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.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Henry V

Before I went to review the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of "Henry V," I rented the Kenneth Branagh movie to get myself in the mood for seeing this epic play. The movie, of course, has a cast of thousands. And as Henry, bloodied but unbowed, wades through the field of bodies at the end of the Battle of Agincourt I wondered how in the world the young Davis group was going to pull it off with a cast of five, all of whom were making their Davis Shakespeare Ensemble debut.

Well, the answer to that question was: surprisingly well. This production, directed by Rob Salas, works because of an amazingly talented cast who each play many parts. Casey Worthington is Henry V and others; Mitchell VanLandingham is the Dauphin, Canterbury and others; Kevin Ganger is Exeter, Pistol, Charles, and others; Misty Day is Nell Quickly, Fluellen, and others; and Cody Ganger is Catherine, Bardolph, and others.

It also works because of the ingenious costume design by Maggie S. Chan, who has woven an intricate set of chains for each actor over which are laid sashes, capes, and other bits of costume to allow for instant transformation into the next character, whether a soldier, a townsman, or a king.

The close confines of the UC Davis Arboretum Gazebo make it possible for the slow motion battles, with real swords flashing uncomfortably close to the audience, yet always under close supervision by the actor, to actually give one the sense of being in a real battle. (And kudos to whoever painted the beautiful French and British shields).

No dialect coach is listed, but the ability to switch from English to French to a broad Scottish accent may seem effortless, but had to have taken great effort to bring it all off so seamlessly. (As a native American speaker, I can’t address the actual authenticity of the languages, but it sounded good to me!)

The story takes place at the death of Henry IV and the rise to the throne of his heretofore high living son, Henry V. The new king, not unlike the current Prince Harry, likes to party and has a reputation, though he surprises everyone by taking very seriously his new role as King. Having been assured by Canterbury (with extensive corroborative material) that England has the right to claim lands in France, because of Henry’s roots in the French royal family, the young king makes his intentions known.

The Dauphin responds with an insult in the form of tennis balls and, in reply, Henry announces that he will invade France. All culminates with Henry’s rousing St. Crispin’s day speech, the battle and the ultimate defeat of the French by the English (history records that some 8,000 French were killed, as compared to a few hundred English).

And, of course, there is a girl, the French Princess Catherine, who is wooed, and eventually won by the victorious Henry. The scene with Catherine and her maid, who is trying to teach the young Princess some words in English is very cute and a nice break from the heavier war plans.

If there was any downside to my evening at this Davis Shakespeare Ensemble production, it was an older British couple sitting nearby who talked and giggled throughout most of Act 2. Such behavior would be rude anywhere, but it was a terrible distraction in a venue as small as the Gazebo.

The Davis Shakespeare Ensemble has a real winner with this production, and what a nice way to spend a pleasantly warm evening in Davis. Spray on some mosquito repellant, though. I didn’t, and made a tasty meal for several mosquitos throughout the night.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Triple Espresso

There are some for whom “Triple Espresso,” the new “highly caffeinated comedy”at Sacramento’s Cosmopolitan Cabaret, may not be their “cup of tea” (pun intended), but it’s important to remember that a cabaret show is not the same as a show you would expect to see in a theater.

If you are into laughter, an intimate setting, impromptu audience participation, and some broad, low-brow humor, you’re going to enjoy this production.

Early in 1995, Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg, three successful solo performers who admired each other’s work, gathered over coffee, never knowing the full impact that caffeinated brew would have on their future.

They decided to write something they could perform as a trio — something fun, something unusual, something that would make people laugh so hard they’d snort and embarrass themselves.

I didn’t see any snorting at the Continental Cabaret, but there was no doubt the audience was having a great time, and doing more than their share of tittering.

You can’t argue with success. In the past 15 years, “Triple Espresso” has entertained more than 1.7 million people in 50 cities in six countries in three languages (English, German and Flemish). The show continuously ran for 12 years in Minneapolis and 10 years in San Diego.

Arnold, Donley and Stromberg have opened the Sacramento run and will play the roles until July 10, when they are replaced by another trio, to run through July 22. Some 30 actors have been trained to take on the roles, making it possible to have the show running in several locations at the same time.

Hugh Butternut (Donley) is a lounge lizard, who has been the pianist at the Triple Espresso Coffeehouse for some 20 years. He wears colorful sequined jackets, has a big smarmy grin and a patronizing manner as he invites the audience to sing along with some of his favorite musical numbers from the ’70s.

To celebrate his 20th anniversary, Butternut has invited his two former partners, Bobby Bean (Bob Stromberg) and Buzz Maxwell (Bill Arnold), to join him for the occasion. He is hoping to heal the rift that occurred during an embarrassing incident on “The Mike Douglas Show.”

Bean, who has the personality of a used car salesman, is all smiles and joy at seeing his old partner. Maxwell, however, is sullen, angry and determined not to participate in the grand reunion. It all goes back to the TV appearance and little bits and pieces of information continue to drop throughout the show, until finally all is revealed in a hilarious number toward the end.

The trio (well, two of them anyway) try to relive the glory days of their success, though their success was more of a “I coulda been a contender” type of memory. They never really hit the big time … and they blame it on that Mike Douglas incident.

In flashbacks, each man reprises the high point of his talent — Bean’s attempt to hit it big in Africa, doing a funny medley of old songs sung with a tribal beat.

Maxwell is a laid-back, inept magician doing some of the funniest magic you’ve ever seen. (It takes great talent to be that bad!)

This is a corny show that will keep the cabaret crowd laughing. After the show, the audience has an opportunity to meet the performers in the lobby, and pose for photos.

Friday, June 01, 2012

How I Learned to Drive

One of the first things that hits you in the first monologue of playwright Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” now at Capital Stage under the tight direction of Janis Stevens, is the quality of the writing. There is a Steinbeck-esque quality to the descriptive passages.

Here on the land the Department of Agriculture owns, the smell of sleeping farm animal is thick in the air. The smells of clover and hay mix with the smells of the leather dashboard …”

It bodes well for what is to come, and the production does not disappoint.

“Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson,” says L’il Bit (Stephanie Gularte), who uses driving instructions as a metaphor for general behavior, and, as the play progresses, to describe sexual abuse at the hands of her “Uncle Peck” (James Hiser).

There are no superlatives strong enough to describe Gularte’s performance. She plays a woman in her middle 30s looking back over her life, and remembering her conflicted emotions around abuse by Uncle Peck, the only person in her family she felt actually understood her. In chameleon-like fashion, Gularte can be 35 or 11 with only the help of a pony tail and a change in the expression on her face. It is a remarkable performance.

Hiser is disturbingly smarmy as the uncle with whom L’il Bit has a convoluted relationship, yet while smarmy, he is also almost likable, as he exudes Southern charm.

L’il Bit is a lonely girl in a dysfunctional family, longing for love from someone, happy with a grown-up who is willing to listen to her, who tells her he loves her, who seems to understand her but, even as a young child, knowing that things were not quite right.

The action goes back and forth, in L’il Bit’s memory, from childhood to adulthood and back again. The girl is aware that she is not entirely innocent in the relationship. She plays her own cards by being consciously seductive, encouraged by her manipulative uncle.

“Nothing is going to happen between us — until you want it to,” he tells her at several stages of her puberty, implying casually that she’ll give in with enough pressure.

He is the adult in all this, a position of power he uses to ensure that something is, in fact, happening between them.

“You’re crossing the line,” L’il Bit will tell Peck when he gets too close and he will back off … but never entirely.

The cast includes Eric Wheeler, Jamie Jones and Melanie Marshall as a kind of Greek Chorus, keeping the action moving and filling in as several other characters, including L’il Bit’s weird family, who offer a surprising amount comedy in this otherwise dark story.

This play gives a complex look at the subject of incest and molestation, the complicated relationship between a young girl and a man she has known and loved all of her life. But her final monologue reveals for all what it is like to be in her situation and what it does to a girl for the rest of her life. It is chilling.

The brilliant writing of Vogel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama for this play; the brilliant direction of one of Sacramento’s true gems, Janis Stevens; and an incredibly talented cast at the top of their game make this a play not to be missed.