Sunday, April 28, 2013

Bat Boy

One would hardly think of the Weekly World News as a source for material to inspire a musical, but that’s exactly where Laurence O’Keefe, Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming came up with the idea for “Bat Boy: The Musical,"  now being performed on the university’s Wyatt Stage by the student-run Studio 301, directed and choreographed by Chris McCoy.

The “real” Bat Boy was, according to the Weekly World News, a creature who was half-human and half-bat captured in 1992 in a West Virginia cave by Dr. Bob Dillon of the S.O.S. (Seeker of Obscure Supernaturals). The newspaper reported on his capture, escape and recapture a few times throughout its brief history. Editor Dick Kulpa eventually admitted the story was fiction.
Studio 301 has presented a very polished production of the horror story, with a strong cast, some fun tunes (some forgettable) played by the competent six-piece off-stage orchestra under the direction of Alex Stalarow and sung by some very strong voices.

The story opens with a very realistic depiction of sibling spelunkers Ron (Johnny Wylie), Rick (Jimmy Beall) and Ruthie (Marissa Saravis) descending into a cave near the town of Hope Falls, W.Va. They are excited to possibly be the only people to have ever descended this far into the earth, and then shocked to find a creature living there. The headlamps on each of the characters, piercing the pitch black of the theater and only occasionally flashing on the creature add to the suspense.

The creature is captured, but not before biting Ruthie, who is rushed to the hospital and lays in critical condition throughout the play. The creature, whom they name Bat Boy (Marcos Sastre III) is taken to the town doctor, Dr. Parker (John Unrath), where he is placed in a cage and becomes an object of interest for Parker’s wife Meredith (Elizabeth Tremaine) and daughter Shelley (Rachel Wagner).

Meredith takes an unusual liking to the creature and insists he be called “Edgar,” while Shelley, first repulsed by him, grows to love him. The doctor comes home to find the creature in his home and intends to euthanize him but does not when his wife promises him sex if he will not do it. Parker feels this is a way to mend his broken marriage.

Unrath and Tremaine have beautiful voices. Unrath’s startles as he begins singing “Dance with me, My Darling,” and Tremaine’s emotional “A Home for You” is stunning.

Under tutelage from the family, Edgar quickly learns how to be human. He seems to be exceptionally intelligent and, thanks to BCC language tapes, speaks with an upper crust British accent.

The townsfolks, however, who sing about “Christian Charity,” are anything but Christian. It’s another case of outsider fear and they still want to “Kill the Bat Boy,” but if that can’t happen at least they can request that he not attend an upcoming revival meeting led by the Rev. Hightower (Malia Abayon).

Act 2 is the revival meeting, which Edgar insists on attending to ask the townsfolk to “Let Me Walk Among You.” (Sastre also has an excellent voice.) The meeting quickly disintegrates when Dr. Parker announces that Ruthie has died. This sets off a series of deaths and revelations about Bat Boy’s parentage and birth, better experienced than written about.

And we also find out why all the cows are dying, a parallel curse which, with the discovery of Bat Boy, everyone assumes is his doing … but really is for quite a different reason.

This is a pretty silly show, but performed beautifully by all of the actors involved.

The opening night audience was disappointingly small and I would hope that others decide to check this show out because,  for one thing where else are you going to see it? And for another silly or not, it really is a good show.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Peter Pan

If you have children — or grandchildren — looking for something to do the next couple of weekends, I highly recommend taking them to Woodland Opera House’s sparkling new production of “Peter Pan.”

This is not the Peter Pan of Disney and you probably won’t recognize any of the songs, but this version, with book, music and lyrics by Piers Chater Robinson and directed by Angela Baltezore, is loads of fun. The theater full of young children — who sat spellbound throughout the evening and cheered at the end — attested to that (there was even one toddler, so caught up in it all that when the children’s choir marched up on stage to take their bows, he slipped out of his seat and followed them and had to be rescued by his mother).

Robinson created this adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” in 1985, following approval by the trustees of Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in Britain, to whom Barrie had left the Peter Pan rights. Robinson’s adaptation was further developed into “Peter Pan The Official British Musical.” It has since been performed all over the world and has been a favorite in the West End in London for the past 25 years.

Leading the cast in the title role is Emily Jo Seminoff. I first met this talented actress in 2006, when she was playing this role for the second time with Davis Musical Theater’s Young People’s Theater. It has been a delight to watch her grow up on stage and her Peter in this production is spot-on, the perfect little boy who won’t grow up and becomes confused when Wendy wants to. She also flies through the air with the greatest ease, courtesy of ZFX Flying Effects.

Seventh-grader Emily O’Flaherty tackles the role of Wendy and does it beautifully. She has a lovely voice and is wonderfully at home on stage.

Her brothers, John (Bailey Robinson-Burmester) and Michael (Makenna Harding-Davis) also deserve kudos. Robinson-Burmester continues in his theater family’s tradition and carries the torch very well, while Harding-Davis is just cute as a button in all of her scenes.

Rodger McDonald is the father of the Darling children and also Captain Hook. Was there ever a better actor for the role? As Hook he is appropriately nasty, without scaring the children in the audience, and as Mr. Darling he is all bluff and bluster, but obviously loving his children very much.

Returning to the stage after a long hiatus is Betsy Taloff, as Mrs. Darling, the mother everyone would like to have, loving and understanding, particularly when Wendy expresses a desire to return to Neverland once a year to help Peter with spring cleaning.

Stealing the show are Marcus Lucia as Nana, the nursemaid dog, and Mary Dahlberg as the crocodile who follows Hook everywhere, hoping to get another taste of him. Aided by the costume design of Denise Miles these two make very credible (and popular) animals.

Kudos also to Chris Taloff for “playing” Tinker Bell. The green light which flitted around the stage, augmented with twinkle music by musical director James Glica-Hernandez, was just perfect, especially when Tink nestled in Peter’s hands, dying. There was also lots of fun with Hook at the curtain call.

The crew of Lost Boys — Emily Miller, Ryan Everitt, Hayley Harrison, Casey Wathen, Jimin Moon and Jordan Hayakawa — were all great, and the Indian dancers — Camila Morales, Keri Ruanto, Andrew Duncan and Hunter Lamar — along with chief Horacio Gonzalez had the show stopping dance of the evening, choreographed by Angela Baltezore and Eva Sarry.

Hook’s second in command, Smee (Jeff Nauer) succeeded in making the bumbling pirate more lovable than frightening.

The production is great fun for the whole family and will only be around weekends until May 12, so get your tickets before they are sold out.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


A big “Yeeow! Aye-yip-aye-yo-d-ee-ay!” to Davis Musical Theater Company for its energetic opening weekend of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”

This show hits high marks across the board from strong direction and choreography by Jan Isaacson, a strong cast, Jean Henderson’s great costume designs (though I have to admit those cowboys had the shiniest boots I’ve ever seen!), and music direction by Chris Congdon.

“Oklahoma!,” the first musical collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein — who later brought the world the likes of “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “Sound of Music” — changed the face of musical theater history when it debuted in 1943, for telling an emotional story through music, lyrics and dance as had never been done before. Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, “Oklahoma!” brought something akin to folk art to professional theater and won a Pulitzer special award and citation for music in 1944.

One dare not look too closely at the plot of this musical, for there is little there. At a time when musicals are just as likely to have a dark side as a cheery side, the story of a boy and a girl, their friends and a lunch box social is not exactly likely to provoke much psychological introspection.

The story is set in the Oklahoma territory in 1907 — the days just before statehood — and touches ever so lightly on the ongoing feud between farmers and cattlemen, though that definitely takes a back seat to the story of Curly, a cattleman, in love with Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller and the hired man, Jud Fry, the dark character who has his eye on Laurey, while Laurey has her eye on Curly.

Travis Nagler isn’t quite your typical pretty boy Curly, but looks every bit the catttleman and delivers solid vocals whenever he opens his mouth. His relationship with Laurey (Laura Woodruff) showed some sparks, especially in their verbal battles with one another, and they were believable in their romantic scenes.

Nagler also does his own dancing in the dream sequence with “Dream Laurey” (Kaylin Scott) and “Dream Jud” (Gabe Avila).

Woodruff was a lovely Laurey, with a beautiful soprano. I particular enjoyed her scenes of introspection, when she talks about her dreams and seems to escape into that wished-for world. It was very moving.

Mary Young reprises her 2006 performance as Aunt Eller, one of her better roles. She’s a crusty old dame, reluctant to let her softer side show, and commanding enough respect that everyone listens to her.

Outstanding was Scott Scholes, as Will Parker, in love with Ado Annie (Ashley Holm) and just returned from Kansas City, where he entered a rodeo trying to win $50 so he can marry the girl of his dreams. His “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” was a real show stopper, especially with the choreography for the cowboys.

Holm is perfect as Annie, the hormonally charged young woman who just can’t say no to any man who “talks purdy” to her. In Will’s absence she decided she’s in love with the Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Avila), who eagerly returns her interest, but his own interests don’t really lead toward the altar.

Avila was fun as Hakim who is a typical traveling salesman until he finds himself in a romantic mess. He finds a clever way to extricate himself from a bad situation.

Left out of the program, but still an important character is Andrew Carnes (Michael Davis), Annie’s father who refused to permit Annie to marry Will unless Will could show some responsibility by coming up with $50 cash. For Davis, this was one to check off his bucket list, as, after a productive lifetime, he has finally appeared on stage in a musical … and has done a credible job of it too!

I always have trouble with the plot line and the character of Jud Fry (Steve Isaacson). Jud is the “bad guy,” the “outsider” whom nobody likes and who turns violent in the end. Isaacson owns this role. He brings humanity to Fry and gives the audience a glimpse of why he is the way he is. It is a beautiful and moving performance and makes me wish that Isaacson appeared on stage more often, since he is such a talented actor.

In this week, when we have once again seen the length to which “outsiders” will go when they become angry, I couldn’t help thinking of the bombers of Boston and all the other “outsiders” we have witnessed in the news in recent years.

Jud’s “outsiderness” is even more apparent when there is a more or less a sham trial following his death, in the front yard of Aunt Eller’s house, where the judge laughs and pronounces Curly not guilty of murder so the young folks can get on with their honeymoon and not bother about a more formal trial at the courthouse.

One suspects that had it been Fry who killed Curly, the response of folks would have been quite different.

However, “Oklahoma!” is not a message show, unless the message is to kick up your heels and have a good time, which the DMTC audiences certainly will have if they are fortunate enough to catch this production.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Billy Elliot

When “Billy Elliot,” the musical based on the 2000 movie, with music by Elton John, opened on Broadway, it won just about every award possible, including 10 Tonys, 10 Drama Desk awards, and 8 Outer Circle Critics Circle awards.  America took the story of a young northern England boy who just wants dance to its heart.

The show is now running at the Sacramento Community Theater and judging by the sustained cheers throughout the musical, and the standing ovation at its conclusion, Sacramento has taken the show to its heart as well.

The story is set during the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the story of the dancers intermingles with the story of the striking miners an often ingenious ways.

Billy’s father wants him to be a boxer, but after an unpleasant beginning, Billy stumbles on a dance class being held in the same building.  Intrigued, he begins to mimic the girls in the ballet class and soon is one of the students himself.  His teacher realizes that he has talent and takes him under her wing with private lessons when his father forbids him to attend the class again.

The dancing in this show is amazing.  Billy was played on opening night by Mitchell Tobin, a 12 year old from Florida who has been dancing since he was 3 years old. He shares the role at other productions with Ben Cook, Drew Minard, and Noah Parets. 

Tobin had a few minor fluffs in his dancing on opening night, but is simply amazing.  The Act 1 “Angry Dance” will leave you breathless. And as good as his dancing is, the kid is also a convincing actor who will bring you to tears.

Janet Dickinson is Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s dance teacher who discovers the talent in the boy and becomes a sort of surrogate mother to him when she learns that his own mother (Molly Garner) is dead.  Though she obviously cares for the boy, she keeps him at arms length, keeping the teacher/student relationship very strong.

Billy’s father is played by Rich Herbert, a bear of a man who is torn between his desire to make a man of his son and his son’s passion for dancing.

The character of “Dad” has been written, in this show, somewhat confusing.  In the movie, the struggle to accept Billy’s love of dancing evolves over time, when in the musical it seems instantaneous and somewhat unbelievable.

There are some sweet moments between Billy and the ghost of his mother, especially when it comes time for her to finally leave him.

Billy’s cross-dressing friend Michael was played on opening night by Sam Poon, who alternates in the role with Jake Kitchin.  Billy keeps Michael’s secret and their relationship is very sweet.

It was a little unsettling to see this show immediately following the death of Margaret Thatcher. The show goes out of its way to vilify the former Prime Minister for her attempts (ultimately successful) at breaking the miners’ union.  The opening of Act 2 is particularly mean-spirited, being held at a Christmas pageant where people wear Thatcher masks and wigs, a chorus of puppets are dressed as Thatcher, and an enormous inflated Thatcher rises out of the building.  At one point the lyrics include

Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher
We all celebrate today
‘Cause it’s one day closer to your death.

while dancers carry around a grave marker with “Thatcher R.I.P.” on it.

In London, a vote was taken of the audience about whether this number should be left in the show for the night of her death and the vote was nearly unanimous that it should remain, with only one dissenting vote.

The show’s biggest problem is difficulty understanding lyrics and dialog, a combination of the difficult Northern England accent and terminology combined with the perennial acoustical problems of the Community Center theater.

However, that should not deter anyone from seeing this show.  I have been wanting to see “Billy Elliot” since it opened to rave reviews on Broadway...and it was well worth the wait!

Monday, April 08, 2013

The Mountaintop

The setting is Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee.  The date is April 4, 1968.  There is a storm raging outside.  The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. has just given his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech in support of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and has returned to his motel room, exhausted, craving caffeine.  He has sent Ralph Abernathy off to get some Pall Mall cigarettes for him. 

He prepares to work on his speech for the next day, which will address “Why America is going to Hell.”

Unbeknownst to King, it is his last night on earth and it’s going to be a strange evening. The play imagines the events that might have taken place the night before King’s assassination.

This is King’s own particular garden of Gethsemane, written by playwright Katori Hall (who won the Olivier Award for this play), presented by Capital Stage, and directed by the multi-talented Anthony D’Juan, making his Capital Stage directorial debut (though familiar to Capital audiences from his on-stage performances).

It was important to Hall not to deify King.  “King changed the world, but he was not a deity.  He was a man, a human being.  So it was important to show him as such: vulnerable,” the playwright states.

Beethoven Oden creates a very human King.  He’s tired.  He’s coming down with a cold.  He has smelly feet.  He smokes too much. He’s caffeine addicted.  He lies to his wife.  He’s disappointed at the turnout for his speech, afraid that his followers are tired of the fight...and he’s concerned about the continuing threats on his life and that of his family.  The threats have loomed so large that he mentioned them in his speech (“I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you...”)  Paranoid, he obsessively paces back and forth, peeking through the curtains, checking tables, lamps, etc. for listening devices.

He calls the front desk for coffee, which is delivered by Camae (ZZ Moor), a maid at the hotel, who says she’s working her first night.  She is awed by King and is at first coyly deferential, and then, as it appears there is chemistry between them, becomes flirty. She tries to leave several times, but, encouraged by King, continues to stay, sharing a cigarette (she has Pall Malls) and prompting King to confront his life, his past, his legacy and the future of his people..

Camae is just what King needs to relax.  As she becomes more comfortable with him, she allows herself to be foul-mouthed and sassy and puts King at ease. With King’s reputation as a womanizer, it looks like this play is going in one direction, but then, as Camae’s secret becomes known, it takes a 180 degree turn and goes in a completely different direction.

Moor’s performance is spot on, with her accentuated Southern drawl.  Her performance could easily descend to the cutesy but she stays in character, not caricature.

As the play moves forward and the focus of it shifts, it loses a bit of credibility and enters more of the fantasy realm, in stark contrast to the beginning, though the finale, where King is able to see the results of his work is masterful and impressive.

The set for this production is by Capital Stage co-founder Jonathan Williams, who obviously must have spent a lot of time in seedy motels in order to create one so perfectly. (I did wonder if the hem of the bedspread, askew on one of the beds, was deliberate or accidental.)

This is a 90 minute, no intermission play, which is a good thing because to include a break in the middle would destroy the mood set throughout.

In his last speech, King said “I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  One hopes that on his last night he really came to feel that.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

"Master Harold"...and the Boys

Sacramento Theater Company’s new production of Athol Fugard’s “‘Master Harold’...and the Boys” is not to be missed.  Set in a tea room in South Africa during the period of apartheid, it tells the coming of age story of a young white boy of privilege and his relationship with the two black employees at his mother’s shop.

Director Buddy Butler has a dream cast.  Will Block (Harold...or Hally) is finishing his sixth year with STC’s Young People’s Company with this production and his performance is mesmerizing.  His is a complex character, a good friend to Sam (Michael J. Asberry) and Willie (Rob Anthony Gray), but recognizes the disparity in their ranks.  Still, Sam has been both a father figure and his student throughout his growing up years and their relationship is complicated. Hally helps Sam with vocabulary, Sam teaches Hally life lessons.

Block hits all the proper nuances.  He beautifully and poignantly portrays Hally’s struggles with his feelings about his father, and his convoluted relationship with Sam.

Asberry likewise gives a sensitive and layered performance.  He brings dignity and wisdom to his menial job and finds joy in simple things, like the upcoming ballroom dance competition in which both he and Willie will be competing. He feels very protective of Hally, yet walks on eggshells some of the time, very much aware of the class distinction between the two of them. He has known the boy since he was very young and the two have reached a point where their relationship may have to change. The tenderness and humanity he displays in the earlier scenes with both Willie and Hally give way to anger and raw emotion in the play's climax. When Hally eventually strips him of any and all dignity, the man that Sam becomes is frightening and Asberry gives a gut wrenching performance.

The action takes place on a rainy afternoon in the tea room, when Hally comes home from school for his afternoon meal, which appears to be his daily habit.  Sam has been busy helping Willie with the finer points of the quick step.  Gray is perfect as the charismatic Willie, with an innocent sense of humor, but whose temper is quick, and who routinely gives his wife a “hiding.” He accepts as something that a husband must do to a wife and can’t understand why this makes her angry.  He is afraid that her last beating was so severe she won’t even compete in the dance competition.

The parental-like relationship between Sam and Hally is beautifully demonstrated when Hally recalls “the best day of his life,” when Sam made a kite for him and he was able to fly it for the first time.  His face glows with the memory, though Sam’s later recollections of that day are quite different.

The central figure in the story is Hally’s father, apparently an amputee, and and abusive alcoholic. The father has been in the hospital, but is being released early, which sends Hally over the edge, desperate to convince his mother, by telephone, that the father needs a longer recovery period and should not be brought home. You can see the fear in Hally as he contemplates how his life will change with his father home again.  Feeling powerless to stop what is about to happen, Hally takes his anger and frustration out on Sam and Willie.

Thought the play is an example of the world of apartheid, it still rings true today, in an era where we are sadly still divided in to “us” and “them” and where in moments of stress “we” can still reduce “them” to the class of “other” and thus not equal.  Sam brings such dignity to the world of the “other” and shows us the humanity that Hally forgets in his anger.