Tuesday, December 06, 2011
I first saw this show — written by Michael Carleton, Jim Fitzgerald and Gary Alvarez, and directed this year by Jonathan Williams — in 2004 and thought it hilarious then. The appeal has not diminished over the years.
While this is an intelligent, funny show in its own right, what makes it work is the strong cast of three, who must each sweat off a few pounds during every performance.
Eric Wheeler, as Eric, is determined to present a straight version of “A Christmas Carol” but runs into opposition from his two partners, Peter Mohrmann and Gary Martinez, who are tired of repeating the Dickens story every year and want to pay tribute to all those other BHCs (Beloved Holiday Classics) of screen, TV and print. Eric agrees, just as long as “A Christmas Carol” is included.
And off they go.
The trio elicits suggestions from the audience for favorite movies, television programs, Christmas foods, traditions, commercials, etc. It doesn’t stop at Christmas, but also gives a nod to Hanukkah (“It bears similarities to other Jewish festivals: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”) and Kwanzaa (“The best part of Kwanzaa is that you’ll never see a special called ‘A Very Brady Kwanzaa.’ “)
But the meat of the show is the retelling of all the stories we all know so well.
Wheeler is reluctantly dragged into the project when he is dressed as The Grinch for a very funny send-up of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Later, he will shine in such roles as Hermie, the elf who wants to be a dentist from “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” (hilariously renamed, for copyright reasons) and makes a fabulous Scotsman.
A wonderful impersonator, Wheeler’s Scrooge (so perfect in voice and body language as The Simpsons’ Mr. Smithers), Tim Gunn from “Project Runway,” and Jimmy Stewart from “It’s A Wonderful Life” are spot-on.
Mohrmann as the Ghosts of Past, Present and Future, his wonderful recreation of host Jim Lange on the fruitcake version of “The Dating Game,” his funny Yukon Cornelius from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and even his attempt at being supermodel Heidi Klum are all great fun (and he is particularly fetching in his Carmen Miranda headpiece in the opening segments).
Mohrmann also shares with the audience Christmas customs from 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. Just to put the “joy” in Christmas, you know.
And each year, I try to find a different way to say how much I love Martinez’s characterizations but keep coming back to the fact that he is the heart of this show. Zaniness abounds throughout, but when Martinez steps into the spotlight as Linus and tells us the true meaning of Christmas, or becomes Cindy-Lou Who asking the Grinch why he is taking her Christmas tree, or talks to George Bailey (from “It’s a Wonderful Life”) as Clarence Goodbody, the angel trying to get his wings, there is no denying that he reminds us what Christmas should be about.
The script for this show is usually updated, this year adding a line about pepper spray, which didn’t get quite the big laugh they’d hoped. (“Too soon?” asks Mohrmann.)
The show is so fast-paced as to leave you breathless, whether from the pace, or from laughing. It’s a wonderful way to see all of your own personal favorite BHCs in one place for one price.
Scenic design this year is by Jonathan Williams, and if I am remembering correctly from previous productions, is not as lavish as before, but with the larger area of the new Cap Stage theater, the cast is able to interact with the audience more, and that is more fun.
Do yourself a favor and treat yourself and your family to this show. It is an absolute delight, whose enjoyment does not diminish with multiple viewings. As you leave the Capital Stage theater, you’ll be ready for the Christmas season and may go about greeting everyone with a cheery “Mata-Ki-Te-Rangi” (“Merry Christmas” in Icelandic).
Monday, December 05, 2011
On reviewing Sacramento Theatre Company’s “A Christmas Carol” last year, I made three suggestions for improving the show: turn down the thunder, cut the fog in half and get rid of the reverberation on Marley’s mic.
It’s nice to see how much power I have, since those are the same three suggestions I would give this time. While the thunder may be a tad less loud, there is still entirely too much of it. Some scenes are so filled with fog, it’s impossible to see the actors. They were, for example, well into the opening scene between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas yet to come before I even saw the hooded ghost.
But what do I know?
As for Marley’s mic, Jim Lane is too good an actor to be sabotaged by a distorted voice that requires him to overact to make it effective. Nonetheless, Lane offers a suitably chilling performance.
The Dickens classic has been enjoyed in book, on stage, on radio and on screen for decades without all this technological assist and has done just fine. Why mess around with it now?
That said, however, the popular holiday classic is once again captivating audiences on Sacramento Theatre Company’s main stage.
This is STC’s specially commissioned 1987 adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” by Richard Hellesen. Music was written by STC’s then-resident composer David de Berry. Hellesen uses the device of having the characters tell the story as they move sets and then move in to become the characters about whom they are speaking. DeBerry’s music does indeed sound like old Christmas music that you can’t quite place, but you’re sure you’ve heard somewhere before.
The cast is smaller than in some years (22 as opposed to 30 to 40 actors), and judging by the program bios, all are very happy to be in the show. Eight say they are “thrilled,” five are “excited,” two are “privileged,” one is “ecstatic” and one is “passionate” about the show!
It is such a delight to see Matt K. Miller back grousing about as everyone’s favorite grouch, Ebenezer Scrooge. Miller may be one of my favorite Scrooges, and after four productions of this show, he has had the opportunity to shape the role to fit him like a glove.
He is able to be as grumpy and mean as Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, yet when shown memories of his childhood and taken to watch his nephew and friends celebrating Christmas, he can display the innocent joy of a child. The scene of his almost, but not quite, dancing with his old love Belle (Hannah Zimmerman) was very touching.
Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, is played by Barry Hubbard and he makes a loving husband to his wife (Jackie Vanderbeck) and a wonderful father to their five children, the youngest of whom is, of course, the adorable crippled moppet Tiny Tim (Zac Ballard), who was as cute as he could be.
As promised by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge is visited by three spirits, who take him to witness various scenes from his past, the present and the possible future. Sydney Christoffersen (double cast with Bella Bagatelos) is the Ghost of Christmas Past. She is a second-year student with STC’s Young Professional’s Conservatory and obviously is a talented student who shows great promise.
The indomitable Michael RJ Campbell returns for his third time as the Ghost of Christmas Present, a larger-than-life spirit whose entrance is always the high point of the STC production.
Campbell is also seen in several ensemble roles and also as the ebullient Fezziwig, Scrooge’s first employer.
Jerald Bolden is the hooded Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (when you can see him through the thick fog). The ghost does not speak, but is really good at pointing ominously!
Others worthy of note in the cast include Emily Miller (double-cast with Meghan Greene) as Ebenezer’s sister, Fan. She sings the beautiful “Home at Christmas Time,” a touching ballad. Likewise, Courtney Shannon (double-cast with Marcos Orozco) is very moving as the beggar child.
And I think anybody with a character name like “turkey boy” deserves to get his name in a review. Good job, Dafydd Wynne! (Wynne does triple duty in this production, also playing Ebenezer the Child and Edward Cratchit).
It should also be noted that in addition to being Jacob Marley, Jim Lane also appears as several other characters throughout the evening.
The Ghost of Christmas Present exposes “ignorance” and “want” to Ebenezer to make him face the plight of the poor and destitute outside his own door. With street people shivering in the December cold along the streets of midtown Sacramento, we, like Scrooge, would do well to open our own eyes and do whatever we can to help wherever we can this holiday season.
Monday, November 28, 2011
My criticism is of the musical itself, not of the Woodland Opera House production, which is excellent. The stage show does not allow for character development, and uses unbelievable situations. For example, it is “loathe at first sight” for Betty and Bob and it only takes overhearing a song lyric for Betty to turn around and fall madly in love with him.
The show also introduces songs not in the movie, which add little, don’t advance the plot and make a long show even longer; it clocks in at about three hours.
However, all that said, director Jeff Kean has done a beautiful job with what, according to audience reaction, was a very popular musical.
It is difficult to step into the shoes of such iconic performers as Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen, but Kean has found a quartet that do quite well. Scott Woodard, as Bob Wallace, is a crooner in the classic sense and has a smooth likability. Matt Kohrt, as Bob’s partner Phil Davis, is a talented hoofer with a pleasant demeanor who works well with Woodard.
Catherine Nickerson, as Betty Haynes, is new to the Opera House; she has a lush voice and can belt out a torch song with the best of them. Her sister Judy, as played by Kirsten Myers, is as cute as a button and is a good match in the dancing department for Kohrt.
As she did in the recent “Sound of Music,” Nancy Agee steals the show as Martha Watson, who helps run the inn in Vermont where the four performers find themselves. An old song-and-dance woman with a heart of gold, “Motormouth Martha” lights up the stage whenever she opens her mouth.
Steve Cairns gives a solid performance as Henry Waverly, the general “who stopped being a general” and is trying to make a go of it in this Vermont inn.
Devon Hayakawa plays little Susan Waverly, the general’s granddaughter. She is precocious and talented and does a great rendition of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”
Chris Taloff, as Ezekiel, the slow-moving, slow-talking stage hand, turns what appears to be a genuine broken arm into something that makes his character even funnier.
Allison Ruanto and Kara Sheldon are the oversexed chorus girls, Rita and Rhoda, who spend most of their time giggling.
This is a lushly costumed show, with costumes designed by Denise Miles. The women’s fashions for the “Sisters” number are particularly beautiful, and Agee is a stand-out in her red lamé dress for the finale.
Sets, on the other hand, are just utilitarian. With so many scenes requiring different sets, set designer John Bowles had to sacrifice detail for ease of movement (and gets credit for fairly quick set changes).
Choreographer Staci Arriaga has given us some outstanding production numbers, much more complicated than one is used to seeing in a community theater. Woodland is fortunate, indeed, that its classes for young people include tap dancing, because the tap numbers, particularly the show-stopping “I Love a Piano” are simply outstanding.
The nine members of the ensemble — Eva Sarry, Kimmie Ruanto, Spenser Micetich, Julia Stapp, Crissi Kessler, Jenny Lillge, Erik Catalon, Shane Wright and Eric Alley — work so well throughout the show that they deserve having their names included.
Music director James C. Glica-Hernandez’s orchestra appears to be 12 strong, though only nine are mentioned in the program. The fuller orchestra gives a professional sound to the production.
With the Opera House all spruced up in Christmas finery, draped with greenery and lights and full of holiday cheer, this is a great way to treat the family to a Christmas classic. It hits high marks on so many points that it’s a real keeper.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
When I saw that the Winters Theatre Company was presenting a show called “Fruitcakes” as its holiday gift to the community, I had great misgivings. If a show about peach preserves, which many people love, could be so awful, could a show about fruitcakes, which most people don’t like, be any better?
I was very happy to see that my misgivings were unfounded. “Fruitcakes” by Julian Wiles, directed by Anita Ahuja, is a delightful little gem of a comedy. It’s also a great community theater play, since it has a cast of thousands (well, about 30), which includes lots of children, all of whom looked like they were having the time of their lives.
The story is set in the tiny town of McCord’s Ferry in Georgia and centers around Mack Morgan (Tom Rost), the guy who owns the whirligig barn. Rost, a veteran of many Winters productions, is as solid as they come and perfect as the man around whom all of the action in McCord’s Ferry seems to revolve.
Into Mack’s life comes Jamie (Alexandra Bazzoni-Curro), a 13-year-old runaway who has stolen a fruitcake from the elderly sisters in town and hides out in Mack’s barn. Bazzoni-Curro is a talented actress who nicely complements any scene in which she appears.
Miss Sarah (Liz Siracusa) and Miss Alice (Ann Rost) are a combination of the Baldwin sisters of “Walton’s Mountain” and the sisters in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” They are constantly feuding and wouldn’t speak to each other at all if they didn’t have to get together each year to make fruitcakes for everyone in town.
When their mother died, she left half of the recipe for her famous fruitcake with one sister and half with the other and they have to work together, each on her own side of their divided house. (Each sister has her own front door, and the kitchen is divided in half by different colored paint for each side.)
The two actresses are fun to watch. Siracusa is grumpy and angry with everybody. Rost — who, with her husband, is also a veteran of many Winters shows — always adds a calm presence to her characters, though I really wish she could project just a bit more. Some of her lines were difficult to catch.
While investigation is under way into the fruitcake caper, the town is getting ready for Christmas. Beebo Dantzler (Jim Hewlett), the town cop, is decorating his house and getting ready for the “Grand Illumination” ceremony, when he will light the lights for the first time. This year he has added Buster, the Christmas hog, a wooden figure that he rescued from a business that was closing.
Hewlett demonstrates an amazing voice as he leads the children in song. I would love to see him do a musical some day.
In the meantime, Beebo’s wife, Betty Jane (Allie Griffey) is the director of the town Christmas pageant and trying to work around a plague of chicken pox that is starting to infect the children. I first noticed Griffey in a small role in last year’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and commented that she was outstanding in the role. It is nice to see her in a leading role, and she shows that she really knows her stuff (though I do wish that she had a better-fitting bucket hat).
Add to the mix a bunch of other town eccentrics, including Mattie Sue (Dona Akers), a six-time widowed woman with a heart as big as all outdoors, who takes care of most of the townsfolk when they are in need; Skeeter (John Siracusa), a Harvard graduate with a degree in engineering who spends his time fishing, using nothing but poetry for bait (the theory being that the more he bores the fish, the more they will relax and the easier they will be to catch); and a group of hunters who pray to Clyde the hunting angel.
The children are each adorable in his or her own way: EllaRose Eldon, Nicholas McKenna, Pietra Curro, Kennedy Rivera, Sophia Tolley, Corinne McKenna, Victoria White, Angel Tunstall, Sam Petersen, Victoria Olton, Angelica Schiesari and little 5-year-old Mikenzie Lillian, appearing on stage for the first time, who is adorable as she giggles and waves to her family in the audience.
When “chickenpox descends on Bethlehem,” director Betty Jane comes up with a unique solution, while secrets are revealed that affect the feuding sisters, and runaway Jamie changes Mack’s life. It all ends with a violin solo by angel violinist Emilia Orosco.
This is such a fun way to start the holiday season, even if the plates of fruitcake on the audience tables on opening night went untouched!
Saturday, November 19, 2011
He submitted a play called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” to the university’s “New Plays Project,” but the committee decided it was only “mildly interested” in the work and rejected it.
Instead, the play went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and then on to take London by storm, and UC Davis lost the opportunity to present the world premiere of a play that today is acclaimed as a modern dramatic absurdist masterpiece.
But “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is finally making its UCD premiere on the university’s main stage.
Stoppard’s play is “Hamlet” inside out, with the minor Shakespearean characters taking center stage and Hamlet and his weird family becoming bit players, who wander briefly through the scenes.
While it seems as if Rosencrantz (Mitchell Vanlandingham) and Guildenstern (Will Klundt) may be backstage watching the play from the wings, in truth we aren’t really sure where they are … but then they aren’t sure where they are or what they’re doing there either.
In fact, the pair spend most of the show trying to figure out where they are and what is going on, in a world that doesn’t make much sense to them.
The play raises questions about who controls our lives: Do we really exercise free will, or is everything preordained and are we only filling out a script that was written for us, but that we haven’t been able to read yet?
Vanlandingham and Klundt are beautifully matched, so similar to each other visually that it’s difficult to remember which is which. Sometimes it seems that even the two of them aren’t quite sure. But they have a warm, friendly relationship, which at one point caused an inadvertent audience reaction, followed by a self-conscious ripple of laughter that rolled through the house.
The scene shifts to Elsinore Castle, where the pair encounter a group called The Tragedians, led by The Player (an outstanding performance by Bobby August Jr.), who explains that they specialize in sexual performances, which they proceed to demonstrate in graphic, but very funny, detail.
The ever-present specter of death is personified in the number of ways to die, which the Tragedians demonstrate, and which our two principal characters don’t seem to realize is a warning about their ultimate end.
Director Barakiva, scenic designer Kourtney Lampedechio and costume designer Maggie Chan worked well on creating the black, white and gray limbo in which Rosencrantz and Guidenstern exist. This becomes a vibrant display of color at the end of the play, which is also the end of the real play itself.
Sound designer Dan Cato Wilson deserves special mention especially for his sea sounds in Act 3, when the characters find themselves at sea, under attack by pirates.
While this show can be enjoyed on its own merits, if you feel your Hamlet is a little rusty, it wouldn’t hurt to brush up your Shakespeare before coming to the theater so you can more fully enjoy all the bon mots and wordplay.
This is one play that is not so much about the conclusion but what happens along the way.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
The material is somewhat dated and the plot is repetitious and predictable, yet in the hands of talented actors Becky Saunders and Justin Samuel Cowan — both newcomers to STC — it turns out to be an enjoyable evening of theater.
This is the story of an older woman, Lily, who arranges for private dance lessons in her St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., condo. Enter Michael, a middle-aged ex-Broadway chorus boy with a huge chip on his shoulder. The sparks fly from the beginning. Lily is the wife of a Baptist minister; Michael can’t control his temper and uses foul language.
Each of the seven scenes in the play follows the same format — Michael arrives for the lesson, his boom box and the foot cut-outs he places on the floor to help learn the dance steps in his duffel bag. There are personality clashes resulting from some hidden secret one or the other are trying to protect, Lily threatens to end the lessons, they talk, they argue and they dance.
The scene ends with a phone call from a downstairs neighbor, Ida, who is upset about the sound of dancing feet on her ceiling.
As they work through their differences, secrets are revealed. Lily’s husband isn’t out running errands, he actually died a few years ago. Michael’s wife isn’t sick, he has no wife because he’s gay and mourning his own losses. As they work their way through the swing, the tango, the Viennese waltz and others, a grudging friendship begins to form as more secrets are shared and the loneliness that both people feel begins to dissolve.
Saunders and Cowan make these characters believable and play beautifully off each other. Lily is reserved and her Southern gentility has been forged by years of being a minister’s wife, always smiling, always gracious, keeping all of her real feelings bottled up. She has perhaps never encountered anything as open, brash and vulgar as Michael.
Michael uses anger to protect himself, suspecting homophobia in every person he meets, but he senses Lily’s vulnerability. Over the weeks, he responds to her desperate need for friendship, which early on telescopes the emotional final scene, “Bonus Lessons.”
The set for this show, designed by Mims Mattair, also a newcomer to STC, is perhaps the most memorable I have seen in the Pollock Theater. He uses the entire stage, from door to door for Lily’s condo, complete with kitchenette and a sweeping view of the ocean. It is all painted white and the brightness draws the audience into Lily’s world.
Despite its predictability, and the dated material, “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” is an enjoyable production, especially in this age when “Dancing with the Stars” has brought dance into greater prominence.
I wonder what Lily and Michael would have done with the Paso Doble.
Monday, November 07, 2011
This musical, with book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams, opened on Broadway in April 1960 and was a sleeper hit, shocking everyone with its success. But based on Elvis Presley’s drafting into the Army and leaving for an 18-month tour of duty in Germany, with its inevitable media circus, how could it fail?
It was Gower Champion who developed the idea of a rock and roll idol going off to the Army, setting off a ripple effect on a group of teenagers in the small town of Sweet Apple, Ohio.
While there are some outstanding scenes in this production (such as the telephone scene in Act 1 and “Kids” in Act 2), it lacked the pizzazz to make it exceptional. The problem may lie with the under-stage orchestra which, despite its large size, seemed muted and thus not always contributing to the big sound that this show requires, resulting in occasional off-key beginnings of songs.
There were also just simple dumb mistakes that a company about to celebrate its 28th season should know better — such as the placement of the black curtains that allowed the audience to see characters entering and leaving the stage and a microphone that was spotty at best.
But this should not detract from the positives of the show. Spencer Johnson is an affable, likable Albert Peterson, a mama’s boy who can’t commit to love. Albert sets off on a campaign to publicize his new song, celebrating his protege’s imminent departure for the Army and giving one last very well-publicized kiss on the “Ed Sullivan Show” to a fan chosen at random.
Johnson sings OK and, while he will never be a dancer, he was able to keep up with the others all right.
Danielle DeBow had a bit of opening-night jitters at the start of the show, as Albert’s long-suffering Latina secretary/girlfriend, Rosie Alvarez. She displayed a wonderful voice that was not always being used to its best advantage.
But as the show progressed and as her confidence grew, it was there in full force and she became a Rosie to be reckoned with, especially when being pursued by a room full of fez-wearing Shriners.
Christine Deamer was born to play Mae Peterson, Albert’s overbearing, manipulative mother. She is simply wonderful as a stereotypical Jewish mother, determined to find a girl to replace Albert’s ethnic girlfriend.
Levi Fuentes as Conrad Birdie was sabotaged by a microphone that faded in and out. His big number “Honestly Sincere,” which needed to boom out to the townspeople and the audience, just didn’t. He is better than that and I hope the mic problems are fixed in subsequent performances.
The McAfee family members are uniformly good. Taylor Hartsfield as Kim, the girl chosen to be the girl to receive Conrad’s “one last kiss,” is quite good. Scott Minor as her father Harry definitely makes a terrific impression in his “Kids,” and Danette Vassar, as Mrs. McAfee, shows once again that good things come in small packages. Watching her grow as an actress over these past years has been a delight.
Kim’s younger brother Randall McAfee (Joshua Aiden Smith) has little to do, but he does it competently.
Outstanding among the teenagers in the show are Tomas Eredia as the nerdy Harvey Johnson, whose changing voice was just perfect, and Lydia Smith as Kim’s best friend Ursula, who can scream for Conrad Birdie better than just about anybody.
Like Spencer Johnson, Noah Papagni was an affable, likable whitebread kind of boyfriend as Hugo Peabody.
Jean Henderson’s costumes were mostly perfect for the time, though I did wonder if Elvis would have worn such well pressed blue jeans with such big cuffs. Rosie’s gowns, especially for Act 2, were gorgeous.
Vasser’s dress, while not necessarily overly special, caught my eye with how perfect it was for the actress; it may have been one of my favorite outfits in the show.
This DMTC production is entertaining and will please most theatergoers.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Leaving the Delta King, their home since 2005, the company has built a charming performing space that is both larger and more intimate than the Delta King, with a bigger stage that will accommodate larger casts (nine in “Superior Donuts”), and with on-street parking easier to find than in Old Sacramento.
The standing ovation was well-deserved, but just the prelude of the special evening to follow.
The Letts play is a perfect first production for Capital Stage. It’s a little bit of everything — a comedy that’s not a comedy, a tragedy that’s not a tragedy, a character study of several disparate people all coming together in a family-owned doughnut shop in Uptown Chicago, which was already on the way down in 1950, when Arthur Przybyszewski’s immigrant parents bought it.
Matt Miller creates yet another memorable character as Arthur, an aging hippie who looks as beaten down as his doughnut shop. Over the course of the evening, we discover that Arthur was an embarrassment to his father, a member of the Polish Army, who spent most of the war in a POW camp. Arthur fled to Canada during the Vietnam war and is still haunted by his father calling him a coward.
As the show opens, Arthur’s shop has been vandalized, an act that seems to bother everyone else in the neighborhood more than it does Arthur, who takes it all in stride. He has withdrawn from life and is existing rather than living.
Young Franco Wicks (Jammy K. Bulaya), bursts through the door, applying for the job Arthur has advertised in the window. Arthur is uninterested in hiring anybody, but Franco is so excited about the possibilities, and wins Arthur over. He is hired and sets about to bring life back into the doughnut shop … and to Arthur.
Bulaya gives an amazing performance. He is ebullient and engaging, excited about life, determined not to let anything get him down. He has plans for his future and he has written the Great American Novel. His face would light up a room and you can’t help but smile when you look at him.
In contrast, his final scene is one of the most emotional and so beautifully played. It was an unforgettable experience.
The rapport between Arthur and Franco carries this story, as the old man is slowly shaken from his numbness by the younger man’s unflagging enthusiasm. The friendship they form is essential as the story progresses and their roles are reversed.
Arthur’s neighbor, Max (Gary Pannullo) is a Russian immigrant who owns the video store next door and who desperately wants to buy Arthur’s doughnut shop so he can expand and find his own American dream. Pannullo is just great, a stereotypical Russian — bombastic, argumentative, but a longtime loyal friend of Arthur’s.
The stellar cast also includes Janis Stevens, almost unrecognizable in her multi-layered costume as “Lady,” an alcoholic street woman who begins each day with a doughnut and a cup of coffee. Stevens gives this old woman an air of regal dignity, and her sharp wit delivers some of the funniest lines. She can’t seem to maintain her sobriety, but she keeps starting anew every day.
Lori Russo is Officer Randy Osteen, who obviously is attracted to Arthur, who doesn’t even know she exists until Franco points out that she has been trying to get the old man’s attention.
Anthony D’Juan plays the beat cop, Officer Bailey, a “Star Trek” fan who cares about the people in his neighborhood.
Barry Hubbard and Shane Edward Turner are Luther Flynn and Kevin Magee, who come to collect on Franco’s gambling debt.
Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly is Max’s nephew, Kiril Ivakin, who has little to say, but makes his presence known very effectively.
The heart of this play is the unlikely friendship that develops between Arthur and Franco, a friendship that will bring both of them back to life after major setbacks.
The new Capital Stage theater is off to a very good start.
Monday, October 17, 2011
It’s also about a long-running feud over who interfered with whom in the purchase of what turned out to be a winning bingo card.
I was not able to see the show at its opening performance, when the audience is usually packed with critics and friends of the theater, so the audience I saw was the real deal, and the theater was nearly filled with enthusiastic people delighted to be playing bingo as part of the show itself.
Apparently bingo does find a niche with a certain segment of the population. One reviewer said this show had the possibility to be for the middle-aged woman what “Wicked” was for their teenage daughters. I wouldn’t go that far.
This is a show where the plot is so predictable that it really is almost irrelevant to the show itself, and though the second act has seven songs, five are reprises of what was already sung in Act 1.
But somehow, despite what are surely obvious shortcomings, the talented cast makes it so fun that it works. And you even get to play three games of bingo and win cash prizes!
Lisa Raggio (playing Vern) will be a familiar face to many. She has a long nightclub, stage and television résumé and is one of those people you know you’ve seen before, but can’t quite place where. Vern is the alpha of the group and it’s because of her that her two cohorts haven’t talked with Bernice (Bonnie Bailey-Reed), with whom Vern had a dust-up many years ago.
Vern had some great interplay with a table of patrons in the audience who had the fortune or misfortune to win one of the bingo games the audience plays.
Eydie Alyson is Patsy, who has been highly superstitious ever since that night the group turned its back on Bernice. She can’t play without her trolls and the other lucky charms she packs with her to all of her bingo games.
She’s a great comedic actress, in the style of Ann Morgan Guilbert, who played Millie Helper in the old Dick Van Dyke series. And while it doesn’t have any impact on her performance, it’s interesting to note that she is married to “the silently hilarious pianist” on “Glee.”
Nikki D’Amico is Honey, the trailer trash version of Blanche Devereaux (“Golden Girls”). She has her sights set on the bingo caller, Sam (Michael Stevenson), and gets in several great double entendres dripping with sexual innuendo. Their duet, “Gentleman Caller,” is one of the songs reprised in Act 2, only from Sam’s side of the story.
The newcomer, Alison (Jessica Crouch), hides (just barely) the secret that she is the shunned Bernice’s daughter. Her mother is dying and she has come to see if she can’t patch things up with her friends because Mom needs a transfusion of a rare blood type.
In addition to playing the spirit of Bernice, Bonnie Bailey Reed also plays Minnie, who runs the bingo parlor and circulates throughout the audience during the actual games to make sure people are playing correctly and to award prizes to the winners.
Stevenson, in addition to being the Sam of today’s bingo game, is also bingo caller Frank of that infamous game so many years ago.
As with most of the Cabaret sets, this one is utilitarian but fun, with the girls sitting at a table facing the audience, Sam at the table where he is choosing the new ball, an electronic board at the back, and lighted signs in the audience, which show the configuration of the next bingo game. (Who knew there were so many?)
This show is dumb on so many levels that I was surprised when I realized I was chortling over several bits and that the song “Girls Night Out” has become an ear worm for the rest of the evening. But at its heart, “Bingo, the Winning Musical” is about the importance of friendship, and that’s a good message for anybody to receive.The show runs through Jan. 8, so grab your BFF and your bingo card dauber, head on over to the Cosmopolitan Cabaret and just immerse yourself in the inanity. You can even buy popcorn in the lobby
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Those who took my advice and were fortunate enough to see this extraordinary piece of theater will be overjoyed to know that at long last Rubin is ready to reveal her latest work, which she calls “Amazing & Sage, a Joke-O-So-Theom,” at Capital Stage’s brand-new theater, 2215 J St. in Sacramento, for three nights only, starting Sunday.
The unusual secondary title is because Rubin says her show is “one long joke/song/theatrical poem.” While her first work was a “no-holds-barred, emotional, funny, gut-wrenching look at the 29-year-old Rubin’s journey through alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction, food addiction and self-loathing,” the current work centers on Rubin’s relationship history.
“It is a story, my continuing story, of the evolution of a human, me, as she trudges the road of deep spiritual waking that emerges as the result of letting go of dysfunctional relationships and relationship patterns,” she said in a recent interview.
Described as a “recovery entertainer,” Rubin began writing her show in graduate school in 2004. She explained that this show took a long time to write because she hadn’t yet lived through the things that she was writing about and she needed to live through them and fully heal before she could write about them.
“The story is about the healing pattern of unhealthy relationships,” she said. “I was simultaneously experiencing a transformation around those issues. It was very difficult and painful and uncomfortable to write.
“By the time I got the first act down on paper, I was so out of the relationship that created the impetus to write the play (that) I didn’t want to write about it any more.”
However, she realized she had something important here and decided to try to finish it. Then she created yet another delay for herself.
“I thought wouldn’t it be cool to be narrated entirely in poetry,” she explained. “It took me a longer time to heal the issues than I thought it would, and it took much longer to write because of the form.
“The piece is narrated poetically so the whole thing is a poem, but the moments that are not rhyming and poetic are the dialog moments with the other characters.”
Unlike “Insides OUT!,” where the many characters were all aspects of Rubin’s self, the characters in “Amazing & Sage” are not necessarily simply aspects of her own psyche, but six or seven other characters she encounters on her spiritual journey.
This is a piece that is about going beyond mental and normal therapeutic means to heal an issue that, for Rubin, was not otherwise healable.
“I needed to delve into really deep space of consciousness and deep spiritual states. I needed to go to great lengths to bring about transformation,” she said.
“This piece seeks to articulate that process with language that in and of itself is otherworldly. My interest is in taking people on a journey into another realm, and it’s cool to have us be already in another realm by way of language.”
In making her own journal through this transformation, Rubin sought a lot outside help. “I went to a three-year energy healing school, delved very deeply into Sufism and the healing techniques in the Sufi tradition. It was profound, the most profound healing I’ve experienced.
“I’ve done a lot of different energy work, a lot of therapy, Name it, I’ve done it. This, for me, is the most potent and the most effective in terms of bringing about actual and lasting change.”
Rubin began her career as a comedic writer/performer at Amherst College with her first original piece, “PartyBoobyTrap.” Her second play was produced through the 2000 New York Fringe Festival. “Insides OUT!” was her third original piece and her first one-woman show.
She is a graduate of the theater and dance program at Amherst College. She has studied at the Wynn Handman Studios, at Annie Bogart’s SITI Company and has a master of fine arts degree from UC Davis.
In addition to performing and writing original material, Rubin also works as a stage, screen and voice-over actress, and as an acting and vocal coach. While teaching acting to undergraduate students at UCD, she appeared in “The Laramie Project” and the musical “Falsettos.”
In 2000, Rubin made her television debut as a law student on A&E’s “100 Center Street” with Alan Arkin. She has continued to tour “Insides OUT!” to venues across the United States for the past eight years.
She came to Capital Stage because she had seen its production of “American Buffalo” and found it “guttural, visceral and inspiring.” She approached Capital Stage co-founder Stephanie Gularte with the idea of writing a three-person play that would be as guttural and visceral, but written for women, instead of for men.
“You don’t see that,” Rubin said. “Where women are all laying it out there like men do.”
Gularte liked the idea but time passed without any official commitment. Then Capital Stage received an Irvine Foundation grant to support female playwrights writing plays for women and Gularte asked Rubin if she was still interested in developing the play they had discussed.
“What happened was that every time I tried to write it, I would find myself working on the one-woman piece that I had started previously. I couldn’t help myself, so I surrendered to the process,” Rubin said.
The end result was a play about a woman written by a woman. Thankfully, Gularte liked it and felt it satisfied the requirements of the grant.
“I was very happy and very grateful,” Rubin said.
“Amazing & Sage” is directed by Janis Stevens, an actress and director. And, if past experience is any indication, those who attend this production will be in for something very special.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
This production, directed by Michael Laun, sticks more closely to the original book. We never see Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory, and the horror comes from dialog that will have you leaving the theater talking about the philosophical implications of the story and asking … who was the real “monster”?
“Frankenstein,” was written in 1818 as the result of a contest among Mary Shelley and other writers — including husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and John William Polidori — to see who could write the best horror story. (Polidori later would be known as the creator of the vampire genre with his novel “The Vampyre,” in 1819.)
The STC production includes a top-notch cast, almost all at the top of their game.
William Elsman, last seen as Sherlock Holmes and a perennial favorite as Mrs. Baddenrotten in STC’s frequent Christmas show, “Cinderella,” is definitely bad and rotten as the tortured scientist, who confesses to his wife, on their wedding night, of all of his terrible misdeeds as he warns her that he is about to be killed.
The story is a bit vague on how the creature (who is never called by any name, but only “the creature”) was constructed, other than to say that a lot of grave robbing and deals with shady persons in back alleys were involved. We do know that Victor’s life passion had been to discover the cause of life and, by using various human parts, he is able to bring his creation to life.
It is his refusal to take responsibility for his success in doing what he set out to do that forms the basis for the story. It is difficult to understand why, after creating this human-like lifeform, he would then be horrified and run away from it.
But one must suspend disbelief in order to become involved in the rest of the story, which is that the creature (Ed Gyles Jr.), who is remarkably eloquent, has tracked down his maker, demanding that Victor create a mate for him. The creature suffers incredible anguish because he is terribly lonely. He is ugly so people shun him.
”I am an outcast with no hope of redemption and no love,” he wails. All he wants is a companion and promises that if Victor creates a female partner for him, the two of them will go away and nobody will hear from them again.
There are lots and lots of holes in the plot but the real drama comes from the discussions between man and creature and between Victor and his best friend Henry (Jerry Lee), to whom the scientist has confessed his actions and who agrees to help in the creation of a second (female) creature.
The success of this production, which becomes a morality tale about the creation and destruction of life, rests on the brilliant interaction between Victor and the creature and between Victor and Henry.
Gyles makes the creature almost likable, and we definitely feel the pain of his isolation, but then we remember that for some unexplainable reason, he killed Victor’s young brother and we see that he is capable of flying into rages when frustrated. He is Lennie, in “Of Mice and Men.” but with more stitching.
With Elsman, we see the brilliance of Victor Frankenstein, but also his weakness which results in the destruction of everything he loves in life.
Henry, as played by Lee, is still full of the wonder of Victor’s accomplishments and eagerly agrees to assist in the creation of another life, which ultimately proves to be his undoing.
Others in the cast include Brittni Barger, as Victor’s fiancée Elizabeth. Her role is small, but she ably displays her love for Victor, though surprisingly not much disbelief as he tells her of his creation.
Linda Montalvo gives a solid performance as housekeeper Sophie and Jim Lane can always be relied upon to give a good performance, in this production as Ernst, the inspector-general of police.
Miriam Gilbert (double cast with Kristal Celik) shows great promise in her first main stage production as Justine, a gypsy girl.
Susan Andrews, as Frau Frankenstein, Victor’s mother, may be the weakest in the show as one was always aware of her “acting,” and not really involved with the character.
The set by Jarrod Bodensteiner is sumptuous and the lighting design of Jessica Bertine nicely helped create the “horror” mood, especially during scene changes. Jessica Minnihan’s costumes and makeup were fine, though the creature didn’t look all that scary from the back of the house.
If you’re looking for an old-fashioned, Hollywood-style Halloween horror experience, this may not be your cup of tea. But if you want to find your horror in the things that men can do without thinking their actions through to their ultimate conclusion — which may be even more horrifying, though easier to believe in this day and age — this is a perfect way to spend an evening.
One thing is certain. You will be discussing the various elements of this show as you leave the theater, and perhaps for days to come.
Saturday, October 01, 2011
The line of patrons waiting to spin the wheel to win a prize at the Mix 96 booth stretched almost around the block, little girls came dressed in sparkly princess costumes, adults and children of all ages entered the theater wearing Shrek horns on their heads, and everyone seemed on the edges of their seats, expecting something special.
They were not disappointed. Based on William Steig’s book “Shrek!” and the Dream Works animated film, the story of everybody’s favorite ogre — with the message that everyone is worthy of true love — is filled with fun characters, double entendres, great costumes, fun dance numbers and more belch and fart jokes than I’ve ever seen in one show before.
This is not an instant stage classic that we will be seeing again for decades, nor does it have memorable music (except for the closing number, Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer,” first recorded by the Monkees in 1966). But for what it is, it delivers.
One problem with taking a popular, well-known cartoon like “Shrek” and giving flesh-and-blood actors the job of bringing well-known cartoon characters to life on the stage is that a lot of the elements get lost in the cacophony of orchestra, sound system and characters talking together.
Much of the movie’s charm came from in-jokes and visual effects and being able to snicker at the lesser characters who each brought a funny part of a familiar fairy tale to the story.
That is there in the stage show, but somehow it lacks the charm of the movie.
That said, however, the stage show delivers some really spectacular effects, particularly the Tony Award-winning dragon, created by Tim Hatley, as impressive as some of the costumes from “The Lion King.” The dragon swoops and flies and turns in circles on stage and above the stage and is amazingly lifelike — if there had ever been such things as fire-breathing dragons!
Likewise, the characters that Shrek (Lukas Poost) and his sidekick Donkey (Andre Jordan) encounter on their way to free the Princess Fiona (Liz Shivener) from the dragon’s castle are just loads of fun, particularly the tongue-in-cheek nod to “Lion King” designer Julie Taymor.
Fiona also does a wonderful dance number helping the Pied Piper with his rats.
As for the performances, Poost makes a lovable Shrek, an ogre who had been sent out on his own at age 7 and who just wants to live quietly, alone, in his little shack. But he has a sense of duty and when he takes on the task of rescuing Fiona for the scheming Lord Farquaad, he takes the task very seriously. Poost has a strong and resonant voice and despite the padding and face mask, makes a sympathetic character out of Shrek.
Shivener is an enthusiastic Fiona, thrilled to be released from the prison where she has spent her entire childhood, confused about who Shrek really is, but eager to meet her husband to be … and also hoping to keep her own secret hidden.
Merritt David Janes is the diminutive Lord Farquaad. The actor does well playing the role on his knees, with fake legs dangling in front of him. He is even able to dance.
Several of the lesser characters make an impact, primarily the whiney Pinocchio (Luke Yellin), whose nose grows and shrinks on stage without any visible assistance from Yellin himself.
Some of the scenic backdrops by Tim Hatley are simply spectacular.
“Shrek” will enchant most, no matter what age. And don’t forget to take home a pair of Shrek horns!
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Even if you are familiar with this Shakespeare comedy, I think you will find the setting and the theme of this production, directed by Rob Salas, surprising. It is a loving salute to the bicycle.
“Without a doubt, bicycles make Davis unique. What has fascinated us about bikes is not just their presence in Davis or their convenience, but something deeper,” the program notes say. “We are inspired by the thriving culture and sense of community that comes from a town that embraces bikes. We are inspired by their mechanics, which still seem magical amidst today’s advanced technology.”
Bicycle pieces adorn the posts of the gazebo, bicycle tires are strung together to create a ladder to the crawl space above the stage, and characters make their entrances either riding or pushing all sorts of wheeled vehicles, from scooters to clunker bicycles, to specially designed cycles. (Special thanks are given to The Davis Bike Collective and The Bike People.)
Since there is no specific set designer listed in the program, this was obviously a collaborative effort, and very successful.
Local artist Rebecca Portney is credited with “more intricate props,” including the figure of the young Indian Prince kidnapped by Titania, Queen of the fairies (Jessica Spaw, who also plays Hyppolyta, betrothed to Theseus, the Duke of Athens).
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” tells several stories, each of which occurs during a single summer night in a magical forest outside Athens, in which fairies play pranks on lovesick mortals, and earnest youths endure comical romantic confusion.
(There is a bit of confusion for the audience as well, since the cast has chosen to rearrange scenes, putting a scene between Oberon and Titania as the opening scene, rather than later in the play.
(“We moved the scenes around to set a precedent for the use of bike parts, the importance of the magical fairy world, and to get the feel for why Titania and Oberon are fighting,” explains Steph Hankinson. “Usually we feel that this gets lost in the action of the play and with the ‘changeling child’ never being a physical presence.”
The cast of this show numbers nine, with most actors playing two or three parts. The exception is Robert Williamson, playing the slow-witted Bottom, head of the bike mechanics, rehearsing a play in the woods to later present to Theseus (Rob Salas, who also plays Oberon, the king of the fairies).
Williamson is a terrible actor. But that’s OK, because he’s supposed to be and one must be a pretty good actor to portray the character of a believably terrible actor. Bottom is later turned into a donkey by the mischievous fairy Puck (Gia Battista) and I won’t even begin to describe his donkey costume. It must be seen to be believed. It is definitely in keeping with the bicycle theme; kudos to costume designer Caitlin Cisek, who outdid herself on that one!
Battista (also playing Philostrate, charged with organizing entertainment for the Duke’s wedding) is a less playful Robin Goodfellow (“Puck”) than many, but still manages to create enough mayhem for everyone.
The ever-solid Hankinson (who also plays Quince, the mechanic and Cobweb the fairy) is Egeus, who brings daughter Hermia (Brianna Owens) to the court of Theseus, asking that the Duke convince her to marry Demetrius (Jose Cagigal, also playing the mechanic Snout and Peaseblossom), her mother’s choice for her daughter.
(Owens is adorable as Hermia, and yet changes character completely in her roles as the mechanic Starveling and one of the fairies. It’s a very talented performance.)
Headstrong Hermia, however, is in love with Lysander (Will Klundt, also playing mechanic Flute and Mustardseed).
To confuse matters even further, Hermia’s best friend Helena (Erika Haaland, also mechanic Snug and Moth) is in love with Demetrius, who can’t stand her because he is in love with Helena. The plot is confusing enough itself, without having actors play multiple roles! However, thanks to ingenious costuming by Cisek, somehow it all works, and works well.
Puck, trying to carry out his master Oberon’s orders, confuses things and it results in all the wrong people falling in love with all the wrong people. Mayhem and merriment ensue, but all gets sorted out at the end.
The mechanics finally get to put on their play, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, which is worthy of any slapstick comedy you may have seen. It’s hilarious. My favorite costume was that of Snout, who plays the wall with a “chink,” through which the star-crossed lovers communicate. Brilliant bit of costume choice!
This production works on so many different levels. The costumes and scenery are a big hit, but the play would go nowhere without the work of nine very talented actors. Do yourself a favor and see this show before it ends Oct. 2.
Monday, September 12, 2011
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” directed by Steve Isaacson and choreographed by Michael Miilar, was the show that closed out Davis Musical Theatre Company’s run at the Varsity Theatre in 2005. A beautiful new production, directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson, is opening DMTC’s 27th season.
Right off the bat, I give failing marks to the audience, most of whom rudely talked among themselves throughout the overture. Even though the lights in the theater were not turned down until the end, the orchestra, which was quite good, deserves better than this!
The sets, by Steve Isaacson, are based on the design by Juan Ramos (who also played the King in that 2005 production). They are gorgeous, particularly the King’s bedroom, which is spectacular. The combination of the warm colors in the set and the warm lighting design (by Isaacson and Dannette Vassar) makes for a very inviting setting on which to place the story.
In previous productions of this musical — a subtext to the story of Anna Leonowens, the widow who comes to Siam with her young son to become teacher to the children of Siam’s beloved King Mongkut — there’s a sense of sexual tension, as the relationship between Anna and the King develops. This is particularly evident in the jealousy the king shows toward Anna’s friendship with British Envoy Sir Edward Ramsey (Gabriel Jacobo) and the dance between the King and Anna following the banquet held in Ramsey’s honor.
The decision to cast an older actress as Anna removes that sexual tension and leaves the way open to explore the professional relationship between the protagonists. Chris Cay Stewart has a lovely voice and beautifully portrays the relationship between herself and the King’s court (especially the children), and the on-again, off-again friendship with the King. Her age also makes for a more poignant and beautiful reminiscence as she sings “Hello, Young Lovers,” remembering her marriage to her husband, Tom.
Mark Suarze is a strong, vibrant King, straddling the fence between long-held cultural beliefs and his desire to move Siam into the modern age. He is powerful in his emotional numbers, particularly “A Puzzlement,” where he questions what he knows, what he should know and what he knows nothing about, but should.
Anna’s son, Louis, is played by William Chan, a talented young actor who could give lessons to many in the cast about projection, as his dialog was crystal-clear at all times. Sadly, that could not be said of Larry Lipman, playing the captain of the ship that brought the Leonowens to Siam. I never heard a word he said, and he also seemed to stumble over his lines as well.
Lenore Sebastian plays Lady Tiang, the King’s First Wife and the mother to Prince Chulalongkorn (Horace Gonzales), who is heir to his father’s throne. Sebastian is a wise and loving wife and that voice of hers is as warm and delicious as melted butter.
The lovers Tuptim (Lydia Smith), gift of the King of Burma to the King of Siam, and her escort Lun Tha (Kevin Foster), were very sweet. Smith has a lovely voice in her lower register, but loses it somewhat in her higher notes. Foster, however, has an amazing voice and showed it at its best.
Adam Sartain is an imposing Kralahome, the principal guard of the King, wary of anything that might upset either his boss or the long-held traditions of the court.
Tuptim’s theatrical performance of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” was a real highlight of the evening and was danced beautifully by Shannon Mo, Kimmie Ruanto, Allison Ruanto, Rachel Pinto, Natalie Mo and Anthony Swaminathan. Jenny Plasse, who plays “poor Eliza,” deserves special notice, as she was quite good.
Of course, “The King and I” would not be as popular were it not for the King’s children, each one cuter than the other: Jenny Chen, Naomi Debello, Amaralyn Ewey, Cedric Hughes, Emma Kehr, Lily Linaweaver, Elena Lipman, Natalie Mo, Jihan Moon, Jimin Moon,Keri Ruanto, Kimmie Ruanto and Anthony Swaminathan.
DMTC’s 27th season is off to a good start.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
The writers set their story between 1975 during the chaos leading up to the fall of Saigon and 1978 when we see the aftermath of America’s time in Vietnam.
Director Stafford Arima has a stellar cast headed by Ma-Anne Dionisio as Kim, an naive 17 year old country girl who has lost her family and her home and is forced to work as a bar girl in a sleazy club in Saigon, where the owner, “The Engineer” (Kevin Gray) sells his girls’ services to the soldiers. The opening number, “The Heat is on in Saigon” should earn the show an R, or at least a strong PG rating.
Kim is saved from becoming simply a girl someone would hire for an hour when she meets Chris (Eric Kunze), an American soldier who is bored with the club scene. His friend John (Josh Tower) buys the innocent girl for Chris and in the morning, he invites her to live with him.
The bar girls hold a mock wedding for the couple and Chris promises to take her with him when he returns to America.
Three years later, Kim is still in Vietnam with the son Chris does not know he has and Chris is married to Ellen (Misty Cotton). In flashback we see the chaotic scene at the American embassy as they are evacuating Saigon and Kim is unable to reach Chris.
John, now working for an agency trying to connect children of American soldiers with their fathers, finds Kim and learns her secret. He lets Chris know that he has a son. Chris and Ellen fly to Vietnam to find the boy, Kim learns of Chris’ marriage and makes the ultimate sacrifice so her son can have a better life in the United States.
The story is a simple, familiar one, but when given the big musical treatment with lots of glitz and special effects, it becomes something far more and it hits a high note in many numbers.
“Miss Saigon” is perhaps most known for the appearance of a helicopter on stage. I wondered how Music Circus was going to handle that effect, and it was done brilliantly with the use of lights, strobe and sound effects. It added incredibly to the emotional high of the fall of Saigon scene.
There isn’t a weak performance in this hard-hitting musical. Dionisio has played the role of Kim several times before (she originated in the Canadian premiere of the musical in Toronto plus the Australian premiere production and the London Production) and she is a wonder. Her most emotional scenes were gut wrenching and her love for son Tam fairly bleeds onto the stage when she sings “I’d Give My Life for You.”
Kevin Gray as The Engineer is an outstandingly sleazy manipulator who hits his high in “The American Dream,” as he tries to find a way to get into America.
Tower’s John is the rock that centers the piece and his “Bui Doi” at the start of Act 2 was so beautifully chilling. It was by far my favorite number.
Kunze, who has also played the role of Chris before gives a powerful performance and we feel his emotions as he is torn between the woman he loves and the girl he loved.
Misty Cotton has a brief, but memorable role as Chris’ wife, who suddenly learns about the girl he left behind and the child the two of them created. Her “Now that I’ve seen Her” was very poignant.
This is not a show that will leave you remembering any of the songs, but memory of the emotions felt throughout will last for a long time.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
It was revived in an off-Broadway production in 1996 and has become popular with regional theaters, including 22 years (7,645 performances) at the Chanhassen Dinner Theater in Minnesota, from 1971 to 1993 (the actors who starred as the married couple through the run of the show, got married themselves 18 months into the production).
So it’s not surprising to find “I Do! I Do!” as the penultimate production for the 2011 Music Circus season, though somewhat surprising to find that it has not been performed here since 1979.
The story consists of a series of vignettes following Agnes and Michael from their wedding in 1898 through their 50-year marriage until they leave their family home in the 1940s.
Playing Michael and Agnes in this production are real man and wife (of 24 years) Matthew Ashford and Christina Saffran Ashford, both of whom have lengthy Broadway and off-Broadway credentials (Matthew will be familiar to soap opera fans as Jack Devereaux in NBC’s “Days of Our Lives.”) Both give excellent performances, he as the self-absorbed aspiring writer, she as the long-suffering housewife and mother, though the love for and care about each other shines through any slight negativity that may rear its ugly head.
The story begins on the wedding night for the virginal couple, dealing with “first time” jitters, handled adroitly and without need for explanation with the two songs “Goodnight” and, after a brief blackout, the exuberant “I love my wife.”
Then, in quick succession the couple go through pregnancy, birth, another birth, infidelity, the empty-nest syndrome, marriage of their children, Agnes’ “finding herself” and the continuing advancement into their older years.
Scenic designers Scott Klier and Jamie Krumpf, costume designer Leon Wiebers, and director Will Mackenzie have worked together beautifully to get the actors from their youth to their old age, with most costume changes occurring in view of the audience, through use of several interesting devices. Costumes which are able to morph into other costumes with the addition or subtraction of a coat or scarf, and all in complementary colors work to achieve the desired effect. The final transition is particularly clever.
While in general the music, though pleasant, isn’t anything special, there are a couple of stand-out numbers. One is the song which became a popular hit, “My cup runneth over.” But lesser known songs would include the energetic “Flaming Agnes,” as Agnes defiantly dons an expensive feathered hat and begins to feel her oats.
Another would be the more quiet, reflective, and sweet “Where are the snows?” as the couple begins to settle into middle age. And you can’t forget “When the kids get married,” which has Agnes playing the violin and Michael playing the trumpet (both badly) as they celebrate the approaching empty nest and what they will do when they have it.
“I Do! I Do!” looks at an idealized view of marriage, one which has its ups and downs, but no real external problems (they seem to have enough money, the kids don’t seem to cause many problems, nobody has substance abuse problems — this is no “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”).
If there is a message here, it is that “marriage is a very good thing, though it’s far from easy.”
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
It has been 11 years since Annie Oakley and Frank Butler held a shooting match at Music Circus, but Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” is this week’s production, directed by Gary John La Rosa, and it is loads of fun.
Berlin’s score is filled with familiar gems like “Anything You Can Do,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” and, of course, the iconic “There’s No Business like Show Business.”
If you are “of a certain age” and remember seeing an early stage version, or the movie starring Betty Hutton, this may not be the “Annie” that you remember. At some point it was revised to make it more politically correct, taking out anything that might be construed as offensive to Native Americans.
So, gone is the number “I’m An Indian, Too” and the ceremony to make Annie Oakley a member of the Sioux tribe, but what’s left gives more dignity to Sitting Bull.
This is, of course, the fictionalized story of Annie Oakley and her relationship with her soon-to-be-husband, sharpshooter Frank Butler, under the auspices of Buffalo Bill’s traveling show.
Music Circus newcomer Beth Malone is a superlative Annie, a wild, illiterate, backwoods girl taking care of her young siblings by shooting local animals and trying to sell them to local restaurants. Over the course of the show, she grows into a mature woman, sure of herself and the equal of Butler, in every way.
Edward Watts, also a Music Circus newcomer, is everything one would want in a Frank Butler. Tall, handsome, virile, charming, but with an exaggerated opinion of himself that makes him aggravating. With a strong baritone voice, his duets with Annie are wonderful, but in his solo, “My Defenses Are Down,” he comes into his own.
Annie has never seen anything quite like this guy and is smitten from the first time she looks into his eyes. The two actors play well off of each other and their on-again, off-again relationship is believable.
The always-satisfying Ron Wisniski (seen earlier this season as Fagin in “Oliver!”) is a bombastic Buffalo Bill, bigger than life as he struggles to find a way to keep his show in the black.
Paul Ainsley is a sardonic Sitting Bull, who has a special soft spot in his heart for Annie and makes her his adopted daughter.
Annie’s siblings are adorable. Haley Finerman as Jessie, Rachel Finerman as Nellie, and cute little Zac Ballard (I hope he gets the chance to play Winthrop Paroo in “Music Man” before he gets much bigger!) are professional kids who do a great job with “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” but they don’t become cloyingly cute.
Heather Lee is a brazen Dolly Tate, Frank’s assistant, who has no love lost for Annie.
The young lovers, Michael D. Jablonski as Tommy Keeler and Jill Townsend as Winnie Tate, are adorable.
The opening “No Business Like Show Business” displays the lively choreography of John Macinis, which is such a big part of the success of this show. The high-kicking dances at the Hotel Brevoort are particularly enjoyable.
This is a delightful little package that obviously was a crowd pleaser, since the Wells Fargo Pavilion had more filled seats than any other opening night this season. Nobody left disappointed.
Monday, August 08, 2011
This year’s summer show is actually two one-act plays. “Shane of Third Street” was specially written for Acme by alum Brian Daniel Ogelsby (Acme ’02) and directed by Ryan Lagerstrom (Acme ’09) who, we are told, “took a break from directing films and took on the challenge of telling a story live.”
The lines of fantasy and reality blur in this story of Shane, a misfit living on Third Street in a run-down section of town. Alex Clubb gives a powerful performance as a young man whom we first meet preparing for a swordfight with Lord Pain (Nick Mead). No program credit is given for the choreography of the swordfights in the play, but they were staged beautifully.
We learn that Lord Pain is a figment of Shane’s imagination as he prepares for the Bakersfield Renaissance Fair. Other characters come in and out of Shane’s present and become part of his fantasy. Particularly good are Roxanne McNally as the Queen and Callie Miller, as Shane’s sister, Marie.
Mead, who is a menacing Lord Pain, becomes part of Shane’s real life and gives the young man the opportunity to make the sort of choices that a true knight would be expected to make.
Emmett Barnes makes a brief, but memorable appearance as the young dinosaur and the tech crew gets high marks for special effects.
After some delicious local strawberries with whipped cream, we were ready for the second play, “The Secret in the Wings,” written by Mary Zimmerman and directed by artistic director Emily Henderson and Maddy Ryen (Acme ’05). It is described as “seven dark fairy tales interwoven in a kaleidoscope of fractured story telling.” Fractured is putting it mildly.
The story opens with mother (Hannah Nielsesn) and Father (Will Kingscott), who must be the absolute worst parents in the world, going off for the night and leaving daughter Heidi (Gigi Gilbert-Igelsrud) in the care of the creepy Mr. Fitzpatrick (Antonio de Loera-Brust), of whom Heidi is deathly afraid (“He’s an ogre!”) and who clomps about the stage like Bella Lugosi, with a very long, very thick tail.
Mr. Fitzpatrick immediately asks Heidi to marry him, as he does before each of the fairy tales he begins to read to her.
Zimmerman’s fairy tales make the original Grimm stories positively Pollyanna-ish. In one, the eyes of three princesses are removed and they are banished to the desert, where two of them turn to cannibalism.
In another, a princess who hasn’t laughed in years agrees to let the men of the kingdom try to get her to crack a smile, but only on the condition that if she does not smile, the unsuccessful men will be beheaded.
In a third, a princess is resurrected by her loving husband, but rather than rewarding him for bringing her back to life, she takes to the arms of another man.
And so it goes.
Each fairy tale is told until it reaches its most climatic moment and then it ends abruptly without the conclusion being read and the next story starts. At the end of the seventh story, the tales begin to be completed, in backward order, until all conclusions have been reached.
The cast for this play numbers about 30 and many actors play several roles. Many are worthy of special mention, especially Clubb (back from “Shane of Third Street”) as the father of “The Princess Who Wouldn’t Laugh”; (Kashmir Kravitz also gets special mention for doing a good job in the title role). Deanna Gee performs the silent part of “Silent for Seven Years” stoically.
De Loera-Brust is suitably scary as the Ogre, Mr. Fitzpatrick, and Gilbert-Igelsrud handles the role of Heidi, who bridges several of the stories, quite well.
Directors Henderson and Ryen keep things moving and visually interesting. Of particular note is “Silent for Seven Years, or The Seven Swans,” which includes a beautifully choreographed group of swans.
This delightful pairing of plays gives a solid evening of entertainment (and don’t forget to try the strawberries at intermission!)
Thursday, August 04, 2011
Music Circus’ current production — its first in the Wells Fargo Pavilion, the previous production of “Camelot” having played in the old tent in 2002 — does not disappoint and hits all the right magical points throughout.
For starters, there is Davis Gaines as Arthur, the unexpected king who is poised on the brink of greatness, but still needs to turn to his friend, the magician Merlin (Time Winters) for advice.
Gaines, with a hefty biography including more than 2,000 performances as the Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway, is an unforgettable Arthur. He neatly balances the uncertainty of a fledgling king with the nobility of a king who is reaching his full potential. His is an Arthur to rival Richard Burton’s, though he has a much better voice.
A newcomer to Music Circus is Lisa O’Hare as Guinevere, the princess brought to Camelot to marry the king in a trade agreement. She’s angry about the her “youth being sold” and afraid she will never have the “simple joys of maidenhood.”
“Shall two knights never tilt for me
and let their blood be spilt for me?
Oh where are the simple joys of maidenhood?”
O’Hare has an elfin charm about her that makes her mesmerizing. There is a special charisma with Gaines that makes it almost impossible to understand how she could be drawn away from the king to an attraction with Lancelot.
The story follows the reign of the idealistic Arthur, who develops the idea of the Round Table, a guild of Knights, that would promote justice and use strength for purposes of good — might for right, rather than might makes right (i.e., no more whacking the heads off peasants just for the fun of it).
One of the knights answering the call is Lancelot du Lac (Sean Hayden), a pompous, self-adulating Frenchman who desires only to serve the great King Arthur. He’s confident, almost swaggering, and his quest for inner perfection to go with his physical prowess annoys everyone, especially Guenevere, who bribes three of the best knights to joust with him.
When Lancelot surprises everyone by winning the jousts and mortally wounding (and then bringing back to life) one of the three, the queen begins to see him in a different light and falls in love with him.
Shannon Stoke is Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred, determined to destroy Arthur’s dreams for a world of laws. He’s a spoiled, bitchy young man whom Stoke played to the hilt; Stoke enjoyed a chorus of boos at the curtain call.
Time Winters is the wise Merlin in the opening scene, the magician who lives life backwards and is able to help Arthur because he can “remember the future” and knows what is coming. But, alas, he is spirited away by the spell of Nimue, the Lady of the Lake (Karen Culliver), leaving Arthur to his own devices.
Winters returns as the delightfully befuddled, eccentric Pellinore, who has been roaming the lands for 18 years looking to fight “the beast.”
(Culliver also returns as Guinevere’s best friend, Lady Anne.)
“Camelot” is the story of honor, of love, of friendship, of betrayal, of remorse and of honor again, as Lancelot and Guinevere deal with their love for each other and their mutual love for Arthur, whom they do not wish to hurt.
Arthur also must deal with his love for his wife and his best friend, but sets thoughts of revenge aside following their betrayal, because he still loves them both and would rather see them happy together than to lose them completely.
In the end, nobody wins.
But it is young Tom of Warwick (Alex Greenlee) who saves the day. He is a lad who has heard tales of the work of the round table and who was inspired to come and serve. Arthur realizes it is Tom who will carry his message to a new generation, and perhaps his work will not have been in vain after all.
Glenn Casale has directed a beautiful production, made more enchanting by the costumes, especially for Guinevere. The costume designer is listed as Mark Koss, with a notation that the original costumes were designed by Marcy Froehlich, with additional costumes designed and built by the Utah Festival Opera. It’s not clear who gets the credit for Guinevere’s costumes, but they were outstanding.
This is a beautiful, memorable production for Music Circus.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
You have the title song, one of the best love ballads (“All Through the Night”), a sexy torch song (“I Get a Kick Out of You”), a song filled with wonderful rhyming pairs (“You’re the Top”) and a Sunday-go-to-meetin’ showstopper (“Blow, Gabriel, Blow”) just for starters.
The show itself is so perfect that all Music Circus director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge really had to do was to get a bunch of actors who could follow direction and carry a tune and she’d have a hit on her hands.
But no, she did much more. She got a first-rate cast that takes this show out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary.
The indomitable Vicki Lewis plays big, brassy nightclub evangelist Reno Sweeney. a role originally written for Ethel Merman. Porter actually gave almost all the dynamite songs to Merman, so Lewis had big shoes to fill and filled them beautifully. She smolders in “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and belts out the title song, “You’re the Top” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” with a voice that is to die for.
Reno is in love with Billy Crocker (David Elder), but Billy has his heart set on debutante Hope Harcourt (Natalie Cortez). Hope is about to board a ship with her mother (Anita Flanagan) and Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (John Scherer), whom she plans to marry on their way to Europe.
Billy stows away on the ship, in the hopes of winning Hope back.
Also on the ship are criminals Public Enemy #13, Moonface Martin (Jason Graae), and his companion, the sailor-happy Erma (Melissa Fahn).
It is the thinnest of plots, in which a bunch of silly characters deliver dated gag lines, while sorting out various shipboard romances, mistaken identities and absurd misunderstandings. The whole point seems to be to get from song to song, but really, that is sufficient reason.
Elder, making his Music Circus debut, is handsome and winning as stockbroker Billy, with leading-man charisma and a voice as smooth as butter.
As Moonface Martin, Graae turns in one of those performances that will stay with you for a long time. His body twitches are hilarious.
Cortez is a sweet Hope, in love with Billy, but feeling she must marry Lord Evelyn in order to save her mother from bankruptcy.
Scherer is properly stuffy as Lord Evelyn, but gets a chance to cut loose in Act 2 with the delightful “The Gypsy in Me.” He also reveals a deep secret from his past, which is a plot turner.
Kevin Cooney is delightful as Billy’s perpetually inebriated boss, Wall Street Kingpin Elisha Whitney, who is in love with Hope’s mother.
A sub-plot concerns a couple of Chinese men, who have been converted to Christianity by the Rev. Henry T. Dobson (Michael Jablonsky), who is arrested early in the show in a case of mistaken identity, leaving the Chinese men (Billy Bustamante and Peter King Yuen) to fend for themselves, which they do by returning to their gambling ways.
The dancing in this show is spectacular, with scenery changes woven into the numbers, several turns for small groups of dancers and a terrific tap number for everyone as the finale to the first act.
Sets are minimal, with parts of the ship suggested by a fence here, a porthole there, but great use is made of Music Circus’ multi-section revolving stage.
If you’re looking for some good old-fashioned fun, step aboard this ship, settle back and enjoy the ride. It’s a good one.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford, this production has a cast of nearly 60 which, at times, on the small Music Circus stage looks like rush hour in London.
Christopher Bones has the title role and is a wonderful young actor. His “Where Is Love” was clean and clear and true, without a wobble, even in the high notes. He effectively conveys the loneliness of an orphan who has never known love, his fear of the people who are out to do him harm, and his joy at the possibility of having a real family of his own.
Veteran actor Ron Wisniski has a great time as Fagin, the leader of a band of lost boys whom he teaches to pick pockets. Wisniski has a list of national credits to his name and also has been seen in many Music Circus productions. He’s a first-rate Fagin.
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan is outstanding as Nancy, lover of the cruel and abusive Bill Sikes, a woman who takes a liking to Oliver and attempts to be his protector. Donovan can belt out a song with the best of them, but also can bring a gentle vulnerability to her songs, when expressing her love for Sikes.
I must speak up for Sykeses everywhere and say that while the name is spelled with a “y” in the Music Circus program, traditionally it is spelled with an “i.” (I am always quick to point that out, for obvious reasons!)
Aaron Serotsky sings the heck out of the Sikes character, but was not as menacing as others I have seen.
Matthew Gumley, who was last seen at Music Circus as the adorable Winthrop in the 2006 production of “The Music Man” (whom I described at the time as “one big ball of talent”), has only improved since that production. He gave the Artful Dodger a real panache and the stage came alive whenever he was on it.
This is a good place to insert that the choreography for this show is performed very well, but is at times overly ambitious, especially for such a huge cast. It almost seems as if there was an attempt to make a movement for every line of music when sometimes less might have been more.
That said, however, whenever Gumley was singing, he made all of those hand and foot gestures sizzle and I stopped trying to decide if this was too over the top or not.
In smaller roles, Roland Rusinek as Mr. Bumble and Karen Culliver as the Widow Corney were quite good, while Shannon Stoeke and Cynthia Ferrer as Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, the undertaker and his wife, were exceptional.
Paige Silvester, whom we have watched grow up on Sacramento stages, was adorable in the small part of Nancy’s young friend Bet.
This is a show where the first act is much better than the second. There is so much to get into Act 2 that it all seems to tumble together every which way. In a stage-in-the-round situation, the final scenes just become a jumble of people not being where you think they are going to be, making entrances and exits where logic tells you they shouldn’t be.
The show doesn’t seem to come to a finale so much as it does to slide to a stop.
There are also some changes in this production. The addition of “That’s Your Funeral,” not always included in the show, was fun. I missed my favorite line — “if you pass by the Tower of London, have a look at the crown jewels for me,” and the addition of Dodger to Fagin’s final scene was something I have not seen before and added a touch of lightness that was unexpected.
My criticisms of this production are slight and perhaps overly nit-picking. The average theatergoer will absolutely love it. This is a perennial favorite and Music Circus serves it up beautifully.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Whatever your ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or political affiliation, there will be something in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” to offend everyone, yet it’s all done with such a sense of fun that you’re amazed at the things that make you laugh. You’ll find yourself laughing at things you never ever thought you would find funny.
It’s Catskills in-your-face humor in a tuxedo, burlesque all grown up.
When it opened on Broadway, the show won an unprecedented 12 Tony awards, breaking the record previously held by “Hello Dolly” for 37 years.
“The Producers” is the show that Mel Brooks wanted to write all of his life, the musical that we saw glimmers of in several of his movies, especially, of course, the 1968 movie from which the plot of this show was taken.
It’s the story of Max Bialystock, the worst producer on Broadway, played energetically by Bob Amaral, who played the role a couple of years ago as part of the touring company that played Sacramento. Amaral is a force of nature and holds nothing back.
Every bit his equal is Matt Loehr, as Leo Bloom, the mild mannered bookkeeper who figures out that a producer can make millions of dollars by over-selling stock in the show and then producing a flop that will close immediately. Loehr’s performance is amazing and, like Amaral, he holds nothing back. The two men decide “We can do it” and set about finding the worst play ever written.
That would be “Springtime for Hitler,” a paean to the Fuhrer by an old pigeon-raising Nazi, Franz Liebkind (Bill Nolte, who also was seen as Liebkind in the touring Broadway Series production) who wants the world to know that Adolph really wasn’t such a bad guy and feels that showing him frolicking about the countryside with Eva Braun is just the way to change history’s negative opinion of his idol.
Once the world’s worst play is chosen, the next step is to find the worst director and in that we have the best actor, Gary Beach, who originated the role of Roger DeBris on Broadway. The flamboyant DeBris makes his entrance in a stunning silver and black gown, which he says makes him look like the Chrysler building.
DeBris has to be convinced to take on the directing job, but once allowed to make the whole Hitler story less depressing by adding cute song and dance numbers, and maybe letting Germany win for a change, because it’s less of a downer, he’s all for it. When you see him goose step into “Springtime for Hitler” after Liebkind suffers an injury on opening night, well there just was never such a cute Hitler before.
DeBris’ “common law assistant” is Carmen Ghia (Michael Paternostro) who is about the gayest thing you’ve ever seen and who got the first standing ovation of the evening.
The Swedish bombshell who wants to audition for the show, and who ends up working in the office for Max and Leo is Ulla (Sarah Cornell), the tallest, blondest, sex-goddess you’re ever likely to meet. She can run an office, paint a room during intermission, and star in a musical all without mussing a blonde curl. The height difference between her and both Max and Leo gets played for every laugh it can possibly be played.
Choreography is by Dan Mojica and the dancers of Little Old Lady Land (including such hormone-crazed silver haired women as “Hold-me-Touch-Me” (Diane Vincent), “Lick-Me-Bite-Me” (Merrill West) and “Kiss-Me-Feel-Me” (Kim Arnett) is one of the funniest of the evening.
If you want a good laugh, “The Producers” is just the solution. Music Circus Executive Producer Richard Lewis says there are still a few tickets left, so hurry and get your tickets before they are sold out.