Monday, November 28, 2011

White Christmas

There is an old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Whoever decided to bring one of the most popular Christmas movies, “White Christmas,” to the stage did not follow that saying.

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


In the 1980s, I saw a musical produced by Buddy Ebsen (of “The Beverly Hillbillies”) called “A Turn to the Right.” It was a show about making peach preserves and, to this day, remains the worst show I have ever seen.

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

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

The UC Davis department of theater and dance, and Michael Barakiva, director, have rectified a mistake that was made back in 1966, when someone rejected a new play by an aspiring playwright named Tom Stoppard.

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

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks

At its core, “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” currently on the Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock Stage, is a story about loneliness, isolation and friendship. This play, by Richard Alfieri and directed by Michele Hillen-Noufer, is both hilariously funny and painfully poignant.

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

Bye Bye Birdie

The Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson, has a large cast (about 40), many crossovers from the Young People’s Theater program. It has a large orchestra (15) and a full house of parents, grandparents, siblings and friends. How could it possibly be less than a hit?

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.