Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Drive around Davis these days, and you'll see carpets of fallen leaves waiting to be swept up.

If you're looking to do something more creative than just sweeping up those leaves, I highly recommend the production of 'Stomp,' continuing through Jan. 4 at Sacramento's Community Center Theater. The show opens with a dazzling display of what can be done with a push broom, and is certain to add flair to any humdrum sweeping task!

'Stomp' is a 90-minute, nonstop, action-filled show where one learns that just about anything - from garbage cans to plastic bags - can become rhythmic noisemakers. In fact, as one who has raised a number of children, I imagined the upbringing of these performers, their harried mothers yelling 'Will you please stop drumming on the laundry basket!?' ... now having to admit that their kids found a way to turn an annoying childhood habit into a lucrative career.

'Stomp,' a unique combination of percussion, movement and visual comedy, was created in the summer of 1991 in Brighton, in the United Kingdom. The show was the result of a 10-year collaboration between its creators, Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas.

They first worked together in 1981, as members of the street band Pookiesnackenburger and the theater group Cliff Hanger. Together, these groups presented a series of street comedy musicals at the Edinburgh festival throughout the early '80s. After two albums, a UK TV series and extensive touring throughout Europe, Pookiesnackenburger also produced the highly acclaimed 'Bins' commercial for Heineken lager.

The piece originally was written and choreographed by Cresswell, as part of the band's stage show; it proved to be the starting point for the climactic garbage can dance in 'Stomp.'

In 1991, Cresswell and McNicholas first created 'Stomp,' previewing at London's Bloomsbury Theater and premiering at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, where it became the Guardian's Critic's Choice and won the Daily Express 'Best of Fringe' award.

'Stomp' began its run at New York's Orpheum Theater in February 1994, and it quickly went on to win both an Obie and a Drama Desk award for 'most unique theater experience.' By that summer, the first American cast was in place at the Orpheum, freeing the original cast for sell-out tours of North America and Japan.

This incarnation lists 12 performers - John Angeles, Shola Cole, Harmony Costa, Antwan Davis, Michelle Dorrance, Brad Holland, Louis Lebovitch, Michael R. Landis, Guy Mandozzi, Justin Myles, Elec Simon and Niicholas Young - although only eight appear on stage during any individual show.

No program credit is given for the multi-level set design, but the stage is dominated by a metal wall hung with all sorts of noisemakers, from hub caps and highway signs to oversized plastic bins.

Steve McNicholas and Neil Tiplady are credited with lighting design, the lights playing a huge role in the show's feel. Some of the best numbers are lit from each side of the stage, casting large, eerie shadows on the theater walls, and giving it the effect of some ancient tribe dancing by the light of a fire in a cave somewhere.

One of the most clever bits is a kitchen sink number (proving that this cast does, indeed, use everything up to and including the kitchen sink). Watch the guy on the far left, for a very funny ending to this number.

Another number involves oversize inner tubes attached by bungee cords around the waist, giving the whole cast the look of babies in the Michelin tire commercials.

And one clever bit finds the cast going through garbage bags and pulling out all sorts of things, like a paper cup with a straw in it, and finding out what sounds they can get out of each. (Tip: A banana peel is not a good noisemaker!)

The audience also gets involved, as increasingly more complicated hand claps are demonstrated for everybody watching.

This show's appeal was apparent in the family group that sat next to me, all of whom seemed to love the production: a white-haired grandmotherly type, who looked like she might have gotten lost on her way to a Lawrence Welk retrospective; two 30-something parents; and two candy cane-sucking little boys, who began experimenting with the different sounds they could make with their hands as they clapped for each numbers.

I had a feeling that Mom soon would lose her garbage can lids after they got home, or that she'd soon find her kids walking around on aluminum cans.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

'So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye!'

It's not easy to stump Stephen Peithman about musical theater, so I was tickled to have seen a musical that he'd never heard of.

It was called "Turn to the Right" — a musical about baking apple pies — written and produced by "Beverly Hillbillies" actor Buddy Ebsen. It was, without a doubt, the worst musical I'd ever seen.

I'm not sure that it survived into a second week, before fading into obscurity.

And the man who can speak with authority on shows such as Irvin Berlin's 1940 nonhit "The Louisiana Purchase," or Cole Porter's 1929 "Fifty Million Frenchmen," never had heard of my apple pie musical.

There can't be more than a handful of musicals that Peithman hasn't seen, studied, written about and purchased as an original cast recording. His vast library of musical theater recordings — he doesn't know exactly how many ("a couple thousand, I'm sure") — had a lot to do with his weekly radio show, Capital Public Radio's "Musical Stages."

"I pitched the show back in 1983," he recalled. "I told them I thought this was a niche that their programming wasn't handling. I thought a good market existed for it. No one else in the area was doing it.

"And I said I could provide all the recordings myself."

The station agreed, and the show soon developed a loyal following.

But times change. On Sunday, "Musical Stages" will broadcast its final show.

Peithman felt, for many reasons, that this was the time to pull the plug. For one thing, fewer new musicals are coming onto the scene, and he found he was repeating himself more. Additionally, musical theater no longer is the proving ground for "pop songs," as was the case for so many years. We all remember songs from musicals that became juke box hits.

Once the need to build hit tunes was gone, composers began to write songs that were ... quite different.

"Ultimately that probably worked just fine," Peithman said, "but when you're listening, it takes more time than people are willing to give to them, because they may be very complex. And some of them just aren't that interesting. You see them on the stage, and you can enjoy them because they're part of the larger picture."

Not to mention the content issue of many new musicals making it to Broadway.

"I felt I couldn't do some shows. I did edit some, like 'Spamalot,' and remove objectionable words so the FCC wouldn't get on my case."

I actually stumped Peithman with a question that seemed rather obvious: Where did he get his love of musical theater?

"Good question," he responded. "I'm really not quite sure."

While he can't pinpoint any one event or show that had a major impact on his life, he does remember listening to a recording of "South Pacific" because his father had served in the South Pacific, and they had the record album at home.

"My mother did community theater. She didn't really sing, and I don't remember any musicals," he recalled, still struggling with the question.

He remembers seeing the old Hollywood musicals. ("I probably saw every screen musical that came out from the 1950s on.") He always had a love of music, but he never saw a live stage show until he got to high school, when he appeared in "Oklahoma" and "South Pacific."

"They were huge musicals, and everybody was in them."

By the time he reached Humboldt State, he had begun to collect recordings of musicals. He remembers buying "Kiss Me Kate," and his sister had a recording of "The Pajama Game" and "Carmen Jones."

"It was a rather eclectic mix," he admitted.

"I'm not sure how people pick music that appeals to them. The thing with a musical is that it's a self-contained world, and it has an organizational principle to it. It's not like listening to separate pieces of music, although I'm sure some people listen to musicals that way.

"I also was writing plays, and my grade school was very big into music and theater, so I was already writing and performing in my own plays — sometimes with a cast of thousands — which my mother dutifully came to see, no matter how embarrassing they might have been.

"I think I understood the construction process of how these things work. It was intriguing, watching how songs interrelate."

When Peithman moved to Davis in 1970, all the pieces began to fit together.

"I started seeing more shows here, and being in them. I was finishing up my graduate studies. The drama department at that time looked down on musicals, and didn't want to do them, so some faculty and students got together, got some funding from the Associated Students and created what they called the ASUCD Student Musical Theater Company, which was a wondrous thing.

"We did summer shows on the main stage, and that's where I really became involved with theater. I met Lenore (Turner) Heinson that year."

He was not cast in the fledgling company's first show, "The Fantasticks," but he did win the role of Dr. Carrasco in the next big musical, "Man of La Mancha," and met people in the production who have remained lifelong friends.

Peithman quickly became a staple in the Davis theater community, and was a founding member, actor and director for the Davis Comic Opera Company throughout its 30 year history.

In 1991, became the writer and emcee for the annual Citizens Who Care fundraising winter concert, a project that is remarkably similar to some "Musical Stages" broadcasts.

The meat of "Musical Stages" was playing the recording of a show, with Peithman adding background information and describing what was taking place on stage.

"I did all the shows that were great, and a lot of shows that weren't so great.

"Those are always the fun ones."

He introduced his audience to many short-lived shows, such as 1951's "Flahooley," by Sammy Fain & E.Y. Harburg, which starred Yma Sumac and Barbara Cook in their first Broadway roles ... and Sumac's only Broadway role. "Drat! The Cat!" (1968), by Milton Schafer and Ira Levin — the latter best known for "Rosemary's Baby" — concerned a female cat burglar and starred Elliot Gould as an inept police detective, and Leslie Ann Warren as the cat.

Or consider "Minnie's Boys" (1970), by Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady, which starred Shelley Winters as the mother of the Marx Brothers.

That type of format permits only so many things over the years, however, and Peithman began to do variations on the original theme.

"I started having fun by doing things like an all-star 'Annie Get Your Gun' or an all-star 'South Pacific,' in which case I'd play the whole score, but sung by different people from different recordings.

"It's interesting to hear different takes and different styles."

Another variation was the compilation show, where Peithman would fit music to a theme.

"I've always been intrigued by the connections between things. If you're really into the subject, at some point you start seeing how this connects to that, and that connects to this. Sometimes you see things that people totally miss, because it's such a part of your life or your thought process.

"It occurred to me, for example, that almost every American musical for many decades always had a working woman a female lead. I thought that was interesting, because you tend to think of women in the work force as something that hit big during World War II, and then went down the drain a bit, and then crawled back out again later.

"But in musical theater, the female lead is almost always someone who works.

"There are some good reasons for that. If the woman is to meet her man, it's hard if she stays home all the time. And where she works has an impact on the show."

Peithman based an entire show on awful title tunes.

"The worst one was 'Her First Roman,' which was a musicalization of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra. It's actually a rather tuneful, enjoyable little song, but totally stupid and actually one of the worst songs.

"Another was a Jerry Herman song that was the title tune for 'Dear World.' It was just dreadful. The words are dreadful; the tune is good. I don't think Herman could write a bad tune, but the words are just stupid."

Please take your medicine, dear world,
Please keep your pressure down, dear world.
Promise to thrive on each word your doctor speaks,
He'll bring the roses back to your cheeks.
For you've been a pallid and blah world,
Stick out your tongue and say "Ahh," world.
We'll give you plasma and tonic, by the spoon,
So be a dear world,
Take your medicine, dear world,
Keep your pressure down, dear world,
And get well soon!

Peithman did a show about songs that say "I love you" without saying the actual words.

"Musical theater writers, over time, began to think 'I can't write another I love you song,' so they wrote songs that are love songs but don't say 'I love you' ... songs like 'People Will Say We're in Love' or 'This Can't Be Love' or 'It's Almost Like Being in Love.' That was fascinating."

This fascination with themes leads directly to life after "Musical Stages."

Starting in January, Peithman will present what is scheduled as a six-week series called "Connections" — a sort of music-based nod to James Burke's famed PBS television series of the same title — where he'll examine the musical links between seemingly unlikely people or events.

"I'll do a series of shows that will find the connection between composers, between musical works, maybe look at styles or some concepts.

"The first one is 'The Beggar's Opera' and 'The Messiah.' That basically talks about Handel making his name in England. He's a German who's writing operas in Italian and living in England. Go figure.

"It is true that Italian operas were losing their appeal by the time 'The Beggar's Opera' came along, but that one put the nail in the coffin. So Handel realized there wouldn't be a market for his operas any more, so what was he going to do?

"There were several issues: He was running his own opera company, and it was falling apart because they were too expensive. You have big shows, lots of people, sets and costumes ... because almost all of the operas he wrote were classical mythology. You had to pay the theater folks, you had all these costumes, you had set changes ... everything was very expensive.

"And they were all in Italian!

"So he realized he had to do something in English, which didn't take sets and didn't need costumes. Ta-dah ... oratorio! That's absolutely true. So that's one sort of connection.

"Another one is the Paganini 'Caprice for Violin,' which for some reason just took off; everyone wanted to make music based on that one tune. The one that most people use nowadays is Rachmaninoff's 'Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini,' but there were lots of others, including one by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

"His brother, Julian (the cellist), bet that Lloyd Webber couldn't write a classical work based on rock music, so he wrote variations based on Paganini's 'Caprice for Violin.'

"Also in that show, I have Benny Goodman playing something he did, as well as all 22 minutes of the Rachmaninoff, but also pieces by Schumann, Brahms and Liszt ... all based on Paganini."

Peithman insisted he could devote 18 shows to music that has been written around the Faust legend alone.

The future of "Connections" will depend on audience response, but listening to Peithman's fertile brain churning, he clearly has enough ideas to give it a life at least as long as that of "Musical Stages."

Sunday's finale of "Musical Stages" will be a rebroadcast of an earlier show, devoted to songs about New York City, at the end of which the curtain will come down on a long, successful run.

But it's clear that Sacramento radio audiences haven't heard the last of Stephen Peithman.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


The Sacramento Theatre Company has brought back its wildly popular holiday run of 'Cinderella': Mrs. Baden-Rotten and her daughters are terrorizing sweet Cinder once again, and delighting audiences in the prospect.

This version of 'Cinderella' - book and lyrics by Kate Hawley, music by Greg Coffin - embraces the form of a traditional British pantomime, which often takes fairy tales and delivers them in a manner that can be enjoyed by both parents and children. The humor may go over the kids' heads while tickling adult funny bones, but children will be delighted by the slapstick comedy, colorful costumes and sets, and the opportunity to be included in the story.

It's a win-win situation for all. STC's production, directed by Peggy Shannon, does not disappoint.

This is an age-old story - Prince finds girl, prince loses girl, girl loses shoe, prince finds shoe, prince finds girl and almost everybody lives happily ever after - but with quite a few twists and turns along the way.

Heading the list is Tristan Rumery, as Prince Charming; he has a deliciously smooth voice that blends beautifully with Hilary Wells in the title role. (She alternates with Morgan Cook.) Wells' demeanor and innocence are in stark contract to her stepmother and stepsisters ... and it doesn't hurt that she has a wonderful voice, as well.

Cross-dressing roles are a traditional aspect of pantomime, and this production couldn't do better than the trio of William Elsman, as Mrs. Baden-Rotten; Michael RJ Campbell, reprising his role as daughter Goneril; and Brian Rodda, as daughter Regan,

The irrepressible Elsman towers above all in his impossibly high heels, camping around the stage in heavy make-up, and wearing an outfit that would put a Tiffany lamp to shame. It's 'La Cage aux Folles' meets Mother Goose, with the generous help of costume designer B. Modern.

Campbell is the whiny, pouty, zaftig sister, with kewpie-doll lips and wispy pony tails, who causes everyone on stage - and in the band - to bounce whenever s/he jumps.

New to STC is local favorite Jim Lane, who for some reason is left off the program's cast list as Baron Hard-Up, Cinderella's perennially inebriated father, who is totally smitten with his overbearing wife and has let her run him into ruin. Lane provides many chuckles, whether staggering around the stage with his foot in a bucket, or trying to remember ... well ... anything.

New to the traditional plotline of 'Cinderella' are many characters, starting with Caleb Salmon as Buttons, Cinderella's artistic best friend, who is not-so-secretly smitten with her. His woodland dance, with a lovable, large, picnic-basket-stealing bear (Jared Lee), is a lot of fun. Lee's definitely a favorite with younger audience members.

A bit of fairy tale crossover also brings in Bo Peep (Jessica Goldman). Peep is a rabid, anti-monarchy feminist with a Scottish brogue so thick she may spray a few folks in the front row, with her more throaty syllables. Peep herds a flock of sheep as agile as the Rockettes; they all sashay around the stage doing bumps, grinds and high kicks. It's a tour-de-force for choreographer Michele Hillen-Noufer and dancers Tayler Anderson, Maryann Good, Leah Hassett, Ella Isaguirre, JuliAnn Machschefes and Amanda Salmon.

Peep's independence is a real turn-on for the prince's best friend, Dandini (Kyle Welling).

No Cinderella would be complete without a fairy godmother, and Lucinda Hitchcock Cone is charmingly ditsy. Thanks to Giulio Perone's scenic design and Victor En Yu Tan's lighting design, Cone pulls off a pretty impressive transformation of pumpkin and sheep into coach and horses.

Rounding out the cast are Barry Hubbard as the King, and Orlana Klip as the Queen, both down-to-earth monarchs; she even dusts the castle in her frilly apron, and forgets to take it off when the time comes for the big ball.

The show includes plenty of audience participation, which is a lot of fun for the kids, especially during the search for someone to wear the glass slipper.

The company's small band - keyboardist/conductor Gerald Rheault, percussionist Jim Nakayama and trumpeter Tom Shorba - provides a smooth accompaniment for the songs. The musicians also interact nicely with the performers.

'Cinderella' may not be everyone's idea of the ideal Christmas show, but one thing cannot be denied: If you're seeking fun for the entire family, this production can't be topped.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Every Xmas Story Ever Told

We've seen the news reports; we've felt it in our pocketbooks.

There's no denying it: Economic times are tough. People are scaling back on all sorts of things, and seeing fewer Christmas theatrical productions may be one of the cost-cutting measures being considered.

Well, Capital Stage has come up with a solution. Why agonize over which productions to see ... when you can see all of them at once?

'Every Christmas Story Ever Told' is a hilarious show that covers everything from 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' to Charles Dickens' beloved 'A Christmas Carol,' with some surprising other stories in between.

This fast-paced show is written by Michael Carleton, John Alvarez and Jim Fitzgerald, with original music by Will Knapp. This production, directed by Greg Alexander, stars a delightful trio of weirdoes - Anthony D'Juan, Gary Martinez and Jonathan Williams - who play (oddly enough) Anthony, Gary and Jonathan.

In the same vein as the 'reduced Shakespeare' productions, the authors have taken just about every beloved holiday story in existence, added a bit of Christmas history from around the world - who knew that Christmas had such a black side? - and a few familiar classic Christmas commercials, and blended everything more or less seamlessly into about 90 minutes of laughter.

The play concludes with a zany rendition of every Christmas carol ever sung, complete with choreography. Sort of.

As far as the play's plot is concerned, Jonathan wants to put on a traditional version of Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol,' the way it was written; he tries valiantly to do so, but his fellow actors are tired of doing only Dickens. They want to salute all the other 'BHCs' (beloved holiday classics) instead.

Jonathan finally relents, on the condition that he also be allowed to perform a straight version of 'A Christmas Carol.'

The trio elicits suggestions from the audience for favorite movies, television programs, Christmas foods, traditions, commercials and so forth. It doesn't stop at Christmas, but also gives a nod to Hanukkah ('It bears similarities to other Jewish festivals: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat!') and Kwanzaa ('The best part of Kwanzaa is that you'll never see a special called 'A Very Brady Kwanzaa.' ')

The meat of this show, though, is its retelling of all the stories we know so well.

Jonathan is reluctantly dragged into the project when he dresses as the title character for a very funny send-up of 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas.' He's also a fabulous Scotsman and shines as Hermie, the elf who wants to be a dentist in 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' (hilariously renamed, for copyright reasons).

In Act 2, Williams does a credible James Stewart imitation in a salute to 'It's a Wonderful Life.'

Zany D'Juan is hilarious, whether donning antlers and a shiny nose, or saying nothing at all - eloquently - as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Memories of his performance will keep you giggling throughout the holiday season.

As for Martinez, well, you just want to wrap him up and take him home. He plays all the lovable characters to the hilt, with the sincerity that he gives Linus reciting 'The True Meaning of Christmas.' You can't leave the theater after seeing his performance without Christmas in your heart.

Of course, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without fruitcake, and the trio gives salute with 'What the Hell's the Deal with Fruitcake,' which includes a salute to 'The Dating Game' ... 'where we learn all the latest facts and figures on that fruitiest and nuttiest of cakes.'

Nearly every well-known Christmas show is covered during the 60-minute first act, even if only through bad puns or passing comments.

Act 2, only 20 minutes long, is designed to be Jonathan's promised 'A Christmas Carol' ... until Gary realizes they've forgotten 'It's a Wonderful Life.' Until you see these two classics woven together, you may not realize how much alike they are.

Williams has designed a clever, utilitarian set that folds and unfolds. Rebecca Redmond is credited with costume design, and some of the quick changes are quite ingenious. Steve Decker's lighting design and Brad Thompson's sound design also are critical to the play's effectiveness.

And as you leave the Capital Stage theater, you'll definitely be ready for the holiday season ... and you'll likely go about greeting everyone with a cheery 'Mata-Ki-Te-Rangi' ('Merry Christmas,' in Icelandic).