Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Elephant's Graveyard (review)

There's much to like about 'The Elephant's Graveyard,' written and directed by Jade McCutcheon, which continues through Sunday at the UC Davis Mondavi Center's Larry and Rosalie Vanderhoef Studio Theatre.

The play boasts a simple yet elegantly sweeping set by renowned designer John Iacovelli; lighting by internationally recognized designer Thomas Munn; an on-stage orchestra, under the baton of Garrett Ian Shatzer, to perform the music composed by Laurie San Martin; costumes by Maggie Morgan; and choreography by Kerry Mehling.

McCutcheon's sensitive script concerns an aging woman and her scientist daughter, who is trying to find a cure for death, yet can't take time to visit her dying mother.

Each of the seven professional and nonprofessional actors is wonderful; they're joined by six older women from the Davis community, with no acting experience whatsoever, whose powerful contribution just about steals the show.

And delivered more than a few in tears during the opening night performance.

Eve (Bella Merlin) is a career-driven scientist working for the Never Die Institute on synthetic alternatives to aging and death. She deals with inter-staff rivalry with her partner Steve (Matt Sullivan), who is involved with stem cell research. Eve is so immersed in her work - and excited about her discoveries - that she neglects her aging mother, Esme (Claudia Marie Maupin), whom she has placed in 'one of the more prestigious nursing homes.'

Eve visits every few weeks, when her busy schedule allows.

Esme is lonely and confused: more concerned about whether she's getting the right medication, and whether the staff has stolen one of her old sweaters, than about lengthening her life.

Emma (Anne Reeder) is the granddaughter Esme raised after the death of the girl's parents. She visits Esme regularly and tries to make Eve understand how precious her time is with her mother.

Merlin does a fine job as a harried, driven, stress-filled woman who tries to do too much while neglecting the one thing that should be most important to her. Reeder gives a lovely, sensitive portrayal of a young woman who successfully balances career - she's an architect - with love and concern for her grandmother.

But our attention is riveted on Esme, and Maupin gives her total heart and soul: We understand her bouts of depression, her moments of confusion and fear, and her delight over the time she spends with her daughter. Ultimately, we learn the most from Esme.

The voice of Esme's 'soul' is provided by the marvelous Australian singer Kim Deacon, who sings the words that reveal Esme's fears:

'Is it must my imagination,
Or am I finding it hard to breathe?
It seems each step I take these days
There's a wobble in my knees...'

Each of the other actors takes on several roles, from nursing home attendants and pedestrians to waiters. Each is excellent, but Jorge Morejon is head and shoulders above the rest: His principal character is a shaman who provides comfort to Eve at her most frenzied period, when he takes her pain from her and internalizes it.

Morejon gives an intensity to his performance, and his dances are breathtaking: particularly the 'spider dance,' done on a ladder that is lowered from the ceiling while Esme's soul expresses her feelings about death:

'The web might be a relief,
Just to give in and get caught.'

As for the 'elders,' for a group of women in their later years who never before appeared on stage, we couldn't ask for better.

They quite realistically portray conditions in a nursing home, and their final scene brought several audience members to tears.

This play needs to be seen by everyone with aging parents, and everyone who intends to grow old (which would be all of us). It deals sensitively but realistically with the experiences of aging in this country, and how our culture deals with it, and concludes with an uplifting message for everyone.

The production is everything that McCutcheon intended: 'a journey where it's a bit of magic, a bit of music, a bit of art, a bit of dance and the issues and a story that ties it together.'

Don't miss this one. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Taming of the Shrew

There may be gender disagreements about whether William Shakespeare’s most controversial play, “The Taming of the Shrew” is a comedy or a tragedy. Speaking for the feminine side, I tend to favor the latter option!

In this mysogenistic look at the battle of the sexes, one woman is sold off by her father to the highest bidder while her sister is forced into a troubled marriage where her husband deprives her of food and drink in order to break her spirit. There are plenty of lines on women knowing their place. Kate’s long, final speech protesting obedience to her husband is a notorious example.

Productions of this play often set the action in times other than Elizabethan and may twist plot elements so that in the end Katherine has the upper hand and we see that all of her subservience is her own way of manipulating her husband.

In the Woodland Opera House production, director Rodger McDonald has taken a more traditional approach, setting the play back in Elizabethan times (though a brief sequence at the beginning shows a company of actors preparing for the start of the play, which lets us know that the time is really today and the actors are actually doing a play, which may soften the ultimate conclusion)

It’s a sumptuous looking show, with cleverly designed sets, which turned and rotated to represent several different locations, designed by the multi-talented Jeff Kean (who also happens to play role of Petrucchio).

Laurie Everly-Klassen, the “Designing Haberdasher,” has created a beautiful assortment of period costumes.

Bevin Bell-Hall, in her Opera House debut gives a wonderful performance as Katherine. She has a fiery temper and a lot of physical stuff to, which she does beautifully.

Kean’s Petrucchio stands up to Kate with a steel resolve and detached emotions. He sets out to woo her, marry her and then tame her. He cares nothing for the warnings about her disposition. All he wants is the large dowery that accompanies the marriage. There were probably a lot of women in the audience who wanted to kick him in the shins, which only proves the effectiveness of his characterization.

Jeff Nauer is Kate’s domineering father, Baptista, who refuses to allow his youngest daughter, the blonde, flirtatious Bianca (Analise Langford-Clark) to marry until a groom is found for her bad-tempered older sister. Langford-Clark plays the sweet little lady role to the hilt, flirting with her many suitors and giving a hint to a spark within her too, though much more deeply hidden than it is in Kate.

The young rich Lucentio (Brent Randolph) finds himself smitten with Bianca. He trades places with his servant, Tranio (Dan Sattel), and disguises himself as a poor teacher to gain an excuse to be in Bianca’s company, while Tranio, posing as Lucentio attempts to convince Baptista to let him marry his younger daughter. Randolph is a tall, gentle Lucentio, who swoons in the company of Bianca and easily wins her love.

Sattel is outstanding as Tranio, full of energy and a focal point whenever he was on stage.

As Bianca’s older would-be suitors, Steve Mackay as Hortensio and David Buse as Gremio are wonderfully silly, though Buse seems a bit over the top at times.

Bobby Grainger as Petruchio’s manservant Grumio is an outstanding physical comedian, very funny and, with Sattel, give some of the best second banana performances in this production.

Others in the cast include Shanna Lyn Dickerson as the widow who ultimately marries Gremio, Genevieve Whitman as “Biondella” (a female version of the traditional Biondello, manservant to Lucentio), Michael Smuda as Vincentio, Andy Hyun as Curtis, Philip Pittman as Tailor, and Dan Beard as Pendant.

If you can set aside the obvious problems with Shakespeare’s thinking about the relationships between men and women, this is a fun production, though husbands will be well advised that it’s best not to try Petrucchio’s game plan at home!

The Elephant's Graveyard (feature article)

Elephants are amazing animals.

They're highly intelligent and live in wonderfully structured societies. They understand that it takes a village to raise a child. They support each other throughout their lives. They go into deep depressions, if isolated in zoos without companions.

And there's a reverence about them, when it comes to the end of life.

Elephants know when they're dying. They leave the herd and walk ceremoniously to the graveyard that contains all their ancestors, and they lie down in the bones of those who have gone before them.

When an elephant dies, the other members of the herd gather around it: They cover the elephant up, and they hang around it for days, just to be close.

This majestic creature's respect for age and dying was the inspiration for a play called 'The Elephant's Graveyard,' written and directed by Jade McCutcheon, which opens Friday and continues through Nov. 1 at the Mondavi Center's Larry and Rosalie Vanderhoef Studio Theatre.

The U.S. population age 65 and over is expected to double in size within the next 25 years. By 2030, almost one out of five Americans - some 72 million people - will be 65 years or older. The age group 85 and older is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population.

It's time to give some serious thought about the quality of life for older Americans.

McCutcheon actually has been working on this piece for a very long time. When I met with her in April, she had begun shaping the script and had started casting the show.

The story concerns Eve, a scientist working for the 'Never Die Institute,' who is developing technology designed to prolong life and ultimately allow us all to live forever. Eve's mother, Esme, a woman in her 80s, is integral to this narrative: Eve has placed Esme in a nursing home and never finds the time to visit.

McCutcheon sought her Esme among the older women of the Davis community. She was looking for 'someone who is able to move across the stage without feeling terrified.' She also needed 'someone the audience could care about.'

When we parted company that day back in April, McCutcheon was about to meet with Donna Sachs, who leads a discussion group for senior citizens. McCutcheon hoped to find her Esme among the women in Sachs' group.

Sachs, a career psychologist interested in personal development in the later years, started her group in 2003.

'I wanted to share some ideas and literature in a seminar,' she said, 'so I invited people to come for a few times and just talk together in a group.'

After the first few sessions, several people were eager to continue, and the group now has continued for more than five years. It has 11 participants; when they heard the plans for McCutcheon's play, eight women expressed interest.

McCutcheon ended up with more than she bargained for, when Claudia Marie became her Esme. Marie wasn't terrified to walk across the stage. She also was willing to learn lines, although she had no stage experience, beyond having watched her parents do some theater work when she was a young child.

McCutcheon then cast five other members of the group - Nancy Juingeman, Lois Grau, Ruth Hall, Doris Beresford and Sachs herself - to be Esme's friends in the nursing home. Each would have a line or two of dialogue, and all would participate in some of the dancing.

Stage manager Reed Martin was 'really concerned' about working with older women who had no stage experience, but he was pleasantly surprised.

'They're really a great group of people,' he said. 'And because of how involved they are, they're very willing to do things for the show. They're really enthusiastic about it.'

'It's great having members of the community involved,' added Bella Merlin, an acting professor who plays the part of Eve. 'It has been absolutely fantastic working with them. They're delightful. Claudia is so open and accessible, and she's so playful as an actress. They all have super energy.'

In September, I went to visit the 'elders' at work with their choreographer, Kerry Mehling. I entered a room to find a group of women, sitting in a semi-circle, looking old, tired and depressed. Mehling was giving them movements to do with their hands, and each movement seemed to be almost too much of an effort.

But when the exercise concluded, their heads came up and the years melted away. They sparkled with delight while talking about their backgrounds, and their excitement at being involved with this play.

This vibrant group of women was the visual representation of all that McCutcheon wished to convey in her play: how the quality of life can be affected by our ability to remain intellectually challenged, lively and active, rather than stuck in a nursing home, at the mercy of the staff, hoping that someone will visit.

Some day.

'I want this to be a journey where it's a bit of magic, a bit of music, a bit of art, a bit of dance and the issues, and a story that ties it together,' McCutcheon said. 'It's just a platform. This is a voyage of discovery for Eve. Actually, science might be able to create a bio-body, but what are we about life?

'We live and die; that's a given. But love can make a difference. This busy, busy life about career, career, career, when you have to cut off that aspect of self...

'It's worth asking everybody: Is that it?'

'This play throws up all sorts of issues,' Merlin said. 'We'll make people go away and think about lots of things. My character is basically a nanotechnologist, so she believes that we can live forever: that there's enough science out there, and enough investigation happening, that it's only a matter of years before we have the capacity to ensure that we never age. We'll be able to put tiny robots in our systems, which will constantly regenerate the degenerating.

'It's absolutely strange and exciting, and Eve is up against the fact that her mom is dying, and she doesn't want her mom to die. Can she come up with this discovery before her mom dies?'

But Eve misses the point: that her mother is at peace with the approaching end of her life, and is ready to die.

Merlin warmed to the subject.

'She says lines to the effect of 'What would I do for another 70 years in this body? Why would I want to?' My character can't understand that. Surely everybody wants to live forever. Then my character has an epiphany, and thinks maybe she's got it all wrong. Maybe there's a natural flow and order to things.'

Kim Deacon has flown in from Australia, to sing the role of Esme's 'soul.'

'I worked with Jade about 18 years ago, in a play that we devised called 'The Last Room,' ' the singer explained. 'It's a very beautiful piece that combined some text from Tennessee Williams and the surrealist playwright Arabella; I also sang in that play. We enjoyed the process of working together very much.

'We always had in our minds to work together again, so I've kept up with her over the years.'

When McCutcheon was in Australia at Christmas, visiting family, she talked with Deacon about flying to the States to perform in 'The Elephant's Graveyard.' Deacon, who had been discussing the possibility of such a project with McCutcheon for a long time, was happy to comply.

Garrett Ian Shatzer, who composed the songs for the production, happened to be in Australia this summer, while McCutcheon was at home again to see her own aging mother. They met with Deacon at that time, to go over the music.

'When I heard Garrett's music, I thought it was fantastic,' Deacon said. 'Every song is beautiful.'

'Different things in this play will appeal to different people,' Merlin said. 'Some will absolutely love the music, some will get involved in the science, and some will get very involved in the story about what to do when our parents get older.

'It has stirred up a lot of stuff for me, because my parents are in their 70s. They're in the UK; I'm here in the USA. They're fit at the moment. What happens when they're not?'

As I watched the relationship between Esme and her daughter during the two rehearsals I attended, and listened to Deacon give voice to Esme's soul, and watched the evolution in the lives of Esme's friends in the nursing home, I drove home certain that people seeing this play will leave the theater with a lot of things to think about.

And, if they still have living parents, a lot of them will feel like calling Mom or Dad.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Speech and Debate

Teenage angst has been fodder for authors for centuries, and geeky teenagers have been well served in films such as 'Rebel Without a Cause' and 'The Breakfast Club.'

Now comes playwright Stephen Karam and his unlikely protagonists - Diwata (Lindsay Carter), Howie (Benjamin T. Ismail) and Solomon (Matthew Rogozinski) - who meet through the Internet and are drawn together by a shameful secret.

And more than a bit of blackmail.

Karam's 'Speech and Debate' is being presented by Capital Stage, at the Old Sacramento venue on the Delta King.

The inspiration for this play was a 2004 sex scandal, in which the then-mayor of Spokane was caught trolling in an online gay chatroom with an 18-year-old male.

The play's fourth character is the multi-talented, under-utilized Katie Rubin, who appears as a teacher in the first act and a reporter in the second. This marks Rubin's first appearance with Capital Stage, and one hopes it isn't her last.

Director Stephanie Gularte has created an amazing piece, wherein the twentysomething actors adopt all the quirks of adolescents, with all of them nailing their respective performances. Diwata and Howie have more quirks than the more repressed Solomon, and each sets the proper mood during early scenes.

Ismail's Howie, an 18-year-old openly gay transfer student, chats on the telephone with Solomon, whom he has never met, but who has read an Internet chat between Howie and an older man. Ismail's body language - twisting and turning into uncomfortable positions, pacing nervously, twisting his hair, his face sporting that bored look so many teenagers get - is spot-on.

Diwata's first scene comes as she sits in front of her laptop, recording a video blog entry. She's obviously a quirky, star-struck, would-be actress who overestimates her talent; she still smarts over not having been chosen for the lead in a production of 'The Crucible.' She blogs a diatribe against her drama teacher.

Solomon is angry that his school newspaper won't let him write an article about abortion, because it's too controversial.

'Half of our class is having real-life, actual sex,' he rails, 'and they're talking to us about our 'bathing suit areas.' Why don't they talk about stuff we actually want to know about?'

The three are brought together in the speech and debate club, which Solomon and Howie join only because they're blackmailed into it by Diwata, who threatens to expose each boy's dark secret. Diwata uses the 'club' - these three are its only members - as an outlet for her longing for the spotlight.

But being involved in the speech and debate club also is a means of allowing each student to get what he or she wants.

For Solomon, who fancies himself an investigative reporter, this will grant him access to a paper that will print his story on the sex scandal involving Howie and a teacher. Howie expects to persuade the others to support his proposed gay/straight student alliance.

Diwata, for her part, gets the spotlight hitherto denied her, when she produces her own musical version of 'The Crucible' (an excerpt of which definitely is one of this play's high points).

The camaraderie all three find, during their offbeat interactions, changes their lives: They become more full.

Sadly, the question left unanswered concerns whether the trolling high school teacher ever gets exposed, or receives any sort of punishment. That would, of course, move this story out of the realm of comedy and more toward drama, but it's nonetheless a missing piece of the picture.

'Speech and Debate' is a fresh, edgy comedy, and it should appeal to audience members of all ages.

In Harmony

By her own account, Mindy Manville has taught music to 'thousands' of Davis school children.

Last year alone, combining her Davis Art Center classes, her Davis schools classes and her summer school program, she taught 1,200 children.

It's therefore fitting that she should be honored by the Davis School Arts Foundation, with this year's 'Harmony in Our Lives' award.

Manville is the 21st recipient of this award, joining familiar names such as Richard Brunelle, Rachel Kessler, Fredrick Lange, Bob Gonzales and Karen Gardias.

'It's really cool,' said Manville's daughter, Lindsay. 'I'm really proud of her.'

Lindsay is the whole reason Manville began working with children in the first place, back in 1997.

'There was a dearth of things for her to do,' Manville recalled. 'You could find 'kinder' music, but that ended when the children became 4 or so, and then there was nothing again until they could try out for Davis Musical Theatre Company, or something like that. That was the age group I was trying to fill, and that's what I still do.

'It bridges the gap between kindermusic and DMTC, although I start them at age 1.'

Lindsay was 4 when her mother set up the Davis Children's Choir.

'It just snowballed from there,' Manville said. 'People heard about me in the schools, and I started doing even more work.'

She started with perhaps 36 students, which grew to 50 and then 100.

Not content to work with only the youngest children, Manville began to expand her range. She now runs programs at the Davis Art Center for all ages, from toddlers up to 9-year-olds.

The Art Center classes grew serendipitously.

'Jackie Stevens, then director of the Art Center, happened to live at the end of my block. I said 'You know, I do this little choir at the city's alternative rec building, and it would be great if I could do it at the Art Center. I could get a piano for you!' '

Stevens enthusiastically agreed.

Manville presents 'Teenie Musicals' and 'Mini Musicals,' actual stage performances for children at the Art Center, as well as programs through the Davis Joint Unified School District.

'During the day I'm just running around from school to school, because I teach an entire music program for five grade levels at Marguerite Montgomery School. That includes rhythm, movement and music education, and then we put on a spring show.'

She also teaches one or two grade levels at four other schools.

Her programs can be presented in either English or Spanish.

'I sort of speak Spanish, and I can write in Spanish,' she said modestly, 'so I always write three or four songs every time we do our social studies show at César Chávez School.'

Wait ... writing her own music?

Indeed. When she first began to put on mini musicals, she did Disney shows such as 'The Lion King' or 'Mary Poppins': stories and music familiar to most children. But she quickly discovered that dealing with Disney's legal department was more of a hassle than it was worth.

'They said it was OK if I was doing a choir-type setting, but not in a musical theater-type setting. You don't want to get into legal turmoil with Disney.'

When Disney stopped returning her calls, Manville decided to just write her own music. (Of course!) She had studied piano from the age of 6, and went all the way up through the national audition process. This experience gave her a solid background in composing.

'I now compose almost everything I put on.'

She not only writes the music and the lyrics for her shows, but - mindful that most of her students are too young to read - she records cassette tapes to help them learn the music.

'Since repetition is the key to everything I do, I don't send my kids home without a tape of every song. They normally haven't heard them before, since I've written them!'

Every child receives a tape and a lyric script; parents are supposed to help if their children can't read yet.

'I have dads from my preschool and toddler choir classes who say 'I know every one of those silly little songs,' because it's the only thing their kids will listen to.'

Many of Manville's students stay with her for years. In fact, her current dance instructor - Caitlin Coppinger, now a UC Davis sophomore - was in Manville's very first music class at Patwin School.

Daughter Lindsay now is in the Davis High School Madrigals. When her mother recently visited the class, she discovered that half of this year's Madrigals once were her students.

'The Davis community is blessed to have Manville nurturing our young voices,' said Colleen Connolly, president of the board of directors for the Davis School Arts Foundation. 'I had the privilege of working with her on the Davis School Arts Foundation board of directors, and my son was lucky enough to sing in two of her choirs.

'I'm thrilled she's being recognized with this award. She's a treasure.'

This year's Harmony in Our Lives benefit concerts, at which Manville will be presented with her award, will take place at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Davis High School Brunelle Performance Hall, 315 W. 14th St.

The West Valley Barbershop Chorus will perform at both concerts. The 1:30 p.m. concert will feature the DHS Madrigals and Concert Choir, the Willett Elementary School Chorus, the Emerson Junior High School Beginning Chorus, and the Harper/Holmes Junior High School Chorus. The 4 p.m. concert will feature the DHS Jazz Choir and Advanced Treble Choir, the Birch Lane Elementary School Chorus, the St. James School Choir and the Emerson Junior High School Advanced Chorus.

Admission to each show is $10 general, $5 students; advanced tickets are available at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St., Davis. Tickets also will be available at the box office one hour before each performance.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Code of Whiskey King

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.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Noises Off

The audience at the opening night performance of the Sacramento Theatre Company production of Michael Frayn's 'Noises Off' could have been enjoying a 'Where's Waldo' book, as we all tried to spot the actual goofs among the scripted goofs.

'Noises Off' is perhaps the funniest show ever written. This very physical comedy traces the actions of a hapless British touring theater company in three acts: from final dress rehearsal for a play called 'Nothing On,' to a performance a month later, and another performance two months after that.

And a lot of sardines are involved.

Act 1 begins on the set of 'Nothing On,' hours before the opening performance, at a point when the actors still don't know their lines and cues are missed. It would appear that this show hasn't a hope of going anywhere near smoothly.

Act 2 reveals what takes place backstage, while a somewhat more stabilized performance is presented to an audience out front. There are romantic tensions, substance abuse, vindictive battles among the actors ... and a stage manager desperately trying to hold everything together, despite her own problems.

Act 3 returns to the 'foreground' set, at a point when all pretense of putting on a smooth performance has evaporated, and the task is merely to get through to the end.

Nothing goes right in this play - by design - and the hilarity builds until the audience laughs nonstop.

I've often said that 'Noises Off' probably is the only play that could suffer on-stage disasters with no consequences. This cast proved that beautifully on opening night: A plate of sardines wasn't where it should be; a box of spilled food sent an orange rolling across the stage; an actor tripped over the edge of the set's turntable, and pulled off a large piece of it; and a door fell off the hinges, necessitating spontaneous dialogue and stage business.

Those who knew the show laughed at these mistakes, but I'm sure first-timers assumed it was all part of the show. The talented cast handled all the disasters with aplomb, and incorporated them into the script: a true testament to their professionalism.

And a first-rate cast it is, starting with Jamie Jones as Dotty Otley, an aging star who has put her money into this production in order to perform. Dotty is appropriately named, as she can't remember anything - neither lines nor stage business - but she's just so happy to be on stage again, that she doesn't realize the problems she's causing for everyone else.

Dotty is only one bane of the existence of director Lloyd Dallas (Matt K. Miller), who uses sarcasm and cajolery while trying to pull performances from his cast, when all he really wants to do is leave this group and direct 'Richard III.' This role is well-suited to the talented Miller, who can do anything, from exploding at a cast member to being part of the physical comedy in Act 2.

Brett David Williams plays Garry Lejeune, an eager young actor whose role is the most physical. Williams must lose a few pounds during each performance. The inarticulate Garry - who has suggestions for everything, but never actually finishes a coherent sentence - is secretly in love with the older Dotty, which causes great problems as the run of the play continues.

Katherine C. Miller is the vacant Brooke Ashton, who appears to have come fresh from the casting couch to a role for which she is woefully unprepared. Miller, a brunette, is a break from the traditional blonde who plays this part, but she nonetheless captures this 'dumb blonde' beautifully.

Michael RJ Campbell is Frederick Fellowes, a method actor with an aversion to violence, whose squeamishness about blood is quite funny.

Michelle Hillen is Belinda Blair, perhaps the most competent of the troupe's actors. Alas, Belinda's role is primarily that of company peacemaker and caretaker for her friend, Selsdon Mowbray (Patrick Murphy), an actor well past his prime, whose problems with the bottle are apparently legendary.

The role of Tim Allgood - handyman, bookkeeper and understudy - is shared by John Ramos and Jake Murphy.

Ramos had the part on opening night, and he handled it adroitly.

The perpetually frazzled Poppy Norton-Taylor (Lynn Baker), who tries to keep things running smoothly, has her own secret that she desperately needs to tell someone.

Everything is overseen by (actual) director Michael Stevenson, who delivers a fast-paced and hilarious production that will delight even the most discerning theater-goers.

One final comment should be made about 7-year-old Jackson Margolis, who gave the welcoming speech to the audience prior to the performance, while also explaining that he had been in theater 'for one-third of his life.' His ease on stage was a great testament to the strength of STC's young people's program.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Legally Blonde: The Musical

If Gertrude Stein were alive today and had accompanied me to California Musical Theater's touring production of 'Legally Blonde,' she could have written her review quite succinctly: 'There's no there there.'

I genuinely like the 2001 film on which this musical has been based, and so was curious to see how the Reese Witherspoon vehicle would translate to the stage. Sadly, they got all the events of the movie, but none of its heart.

This play's fact sheet lists an entire paragraph of award nominations and minor awards won, and it was listed in the Top 10 for 'most requested Ticketmaster 'arts and theater events' for 2007.' But I suspect such interest came from people, like me, who liked the movie and were curious to see it on the stage.

This story concerns Elle Woods (Becky Gulsvig), a stereotypically vapid sorority girl whose signature color is pink. Her whole world revolves around her sorority sisters, clothes, hair, makeup, her Chihuahua Bruiser, and her boyfriend Warner (Jeff McLean), whom she expects to pop the question at any moment.

When Warner surprises her by confessing that it's time to move on to Harvard, get serious about becoming an attorney, and marry a woman who's also more serious, Elle sinks into a 10-day depression. This concludes when she decides that 'all' she needs to do is get into Harvard Law School and prove to Warner that she, too, has a brain.

And, as they say, hijinks and hilarity ensue. Sort of. I guess.

The show's music and lyrics are by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, and with very few exceptions everything sounds the same: not in an 'Andrew Lloyd Webber tuneful' sort of way, but more in a 'crank it up to 10 and wave your arms in the air' sort of way. The nearly six-minute opening number, 'Omigod You Guys' is a perfect example:

Omigod, this is happening;
Our own homecoming queen and king;
Finally she'll be trying on a huge engagement ring for size.
Omigod, you guys!

The two exceptions, however, are quite good. 'Blood in the Water' introduces Elle's Harvard teacher, Prof. Callahan (Ken Land), who dangles four internships in front of his hungry class. This is the first musical number that isn't sweetness and light, but instead a dark and sinister depiction of what it takes to be an attorney:

Blood in the water:
Dark and red and raw.
You're nothing until the thrill of the kill
Becomes your only law.

The second memorable number is 'Whipped into Shape,' which is set in a women's prison; it features some pretty fancy footwork with jump ropes in a dance number choreographed by director Jerry Mitchell, and featuring defendant Brooke Wyndham (Coleen Sexton).

The show also has a fabulous, stand-out chorus-line number, which I won't spoil by describing.

The cast also include D.B. Bonds as Emmett Forrest, a law student who takes Elle under his wing and helps her buckle down and actually study (and falls in love with her in the process).

Natalie Joy Johnson is a hairdresser, Paulette, whom Elle helps in many ways. Ven Daniel is outstanding as Kyle, a UPS guy who is the object of Paulette's affections.

A trial takes place as the story draws to a conclusion, during which some stereotypical gay sight gags continue far too long; I found them offensive, although the audience laughed uproariously.

On the whole, this isn't the best start for this season's Broadway Season. And there isn't nearly enough of Bruiser.