Wednesday, July 30, 2008


If you like “Dancing with the Stars,” particularly the segments when the dance instructors dance with each other, you’re gonna love “Swing,” making its Music Circus debut this week. It’s just under two hours of nonstop singing and dancing with no dialog, no story line, no message, just high energy dancing and singing, an homage to the legends of the Big Band era, the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Harry James, along with some contemporary music with that 40s feel.

If you’re looking to be dazzled by footwork, flips, and other dance moves we might see in dance competitions, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re looking for more traditional “musical theater,” perhaps not so much so. The Music Circus crowd went wild for the hard-working company, but I also noticed that many people around us left at intermission. In truth, if I had not been there to review the show, I might have been tempted to leave myself, feeling that the second act was going to be just more of the same. But in the end, I was glad that I stayed, because there was some pretty good stuff in Act 2.

The cast of “Swing!” includes members of the Broadway cast and first national touring company, as well as professional ballroom dance competitors. The cast of four singers and 12 dancers includes Kirby Ward, a Music Circus veteran who also starred as song and dance men on the Broadway Sacramento Stage in “Crazy for You” and “Showboat.” Also appearing are singers Stacia Fernandez (Broadway cast), Julie Tolivar, Maceo Oliver and dancers Mark Stuart Eckstein (U.S. and Japanese tours), Beverly Durand (original Broadway cast), Paul Romero Jr., Sarah Marie Jenkins (U.S. and Japanese tours), Chris Saunders, Adealani Malia, Michael Jagger, Evita Arce, Christopher Beroiz, Desiree Duarte (original Broadway cast) and Lori Barber. The production is directed and choreographed by Dana Solimando, herself a member of the Broadway cast of “Swing!”

There is also an eight piece band – Mike McMullen, Mark Tulga (woodwinds), Larry Lunetta (trumpet), Chip Tingle (trombone), Darryl Archibald (keyboard), Tom Phillips (guitar), Steve Comber (bass) and Stan Lunetta (drums), several of whom walk up out of the orchestra pit at various points in the show to interact with the dancers. If you’ve never thought of a bass or a trombone as sensual instruments, you’ll be surprised!

Kirby Ward opens the show, with solo guitar, soon to be joined by all the company in a rousing “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing” (reminiscent of many years of enjoyment from Davis High Jazz Choir performances!)

Foremost among the outstanding numbers was Julie Tolivar’s “Cry Me a River,” sung in duet with trombonist Chip Tingle, where Tolivar matched the wah-wah of the trombone perfectly.

Tolivar also displays her vocal versatility in “Two and Four,” where she sings in her operetta voice until, with the help of Ward, she unleashes her inner swing personality.

Stacia Fernandez and Maceo Oliver do an entire dating scene singing in only scat, in “Bli-Blip.”

(As an aside, Mr. Oliver is in desperate need of a dresser. Costumes by David Draper were overall outstanding, but Oliver’s first brown suit appeared to have pockets stuffed with things, giving the pants a very messy look. I expected something magical to emerge from the pockets, but nothing ever did. The collar of his pink shirt in a later scene was not turned down properly but bunched awkwardly on his right shoulder, and the contrast with the neat appearance of the dark suit was very distracting. And the white bow tie in the tuxedo he wore for the finale rested at a rakish angle on the side of his neck, rather than at the Adam’s apple line.)

The entire cast joined for a section called “The USO,” which closed out the first act. Each of the dancing pairs had a chance to shine in one number, and they all joined together for “In the Mood” / “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.”

“Take Me Back to Tulsa,” by Oliver with the company introduced a western section of the program, which included an updated countrified version of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

Sarah Marie Jenkins and Paul Romero Jr. were very cute in “Dancers in Love.”

Things come to a crescendo with Stacia Fernandez’s “Stomping at the Savoy,” followed by the entire company in “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing”)

This is definitely an enjoyable evening of entertainment, but if you prefer your musical theater with more of a plot to involve yourself in, this may not be the show for you.

But it's all about good, old fashioned fun. With its high energy, great music and terrific choreography, “Swing!” can’t help but put a tap in the toe of the most dour curmudgeon.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Typograher's Dream

As I stood in the lobby at the end of opening night of “The Typographer’s Dream,” currently at Capital Stage, a group of people next to me were asking each other “What in the world was that all about?”

In truth, I was asking myself the same thing about the one-act Adam Bock play, directed by Stephanie Gularte. I wasn’t sure what it was, but what I was sure of was that I had enjoyed it very much.

Bock’s inspiration for his play was his developing love of typography – the designing of text and its placement on a page – while working at a design firm. He thought he should write a play about a typographer, and then, carrying the idea to the absurd with rhyming words, decided to add a geographer and a stenographer as well. He thought it would be interesting to explore the extent to which people’s jobs affect who they are in real life. (E.g., a geographer is concerned with boundaries – political boundaries, historical boundaries, social boundaries. Is she concerned with boundaries in her real life? Boundaries between people?)

There is no plot line in this comedy and for it to work a strong cast is essential. Fortunately for the audience, Gularte has a stellar cast who know how to wring the most out of every nanosecond on stage.

The show opens in silence for several minutes. Stenographer Dave (Davis’ Peter Mohrmann, who has also served as Capital Stage’s managing director for the past four years) enters hesitantly from the back of the theater, pulling a small suitcase on wheels. He proceeds to the stage set up for what looks like a panel discussion, and appears appalled to discover an audience out front, and no other people on stage. Mohrmann’s travels around and behind the stage are hilarious. He has the comedic timing of a Charlie Chaplain.

Eventually Dave settles himself at the speaker’s table, behind the sign which says “Stenographer.” He carefully pulls his a machine out of the little suitcase and meticulously sets it up on the table.

The door bursts open and in comes Annalise, the geographer (a welcome return to the Sacramento stage of Saffron Henke). Still in silence, Annalise quickly takes over the stage, moving Dave around, and settling herself in.

The two wait, impatiently (Annalise) and nervously (Dave), for the Typographer, who eventually rolls in. Literally. Gail Dartz is wonderful as Margaret, clearly the least forceful of the three, and easily interrupted as she attempts to speak In fact, her lines for most of the first quarter of the play consist of “Um”... “Um”... “Um. Ah.” However, timing is crucial and her delivery is impeccable.

The three are apparently at this event to describe their jobs. Clearly all three are passionate about their work and proud of the good job they do.

Without interaction with each other, they take turns talking about their jobs. Dave waxes poetic about the importance of stenography (technically court reporting, he reminds us many times, in struggling to identify exactly what his job should be called. “You call yourself a court reporter,” he says. “It’s a little more glamorous.”) He stresses his importance as the witness of record in court cases, and swells with pride at the skill required. “Those who can't quite achieve the necessary manual dexterity can always become surgeons.”

Annalise is excited about her profession, but upset that “geography” gets buried in the larger heading of “social studies” in school and wants it to be recognized for the significant stand-alone job that it is.

Margaret is in love with the beauty of typography, the design of words on the page, the page itself, the colors, the typefaces, the letters (though numbers trouble her, she admits). “I am my job,” she says. “I don’t care. I know that. It’s what I do all day. I am my job.”

As the play progresses, it become apparent that these three have personal reactions with each other and the effect their professions have on those relationships are brought out. Are they all happy having their very being set by what job they do?

Bock’s crisp dialog, Gularte’s skillful direction, and the actors’ impeccable timing make this a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes entertainment. Even if you aren’t sure what it is when it’s all finished!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sweeney Todd

If you are looking for diversity in your summer entertainment, The Music Circus is certainly the place to find it this year. How can there be two more different musicals than the season’s opening “Sound of Music” and this week’s “Sweeney Todd,” Stephen Sondheim’s dark story of revenge and murder.

It’s a first for Music Circus, which has never presented “Sweeney Todd” before. But it was apparent from the start that they have made up for lost time with an outstanding production, directed by Glenn Casale.

This is the story of a 19th century London barber, Benjamin Barker, who is married to his beloved Lucy and the father of their baby Johanna. However, the villainous Judge Turpin has his eye on the lovely Lucy and so sends Barker to the penal colony at Botany Bay in Australia on some trumped up charge so that he can have Lucy all to himself.

Many years later, Barker escapes and manages to get back to London, where, under the name Sweeney Todd he begins his plan to get revenge on the people who destroyed his life.

Tony award nominee Mark Jacoby is magnificent as Todd, a broken man filled with rage for the wife he thinks is dead and determined to revenge those who drove her to commit suicide.

He rents his old apartment, over the pie shop of Mrs. Lovett (Tony Award nominee Mary Gordon Murray) who, by her own admission, bakes “the worst pies in London.” His plan is to lure Judge Turpin (Michael G. Hawkins) and his Beadle (Roland Rusinek) to his barber shop and slit their throats.

But things don’t go quite as planned at first and the Judge slips through his fingers. Todd’s anguish at losing him is acute as he sings his “Epiphany,” where he revises his plan, “I will get him back even as he gloats / In the meantime I'll practice on dishonorable throats.”

Sondheim’s brilliance in the creation of the character of Sweeney Todd is that, as menacing as he is, as heinous as his killing spree is, those who surround him are so much more evil that we feel empathy with Sweeney, we care about him, and we hope for his success in avenging the terrible things that were done to him.

The affable Mrs. Lovett, never one to let opportunity pass her by, hates to see all that good “meat” go to waste as Todd begins his killing spree (“Seems an awful waste... / I mean, with the price of meat / What it is, / When you get it, / If you get it...”) and so they work together to improve the quality of her pies, which soon become the talk of London.

Their duet, “A Little Priest” is one wonderfully macabre moment of lightness in an otherwise very dark musical.

Murray is delightfully coquettish as Mrs. Lovett, enjoying her newfound success as a pie baker, and attempting to woo Todd and move him out of London.

A side story revolves around the young sailor, Anthony Hope (Max Von Essen), who rescued Todd at sea and who, coincidentally, has found Todd’s daughter, living as the ward of Turbin, and fallen in love with her. Anthony and Johanna (Carolann M. Sanita) remain symbols of goodness in an evil world which swirls around them.

Also important to the plot is the beggar woman (Heather Lee) who seems to be the only one aware that terrible things are happening in the pie shop, but her mind is so far gone, nobody will believe her.

Outstanding in the minor role of Tobias Ragg, a simple young man who is devoted to Mrs. Lovett, is August Emerson, whose final scene is one of the most poignant in the play.

The ensemble fill a variety of small roles (almost all of the men's throats become targets of Sweeney's razor) and also to function as the Greek chorus Sondheim has employed to chilling effect, giving deadpan delivery to “telling the tale of Sweeney Todd.”

Scenic Designer Evan Bartoletti has made maximum use of the Wells Fargo Pavilion, turning the entire theater into a section of London. The set-up for Sweeney’s infamous barber chair is ingenious.

It is good to see Music Circus taking a chance on meatier (pun intended) fare than the usual frothy musicals. Judging from the audience reaction, it was a good decision.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Little Shop of Horrors

“FEED ME,” orders Audrey II, the plant from outer space with plans for world domination in the current Davis Musical Theater Company production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” the stage musical adaptation of the 1960 Roger Corman black comedy movie. For the stage show, Howard Ashman developed the script and Alan Menkin wrote the music. Steve Isaacson directed this production for DMTC.

The longer Audrey II goes without human blood, the more anemic and weak she becomes and so it becomes necessary for her mentor, Seymour Krelborn to find inventive ways to perk up the plant with a kind of transfusion.

It might have helped if Seymour did the same thing to the production. While it was, on the whole, enjoyable, there were some real anemic spots that begged for something to “feed it”!

On the good side, Joshua Smith, as Seymour, is wonderful. The perfect nerd, with horn-rimmed glasses, a baseball cap, a red plaid shirt, and a feeling of inferiority. He sings well, longs for the love of Audrey, the shop girl “with a past” (Lauren Miller), and he suffers the tortures of the damned trying to meet the escalating demands of his plant. (Though he should be careful when tossing “food” into the plant, and not let it roll around on the floor!)

The quasi Greek chorus, Ronnette (Caitlin Humphreys), Crystal (Casey Ellis) and Chiffon (Sarah Duvall) keep the plot moving, fill in background choruses and add local color. They are each and every one outstanding. Great voices, funny in a kind of subdued sort of way, and they really stand out in most of the scenes in which they appear.

I have enjoyed watching Lauren Miller grow into the kind of ditzy Judy Holliday-esque type of characters and handle them adroitly, so the role of Audrey seemed perfectly suited for her. Indeed, she has the walk, the voice, and the attitude down pat. What was lacking was projection and energy. This surprised me because I know she has both (and, in fact, her “Suddenly Seymour” was just great). Perhaps director Isaacson suggested she “sweeten” the tone for the character, or perhaps she was having throat problems. I don’t know. But Audrey needs to be over the top and Miller’s was not.

Darryl Strohl is the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello, who not only enjoys tending to patients without the assistance of pain medications, but also likes to beat up on his girlfriend (Audrey) to “keep her in line.” He’s a motorcycle-riding, Elvis-impersonating character and Strohl was only intermittently spot-on. But when he was good, he was very good.

Strohl also plays a host of other characters, both male and female, and was quite good in all of them.

A big disappointment was Dustin White as Mr. Mushnik, the owner of the flower shop where the action takes place. For one thing, he both swallowed and rushed his lines so you were concentrating more on hearing him than watching him become the character. It seemed like he hadn’t quite found the character yet. He had the right body language and the proper accent, but it just didn’t come together.

A+++ for Scott Griffith and Mike McElroy, who brought Audrey II to life. McElroy (who also plays one of the “Skid Row Occupants”) was the plant’s voice and Griffith returned for the third time to manipulate its body parts.

Jean Henderson’s costumes are of course excellent, though I have problems with Audrey wandering around the streets of Skid Row at midnight wearing a pink babydoll pajama set and fuzzy pink slippers. However, the costumes for the chorus are great, especially the Marge Simpson style wigs and the glittery red evening gowns. Orin’s Elvis costume is perfect.

The DMTC 5-piece orchestra sounded particularly good for this production. Kudos to all of them.

There is nothing wrong with this production except that it felt a bit tired. Perhaps due to the heat. However, nobody attending it is going to come away disappointed. “Little Shop” is a fun story but, like Audrey II, it just needs a bit more blood from time to time.