and Watson so quickly dispels any doubts as to his ability to handle the role that I wondered how I could have had any doubt.

For her part, Baldwin is enchanting. She is more believable as the Cockney Eliza than some I’ve seen and perfect as the “lady” she becomes. Her entrance in the gown she is wearing to the ball at which she will make her debut in high society was stunning. (Costumer Leon Wiebers outdid himself on that one!)

Her best acting may be in the scene where she says nothing at all. As Higgins, his staff, and Col. Pickering are dancing and celebrating the triumph of the ball, totally ignoring Eliza, the look on her face was eloquent and heart-breaking.

Music Circus favorite Ron Wisniski is a bombastic Col. Pickering, come from India to meet with Higgins. It is Pickering who dares Higgins to take on the project of turning Eliza into a lady and he is a major presence in all of his scenes.

J.B. Adams is a real scene stealer as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle who has show stopping numbers in both acts, with “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

Dan Callaway is the lovelorn Freddie, spending his time in front of Eliza’s doorstep hoping to catch a glimpse of her.

Annie O’Sullivan does a nice job as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper, and Melinda Tanner was delicious as his mother.

Rodger McDonald, a familiar name particularly to Woodland audiences, is fun in the small role of Zoltan Karpathy, Higgins’ old student who now “uses the science of speech more to blackmail and swindle than teach.”

“My Fair Lady” is a big show with big scenes, difficult to pull off in theater in the round, but Scenic Designer Christian Harvey Boy does beautifully with what he has to work with (which includes what seems to be a larger than usual group of set changers). The scene at the Ascot races was particularly clever, and again, Costumer Wiebers gets high marks for the beautiful costumes, reminiscent of the original Cecil Beaton gowns, and the amazingly intricate hats.

The Wells Fargo Pavilion was filled to capacity on opening night, so tickets may be difficult to get, but if you are fortunate to see this production you won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

On the Razzle

Tom Stoppard’s “On the Razzle,” currently presented at the Veterans Memorial Theater by Acme Theater Company, is the story of two store clerks who decide to go out on the town (“on the razzle”) while their boss is going to a parade and then meeting his fiancee who runs a women’s dress shop. Accidentally, the two guys stumble into the very same dress shop, while trying to hide from their boss. They misrepresent their identities to the dress shop owner and her friend, the women convince them to take them out to dinner at a big fancy restaurant (for which they have no money to pay).

Uh. Haven’t we seen this before? With music?

Well, yes, we have. Actually the original idea for this play came from a 19th century Austrian farce (“Einen Fux will er sich machen “) which spawned Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” in 1938 which again spawned Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman’s “Hello, Dolly!”in 1968. “On the Razzle” (1981) takes much of the plot of “Matchmaker,” but eliminates the matchmaker herself, so you will find no Dolly Levi, but much of the rest of the plot elements will be very familiar, with a little “Shop Around the Corner” (or “You’ve Got Mail,” depending on your age) thrown in for good measure.

The production, directed by Daniel “Pheelyks” Guttenberg, marks the new era in Acme history, with the retirement of founder David Burmester, who (wrote and) directed his last Acme play in May. In fact, this was the very first opening night of an Acme play I’ve attended where Burmester was not in the audience.

The Stoppard play is very funny, replete with puns and spoonerisms. Crystal clear diction and impeccable timing are necessary to get maximum effect and sadly, this was not always the case with the young cast.

Egypt Howard has the role of Herr Zangler, the tongue twisted shop owner going off to meet his fiancee in the big city. Ms. Howard did well conveying the part of a gruff old man, but so much of her dialog was rushed and muffled that one had to strain to get the humor, much of which was unfortunately lost. This is particularly disappointing in the opening scene, which needs to be performed with the timing and clarity of a stand-up comedian.

I thought perhaps her problem was that the lines were too rushed until Alex Kravitz came on stage as Weinberl, Zangler’s top clerk. Kravitz’s delivery was equally as rapid fire, but every word crystal clear, every joke hitting the mark.

Kane Chai, as Christopher, Weinberl’s assistant, is likewise wonderful, skillfully handling the lines and successfully getting the most out of the humor of his role.

Delany Pelz as Melchior, the “new man” that Zangler hires, occasionally muffles her lines, but her stage presence is so electric that it really doesn’t matter. We get the humor whether the words are crisp or not...and most of the time her delivery is just fine.

Torin Lusebrink, playing Sonders, the debt-ridden suitor of Zangler’s niece, Marie, is a very promising young performer. He has an easy manner on stage and is one of those actors you enjoy watching.

Emily Tracy, always lovely to watch, plays Frau Fischer, the widow who has her eye on Weinberl and who has a surprise or two up her sleeve.

Pabo Frias has the small role of the lecherous Coachman, lusting after every woman he sees (“is she a go-er?”) with an inordinate fascination for breasts (“are they round like apples, or pointed like pears?”). He was funny in the role, but I would like to have seen it played a bit broader.

Vivian Breckenridge is very funny as the French maid Lisette, who is having a liaison in the kitchen with the Coachman, but we only know it from her assorted stages of dishabille as she runs to answer the front door.

Others in the cast include Carrie Miller as Madame Knorr, Kathleen Johnston as Zangler’s niece Marie, Anna Eckert-Kramer as Gertrude, Emma Kurtz as Miss Blumenblatt, Hannah May as the Foreigner, Sean Olivares as the tailor Hupfer, Danielle Wogulis as Phillipine, Jeremy Reinhard as the Constable, and GG Gilbert-Igelsrud as the Ragamuffin.

John Ramos’ set design consists of a huge white platform with a building wall in the middle, which allowed easy change of scenery by rotating the platform (also fun to see the colorful costumes against the white while the cast was changing scenes)

This first outing without Burmester at the helm shows that its founder has left Acme in good hands. The show could use a little work on delivery in spots, but is still a very funny, very enjoyable production.