Thursday, July 29, 2010


Lots of heels are being kicked up amid much whoopin' and hollerin' at the Wells Fargo Pavilion this week, as the Music Circus celebrates the American pioneering spirit with a production of 'Oklahoma!'

Based on Lynn Rigg's 1931 play, 'Green Grow the Lilacs,' 'Oklahoma!' was the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and its 1943 debut changed the course of American musical theater.

Evoking genuine emotion by integrating song and dance into a story hadn't been done before.

Thousands flocked to the theater, trying to get in, and the show ran for a then-unprecedented five years on Broadway (2,212 performances). It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1944. 'Oklahoma!' also was the first musical to have its score recorded (a common practice today).

The story is set in 1907 in the Oklahoma territory, during the days just before statehood, and tells the story of Curly, a cattleman, who's in love with Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller and the hired man, Jud Fry. The latter is the dark character who has his eye on Laurey, while she has her eye on Curly.

I must confess that I couldn't watch this production without thinking about hair. Both lead male actors - Jeremiah James (Curly) and Kevin Earley (Jud) - are outstanding, yet James has straight hair that looks like Prince Valiant, and a dark brooding face, while Earley seems young and earnest, and has a mop of curly hair.

The two could have switched roles, and it would have been much more believable.

Even during the ballet sequence toward the end of Act 1, dancer 'Curly' has short, straight hair while dancer 'Jud' has curls. (And dancer Jud also is much more believable as a surly, scary farmhand than Earley.)

Nit-picking? Maybe, but it was significant enough to bother me throughout the evening.

Hair aside, James gives a powerful performance as Curly. He has a strong, clear voice and an easy charm and bravado, all of which make it obvious why Laurey is so taken with him.

Laurey is played by Brandi Burkhardt; she's beautiful, feminine, coy and flirty with Curly, yet conflicted about her feelings. She also has a lovely soprano. We don't want to think about Laurey's character too deeply, since she rejects all of Curly's advances and then has her heart broken when he turns to another girl.

Call it one of this show's several 'does not compute' plot elements.

Burkhardt's dialogue was difficult to understand sometimes on opening night, perhaps because of the Music Circus sound system.

Kay Walbye's Aunt Eller is a tough old broad who has weathered the hard life of turn-of-the-20th-century Oklahoma. She deals with everyone in a sardonic if soft-hearted manner, though she's not above shooting a gun to get people's attention.

Heather Jane Rolff is a firecracker who explodes onto the stage as the zaftig, hormone-charged Ado Annie, who has 'known right from wrong since she was 10,' but still finds that she 'cain't say no' to any guy who sweet-talks her. Rolff is a delight, and she frequently steals the show.

Michael D. Jablonski plays Will Parker, hopelessly in love with Ado Annie but not overly bright: a man who rides bucking broncos in order to win $50 so he can marry the girl of his dreams, and then spends the money on gifts for her instead of bringing home the cash. Jablonski does an exuberant dance number in 'Kansas City,' describing all the wonderful new things he's seen on his trip there.

Amir Talai sets the perfect tone as Ali Hakim, the peddler who charms Annie until she decides to marry him and then, realizing that she's serious about this marriage business, must find a way to extricate himself.

Kevin Earley grows into the role of Jud Fry. Laurey fears him, but it's difficult to see why in Act 1; it becomes apparent only later, when he gives in to his rage.

Vanessa Sonon is annoyingly giddy in the brief role of Gertie Cummings, who also has her cap set for Curly. Ron Wisniski gives a solid performance as Pop Carnes, Annie's father.

If you've never seen 'Oklahoma!' - or even if you have - this Music Circus production is certain to please. Just don't look for a lot of logic in the plot ... or in the casting!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

The Music Circus doesn't exactly have a 'cast of thousands' for its outstanding production of 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,' but with 48 members of the Music Circus Junior Company for starters - along with a large adult cast - the play puts about 75 people on stage.

Director/choreographer Richard Stafford has chosen to present the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical closer to its original format than is generally seen.

Webber was only 19 years old when he was asked to write a piece for a local school choir, to sing during an Easter service. He asked his friend Tim Rice (then 22) to write the lyrics, and the two settled on the Genesis story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. As originally performed by those children, the work was only 15 to 20 minutes long.

After a number of additions, changes and performances by amateur companies, the full production of 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' opened on Broadway in 1982.

The first Music Circus production of 'Joseph' appeared just one year later, in 1983, with Jimmy Osmond in the title role. (His brother Donny starred in the film version, made a few years later.)

Although 'Joseph' originally was written for a children's choir, that element wasn't added back into the play until the 1991 London Palladium production; a children's choir subsequently became a feature of the U.S. touring company. This 2010 Music Circus production is the first time the original musical score - with choir - has been presented in Sacramento.

Jennifer Paz, as the Narrator, starts the show off with the young people's chorus. Paz starred as Kim in the first national tour of 'Miss Saigon,' and she played both Cosette and Eponine in Broadway's 'Les Miserables.' She brings genuine sparkle to this role, and interacts well with the children. She's a real treasure.

Max von Essen reprises his title role performance from the 2003 Music Circus production of this play. He's a local favorite for his roles in 'Sweeney Todd,' 'Cabaret' and 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' and most recently was seen in Sacramento in the touring company of 'Xanadu.'

Once again, von Essen gives us a strong, commanding Joseph.

The story is the whimsical tale of Joseph, favorite son of Jacob (Paul Ainsley), who is singled out from his 11 brothers and given a colorful coat by his father.

His jealous siblings gang up on him, take away his coat and sell Joseph into slavery. The torn coat is dipped in sheep's blood, and Jacob is brought the sad tale of his son's demise.

Joseph becomes the slave of Potiphar (also played by Ainsley) until his wife (Naomi Kakuk) seduces the young slave, who then is thrown in jail. He then begins to interpret the dreams of the butler (Michael McGurk) and baker (Aguirre) employed by the Pharaoh (David Engel). Joseph's skill brings him to the attention of the Pharaoh himself, who also suffers from confusing dreams, and who appoints Joseph as his No. 2 man to get Egypt through an approaching drought.

That this grim tale could be told in such an entertaining manner is surprising. But with lyrics like 'And when Joseph tried it on, he knew his sheepskin days were gone,' how could it be anything but charming?

Joseph's brothers have some of the best musical numbers in the piece, especially the wild hoedown of 'One More Angel in Heaven' and the 'Benjamin Calypso' (which highlights Lain Gray's Judah).

Engel's Pharaoh makes a memorable entrance, and when he takes microphone in hand to sing ... well, he's a true 'king' in every possible sense of the word.

Richard Bay, who surely must be 120 years old by now, designed the animal puppets used in this production. I've enjoyed Bay's whimsical puppets for as long as I've lived in Davis, and was delighted to see his camel meandering across the stage.

Marcy Froehlich's costumes - particularly for Joseph's coat, the Pharaoh and his entourage, and the Las Vegas show girls - are outstanding.

The Music Circus has an ingenious arrangement of lifts to raise and lower various parts of the stage, at different points in time; the entire stage also can turn.

I haven't seen such an imaginative use of a lift system for a long, long time; this added greatly to the show.

'Joseph' never fails to delight, but this production delights a bit more than most.

Things that Fall from the Sky

What does a community theater do, when a scene that takes place at sunset requires a tree and a truck?

Most companies would get a carpenter to build an artificial tree, perhaps with some authentic-looking leaves, along with the shell of a truck, which performers or the tech crew move forward by foot power. The lighting designer would create as 'natural' a sunset as possible, given the equipment available.

While Barnyard Theater was preparing 'Unusual Epitaphs,' the first of three one-act plays running through July 31 at Schmeiser's Barn, the short piece called for a tree, a truck and a sunset. No problem. The show was scheduled to begin at sunset, and the audience is seated outside the barn, in front of a tree.

Harris (Josh van Eyken) sits beneath the tree as the play begins, and Laurie (Maddy Ryen) hops in an old truck down the road a piece, and drives it into the barnyard area and up to the tree.

It not only adds a touch of realism, it is real.

Rob Rinow's heartwarming story tells of a man with no roots who has decided he wants to be eaten by a bear. He has this desire because of a plaque on the tree: It honors Peter LeBeck, the town founder, who was eaten by a bear and - as a result - had a town named for him.

Harris wants that kind of immortality, and is willing to wait as long as it takes for a bear to come by. And eat him.

Laurie is a lonely security guard/tour guide/event planner who has been told to convince Harris to move on, by pointing out that bears haven't been seen in the area for years.

As the two chat in this tightly written little play, we learn a surprising amount about both characters. Van Eyken and Ryen are both likable actors who inhabit their characters well; as the sun begins to set and the play concludes, a bond has been forged.

The audience then 'transitions into the barn,' where a more traditional theater setting awaits.

Eva Konstantopoulos' 'Fly Me to the Moon' has a kind of O. Henry quality, with its story about a shop that sells memories. The play makes us question the value of memories - memories of things we've experienced ourselves, and those we wish we had experienced - and how far people are willing to go for those they love.

Louise (Ashley Bargenquast) and Frank (Bernie Goldsmith) are a married couple; they wander into the memory shop run by the Gift Shop Girl (Madelyn Ligtenberg). The memories are represented by a collection of helium balloons, which rest with weights on the floor. Each is tagged with a price and a description of the memory it holds.

Louise has come to look at the most special memory: a trip to the moon. That special balloon hangs on the wall, larger than all the rest; Louise is giddy as a schoolgirl, thinking about how wonderful it would be to close her eyes and 'remember' a trip to the moon whenever she desires.

The price of this memory, however, is way beyond Frank's means. As he watches his wife's disappointment, he struggles with a choice regarding this memory, and the possible consequences.

The absence of a delineated 'end' to this play was a bit disconcerting (especially since the start of the third and final piece, 'Things that Fall from the Sky,' was delayed on opening night, perhaps by technical problems).

Brenda Varda's 'Things that Fall from the Sky' tells of Melvia (Genevieve Whitman), a young dreamer who corresponded with the astronauts on the ill-fated Columbia, before that space shuttle exploded. Now she fears her beloved night sky, and is afraid of the great fiery things that might fall from it.

It's a story about love, grief and looking up at the stars.

I found it the least satisfying piece, perhaps because of problems with projection by the actors (and a squirmy man in front of me, whose chair squeaked so badly that it covered up much of the dialogue). Whitman is joined by Mike Sullivan, Timothy Smith, Diane Buttz, Sean Olivares, Maddy Ryen, Geoffrey Albrecht and the voice of Anthony Pinto.

That said, this play's conclusion is beautiful; it transitions nicely into an invitation for the audience to hang around and enjoy some actual star-gazing.

All three plays are helmed by new director Lindsay Carpenter, who embraced this monumental task with professionalism and talent.

I'm not sure why bows aren't taken after the individual plays; instead, the performers take a communal bow at the end of the evening.

'Things that Fall from the Sky: An Evening of Short Plays' is well worth a trek into the country.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Back in the Barnyard (Feature Article)

Barnyard Theater, the charming, quirky group that performs out at Schmeiser's Barn on Road 31 every summer, is back for its seventh season.

'It's exciting!' said co-founder Stephen Schmidt. 'It doesn't feel like seven years, but when I think of all the shows we've done, I realize it's a lot.'

Schmidt has directed everything in Barnyard's history until now, but is taking more of a backseat role this year.

'Lyndsay Carpenter is directing this time,' he said. 'As an organization, we're trying to do more and trying to have more people involved. We want lots of people filling lots of roles. Lindsay has been involved in Barnyard Theater since 'Galileo' in 2007, but this is the first time she has directed a full production.'

Carpenter has taken on an ambitious project for her directorial debut. This season, instead of offering the usual single play, the company is doing three new one-acts.

'I've been acting since I was 9 years old,' Carpenter said, 'mostly with the Davis Musical Theatre Company, but also with Acme and Barnyard Theater. I also did some high school productions. And last semester, at Tufts University, I directed a 10-minute piece.'

But there's a big difference between directing a 10-minute piece and directing three one-acts, she realizes.

'In the past, I showed up and was told what to do. Now I have to know what I'm doing. I have to be ready to make decisions. A lot more goes on than I ever realized. There've been challenges, but it's nice, because I'm not allowed to not come up with solutions. I have to work through them, because nobody else will.'

Carpenter's directorial debut is in keeping with the company's goal of promoting new talent in all sorts of roles, but still with a safety net of the old timers.

'I've been at most of the rehearsals, and I'm there to provide support and guidance,' Schmidt said. 'It's a cool relationship. I'm functioning more as an artistic director, which is new for me. I enjoy both the artistic and technical sides, but I really like it when I can combine the two and make them work together.

'One thing Barnyard Theater does well is have the tech crew support shows in ways that sometimes don't happen in other companies.'

Over the years, Barnyard Theater has used many interesting technical devices to add to the fun of their shows, perhaps the most memorable of which was during 2006's 'A Flag Touched the Ground.' Instead of having a scene change, the entire platform on which the audience was seated rotated, when it was time for a new scene.

Schmidt promises new tricks this year, as well, but won't go into detail so as not to ruin the surprise.

The decision to perform three plays instead of one came about in conference with company member and playwright Brian Oglesby, about how audiences rarely see fully produced short plays. Then, too, fresh challenges are involved.

'They don't take less production than a full-length play,' Schmidt said. 'We still have to create all the worlds. Production-wise, directing three short plays is the same as directing three long ones.'

The three original one-acts will make use of the unique performance space in and around the working barn, to tell stories about love, relationships and memories.

Rob Rinow's 'Unusual Epitaphs' - opening the evening's entertainment - is a 10-minute piece about a longtime traveler with no roots, who wants to be remembered for being eaten by a bear. He meets a lonely security guard/tour guide/shindig planner whose roots are too deep to break free.

'It's a really heartwarming piece that will start out in the arena outside the barn, facing west, just before sunset,' Schmidt explained. 'As the audience watches the piece, it'll end at sunset.'

Then, in the barn itself, Eva Konstantopoulos' 'Fly Me to the Moon' will present a husband and wife trying to buy themselves the perfect memory: a trip to the moon.

The evening's final play, Brenda Varda's 'Things That Fall From the Sky,' tells the story of Melvia, a young woman whose preoccupation with the Columbia space shuttle disaster changes her relationships with her astronaut brother and astronomer boyfriend.

'Unusual Epitaphs' and 'Things that Fall from the Sky' were read aloud during an earlier season of Barnyard Theater's 'Night of New Plays,' which the company presents each year as unstaged debuts.

Following the plays, audience members are invited to stay for star-gazing in the barnyard. Patrons are reminded to bring sweatshirts in case of chilly weather; bug spray will be provided. Parking at the barn is limited this year, so carpooling is strongly encouraged.

Curtain time is 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday and July 22-25, and 29-31. Advance tickets - $12 general, $8 students and seniors are available at (530) 574-1318 or Tickets at the door will be $16 and $12.


Sacramento's Music Circus opened its 60th anniversary season Friday evening with the long-awaited 2005 Tony Award-winning “Spamalot,” the hilarious musical “lovingly ripped” from the 1975 smash hit motion picture, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

(The program is responsible for the “rip off” designation, although since the play is written by Eric Idle, an original Python, I'm not sure if that's exactly accurate!)

To confess a deep-dark secret, I wasn't a Monty Python fan, although I've seen odd bits here and there, and one or two of the films. But I never saw “Holy Grail,” nor did I memorize lots of favorite skits from the 45 television episodes. I barely know what the parrot sketch is.

So as I wandered through the halls of the Wells Fargo Pavilion, surrounded by people wearing T-shirts with Python quotes, and as the man in the seat next to me began laughing uproariously before the action on stage had really even begun, I wondered how a noncognoscenti would enjoy the show.

Well ... there's a lot to like, and even if you're not exactly liking it, just trying to figure out the frenetic action on stage will keep your mind occupied!

The plot, if it can be called that, traces King Arthur's search for the holy grail — the cup from the Last Supper — but at its core, this show is just two hours of cheap shots, fart jokes and lowbrow humor.

All of which the devoted audience absolutely loved.

The Historian (Steven Strafford) sets the scene with the precision of a weatherman: “In Guinard, Palace and Difford, plague. In the kingdoms of Wessex, Sussex, Essex and Kent, plague. In Mercia and the two Anglias, plague, with a 50 percent chance of pestilence and famine coming out of the northeast at 12 miles per hour.”

Following his announcement that this is “England,” the stage is filled with brightly costumed dancers singing about Finland. They hit each other with fish in the delightful “Finland/Fisch Schlapping Dance,” until the Historian reminds them that the setting is England, whereupon the dancers leave the stage, disappointed.

This pretty much sets up the type of tomfoolery to follow.

The actual story begins with the entrance of King Arthur — Tony Award winner Gary Beach, most recently seen on the Music Circus stage in last summer's “Guys and Dolls” — who announces his search for knights for his Round Table. Arthur, assisted by his sidekick Patsy (Andy Taylor), sets off on this quest; they encounter ridiculous setbacks along the way, riding nonexistent horses and using coconuts to make the noise of the clopping hoofbeats.

Director Glenn Casale has assembled a first-rate cast for all this silliness. Mika Duncan, playing Lancelot, is a veteran of the show's Broadway and Las Vegas productions. Steven Strafford, as Prince Herbert, also was part of the Las Vegas cast. Ron Bohmer, who recently starred on Broadway as “Father” in the revival of “Ragtime,” is Sir Galahad.

Ron Wisniski, a Music Circus favorite, is Sir Bedevere (the first of his four productions with Music Circus this summer).

The Lady of the Lake is played by the delicious Lesli Margherita, fresh from her award-winning performance in London's West End production of “Zorro.” Wearing a succession of beautiful gowns (costume design by Tim Hatley), Margherita is Idle's tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber, as she belts out arias like “The Song that Goes Like This”: “That's the trouble with this song/It goes on and on and on/For this is our song that is too long.”

Other nods to Broadway include “You Won't Succeed on Broadway” (“We won't succeed on Broadway if we don't have any Jews”) and a bottle dance from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

You'll also hear a song plucked from Monty Python's “Life of Brian” (“Always look on the bright side of life”).

Newbies like me may not have roared with laughter at the first “ni” uttered by the dreaded “Knights who say Ni,” but this show's pace is so fast that just about the time you're scratching your head, wondering why a given bit is funny, something else will have you guffawing.

“Spamalot” is a fun evening, with lots of laughs. Judging by what I saw around me, it'll more than satisfy all Python fans.