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.