Friday, December 31, 2010

Cirque Dreams: Holidaze

Ed Sullivan would be so pleased with 'Cirque Dreams Holidaze,' the current offering of the California Musical Theatre.

The spectacle - created and directed by Neil Goldberg - has twirling plates, people tossing other people up in the air (and catching them), balancing acts, unicycles and, my personal favorite, quick-change artists. And more glitter than you'll find on a Las Vegas stage.

It was The Ed Sullivan Show on steroids ... and continues through Sunday.

It's a self-described 'wonderland of fantasy and disbelief,' a rock opera, circus, musical, and holiday show all rolled into one, which scores with almost every act and then spoils it by ending with an amazingly offensive finale.

The stage opens on a Christmas set with gigantic, oversized tree, nutcracker and candy canes. The idea is that we are looking at the toys' view of the Christmas room, and we are to be given a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on when all the humans go to bed.

Three characters - Dickens (Matthew Conti), the Ice Queen (Denise Nicole Estrada) and the Angel (Julie Wacksman) - guide the audience, with song (ear-splitting levels and speaker distortion making it almost impossible to appreciate the music), through the various scenes, performed by amazing athletes representing seven countries (USA, Russia, China, Ukraine, Brazil, Latvia and Ethiopia).

Some of the more memorable bits include 'Twirling Around,' a group of girls who twirl 'baubles' on ropes, tossing them high into the air and back and forth to each other. A bit which started out calmly, that turned out to be extraordinary.

A man balances a series of plates, crystal glasses and lighted candles on his chin as he walks up and down a ladder, ending with dismantling the stack piece by piece.

An adorable little girl has an interaction with Santa Claus that includes balance and rigidity and amazing control by the little girl.

A gingerbread house is constructed while gingerbread men dance around and a child is tossed up and in circles over and over by (his father's?) feet.

The Bell Conductor (Peterson Jardim from Brazil) has a long audience participation segment that ends the first half of the show.

It is very funny and involves five randomly selected audience members scattered throughout the theater. The husband of radio host Mary Jane Popp was one of those chosen to play the bells and gave it his all, to much applause.

The second half of the show brings bicyclists, more gymnasts and a flock of people in penguin suits who tumble, skate and march around the stage while the principal penguin (who might have been the balancing guy from Act 1 ... most performers are not named in the program) balanced on an assortment of tiny, movable objects.

A controversial piece, 'Angels in Flight,' is actually quite beautiful, if you don't think about what is going on. Two long silk pieces float down from the skies while cut out angels with more chiffon are lowered and the cloth spread out. Flying angels Dmytro Deyneko and Svitlana Guranchyk begin a very sensuous, very physically demanding aerial dance, where their bodies intertwine with one another and with the material.

The only problem with this otherwise beautiful number is that the theater is filled with the glorious voices singing 'O Holy Night.' As the choir sings 'this is the night of the dear Savior's birth' it was looking more like it was the night of our dear Savior's conception. After the show ended, a woman walking next to me was saying that she is not a religious person, but even she found the number offensive.

'Cirque Dreams Holidaze' is well worth seeing, especially if you miss acrobats on television!

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Christmas Carol

There are three suggestions I would offer to Sacramento Theater Company for improving its otherwise excellent production of 'A Christmas Carol.'

** Cut the fog by at least half. The stage was filled with fog so much of the time that it stuck around to make for foggy dinner-table scenes and foggy office scenes and, most frustratingly, made some characters completely disappear in billowing white fog during a dialog scene - to say nothing of choking nearby audience members.

** Turn down the thunder. The woman sitting next to me talked with her child through the whole first act. Because I glared at her, she apologized at intermission saying that her son couldn't hear what the actors were saying because the thunder was so loud.

** Make the vocal reverb a ghost of productions past. 'A Christmas Carol' has been delighting audiences for decades without giving an echo to the ghostly voices. It was particularly awful when Scrooge and Marley had a scene together and Marley's reverb somehow affected Scrooge's mic as well.

'A Christmas Carol' has been a beloved holiday classic for STC for a long time. There was no reason to go high-tech.

I would also suggest that in a production where 16 roles are double-cast there should be some sort of board indicating which actor is playing which particular role that night. This is especially gratifying to the parents of the younger actors, who would like their child to get the recognition he or she deserves.

All that said, however, the actual performances were quite good.

Matt Miller makes a wonderful Scrooge. I have seen him do the role before and I found touches in his characterization this time that I may not have noticed before. He kept Scrooge's arthritic hands all the way through and didn't forget in certain scenes. I was particularly impressed in scenes where all he had to do was to observe the action going on around him. Sometimes an actor can be more effective doing and saying nothing than to be the person speaking. Miller never lost the moment. It was impressive.

Jim Lane is a man of many parts, first as the ghost of Jacob Marley, where he was suitably scary (if difficult to understand through the echo), dragging his chains and giving dire warnings to Scrooge about his potential future. He shows up in several scenes in the ensemble, and finally is Old Joe, the broker who buys the deceased Scrooge's belongings from the staff who stole them on the death of the miser.

Maggie Hollinbeck is lovely and ephemeral as the ghost of Christmas Past, who proves that she, too, has a hard edge to her as Scrooge's memories turn painful. Hollinbeck later appears as Mrs. Cratchit.

The multitalented Michael R.J. Campbell also plays several roles, most notably the Ghost of Christmas Present - larger than life on his elevated throne. He appears again as the jolly Fezziwig, Scrooge's old employer who shows the Scrooge of today how to create a pleasant workplace. Once again, he is the current husband of Belle, the love of Scrooge's life.

The delicious Lucinda Hitchcock Cone is Mrs. Fezziwig, whom everyone (especially her husband) obviously adores. The actress returns later as Belle, the Matron.

Gillen Morrison is wonderfully noble and ebullient as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's long- suffering clerk, who certainly has much to complain about, yet doesn't. This is the sort of role at which Morrison excels. He also plays the fiddler at Fezziwig's Christmas party.

Six year old Dylan Margolis was an absolutely adorable Tiny Tim.

Young Ebenezer is played either Hank Minnick or Dafydd Wynne (no indication of which child played the role), and gave a tender, sensitive performance. His duet with his sister Fan (either Elle Berti or Caitlyn Shannon) was lovely.

Special mention should be made of either Lauren Metzinger or Courtney Shannon as the Beggar Child. (I'm very sorry - for this night's performance - I can't give proper credit to the right child).

Kudos to director Michael Laun on giving us 'A Christmas Carol' with lots of heart - another wonderful holiday gift for the Sacramento area.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Every Christmas Story Ever Told

Capital Stage has brought back its delightful holiday gift, “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some),” written by Michael Carleton, James Fitzgerald and John K. Alvarez and directed by Jonathan Williams. The show opened on Sunday at the Delta King Theater in Old Sacramento.

This year’s cast adds Artistic Associate Peter Mohrmann to the veterans, Eric Wheeler and Gary S. Martinez (conveniently playing characters named Eric, Gary and Peter). The trio work beautifully and Mohrmann adds a delightful touch to the cast.

This year’s incarnation adds topical material such as Sarah Palin, Lindsay Lohan, and our Governator and it gives Wheeler a chance to do spot-on vocal impressions of Ray Romano and Tim Gunn.

(While these names may not immediately say “Christmas” to you, be assured that in context, they do.)

This 1-1/2 hour piece begins on a serious note, with Eric determined to read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” only to face revolt by his cast, who are tired of doing the Christmas classic and want to pay homage to all of the other familiar Christmas shows and customs. Eric finally relents, on the condition that he also be allowed to perform the straight version of “A Christmas Carol” too.

Lights come up and the audience is called upon to shout out their favorite Christmas “thing,” whether carol, story, movie, or TV movie. It doesn’t stop at Christmas, but also gives a nod to Chanukah ("It bears similarities to other Jewish festivals: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat!") and Kwanza ("The best part of Kwanza is that you'll never see a special called 'A Very Brady Kwanza'.")

Then the zaniness begins. From Gary’s favorite commercial, Santa Riding in on a Norelco shaver, to Eric as a reluctant, but hilarious Grinch, the trio begin to work their way through as many BHCs (Beloved Holiday Classics) as they can.

While two cast members are off stage getting ready for the next bit, the remaining one is standing on stage reading facts off of 3x5 cards about Christmas traditions around the world, such as the story of Holland’s “Sinterklaass,” who arrives on a steamer from Spain with his helper, a twisted dark gnome known as “Black Peter” who punishes bad children. (The writers seem to have looked for the darkest holiday traditions they could find.)

Wheeler gets a chance to display his comic expertise as such characters as the Grinch and Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a show which is nearly not included for, we are told, copyright reasons. To get around the problem Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer becomes Gustov the Green-Nosed Reingoat.

In act 2, Wheeler gives us another spot-on vocal imitation as Jimmy Stewart in makes a terrific “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and a hilarious Mr. Smithers (from “the Simpsons”) Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”

Mohrmann is particularly fetching, looking more like Carmen Miranda than the Ghost of Christmas Present and also is very funny as a Jim Lang-type host of the fruitcake version of “The Dating Game.”

I have now seen Gary S. Martinez in this show three times and I’m still in love with his character. He can be very funny and lovable, and he wins my heart each year when he stands there, as Linus, reciting “The True Meaning of Christmas.” It seems that each year I say that he’s the “heart” of this play–but he really is.

Just when you think the play is over, the cast realizes that they have left out Christmas music and give a dizzying rendition of Every Christmas Carol Ever Sung.

I promise you will leave this theater with a sprig of holly in your heart and a “Mata-Ki-Te-Rangi” (“Merry Christmas” in Icelandic) on your lips.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Miracle on 34th Street

My very favorite Christmas movie ever is “Miracle on 34th Street,” written for the movies in 1947 by Valentine Davis. It starred Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, a very young Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle (Gwenn won the Oscar that year for best actor in a supporting role).
There have been three remakes for television, a movie remake for the big screen and a Broadway musical version in 1963.
In or around 2006, Will Severin, Patricia DiBenedetto Snyder and John Vreeke adapted the story for the stage and that stage adaptation is this year's holiday offering by the Woodland Opera House, under the direction of Jeff Kean.
There is a danger in adapting a familiar film to the stage, that being that while you can do short scenes that dissolve into other short scenes rather seamlessly in a movie, on a stage, brief scenes in one setting followed by a brief scene in another involve complicated set changes.
Even though director Kean has costumed his set crew with colorful Santa hats and uses sets on wheels that move in and out quickly, it still sometimes has the feel of “say a couple of lines, wait, say another couple of lines and wait again” while the sets are being changed.
It's an unavoidable problem that Kean sometimes manages to occasionally solve by having two characters stand on one side of the stage without a set while two other characters stand on the other side. Only a pool of light indicates there is a change of scene.
Setting aside the choppiness of the action in a show that has more than 30 scenes, the overall production is certain to delight audiences.
Jeff Nauer is a wonderful Kris Kringle, hired by Macy's when its parade Santa Claus (Matthew Taul) shows up drunk to work. Kris is later hired to be the in-store Santa and causes an uproar when, in the spirit of Christmas, he sends the parents of children to different stores when they are unable to find their child's desired toy at Macy's.
Kris' immediate boss is Doris Walker (Jen Smuda-Cotter), an embittered woman who is out to teach her daughter Susan (Ani Carrera) the realities of life and refusing to allow her to believe in fantasies such as Santa Claus.
Doris' neighbor Fred Gailey (Matthew Moore) is trying to help the little girl have a more normal childhood, especially when he offers to let the homeless Kringle stay with him.
The adult actors give good performances, and Ani Carrera is perfect in the role of a too-wise-for-her-age child who just really wants to believe in Santa Claus.
There are excellent performances in smaller roles, particularly Charley Cross as Mr. Macy, and Steve Cairns, who plays the multiple roles of Mr. Gimble, Charlie Halloran and prosecutor Mara, determined to have Kris committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Spencer Alexander is the perpetually blustery Mr. Shellhammer (the real character's name, and presumably no relation to Woodland Opera House education director Angela Shellhammer).
Bruce Lohse is suitably judge-like in his portrayal of Judge Harper, who must decide Kris' fate and who runs the risk of telling all children everywhere that there really is no Santa Claus.
Kean's sets are ingenious, whether they are rolled on or flown in, often one being rolled on while the other is halfway up into the rigging. When finally in place, they work beautifully.
Laurie Everly-Klassen has put together a large collection of costumes very true to the 1940s, giving a completely authentic look to each scene.
“Miracle on 34th Street” drags a bit, but only because of the structure of the script, not because of the contributions of those involved. It is still a delightful couple of hours and should be a lot of fun for everyone who attends.
Bring tissues. After all these years, I still get misty-eyed at the ending!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life

What would Christmas be without Bing Crosby singing 'White Christmas?'

What would Christmas be without Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol,' whether Scrooge is an actor, a cartoon character, an animal, or a muppet?

And what would Christmas be without 'It's a Wonderful Life,' the classic film that has played for decades on televisions across this country?

To celebrate the Winters Community Theater's 30th season, the group is presenting the staged version of the classic tale, directed by Anita Ahuja.

It's the perfect community theater vehicle, with lots of small roles for anybody who has a desire to try his or her hand at acting - and for company regulars to give the solid performances we have come to expect from them.

What better way to begin the holiday season?

'It's a Wonderful Life' is based on the story 'The Greatest Gift,' written by Phillip Van Doren Stern in 1943. The story was inspired by a dream. Unable to find a publisher, Stern printed 200 copies of his story and sent them to friends in Christmas cards.

One of the copies ended up with RKO Pictures, who purchased the motion picture rights and sold them to Frank Capra's production company.

In 1946, Capra produced the movie, which he named 'It's a Wonderful Life.' Though originally considered a box office flop due to high production costs and stiff competition at the time of its release, the movie was nominated for five Academy Awards and has since been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, and placed No. 1 on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time.

Heading the Winters cast of nearly 30 is Trent Beeby, playing good ol' George Bailey, who gave up his dreams of setting the world on fire to stay in town and keep his family's savings and loan from collapse. Beeby gives his usual fine performance. He's likable and dedicated and suffers genuine anguish when driven to the brink of suicide by feeling that his life meant nothing.

Phil Pittman is Clarence Odbody, the angel yet to earn his wings, sent from heaven to get George through the crisis of faith.

Tom Rost earns boos from the audience for his curmudgeonly portrayal of old Mr. Potter, the man determined to bring the savings and loan to its knees. The boos are an indication of how well Rost handles his task! Robert Fischer is sufficiently menacing as Potter's bodyguard.

Michael Barbour does a good job as pharmacist Mr. Gower, whose carelessness would have killed a client were it not for the keen eye of the young George Bailey (Nick McKenna)

Ann Rost gives a solid performance as George's mother and Jesse Akers is the likable, if not quite competent Uncle Billy, whose inattention nearly destroys the savings and loan. Joanie Bryant does a good job as George's wife, though her role seems smaller than the role in the movie. Jason Spyres brings youthful enthusiasm to the role of George's brother, Jason.

The Bailey children are all very cute - Nick McKenna as Pete, Emelia Orosco as Margaret, Allyson Freckman as Elizabeth, Sophia Tolley as ZuZu and Corinne McKenna as Janie.

Annie Griffey stands out from the supporting cast as the bank examiner, Miss Carter. She makes the most of a small role and her voice is a nice addition to the choir that sings Christmas carols during the long set changes.

The costumes by Germaine Hupe, Linda Glick, Viona Hicks and Ann Rost work well and are a good representation of the era.

The program for this show lists multiple members of several families, whether on stage or behind the stage and displays that wonderful thing about community theater.

The audience is often filled with friends of the cast (we sat with co-workers of Mr. Potter, for example). I love the Winters Community Theater for this. Each production is a feel-good experience.

I never leave without a smile on my face because of how much fun everyone is having, both on and off the stage.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


The matinee audience for Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of 'Annie' (the second show in its 26th season) was filled with children and their parents, all of whom were glued to the action on stage.

It was a near-sellout audience and everyone had a wonderful time.

'Annie,' with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and book by Thomas Meehan is, of course, based on the classic comic strip 'Little Orphan Annie' by Harold Gray. The newspaper serial told the story of an orphan girl (played for DMTC by Mariah Maldonado) during the Great Depression.

She was left at the door of an orphanage as a baby 11 years ago, with a note from her parents promising to return. She keeps hope alive and knows that somewhere out there her parents are thinking about her.

Annie is invited to spend the Christmas holiday in the home of the richest man in the world, Oliver Warbucks (Michael Cross), which becomes a life-altering event for her.

With familiar tunes like 'Easy Street' and 'Tomorrow' - in addition to a score of other fun songs - and a cast of adorable little girls (and funny bad guys), this is a show that is perfect to share with those young people in your life.

Enhancing solid performances by many in the large cast, there are a couple of stand-out performances by actors in minor roles...

Little Megan Spangler, who plays the youngest orphan, Molly, in addition to being cute as a button, has a real flair for comedy and brings down the house with her antics. Director Steve Isaacson clearly knew how to make the most of her talents and has done so beautifully.

Also, Eimi Taormina, who plays several small roles, sparked up the stage, particularly with her solo as the 'star-to-be' during the song 'N.Y.C.' She becomes the one to watch throughout the rest of the show, appearing later as radio personality Gert Healy - a role intended for a man named Bert - so her song does not fit comfortably in her vocal range, though she manages it quite well.

Maldonado has a winning personality and good rapport with Cross.

The other orphans - Lizzie Carey as Tessie, Claire Deamer as Kate, Devon Hayakawa as July, Emma Kehr as Duffy and Natalie Month as Pepper - are all quite good and have their choreography down pat.

Cross is outstanding as Warbucks, who doesn't have a clue about the real world, but has a huge heart. It is clear that he grows to love this Little Orphan Annie who has come into his life.

Monica Parisi is the terrible Miss Hannigan, running the orphanage like a concentration camp and whose life is 'plagued with little girls.'

She conspires with her brother Rooster (Jason Markel) and his girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Brittany Bickel) to pose as Annie's parents in order to get the large reward Warbucks has offered.

Markel gives an interesting performance as Rooster. Most actors in that role are tall and thin and try to create the body language of a barnyard fowl. With a bit more weight on him, Markel instead mimics the cartoon's Foghorn Leghorn, and does it well.

Christina Rae is Grace Farrell, Warbucks' secretary, who is obviously secretly in love with him, and who becomes Annie's friend and protector.

Michael Manley has a suitably prominent jaw as FDR and, fortunately, does not try to mimic the Bostonian accent too heavily.

With a cast heavy on women, FDR's cabinet becomes entirely female, though surprisingly they were not given feminine equivalents of the male names (Mary Young, for example, is still Harold Ickes).

Raymond Rae is excellent as the dog, Sandy, and even chimes in with Annie on her signature song 'Tomorrow.'

The scenic design by Steve Isaacson is mostly utilitarian, though Warbucks' mansion is quite lovely.

Jan Isaacson has done a beautiful job of choreography, even finding a few dancers who can tap.

Jean Henderson's costumes are always noteworthy and the look created by Warbucks' staff as they line up across the stage in their black and red uniforms is memorable.

The 15-member pit orchestra even includes a tuba this time, which was quite a surprise and adds a nice depth to the sound of the orchestra.

As we watch the residents of Hooverville and see the depth of poverty of the people attempting to sell apples to make a dime, live in cardboard box shanties, and make soup out of pretty distasteful ingredients in order to survive, one can't help but make the comparison with what many are calling our current depression.

It's nice to have an 'Annie' to help us keep our spirits up and instill the hope that the sun will come out 'Tomorrow.'

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gallathea (feature story)

'It rocks the world of traditional theater while exploring sex, identity, lust, love, infidelity, deception and denial with burlesque flair. It is sophisticated and coarse at the same time.'

So reads the description of UC Davis' upcoming production of John Lyly's 1588 comedy, 'Gallathea,' opening Thursday at UCD's Main Theater.

Director Peter Lichtenfels notes that the play feels like 'vaudeville and (almost) stand-up comedy.' He thinks audiences will enjoy the bawdy and surprisingly contemporary humor of 'Gallathea.' Fans of 'As You Like It' 'are sure to enjoy Lyly's play and Lichtenfels' fun and uproarious update of this classic.'

Showing off their ship hats - the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria - are,
from left, Mark Suarez, Matthew Canty
and Mitchell Vanlandingham,
in UC Davis' production of 'Gallathea.'
(Matthew Dunivan/Courtesy photo)

Lichtenfels first read the play three years ago and fell in love with it.

'It's funny, contemporary, and deals with issues that are of concern to our society today. I was blown away by it and couldn't understand why it's rarely done,' he said.

Though Lyly's language is more accessible to today's audiences than Shakespeare's, the director modernized a few words in the text, but the staging is contemporary, and he does not attempt to do it in the traditional way it would have been done in 1588.

'What I like doing is looking at a play and filtering what it says about now. My ethos is always 'why do a play if it doesn't talk to us,' ' he said. 'Early modern ideas about men, women and the flexibility of gender are both remarkably similar and completely different to ours today in 'Gallathea.'

'The similarities help us to think about gender and sexuality through the differences of a society and culture from over 400 years ago - with thought-provoking and challenging perspectives on what many people today take for granted.'

Costume designer and Ph.D. candidate Liz Galindo remarks, 'Gallathea is a historical play and creating costumes with a contemporary twist has been a challenge.'

Galindo's costume designs have been featured in recent films, including 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' 'Charlie's Angels' and 'There Will Be Blood'; on TV's 'Sex in the City'; and on the red carpet at the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes. Actresses Sophia Loren, Cate Blanchett, Cameron Diaz and Uma Thurman have worn her Galindo Couture gowns. She has designed a total of 28 hats for 'Gallathea.'

'This show is about life and all the different hats one has to wear from childbirth to death,' she explains, so it seemed logical to design hats to represent that fact.

She took inspiration from London milliner Philip Treacy, whose hats were featured in one of this season's episodes of 'Project Runway.'

'I had fun researching 21st century haute couture hats and then started creating fun, sexy and over-the-top hats for each character,' Galindo says.

Three brothers wear ship hats that bring Monty Python to mind as the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria adorn their heads. She got the idea from one of Treacy's hats of a three-masted ship, and she found vintage wooden boats on e-Bay.

'The challenge is making them stay on,' she laughed.

The shaping of this production has been a collaborative process. The actors and director participated in an improv workshop that allowed everyone to voice ideas that would be incorporated into the finished product.

The group even set up a Facebook page and characters from the play have Facebook identities and participate in online discussion as their characters.

'I'm finding myself looking at the astronomical time that daylight-saving time ends,' says the character of Tyterus, whose bio includes the fact that he is self-employed as a shepherd and that he likes to 'tend to flock, marvel at landscape and tell stories to daughter.'

Lichtenfels was inspired by watching how his son could multi-task, using the cell phone and an iPod while watching television and keeping up-to-date with his friends on Facebook, all at the same time. His production will include not only the action on stage but also will incorporate video and sound.

Multi-media artist John Zibell decided to give cameras to the actors and let them film the action on stage from the wings (or just themselves backstage), which then will be projected onto two screens on the stage itself.

The audience also will be permitted to use cameras and cell phones, if they wish, and are encouraged to text or tweet about the performances as they are happening.

'We have to ask how kids want their stories told these days,' Lichtenfels said. 'They like short bursts of lots of stuff.'

It seems clear that 'Gallathea' will consist of 'lots of stuff,' and that Lichtenfels may be discovering new ways for younger audiences to enjoy a 16th century classic in the age of television, the Internet and instant gratification.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


I am continually impressed with the quality of work by Studio 301, the self-funded, UC Davis student-run production company. Recent productions have included 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in the bucolic Arboretum setting, 'MacBeth,' an outdoor production in the stark castle-like setting of the university's 'Death Star,' the offbeat 'Fuddy Mears,' hidden away in a building in the theater area, and the delightful 'Hair,' another outdoor production near the gazebo in the Arboretum.

The rather traditional setting of the Wyatt Pavilion for Neil Simon's comedy 'Rumors' seemed somewhat tame by comparison, but that did nothing to diminish the quality of this production, directed by Ulysses Morazan and Jazz Trice.

Simon's homage to the drawing room comedies of the 1930s involves a lot of running up and down stairs of the set designed by Jennifer Varat, a lot of slamming of doors, and a lot of slapstick comedy by the actors. Kudos to Varat for making such a sturdy set.

The story takes place at a black-tie dinner party to celebrate the 10th anniversary of New York Deputy Mayor Charley Brock and his wife Myra (neither of whom is ever seen), but as the action begins, things are already in a shambles. The first guests to arrive (Gordon Meacham as Charley's attorney Ken and Monica Ammerman as his wife) have discovered that their hosts - and all the servants - have been incapacitated by mysterious events. We aren't sure exactly what happened, but the one certainty is that a gun is involved.

Panicked by the backlash this potentially embarrassing situation could cause, as more guests arrive, Ken and Monica's neuroses run wild, and they begin to make up wild explanations for the unavailability of their hosts. As more of the story begins to be revealed, all the guests fall into a pattern of lying and cover-ups until the mind reels trying to remember which lie was which. The Simon script beautifully brings out each character's individual character flaws, taking the mounting hysteria in several different directions.

The others in this fine cast include Kyle Lochridge as the accountant Lenny and his wife Claire (Stephanie Moore); Bijan Ghiasi as Charley's psychiatrist Ernie and his wife Cookie (Malia Abayon), Glenn (Matt Kronzer), a state senatorial candidate and his wife Cassie (Christina Rabago), and Anna Kritikos, who almost steals the show with her excellent Officer Welch.

Lochridge deserves special mention for his very long, very funny second act monologue, as he pretends to be the absent Charley Brock trying to explain the strange goings on to the police. (He also wins applause for his whiplash injury, leaving him looking like the Modigliani painting hanging on the wall of the apartment.)

Likewise, Abayon earns high praise for her portrayal of a woman with severe back problems who decides to step up and be the hostess for this weird party and cook up a fancy dinner.

Olufunmilayo O. Alabi has created some lovely costumes, particularly the long black and white gown for Monica and the shorter green gown for Cassie, which beautifully set off Anna Kritikos' features, especially after she let her hair down.

The saddest thing about this play is that there were so few in the audience on opening night. If you're in need of a good laugh, you just may find the best medicine to be at the Wyatt Pavilion through Sunday.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

In the Heights

For people who feel that nobody is writing the big Broadway musicals anymore (other than those churned out by the Disney machine), I would suggest that they get themselves to the Sacramento Community Center to see 'In the Heights,' winner of four 2008 Tony awards and the 2008 Grammy award for best musical show album.

This is a big, high-energy musical, conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also wrote the music and lyrics), with lots of likeable characters, a fantastic set by Anna Louizos, great choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, and a message of hope and self-discovery. The score features hip-hop, salsa, merengue, Latin pop and soul music.

OK - it's loud and sometimes difficult to understand, but you get the general gist of the story and have plenty to watch while you enjoy the action on stage. The second act begins wrapping things up almost from the first number and it all seems over very quickly, but again, it's the whole experience that counts and the experience here is definitely worth it.

The story itself covers three days in the life of this primarily Latino Upper Manhattan neighborhood, and revolves around the lives of several of its characters.

The title song, a hip-hop number, is sung by Usnavi (Joseph Morales), the owner of a small store in Washington Heights. Usnavi (he was named after one of the first sights his parents saw when the arrived in America - a U.S. Navy ship) is the narrator of the piece and Morales has a charm that easily grabs the audience.

Usnavi is in love with Vanessa (Lexi Lawson), who works in the beauty shop next door, but who is desperate to move out of the Heights and away from her dysfunctional mother and the other problems she associates with the neighborhood. A bad credit score is making that dream difficult.

Nina (Genny Lis Padilla) has come home from her first year at Stanford, having to tell her parents Kevin (Danny Bolero) and Camila (Natalie Toro) that she has lost her scholarship and dropped out of school. Padilla gives a beautiful performance.

Nina is also falling in love with Benny (Nicholas Christopher), an employee of the taxi and limousine business owned by her parents. But Benny is not from a Latin culture, can barely speak Spanish, and Kevin sees him as not good enough for his daughter.

Kevin and Camila have been building the American dream since Kevin decided he was not going to follow in the footsteps of his farmering father and grandfather. His dream is to earn enough to give his daughter a college education so that she, too, can eventually move up in the world. His solo, 'Inutil' was gut-wrenching.

The heart of the neighborhood is Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora), everybody's spiritual grandmother, but especially to Usnavi, whom she practically raised. Abuela Claudia taught Usnavi the value of paciencia y fe (patience and faith), also the title of her big musical number.

She also has a special tie to Sonny (Chris Chatman), Usnavi's impish young cousin who works in the store, but who is always there to push Usnavi to think positively about the good things in his life.

A winning lottery ticket features prominently into the plot, and a prolonged power blackout leaves most of Act 2 to be played in dim light, which brings out both the good and the bad in the neighborhood.

Special recognition April Ortiz, playing Daniela, the owner of the hair salon where all the neighborhood gossip takes place and David Baida, as the Piragua Guy, a street vendor with a powerful voice.

'In the Heights' is not a perfect musical but its shortcomings are far outweighed by its strong points. A major musical set in a Latino community has been long in coming and was worth the wait.

And there's not a single cartoon character brought to life in it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Picture a stamp collector.

What do we see? Probably a nerdy sort of guy, with horn-rimmed glasses, sitting quietly in a corner while surrounded by books, magnifying glasses, tweezers and other tools of the trade.

Be prepared to have these stereotypes blown away by the Capital Stage production of Theresa Rebeck's dark comedy, 'Mauritius,' which continues through Nov. 7 in Old Sacramento.

The play is directed by Michael Stevenson, who delivers a beautifully crafted and swiftly paced production.

For starters, Stephen C. Jones has created the perfect setting for a hole-in-the wall stamp store.

As the play begins, Philip (John P. Lamb) stands hunched over the display case, reading a book; he's everything you'd expect from a stamp dealer. Dennis (Kurt Johnson), a large man, sits with his legs up on a table, also reading.

Kristine David so perfectly embodies Jackie, an innocent young girl, that one could almost believe she'd been touring the halls of the Delta King, and happened to accidentally open a door onto the stage, and stepped into this production.

Jackie is carrying a thin book: Her mother has recently died and left her a stamp album. (My only quibble with this production is that the book seems terribly thin to represent a lifetime's collection of stamps.) Jackie is in some financial difficulty, and has heard that some of the stamps might be worth a lot of money; she wonders if someone will appraise them for her.

Grouchy Philip wants nothing to do with her, but Dennis is curious; he takes pity on her and agrees to check out the stamps. He points out an 'inverted Jenny,' which he tells her may be worth as much as $3,000. He continues to turn the pages until he stops suddenly.

Obviously, he has seen something, and doesn't want to let her know about it. Dennis abruptly shuts the book and tells her to go home.

After she has left, we learn that he has seen the 1847 one-penny and two-penny 'Post Office' stamps, printed in very limited quantities on the island of Mauritius - off the east coast of Madagascar - and prized for the mistake that led them to be printed with the words 'post office' instead of 'post paid.'

The stamps could be worth millions ... if they're authentic.

'There are so many forgeries floating around out there, people are starting to use them to mail in their absentee ballots,' Dennis tells Philip. 'Besides which, how would you know the difference? You can't, because you don't know!'

And so the con is on.

Or is it?

Dennis meets Sterling (Jonathan Rhys Williams), an uber-rich international arms dealer and die-hard stamp lover, and together they scheme about how to get the stamps from the clueless Jackie.

But then a wrinkle erupts: Jackie's possession of the collection is questioned. Her estranged half-sister Mary (Lauren Bloom), who has returned to help clear out the family home after their mother's death, claims the album for her own.

Mary insists that her grandfather - no relation to Jackie - was the collector, and Mary has fond memories of spending time with him, while learning the history of the stamps.

She wants to keep the album, not sell it.

No love is lost between these two women, and possession of the stamp collection becomes more of a power struggle than a money thing.

After many twists, turns and deception, Rebeck uncorks an ingenious conclusion that should satisfy just about everyone.

This is an outstanding show with a strong cast, most of whom are new to Capital Stage. The sole company regular, Williams, is almost unrecognizable as the thug Sterling: certainly a far cry from his role in last spring's 'Hunter Gatherers.'

Philately rarely has been this much fun.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tilly No-Body

The magic begins the moment one enters the Mondavi Center's Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, where set designer John Iacovelli has created an old-style circus ring, with a tent suggested by hanging lights.

Composer/sound designer David Roesner's jazzy music fills the air, and the lid of a large trunk opens. A woman emerges, dressed from head to toe in fur, and so begins 'Tilly No-Body: Catastrophes of Love.'

This one-act play in 20 'attractions' (as each section is called) is devised by actor, writer and UC Davis acting professor Bella Merlin. She performs the role of Tilly, wife of Frank Wedekind, perhaps best known to today's audiences as the German dramatist who wrote the 1891 play 'Spring Awakening,' on which the Tony Award-winning musical was based.

'Tilly No-Body' is the culmination of 20 years of work.

In 1991, Merlin was cast as Lulu in Peter Quint's new translation of Wedekind's plays 'Earth Spirit' and 'Pandora's Box,' at London's Chelsea Theater. While preparing for the role, she came across the autobiography of Wedekind's wife, Tilly, titled 'Lulu: Die Rolle Meines Lebens (Lulu, the Role of My Life).'

While reading the book, Merlin expected to discover that the role of Lulu had ignited Tilly's acting career and propelled her to great professional heights. But Merlin discovered that within the Wedekinds' domestic relationship, Frank had turned Tilly into Lulu, one of the key roles in classic modern drama: part child, part whore, part gypsy, part muse ... a chameleon who changes her name and guise to become all things to all people.

In 'Tilly No-Body,' Merlin weaves together Tilly's autobiography, quotations from Frank's plays and letters between herself and Frank. The performance piece also includes five original songs Merlin composed - she sings them and accompanies herself - along with certain fictionalized suppositions.

Ultimately, Merlin regards herself a 'deviser' (as well as performer) rather than 'playwright,' because of the many different aspects to the composition of this work.

Watching the talented Merlin at work is a privilege. She's a consummate performer: Under Miles Anderson's direction, she thoroughly embodies the character of Tilly.

The play begins with Tilly's attempted suicide via poison. Then, as the poison gradually works its way out of her system, she relives various key points in her life, granting us a view of the symbiotic and abusive relationship she experienced with Frank, and the effect it had on her.

Merlin explains that the poison worked its way out of Tilly's body through her skin, and so the play uses the device of removing layers of clothing, to illustrate the parts of Tilly's life. She leaves these layers behind during her recovery from the poison, and from Frank's impact on her life.

Costumes play a huge role in this production, and costumer Maggie Moran has done a masterful job with the layers of Tilly's wardrobe. A voluminous fur coat, for example, is removed to reveal a stunning ringmaster's costume (including a jeweled cummerbund donated to the university many years ago, by costumer Marinka Pfaff).

Pieces of costume emerge from odd places, and one costume morphs into something completely different.

The mood is greatly enhanced by Thomas J. Munn's lighting design: long shadows and mood lighting that are as much a 'character' as Tilly herself.

And I cannot leave out the wonderful puppet creations of John Murphy, whose characters add so much to the whimsy of certain sequences.

More than merely telling Tilly Wedekind's story, 'Tilly No Body' explores the idea of who and what a jobless actor is.

During a recent episode of 'Theater Talk,' Robert Osborne discussed various films - notably 'All About Eve' - that show how roles are crucial to an actor's identity. Similarly, Merlin reveals how the loss of an acting persona affects Tilly's life.

'Without work, actors are lost souls,' Merlin writes, in the program notes. 'Without a play, we have no voice. Without a character to perform, we have no body.

Monday, October 04, 2010


As its title suggests - 'Suds: The Rocking '60s Musical Soap Opera' - the final show of the Cosmopolitan Cabaret's 2010 season is light, frothy and insubstantial.

And the audience loved it.

This jukebox musical has a paper-thin plot, but who cares about plot when you have more than 50 songs from the 1960s?

But for those who do care about such things, the story revolves around perky Cindy (Melissa Wolfklain), decked out in crinoline skirt and bobby socks, who runs the local Fluff and Fold Laundromat. The action begins on her birthday, and she is the happiest girl in the world: She's almost engaged to her long-distance boyfriend, whom she's never met, but with whom she has been a pen pal for four years.

She also loves her little cat.

But then tragedy hits: Said boyfriend breaks up with her, because he has found someone with better penmanship. Her cat dies, all her relatives are killed in an automobile accident, and she receives a $10,000 overdue notice from the IRS.

Cue appropriate song: 'The End of the World.'

Cindy decides to kill herself in a most ingenious way, which I won't reveal. Let's just say that much agitation is involved, and it's hilarious.

Enter her guardian angel. Two of them, in fact.

The perpetually perky Dee Dee (Eydie Alyson) is overly optimistic, and convinced they can pull Cindy out of the doldrums. DeeDee is joined by Marge (Nanci Zopp), a tough ol' broad who has been around the stratosphere a few times (if you know what I mean).

Alyson is given the lighter songs, but Zopp is the standout, especially in her show-stopping 'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me.'

The cast is rounded out by Michael Dotson, who plays 'Everyone Else': the postman; the nerd the angels set up as a date for Cindy; and even Johnny Angel, a surprise revelation to whom Dee Dee finds her heart drawn ('I Will Follow Him,' 'Johnny Angel'). Dotson provides several of twists and turns throughout the evening.

Like 'The Marvelous Wonderettes,' a Music Circus production this past summer, the appeal of 'Suds' rests on one's nostalgia for songs of a certain era. 'Suds' include more songs than some jukebox musicals, by using the device of humorously stopping a singer after just enough of a song is presented, to receive audience recognition and applause.

'Suds' was created by Melinda Gilb, Steve Gunderson and Bryan Scott, with musical and vocal arrangements by Steve Gunderson. The show has toured the country, receiving rave reviews from California to New York. It broke many box-office records, including at the prestigious Old Globe Theater, the Actors Theater of Louisville and the San Diego Repertory Theater.

The current production is directed by Glenn Casale and choreographed by Joann Lewis.

If your tastes tend toward meaty shows, this one probably isn't for you. But anybody wanting to take a break from all the heavy news of the day, in order to wallow in a bit of cotton candy for a couple of hours, may find this just the very thing.

Especially if you loved the music of the day.

Friday, September 24, 2010



The word immediately conjures up mental images of knights in shining armor, castle pageantry and magical happenings.

All those things can be found in the Woodland Opera House production of Lerner and Loewe's classic musical, adapted from T.H. White's 'The Once and Future King.'

Director Rodger McDonald has created a world that is long on talent, opulent in terms of costumes (by Laurie Everly-Klassen), spare on actual set pieces, but effective on suggested scenes (set and lighting design by Jeff Kean).

One cannot go wrong with Bob Cooner's Arthur. The precision that Cooner brought to WOH's recent 'Noises Off' - as director - beautifully translates into his performance as the reluctant king, who is afraid to meet his new bride. As the play progresses, Arthur grows into his role as king, as his love for Guenevere (Alexandra Ralph) deepens.

His pain at discovering her betrayal - and the anguish of sending her off with Lancelot (Ryan Favorite), as Arthur watches his dream of a world ruled by law crumble - are palpable.

Alexandra Ralph is a mesmerizing Guenevere, whose 'youth was sold' when she was given in marriage to this stranger, King Arthur. Guenevere isn't ready for maturity, since she hasn't yet had an opportunity to experience the 'simple joys of maidenhood':

Shall two knights never tilt for me
and let their blood be spilt for me?
Shall a feud not begin for me?
Shall kith not kill their kin for me?

Ralph sings beautifully, and her manner and bearing are so reminiscent of local actress Lenore Turner-Heinson, that I was surprised to discover that her previous performances have been in the Bay Area. Ralph is wonderfully sympathetic, warm and flirtatious all at once; it's obvious that while Guenevere has come to love Lancelot, she still has feelings for Arthur as well.

As for Lancelot, what can I say about Ryan Favorite?

He makes his entrance through the boxes on the side of the theater, and when he bursts out with the first lines of 'C'est moi,' he leaves the audience stunned at the force and tone of his voice. Favorite is a real treasure and perfect for the role: full of himself but later softening, as he becomes the king's friend and, later, the queen's lover.

My only complaint with his performance is that he speaks in a French accent, but inconsistently. Sometimes it's a thick accent, sometimes it's barely noticeable, and sometimes it's not there at all. When one can sing like this, it's a minor point ... but it does jar the suspension of disbelief.

McDonald, also taking an acting role, dominates the stage during his first scene as the eccentric Pellinore, who becomes Arthur's oft-befuddled aide. McDonald is delightful.

It's a wonder that Steve MacKay's Merlin has such a stout figure under his flowing robes, because with that unbelievably thick mustache, I can't imagine how he could eat anything at all. Still, his brief appearance - before being lured away by the spell of Nimue, the Lady of the Lake (Laura Wardrip) - adds just the right touch.

Dan Sattel also turns in an outstanding performance as Mordred, Arthur's deliciously bitchy illegitimate son, who is responsible for bringing down the king's dream of a world where disagreements are solved by rule of law, rather than by swordplay. Sattel enjoyed the loud round of boos that he received at the curtain call.

Young Liam Murdock, as Tom of Warwick, is earnest in his desire to become a knight of the round table; he gives an excellent performance.

In the opening scenes, Arthur tells Guenevere that 'there's not a happier spot for happily ever-aftering' than Camelot. Even though Arthur's dream ultimately falls apart, we're fortunate that this happy spot can be seen for a few more weeks at the Woodland Opera House.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Romeo and Juliet

Davis' newest theater company, the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble, selected a beautiful spot and a lovely night for the opening of its debut offering, 'Romeo and Juliet.'

The production, directed by Rob Salas, is presented in the gazebo at the UC Davis Arboretum; a circle of folding chairs is placed around the stage area, and twinkling lights add to the setting's magic. As the audience enters the seating area, the cast members stand at the posts surrounding the stage and ring chimes.

These chimes become part of the play itself, as the evening progresses.

This shoestring production doesn't have a 'set' per se, but the actors bring the story to life without really needing much.

Likewise, the play is done in modern dress.

This is a lusty, modern version of Shakespeare's classic tale. The opening sequence is a whirl of bodies, with actors coming dangerously close to the seated audience, although stepping agilely over patrons' toes.

The seven-member cast handles all the roles; only the actors playing the title characters do not take on multiple parts.

Ian Walters is a perfect Romeo: a curly headed lad in the throes of his first love. He has the swagger and bravado of a young man when in the company of his friends, upholding the family honor against their generations-long enemy, the Capulets.

And yet Walters is awkward and shy when Romeo is in the presence of Juliet, who makes his hormones rage.

He doesn't quite know how to woo her.

The structure of the gazebo calls for a rather ingenious 'balcony scene,' the likes of which you probably won't see again.

You'll wonder how they'll pull it off, as the play approaches that scene, but it works beautifully.

Gia Battista's Juliet, no shrinking violet, is a young woman who knows what she wants and what she doesn't, and won't let family enmities stand in her way.

The wedding night scene is both sensuous and innocent, and both actors make excellent use of a long piece of filmy cloth to suggest a bedroom.

All this said, the actor who impressed me most on opening night is Mark Curtis Ferrando, who played both Mercutio and Paris. Ferrando did his first Shakespeare ('The Winter's Tale') only a year ago, and at that time was unfamiliar with the style.

Ferrando certainly has blossomed in this production. He brings the necessary physicality to his fight scenes, and oozes sexuality as he instructs Romeo on the art of wooing.

Every young girl should have a nurse like Stephanie Hakinson (who also plays Sampson in this production). The nurse engages in almost conspiratorial chatter with her mistress, regarding her amorous adventures, and becomes a real friend to the girl.

Kristopher Ide's Friar Lawrence is a lone voice of reason amid pride, prejudice and persecution.

Matthew Canty plays both Romeo's cousin Benvolio and the servant Balthasar; Brendan Ward is Juliet's cousin Tybalt and her father.

This 'Romeo and Juliet' is an impressive start for the fledgling theater company, which promises even better things to come in the future.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The Tony Award-winning musical comedy, 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,' is based on 'C_R_E_P_U_S_C_U_L_E,' an original play by The Farm. The musical is conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with its book by Rachel Sheinkin, and music and lyrics by William Finn, perhaps best known for his 'Falsettos' trilogy, about a man dying of AIDS.

'Putnam County Spelling Bee' has no such heavy themes; it's peopled not only by a zany cast of characters, but also assisted by volunteers from the audience. The current UC Davis theater and dance department run featured UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi as one of opening night's three volunteers.

So, the question: Can a children's spelling bee be transformed into an interesting two-hour musical?


Each quirky character's authenticity is integral to the entertainment.

It all starts with Rona Lisa Peretti (played by Alison Sundstrom), a former spelling bee winner and real estate agent, who now runs the annual spelling bee. This is her opportunity to return to former glory, which appears to have been the high point of her life. Sundstrom wrings all she can from the role, and she beautifully sets the tone for the show.

Her cohort, and reader of the words and the delicious definitions and sentences, is vice principal Douglas Panch (Ryan Geraghty), returning to the competition after 'that unfortunate incident' five years earlier. He's much better now, he reassures the audience.

Mitch Mahoney (James Marchbanks) leads the pledge of allegiance, and he escorts each loser off the stage, while presenting a commemorative box of apple juice. He's doing community service after being released from prison.

Then there are the children themselves: each a perfect depiction of a certain type of child. Olive Ostrosky (Elizabeth Tremaine) is a latchkey kid whose mother has gone off to India to find herself, and whose father forgot to come to the spelling bee; Olive who doesn't have the money to enter, but is allowed to compete anyway.

She learned to spell because she grew up in a house with an oversized dictionary, which she liked to read while sitting on the toilet.

Chip Tolentino (Jazz Trice) won the previous year's contest and is confident that he'll easily repeat the victory, until an unfortunate hormonally induced incident spoils his chances. Chip has perhaps the most unusual song of the night: certainly a first for song lyrics!

Leaf Coneybear (Esteban Gonzalez), who looks like a Richard Simmons wannabe, got into the contest on a fluke, because both the previous spelling bee's 'real' winner and runner-up had to attend a bat mitzvah. He insists he's 'not that smart,' a notion that he seems to have picked up from his many siblings, and keeps surprising himself with correct answers.

Leaf's manner of honing in on the correct spelling is ... quite unusual.

Overachiever Marcy Park (Erica Kalingking) speaks six languages, and is good at music, sports and everything else she attempts. But she just wants to be normal, and eventually seeks advice from a surprisingly unlikely source.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Wendy Mumolo) is president of her school's Gay Straight Alliance, has two dads who dote on her, and is a budding feminist. Despite all this, she wonders: 'What about me?'

William Barfee - whose name rhymes with 'parfait,' but is continually mispronounced - has a 'magic foot' and an unusual technique for figuring out the correct way to spell a word. Matthew Dunivan is delightful in the role, and his character's growing friendship with Olive is quite special.

The engaging characters aside, the show lacks tuneful songs. The tune 'Pandemonium' is aptly named and, unfortunately, also reprised.

Ultimately, at two hours with no intermission, the sporadic entertainment value doesn't compensate for the feeling that it all runs on a bit too long.

Singing in the Rain

The finale of Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of “Singing in the Rain” — which opens the company's 26th season — is spectacular, with everyone on stage in yellow rain slickers and red umbrellas, tap dancing up a storm to the title song.

It's a sight to behold.

I wish that same energy had been evident through the rest of the show, which dragged on opening night: particularly during Act 1, and perhaps because of the time required for scene changes.

“Singing in the Rain” has an inherent problem, no matter who performs it. When adapting an iconic piece of American film, which almost everyone in the audience undoubtedly has seen many times, it's difficult to erase the memory of the original movie. And what stage show can live up to that 1952 classic, or to the performers with whom those roles are so intimately tied?

The story, set at the end of the silent film era, deals with the turmoil that faced Hollywood when it became clear that “talkies” were here to stay. Many of the top stars in silent films had terrible voices; movies with sound ruined many successful careers.

Don Lockwood (played by Rand Martin) and Lina Lamont (Wendy Young) have been longtime screen idols, but the latter has a classic, shrill “New Joisey” accent; she can't possibly transfer from silents to movies with sound. A chance encounter between Don and wannabe starlet Kathy Selden (Christina Rae) leads to this newcomer providing the voice for Lina, to save the studio from having to shut down production on its newest film.

Merriment and hijinks ensue.

Young gives one of this production's best performances. Lina isn't a sympathetic character and is easy to dislike, and Young does an excellent job of embodying the clueless movie diva, whose skreetchy voice is irritating on the ears, as it should be.

She sings one plaintive song, “What's Wrong With Me?,” and does it very well.

Rae is a lovely Kathy, with a warm voice and a warm demeanor to boot. Martin is OK as Don, although he had problems staying in key several times during the opening night performance.

Matthew Kohrt is fun as Cosmo Brown, Don's sidekick; he's a hoot in the dance number “Make 'em Laugh.” All three — Don, Cosmo and Kathy — are delightful in “Good Morning.”

The supporting cast includes Mary Young as the ubiquitous Dora Bailey, a one-woman National Enquirer; Gil Sebastian as R.F. Simpson, head of Monumental Pictures; and Steve Isaacson as Roscoe Dexter, director of the Lockwood-Lamont movies.

(Sebastian and Isaacson haven't appeared together on stage for many years, and it's fun to see these two local warhorses cavort together again.)

Devin DeGeyter and Jacob Navas, as the younger Don and Cosmo, are quite cute; they do a nice dancing job during their brief appearance.

The choreography is by Ron Cisneros, who never disappoints. Jeanne Henderson's costumes are beautiful, especially the white fringe dresses for four women in the chorus.

The minimal set design is by Isaacson and Mark Deamer. And yes, it does rain on stage.

Three movies are shown during the evening, including a “talking picture demonstration” by local TV celeb Mark S. Allen, and two “typical” films: “The Royal Rascal” and “The Dueling Cavalier.” Both are written and directed by Isaacson, and both are very well done.

DMTC's “Singin' in the Rain” is filled with familiar melodies and characters we've loved for a long time. It's a true “feel good show,” and you're guaranteed to leave the theater with a smile, and the title song still ringing in your ears.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Paper Chase

The meeting was underway before I finally made it to the Dos Pinos Community Room, buried deep in the middle of the Dos Pinos housing co-op on Sycamore Lane.

I was just in time to see a man make a heart-shaped box out of a dollar bill, into which he placed a quarter; he explained that he likes to give gifts to children in this fashion.

I had been invited to a meeting of the Davis Origami Group, in order to write this article. In truth, this was my first hint that Davis even has an origami group, and, my manual dexterity being limited to hitting the keys on a computer keyboard, it's unlikely that I ever would have found out, absent the invitation.

By the end of my time with this small group of dedicated folders, I had a tremendous appreciation for both the simplicity and the complexity of origami.

The small group attending this meeting, smaller than usual, I was told, covered the whole spectrum of origami. I met three experts, along with beginners ranging in age from 83-year-old grandmother Gene Manzo, attending her first folding meeting, to young Aaron Ecky, whose mother brought him and his sister. Aaron was thrilled, at the end of the session, to show everybody how to fold and fly a paper airplane.
After the meeting, I met with Andrew Hudson, who had just returned from an origami conference in Singapore. He told me more about origami than I knew there was to know.

Origami's origins are shrouded in mystery and conflicting ideas. Some say it began in China 2,000 years ago, but that theory is probably wrong. Others say it originated in Japan during the Heian period (794 to 1185), but experts feel that this, too, is wrong.

The oldest printed document referencing origami dates from a poem written in 17th century Japan. Other references to paper folding date from the same period in Europe.

But as an expressive, creative art form, origami is relatively new.

"People didn't start creating their own designs until the 1950s," Hudson told me, "and a lot of the really complex stuff didn't start happening until the 1980."

The artform's popularity is growing, thanks to folding groups around the world.

Hudson lived in Japan for a year, when he was 4, and learned to fold a few simple models (although he can't remember if he folded them while in Japan, or after his family's return to the United States).

"I had a background in the traditional Japanese repertoire. Then, in fifth grade, I got a Borders gift card; I couldn't think of anything else to spend it on, because all the books I wanted to read were at the library. So I wandered over to the origami section, and thought some of the books looked really cool.

"I bought one, started folding through it and got stuck. That's when I really got hooked, because I wanted to finish that."

Hudson, now 20, has gotten in on the ground floor of origami as art. It has become the ideal hobby for him.
"Origami has a hyper-focusing element. A lot of people with ADD, like me, have a hard time focusing on things. But certain kinds of tasks allow us to hyper-focus, and really concentrate on one thing for hours at a time; for me, it's things like reading, playing piano and doing origami."

Judy Ng, who co-founded the Davis Origami Group with Hudson and Glenn Sapaden, is the youngest of three daughters. She learned origami from a baby-sitter.

"I would fold off and on, collect books over the years," she said. "I received several origami books as gifts."

She also attended many origami conferences over the years.

"The last one held in San Francisco was in 2009, and I met Andrew in one of the classes. I gave him a ride back to Davis."

Ng had belonged to a short-lived folding group in Davis several years earlier.

"We called our group Valley Folds … but it folded. It never really got off the ground."

Which meant it was time to try again.

"Andrew spearheaded our group, and got it off the ground," she said.

Their first meeting was in December 2009, and the members have met monthly ever since.

"We've had as many as 17 people at our meetings," Ng added. "Some only come once; some have stayed. A man and his wife brought their three children and his mother to our first meeting, so we had three generations."

Ava Hess came to a recent meeting by chance. At the funeral of a friend, she met Andrew's father, Davis Enterprise reporter Jeff Hudson, who happened to mention the group.

"I've been doing origami since I was a child," Hess said. "We didn't have TV until I was 13. We saw a few programs on public television, and there was a Japanese brush-painting lesson and origami lesson for half an hour. I found them inspiring, and so I learned some very easy things: butterflies and cranes.

"My interest was sparked again in Holland, where one of my cousins was friend of a woman who does origami for graphics arts. That was 20 years ago."  Hess has been using origami in art projects ever since.

"I make greeting cards and earrings. I've been selling them in a gallery on the coast, but decided it's too far away and too cumbersome, and their demands are too much. Now I just make them for fun."

Hess demonstrated how to make a crane at the meeting I attended. My own attempt at said crane was pretty pathetic, but I received encouragement from Manzo, also attending her first meeting.

"I have 10 thumbs, not 10 fingers," she laughed with me.

"It was shocking how much they knew," she added, a bit later. "I was so far behind everybody; I felt lost."

But thanks to the patience with which the demonstrators worked with her, she intends to continue attending meetings.

"I've been looking for something like this for a long time. I used to take care of my grandchildren every once in awhile. We would make little animals from the origami books. But recently I've been trying to learn how to fold up a dollar bill so it makes a ring."

Mazzo will get great ideas on things to do with dollar bills from Glenn Sapaden. His favorite routine: He jokes that his mother wanted him to get into law, because that's where "the big money" is. Then he holds up a pad of oversize dollar bill-patterned paper, lifts one eyebrow and everyone gets the joke.

"A little origami humor," he laughed.

"Glenn is an avid collector of dollar origami designs," Hudson said. "He carries around a binder that has all his dollar bill designs. He teaches them a lot. Glenn does one design where you take the dollar bill, and the O and E on the back get folded over, and become the face of a jack-o-lantern. The bottom part of the O becomes the smile, and the E has the eyes and the nose.

"You can do all sorts of cool things with dollar bills."

Hudson's love for origami got him invited to an international conference in Singapore.

"I was talking in San Francisco with this lady named Patsy Wang-Iverson, who organized the Singapore convention. She encouraged me to submit a couple of abstracts, for publication in their book of the proceedings. I'd never done anything like that before. I'd never published that kind of paper, so I was kind of hesitant about doing it. But I figured it would be good experience, if nothing else, just to go through the process.

"And then both the abstracts were accepted to the conference."

Hudson liquidated most of his assets to pay for his plane fare, and arranged living accommodations with a friend from MIT who was in Singapore for the summer.

"I presented two lectures and taught a couple of classes. I did one lecture on the connections between origami design and music composition. I'm a music composition major; there are a lot of parallels between origami and music composition, because you're working within a limited system. You have to follow somewhat rigid rules when you're designing or creating, and the dynamics of how the creative process works, in both, are really similar."

Warming to his subject, Hudson continued.

"The other thing I presented was an origami design using polygons, and different polygons other than squares, and using properties of polygons to optimize, for example, a fish. It has a fin on top and a fin on the bottom, and two side fins and a back fin, and it's actually much easier to make certain arrangement of fins with 60-degree symmetry, than with square symmetry.

"Another thing I was doing was figuring out a way to construct an algorithm that you could apply to a different polygon."

By this point, my eyes had glazed over; he had lost me in the technicality of it all. But I had learned that origami is an art form that can appeal to small children and grandparents. It can be as simple or as complicated as one desires.

I asked Hudson if anybody actually makes a living doing origami. He cited five people in North America who do just that, with things like working with NASA on a folding telescope, and with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on folding air bags. Hudson hopes to find his niche in that field.

Based on his dedication and enthusiasm for the craft, it won't surprise me when he joins the ranks of the important figures in origami.

As for me, having neither the manual dexterity nor the patience, I'll probably never get past the level of folding young Aaron Ecky's paper airplane!

The Davis Origami Group's next meeting will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18, at the Dos Pinos Community Center, 2550 Sycamore Lane. For additional information, call (530) 753-6093 or e-mail

Friday, August 27, 2010

42nd Street

'Kid, you're going out there just a girl from the chorus, but you're coming back a star!'

Or words to that effect.

Shows such as '42nd Street,' continuing through Sunday at Sacramento's Music Circus, still encourage young kids to flock to Hollywood or Broadway, certain that they'll be the next one who steps from obscurity into the spotlight, to become an overnight sensation.

This play's oh-too-predictable book is by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin. '42nd Street' is replete with well-known songs, including - in addition to the title number - 'You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me,' 'I Only Have Eyes for You,' 'We're in the Money' and 'Lullaby of Broadway.'

As for the plot, Peggy Sawyer (Melissa Lone), from Allentown, Pa., arrives in New York in the middle of the Depression, all fresh-faced and certain she'll immediately get cast in a big Broadway musical. She can dance up a storm, but has never been on stage before.

Naturally, the show that'll put director Julian Marsh (Patrick Ryan Sullivan) back on top just happens to be short one girl for the chorus, and so Peggy is chosen.

The show's star, Dorothy Brock (Lynne Wintersteller), is an aging, fading Big Name whose sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Lew Lloyd), has backed the production so that his girl can have another hit.

Interestingly, although all the people in the cast groan about how Dorothy can't sing, dance or act, she does a lot of all three, and quite competently!

An accident on stage causes Peggy to bump into Dorothy during the first out-of-town performance. The show must be stopped because Dorothy's ankle is broken. Peggy is fired.

This leaves the production without a leading lady, of course, so the cast persuades Julian to bring Peggy back, because she's the only chorus member with enough talent to take over the leading role in this big musical. She has just 36 hours to learn some ungodly number of pages of dialogue, several songs and lots of dance numbers.

She's a bit nervous about this, but - trooper to the core - she works herself to the point of collapse.

I won't spoil the show by revealing how it ends, but let's just say lots of tapping and arm waving are involved.

It's all very silly, and involves a lot of suspension of disbelief from anyone with even the vaguest inkling of what goes into producing a show, but what the heck: The important thing is getting from one musical number to the next, and everybody does this exceptionally well.

The real star of this show is choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, whose chorus of amazing tap dancers brings down the house with every dance. 'We're in the Money' is particularly wonderful, thanks to Leon Wiebers' gold costumes. The number is such a knock-out that it gets a reprise during the curtain call.

It's no surprise that Sullivan, making his Music Circus debut as Julian, is such a strong character; he played the role on Broadway and in a national tour of the show. He looks every bit the way we expect a Broadway producer to look.

Lone, returning from three years on Broadway to play Peggy, is an amazing dancer; she effortlessly handles the transition from uncertain ingenue to star.

Wintersteller was last seen on the Music Circus stage being dragged around as Kate in 'Kiss Me Kate.' The hard part here is picturing her as a has-been, although she plays the diva role convincingly.

The supporting cast is outstanding. Zachary S. Berger, as the tenor Billy Lawlor, has a fresh, earnest face; he reminded me of Dick Powell, whom I later realized had played the role in the 1933 film. Berger is an equally talented dancer, and he acts the role with a flair.

Maggie - one of the writers of 'Pretty Girl,' the show within a show - is played by Susan Cella, who makes a big impact.

With terrific dancing, familiar tunes and a predictable plot line, '42nd Street' is good, old-fashioned fun. It's a great way to cap off Music Circus' 60th season.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Marvelous Wonderettes

In a Music Circus season that includes heavy hitters such as 'Funny Girl,' 'Oklahoma!' and '42nd Street,' the inclusion of a lightweight called 'The Marvelous Wonderettes' seemed rather strange.

This isn't a show everyone has heard of, or has been waiting to see.

'The Marvelous Wonderettes,' written and created by Roger Bean, doesn't have a high-powered history. It first opened at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 2001, then moved to Los Angeles, where it garnered many awards and nominations, including the 2007 Los Angeles Ovation Award and a 2007 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. It debuted off-Broadway at the Westside Theater in September 2008, where it ran until 2010.

This Music Circus production is directed by Bean, who helmed the New York run, with choreography by the Big Apple's Janet Miller.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around four young girls at a high school prom in 1958. A boys' singing group, The Crooning Crabcakes, won't be able to perform for the evening, because their leader was caught smoking near the girls' locker room; as a result, The Marvelous Wonderettes are asked to fill in.

Beginning with the Chordettes' hit, 'Mr. Sandman,' the girls run through a long list of popular music from the 1950s, probably familiar to most of the over-50 crowd in the Music Circus' opening-night audience. Songs such as 'Lollipop,' 'Allegheny Moon,' 'Secret Love' and 'Sugartime' follow, one after another, with short bits of business allowing us to learn a bit about the girls.

We discover that Suzy (Bets Malone, one of the original cast members) is in love with the unseen Ritchie, the guy running the prom lights; he blinks the lights whenever she giggles his name. Missie (Misty Cotton, whom we just know will grow up to become a teacher) has a big crush on Mr. Lee, one of the teachers sitting in the audience.

In a bit of audience interaction, an unsuspecting patron is brought up on stage during the number 'Mr. Lee.'

Cindy Lou (Lowe Taylor) is convinced she's going to be named prom queen, and she spends much of Act 1 preening. She also has her eye on the boyfriend of prankster Betty Jean (Lindsay Mendez), a master of mugging.

The rivalry between Betty Jean and Cindy Lou gets a bit old and repetitious by the end of the first act, but the music certainly had toes tapping, and lots of people sang silently along with the familiar tunes.

The second act takes place at the high school's 10-year reunion, with the singers now in miniskirts and go-go boots. Sadly, life hasn't been as kind to these women as their 1958 prom promised.

Cindy Lou went to Hollywood to get into the movies, only to discover that she didn't really want to be in the movies; she just wanted to be somewhere else. She learned that her heart's desire was waiting for her back at the sweet shop, where she worked in high school.

Suzy, pregnant and having marital problems with Ritchie - he's still back at the lightboard - sings a rousing medley of 'Rescue Me' and 'Respect.' She's very funny, transforming her nervous giggle into a helpless sob of advanced pregnancy.

Act 2 ignores the whole psychedelic part of the 1960s and concentrates on story-generating songs, such as Dusty Springfield's classic 'Son of a Preacher Man.'

The show involves additional audience participation, such as having patrons vote for prom queen during Act 1 - with pencils and ballots given to each person entering the theater - and a few other surprises throughout the evening. The counting of the ballots is particularly funny.

Its lightweight origins notwithstanding, this 'jukebox show' delivers in its own way. For people of a certain age, who remember what it was like to be young, with a life full of promise ahead, 'The Marvelous Wonderettes' certainly brings back memories and puts a smile on one's face.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Funny Girl

I'm not sure whether actress Vicki Lewis channeled Fanny Brice or Barbra Streisand during Tuesday's opening performance of the Music Circus production of “Funny Girl,” but whatever she did, it worked for her.

“Funny Girl” is so closely identified with Streisand — who played the role of stage and screen star Fanny Brice for 1,348 performances on Broadway, and in the subsequent film adaptation — that it never has had a Broadway revival.

The show was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including best musical and best composer and lyricist (Jule Styne and Bob Merrell).

The 1968 film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, and Streisand took home the Oscar for her performance.

In this Music Circus production, directed by Glenn Casale, Lewis manages the seemingly impossible task of evoking Streisand, in both voice and mannerisms, and yet somehow making the role her own.

And it's a huge role, in which Lewis sings 14 of the 19 songs. She can belt out a number like “Don't Rain on my Parade” with gusto, yet be touchingly vulnerable in songs such as “People.”

The semi-biographical plot, told in flashbacks, is based on Brice's life and career. With the help of her dance instructor, Eddie Ryan (Michael Patternostro), she lands a gig at Keeney's Music Hall, where her debut as a roller-skating chorus girl turns her into a major star overnight.

It's a quick step to an audition with Broadway impresario Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld (Ron Wisniski), and a leading role in the famed Ziegfeld Follies.

Meanwhile, Brice falls in love with a handsome entrepreneur and gambler, Nick Arnstein (Brad Little), who makes his living on luck.

Eventually abandoning her Broadway career for love, Fanny and Nick settle down in the country to raise a family. Unhappily, things take an unexpected turn for the worse before too long: Nick's luck suddenly runs out, forcing Fanny to make an unexpected comeback to the stage.

Brad Little, well known for his performance in “Phantom of the Opera” — and Music Circus performances as the lead in “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and Javert in “Les Miserables” — is a wonderfully suave, debonair Arnstein. He's a playboy, gambler and con-man, and his ruffled shirt is a subject of much comment on their first meeting.

Nick's duet with Fanny — “You Are Woman, I Am Man” — is outstanding.

Fanny's mother (Alix Korey) and her three card-playing friends — Mrs. O'Malley (Kim Arnett), Mrs. Meeker (Jennie Scott) and Mrs. Strakosh (Helen Geller) — are wonderful as stereotypical New York housewives who share information on everybody's business, and try to top each other with the accomplishments of their own children.

Geller is particularly memorable.

Wisniski gives a solid performance as the beleaguered Ziegfeld, who isn't quite sure what to make of his unusual new star. But he's too much of a showman, recognizing the extent of her talent, to fight her all that much. He evolves, over time, into more of a father figure.

Patternostro gives a noteworthy performance as Eddie, and gets a chance to shine in his own number, “Who Taught Her Everything,” which celebrates Brice's success.

Bob Richard choreographs some stylish dance numbers. The Keeney Music Hall “Coronet Man” and the Follies finale, while short on women, echo the production numbers we identify with Ziegfeld.

Marcy Froehlich has designed some grand costumes, from the over-the-top Follies girls' outfits and colorful trumpet dance finery, to the muted browns and golds of Fanny's Henry Street friends and neighbors.

Done well, “Funny Girl,” is an enjoyable show ... even without Streisand in the lead.

When one has a leading lady as strong as Lewis, the result is a very satisfactory evening indeed.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The first time I saw “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which continues through Sunday at the Music Circus, my review centered on how pun-riddled the show is, and how I spent the evening groaning and rolling my eyes.

I therefore was surprised to count only two audible puns in this production; worse yet, my favorite bad pun was botched. The set-up line, “I'm Muriel, of Omaha,” was so muffled that the following lines — “Pleased to meet you.” “It's mutual.” — didn't get so much as a titter from the audience.

Whether some minor script re-write had taken out most of the puns, or whether the poor sound quality on opening night — much more muddled than usual — was to blame, remains irrelevant. The audience members, particularly two very loud ladies sitting behind me, had the time of their lives.

The show is based on the 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin — itself drawn from 1964's “Bedtime Story,” with Marlon Brando and David Niven — and has been adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics). This Music Circus production is directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford, with musical direction by Darren Cohen.

Burke Moses plays Lawrence Jamison, who has lived on the Riviera for years, playing a faux prince and bilking rich American women out of their money. He becomes a Henry Higgins-esque mentor when he takes a brash American con-man, Freddy Bensen (Timothy Gulan), under his wing to teach him the finer points of swindling.

Gulan played the same role in the touring production of this show, which came through via Sacramento's Broadway Series a few years ago.

“Chimp in a Suit,” sung by Jamison's right-hand man, the gendarme Andre Thibault (John Scherer), is a scene right out of “My Fair Lady,” as Jamison attempts to teach Freddy how to clean up his act. Freddy is a more-than-willing pupil, as he looks around Jamison's mansion and decides that he, too, wants “Great Big Stuff.”

When the first lesson goes terribly wrong — the wooing of hyperactive oil heiress Jolene Oakes (Amy Bodnar) — Jamison is helped out of his predicament by Freddy, who pretends to be a brother with one too many (too few?) chromosomes in his DNA.

It soon becomes apparent that the Riviera isn't big enough for two scoundrels, and so when “Soap Queen” Christine Colgate (Jessica Rush) arrives on the scene, Jamison and Freddie agree to a contest: whoever can get $50,000 out of her will be the winner, and the other will leave town.

The contest soon turns personal, as each vies not just for Christine's money, but also for her affections. More than a few surprising plot twists and turns pop up before the finale.

This is a delightful cast. Moses, who has one of the most flexible mouths since Joe E. Brown, is the suave, elegant and debonair gentleman to Gulan's crass yet delightful cad.

Scherer is a Frenchman (“only by birth and affectation”) who hasn't learned to be a ladies' man yet, until forced to deal with Muriel Eubanks (the delicious Cynthia Ferrer); she's one of Jamison's conquests, and must be kept distracted. Scherer and Muriel provide a delightful subplot to the central story.

Rush is earnest and winsome as the naive heroine, who proves to have more to her than meets the eye.

Bodnar is high-powered and brash as she describes life in Oklahoma panhandle to the clueless Jamison, who finds himself engaged in more than just a little hanky-panky with her.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” has the feel of a classic production with modern elements, though none of its songs is actually memorable. The show is raunchy and crude at times, but always funny; we can't help forgiving the antics of two heroes who are such lovable scalawags.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Three Musketeers

Summer marks the time when the oldest Acme performers must move on to college, and the local theater company brings in a crop of newbies.

Such transitions sometimes can be felt for a show or two, before the fresh faces properly hone their acting chops and blend in with the group.

Not so this time.

Whether the new kids on the block are exceptionally talented, or playwright Ken Ludwig's zany adaptation of Alexander Dumas' 'The Three Musketeers' is a perfect selection for a mixed group of experienced and less experienced young actors, the end result is an absolute delight ... and a marvelous way to close Acme's 30th anniversary season.

This show is fresh. It's fast-paced. It's funny.

And it's modern, with a fifth musketeer - D'Artagnan's sister - thrown into the mix.

What's not to like about a show heavy on swordplay? (I counted 19 sword fights in two hours!) Acme alum and professional fight choreographer Dan Renkin flew in from New York for a week, to build and polish the fights.

His efforts paid off: The kids obviously had a marvelous time on the Veterans' Memorial Stage opening night, engaging in each skirmish with considerable gusto.

Directors Emily Henderson and Allie Polubiec kept the action moving, with no lag time.

Delany Pelz and Alex May's lighting design greatly enhances the production. Hannah May and William Delacorte's set is minimal - a platform makes a sweeping arc around the stage - and so the lighting assumes even greater importance. The first appearance of the original three musketeers, silhouetted against a white backdrop, is extremely dramatic.

The cast includes some particularly good performances, starting with Jeremy Reinhard's Cardinal Richelieu, looking for all the world as if he just stepped out of some 17th century painting. Reinhard makes an excellent villain, as does his partner in crime, Milady (Hope Raymond), who revels in all her delicious wickedness.

Zach Salk also is wonderfully campy as King Louis XIII, pawn of Richelieu, who seems terribly inept and better suited to planning the castle meals than mounting any sort of attack.

The Musketeers give strong and individual performances. Andrew Lampinin is Athos, hiding a deep dark secret. Torin Lusebrink is Aramis, who believes that the ties of friendship are paramount. Antonio de Lorea-Brust is Porthos, the group's extrovert.

Matt Gibson plays D'Artagnan, raised by his father (Sam Wheeler) to be a musketeer, and now headed to Paris to join this select band. D'Artagnan also is placed in charge of his sister Sabine (Gigi Gilbert-Igelsrud), who is to be deposited in a Parisian convent.

Sabine, however, has other ideas. Apparently she's as good a swordsman as her brother - if not better - and isn't about to settle for being locked in some dull convent.

In the minor role of an innkeeper, Alex Clubb has a wonderful scene that I won't spoil by describing. It's a standout moment.

Margaret Starbuck, as the Mother Superior, has a similar brief moment: also handled beautifully.

Kudos to Hope Raymond and Alix Miller on the gorgeous costumes, which go far beyond what one would expect from a company of young people.

This rambunctious 'Three Musketeers' is a huge undertaking, with more than 30 actors, a dozen different settings and almost 100 crucial props. And those great sword fights.

Congratulations to the entire cast, on a job well done ... and to Renkin, for helping make a crucial element truly outstanding.