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.”