Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Late Night Catechism

It’s difficult to know quite how to review the improvisational comedy “Late Night Catechism: Till Death Do Us Part,” which has replaced “Forever Plaid” at California Musical Theater’s Cosmopolitan Cabaret at 1000 K Street in downtown Sacramento.

The one-woman show was written by Maripat Donovan, who will be playing the role of “Sister,” a nun teaching an adult catechism class, for the first two weeks of the 8-week run, before she is replaced by Nonie Newton-Breen, who has spent the last seven years touring the country in “Catechism” plays.

Donovan created the original "Late Night Catechism" with director Marc Silvia 17 years ago to perform in a little Chicago storefront theater. Then it was 50-minute one-act, which played at 11 p.m. Over the ensuing years, Donovan has continued to hone her material and the play is now a 2 hour 2-act play.

We were the perfect group to see this play. There were three of us. Two of us were Catholics, one (myself) had gone to 12 years of Catholic school. The third in our party was neither a Catholic, nor had much experience of Catholicism.

From the moment I entered the cabaret, I felt I was back in grammar school again, with the Palmer method alphabet posted on top of the blackboard, the pictures of presidents and holy figures on the walls, the “JMJ” (for “Jesus, Mary, Joseph”) written across the top of the blackboard itself, the statue of Mary on a little table and crucifix hanging on the wall, and all the trappings of a Catholic school classroom.

“Sister” was a familiar figure too, a generously proportioned woman with a no-nonsense swagger, her rosary swaying at her side as she walked, and the stern look in her eye as she glared over her glasses at the audience and commanded us all to be quiet. I wanted to say “Yes, Sister.” I felt as if I was back in fourth grade and Sister Mary Johnetta had just caught me whispering to another classmate.

The show itself is a mixture of prepared material and ad-lib material, based on responses she gets from the audience (this is a show which is heavy on audience participation). Of necessity, the feel of the show will change every night, depending on the response (or lack of same) that Sister receives. The opening night audience was receptive.

Asked questions directly from the old Baltimore Catechism that every Catholic school child had to memorize throughout his or her years in Catholic school, it was surprising the number of people in the audience who could pop up and recite the correct answer, word for word.

While the prepared material was funny, some of it, the ad lib material was much funnier, but could be deadly dull with an unresponsive audience.

But at intermission, our group compared notes. While we catholics had found the thing funny, the non-Catholic said that, having no experience with Catholic teaching, the humor was just not hitting him. He later spoke with a Jewish man who said the same thing.

There are lots of laughs to be had which don’t require a Catholic education, but some that fall really flat. The “class” is supposed to cover the two sacraments of Marriage and “Blessing of the Sick” (called, in my day, “Extreme Unction”). While the marriage segment was very funny, there were few laughs to be found in the segment on blessing of the sick, no audience participation and I felt the whole thing fell flat.

That part of the “class” started Act 2, which then, for some unexplainable reason, morphed into “The Compatibility Game” where two couples were brought on stage, to the theme music for “The Dating Game” and asked an overly long set of questions to determine their compatibility.

While the couples (especially the older couple, Walter and his wife Theresa) were great, the questions went on so long that even “Sister” seemed to get bored with them. My feeling was that the whole show would have been much funnier if it had remained a 50 minute show and cut out the whole game show idea entirely.

Trying to sum up my feelings about the show are difficult because I “got” all the Catholic humor and loved it, but I can see that if you have never heard of the Baltimore Catechism the humor would just not be there.

I also feel that this would be much better as a one-act show, and if the game show were to be kept in, tighten it up significantly.

Bottom line is that I enjoyed it more than I expected to, but I don’t think this is a show that is going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

(And speaking of tea, be prepared for astronomical prices for cabaret refreshment. My small bottle of water cost $4! Others at our table bought something called “waffle fries” for around $5, which was about 2 cups [if that] of fancy looking potato chips!)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Seussical the Musical

Every one of our children liked Seuss books a lot
Then I heard of a musical - This would be hot!
Horton, the Grinch, silly Mayzie, the Cat...
Davis Musical Theatre was where it was at.

(With apologies to Dr. Seuss and grammar buffs everywhere.)

'Seussical' is the kind of musical that showcases the Davis Musical Theatre Company at its best. It's visually a delight, with a host of brightly colored costumes designed by Denise Miles. The large cast includes many of DMTC's Young People's Theater performers, which demonstrates the strength of that program.

The tunes are lively, and Ron Cisneros' choreography is energetic and well-executed.

The show, based on 15 books by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), weaves familiar characters together in unusual ways while incorporating some 32 tunes written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The songs aren't particularly memorable, with the exception of the opening 'Oh the Thinks You Can Think' and the rousing encore number, 'Green Eggs and Ham.'

Director Jenifer Price has done an outstanding job with her cast, and the show is certain to be a favorite with adults and children alike.

The cast is headed by the zany, irrepressible Kevin Caravalho, as The Cat in the Hat. Just like Seuss' favorite feline, Caravalho is a whole bag of tricks, mugging, ad-libbing - at least it sounds like ad-libbing - and drawing the audience into the fun.

The Cat is accompanied by his cartwheel-turning apprentices, Thing 1 (Linnea Lampinen) and Thing 2 (Devon Hayakawa).

The narrative centers on Horton the Elephant (Kyle Hadley), who discovers the microscopic world of the Whos living on a speck of dust, and then tries to find them a safe home.

Hadley touchingly brings the elephant's innocence and vulnerability to life, as he faces the ridicule of friends who treat him with scorn, because they cannot hear the Whos.

Kay Hight is Mayzie LaBird, who can't be bothered hatching her own egg, and tricks Horton into doing it for her; this severely hampers his attempts to find a safe place for the Whos.

Ana Chan sparkles as JoJo, the child who follows The Cat and later moves into the world of the Whos; her enthusiasm is infectious. She and Hadley have a sweet duet, 'Alone in the Universe,' as they face their respective situations.

Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly makes a tremendous impact as Gen. Genghis Kahn Schmitz, singing the fun patter song, 'The Military,' along with the Mayor of Whoville (Jason Hammond) and his wife (Erin Renfree-Davis).

Emily Jo Seminoff is Gertrude McFuzz, the one-feathered bird in love with Horton, who longs for a spectacular tail ... and gets it. Seminoff somehow manages to create the facial features of a bird, and her performance is wonderful.

Deborah Hammond is outstanding as the Sour Kangaroo, although her character doesn't add much to the storyline, and her musical numbers are quite a departure from the rest.

Steve Isaacson does double-duty as The Grinch and Judge Yertle the Turtle, and is at his best when dressed in a green Santa suit.

The large cast is divided into various groupings: Whos, Cadets, Hunters, Sneetches and so forth. The Wickersham brothers - Kendyl Ito, Matthew Kohrt, Ryan Lee and Cole Yambrovich - are wonderfully athletic, and their antics are enhanced by their neon-bright costumes.

The show's music isn't the best, but the staging and choreography more than compensate. The sets are minimal, but not much is required with such a large cast.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

High School Musical 2

It was obvious, from the cheers that greeted 'High School Musical 2' even before the show began, that the Woodland Opera House had a real hit on its hands.

The audience of mostly high school-age people - and, one assumes, parents of the actors - clapped loudly for every musical number, laughed enthusiastically at all the jokes, and gave the show a standing ovation.

The production unquestionably deserved it. The cast is composed of talented actors who sing well (most of the time), dance energetically and breathe life into a script that is perhaps one of the dumbest I've ever experienced.

But, I kept reminding myself, I had to look at this from an adolescent's viewpoint. That helped significantly.

'High School Musical 2' takes up where the first play left off, as the main characters, now facing summer vacation, realize that they need jobs.

The evil and uber-wealthy Sharpay Evans (Danielle Hansen), who seemed to undergo a bit of a redemption at the end of the previous play, has sharpened her claws again and once more set her cap for the school hunk, Troy Bolton (Eric Catalan).

She therefore arranges for him to have a job at her father's luxurious country club, where she hopes to steal his affections from his girlfriend, the wholesome Gabriella Montez (Shannon Kendall).

Not realizing that his new boss will be Sharpay's father, Troy enthusiastically accepts the job during a phone conversation, without any interview whatsoever, and even arranges for all his friends to obtain employment as well (suspension of disbelief No. 1).

And so the action shifts to the country club, and the battle is on.

Hansen, in her Woodland Opera House debut, makes a perfect Sharpay. She even looks eerily like Emily Jo Seminoff, who played the role two years ago in the local production of 'High School Musical' (and who, with her mother MJ Seminoff, directs this sequel).

Hansen prances about the stage with her minions - 'The Sharpettes': Andee King, Jo Black and Kara Sheldon - like the little princess she's supposed to be, and successfully becomes the girl we love to hate.

Catalan, who made an impression as Troy's friend Chad in the previous production, has moved into the role of Troy and does a very good job. His angst-ridden 'Bet on It' - during which he tries to decide whether turning his back on his values, in order to get a college scholarship, is worth it - is one of the show's highlights.

Kendall, a senior at Sacramento State University, gives a wholesome, freshly scrubbed look to Gabriella, the girl who tries to keep Troy grounded. Kendall has a lovely voice and has the sort of presence that holds our attention whenever she's on stage.

Back in 2007, while reviewing the local production of the first 'High School Musical,' I noted, 'Worth watching in the chorus is young Casey Camacho, who has no speaking lines and is merely one of the crowd, but is so enthusiastic about his role that he stands out.' Two years later, Camacho has come into his own as Jack Scott, the high school DJ who also becomes the emcee for all the resort events. He's a real firecracker, and it's good to see him in such a prominent role.

Alex Cesena plays Mr. Fulton, the resort's long-suffering, over-the-top general manager; Cesena is integral to the production.

Allison Ruanto and Alyssa Garcia give energetic performances as Gabriella's best friends, particularly during the dance numbers.

Choreographers Emily Jo Seminoff and Tyler Warren have done yeomen's jobs while creating several energetic musical numbers, and the cast pulls them off quite well.

While the songs are forgettable, the visuals on stage are fetching, particularly during a lively take on 'Humuhumu-nukunukuapaua'a' (which bears little resemblance to the familiar Hawaiian tune) and 'I Don't Dance.'

Did I like this show?

Well ... no.

But my dislike had everything to do with the brainless script and nothing whatsoever to do with the production, which is sparkling and will delight every adolescent in the audience.

The bad news?

The kids leave the resort at the end of the summer to return for their final year of high school, and yes, 'High School Musical 3' is waiting in the wings...