Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Anything Goes

It is no surprise that “Anything Goes,” the 1934 musical with words and music by Cole Porter, continues to be revived nearly 80 years after its Broadway debut. It has more Porter hits — songs that have become American musical classics — than any of his other works, all neatly packaged into one two-hour show.

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


The last production of “Oliver!” at Music Circus was in 1997, but it is back for a huge extravaganza this week.

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

The Producers

“The Producers,” directed by Glenn Casale, kicks off Music Circus’s 61st season and is a great way to start a season that will include “Oliver!” “Anything Goes,” “Camelot,” “I Do! I Do!,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Miss Saigon.”

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.