Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Same Job, New Stage

Peggy Shannon beamed at me over coffee at Starbucks.

“I feel like I'm the luckiest girl in the world,” she said ... and she meant it.

Shannon, artistic director of the Sacramento Theatre Company for the past 11 years — and a professor in UC Davis' theater and dance department — had reason to be happy. She recently signed a contract to become the chair of the Ryerson Theatre School in Toronto, described as “The Juilliard of Canada.”

Since its founding in 1971, the Ryerson Theatre School has produced hundreds of working actors, dancers, playwrights, choreographers, teachers, educators, directors, lighting and sound technicians, set and costume designers, stage managers and other theater professionals. Alumni work in stage, film, television, festivals, concerts, education, trade and industrial shows, as well as other venues in Canada, the United States and abroad.

Some continue with postgraduate studies or launch their own theater and dance ventures, companies, schools or festivals.

“Up to now, they've been very inwardly focused, to maintain the excellence of the curriculum,” Shannon explained. “Now they want to be externally focused, to build relationships with other theaters. That's exactly what I do, so it's going to be great.”

If Shannon has learned one thing during her time at STC, it's how to build relationships.

“The day after I got here, our then-president said 'By the way ... we didn't tell you, but we really need to design a new building.' ”

Shannon laughed.

“I spent my first few years in a wonderful partnership with California Musical Theatre, trying to raise money, figuring out naming rights and completely renovating the site. From where it began, to where it is today, is a difference of night and day.”

She also learned how to be an artistic director for the Sacramento community.

“It takes awhile to understand the aesthetic of a community: What do they like? This is an intelligent community, a discerning community. Our demographic is young and a little bit older, and they didn't want the really hard-hitting, cutting-edge stuff. They actually did want the classics.

“They like the diversity that I brought.”

Diversity has been the name of the game at STC, during Shannon's directorship: everything from Moliere to Patsy Cline, from “Noises Off” to a traditional “Othello” and a cowboy version of “The Taming of the Shrew.” She introduced audiences to the works of Indian playwright Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and African-American playwright August Wilson, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning “Pittsburgh Cycle” of 10 plays she hoped to bring to STC over the coming years, starting with last year's highly successful production of “Gem of the Ocean.”

“That legacy will live on,” she said.

Shannon's legacy also includes STC's School of Arts, which offers elementary, middle and high school students after-school and weekend training programs.

“When I first got here, we had lots of little classes and things, but with no guiding philosophy: just a hodge-podge. I spent about four years devising curriculum, and this is our school's eighth year.”

The Young People's Conservatory includes weekly master classes with renowned theater artists, a season of three shows and the opportunity to audition for age-appropriate roles in STC Mainstage productions.

“Kids Write Plays” is an intensive after-school program designed for elementary and middle schools; it incorporates theater games, writing exercises and performance to introduce local students to the world of theater, At the program's conclusion, students perform their works for teachers, family and friends. The program typically lasts at least six weeks.

Coming soon: a 10-month program that'll teach young people about technical theater, and another program that will focus on training for a career in musical theater.

Despite the economic downturn and the overall slow-down in subscribers — not only at STC, but at all theaters in the region — Shannon is proud to report that “fewer people are buying season subscriptions, but more people are buying single tickets. It's a different paradigm nationally.”

Clearly, Shannon is leaving behind a healthy, robust theater company. She will be succeeded by Matt K. Miller, familiar to STC patrons for his many acting and directing roles, not only at STC but at other area theaters.

“I'm really excited that it's Matt. He's so talented. I brought him here, nurtured him; it feels right and good. Our patrons know him; our parents and students know him; our staff knows him. It's a smooth transition.”

“The symmetry is nice,” Miller said. “I started here when Peggy did. I've had the opportunity all these years to be an actor and director. Peggy fostered my playwriting as well, and she helped me become a teacher.” (Miller teaches master classes at the Theater of Arts.)

“It feels natural and logical now, to bring it all to a leadership role. It's a nice succession, as a culmination of our friendship.”

Miller has not been given the job permanently.

“It's de rigueur to do a national search for a job like this,” he explained, “but the board has made it clear to me that my hat is definitely in the ring, and they're willing to consider me for the permanent position.”

As for Shannon, she's in Greece at the moment, leading her UC Davis Summer Abroad program, a four-week “theater retreat” where students study ancient Greek theater, music and dance. This is the 10th year for the program, which originally was offered under the auspices of STC.

After that, Shannon and her daughter will move into a “tiny, tiny apartment” in Toronto, while her husband and son stay in their home in Sacramento.

“It will be an adventure,” she admitted. “It'll be tough, but everybody in my family seems excited and supportive. We all know it's going to be a hardship in some ways.”

Looking back over Shannon's accomplishments during the past 11 years, one certainly believes that the temporary hardship will be worth it: The Ryerson Theatre School will benefit greatly from Shannon's expertise, and from her love of and enthusiasm for her chosen career.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Crazy for You

When 'Crazy for You' opened on Broadway in 1992, New York Times critic Frank Rich said it was '...the moment at which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British.'

He went on to describe the show as 'the American musical's classic blend of music, laughter, dancing, sentiment and showmanship, with a freshness and confidence rarely seen during the 'Cats' decade.'

With music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, both of whom died before this show was developed, one could hardly call 'Crazy for You' a 'new' show, musically. But Ken Ludwig, who wrote the book, nonetheless described it as a 'new Gershwin musical comedy,' and Broadway fell in love with it.

The play was nominated for nine Tony Awards - winning three, including best musical and best choreography - and eight Drama Desk Awards (winning two, again best musical and best choreography).

Davis Musical Theatre Company is closing out its 25th season with a gala production of 'Crazy for You': a show that pulls out all the stops, with a cast of 33 and an orchestra of 19.

The near-capacity opening night audience laughed, cheered and applauded long and loud throughout the show; clearly, everybody was having the time of their lives.

The story is very loosely based on the 1930 musical, 'Girl Crazy' - made into a perfect movie vehicle for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in 1943 - although enough plot elements have been changed, and enough additional Gershwin songs added, to make this a show unto itself, with only faint echoes of what went before.

Bobby Child (Joseph Boyette), the spoiled son of a rich banking family, has no interest in banking and only wants to get into show business. He's trying to audition for the famous Bela Zangler (Mike Ball, playing an obvious reference to Florenz Ziegfeld). Alas, the showman is underwhelmed by Bobby's talents, and his mother (Dannette Vasser) insists that he give up his dream of stardom and settle down into the family business.

She sends him off to Deadrock, Nev., to foreclose on a rundown theater.

Boyette is a gem, and he brings great energy and sparkle to the role. In one scene, at a bar in Deadrock, you'd swear he was channeling Mickey Rooney, so perfect are his body movements.

Vasser is a powerhouse, and clearly the matriarch of the Child family.

Once in Deadrock, Bobby immediately falls in love with Polly Baker (Danielle Hansen), whose father owns the theater that is scheduled for foreclosure. Hansen is very sweet, although she lacks the lungs to give the role a lot of oomph. Still, she and Boyette play well off of each other.

The villain of the piece is Lank Hawkins (Nick Thompson), who owns the saloon adjacent to the theater and has his eye on expanding. He's also sweet on Polly, and sees Bobby as a threat to both plans.

Nine 'Follies girls' are led by Tess (Wendy Young), on whom Zangler has his eye; they're joined by 10 cowboys/miners. Of these, Moose (Kyle Hadley) is a genuine crowd pleaser, especially when he takes to the bass with 'Slap that Bass.'

Director Ron Cisneros also handles the outstanding choreography, which boasts several lively tap dance numbers. The chorus girls, resplendent in costumes designed by Denise Miles, glitter up the stage beautifully.

That said, this isn't a perfect production. While the 19-piece orchestra is nice, the musicians aren't always on pitch. A trio of cowboys struggled with their own pitch, especially in 'Bidin' My Time,' and Friday's opening night performance suffered from a few technical glitches.

Overall, though, this delightful production is a perfect way to end the season.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Shear Madness

Is “Shear Madness,” the new offering at Sacramento’s Cosmopolitan Cabaret (replacing “My Way,” the Sinatra show), a bad play, or a very good cabaret show? Well...yes to both. Seen as a play, even a comedy, it’s not very good. It’s full of eye-rollingly bad/good puns, situations where the actors break each other up frequently, excessively loud delivery, and a plot that has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.

But as a cabaret show, it’s great. It involves lots and lots of audience participation, and the gang in the cabaret audience on opening night seemed to be having a wonderful time and laughing uproariously.

There’s no doubting, however, that it truly is sheer madness.

The show dates back to 1976 when Bruce Jordan discovered a German play called “Scherenschnitt,” by Paul Pörtner, which had been written to use as a study of how people perceive or misperceive reality.

Jordan was intrigued by the concept of the script and suggested that he and writing partner Marilyn Abrams stage the play at a dinner theater in New York. The play continued to evolve for two years until they finally brought it to Boston, where it began a thirty year run, 23 years at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and other record-breaking productions all over the country.

The plot, such as it is, is part script, and a lot ad lib, so that the lines blur and it’s hard to tell if the characters are breaking up because of something unexpected another actor did, or if it’s written into the script. Unlike improv, where the actors must invent entire scenes and characters from audience suggestions, these actors perform short vignettes, based on responses they get from the audience. One has the feeling that there is a repertoire of responses to every conceivable audience comment and jokes are performed with good comic timing.

The script is riddled with both local and timely social and political references (though they need to update their reference to “Desperate Housewives,” as it appears to be a season or two old).

The setting is a midtown beauty salon and the characters are as stereotypical as you can get. The owner of the salon is Tony Whitcomb (Neil A. Casey), who is Very Gay; the dumb hairdresser is Barbara DeMarco (Lindsey Alley), the snooty matron is Mrs. Eleanore McClatchy Shubert (Jamie J. Jones), the suspicious Brit is Eddie Lawrence (Lol Levy) and the two police officers (who know a surprising amount of information about everything even before they begin their investigation) are Mikey Thomas (Ryan Pratton) and Nick O’Brien (Gary Alan Wright).

The never seen Isabel Cheney is Tony’s landlady. She’s an aging concert pianist (“she played at the Firehouse in Old Sac when it was just Sac”) about to stage a come-back, despite a terrible breakdown she suffered during a concert many years ago. She appears to have had some sort of problem with every character in the play, so predictably, Isabel is murdered and everybody is a suspect.

A good portion of the first act is spent eliciting information from the audience, to see how much they remember of what happened up to the point of the murder. There is opportunity for the audience to question the cast at intermission and the revelation of the murderer is dependent on audience vote, so there are four possible endings and the show may change each night.

The real secret is that whodunnit doesn’t really matter. It’s the journey of discovery that is at the heart of this comedy and if the audience gets into the spirit of the thing, it can be a very enjoyable journey indeed.

“Shear Madness” is a zany evening of fluff and laughter and sure to please the audience. Be advised that table service for drinks and snacks, which has been available for all shows prior to this one, seems non-existent this time, so if you want something to eat or drink at your table, buy it on the way in.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Hunter Gatherer

It’s time for the annual dinner that Bay Area foodies Richard and Pam (Cassidy Brown and Kelley Ogden) are throwing for long-time friends Tom (Jonathan Rys Williams, who also directs) and Wendy (Katie Rubin) to celebrate their mutual anniversaries. This year lamb is on the menu.

There’s only one little problem – the lamb (Carl is his name) isn’t dead yet.

And thus starts the hilarious dark comedy of “Hunter Gatherers” by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, currently running at Capitol Stage.

Richard, a gourmet cook, needs to raise the bar each year at these dinners. Last year he cooked a turducken (chicken inside a duck inside a turkey) and this year he’s slaughtering a lamb, trying to follow the directions in his “Joy of Cooking,” which indicate that the very best lamb should be “as the blood has just stopped. Caught in the muscles. Swishing. Unsure. ‘Where do I go now,’ it wonders?”

Richard needs Pam’s assistance as the two lean into the box toward the unseen, but apparently resisting lamb. “The holder,” he tells her, “calms the lamb, much like a mother calms her babe. A soft caress, a scratch on the nose, stories of magic and happiness softly cooed into the ear steady the throat and relax the soul to help assure a clean cut.”

It’s such a great visual, that without any sight of lamb or blood, the audience is repulsed again and again, while all the while convulsed at the hilarity of the scene.

Character personalities are established very early. The decor of Pam and Richard’s apartment immediately puts us in a jungle-type motif, which perfectly complements Richard’s cave-man attitude about killing the food he is about to eat. Pam seems the exact opposite, a timid thing, appalled by the thought of actually killing a lamb, but falling into and participating in Richard’s fantasy.

Brown and Ogden are both making their Capital Stage debuts in this production and each is outstanding. Brown is bigger than life, striding about the stage making his he-man statements, while Ogden, who has the biggest eyes ever is at once repulsed by his ideas, but head over heels in love with him. She’s a great physical comedienne.

The doorbell rings and Wendy arrives, full of anger, stating that Tom is parking the car. She explains that she is still suffering “some residual road rage from the car” and adds that some of their worst moments as a couple are in the car.

Rubin is deliciously over the top as Wendy, earthy, sensual, and so much more attuned to Richard than Pam. She is positively orgasmic in her description of his cooking and in the reaction to the smell of Carl baking there in the kitchen. There is an obvious spark between Wendy and Richard, which we just know is going to explode later in the evening.

When Tom arrives, he is a Caspar Milquetoast-esque man, uncomfortable in his body, and still in the throes of his argument(s) with Wendy. There is great rivalry between Tom and Richard, an annual physical besting of Tom by Richard, which Richard sees as a contest, and Tom does not.

Wendy and Richard are the hunters, while Pam and Tom are the gatherers and the evening progresses in the best tradition of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” with some surprising revelations and some not so surprising revelations during the course of the evening. And what happens to poor Carl shouldn’t happen to...a lamb.

Steve Decker gets high marks for his opulent set and lighting design, which put us in mind of an African savannah before the action starts, all nicely complemented by Brad Thompson’s lush sound design.

Hunter Gatherers is a delightful evening sure to leave everyone laughing.