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.