Monday, January 30, 2012

Forbidden Broadway

Several sacred cows were sacrificed over the weekend at the Cosmopolitan Cabaret in Sacramento, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle.

“Forbidden Broadway,” Broadway’s longest-running musical revue, closed in New York in 2009; now, the show is on the road. Created and written by Gerard Alessandrini, “Forbidden Broadway” first opened in 1982. During its 27-year history, this marvelous revue has spoofed just about every show and star on Broadway. No star is too big, no show too revered, to become a source of delicious parody.

Over the years and many updates, the show delighted audiences with songs such as “Teeny Todd,” “Ladies Who Screech,” “Oh What a Beautiful Moron,” “C’est Misera-blah” and “La Cage Aw-full.”

The Sacramento version of the show, which runs through March 12, stars Marc Ginsburg, Jerry Lee, Jessica Reiner-Harris and Melissa WolfKlain, who sing and dance through some of the better-known “Forbidden Broadway” parodies, with the assistance of Christine Conklin’s hair, wig and makeup, Alvin Colt’s often-ingenious costumes, and the accompaniment of Graham Sobelman.

Costume changes are often so quick that you wonder what it must be like backstage. Likewise, getting out of Carol Channing makeup and into normal makeup must be remarkable to watch.

But what makes this show work so well are the performances, the impressions and the body language of these four talented actors who complete the picture. A particular favorite of mine is “Can You Feel the Pain Tonight?,” which focuses on the various injuries that come with performing in “The Lion King” that necessitate the need for a traveling chiropractor.

The costumes — which suggest Julie Taymore’s famous “Lion King” costumes — are just great, particularly that of Rafiki as he sings about “The Circle of Mice,” in homage to all the Disney shows on Broadway.

Another is the salute to “Wicked,” with a clever way of turning the skin of Elphaba (the Wicked Witch) green and still enable the actress to continue as another character a few minutes later. (Unfortunately, the use of various wigs and headpieces, along with changing makeup, as well as the quick pace of the show, often made it difficult to differentiate between Reiner-Harris and WolfKlain.)

Lee does a wonderful impression of Robert Goulet in his later years, remembering his past glories, with the sharpness of memory of Gov. Rick Perry.

Ginsburg stood out in his parodies of both “Man of La Mancha” and “Les Miserables,” and his salute to Mandy Patinkin is not to be missed.

This show has been a particular favorite of mine since we saw it in New York several years ago. I have always recommended it to anyone who is going to visit the Big Apple.

I am sad to learn that it has finally closed in New York, but glad that productions such as this one at Cosmopolitan Cabaret are allowing people across the country to see it.

If I have any complaint about this show is that with the wealth of material from which to choose, it is sad that the second act is a bit too short. But even though it leaves the audience wanting more, what it gives is a couple of hours of hearty laughter, and that’s the best thing of all.

Friday, January 27, 2012

West Side Story

From the moment a handful of members of the Jets gang step on stage and begin to dance, it is clear that the touring Broadway production of “West Side Story,” now at the Sacramento Community Center, is going to be an exceptional experience. The energy from everyone was electric and practically crackled off the stage.

This classic American musical almost never made it to the stage. In its first version, the tensions were supposed to be between Jews and Catholics on New York’s Lower East Side during the Passover and Easter holidays, but somehow that never worked.

It wasn’t until six years later that Arthur Laurents suggested changing the conflict in this modern-day “Romeo and Juliet” from religion to race and setting it in the fire escapes and back alleys of Hell’s Kitchen, and the “West Side Story” we know today was born.

Originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story” opened on Broadway in 1957 and today is credited with changing the entire course of the American musical theater.

The show has been revived on Broadway several times, this latest revival opening in 2009 and became the longest-running production of “West Side Story” in Broadway history.

This is a grittier “West Side Story,” according to Laurents, who directed this revival on Broadway not long before he died. Laurents wanted to be more realistic to the city of New York itself. He felt the gangs in the original production had been too “sweet.” These gangs are more sullen. “The truth is, they’re all killers,” he was quoted as saying, adding “What I thought 50 years ago, I certainly don’t think today.”

Also, the Puerto Ricans occasionally lapse into Spanish for dialog or song (translation by Lin-Manual Miranda), which gives those characters a bit more authenticity, and reflecting more accurately the actual sound of New York.

Ross Lekites and Evy Ortiz play the star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria. There is more sensuality in this version of the show and the two actors are beautifully suited to each other.

Lekites has an amazing voice; he can belt out lyrics at full power, and yet in his quieter moments, he gently lets the notes float out over the audience and linger for a moment before fading away.

Ortiz is a beautiful, innocent young girl who looks like she may be dressed up to celebrate her quinceañera (celebration of her 15th birthday). She has a fresh face that is open to all the wonders of her new country and eager to experience all that life has to offer. She has a voice that could be equally at home playing “Madame Butterfly.”

Michelle Aravena has the role of Anita, created in the original production by Chita Rivera. There is much of Rivera about her, in her manner and her carriage. She is a firecracker ready to explode, and explode she does, especially in “America,” that comparison of this country to Puerto Rico, and in “A Boy Like That,” as she angrily confronts Maria for her relationship with the boy who killed her brother.

German Santiago is Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. He is a smoldering cauldron of rage directed toward any of the Jets who cross his path, while Drew Foster is Riff, Bernardo’s mirror image in the Jets, ready to fight any of the Sharks who cross his path.

Special mention goes to Alexandra Frohlinger as Anybodys, that female gang wannabe.

This is a “big” feeling show, with massive set pieces, including the underside of a bridge that moves in over a playground, and the angular silhouettes of the fire escapes. Even the numbers that are performed on a bare stage are augmented by complicated light patterns.

“West Side Story,” like “Romeo and Juliet,” always seems a bit contrived just for the fact that everything happens in only two days, from the immediate passionate love affair between the two lovers to the tragic ultimate conclusion. Still, the raw emotion of the piece can’t help but leave you moved.

Even if you’ve seen “West Side Story” a number of times, this production is one not to be missed. It’s like seeing the show for the first time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure

Sherlock Holmes is dead. Or so Dr. Watson announces at the beginning of “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” now playing at the Woodland Opera House in a production directed by Bob Cooner.

The play written by William Gillette and Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Steven Dietz, combines two of Doyle’s short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” tosses in a few elements that tie the two stories together, and gets rid of the famous detective in the end.


Cooner has an all-star cast for this Holmes mash-up, starting with Simon Hunt in the title role. Hunt reminded me throughout of NCIS’ “Ducky” (David McCallum), in both appearance and mannerisms, as he rattled off volumes of relevant and irrelevant bits of trivia, or drawing conclusions about a person from the smallest detail (“A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs.”)

The actor had some opening-night stumbles over words and some problems with quick costume changes, but he gave us a believable Holmes, intent on his pursuit of his nemesis Moriarty (Rodger McDonald), a pursuit in which he is determined to engage, even if it leads to his own death.

As for McDonald, was there ever a more deliciously malevolent villain? A single look is enough to chill the blood and the sneer just added to the effect. McDonald looks like he is enjoying every single moment.

Scott Martin was an outstanding Dr. Watson, Holmes’ faithful sidekick who follows his friend’s instructions to the letter, no matter how strange they may be. Watson kept the action rolling, with his narration that filled in bits of Holmes’ life that had taken place offstage.

Irene Adler (Alexandra Ralph Evans) is an opera singer who has caught Holmes’ eye, though he is loath to reveal his feelings for her when he discovers she is the ex-girlfriend of the King of Bohemia (Jason Hammond). Adler is intent on blackmailing the King with a compromising photo on the eve of his wedding to another woman and the King has come to Holmes to retrieve the incriminating evidence.

Director Cooner makes an unfortunate decision in the opening scene, where Holmes is listening to a recording of Adler. The volume is much too loud and distracts terribly from the dialog of that scene.

Evans is a beautiful diva and adds a spark to all of her scenes with Holmes. Hammond brings humor to the show as the dim-witted King

Rounding out the cast are Dana Sattel as James Larrabee, who marries Adler, Patricia Glass as his sister Madge (both in cahoots with Moriarty) and Steve MacKay as “Sid Prince (and others).”

Set and lighting design are by John Bowles, who has created a beautiful library for Holmes, which takes up half of the stage, with other pieces brought in for other scenes, while the library stays in place for most scenes.

The final scene, of the waterfall that supposedly is the site of the demise of Holmes and Moriarty, is a bit of a disappointment. While the rocks leading to the waterfall are fine, the falls itself are merely represented by a dim shaft of light and no real sense of a waterfall.

Denise Miles’ costumes seem to be accurate to the period and Adler’s opera gown is beautiful.

This is not really a whodunnit nor is it exactly a comedy, though it has elements of both. What it is is a polished, intelligent, fast-paced production that will delight any theatergoer.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ruthless, the Musical

Fasten your seatbelts … it’s going to be a funny night.

Sacramento Theatre Company is presenting “Ruthless! — The Musical,” with book and lyrics by Joel Paley and (mostly forgettable) music by Marvin Laird, a spoof about all those “bad girl” movies like “The Bad Seed,” and “All About Eve” with a lot of Mama Rose from “Gypsy” thrown in.

As director Michael Laun says, “you don’t need to be familiar with some of the shows this musical spoofs to enjoy its backstage show business plot, … but those in the audience who know these shows will surely find some familiar themes, characters and plot points sprinkled throughout the evening.”

It would be a disservice to the show to give away the plot since part of the fun is watching it all unfold, but suffice to say that STC has assembled a wonderfully talented cast who get into their roles and play them to the hilt.

Andrea St. Clair is Judy Denmark, a housewife and mother, who freely admits she has no talent whatsoever except to be mother to little Tina, a child just like Baby June in “Gypsy,” with her bobbing curls and militantly adorable smile. Tina’s goal is to be a big star and she is willing to do anything to accomplish that goal.

The role of Tina is double-cast, and the night we saw the show it was played by Jillie Kate Randle (her alternate is Lauren Metzinger). Randle was so perfect, I almost expected her to do the splits while saying “Hi, my name is June … what’s yours?” This is an 11-year-old bundle of talent with an already long list of theater credits to her name. It will be fun to watch her as she grows older.

St. Clair, making her STC debut, is no slouch in the talent department either, continuing to display her considerable talents while professing to have no talent whatsoever.

“Talent” is at the heart of this show, as explained by the talent scout Sylvia St. Croix (Michael. RJ Campbell). “Where does it come from? Is it a product of one’s environment — something picked up on the street? Or is talent something you’re born with?…”

I’ve always been a fan of Campbell’s and he is deliciously overbearing in this pivotal role.

In the pre-show talk, director Laun explained that in the original production, the talent scout role was played by a man in drag and in subsequent productions it has been played by men as men, women as women and men as women.

Laun chose to go back to the original vision, and how lucky patrons are for it. Campbell does not disappoint, and his larger-than-life character is just perfect.

Becky Saunders, last seen at STC in “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” really gets a chance to shine in three different roles. She won my heart as the theater critic Lita Encore singing “I Hate Musicals.” (Though I love musicals, there is something every critic can relate to in that song, especially when she decries “keyboards” and longs for “real clarinets.”) Saunders is a very funny lady.

Rounding out the cast is Netty Carey as “Eve.” Can’t have a ruthless show without an Eve, now, can you? She also appears earlier in the show as the hapless Louise Lerman, a classmate of Tina’s.

Pianist Erik Daniells is offstage, but keeps things rolling along.

Jarrod Bodensteiner is the set designer and he literally does double duty, as there are two completely different sets (not an easy thing to accomplish on the small Pollock stage). There is a longer-than-normal intermission to allow for the changing of the set.

Laun keeps the madcap tale moving at a brisk pace, and sorting out all the plot twists is just part of the fun.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Stop what you’re doing right now and call for tickets to the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s amazing new production of Kander & Ebb’s Tony Award-winning “Chicago.”

This is one of the best DMTC productions I’ve seen in a long time. It’s full of murder, greed, corruption, violence, sex, exploitation, adultery and treachery all glitzed up with so much razzle and dazzle that you’ll be cheering at the end of the first number, and consistently throughout the show.

“Chicago” points the finger at this country’s perennial fascination with bad boys (and girls) and our raising them to near cult status, as we salivate over every gory detail, the more salacious the better. Think Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, O.J. Simpson, the Kardashians.

This musical is based on actual events during the 1920s, when reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins reported on the trial of a young woman (Beaulah Annan, “the prettiest murderess”) who killed her boyfriend and then called her husband to tell him, as a popular fox trot record played in the background. As Beaulah sat awaiting trial, she announced that she was pregnant, prompting the headline, “Beaulah Annan Awaits Stork, Murder Trial.”

Years later, William Wellman turned the story into a satirical movie called “Roxie Hart,” starring Ginger Rogers, in which the heroine, to kick-start her show business career, confesses to a Chicago murder. Funny man Phil Silvers played her lawyer.

This movie was the inspiration for choreographer Bob Fosse’s collaboration with Kander and Ebb to produce “Chicago, the Musical,” which opened on Broadway in 1975, with Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera as the two jailbirds competing for publicity for their respective crimes.

The show closed after a two-year run, unable to compete with “A Chorus Line,” but was brought back again in 1996, under the direction of Walter Bobbie with choreography by Ann Reinking (in the style of Bob Fosse). The revival won six Tony Awards, Drama Critics Circle Awards, Astaire Awards, Olivier Awards, Helpman Awards and a Grammy for best cast recording (among many other accolades).

The 2002 movie, starring Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, won the Academy Award for best picture.

And now we have it right in our own back yard, with a sparkling production directed by John Ewing, choreographed by Pamela Lourentzos, and featuring a stellar cast — each one as good or better as the last one.

Amber Jean Moore is outstanding as Roxie Hart, a housewife with stars in her eyes, who shoots her lover and then tries to use her crime to launch a show-biz career.

Roxie’s crime steals the headlines from Velma Kelly (Jennie Ribadeneira), a once popular singer/dancer, now also languishing in prison for shooting her multi-married lover. Her exciting “All That Jazz” was the show’s opener and set the tone nicely for the rest of the show.

Tony Ruiz is marvelous as the smooth, charming, yet slick lawyer, Billy Flynn, who knows how to work the press and, for a price, make his clients such sympathetic figures that no jury would convict them. Billy’s “All I Care About,” performed with several chorus girls armed with fans that would do credit to Sally Rand, is a knock-out.

A ventriloquist number, “We Both Reached for the Gun” — with Roxie in Billy’s lap as he literally puts words into her mouth — is outstanding.

Andrea Eve Thorpe is by no means the large matron we associate with previous actresses playing the role of Matron “Mama” Morton, but instead of heft, Thorpe achieves her dominance with strength and a cold, forbidding wardrobe and severe hair style. The effect works well for her.

Amos Hart is Roxie’s all-but-forgotten husband, played beautifully by Dan Masden. There is a lot of heart in this Hart and his “Mr. Cellophane” was very moving, as he describes what it’s like to be invisible to the people in his life.

Jacob Montoya deserves applause for his role as the Master of Ceremonies. When Montoya mixed with dancers Michael Cesar, Elio Gutierrez and Randy Noriega, it was a sight to behold.

The sob sister reporter Mary Sunshine was played to the hilt by D.A. Holmes, whose not-quite-so-surprising secret is revealed during the second act.

The DMTC orchestra, under the direction of Steve Isaacson, is on the stage, instead of under it, for this show on a set designed by John Ewing.

Costumes by Jeanne Henderson are, of course, spectacular.

Co-producer Jan Isaacson says tickets are selling fast. The Saturday evening production we attended was a near capacity audience, so get your tickets soon. Once word of mouth begins to spread, they will be in very short supply.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Cyrano de Bergerac

Christian (Nick Mead) woos the fair Roxane (Frances Devanbu) as
Cyrano (Antonio de Loera-Brust) looks on,
heartbroken, in the Acme Theatre Company production of "Cyrano,"

(It is unfortunate that Acme's photos appear to have all
been taken before Cyrano's nose was made!!!)

In her notes to the new Acme production of “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Edmond Rostand, director Emily Henderson writes, “This play has a lot of words.” She said a mouthful.

It is unfortunate, then, that so many of those words were unheard by the audience. A perennial problem with Acme is the inability of actors in lesser roles to speak clearly and to project, which seems such a shame since they have obviously worked so hard at learning lines and creating characters.

This is, fortunately, not a problem for the actors in the principal roles, though it does leave gaps in plot points when you can’t hear the set-up lines.

This adaptation of the Rostand classic, by Barry Kornhauser, written entirely in verse, lends itself to a lot of slapstick comedy, terrible (meaning “wonderful”) puns, and plenty of swashbuckling, all blended with great nobility and a tragic love story.

The play is fictionalized account, based on a real 17th century French writer and playwright notorious for his many duels and escapades as well as a famous nose.

Antonio de Loera-Brust, in the title role, is dashing and funny and romantic and poignant all at once, a man who can take on any man in a fight, a wit as sharp as his sword, but who is too ashamed of his physical appearance to confess his love for Roxanne. It’s a wonderful performance, deserving of the standing ovation he received at the end.

If I have any negative comment at all, it is not for the actor, but for whoever did his make-up. Please, a little more color on the tip of his nose which, in the performance, glowed white in the stage lights and is a distraction from his acting.

While Cyrano hides his love for the beautiful Roxane (Frances Devanbu), she has her sights set on Christian de Neuvilette (Nick Mead), handsome and earnest, but verbally challenged — he cannot find the words to express his feelings. He turns to his friend Cyrano, who provides the words which win Roxane’s heart and thus becomes a principal player in perhaps the most famous love triangle in literary history.

Devanbu is a lovely Roxane, as sincere in her love of Christian as she is later as she realizes the true identity of the man who won her heart so many years ago, with his beautiful words.

Mead is the perfect clueless jock, a hero among his fellow Cadets of Gascony, but unable to understand the heart of a woman. His early demise is fortunate for it certainly would have been a tremendous let-down for Roxane to realize that he never had the words of a poet.

Alex Clubb is effectively menacing as the Comte de Guiche, determined to marry Roxane and duped by the wiley Cyrano until the bride’s marriage to Christian has taken place.

Raphael Gorga is particularly noteworthy as Ragueneau, the baker. He has a knack for physical comedy and puts it to good use in this role.

Miki Benson plays several roles (as do many others in the cast) and I very much appreciated her clarity of tone without appearing forced. No matter what her role, she could always be understood and she did an excellent job in each role.

Mead was the set designer for this production, a rather utilitarian multi-level set that left lots of room for swordplay, and the fighting, choreographed by Dan Renkin, was excellent. One thing about Acme is that its young actors really have mastered swordplay, since so many of the company’s productions use it!

Costumes were designed by Henderson, with hair design by Hannah Nielson.

“Cyrano de Bergerac” is a fun evening of theater, with plenty of action to entertain younger members of the audience, and a solid story to satisfy the adults. If the actors in the minor roles could crank their volume up a bit, this really would be quite an extraordinary production.