Saturday, December 29, 2012

Peter Pan

When Cathy Rigby and husband, producer Tom McCoy, brought their “Peter Pan” to the Community Center stage in 2004, it was billed as Rigby’s “farewell tour,” so it was somewhat of a surprise to see her returning in 2012 with another production of “Peter Pan.” But hey — if you can still do such an iconic role, why not?

In truth, the production, directed again by Glenn Casale, is spectacular, and Rigby is spectacular in it. Her flying through the air, across the stage and out over the audience, doing all sorts of twists and turns and flips high above the stage (choreographed by Paul Rubin) is perhaps not so unusual for an Olympic gold medalist, but have I mentioned that the actress is now 60 years old? (To compare, Mary Martin did her last “Peter Pan” at age 42)

But what I found even more impressive was her ability to step so effortlessly into the body and psyche of a young boy. She has the mannerisms, the constant motion, the endlessly curious hands which must pick up and examine everything, the swagger, the bravado, all the things parents of little boys will easily recognize (she herself is mother to four and grandmother to four). She literally inhabits the body of Peter Pan.

In fact, she seems almost younger than the three Darling children whom Peter takes with him to Neverland.

Krista Buccellato was almost more believable as the grown-up Wendy than the young girl Wendy (not surprising, as she has already earned her BFA), though she has a lovely voice and becomes “younger,” if possible as she attempts to mother the lost boys.

Oddly, Wendy’s two younger brothers are both played by girls, John by Lexy Baeza and Michael alternately by Sophie Sooter or Julia Massey. I saw 10-year-old Massey, who was fine, but not the cute little boy we are accustomed to seeing — certainly too old to be carrying a teddy bear. (Sooter is 8 and may be more size appropriate).

Kim Crosby is a nice, serene Mrs. Darling, fearful of leaving her children alone while she and her husband go to a party, because she thinks she has seen a boy at the window, and she is afraid he may harm her children.

The program lists Brent Barrett as Mr. Darling, though played by understudy Sam Zeller at the production I saw. The actor also plays Captain Hook and Zeller looked straight out of the Disney cartoon, visually perfect as the pirate trying to catch Peter Pan to make him pay for cutting off his hand, and tossing it to the crocodile, who has been chasing Hook ever since, trying to get the rest of him.

Nursemaid Nana (the dog) and the crocodile are both played by Clark Roberts who must have spent a long time studying both dogs and crocodiles to be able to bring both species to life so believably (thanks, of course, to costumes by Shigeru Yaji).

Choreographer Patti Colombo keeps the pace sprightly with a number of dance numbers, including a pirate tarantella and a pirate tango. It is interesting to note that the Indian dance, “Ugg-a-Wugg,” originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins, was felt to be insensitive to Native Americans and in need of revision. Colombo left the music unchanged, but completely redid the choreography to become a spirited dance sequence for the Lost Boys and the Indians, as they prepare to battle the pirates.

John Iacovelli, head of UC Davis’ MFA design program, designed the sets for this production, creating a luxurious nursery with its tall windows for the Darling nursery, Neverland’s island setting, mermaid lagoon and the cartoonesque Pirate ship.

The lighting design of Michael Gilliam included the all-important Tinker Bell effect, a ball-shaped light that bounced around the stage and hid out in the children’s doll house. Such personality did the light have that as it began to fade and Peter makes a plea to the children in the theater to believe in fairies, the applause was strong, and Tinker Bell was saved once again.

At the end of the evening, as Peter Pan flies overhead sprinkling the audience with fairy dust, you will believe that thinking good thoughts will help you fly, and you will believe in fairies and in a little boy who still, 100 years after his creation, has steadfastly refused to grow up.

Friday, December 07, 2012

The Bacchae

It’s a familiar tale. A child is born, supposedly the son of a god. His arrival flanked with revelers and worshipers brings forth a wave of religious fervor, song and adulation that threatens the city’s ruler and leads to chaos, blood and barbarism throughout the land. The god-man is persecuted; his followers ruthlessly suppressed. The story ends with the sacrifice of a son and the ultimate suffering of his mother.

Only this particular story, written by Euripides near the end of his life, happens centuries before the birth of Christ.

UC Davis Granada artist-in-residence Barry McGovern — known for his screen and stage roles in “Far and Away,” “Joe Versus the Volcano” and “Waiting for Godot” — directs Euripides’ classic “The Bacchae” at the UCD main stage, with original rock music, humor, dominatrixes and cheerleaders. A wickedly sexy Dionysus locks horns with King Pentheus in a violent power struggle between freedom and control.

McGovern’s vision of Euripides’ ancient Greek work, aided by Irish poet Derek Mahon’s translation, brings “The Bacchae” home to American audiences. His inspiration for Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry seeking vengeance on King Pentheus and the town of Thebes for denying his deity, was the larger-than-life rock stars of the 1970s and ‘80s. Dionysus commands every inch of the stage with his electric guitar and fierce sexuality à la Mick Jagger.

The play describes the battle between the Dynosian cult — enjoying the pleasures of the world, including wine, sexual love, music, dancing and the excitement of group emotion — and the Appollonian side of man’s nature — that which is rational and civilized, ordered and controlled, represented by Pentheus.

Bobby August Jr., as Dionysus, is a character you will long remember thanks to the outrageous and electric costumes of Dee Loree Silveira. August’s flamboyant personality matches the costumes and he puts his all into his role.

Mitchell Vanlandingham, as Pentheus, is an uptight little man, determined to tame the wild and unruly Dionysus. He gives a wonderful performance, until he is ripped to pieces by the Dionysian folks.

But if you’re looking for all this sexual love, wild dancing and bloody battles to play out on the stage, you may be disappointed, since most of the fun stuff takes place off stage and is then described in lengthy speeches by relevant characters on stage. This is not R-rated for sexual situations and violence, but rather PG-rated for suggestive language. (At one point I felt it was like watching an audiobook, but with cheerleaders.)

Even the “sex-crazed American cheerleaders” who make up the Bacchae are as erotic as a group you’d find on the football fields of Davis High. This is not to take away from the fine job done by the 17 women who make up the chorus. They provide a unified, beautifully vocally shaded chorus and add an interesting visual aspect to the stage, but the costumes are quite tame; you won’t see an undulating torso. While they are great fun to watch, “sex crazed” is not the right word to describe them.

Maria Candalaria gives a very moving, tender and memorable performance as Agave, mother of Pentheus, who moves from exaltation to shock to grief and finally resignation, all in one continuous scene as she confronts the reality of her son’s murder.

Cooper Wise is wise, as Teiresias, the old, blind visionary who argues with Pentheus, and he is comfortable with giving lengthy speeches.

Soldiers Amanda Vitiello and Lindsay Beamish are characters who deliver pivotal messages detailing offstage events.

Original music for this production is by McGovern and Dan Cato Wilson, which is more tuneful than “throbbing,” and even reminiscent in part of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Master of fine arts candidate Travis Kerr has created an impressive set, which is all the more impressive in its response to a Dionysus-caused earthquake.

Many in the opening-night audience were there as homework assignments for their classes, as witnessed by all those writing in notebooks furiously throughout the production. Perhaps the best review of all was given by two students sitting in front of me, who turned to each other at the end of the show, somewhat in surprise, and said, “Hey, that’s wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be!”

In fact, it was downright enjoyable.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Christmas Carol

If you ever thought it would be fun to take your children or grandchildren to see Sacramento Theatre Company’s sumptuous production of “A Christmas Carol,” do it quickly. When this perennial favorite ends on Dec. 23, it will be going on hiatus for several years.

This sparkling new production, directed by Michael Laun, celebrates 25 years since the work was first commissioned for STC by Dennis Bigelow, who directed the first production. It has since been performed in several cities across the country.

With music by David deBerry and book adaptation by Richard Hellesen, this musical version of the Dickens classic includes a lot of Dickens’ original words, as the actors both narrate and perform seamlessly, while set pieces slide in, rotate and move out again. (Kudos to all the tech people who manage Scrooge’s bed so wonderfully!)

Greg Coffin modernized the music a few years ago, and has reorchestrated the soundtrack for this 25th anniversary production. (The orchestration is recorded; no live orchestra was used … but you’d never know it.)

In years past, I have complained about excessive stage fog and over-use of reverb on the microphones, and I was thrilled to find that neither of these is a problem and I found nothing whatever to grumble at.

The redoubtable Matt K. Miller, back from a tour performing in Greece, is making his fifth appearance as the ultimate Christmas grouch, Ebenezer Scrooge. I am an unabashed fan of Miller’s work and love how he balances the irascible temper of Scrooge with his rediscovered joy in being a child and a young man in love, and how his heart is awakened with feelings for both his nephew Fred (Scottie Woodard) and little Tiny Tim (played in this performance by Miller’s son, Max Miller, alternating in the role with Liam Nevin). Scrooge’s child-like glee at realizing he has not missed Christmas is particularly touching to watch.

Miller is surrounded by a host of first-rate actors, many of whom are products of STC’s Young Professional’s Conservatory.

Jerry Lee gave just the right touch of grisly remorse and dire warning to Scrooge, as his deceased partner, Jacob Marley.

Ninth-grader Courtney Shannon, in her third season with YPC, did a wonderful job as the Ghost of Christmas Past, steering Scrooge through many eras of his young life, where he sees himself as a child (Rion Romero, alternating with Cameron Stephens), an apprentice (Griffith Munn, alternating with Garrick Sigl), and a young man (Brian Watson, who definitely shows the beginnings of the cold, unfeeling Scrooge that he will become in later life). Shannon alternates in this role with Devon Hayakawa.

Could STC do this show without Michael R.J. Campbell as the ebullient Ghost of Christmas Present, whose good humor can take a sharp turn when addressing the problems of “ignorance” and “want” that Scrooge has chosen to ignore? Campbell also plays several other smaller roles, including the delightful Fezziwig, Scrooge’s first boss, kicking up his heels with his wife (Lindsay Grimes) and showing that you don’t have to spend great sums of money to make your employees feel good about their jobs.

The Cratchit family is well represented by Michael Jankinson as Bob, long-suffering clerk to Scrooge, who steadfastly maintains his good cheer despite poor working conditions, low wages, his large family and worry about Tiny Tim.

As Mrs. Cratchit, Miranda D. Lawson is a loving wife, who displays the ire against his unfeeling boss that Bob refuses to at this holiday season.

It is Tiny Tim who steals the show, however. At age 4, little Max Miller is as professional as any other actor on stage. He never stepped out of place, handled his braces and crutch expertly, knew all the words to all the songs, and recited his “God bless us, every one” in a clear voice that could be heard in the back of the house. Obviously, the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Sacramento Theatre Company’s “A Christmas Carol” is a long-standing holiday favorite and this 25th anniversary production does it proud. It’s the Christmas show that everyone should see, at least once.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Inspecting Carol

There is only one way to describe “Inspecting Carol,” by Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Company, now playing at the Woodland Opera House: totally insane.

This farce, directed by Jeff Kean, and presented “with apologies to Charles Dickens,” is a mashup of “A Christmas Carol” and “Noises Off,” with a bit of “Waiting for Guffman” thrown in. It may be one of the funniest Christmas shows you will ever see.

The action takes place at the financially struggling Soapbox Theater Company, a nonprofit regional group that has been together for many years, so that all of the members know each other well and have endured the touchy egos, financial woes, backstage romances, physical ills, and all the things that go into groups of this nature. They are rehearsing for their 12th annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”

The group is peopled by the quirky actors you might find in any theater company of this kind (and, in fact, the play’s characters originally were based on the then-members of the Seattle Repertory Company).

There is “the star,” Larry (Mike Maples) who postures like a Barrymore, and continually rewrites the scripts to make them socially relevant, whether his changes may be relevant to the actual play itself.

There is the old couple, founding members, Sidney (Paul Greisen), now getting a bit dotty, and his wife Dorothy (Laure Olson), who is British and unable to lose her accent, though hilarious when she adopts a different one for her role in the show.

Phil (Alan Smuda) is the stalwart who takes on the reliable characters, though he is getting old now and suffering physical problems.

Luther (Cole Hein) is a young man who has been playing Tiny Tim for so long that he is now a tall, robust adolescent and causes problems for Phil’s ailing back when being carried.

Wanda (Nita Christi, who is sometimes identified as “Walter” in the program) is new to Soapbox Theater this year, in its attempt to diversify and add some “color” to the cast.

Onto the scene comes Wayne (Tim Gaffaney), a wannabe actor, hoping to audition for a role — any role — with a local theater company. Having been told by the stage manager M.J. (Melissa Dahlberg) that this is a “professional” company and that he must be a union member to audition, he lies to director Zorah (Patricia Glass) to get a foot in the door.

Zorah, prone to histrionics (she’s Lithuanian, you know) is having her own problems, having just been informed by the financial manager Kevin (Jake Hopkins) that the company is out of money and that the National Endowment for the Arts has threatened to withdraw its grant this year, pending a visit by an inspector to see if they really deserve it.

When it becomes obvious that Wayne is no actor, everyone assumes he is the NEA inspector, there incognito to spy on them. As a result, Wayne is hired and catered to, resulting in a burgeoning of his already inflated ego.

There is a lot of exposition that needs to go on in Act 1 and it does get a bit long, though there are very funny bits, like the company all warming up before the rehearsal that never quite happens. But the zany farce that is Act 2 more than makes it all worthwhile.

Act 2 is made up mostly of lengthy excerpts from the actual “Christmas Carol” production, but to try to explain it would, first of all, be impossible and, secondly, spoil the fun. Suffice it to say this is the funniest version of the Dickens classic you will ever see.

While fine performances are offered up by all of the cast (which is rounded out by Horacio Gonzalez as Bart, the stagehand and occasional actor, and Mary Dahlberg as Betty, the real NEA inspector), outstanding performances are given by Maples as the classic actor, Glass as the director and Olson as the eccentric Dorothy.

High marks to go set designer John Bowles and Denise Miles for her costume design, especially for Betty’s final costume.

“Inspecting Carol” runs through Dec. 23. Don’t miss it! Be aware that some language may not be appropriate for young children, but it’s probably nothing they don’t hear on TV every day.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Mistakes Were Made

If there ever was any doubt that Eric Wheeler is one of this area’s most talented actors, a visit to Capital Stage’s production of “Mistakes Were Made,” by Craig Wright (directed by Carolyn Howarth), will convince you.

In this 90-minute mostly frenetic and ultimately surprisingly poignant comedy, Wheeler carries on non-stop telephone conversations with several people, his mostly unseen receptionist Esther (Anne Mason) and a large koi fish named Dolores (created by puppeteer Richard Bay).

Wheeler is Felix Artifex, a second-rate theatrical producer who has discovered an unknown playwright who has written a play about the French Revolution (“Mistakes Were Made”) that Felix thinks could finally be his ticket to the big time.

Though Felix describes his career to this point as simply “filling up theaters with moldy chestnuts and two-bit stars,” he is the eternal optimist and he knows he has a potential hit on his hands. He envisions a big production, with a huge cast and a big-name star.

As the play begins, he is on the phone with Johnny Bledsoe, the Hollywood hunk-du-jour, trying to convince him to star as King Louis (“… so you tell me, Johnny … who is the star of the French Revolution, if King Louis is not the star?”). Bledsoe apparently wants a special role as the “kid,” who is the handsome pal of Robespierre, written just for him, but with more lines than Louis. He’d also like the playwright to consider making this a one-man show.

While trying to make a deal with Bledsoe, Felix is also talking with the playwright, who is adamant that he is not going to change his play. Felix walks the fine line of lying to each of the men and making impossible promises, trying to reach a compromise so the show can go forward as he envisions it.

At the same time, he is receiving frantic calls from a guy named George Cossetta, calling from a desert somewhere, with a caravan of sheep being pursued by a bunch of guys with flame throwers. This apparently is part of a hair-brained, somewhat shady scheme to raise money to finance “Mistakes Were Made.”

As the calls continue to come, bells ring, buzzers buzz, Felix’s mood, like a traveling salesman’s, changes with each caller, whether wheedling, flattering, self-deprecating, threatening or profane. In the brief respites between calls, in moments of self-revelation, he converses with Dolores (wonderfully manipulated by puppeteer Janey Pintar), whom he overfeeds — despite warnings from his secretary — while he continues to wait for a call back from his ex-wife.

In less competent hands, this play might be less entertaining, but Wheeler allows Felix Artifex to become a man desperately, if comically, grasping for that brass ring that has hitherto eluded him and shows the lengths to which he will go to get it. Ultimately, he also lets the audience see the man behind the caricature and makes him a real human being.

Like the recently staged “Fully Committed,” which was a one-man tour de force for Matt K. Miller, “Mistakes Were Made” is a wonderful vehicle for Wheeler and his opportunity to shine for 90 minutes. Wheeler makes the best of it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Christmas Carol

It helps to understand that the version of “A Christmas Carol” by Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent — currently at the Davis Musical Theatre Company, under the direction of Jan Isaacson, with musical direction by Chris Congdon — was originally produced in the mid-1990s by Radio City in New York and was a holiday favorite at Madison Square Garden for more than 10 years.

Knowing that helps to explain what scantily clad Rockettes are doing in Victorian London and why the sepulchral Ghost of Christmas Future becomes a beautiful ballerina. This makes me think that perhaps other elements I found jarring also might have been part of the original production and not just poor directorial choices.

But to start with the good, DMTC finally has its orchestral mic-ing perfected. Hallelujah. After so many years of being unable to hear the orchestral blends, thanks to microphones and mounted speakers on each side of the theater, I was able to hear the orchestration clearly. It is just sad that so much of the music is forgettable, with one or two tuneful exceptions.

Forgettable or not, the DMTC chorus was top-notch and in great voice for all of the ensemble numbers.

Steve Isaacson is the best person in the company to play Ebenezer Scrooge. He can make a sour face better than anyone, and his snarls read genuine, as does his glee as he realizes he has not missed Christmas after all. He is positively cute in his giddiness. Hats off to him for performing this role two weeks after spinal surgery.

Jeff Nauer played the dual roles of Scrooge’s deceased partner Jacob Marley, and, in the past, his old boss the ebullient Fezziwig. He handled both roles well and was particularly entertaining as Fezziwig. I was disappointed, however, that his entrance as the chain-covered ghost had absolutely no sense of terror about it, but that he simply walked into Scrooge’s living room as if he were the butler.

Likewise, the chorus of ghosts writhing on the floor in one of the more tuneful numbers, “Link by Link,” do so in bright light in an old Victorian mansion at night. I am still wondering why that lighting choice was made.

I was impressed in the opening scene with the young woman playing the lamplighter (Leanna Friedrich), and was pleased that she later appears as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Friedrich has a lovely voice and a wonderful stage presence, though I am confused about why the ghost would join in the company at Fezziwig’s and dance with them, if she and Scrooge are supposed to be invisible.

Adam Sartain, who plays Young Ebenezer in the past, is also the Ghost of Christmas Present and a right jolly fellow he is, too, though he knows how to get his message across when he has to. He was a highlight.

When the pair visit the home of Bob Cratchit (Scott Griffith) and his wife (Dannette Vassar), I was surprised to see that the Cratchit family now only has two children, not the traditional six, though this is not the only inconsistency with the original book and previous versions on stage and screen. We now learn that Ebenezer’s father was sent to debtors’ prison, and his mother died shortly after that, leaving Ebenezer and his sister orphans. Ebenezer’s girlfriend, too, is now named Emily, not Belle.

David Ewey is a strong presence as Ebenezer’s good-hearted nephew Fred, who never gives up on his uncle and continues to extend the hand of family and friendship.

This is a show with some production and vocal problems, but they should not detract from the overall spirit of the production. It’s a good opportunity to get kids into the holiday spirit and we can all recite, with little Jimin Moon, as Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one!”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Christmas has come early to Winters, beating even the venerable old Macy’s Thanksgiving parade by a week. “Miracle on 34th Street,” directed by Anita Ahuja, opened last weekend and will run weekends through Dec. 2 at the Winters Community Center.

This stage adaptation of the beloved 1947 movie classic was adapted by Mountain Community Theater from the novel by Valentine Davies.

Yes, the pace of this production is sometimes plodding and there were lots of missed and made-up lines throughout the evening, but who cares, when everyone on stage and in the audience is having such a good time, and when you can enjoy the delight of Mikenzie Hapworth-Eldridge, the littlest elf, who stole every scene in which she appeared.

It’s the story of Kris Kringle, who has just been booted out of the senior home in which he has been living because of his insistence that he is the real Santa Claus. In a piece of serendipity, he turns up at the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade just in time to save the parade from a drunken Santa Claus, and does such a convincing job that he is offered the opportunity to be the in-store Santa for the season.

Has Tom Rost ever looked more dapper? This stalwart of many Winters theater productions is perfectly suited to the role of Kris. His humility and passion for his role will convince anyone that he really is Santa Claus. He and little Emilia Orosco also must have had a good dialog coach to be able to converse and sing together so convincingly in Dutch.

Wendy Rash is Doris Walker, the very practical, no-nonsense mother of young Susan (Sophia Tolley). Doris believes in “utter realism and truth” for her daughter, without a shred of fantasy. It is Doris who hires Kris and then must face the consequences when he begins sending customers to other stores and convincing little Susan that fantasy is important in life.

Sophia Tolley does a good job of being the “you can’t fool me” child of her mother, but slowly pulled into Kris’ fantasy world and beginning to believe that maybe there really is a Santa Claus after all.

Jim Hewlett, featured as the town cop in last year’s “Fruitcakes,” takes on the role of Fred Gayley, Susan’s neighbor, who has developed a good relationship with Susan and tries to bring a little playfulness into her life. He would also like to have a closer relationship with Doris. Gayley befriends Kris and ultimately solves all of the old man’s problems, and receives a very special gift from Kringle as well.

Dona Akers is Mrs. Shellhammer, the head of the toy department, at first entranced with Kris’ performance, then appalled when she overhears him sending parents to different stores for toys that Macy’s does not stock, or where they can buy them more cheaply. She is ready to fire him until Mr. Macy himself (Howard Hupe) gets flooded with compliments on the store’s true spirit of Christmas and comes to Kris’ support.

Eleanor Yeatman puts on her best Lily Tomlin-as-Ernestine impression to portray Miss Saywer, head of Macy’s Human Relations Department, who gives Kris a psychological evaluation and sees him as a danger to the community and is determined to have him committed to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.

Michael Barbour is Judge Harper, who will decide Kris’ fate at a sanity hearing, while Germaine Hupe is the formidable prosecuting attorney who gets trapped by her own granddaughter.

Shows like “Miracle on 34th Street” are wonderful for community theaters because they offer so many opportunities for members of the community to have a small role. Angel Clute-Bixby and Justice Brewer, for example, start off the evening as drummers marching onto the set and playing a little drum duet.

Alexis Velasquez grabs the microphone and gives a good rendition of several Christmas carols.

And there are a number of children who sit on Santa’s lap or become elves: Amelia Doran and Marc Velasquez, for example, in addition to others mentioned previously. Sam Peterson is one of the children and also does a surprisingly good job as Lou, one of the postal workers who handles Santa mail.

This is a play that exudes kindness, love, humanity and maybe a little bit of magic as well. It’s a fun family show to start the Christmas season.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Year of Magical Thinking

The recipe for an instant five-star production in the Sacramento area: cast Janis Stevens.

I have seen Stevens in several productions — including one-woman shows “Master Class” and “Vivien” — and she now adds another stellar performance, playing Joan Didion in Didion’s stage adaptation of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” The play is currently at Sacramento’s Wilkerson Theater (formerly California Stage), under the impeccable direction of Ray Tatar.

Didion’s husband, author John Gregory Dunne, suddenly died of a heart attack one night as she was mixing the salad for dinner. The play details her travel through grief during that first awful year, a year in which her daughter also was dying of many infections in many hospitals (she finally did die the following year).

“This happened on Dec. 30, 2003,” the character begins the play, staring out into the audience. “That may seem a while ago, but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That is what I’m here to tell you.”

As her husband lay on the floor of their apartment being attended by paramedics, Didion took charge. She got the paperwork in order, she followed in a second ambulance to the hospital — the “wrong” hospital, she notes, planning to move him as soon as he was stable. She stood in line to fill out paperwork. She took charge.

But he was dead. She knew he was dead when she had a social worker assigned to her, but in her mind she felt that if the doctor didn’t say the words, maybe her husband wasn’t really dead. She demanded answers from the physician. The social worker gave him permission to give her the facts. “It’s OK,” he said. “She’s a pretty cool customer.” She was cool on the outside. Inside she was crumbling, but she coped. She took charge.

Life changes in an instant 
 an ordinary instant

I don’t know what experiences Stevens may have had with personal loss, but she nailed the emotions of someone trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. Whether she is cool and calm, talking about moving from day to day, alternately making arrangements for burying her husband, and then visiting her dying daughter, or whether she allows herself to crumble, briefly under the weight of so much pain, it is a journey that those who have been through themselves will find very familiar.

She admits that she sounds crazy when she can’t give away her husband’s shoes, even weeks after his death (though she has given away bags and bags of his clothing), because when he comes back he will need shoes.

If she corrects an error in the galleys of his book, completed shortly before his death, will he be upset with her?

A grieving person straddles two worlds, the real one in which she lives, and the magical one in which somehow, the deceased is still present and may be coming back. Stevens handles this dichotomy beautifully, its symbolism represented by the yin-yang design on the stage floor.

The set design by Ken Kurtis is stark, but the sweeping design painted on the walls neatly suggests the “vortexes” that a grieving person goes through during their year of magical thinking, trying to find a way to the “new normal.” Grief comes in waves, at times when you least expect it. You may think you’re doing fine and then the memories flood in and you have to deal with them. For someone like Didion, for whom being in control … “being right” … is so important, the vortexes are perhaps more painful.

The only unfortunate thing about this wonderful production is that there were only 20 people in the audience the night I saw it. The show deserves a larger audience, even if the thought of dealing with someone’s grief is a scary thing. The script is not really a downer, but has enough humor to keep the audience snickering with Didion throughout.

Try to catch this show. It will be a night you will long remember.

It will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you.

Saturday, November 03, 2012


If the plot of the new touring Broadway production, “Memphis,” now at the Sacramento Community Center, sounds familiar, you may be thinking of “Hairspray.”

In “Hairspray,” misfit 1950s teenager Tracy Turnblad loves “Negro music,” which is not played on white stations, becomes a big star on Cincinnati’s version of “American Bandstand” and by the end of the show, everybody loves “Negro music.”

In “Memphis,” misfit, illiterate 1950s high school dropout Huey Calhoun loves “Negro music,” which is not played on white stations, becomes a DJ and then the star of a Memphis based version of “American Bandstand” and by the end of the show, everyone loves “Negro music.”

In fact, the finale of “Memphis,” “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” is so reminiscent of “Hairspray’s” finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” that you could almost sing the “Hairspray” lyrics to the “Memphis” melody.

There are, of course, lots of differences in the two shows.  For one thing, Sergio Trujillo’s energetic choreography and the amazing dancers who execute it makes “Memphis” seem like “Hairspray” on steroids.

This 2010 four-time Tony award winner (including Best Musical) won best original score (David Bryan and Joe DiPietro), best book (Joe DiPietro) and best orchestrations (David Bryan and Daryl Waters).  It also won four Drama Desk awards and four Outer Critic Circle award.

There is romance at the heart of “Memphis,” as Huey (Bryan Fenkart) wanders into a nightclub in the Black part of town and falls in love not only with the music, but with the owner’s sister, Felicia (Felicia Boswell), the star of the show.  Huey is convinced he can get her on the radio, but gets more than he bargains for when the two fall in love in an era where miscegenation laws are on the books and their love is impossible, a fact that Felicia knows full well, but Huey has more difficulty accepting.

Fenkart, with his strong, sometimes difficult to understand Memphis drawl is a firecracker that keeps the show moving at a frenetic pace, particularly in trying to convince would-be employers that he is right for the job.  He commandeers the mic at a local radio station and plays “Everybody Wants to be Black on Saturday Night,” which nearly gets him tossed out of the building until calls from teenagers begin to come in demanding more of this kind of music.

But the soul of the show is Felicia Boswell, giving a thrilling performance as Felicia.  Each of her songs is a standout, especially the poignant “Colored Woman,” singing about the dreams her mother told her not to dream, and which she now is cautiously allowing herself to have. 

Mama told me not to dream big,
But Mama lived her life running scared.
I am stronger and I'll fight longer!
I'll do what Mama never even dared!

“Memphis” has a strong supporting cast.  Julie Johnson as Huey’s Mama has little to do for most of the show, except criticize Huey for his life’s decisions, his relationship with Felicia and just about everything, but she brings down the house with her “Change Don’t Come Easy,” after attending one of the Black churches and being inspired by its gospel choir.

Horace V. Rogers is a commanding presence as Felicia’s protective brother, Delray, who does not like her relationship with Huey and is suspicious of his promises to Felicia.

Rhett Georger plays Gator, who stopped speaking when he saw his father being lynched when he was a small child.  He is an eloquent mute and when he finally finds his voice, it brings tears to the eyes.

Will Mann is Bobby, a hulking guy who works as a janitor and who becomes Huey’s biggest supporter among the regulars at Delray’s bar.

“Memphis” is a non-stop toe-tapper and will delight anybody who loves rock and roll, soul, and gospel music, as well as a good story to time them all together.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Macbeth: the Radio Play

It has been said that radio is the “theater of the mind,” and when a radio production is also a theatrical production, the audience gets double its money’s worth.

Davis audiences are getting a bargain this month as the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble presents “Macbeth: the Radio Play” at the UC Davis Arboretum Gazebo.

Book stands with microphones are set in a circle around the gazebo, and the seven actors sit at each of the posts that hold up the roof. When it’s their time to perform, they step to the mic and read from their scripts.
Directors Gia Battista and Rob Salas, who confesses they want the audience members to have more room for their own imaginations, invite the audience to get into the whole radio experience.

“Even though you can see the actors speaking and can watch some of the sounds being created, we hope that at some point you will ‘watch’ the show using only your ears and your minds. Yes, that means you can close your eyes …”

Crucial to the ambience and the success of this play are Battista, the sound designer, and Adam Smith, who creates live sound effects with a dazzling array of tubes, pipes, water, musical instruments and anything that can represent a specific sound.

Richard Chowenhill is the ensemble’s resident composer and is responsible for the music that becomes white noise under most of the production. I personally found it distracting, though my husband liked it.

With the exception of newcomer Evan Leiser in the title role, the rest of the seven-member cast each play several roles. (It also appears that though most of the cast have a Shakespearean or other acting background, all seem to be making their Davis Shakespeare Ensemble debut.)

Susanna Risser’s primary role is as Lady Macbeth, an understated performance that makes it all the more chilling for its detachment and cold-blooded ability to speak so dispassionately of the murder of King Duncan. She inhabits her characters so well that when she steps to the mic as a crazed witch, or the servant Seyton, you can almost forget that she was also Lady Macbeth.

Leiser is an amazingly strong Macbeth, less the foil of his wife and more the ambitious nobleman whose evil begins to destroy him. Leiser’s performance is excellent, but he has one serious flaw that I fear was a tremendous distraction. The man is a spitter. Everything he said was accompanied by sprays or droplets flying out into the air or onto the microphone, and drool running down his lips onto his chin. This was accentuated by the lighting which, from where I sat, showed me his profile brightly lit against the black background of the gazebo.

I fear that I reached a point where I simply could not look at him any more, though I was loving his performance, but was vaguely ill when the next person had to use his saliva-covered microphone.

Sarah Cohen played Banquo, Lady Macduff, General Siward and others. She gave the usual strong performance we have come to expect from her, after seeing several of her one-woman Shakespeare performances. Cohen has a unisex presence that is believable whether she is a male soldier or the grieving Lady Macduff, attempting to protect her children.

Paul DelBene started the show as the good King Duncan and went on to use his considerable acting talents as the drunken porter, the blustery doctor and others. DelBene is a great addition to the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble.

Jason Oler is a loyal friend in Macduff, surprised by the betrayal of his friend, and a menacing killer as well as other characters.

Camille Beaumont and Aileen Wen join with Risser as the witches, their dialog sometimes difficult to understand due to the excessive reverb, but their cackles were clear and unmistakable. When Wen steps to the mic to issue the first orders as King Malcolm, the audience knows she is going to be a wise and just king.

This was an interesting look at a familiar classic and another enjoyable evening by the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble.

Monday, October 08, 2012


Those wacky Enron guys are back again, singing and dancing their way into your hearts.

Enron, the granddaddy of all bankruptcy cases is remembered using music, dance and video in a clever play by Lucy Prebble, directed by Stephanie Gularte at Capital Stage in Sacramento. 

“I didn’t want to write a play about finance that’s boring,” said the playwright.  “Enron hired Cirque du Soleil to perform at their company parties, so I thought can we bring that flamboyance to the stage?”

And succeed they did.

Jonathan Rhys Williams has the role of a lifetime as the messianic Jeffrey Skilling, who believed he could change the world by creating a virtual economy. 

“If you have an idea, if you sign a deal, say that we’re gonna provide someone with a supply of champagne for the next few years at a set price, every month or whatever—Then that definite future income can be valued, at market prices today, and written down as earnings the moment the deal is signed. We don’t have to wait for the grapes to be grown and squashed.”

Williams is mesmerizing as the man for whom the lives of the people he was ruining was merely collateral damage.  “The only difference between me and the people judging me is they weren’t smart enough to do what we did.”

Aaron Wilton is Andrew Fastow, Skilling’s sidekick who achieves his dream of becoming Enron CEO.  Fastow provides comic relief, particularly when he interacts with velociraptors in suits, symbolizing the creative accounting practices used to hide irregularities in day to day business.

For those occasions when we need to...’offload,’ we create a company that exists purely to fulfill Enron’s needs.  We could push debt, we could push those losses into this other entity, sell it to this entity so we make money and move a loss off the books, wait for it to turn a profit...This is an area where we’re expected to be creative.  The regulations encourage it.

(And keeping with the fantasy metaphors, the Board of Directors are played by giant mice.)

While Kenneth Lay may be the name one first thinks of when one thinks of the Enron scandal, in Prebble’s script, as played by Gary Martinez, Lay assumes more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” role, preferring to step back and let his team handle things.  As long as the money keeps rolling in, he doesn’t really care how it’s being made and is more interested in redecorating the company jet and hosting lavish parties.

Shannon Maloney is the seductive Claudia Roe, screwed by Skilling (literally and figuratively) representing several women in Enron’s upper management who were the only ones to see what was going on and to work to expose the corruption within the company.

(Maloney also is listed as the choreographer and, though this is not, strictly speaking, a musical, there is definite choreography and even a chorus or two sung)

The scenic design by Stephen C. Jones, with assistance by the lighting design of Steve Decker and video designers Decker and Will Klundt is minimal, with a set piece or two rolling in here or there, but the projected videos keep the tension high and remind us of the decade in which the piece is set.

The small ensemble, particularly Lucinda Hitchcock Cone and Michael Stevenson, were excellent, partying like there was no tomorrow, until the bottom fell out and they all realized that they had lost everything.

Capitol stage has begun its second season in the new J Street location with a very strong, informative, and entertaining production.

The Miracle Worker

Executive producing director Michael Laun, in his opening remarks to the Sacramento Theatre Company audience, pointed out that the first time STC performed William Gibson’s classic “The Miracle Worker” was 50 years ago, in 1962.

Half a century later, the work still holds up as a powerful, inspiring theatrical work, especially in the capable hands of director Greg Alexander and his talented cast.

The success of this work depends on the actors who play the young Helen Keller, and her would-be teacher, Annie Sullivan.

Courtney Shannon, a ninth-grader at Natomas Charter’s Performing and Fine Arts Academy, has been acting in musicals for several years, but this is her first foray into dramatic acting (she alternates with Bella Bagatelos as Helen). She is 95 percent convincing as the blind/deaf girl (there were a few moments when she obviously “saw” what she was approaching — a step in one case, and her brother’s outstretched hand in another), but overall she did an outstanding job.

The intense battle scenes between Helen and Annie Sullivan, as the latter attempts to teach Helen manners and try to get her to understand the concept of “words,” were wonderful and must have left both actresses exhausted. The audience is taken on such a roller coaster of emotions that when Helen finally “gets it,” there was a lot of sniffling and wiping of eyes in the audience.

Sullivan’s character is in the more-than-capable hands of Brittni Barger. Though director Alexander has eschewed the usual Irish brogue, it is not necessary to get into the soul of Annie, and Barger is full of spunk and fire and, despite her inexperience, is willing to fight for her pupil. She is passionate about giving Helen every chance to fulfill her potential, despite her handicaps.

(I once had a friend who was blind and deaf and who insisted she was not “disabled,” but merely “handicapped.”)

Shannon and Barger are backed by an excellent cast. Gary Wright is a very strong Captain Keller, a role that does not often stand out, but in Wright’s case does. He loves his daughter, but, along with the rest of the family, makes too many allowances for her bad behavior, which undermines Annie’s work with the child.

Michele Hillen is Helen’s mother, who desperately wants to know how to communicate with her daughter, but who also finds it difficult to be strict with her.

Griffith Munn (who alternates with Garrick Sigl) is surprisingly strong as the wise-cracking brother, James Keller, afraid of his father, not willing to accept his stepmother, and the only person in the family who sees that Annie’s approach to the girl is vital to her progress.

Others in the cast include Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly in the dual role of the Doctor and Anagnos, the man who sends Annie to the Keller family; Georgann Wallace as Aunt Ev; and Tahlema Martin at the Kellers’ cook, Viney. Jordan Taylor and Jacob Navas played blind children Martha and Percy. They alternate in their roles with Carenna Thompson and Rion Romero.

The scenic design of Jarrod Bodensteiner is a multi-level set that includes an upstairs bedroom for Annie, the downstairs family dining room, the outside area that doubles as the cottage where Annie works alone with Helen for two weeks and the water pump area, which is vital to the closing scene.

Annie Sullivan went on to live with Helen Keller until Annie’s death in 1936. Helen’s list of accomplishments as an author, lecturer (she eventually learned how to speak) and political activist is impressive. She was one of the founders of the ACLU, and campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights and birth control. She died in 1968 and was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971.

One wonders what might have happened to that blind, deaf, out-of-control little girl if there had not been an Annie Sullivan in her life.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change

It would be difficult, if not impossible, not to find something to relate to in Sacramento’s Cosmopolitan Cabaret’s sparkling, delightful new production, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”

This musical, with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music by Jimmy Roberts, was the second-longest running off-Broadway musical comedy (“The Fantasticks” was No. 1). It is a celebration of the mating game. Act 1 explores the journey from dating and waiting to love and marriage, while Act 2 reveals the agonies and triumphs of in-laws, newborns, trips in the family car and pickup techniques of the geriatric set.

Who can’t relate to the angst before a first date?

Will my hopes be met? Will my fear dispel?
Will I captivate? Or will I repel?
Will I show him/her just how wonderful I am?
Or will I be a date from hell?

The show, directed by Glenn Casale, stars four talented artists — Michael Dotson, last seen as a member of the barbershop quartet in Music Circus’ “The Music Man”; Jerry Lee, memorable for his performance in the Cabaret’s recent “Forbidden Broadway”; Jennifer Malenke, new to the Cosmopolitan Cabaret, but recently seen on “The Voice,” singing with Florence and the Machine; and Melissa Wolfklain, also part of the “Forbidden Broadway” cast, and recently appearing as Jan in Music Circus’ “Grease.”

These four take on more than 20 roles throughout the evening, and it would be difficult to choose the funniest from among the vignettes, though “The Marriage Tango,” with a young married couple (Lee and Wolfklain) trying to find a way to have an intimate moment without the kids interrupting would be right up there. When Wolfklain asks her hubby how he pulled off the amazing feat of getting the kids to bed on time, he admits he promised to take the little ones to Disneyland.

“I figured we’d wait a few months and tell ‘em it burned down,” Lee says.

Dotson is also very funny in “Tear Jerk” as a macho man dragged to a chick flick by his girlfriend Wolfklain.

My movie satisfaction is mindless violent action,
Some muscle men to tussle with Stallone.
A thriller that would thrill us, with Arnold or Bruce Willis,
And lots of naked shots of Sharon Stone.

… and is then embarrassed to find himself sucked into the plot of the film, and fighting not to show the tears he is crying.

Malenke and Lee are perfect nerds in “A Stud and a Babe,” wishing they were more appealing, he longing for bulging biceps and she wishing for a larger bust (“my breasts would be rounder,” “my pecs would astound her”).

At the other end of the life span is “I can live with that,” featuring a widow and a widower meeting at the funeral of a mutual friend and the dance they do around the notion of dating each other, though they still both love and miss their departed spouses. It is a less funny and more poignant moment that will touch the heart of those of us “of a certain age” who have attended too many funerals lately.

This musical premiered in 1996 and so some of the material is a bit dated, but it is nonetheless very funny and a great way to spend an evening.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Drowsy Chaperone

It would be difficult to find something to dislike about the Woodland Opera House’s delightful new production of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” This musical by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, which made its debut in Toronto in 1998, opened on Broadway in 2006 and won the Tony Award for best book and best score.

The WOH production, directed by Bobby Grainger, boasts a strong cast and is a gem. When the touring Broadway production of this show came to Sacramento, it was presented as a very long one-act (100 minutes), but Grainger has wisely chosen to break the action into two parts, including a “unique” Act 1 finale.

This show is an homage to musicals of the 1920s, a time before musicals had to have a hard-hitting message … or be a stage version of a beloved Disney animated film. “The Drowsy Chaperone” has no deep message, no memorable songs, no cute animals running around on stage. It’s just good, clean fun, with a lot of laughs, a lot of groans — as the lines are delivered — and a lot of madcap mayhem.

The central character, known only as “Man in Chair,” is a music lover who misses the days of old-style musicals. His voice addresses the audience in the darkened theater. “I hate theater,” the voice says. “Well, it’s so disappointing, isn’t it?” He talks about offering up a prayer before he sees a show, requesting that it be short, free of actors who roam the audience and blessed with “a story and a few good songs that will take me away.”

As the lights come up, he continues to speak to the audience throughout the show, as he pulls out one of his old records (remember records?) and plays the original cast recording of his favorite show, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” to which his mother introduced him.

As the record plays, the show comes to life on stage, turning his drab apartment into a show palace with glitzy costumes and sets that fly in, roll in or unfold. Man in Chair narrates throughout, giving the show’s history, discussing the actors playing the roles and commenting on the various musical numbers.

Stuart Eldridge is outstanding as Man in Chair. His excitement about playing his favorite record is palpable and endearing, and when he joins with the cast of the show in some of the scenes, his enthusiasm is contagious. This is Eldridge’s first show at the Opera House, and I hope it won’t be his last.

The fast-paced opening number, “Fancy Dress,” introduces the show’s many characters and lets the audience know right away that this is a plot with tongue set firmly in cheek. A big, fancy wedding has been planned and all these characters have assembled to make it happen.

The bride is a young actress, Janet Van De Graff (Cassie March), who plans to leave the stage to marry the dashing Robert Martin (Colby Salmon, who tap dances up a storm with best man George — Bradley Moates).

Janet’s producer, Feldzieg (Kyle Hadley), plans to sabotage the wedding, with the help of two gangsters disguised as pastry chefs (the delightful Colton Archey and director Grainger himself).

The gangsters represent some unseen big boss who’ll do serious damage to the producer if Janet leaves her show.

The wedding is hosted by Mrs. Tottendale (Maria Ryken). The role was originated by Georgia Engel, better known for the vapid characters she so played well on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Ryken is every bit as endearingly dingy as I remember Engel being.

Tottendale’s “Underling” is played by Don Noxon, with whom Mrs. Tottendale has a very funny slapstick scene, which requires Man in Chair to clean up afterwards.

Elizabeth Nilsen has the role of The Drowsy Chaperone, the bride’s elegantly attired friend and confidante, who is tasked with preventing the bride and groom from seeing each other on their wedding day. She states at the outset that champagne makes her sleepy, and then proceeds to down a bottle of it — with a martini chaser — and hence becomes “the drowsy chaperone.”

Ryan Adame is the Latin lover Aldolpho, the self-proclaimed “King of Romance” (who kisses a lot), who is hired by the producer to seduce the bride, and thus thwart the marriage, but who makes one slight mistake that changes everything. Adame is hilarious with his swirling cape and his machismo.

Eimi Taormina is Trix, an aviatrix who makes an unforgettable entrance that is a show-stopper. Taormina is a bundle of energy, and it serves her well in this role.

In the end, everyone lives happily ever after and a wedding does take place, because this is an old-fashioned musical comedy and that’s the way those things end.

City of Angels

“City of Angels” is — producer Steve Isaacson boasts — the most technical show the Davis Musical Theatre Company has ever done.

The book for this comedy was written by Larry Gelbart (“M*A*S*H”), who has, not surprisingly, filled his story with double entendres and razor-sharp word play. Music is by Cy Coleman with lyrics by David Zippel. It tells the story of a screen writer in the 1940s working with a producer trying to get his script onto the screen. The production is directed by John Ewing.

There are two stories going on simultaneously, the “real” story in color, and the movie in black and white. Writer Stine (Tony Ruiz) is working with producer/director Buddy Fidler (Patrick Stratton) to bring his whodunit to the screen. And while Stine is working on his script, we see the pages come to life scene by scene, as he writes (and rewrites) it.

While Stine and his hero, private eye Stone (Tevye Ditter) are played by different actors, most of the rest of the cast have both a “color” role and a “black and white” role; e.g., Stine’s wife Gabby (Jennie Ribadeneira) becomes Bobbi, Stone’s ex-fiancee.

If one doesn’t know the premise before seeing the show, it may take a while to figure out what is going on, especially since this is a “wordy” show, and a great deal of it relies on voice-overs. Isaacson says there are 60 of them, mostly the voice of Stine narrating the action for Stone. Sadly, not all of them were clear or were drowned out by the orchestra, so we missed a lot of the story. It may be that they were more clear in other sections of the audience.

Some scenes work better than others. A black-and-white bedroom scene transforms into a color bedroom scene beautifully, for example. However, costumer Jean Henderson, who has made some gorgeous clothes for this show, must be taken to task for a couple of egregious errors. In an early scene, Stone arrives at his black-and-white office wearing his black-and-white clothes and his secretary is in black-and-white polka dots; then, he removes his black coat … which has a maroon lining! Likewise, the secretary Oolie (Caitland Martin, who is also Buddy’s secretary, Donna, in the color world) wears tan shoes in both.

However, these are minor points. The best thing about this show is that every actor is very strong and there are some outstanding performances.

Could there possibly be a better gumshoe than Tevye Ditter, with his Dick-Tracyesque jaw, his steely-eyed gaze and his demeanor that just screams “1940s detective”? Stone is hired by socialite Alaura Kingsley (Danielle Debow) to find her stepdaughter Mallory (Rebecca Wilson). What initially seemed like a simple plot gets more and more complicated as Stine keeps rewriting to keep up with the demands of producer Buddy Fidler.

Tony Ruiz’s Stine becomes increasingly frustrated with his studio clashes. His “Funny,” at the end of the show, was a highlight.

Patrick Stratton, returning after a theatrical hiatus, is perfect as Buddy (and the movie mogul Irwin S. Irving, in the black-and-white world). Stratton delivers some of the show’s funniest lines, reminiscent of the malaprops of Yogi Berra (“You don’t get a hole in one your first time at bat.”). His comic timing is just perfect.

Jean Riradeneira singing her torch song, “With Every Breath I Take,” is absolutely stunning, both visually and vocally.

Caitlin Martin, as Stone’s “Girl Friday” Oolie and Stine’s girlfriend Donna, is the classic street-smart woman who is always a pal but never gets the guy. Martin does a great job with the song, “You Can Always Count on Me.”

Joshua Smith has the small but ultimately pivotal role of Jimmy Powers, a movie crooner in both real and movie world.

Jimmy is backed up by the “Angel City Four,” a quartet in the style of the Manhattan Transfer nicely handled by Wendy Young Carey, Christine Gross, Douglas Barbieri and Adam Sartain.

Whenever DMTC does a show that is rarely done, such as “City of Angels,” the top local talent shows up for the chance to participate. This production is no exception and the show is worth seeing for the outstanding ensemble.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Ambitious Season for DMTC

Steve Isaacson, general manager and company leader, is very excited about the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s 2012-13 season, which begins Friday with the six-time Tony award-winning musical comedy “City of Angels.”

“It’s a very esoteric season,” Isaacson admitted. “It’s not your grandfather’s season.” But he believes DMTC audiences are sophisticated enough to embrace it, and he is looking forward to full houses and a lot of fun.

“The season ticket response has been great,” he said, enthusiastically.

“City of Angels” will be followed by the Alan Menken version of “A Christmas Carol” in November, Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” in January, “Urinetown” in February, “Oklahoma!” in April and Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” in June.

” ‘City of Angels’ is the most technically difficult show we’ve ever done,” Isaacson says. “It makes our production of ‘Titanic’ look like ‘Our Town.’ ”

He explained that the show tells the story of an author struggling to turn his book into a screenplay in the 1940s.

“There are 40 scenes, going from black and white to color and then color to black white, with set pieces that are identical in both color and black and white. There are so many set pieces that there’s no room backstage, so we’re being very inventive.”

Isaacson is excited about his cast of 30. He mentioned specifically “The Angel City Four,” who sing tight Manhattan Transfer harmonies throughout the show.

“And we have a great ensemble,” he added. “A show is only as good as your ensemble. It’s a very strong ensemble. I’m very pleased with it.”

In an unusual move, DMTC is presenting “A Christmas Carol” in November, rather than December. ”It’s a fun, fun, fun show. Very Christmassy.”

This version of the Dickens classic is the one that was a 2004 TV production, starring Kelsey Grammar. It played every holiday at New York City’s Madison Square Garden from 1994 until 2003.

“I really wanted to do it closer to Christmas, but we kind of have a huge show — ‘Follies’ — opening on New Year’s Eve,” he explained.

“Follies,” which just closed on Broadway, is the iconic Sondheim hit and seven-time Tony winner about two couples who reunite on the eve of the demolition of their beloved theater. The show, last seen on the DMTC stage in 1989, centers on the couple’s dreams, harsh realities of times and the uncertainty of the future.

It’s also a dream show for longtime costumer Jean Henderson.

“Jean’s been with us 22 years as a volunteer,” Isaacson said. “She chooses to spend her retirement not sitting around relaxing, but she loves doing this and we love having her. We’re probably going to have to carry her out — in an absolutely gorgeous dress.”

Isaacson said he was most concerned about audience response to “Urinetown,” a satirical comedy musical that pokes fun at everything, from government bureaucracy and the legal system to corporate America’s mismanagement and social irresponsibility.

“It’s a funny, funny show with a terrible title. I love it that they spoof ‘West Side Story,’ they spoof ‘Fiddler,’ they spoof ‘Oliver,’ they spoof everything they could think of.”

Isaacson first saw “Urinetown” in New York and thought it was the funniest show he’d ever seen. But he was careful about how he introduced it to the audience when he announced the upcoming season.
“I was most concerned about our senior audience, but season ticket holders have been asking me already if they can get extra tickets so they can bring their grandchildren,” he said.

There were no such concerns about “Oklahoma!” The perennial Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, always a favorite, was last seen at DMTC in 2006.

The season closes with Bernstein’s “Candide,” not done at DMTC since 1989
“Nobody does ‘Candide,’ ” Isaacson said. They are remodeling the theater, removing seats and placing them on the stage so it can be presented as much in the round as possible.

“To me, there has to be an education of the audience. I want to expose the audience to good theater, I want all theaters to be good. I don’t want theaters to fail. I don’t want theaters to go out of business. I don’t want theaters to put on shows that are not good.

“I want them to have the best talent available, so audiences go ‘Wow — that was good. I loved “Drowsy Chaperone” at Woodland, so let’s go see “City of Angels.” ’ ‘I’ve never heard of “Drowsy Chaperone”; I’ve never heard of “City of Angels.” Wow, there is incredible talent in this area.’

“That’s what I want. That’s what I hope we get.”

Starting its 29th season, DMTC is California’s longest-running, year-round amateur musical theater company. It has a dedicated group of volunteers — actors, directors, choreographers, musicians and backstage people. It’s easy to see what keeps people coming back year after year.

“We just had our ‘Hit of Hits,’ a thank you to 350 volunteers from this past year. We gave them a certificate of appreciation, every single one of them. It wasn’t an event for the public. We weren’t charging. The season-ticket holders were invited and some came. They just loved it.

“We had hors d’oeuvres, we had desserts. We did scenes from the past season and a preview of the next season. We had a blast doing that. I believe that nonprofits should be volunteer. I find it easier to get volunteers when you volunteer yourself,” said Isaacson, who along with his wife, Jan, is an unpaid volunteer.

“God knows this is stressful,” Isaacson said, laughing. ” I wake up every day stressed from this, but it’s worth it. It’s a lot of fun. We’ve lasted 28 years.”

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Crazy for You

To describe “Crazy for You,” the final production in the 2012 Music Circus season, as “energetic” would be to do it a disservice. It goes beyond energetic.

When “Crazy for You” opened on Broadway in 1992, New York Times critic Frank Rich said the opening was “… the moment at which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British.” He went on to describe the show as “the American musical’s classic blend of music, laughter, dancing, sentiment and showmanship with a freshness and confidence rarely seen during the ‘Cats’ decade.”

With music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, both of whom died before this show was developed, one could hardly call this a “new” show, musically. But Ken Ludwig, who wrote the book, called this a “new Gershwin musical comedy,” and Broadway fell in love with it. It was nominated for nine Tony Awards (and won three, including Best Musical and best choreography) and eight Drama Desk Awards (winning two, again Best Musical and best choreography).

In 1930 Ethel Merman starred in the first production of the George and Ira Gershwin musical, “Girl Crazy,” the story of a spoiled New York rich kid who learns about life , love and everything else on a Nevada dude ranch. In 1943, Judy Garland and Micky Rooney brought the story to the big screen, with choreography by the infamous Busby Berkeley.

In 1992, with the blessing of the Gershwin heirs, Ken Ludwig took another look at the old chestnut, did some extensive rewriting of the plot line, and produced “Crazy for You,” now delighting Music Circus audiences. Though Ludwig kept some of the original songs (most notably the first act finale, “I’ve Got Rhythm,” which is a show stopper) he also included other familiar songs from the Gershwin collection. The result is a show where every one of the 20 songs is a hit.

To match the material, director James Brennan has an all-star cast. Noah Racey (who may remind Davis residents of local song-and-dance man, Bob Bowen) is a great physical performer, whose body bends, quivers and contorts in ways you’d never imagine. He is in 11 different musical numbers, but his best moment may be in a “mirror scene.”

Anne Horak is the perfect Polly Baker, daughter of Everett (Paul Keith), hanging on to his deserted theater and remembering the glory days when his late wife graced its stage. Horak’s Polly is a feisty, independent woman stuck in a one-horse town but determined to take control of her life.

While the story centers on these two, there is a fine cast of supporting players including Matthew Shepard as Bela Zangler a famous theatrical producer in love with chorine Tess (Kim Arnett); Alix Korey is Bobby’s indomitable mother, Lottie Child; Robin Masella is Bobby’s overbearing fiancée Elaine.

The villain of the piece is Lank Hawkins (Aaron Serotsky), who owns the saloon next door to the theater and has his eye on expanding his own property. He also is sweet on Polly and sees Bobby as a threat to both of his plans.

The cowboy trio (straight out of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) are very funny, particularly Eric Gunhus, as the bearded Moose, who plays the bass like a guitar.

Choreography by Deanna L. Dys is outstanding, especially for the aforementioned “I Got Rhythm” and “Stiff Upper Lip.”

While the costumes by Marcy Froehlich are spectacular, especially for the big chorus numbers, right out of the Ziegfeld Follies, I was drawn even more to Polly’s dresses, which though somewhat plain in appearance had great “twirling” skirts and were perfect for all of her ensemble numbers with Bobby.

2012 has been a stellar year for The Music Circus, with exceptional productions and near full houses. With “Crazy for You” they are going out where they started — at the top of their game.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Fiddler on the Roof

Music Circus is presenting “Fiddler on the Roof” this week, directed by Glenn Casale.

“Fiddler” is one of those musicals that lulls you into a sense of complacency and then hits you over the head with its message.

Most of the first act is fun and funny, from the spectacular circle dance (“Tradition”) that opens the show, through the dreams of young girls for a perfect husband (“Matchmaker, Matchmaker”), to the personal relationship of a poor milkman with God and his conversations with the almighty (“If I were a rich man”) to the uneasy, but cordial relationship between the Jews and the Russian soldiers (“To Life”), to various examples of young love and the beautiful wedding of the first daughter.

Just when you have laughed and cried sentimental tears and are feeling good about this small community of the fictional village of Anatevka in 1905 Czarist Russia, it all turns dark and remains dark through the end of the show.

Based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, this is the heartwarming tale of Tevye (Bob Amaral) and his wife Golde (Adrienne Barbeau) and their five daughters. Tevye struggles to balance his deep faith with the realities of a changing world, a task that is sometimes as shaky as a fiddler on a roof.

Amaral brings depth to the role of Tevye and when he glances up into the lights and begins his conversations with God, you believe he really sees something up there. His anguish over the marriage of favorite daughter Chava (Kristen J. Smith) to Russian soldier Fyedka (Will Taylor) was palpable.

Stage and screen star Barbeau, who began her career with acting classes at Music Circus, made her Broadway debut as Hodel in a 1960s production of “Fiddler.” Now she returns as Tevye’s wife, Golde, particularly good in the duet “Do You Love Me?” where she gradually realizes that after 25 years she has come to love this man who was an arranged marriage.

Music Circus favorite Helen Geller is Yente, the matchmaker, determined to find the perfect match for every unmarried person in Anatevka.

Lauren T. Mack may be one of the best Tzeitels I’ve seen. Tevye’s daughters usually kind of blend together for me, but Mack stood out as a strong woman, with a touch of her mother’s sharpness, a woman who will rule her house with a firm hand and who is not afraid to stand up to her father when he attempts to marry her off to Lazar Wolf, the Butcher (another Music Circus favorite, Ron Wisniski).

Tzeitel’s intended, Motel the tailor, was given a good portrayal by Allen E. Read.

Jordan Bondurant is a memorable Perchik, the idealistic tutor who wins the heart of Hodel (Leah Horowitz).

There are wonderful moments in this production, particularly the Sabbath scene, where members of the town gather all over the theater to join in the action on stage, candles flickering softly as they sing the “Sabbath Prayer.”

It was another sell-out crowd on opening night and ticket sales are brisk. This is a wonderful production, so order your tickets soon!


Aphra Behn was the first professional English female playwright, in the middle of the 17th century. She was one of the most prolific dramatists of her time; she was also a spy for the court of Charles II.

Behn also was wonderfully scandalous, even by modern-day standards. She was famous not only for being a pioneer female writer in a male-dominated profession, but also for addressing issues of gender and sexuality. Her forte was comedy and she created strong, independent female characters who unapologetically made their own choices.

Behn is the subject of a very funny play, “Or,” (the comma is part of the title), written by Liz Duffy Adams and directed by Heidi Volker, which is being presented through Friday by the Barnyard Theatre Company at the historic Schmeiser Barn west of Davis.
Once again, Barnyard Theatre has assembled a stellar cast, headed by Hope Raymond as the ambitious, sensual Behn. Sean Olivares plays King Charles II. Rachel Pinto is Nell Gwynne, one of the first English actresses (previously, women had not been permitted to perform on the stage) and also mistress of both Charles and Aphra.

Behn’s husband William, presumed dead, is played by Geoffrey Albrecht.

The multi-talented Sarah Cohen plays Lady Davenant, the widowed proprietor of an acting company, who rattles off a monologue that runs the better part of two solid pages of dialogue. It’s a performance that stops the show with applause.

The maid Maria is played by Alexandra Moreno, and the “Jailer” opening night was Timothy Smith. Don Saylor, Kane Chai, Jenna Templeton and Sam Wheeler each were assigned the role for one performance.
The action begins in debtor’s prison (a really nice effect by set designer Davin Gee), with Behn composing a letter to the king, who has not paid her for her services. She writes her note in rhyme:

Here in debtor’s prison I do lie
For lack of funds promised me as your spy.
To nag and scold my own adored king
Believe me, pains me more than anything.
But justice to myself demands no less
Than princely favor and full recompense.

Before she can finish her note, she is visited by a masked stranger, eventually revealed as the king, who informs the writer that her debts have been paid and she is free to leave. He wants her as his mistress, an idea about which she is less than enthusiastic. But she needs a place to write, so they strike a bargain, with Behn dictating the terms, which include intimacies that do not extend to the bed.

The rest of the action takes place in the apartment rented to Behn by the king, where we first meet Gwynne, who is eager for both a professional and personal relationship with Behn, who is more than willling. There is opportunity for bedroom farce-like action with a front door, a bedroom door and a closet door, all of which get used for hiding and revealing.

When William returns from the dead, he is plotting to kill the king, unaware of Behn’s relationship with him and his proximity to William. The solution to the problem comes from an unlikely source, which Behn dutifully records in her pages.

Virginia Woolf once wrote, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

In “Or,” Liz Adams has sprinkled the grave of Aphra Behn liberally with flowers and given us a wonderful, if not quite historically accurate, picture of a remarkable woman, beautifully interpreted by the talented actors of Barnyard Theatre.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Music Man

Last night I had one of those special theatrical moments that I will remember for a long time. It was opening night of Music Circus’ 20th production of “The Music Man,” one of my favorite musicals. Shirley Jones, who originated the role of Marian Paroo on Broadway and who played the role in the classic movie, was playing Marian’s mother, Mrs. Paroo. Her real life son, Patrick Cassidy, was doing the role of Harold Hill.

At the end of this wonderful production, when all the bows had been taken, Ms. Jones took the microphone and shared memories of making the movie with actor Robert Preston. She then sang a brief duet with her son, to tumultuous applause. It was a real “wow” moment and brought down the house.

There were a lot of “wow’ moments in this rollicking, delightful production, directed by Glenn Casale. After the always wonderful opening number, of traveling salesmen on a train complaining about the swindler Harold Hill, who has ruined so many towns for them, the entire town of River City, Iowa, explodes onto the stage with “Iowa Stubborn.” Such a colorful, tightly knit production number with lots of fresh-faced earnest young people mixed in with all the adult characters.

There follow all the scenes in which Hill convinces the town it needs a boys’ band and collects the money for instruments, uniforms and instruction books, all with the knowledge that he will be long gone from the town before the parents discover they have been conned.

Cassidy is a suave Hill, who plays the role of a slick swindler with great panache. It is easy to understand why he has a girl in every town.

Jason Graae plays Hill’s old partner, Marcellus Washburn, now settling for respectability and a nice girlfriend, Ethel Toffelmier (Diane Vincent), but ready to join Hill in one last swindle. Graae shines in leading the town’s young people in the dance, “The Shipoopi.”

If I confess a guilty secret, Shirley Jones has always been the only Marian Paroo for me, all others paling in comparison. How fortunate, then, that Brandi Burkhardt is so wonderful that I easily accepted her in the role. With an amazing voice and a no-nonsense personality, she makes the perfect match for Cassidy’s Harold.
Jones herself, of course, is great as Marian’s mother, the widow Paroo. Loved her Irish accent and her duet with Marian was lovely.

Young Winthrop Paroo, Marian’s shy, lisping younger brother is played by Carter Thomas, who has a lengthy performing resume and is a member of actors’ Equity. He is simply wonderful. He takes command of the stage in “Wells Fargo Wagon,” and is adorable in “Gary, Indiana.” While perhaps a bit tall for a 10-year-old, it didn’t matter when he began to perform.

The feuding members of the town’s school board, Jacey Squires (J.D. Daw), Ewart Dunlop (Jack Doyle), Oliver Hix (Michael Dotson), and Olin Britt (Joseph Torello) are a wonderful hit as a barbershop quartet.
Music Circus favorite, Ron Wisniski is Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman, determined to bring Hill to justice once and for all and plays it to the hilt. (My favorite line: “anvils have a limited appeal.”)

The town’s first couple, Mayor and Mrs. Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn (Kevin Cooney and Paula Leggett Chase) are great characters and Mrs. Shinn’s Delsarte dance company is a delight.

“The Music Man” always makes me feel happy and, based on the filled theater last night, and the report that the show is almost completely sold out (though there are still a few tickets left), there are lots of others who agree with me. As productions go, this Music Circus production is one of the best.

 Patrick Cassidy and Shirley Jones

Friday, June 29, 2012


It was nice to see the Wells Fargo Pavilion filled to near capacity as Music Circus began its 2012 season with a high-octane, high-energy production of “Grease,”directed by Glenn Casale.

This old chestnut by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey opened on Broadway in 1972 and ran for 3,388 performances at three different theaters. The subsequent movie was a runaway hit for John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John
Fortunately, this is a show that is filled with snappy tunes (if not exactly always intelligent lyrics — “shoowop, shoowally, wally, yippity, boom-de-boom, chang-chang, changadee-chang-chibop, that’s the way it should be, wahoo, yeah” — interesting characters, and lively dances that keep the toes tapping and the brain kind of not thinking about the plot of the show.

In these politically correct times, what would be the chance of getting a play produced that dealt with a wholesome young girl falling for what she thinks is a wholesome young man, who turns out to be one of the “greasers” at her school, and ultimately realizing that if she wants to fit in all she has to do is abandon all of her moral values, don a skin-tight outfit and spike heels, pierce her ears, poof up her hair, learn to smoke and drink and start undulating around the guy?

Now she fits in, she has friends, she has a boyfriend and everybody lives happily ever after. It’s a show I really want to hate, but somehow can’t, because it’s so darn much fun.

So I won’t dwell on the plot. I’ll just think about the fun on stage, the performances and the infectious tunes.
Though “Grease” focuses on Danny and Sandy, this is really more of an ensemble show than one would imagine. There are 15 in the cast and each gets his or her turn to shine throughout the evening. There is no denying that it stretches the imagination to think of any of these actors as high school students — but if “Glee” can make it work with 25- to 30-year-old “teenagers,” so can Music Circus.

And make it work they do. Kirsten Scott is sweet and innocent as Sandy and you feel her discomfort when confronted with the hard-edged drinking and smoking “Pink Ladies.” Her “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is a song that was not in the original stage show, but was written by John Farrar for the movie.

Lesli Margherita (Rizzo) could not be more different from Sandy, with a brittle, hard edge to her that hints of a difficult life. And yet, when she thinks she has been “knocked up” by boyfriend Kenickie (Michael D. Jablonski), her vulnerable side shines through when she defiantly belts “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”

Jablonski has one of the high moments of the show, as he drives onto the stage in his shiny hot rod, “Greased Lightning.”

Melissa WolfKlain made an impression as Jan, one of the Pink Ladies. Her winning smile and perky attitude were difficult to ignore whenever she was on stage.

Brandon Albright has the macho swagger of Danny Zuko, who’s really in love with Sandy, but is a slave to peer pressure. Unable to admit his feelings to his greaser buddies, he treats Sandy like any other good-looking girl in school. When she finally turns up in her sexy outfit, he is able to admit “You’re the One that I Want.”

If one doesn’t think too carefully about the thin plot of this show, or the age of the “teenagers,” and just concentrates on all the elements that make it up, “Grease” is a delightful evening of theater that will send you home humming at least one of its songs.

And that’s the way it should be, wahoo, yeah!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


You just can’t stop the beat going on at the Davis Musical Theatre Company these days. A sparkling new production of “Hairspray,” directed by Jason Hammond, opened last week to a sold-out house of cheering fans, whose enjoyment of the show only served to heighten the feeling of joy as the show came to an end.

 “Hairspray” is a stage show based on the 1988 John Waters film, brought to the stage with a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman. DMTC has created a big show with a cast of almost 40 and a 17-piece orchestra. Sets by Mark and Christine Deamer are representative of the era (1960s Baltimore) rather than literal, and give the whole stage kind of a “Jetsons”-esque cartoon-like appearance, which allows for moving the various set pieces in and out easily.

 This is the story of idealistic Tracy Turnblad (Eimi Taormina) who just loves to dance to the music on “The Corny Collins Show,” modeled after “American Bandstand,” and featuring Matt Taloff as Corny Collins. Her favorite day of the month is “Negro Day,” when black kids take over the set. She loves their music and is staunchly in favor of integration. Though there is a story line of racial inequality, integration, interracial friendship and love, it is Tracy’s story, that of a social misfit who desperately just wants to be herself, that takes center stage. Tracy is a girl with a big dream who isn’t going to let the fact that she can’t fit into a size 2 rain on her parade. She believes in the goodness of people, the equality of everyone and in taking a stand for what you know is right.

 I have watched with pleasure as Taormina has risen from bit parts to more substantial roles with DMTC. With “Hairspray,” she has come into her own fully as a leading lady. She simply makes this show, with an irrepressible personality and a sparkle that just won’t quit.

Tracy’s mother is Edna, a laundress who once had dreams of fame and fortune, but as her weight has soared, her self-esteem has dipped so low she “hasn’t left the house since Mamie Eisenhower rolled her hose and bobbed her bangs.” The loves of her life are her daughter Tracy and her husband, Wilbur (Andy Hyun), a novelty store owner. Edna is afraid her little girl is going to be hurt by trying to follow her dreams in a world where thin is in.

The role of Edna was played in the movie by drag queen Divine and on the stage by Harvey Fierstein. Stepping into the house dress and pumps for DMTC is Scott Minor, who puts a lot of oomph into his characterization.

Hyun, is, of course, wonderful in his role as Tracy’s father, the only negative being that the age disparity between himself and Minor can’t be solved with gray for his hair. But if you can get past the visual, he’s great.

 Outstanding is Danielle Hansen as Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton. Everybody should have a BFF like Penny. She begins to come into her own when the sight of Seaweed Stubbs (Erik Catalan) sets her heart going pitter-patter.

Seaweed’s mother, the rhyming couplet-spouting Motormouth Maybelle, the host of the show on “Negro Day,” is given a dazzling performance by Deborah Hammond.

 Emily Jo Seminoff is another young actress whose progress I have enjoyed watching at DMTC. In this, she becomes the bad girl, Amber Von Tussle, the most popular girl (she thinks) on “The Corny Collins Show” and ready to assume the crown as Miss Hairspray. She plays the role to the hilt.

Patricia Glass is Amber’s mother, the producer of the show, who is certain her daughter will skyrocket to fame and is willing to do anything to make that happen. Together, Seminoff and Glass are the villains you love to hate.

Of all amazing wigs in this production (designed by director Hammond), Glass may have the most bizarre. It’s difficult to look at its sharp angles and not think of the Farrelly brothers’ comedy film, “There’s Something about Mary.”

Alex Cesena plays Link Larkin, supposedly Amber’s boyfriend, but whose life is changed by meeting idealistic Tracy. He sings well and ultimately makes a very ardent and tender-hearted boyfriend.

 “Hairspray” takes the audience back to a more carefree time, and when the cast sings the finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” Tracy has won the hearts not only of Baltimore, but of Davis as well.