When you visit a new community theater for the first time you never quite know what to expect, but you always hope to find something to excite you, something to write home about. The West Sacramento Community Theater was new to me, but according to its web site it was established in 2004 and has produced 9 other shows.
“The Code of Whiskey King” with book and lyrics by Leo McElroy and music by Ken Klingerman is only the group’s second musical production.
That it made it to the stage at all was a minor miracle.
Its Sacramento-area authors had waited eleven years since the initial concert performance of the show in 1998, suffering through a parade of setbacks, including cancellations of scheduled runs at three different theaters.
“Add in the time spent writing it,” said McElroy, who has had two other musicals produced, “and we’re looking at sixteen years of wondering if it ever would happen!”
The difficulties continued right up till the last minute, with one cast member suddenly quitting just ten days before opening, and one of the three vital nights of technical rehearsal cancelled because the auditorium had inadvertently been double-booked.
“Two nights before dress rehearsal, and the cast had never seen the stage or the set, and our crew had never worked with the sound or light systems,” McElroy said, wincing, “and at that point we were frankly terrified. I didn’’t want to even get out of bed, until my wife pointed out that the audience was coming to be told a story, and we knew we had one to tell.”
I caught the show in its second (of three) weekend. The setting was the the cavernous auditorium of Yolo High School, where the small audience barely made a dent in the available space.
As with many amateur theater productions, this is an uneven show, with some good performances, some not so good performances and a script that is sometimes well written and other times not. At its core, it’s an old-fashioned sounding musical, in the style of the 1930s, perhaps. You’re more likely to find the tunes in a show like “Anything Goes,” than in a more modern musical. And then suddenly you have an “anthem song” like “The Choice,” which could have been right out of Les Miserables.
It is also extremely unusual to have a show where one character is either the solo or the leading voice in twelve out of the show’s twenty-four songs. It would be unusual enough even if the singer was extraordinary, but Almis Udrys (Abel) is sometimes good, sometimes not so good. Sometimes he’s spot on, other times he can’t quite stay on pitch, so it’s odd that the show seems to be written for this one character to have so much to do.
The story takes place in the 1870s in the small California mining town of Whiskey King. The character Abel has just arrived ostensibly to set up the town’s first telegraph station. He befriends the Chinese laundryman George (Brandon Neal) and Charlie, a Native American who has been tossed out of his tribe (Fabian Jaime). Both Neal and Jaime give solid performances, with Jaime having the better of the voices, but Neal holding his own in the delightful novelty number, “Code of the West,” which is one of the show’s better songs.
Abel bonds with Nan (Erin Castleberry), who works in the local bordello. Castleberry is that “something to excite you” that I had hoped to find. She is simply wonderful, with a beautiful voice. Her duet with bordello owner Lovey (Savannah Knight) is a special moment, especially when Castleberry’s voice blends so beautifully with Knight’s deliciously rich tones.
Aly Sinitsin (Item) also adds much to the cast, though her role is much smaller.
Others in the cast include Victor Ramirez, who looks very noble in the show’s opening as the Indian Chief. David Valpreda is Jiggs, the bartender; Michael Hayner is Roger, a ladies’ man who spends a lot of time in the bar; Amanda Lee Schmidt and April Maylene are two of the other women in the bordello; Paul Johnson is Yoak, Cameron Johnson is Peter the piano player, and Bob Raymond is the sheriff, “Uncle Victor,” whose badge means absolutely nothing, since the town is really being run by the tough guy, Mike (Mark Fejta).
The sets (designed by Cindy Schmidt and Amanda Schmidt) reflect the shoestring budget that most community theatres run on, though the costumes by Cecile Freeman and Cindy Schmidt were very attractive.
While it had its enjoyable moments, the show suffered from an awkward plot, insufficient development of either the love between Nan and Abel, or their subsequent break-up two days later which apparently left both of them broken hearted and came about because of what appears to be a total personality change in Abel.
The thing that makes this all work is the obvious joy that everyone is having working on this show, whether it is on stage or back stage. And in the end, that’s what “amateur” (doing things for the love of it) theater is all about.