Monday, April 30, 2012

The Meaning of It All

“The Meaning of It All” is a first play for 50-something Davis playwright Robert Lautz, who has been working on this play for five to six years. What opened on Friday night was version 11.4 (he says) of the idea he first pitched to California Stage director Ray Tatar many years ago.

This final version came about with help from dramaturg Rick Foster, and with Franco Renosto adding Italian translation of some of the script to make the actors sound authentically Italian.

California Stage’s small Wilkerson Theater was the perfect venue for this intimate comedy, and the beautiful set of Kurt Kurtis was so inviting that members of the audience were stepping onto it to have their pictures taken by friends in the audience before the show started. This, despite the presence of alchemist Calvino Mezzo Zucco (Brennan Villados) doing busy work to set the scene for the play that was about to begin.

“The Meaning of It All” takes place in Pisa in the early 1500s. The plot involves romance, comedy and alchemy. Calvino, an inventor and part-time alchemist, is about to be married to Alonza (Chelsea Barone). Alonza’s father believes Calvino has invented a process for turning lead into gold and the young chemist is scrambling to make it happen so his chances of marrying Alonza are not ruined. In the meantime, he accidentally discovers a universal solvent that dissolves anything, and he thinks this may solve all his problems.

At the same time, Calvino’s brother Savio (Tony Hutto) was fired from the University of Pisa and is moving into Calvino’s barn until he can figure out what he is going to do with his life.

When Savio’s friend Luca (Arturo Gonzales) shows up, depressed about the disappearance of his girlfriend Mona (Katie Dahl), Savio invites him, too, to join him in the barn.

Alberto Domenici (Mahlon Hall), the son of a wealthy merchant, has come to be a wedding guest, but he has heard about Calvino’s formula to turn lead into gold and is determined to have it for himself.

While this is not a rollicking comedy, it does have its chuckle moments. There are nice relationships among the couples and between Calvino and his brother. Alberto is the villain you love to hiss.

The play itself may have needed to go to version 12. There are things that work beautifully and things that don’t. Characters Luca and Mona seem to serve no real purpose, other than Mona being the cause of jealousy at one point. The actors are fine (especially Dahl), but their story doesn’t add much to the plot, except perhaps to muddy it a bit.

Villados does a wonderful job as Calvino, though he was sabotaged by a terrible wig that didn’t fit well, looked like it hadn’t been washed in months, and kept falling in his face so he was forced throughout the entire play to keep pushing it back almost constantly. (You’d think an alchemist who works with fire and dangerous chemicals would know better than to let his hair grow so long!)

Brother Savio fared better and was not forced to wear a wig at all, which allowed us to concentrate on his character rather than his hair, and actor Hutto gave an engaging performance.

Barone was a perfect spitfire of an Italian wife. The couple’s fight on their wedding night was one of the funnier scenes in the play. The double entendres and downright blatant sexual comments had the audience howling.

Hall’s Alberto Rossinio Domenici looks as if he had been born sneering. He is the aristocrat who is used to having his own way, and isn’t above a little breaking and entering, and a lot of threats and blackmail, to get it.

Aside from the wigs, Jenny Plummer’s costumes were lovely and reflected her years working with Renaissance fairs.

“The Meaning of It All” is a promising start. I hope it’s not another five years before we see more from Lautz.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


It’s fairly safe to say that the musical “13″ with book and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown is never going to become a beloved classic that is brought back time and time again.

An older couple talked to me before the show about how much they had loved the previous production of “South Pacific” and hoped that this show would be as good. I wondered what they were thinking as the opening number of “13″ began:

Who’d have guessed Dad would meet a stewardess?
Mom’s depressed and her lawyers are mean
Now I’m stressed, life is a disaster
And I’m cracking from the strain, going totally insane

The plot centers on Evan, a 12-year-old New York Jewish kid about to have his bar mitzvah and looking forward to the party. When he learns his parents are divorcing and that he must move with his mother to Appleton, Ind., he feels his life is over. The show centers on Evan trying to make friends so he can have the big party. Themes include modern teen interest (a lot of emphasis on “kissing with tongue”):

Guys, Kendra’s a good girl. I can’t just hit on her like whack-a-mole.
I do that, I will never get the tongue. Incoming! Kendra, 3 o’clock!

You get the idea.

While this may be the thinnest of plots, what makes it work is a strong cast, and Woodland has that. With a cast whose average age is about 14, it’s not surprising that there is a range of quality and that some voices are not quite up to the songs they have to sing, but overall, they handle the material well and director Amy Shuman has done an excellent job with her cast.

Seventeen-year-old Tony Cellucci, as Evan, is in almost every scene and has seven songs, a huge task for even seasoned performers. Happily, Cellucci carries it like a pro. He is likeable, he takes command of the stage, sings well, and he dominates any scene in which he appears. He is particularly wonderful in “Evan’s Haftorah.”

Devin DeGeyter is Archie, Evan’s disabled pal. So convincing is DeGeyter dragging himself around the stage on his crutches that it was almost a surprise to see him walk on stage for the final bows. He has more of a New York attitude than a mid-west attitude but he is a great, memorable character.

Abby Miles is Patrice, Evan’s new next-door neighbor. We never find out why exactly she is disliked by everyone else in the high school but she is a wonderful best friend, and very poignant in songs like “Good Enough.”

Not surprisingly, the most popular guy in school is Brett, the football star (Peter DeBello), who is the guy who is determined to kiss Kendra with tongue. He is obsessed with tongue. DeBello gives a solid performance

McKinley Carlisle is Lucy, Patrice’s best friend. Carlisle, making her opera house debut, has 13 years of theater under her belt and it shows in her comfort on stage. At 18, she is one of the oldest in the cast.
Emma Black plays Kendra and is the perfect high-pitched teenage girl, whose innocence is a great part of her character.

Some of the smaller roles, Emily Miller as Cassie and Devon Hayakawa as Charlotte give outstanding performances in some of the ensemble numbers.

Sets moved on and off stage are almost nonexistent, but set designer John Bowles makes use of projections on the back wall, which is very effective.

Rodgers and Hammerstein this ain’t, but for the right audience, “13″ is an enjoyable show. When the show opened in Jerusalem, it became an overnight sensation. There were certainly a lot of very excited young people whooping and hollering on opening night.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Robert Lautz (feature story)

 It will be a proud day when Robert Lautz’s play, “The Meaning of it All” makes its world premiere at California Stage’s Wilkerson Theater on Friday, April 27. Directed by Ray Tatar, this 20th presentation for California Stage is set in the Italian Renaissance and deals with love, intrigue and alchemy.

It is also a debut play for Lautz, who has spent the past six years polishing his skills as a playwright. What the audience will see is his 11th version of this story, which he has been thinking about for most of his life.
This now 50-something-year-old did not start out to be a playwright; he wanted to be a jazz musician. Lautz had played music all his life and went to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston as a drummer, but found that didn’t really meet his needs.

“When you’re a drummer, they give you a pad and put you in a room and tell you to keep banging on it,” he said.

Looking for more interaction, after making friends with jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton (who went on to become vice president of Berklee, before his retirement), Lautz took up the vibraphone and became a composition major (“a natural for a percussionist,” he says).

After graduation, he “borrowed” the family car (his father never got it back) and drove across the country to return to his native California. He had grown up in the Bay Area and after his return, settled in Santa Cruz.
“I got there in April and the car still had snow tires on it,” he recalls.

He became a street musician, playing on the streets and in malls and gigs up and down the California coast, whenever he could find work, supporting himself for some 20 years.

It was after his wife, whom he met in Santa Cruz, became pregnant that he decided that “this jazz musician thing may not work out financially.”

In 1995, he ended up on the California Arts Council, a move that would bring him to Davis. By this time he had two daughters, ages 4 and 2, and real estate agents took him all over Sacramento looking for a house.
“Then I drove out to Davis, first getting lost on Olive Drive. But we fell in love with the town. It was a great place to raise our daughters,” he said.

Friends in Sacramento warned him that Davis was where the liberals were, “but we came from Santa Cruz!” he added, laughing.

“I’d always liked writing,” Lautz said, when asked about his play. Built while concentrating on his music, he’d never written anything officially. He had an idea floating around in his head about what would happen if someone invented a “universal solvent” that dissolves anything (kind of a variation on the King Midas touch).
He approached California Stage’s Ray Tatar with his idea.

“I was so naive,” he said. “He probably gets hundreds of play ideas pitched to him.”

Tatar, however, was intrigued enough to let Lautz know he would be willing to read his script once it was written, and if it was good enough, he would produce it.

Realizing that Lautz had no experience writing a play, Tatar suggested he connect with Rich Foster, the dramaturg for California Stage.
“He lives in Sonora and is a wonde
rful playwright and writer and volunteers his time to help aspiring writers,” Lautz explained. “Without him, I would not know how to write a play.”

Over the next five to six years, Lautz worked on his play, and Foster gave constructive criticism.

“I remember the first draft I sent him. He just tore it apart. He’s been wonderfully honest. After his criticism, I asked lots of questions. He said ‘bravo to your wonderful response to my savagery.’ ”

Lautz discovered that when one plot point doesn’t work, it sometimes requires making massive changes. His cast, for example, doubled in size, from three to six.

“Writing is a struggle. You lock yourself in a room and ask ‘why am I even attempting this?’ Rick would have ideas different from mine, but it made me realize he was right,” Lautz said.

“Sometimes you have dialog working so well but then you realize that in order to introduce a new idea you have to tear apart something and then mend it. I might be in love with a line that works well and realize I had to throw it out to get better perspective about what the story is all about.”

One of the ideas that had to go was the play’s setting. Lautz explained that originally he had scenes all over the place, including one on top of the leaning tower of Pisa, until he realized that, economically, he needed to find a way to set the whole thing in one room.

There will be incidental music throughout the play, from the time before the play starts to exit music. Lautz did a lot of research on music of the period which, he explained, tends to be mostly sacred vocal music music.

“I wanted small instrumental ensembles and I’ve found some really wonderful, charming and even goofy music,” he said.

Lautz also sought help from Franco Renosto, a retired UC Davis faclty member who is perhaps better known as a youth soccer coach, for translating some of the script into Italian, to give the play an authentic sound.

“When the characters get angry, they are more likely to speak rapidly in Italian,” he said.

After a long labor process, “The Meaning of It All” is about to be born, and there will be no prouder first-time papa than Lautz. The show opens April 27 and runs weekends through May 27. On Sunday, April 29, the playwright and his translator will hold a talk-back with the audience.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Million Dollar Quartet

There’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on over at the Sacramento Community Center. A lot of grey haired people are dancin’ and clappin, whoopin’ and hollerin’ like it’s 1956.

And, in fact, it is. On stage, that is.

“Million Dollar Quartet” recreates a famous night shortly before Christmas in 1956 when Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley gathered at Sun Recording studio in Memphis, Tenn., where three had launched their careers and Lewis was about to do so. The group, the only time the four ever performed together, held an impromptu jam session, about which a reporter who was present at the time wrote, “this quartet could sell a million.”

Now there is a juke box type musical about that momentous event (which the screen on stage before the show proclaims “made rock and roll history”), written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and directed by Eric Schaffer.

This could be a ho-hum, just like every other juke box musical, but it has an outstanding cast as the quartet – Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis,  Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins, Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash and Cody Slaughter as Elvis Presley. Unlike the cast of “Jersey Boys,” the men are all gifted musicians and don’t just play the roles, they play the music as well. (So important is this that even the understudies get their photos and bios in the program)

Christopher Ryan Grant is Sam Phillips, the visionary owner of Sun Records, who saw potential in these poor boys who showed up at his studio with a new idea about music.

Kelly Lamont has the thankless task of being Presley’s girlfriend. Her role is completely superfluous and though she gives a dynamite performance of “Fever” it seems like something stuck in just to get a woman into the cast.

Billy Shaffer and Chuck Zayas round out the cast, as back-up musicians. Zayas in particular twirls a mean bass.

This is a show that is all about the music. “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “See You Later, Alligator,” “Hound Dog” — as well as country songs and spirituals like “Peace in the Valley” and “Down by the Riverside.” There is a thin plot to give Phillips a chance to guide the piece, but really everyone is there to hear the music. And nobody will be disappointed.

In 1956, Presley’s star was on the rise (funniest line of the night, after complaining of his treatment in Las Vegas, Elvis says “I’ll never play Las Vegas again.” It got a big laugh from the audience.). He had just signed with RCA, Cash was about to sign with Capitol. Jerry Lee Lewis was about to burst on the music scene (and we all know how that went!)

While it may be thought that Presley would be the most memorable in this production, actually it is Kaye as Lewis who steals the show. He’s a brash young kid, convinced of his talent and determined to make people know how talented he is. Today he would be diagnosed as having ADD, as he can’t keep still, and can’t stop breaking into incredible piano riffs when he’s supposed to be filling in the background.

Keeling has the deep voice that we identify with the later in life Johnny Cash, though oddly enough the section of the real recording made in 1956 shows that booze and cigarettes had not yet affected the timbre of Cash’s voice at that time. Still, you want to wallow around in those great low notes that Keeling gives us.
Slaughter must grease his hip joints after every performance, so fluid is his body movement. Some of his poses are amazing.

By the end of the show, the whole audience was on its feet clapping and singing along and remembering when we were all part of the birth of rock and roll. I hadn’t seen my husband so happy at a musical in the 12 years of my time as critic!

Monday, April 16, 2012


It was six years ago, on closing night of the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of “Titanic: the Musical” that director Steve Isaacson made the decision to repeat the show on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ship. He confided that he actually knocked off two weeks of rehearsal in order to make that happen.

Open a show of this magnitude with two weeks less rehearsal time? (And on Friday the 13th to boot!) It sounded like a recipe for a Titanic-sized disaster, especially recalling the good, if uneven, quality of the previous production. I crossed my fingers and hoped it would be good.

I needn’t have worried. This is a wonderful production, which went off, on opening night, without any of the glitches that befell the show last time.

There were plenty of things that could go wrong, but nothing did. The technical glitches from last time didn’t materialize, the things that hadn’t worked were eliminated. Everything else worked like clockwork (or if it didn’t, the audience wasn’t aware of problems).

With a cast of nearly 50, it’s inevitable that there will be performances that don’t live up to the really good ones, but with only two exceptions, everyone was, at best, outstanding, at “worst,” not quite on a level with the outstanding, but still good.

Among the outstanding performances was Dan Masden as Frederick Barrett, the stoker, who sends his proposal by telegraph home to his sweetheart. His “Barrett’s Song” was a highlight.

Likewise, Amber Jean Moore as Alice, a second-class passenger, wife of Edgar (Scott Griffith), is marvelous as a star-struck woman who longs to rub elbows with the likes of John Jacob Astor (Mark Deamer) or Benjamn Guggenheim (Rich Kulmann).

The always wonderful Marguerite Morris plays two roles, paired with Scott Minor both times, which is a little confusing. As a German couple, Morris and Minor are very moving in their duet “Still.”

A glance at the newspaper reproductions in the lobby will make it obvious that Joel Porter was a perfect choice to play Capt. E.J. Smith. Not only does he resemble him, but he sings the part very well.

Kyle Hadley brings the same life and enthusiasm to the character of Bandmaster Wallace Hartley as he did to Nicely Nicely Johnson in “Guys and Dolls.” His “Doing the Latest Rag” was lots of fun. Kudos to Jacob Montoya for the choreography.

Andy Hyun was wonderful as Charles Clark, headed off to America with his girlfriend (Rebecca Wilson), where they plan to be married.

Jenny Reuter was cute as one of the three Irish Kates headed to America to find jobs as ladies’ maids.
Adam Sartain as Bruce Ismay, the director of the White Star Line, spends the entire voyage angry that the ship isn’t going faster, convinced that there would never be a danger to the passengers. His barely controlled rage was at times a little over the top.

David Holmes is Thomas Andrews, the designer of the ship, so proud as his creation sails off into the North Atlantic, so frustrated when he stands on the tilting deck of the ship, wondering where it all went wrong.

All of the children give professional-quality performances.

It should be pointed out that this is not a plot show, but focuses on vignettes featuring one or two or three individuals at a time. We don’t get involved in anybody’s lives enough to worry about this or that person, but instead we care about all of the passengers.

I found myself quite emotional as the passengers boarded the ship, knowing what was to come. “Godspeed Titanic” is an incredibly moving number, as the ship begins to sail out to meet its fate.

I was also emotional at the closing tableau with half the cast saved and the other half about to die.

The sets, designed by Isaacson and Mark Deamer, are less elaborate than the 2006 production, but the missing elements were not missed and what is left is sufficient. The effect of the ship sinking is marvelous.
Jean Henderson’s costumes are always elegant, though I wish she had given Ismay a bit more believable mustache.

The program lists a 17-piece orchestra but the covered pit in which they play made it difficult for the audience to hear more than the piano, which is a shame.

While the ship Titanic may have sunk 100 years ago, DMTC’s “Titanic: The Musical” will sail effortlessly through the remaining days of its run.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


The Orpheus myth has been told and retold ever since the lyric poet was first mentioned in the sixth century B.C. Greeks venerated him as the greatest of all poets and musicians.

It was Virgil who introduced Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, who dies in a fatal accident. Orpheus was so distraught that he travels to the underworld to bargain for her return to life.

As the story goes, he played such a sad song for the gods that their hearts were moved and they allowed Eurydice to return with Orpheus to the upper world, on condition that Orpheus walk out without looking back to make sure she is following him.

Being human (and this being a story with a moral), Orpheus succumbs to temptation, looks back, and Eurydice vanishes forever.

Many variations of the story have been presented in the modern day. There have been at least 30 films using the Orpheus theme. “Black Orpheus,” for example, was the Brazilian movie made by Marcel Camus, which sets the story in modern-day Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval.

Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” (recently presented by Acme Theatre Company in Davis) tells the story from the woman’s point of view, where we learn that in the underworld she is reunited with her father, whose love for his daughter is so strong she chooses to remain with him rather than follow her husband back to the upper world.

Now the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble takes a new look at the story, giving it a fresh new twist with “Relapse, a Retelling of the Orpheus Myth with Shakespeare’s Sonnets” now being presented at the Natsoulas Gallery.

In a memorable performance by Gia Batistta and Bob Salas, the focus is once again on the story from the point of view of Eurydice and the action is based on the movement (by movement director Gabby Battista), which is both mechanical and fluid, the dialog coming from the sonnets of Shakespeare.

We see Eurydice as a vibrant woman, mesmerized by an opening in the floor that seems to be giving her some sort of energy or revitalization. Her movement is disrupted by the abrupt entrance of Orpheus, whose movements are much more sharp and serious.

She exits and he brings in a box, which he places right on top of the space that Eurydice was just playing with. He then exits and she discovers he has ruined her source of energy/self-empowerment.

We watch Orpheus vacillate between his love for his wife, his muse, whom he puts on a pedestal, so dependent is he on her inspiration for his creativity. The pedestal has the effect of keeping her tied to the writer and squelching her own freedom.

The result of her inhibition is the ultimate death of Eurydice. In a beautiful and moving moment, we watch the woman singing a beautiful song as she slowly begins to walk into the underworld, while Orpheus bemoans her death.

As in the myth, Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back and ultimately, as the pair begin to return, Eurydice speaks to Orpheus, causing him to turn around, and Eurydice regains her freedom.

Battista and Salas have beautiful chemistry and create, once again, a moving portrait of the star-crossed lovers and the tragedy that results from a lopsided love where one strives to dominate the other, to the detriment of both.

As Battista sees her role, “I felt inspired to call attention to the gender problems in this story, and really bring out how much Eurydice is objectified by Orpheus as he ultimately uses her up — leading to her death, solely for his own benefit.

“I also wanted to explore the idea that he is not going to the underworld to save her, but to save himself. I wanted to bring out the idea that Eurydice is strong enough to make her own decision of her fate as she chooses to stay in the underworld and does not need to be rescued, because she has found new peace and freedom with herself.”

Tuesday, April 03, 2012


John Barrymore was born to perform. He was a member of a theatrical dynasty, which included his father, Maurice Barrymore, a dashing leading man, his mother, Georgiana Drew, an accomplished comedienne, and his uncle, John Drew, the “First Gentleman of the American Stage.” His siblings were Lionel and Ethel and he is, of course, the grandfather of young Drew Barrymore.

In his early career he was noted for light comedy, but after a few more substantial roles, which proved his ability to play tragedy as well as comedy, he made theater history in March 1920 when opened in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” His was described as “the most inspired performance this generation has ever seen.” Critics hailed the production as “the beginning of a new era for Shakespeare on the American stage.”

Barrymore later went on to portray “one of the greatest Hamlets ever seen in New York.” Of that role, Laurence Olivier recalled that “Everything about him was exciting. He was athletic, he had charisma, and, to my young mind, he played the part to perfection.”

Financial problems, largely due to the demands of his many ex-wives, however, brought him to a more lucrative career in Hollywood and many roles in silent films, and then talking pictures. By the 1930s, his skills and memory were on the decline, due to the effects of hard living, hard drinking and possible early Alzheimer’s. Unable to remember his lines, he was forced to read from blackboards just out of camera range, and he began to be offered second-rate, rather than starring roles.

“Barrymore,” a play by William Luce, now at Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock Stage under the direction of Greg Alexander, is set close to the end of the actor’s life.

Barrymore has rented an old theater and he is there to run lines for “Richard III” in the hopes of appealing to backers so he can once again bring Richard III to Broadway.

The role of John Barrymore is the role of a lifetime and Gregory North tackles the challenge and comes up winner. He has the stature, the profile and the panache for the role. He is resplendent in either a double-breasted suit or a Richard III costume (nice job by costumer McKayla Butym).

The two acts of the play are quite different from each other. Act 1 is the jumble of an old theater, filled with set pieces, props and audience seats (people are invited to sit on the stage, if they desire). Scenic designer Mims Mattair’s carefully arranged clutter lends the perfect atmosphere.

The disarray mirrors the jumble of Barrymore himself, whose dialog is filled with a verbal avalanche of memories, off-color jokes, observations and brief scenes from plays in which he has appeared (and even a recitation of the poem “The Hound of Heaven,” which sounds quite Shakespearean, in context).

His prompter, the off-stage voice of Elly Award winner Sean Patrick Nill, tries to keep him at the task of running Richard III lines, mostly unsuccessfully. When Barrymore tries to stick with the script, his frustration at not remembering the lines leads him off in another direction time and time again, his distraction not at all helped by the amount of liquor he ingests throughout the act.

In Act 2, dressed as Richard the III, we get a better sense of the fear within the man as he struggles mightily to remember his lines. It is obvious he will never play this role again.

Playwright Luce plays loose with the dialog, occasionally using expressions that seem more contemporary than reflecting the era in which Barrymore lived. There is also a point in Act 2, following an attack of trembling hands, where the prompter asks the actor if he has thought of going to AA. But Barrymore died in 1942 and Alcoholics Anonymous was not founded until 1957. It was a glaring error.

Those points aside, this is a powerful show and will send you to Google to get further information on a man who was once one of the most respected members of the illustrious Barrymore family.