Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Undoing of Prudencia Hart

Can an evening possibly go wrong when it starts out with Celtic music played on the uilleann pipe — the smaller cousin to the bagpipe? I think not.

“The Undoing of Prudencia Hart” is a gift to the audience by the National Theater of Scotland, now playing at Mondavi’s Vanderhoef Theater through Sunday. It was a big hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so you knew right off that it was not going to be your run of the mill play.

And it wasn’t.

For starters, the audience members were taken in, about 10 at a time, to give guides inside an opportunity to explain how the evening would go.

The theater seats were gone, in their place, tables and chairs had been set up to simulate a Scottish pub. A bar was placed along one wall, where free “wee drams” of Scotch whiskey were being served. (Another free “wee dram” would be offered at intermission, along with finger sandwiches passed around by the ushers.)

Our guide explained that it was open seating and that it wasn’t important to sit near the stage, since the actors would be using the entire room as the play progressed.

The actors (Annie Grace, Melody Grove, Alasdair Macrae, Paul McCole and David McKay) passed among the tables, explaining that we were supposed to tear the paper napkins given to us into small bits to be used as snow later in the show.

As the action began, there were two problems with the show. The lack of microphones made much of the dialog (which, when we could understand it, was very clever verse) difficult to hear, made more difficult by the heavy Scottish accents. But understanding every word was not necessary to the enjoyment of the evening.

The story of the writing of the script for this show is almost as entertaining as the show itself. It came out of an experience by writer David Grieg, director Wils Wilson and composer Alasdair Macrae, when they visited a pub while researching the Border Ballads for the show. It was the coldest winter in Scotland in many years and they were so comfortable in the pub that nobody wanted the evening to end, so they locked the pub doors and sat around all evening telling story after story. Out of one of those stories (said to be 110 percent true) came the story of Prudencia Hart.

Prudencia (Grove) is an academic, an expert on ballads, literature and “the topography of hell.” She is en route to a conference in the border town of Kelso, driving through a snowstorm to get to a professional meeting. The entire cast gathers around Pru to form a car, with flashlights for headlights and, most clever, the use of a violin bow as a windshield wiper, while tossing bits of napkin bits for the snow.

After much verbal sparring between Pru and her fellow academics, she is trapped in a pub with her nemesis Collin Syme (Clark), where the whiskey flows and inhibitions dissolve as the lights go out, leaving the pub in complete darkness, a problem very cleverly solved by the cast.

Ultimately Pru tears herself away and goes out into the night in search of a B&B and finds herself, instead, in hell.

After the intermission, Act 2 seems like a different play, much more sedate, much easier to follow, and initially lacking the free-wheeling antics of Act 1. Hell, Pru discovers is far more entertaining than she ever imagined — at least for the first few millennia.

Ultimately, however, the lure of “every book that was ever written and even those that have not been written yet” loses its appeal and she finds herself popping up to watch the grass grow in the cracks of the Costco parking lot instead. She decides she wants to return to her non-dead life. She attempts to trick Satan (McKay) into rhyming with her (using the language of love and humanity) to get him to take pity on her and allow her to return to her old life. McKay’s response to his inability to stop rhyming is very funny.

There is a bit of the Orpheus mythology about Pru’s attempts to escape, and the attacks on her would-be rescuer, Collin, are hilarious.

The fun of this show is not necessarily in the plot, but in the ensemble, the music, the hijinks. It is a unique piece of theater, and easy to see why this was a sell-out at the fringe festival and has been a sell-out wherever it plays.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Rock of Ages

At its core, “Rock of Ages,” now at the Sacramento Community Center Theater, is a simple story — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl becomes stripper, boy becomes rock star, mean landlord threatens to destroy legendary nightclub, everybody learns that if they “don’t stop believing,” all will live happily ever after, with arms waved in the air in the manner of a last act finale.

(Parents should note that there is more butt sniffing, crotch scratching and simulated sex than you’d find in “Bark the Musical” at Sacramento Theater Company, along with lots of one-finger salutes, cigarette smoking and skimpy costumes. So if you intend to take your kids to show them what the rock scene was like in your day, you might want to take that into consideration.)

The always muddled sound system of the Community Center Theater made following the very thin, yet apparently convoluted plot all but impossible. However, when you add the music of iconic rockers such as Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, Whitesnake and many more (some 28 classic rock tunes of the ’80s are woven into the story, much the way ABBA songs form the basis for the plot of “Mamma Mia”), the “simple story” becomes a lively, ear-splitting trip down rock-and-roll memory lane that delighted the Sacramento audience.

Directed by Tony Award nominee Kristin Hanggi and choreographed by Kelly Devine, “Rock of Ages” is a multi-award-nominated musical (five Tonys, two Drama League Awards, two Outer Critics Circle awards).
Heading the cast is Lonny (Justin Colombo), who serves as the show’s narrator and keeps the interaction with the audience going. Colombo is heavy smoking and crass, as the role requires.

Danny McHugh is Drew, working as a busboy in the legendary Sunset Strip club, The Bourbon Room, owned by Dennis (Jacob L. Smith). Drew has dreams becoming a rock star and spends his spare time writing songs, hoping for his big break someday.

Sherrie (Shannon Mullen) is a wide-eyed, innocent young girl just arrived from Kansas with stars in her eyes, hoping to become an actress. She and Drew become instant friends when Drew helps her get a job at The Bourbon Room.

Their friendship is affected when Sherrie decides she “wants to know what love is” and has sex in the men’s bathroom with Stacee Jaxx (Universo Pereira), lead singer for the group Arsenal, who not only promptly dumps her, but insists she be fired from the club or he will refuse to perform.

With nowhere to go, Sherrie is taken in by Justice (Amma Osei), owner of a strip club, who teaches Sherrie the moves.

In the meantime, German developers Hertz (Phillip Peterson) and his son Franz (Stephen Michael Kane) want to introduce “clean living” to the Sunset Strip and plan to demolish The Bourbon Room.

This sets off a protest led by Regina (Megan McHugh) — emphasis is made that the character’s name rhymes with a female body part — who spends her time chained together with her fellow protesters marching up back and forth across the stage with their protest signs.

The playing out of the various plot lines in Act 2 is merely an opportunity for performing several well-known classic songs (“Anyway You Want It,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” “Every Rose has a Thorn,” “Oh Sherrie,” among others), and of course, The Bourbon Room is spared, the Germans have a change of heart, Franz gets to fulfill his dreams of owning a candy store, Sherrie and Drew reconcile (“The Search is Over”), Dennis passes on and becomes an angel and everyone realizes that the dreams you start with are not always the dreams you end up with, but they still rock (“Don’t Stop Believin’”).

It’s all very silly, but you go to “Rock of Ages” for the music, not for the story, and those for whom this is the music of their lives will come away satisfied.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


“Godspell,” the musical based on the parables contained in the Gospel of Matthew, opened at the Woodland Opera House this week, under the direction of Jason Hammond.

“Godspell,” with music by Stephen Schwartz and book by John-Michael Tebelak was first presented in 1970 as Tebelak’s masters project thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It subsequently had a 10 performance run at La Mama Experimental Theater club in New York, where it caught the eye of producers Edgar Lansbury (brother of Angela) and Joseph Behruh, who hired Steven Schwartz to write a new song score, incorporating a variety of musical styles including pop, folk rock, gospel and vaudeville.

The newly reworked show opened Off-Broadway in 1971 and has been playing around the country ever since, including a 2011 Off-Broadway revival which played from October to June 2012.

Perhaps more than most musicals, this show seems to have a lot of opportunities for different visions, depending on director. A broad, circus-like version received a lot of critical complaint for its irreverence. For director Hammond, keeping the reverence in all the silliness was crucial.

“In all my theater ventures, I keep God center stage; but this show is particularly close to my heart in that I was raised on these parables and hold the teachings to be relevant, powerful guides in my life today,” he said.

There are 12 actors listed in the cast. “Father” (Jerry Stadel) is not seen, but is only a disembodied voice at the start of the show. “Boy” (James Hayakawa) is briefly seen at the start of the show. And Eric Alley, a part of the ensemble, was not able to participate, due to a broken foot, but his part was beautifully sung from the orchestra by musical director James C. Glica-Hernandez. So seamless was the substitution, that it almost seemed as if it had been planned that way.

After a cacophonous opening number by the ensemble representing various philosophers and their philosophies, Matt Taloff as John (and also, later, Judas) starts the actual story, meeting Jesus (Erik Catalan) and baptizing him. Taloff is a powerful presence throughout, and Catalan exudes the peaceful, yet powerful, persona of Jesus. It is easy to see how people want to follow him.

As the parables unfold, each of the cast gets his or her moment to shine, starting with the story of the master forgiving a servant’s debt. Emily O’Flaherty sings “Day by Day,” the only song which really achieved much prominence from this show. It has an almost “Hair” quality about it.

The parable of Lazarus and the Rich man is sung (“Learn Your Lessons Well”) by Emily Delk, who later does a beautiful reprise with Glicia-Hernandez.

Ayesha Thomas rocks the house with the gospel tune “O Bless the Lord, My Soul,” followed by Quentin Carbajal’s “All Good Gifts” to represent the parable of the sower and the seed.

Eimi Taormina reminds the audience of the necessity of turning to God in “Turn Back, Oh Man,” while Hannah Wallace sings a beautiful “By My Side” as the adulteress, whom Jesus rescues.

One of the many lighter moments comes with “We Beseech Thee,” separating the sheep from the goats, sung in vaudeville style by Alex Cesena.

Jesus suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane (“In the Willows”) and subsequent betrayal by Judas and crucifixion was poignantly portrayed by Catalan.

If one wanted to quibble, there are funny bits that might seem sacrilegious (such as the blessing of Goldfish and YooHoo drink at the Last Supper), but this production never loses its reverence for the word of God, and I think Jesus himself might have smiled watching it.

As I left the theater, I couldn’t help but think that if more churches incorporated some of “Godspell” into their services, church attendance might rise.

Bark, The Musical

“Bark, The Musical,” directed by Michael Laun with choreography by Jacob Montoya, is now entertaining audiences on Sacramento Theater Company’s Pollack Stage. A portion of the proceeds will go STC’s partner for this production, the Sacramento SPCA. Adoptable dogs will be on display at some productions, and a poster of dogs up for adoption adorn the lobby.

This show is somewhat of a phenomenon. After making its debut in Los Angeles in 2004, it received rave reviews, ran for two years, and became the third longest running show in Los Angeles history. It ran seven months in Chicago and has played in little theaters all across the country, as well has having had a Portuguese translation for showing in Brazil.

This isn’t exactly the dog-lovers’ answer to “Cats.” The scale is much smaller, and the dog-specific parts of the costumes (by McKayla Butym) are limited to collars, leashes and pads for hands, but it is as earnest as a puppy begging you to love it.

This a show built by committee. The book is by Mark Winkler and Gavin Geoffrey Dillard, music by David Troy Francis, lyrics by Dillard, Winkler and Robert Schrock, with additional lyrics by Jonathan Heath and Danny Lukic.

There are 23 songs that give us a glimpse at life from a dog’s perspective. Titles such as “Whizzin’ on Stuff,” “Fooood!” “Howling Just to Scare Away the Blues,” and “Dirty, Filthy Old Flea Bag” let the audience know immediately what to expect, though it is less clear with songs like “Mighty Mutt from Mars” or “Senorita la Pepita.”

Dog lovers will recognize each of the characters by their breed. King, the Labrador Retriever (Armond Edward Dorsey), is missing his master, who has grown up and gone away to school. He awaits the day when they will be together again. His interpretation of “Dog’s Best Friend” and the later “Grassy Field” are both very emotional, while his story of being neutered was very funny.

Jessica Goldman is listed as Boo, the Cocker Spaniel, but was unable to perform on opening night, so her role was played by Meghan Greene, from STC’s Young Professional’s Conservatory. Greene is a sweet and cuddly cocker spaniel, though her voice did not have the power of her co-stars. She did, however, give a touching rendition of “Pound Song,” telling the story of losing her pups when they were rounded up by the dog catcher.

Golde, the Bull Dog was played by Miranda D. Lawson. Golde is the comedian of the group, always with a cynical, sardonic aside. Her depiction of a dog wearing a neck cone is hilarious.

Tyler Wipfli is Chanel, the French Poodle. Owned by a gay couple and dressed in pink and feathers, Chanel’s favorite time of the week is when she and one of her owners listen to opera together. Her song “Il Cane Dell’Opera” was one of the highlights of the show, and displays her musical training (she is a Music Theater major, studying voice at Oklahoma City University).

Sean Patrick Nill plays Sam, the Pit Butt Mutt. He and King vie for yard superiority. His “M-U-T-T Rap” is another highlight, which lists just about every breed in the book, comparing them to plain vanilla mutts.

Rocks, the Jack Russell pup is played by a “please love me!” Scottie Woodard, so eager to please and a continually wagging tail. Rocks presents the only real “story” of the evening, trying to learn how to bark, and getting lessons from the older dogs.

The dogs remind us that their needs are simple — a handful of kibble, fresh water, a loving hand to pet them, and a place to call home. “Bark” is a reminder to go home and give our pets a scratch behind the ears and a tummy rub and let them know how glad we are that they are in our lives.

And if you have no dog in your life currently, the SPCA will be happy to help you find your own forever friend at one of the performances.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Radium Girls

I am continually amazed that Acme Theatre Company, whose young members spend a maximum of three, possibly four years, performing with the group before moving on to college, continue to present some of the most professional theatrical productions around.

The company also continues to present shows that make us laugh and think, and especially leave us with topics to talk about, topics that may have a historical context, but that are relevant even today.

“Radium Girls,” by D.W. Gregory, covers one of those topics. At the dawn of the 20th century, according to program notes, radium was full of glowing promise and represented the bright potential of scientific progress. The Curies were celebrities and radium’s fantastical healing properties were an overnight sensation. Radium-infused toothpaste, hair creams, medicinal waters and make-up were made quickly available to the public.

In 1917, the U.S. Radium Corp. opened a factory in Orange, N.J., and began hiring young women to paint the small, glowing numbers on watch dials. The job paid well and the work was challenging, but appealing, until the dial-painters began experiencing health problems, which were not properly diagnosed.

When studies linked the strange physical conditions — rotting jaw bones, various cancers, necropsy of extremities — to radium, U.S. Radium Corp. covered up the findings and insisted that their plant was “clean” and presented no danger to the workers.

“Radium Girls” follows the case of three young women — Grace (Camila Biaggi), Kathryn (Eden Tomich) and Irene (Margaret Starbuck) — as they first work for the plant and then, one by one, begin to get ill. After Irene’s death, Grace and Kathryn decide to bring a lawsuit against the plant, and the plot is on.

Grace is the longest-lasting and hardest-fighting of the trio and we watch her character grow throughout the play. Her formal education ended at age 15 and she starts as a naive thing who trusts that her employer will take care of her, but she learns a lot along the way and ends up much stronger for it. It is a beautiful performance by Biaggi.

The play, which is staged at the Pamela Trokanski Performing Arts Center on Del Rio Place (a perfect venue for Acme!), is directed by Maddy Ryen and includes eight actors, six of whom play many different roles. There is not a weak performance in the lot.

Will Kingscott is the other actor playing only one role, that of Arthur Roeder, the president of U.S. Radium Corp., torn between his drive to lead his company and to deny any responsibility for the girls’ illnesses, and his deeply embedded desire to be a good guy. We want to hate him, but Kingscott makes us feel the character’s dilemma. In the courtroom, and later at the cemetery, he is so guilt-ridden that he cannot look Grace in the eye.

In addition to playing Irene, Starbuck also appears as Kathryn Wiley, the lawyer whose determination kept the suit active but who, in the end, uses the girls for her own group’s purposes almost as much as their employer does.

Miki Benson and Wil Forkin are perfect as the newspaper reporters hungry for every gruesome detail about the girls’ illnesses and giddy with delight when some new tragedy befalls them. They are too sadly reminiscent of the paparazzi, celebrity reporters and talking heads of today.

Forkin also plays Grace’s long-suffering, devoted boyfriend, Tom, who stands by her through the early days of what ultimately will be her fatal illness.

Antonio De Loera-Brust is both Von Sochocky, the man who originally founded U.S. Radium and who developed the radium paint that is killing the workers, and the attorney who represents the corporation in the lawsuit, who attempts to buy the girls’ silence with a fairly low settlement offer.

In smaller roles are Katy Zaragoza-Smith, Brian Stewart and Matt Fyhrie, all of whom deliver the goods for their many characters.

Kudos also to whoever had the idea of using radiation green to light the back of the stage during scene changes!

Despite the depressing topic, there are some lighter moments that break the tension, but ultimately there can be no happy ending.

Director Ryen has created a tightly woven production that should remind all of us how little practices have changed in the business world today, as far too many corporations still value profits over the welfare of their workers.

Monday, January 07, 2013


The setting for Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” is a run-down theater, so pretty much any theatrical group, with or without a large budget, can do it! A Broadway production can add glitz for the flashback scenes, but basically any stage can be given the run-down look.

The costumes must be spectacular, those for the former glamorous stars returning to their old theater for one last hurrah before it is to be destroyed and made into a parking lot, and especially for the flashbacks to their former days, but when you have someone like Jeanne Henderson, Davis Musical Theatre Company’s faithful costumer, it’s a no-brainer.

What you must have, however, is a stellar cast of principal-quality voices and, to his credit, director Steve Isaacson has managed to assemble just that for DMTC’s current production.

The story is pretty simple — the old stars having one big reunion and reliving their former glory days. The tension comes between two couples, Buddy and Sally, and Benjamin and Phyllis. Two chorus girls dating two admirers, and later marrying, with problems in both marriages. The unfolding revelations are at the heart of the action.

Sally (Lenore Sebastian) has “run away” despite Buddy’s (Rand Martin) edict that she should not attend the reunion. Buddy follows her. Sally still has the magic in her eyes as she sees the theater again. Sebastian has two knock-out numbers with “In Buddy’s Eyes,” talking about the love her husband has for her, and “Losing My Mind,” where she is furious that she has wasted the past 30 years obsessed with a man who has never loved her and never will.

Martin as Buddy, a character reminiscent of “Chicago’s” Amos Hart, brings down the house with “The-God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues.”

Phyllis (Allison Lizzi) married Benjamin (John Haine), a successful politician and businessman. The two travel in elite circles, but things are not as they seem, as we learn in Act Two, as Phyllis sings the acerbic “Could I Leave You?”

Many of the actors are “shadowed” by younger members of themselves. Caitlin Martin and Thomas Eredia, as Sally and Buddy, and Michele Guerrieri and David “Turtle” Akona as Phyllis and Ben, were excellent choices, acting the scenes among the four in their younger years.

But the real soul of the work is when the former show girls relive their big moments in the days when they were working for the womanizing Dimitri Weismann (Gil Sebastian).

All are wonderful, but the surprising stand-out is Jan Isaacson as Hattie Walker, a “Broadway Baby,” the one who never achieved her dreams, but kept on slugging away “pounding 42nd Street to be in a show.” This is Isaacson’s finest hour. The beaming smile on her face and the thunderous applause that followed her unique interpretation of the song told the story. Bravo, Jan!

Mary Young, longtime DMTC diva, who has not had a real “meaty” role in a while, was also in her element as Carlotta Campion, singing “I’m Still Here,” proving that she is, indeed, still here.

Stella Deams (Christine Deamer) gets the whole troupe up dancing together to “Who’s That Woman,” shadowed by a chorus line of tap-dancing young women.

The always-wonderful Marguerite Morris as Heidi gives a moving rendition of “One Last Kiss,” shadowed by Christina Gross as Young Heidi, who perfectly mimicked all of Morrison’s movements as well.
Chris Cay Stewart as Solange LaFitte, pushing her beauty product line, sings “Ah, Paris!” to great effect, while Rick Faiola and Barbara Ann Checceti as Vincent and Vanessa, who now teach dancing at an Arthur Murray-like school, do a sweet “Bolero d’Amour.”

Musical director Adam Sartain does double duty as Roscoe Whitman, the man who always sang those “Beautiful Girls” down the staircase to make their entrance. He ultimately married chorus girl Emily (Monica Parisi).

This is a show about youthful enthusiasm and middle-aged regrets mixed together with nostalgia and cynicism, a recipe for a hearty evening of entertainment.