Tuesday, April 29, 2008


There's no way to put this gently: I hated 'Magdalene,' which continues through May 11 at the Sacramento Theatre Company.

Singer/songwriter Katie Ketchum wrote and performs her one-woman musical translation of the 'Gospel of Mary of Magdala,' as seen through the eyes of a 1950s rockabilly singer. The show toured throughout California for the past two years, before coming to Sacramento, which made me wonder how it survived long enough to get here in the first place.

I searched the Internet and discovered that it has received rave reviews wherever it has played.

So why did I loathe it so much?

Well, at some point, someone got the bright idea to add additional people: Jessica Goldman, to portray Ketchum's dream visions of Mary Magdalene; and musicians Myke Kunkel (percussion) and Michael LaPlante (electric bass).

The expansion of the cast was so recent that an insert had to be placed in the program, to explain that this no longer is a two-act/one-woman show, but a one-act/ multi-performer production.

I assume the changes also were so fresh as to 'justify' Ketchum's need to have a script in front of her, from which she read for a good portion of the performance.

This also would explain all the lines she stumbled over, in a show she already has performed for many months.

Ketchum's narration is just plain stupid, whereas Goldman - who positively sparkles when on stage, and makes the hour bearable - seems to have the best parts of the show. I question whether this was intended, but that's the result of dividing the script.

It does not help that the few plot elements, onto which Ketchum attempts to hang the role of Mary Magdalene in modern Christianity, are so convoluted.

Basically, Ketchum plays a trailer park chick named Marlene, who tries to hold her band together after the leader, Joe (also her partner), is murdered. She's having a hard time; the boys in the band don't want a female leader, even though this is what Joe wanted. Pete, the bass player, is especially confrontational, she tells us, because he's what Marlene calls 'mishomogenized': He doesn't like women.

Get it? Joe and Mary, and then Pete, who really wants to be head of the band?

Goldman pops in from time to time, to play Magdalene in the various roles she has been assigned throughout history. One finds her as Jesus' wife, who leaves Jerusalem to go to France ... a country that didn't exist at the time.

Some of these stories, Marlene tells us, come from 'The Complete Idiot's Guide to Mary Magdalene,' which may explain a lot.

With two exceptions - a lovely brief duet between Marlene and Magdalene, and the closing number - the music is forgettable. The lyrics sound like something you'd get if a bunch of kids started singing songs on a long car trip, without any sense of rhyme or reason, but just to tell some sort of story.

I detested the fact that the small theater house lights never came down, which put me under a spotlight for the entire show. To add insult to injury, the patrons were expected to sing - in English and Yiddish - and clap along.

And were scolded if they didn't do so enthusiastically enough.

I can only assume, from the Web reviews, that Ketchum's original work was outstanding ... but has been ruined by the suggested changes at STC. Sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone.

I'll give Ketchum the benefit of the doubt: She seems to be a genuinely talented singer and musician.

But I wouldn't recommend the show - in its current state - to anyone.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Back Roads

“Back Roads” is the initial production of a new program through the UCD theater and dance department, called “Solo Explorations,” which fuses the interplay of actors’ bodies with their concept of contemporary issues.

This premiere production features two works by graduating MFA acting candidates, Victor Toman and Sara Zimmerman.

Toman’s “El Camino del Diablo” was inspired by his fascination for folkloric devil figurines from Mexico and two books about the current immigration situation between this country and Mexico. Blending acting, singing, guitar playing, and dance, Toman portrays four parts of the story of pollos (a derrogatory term for an undocumented immigrant) transported through the Sonoran Desert, with the idea to deliver them to farmers who had arranged for cheap labor.

This was a tour de force for Toman, who seamlessly transforms himself from innocent pollo to Don Pedro, the one who gathers and sends the workers to the United States, to the Minute Man guarding the border, to the devil figure, in red mask and jacket, playing the guitar and dancing.

Each character, helped by wonderful masks for all but the pollo, are wonderfully fleshed out and Toman is able to present a full picture of what drives each of these men, from the evil Don Pedro and his greed, to the innocent pollo who hopes to earn a bit of money so he can build his wife a home with a concrete floor, to the Minute Man who believes he is protecting his country from evil invaders.

I would have liked the volume on the guitar (excellent work on sound by Bryan Pham) to be just a tad lower...no need for ear-splitting volumes in a small house. It was also unfortunate that the entire final speech by the Minute Man was completely drowned out by the too-loud music, but despite that, Toman has created an excellent short theater piece.

Following “El Camino del Diablo,” the audience was led out of the Wright Building’s Arena Theater, across a courtyard, following a circuitous route marked by chalk arrows, and to another building, where an assortment of chairs which looked like they came from a storage closet somewhere was set up and the air was filled with the smell of freshly popped popcorn (which filled an enormous bowl from which Zimmerman ate during the performance).

We, as audience, may have a certain idea of what “theater” is and yet it is up to the artist to decide for him or herself how to interpret creative ideas. We are often asked to set aside our preconceived notions and just go with the flow. This is certainly the proper mental attitude for Sara Zimmerman’s “Circuitous Route,” a 30 minute piece which she describes as “a sonorous and physical exploration of speech and the unspoken: a winding and poetic piece of physical theater that pulls patrons inside worlds of hesitation and restraint.”

In the middle of her performance, a small child in the audience asked “what’s she doing?” and it was a good question.

With background of sounds from choral oooos, kazoos, tapping noise and other noisemakers, Zimmerman moved from one impossible body position to another, while speaking in stop-start repetitive sentences. At one point I had the mental image of being inside someone’s brain and watching neurons firing.

It was one of those once in a lifetime experiences you had to see to try to understand.

I’m not sure that Zimmerman’s idea of theater exactly meshes with my own, but whatever it was that she did showed a range of pretty amazing talent.

Back Roads will have two more performances. There is no admission charge and performance time is 7 p.m., rather than the usual 8 p.m.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pajama Game

Every community theater company should have a comedienne like Lauren Miller, who can be seen currently as Gladys, the secretary, in the Davis Musical Theatre Company production of 'The Pajama Game.'

It has been a delight to watch her grow and develop in the various roles she has played during the past few years. For those who've had the fortune to see Gwyneth Bruch on stage, Miller reminds me of a blonde Bruch.

'Pajama Game' - music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell - is a dated bit of fluff about the workers in the Sleep Tite pajama factory, and their struggle to get a 7-1/2-cents-per-hour raise in pay. (The audience tittered when calculations showed that in a year's time, that would come to $852.74, which would buy a year's supply of gasoline!)

Joshua Smith plays Sid Sorokin, the new factory superintendent, who falls in love with Babe Williams (Amber Moore), the leader of the grievance committee.

But of course: Where else would we find the conflict plot line?

Smith and Moore are quite good. Smith has a nice voice and a pleasant manner. Moore's Babe lacks a bit of fire in her factory confrontations with Sid, but her voice is wonderful. Her melancholy 'Hey There' is like taking a bath in a tub of hot fudge: rich and warm, and something you wish would go on and on.

Their duet, 'There Once Was a Man,' is great fun.

Hines ('Hinzie') is the time-keeper charged with adhering to procedural order and increasing productivity. It's a strong role that requires someone who can be larger than life. Herb K. Schultz does not fit the bill. He seems pleasant - although the character actually is more of a curmudgeon - and he can carry a tune, but director Steve Isaacson can't get any energy out of him.

Hinzie's duet with Mabel (Dannette Vassar), the 'mother hen' of the factory and Sid's secretary, should be a show-stopper, but 'I'll Never Be Jealous Again' just kind of lies on the stage floor, while the audience gives polite applause.

Vassar, on the other hand, plays her role to the hilt. She has been getting meatier roles in recent productions, and definitely is coming into her own as an actress.

Dustin White plays Mr. Hasler, a CEO full of bluff and bluster ... and with a good sense of double-entry bookkeeping.

John Ewing is 'Prez,' the head of the union, who chases after anything in skirts. Michael McElroy is Max, one of the factory's salesmen.

Kirs Farhood and Jabriel Shelton join Lauren Miller in the 'Steam Heat' number. They're dressed all in black, with red accents: gloves, socks and hat band, with a red tie for Shelton.

The number itself is outstanding, and choreographer Darryl Strohl is careful to give it the Bob Fosse looks that made the song famous.

Strohl also created an interesting look for the 'Hernando's Hideaway' number, with dark figures against a bright orange-red backdrop. And his choreography is fun during the factory picnic number, 'Once a Year Day.'

A couple other actors in small roles are worth mentioning, starting with McKinley Carlisle, as Poopsie. Carlisle is cute as a button, and sparkles whenever she's on stage. Also pay attention to Chris Peterson, as Charlie. He has little to do, but he's one of those people who just gets 'noticed' when on stage.

Unfortunately, this 'Pajama Game' is less than the sum of its parts. Although individual performances are quite good, the show lacks pizzazz. It's a pleasant way to pass a few hours, but you won't leave the theater on a high, recalling how terrific the show is.

The DMTC cast and crew always work hard, and the energy should have appeared on stage, but - except for a moment, here and there - it didn't.

The music and vocal direction are by Erik Daniells, and it's fun to hear all those old songs again.

And if costume designer Jean Henderson wants to go into the pajama-making business, she'd have a ready clientele. The pajamas for the finale are just great.

I wanted a pair myself.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mamma Mia

Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist you?
When I learned that California Musical Theater was bringing back "Mamma Mia" for the third time in five years, I wondered why. When I saw the line up to get into the Community Center and learned that the show is all but sold out, I guessed why.
When I sat through the show again, I knew why. Yeah, it’s the same old show we saw a couple of years ago, but it’s a darn entertaining one–and any musical that can get an entire audience on its feet clapping and waving their arms in the air is worth seeing again and again. (In fact, the man sitting next to me, who looked like he was in his 70s, said he had already seen it 14 times!)
Though the Swedish singing group ABBA, which burst onto the scene when its song ‘Waterloo" won the Eurovision Song Contest in England in 1974, was "bigger than the Beatles" in Australia when it did its first World tour in 1977, it only had one song ("Dancing Queen") which made it to the top of the charts in the United States. Though big stars everywhere else, the group enjoyed only modest success in this country until the release of its album "ABBA Gold" (after the group had broken up) in the 1990s, when everyone realized that they actually knew most of the songs–they just hadn’t appreciated them before!
In 1999 Catherine Johnson decided to take 22 of the best known ABBA songs (written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) and weave a story around the lyrics. "Mamma Mia" was born.
In March of 2002, "Mama Mia" became the highest grossing show in North America, taking $3.7 million in a single week. The original cast recording is consistently in the Top 20 of the Billboard Catalog Charts, selling more than 4,000 copies a week in the U.S. alone. It is celebrating six sold-out years at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway and is currently playing record-breaking engagements in Las Vegas and on National Tour in the United States. The original West End production has played more than 3,500 performances and an international tour has played in more than 30 foreign cities. A feature film based on the stage show will be released in July 2008.
The show centers on Donna Sheridan (played by understudy Annie Edgerton on opening night), a single mother raising her daughter Sophie (Rose Sezniak) in a small hotel on "an idyllic Greek island."
Twenty-year old Sophie has decided to marry Sky (Geoffrey Hemingway) and wants her father to give her away. The only problem is–nobody (including Donna) knows who Sophie’s father is. Unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie sends invitations to the three men with whom Donna had a romantic liaison twenty-one years before and the girl hopes to figure out which of them is her real father before the wedding takes place.
Mayhem and merriment ensue.
You don't need a lot of plot in this musical. The songs, which will have the most reluctant toe tapping, and the dazzling choreography by Anthony Van Laast (never let it be said that one cannot tap dance while wearing swim fins) provide all that's necessary for a not to be missed night of theater.
There's not a weak performance in the group. Particularly outstanding are Donna's former singing partners, Tanya (Michelle Elizabeth Dawson) and Rosie (Kittra Wynn Coomer), delightful comediennes. It's hard to know which is funnier--watching the tall, distinguished, somewhat bored Tanya take a pratfall or the more robust Rosie trying to fit into her old costume.
Sophie's possible fathers are also a wonderful set of performers. Michael Aaron Lindner was Harry Bright (whose ability--or desire--to father any child we question immediately),Martin Kildare was the Aussie adventurer Bill Austin, and John Hemphill was Sam Carmichael, Donna’s true love, who left her 20 years ago to return to the states to marry his fiancée.
Laast’s choreography is a delight, incorporating things like having heads pop over a wall to join in when one character is supposedly singing a song alone, or, with assistance from lighting designer Howard Harrison, have the customers in the taverna join in on a chorus when they are bathed in light, but then return to the shadows for the rest of the song.
Much of the fun in this show comes from trying to decide which of the ABBA songs (printed in alphabetical, not chronological order in the program) is going to pop up next. The cast is also taking donations for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and will be collecting donations in the lobby after the show, offering several one-of-a-kind souvenirs and the opportunity to be photographed with two of the costumed stars of the show.
Do I recommend this show? Of course I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Fool for Love

Sam Shepard wrote his “Fool for Love” following the break-up with his wife in order to be with Jessica Lange. He described the play as “the outcome of all this tumultuous feeling I've been going through this past year. It's a very emotional play and in some ways embarrassing for me to witness but somehow necessary at the same time.”

Capital Stage is currently presenting “Fool for Love,” under the direction of Janis Stevens. The 75 minute play is presented without intermission and is heavy on dialog and not much on plot, but “plot” is not the intent of playwright Shepard.

While the play does not deal with marital infidelity, it is an intensely powerful, sensual, emotional roller coaster detailing the obsessive relationship between two people, Eddie (Jonathan Rhys Williams) and May (Williams' real-life wife, Stephanie Gularte) in a seedy motel somewhere in the Mojave desert, where May has been hiding out ever since Eddie's relationship with someone she refers to as “The Countess.” This is kind of motel where you keep glasses in the bathroom because there is no kitchen, and where the blinds on the window hang at a rakish angle, and nobody seems to care.

The action starts in silence, three people on the stage—Eddie and May, and the old man (Loren Taylor), sitting in semi-darkness watching the dialog unfold.

We don't need to feel the heat to know that it is hot. May looks completely drained, physically and emotionally. Eddie, desperate, asks May if he should leave, even though he has just driven more than 2,000 just to see her.

“I missed you. I did. I missed you more than anything I ever missed in my whole life. I just kept thinkin' about you the whole time I was driving. Kept seeing you. Sometimes just a part of you.”

The ambivalent nature of their relationship is established very early, as Eddie leaves, then comes back only to have May grab him and give him a passionate kiss.

It is very clear that these are two people who can't live together and can't live without each other.

Eddie has grand plans—He's going to settle down. He's going to move a trailer, build a corral in which to keeep horses, have a big vegetable garden and some chickens.

“I hate chickens! I hate horses!...You keep coming up with this lame country dream life with chickens and vegetables and I can't stand any of it...”

Gularte and Williams are perfect in their roles. It is perhaps their real-life marriage which makes the physical relationship between the two sizzle with such passion.

As the action plays out, the Old Man sits, watching, a drink in hand. We learn soon that he is the voice in Eddie's head and in his conversations with Eddie, we learn what impact his relationship with both Eddie and with May has had on each of them, and on their on-again-off-again relationship with each other.

Taylor makes a perfect grizzled old codger, for whom life was never easy, and who took his anger out on those around him.

A fourth member of the cast, David Campfield, plays Martin, May's date, who unwittingly arrives at the height of tension between May and Eddie. Campfield has the dazed look of a deer caught in the headlights as he tries to assess what exactly is going on between May and Eddie. He was so perfect in the role that he seemed to have difficulty shaking it at the final bow.

Special notice should be given of the lighting design of Ron Madonia and sound design of Brad Thompson who made things happening outside the motel amazingly realistic.

Director Stevens deserves credit for her ability to direct the verbal battle between Eddie and May with the same care as one would direct the arias of an opera.

“Fool for Love” is a gritty story that has no resolution because we know that no matter what they do, Eddie and May will always be connected to each other, whether they want to be or not.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre Spring Concert

In the fall of 2005, the Pamela Trokanski Dance Theater presented its “Ephemera” as a work in progress, part of a larger evening of selections. For its spring concert. The PTDT is presenting “Ephemera” as a complete work, approximately 75 minutes without an intermission.

“Ephemera” focuses on the swift passage of time, that our lives seem too short, and that the most important things are often the intangibles. (After 23 years of dance in Davis, one wonders if Trokanski is feeling the swift passage of time herself, and the intangibles which make up the high points of her life.)

The work is based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince,” one section flowing seamlessly into another with no dividing line, save for some voice-over with quotes from Saint-Exupéry which focus on the discussion between the Little Prince and the Fox about friendships, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

The eclectic selection of music is by artists including Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, and others, and is danced by company members Caitlin Barale, Nicole Bell, Bekah Shepard, Nicole Smith, and Pamela Trokanski, with additional guest dancers Maj Hapworth, Allegra Silberstein, Alex Sprague, and Catherine Schwedler.

The opening number, to a tune by Laurie Anderson showed that “dance” is more than body movement, as the hand movements, done with the dancers' backs to the audience, were mechanically precise and a beautiful visual.

A particularly strong section was set to “The Grave” by Don McClean [sic] (“The grave that they dug him had flowers / Gathered from hillsides in bright summer colors”), danced by Bell, Shepard and Smith, depicting the agony of the death of a young soldier (“I know I'm not brave...the earth is my grave...”)

Trokanski has a solo to a Lyle Lovett song which is a testament to the strength of the dancer, undiminished by time.

My favorite part of the 2005 work in progress remains my favorite part of the finished product, though the choreography has changed in the intervening years. It is “Old Friends,” by Simon and Garfunkel, in this production danced by Hapworth and Silberstein as the old friends, with Sprague and Schwedler as the young friends they once were. It is a beautiful salute to lasting friendship and how years melt away when old friends recalls their younger days.

“Death Cab for Cutie,” in which we are told that “love is watching someone die” segues into a song about Trains by Hank Lawson, with the dancers, in Pilobolus-like fashion, becoming a vehicle and move off stage, while Hapworth, Silberstein, Sprague and Schwedler move back and forth across the back of the stage, as trains, dropping off another car each time.

The entire troup reassembles for the finale section, to music by Lyle Lovett, closing off a delightful and often moving performance.

Ephemera: anything short-lived or transitory, lasting but a day. This production lasts but three days, so dance enthusiasts should get to the Pamela Trokanski Performing Arts Center before it disappears completely.