Saturday, November 30, 2013

Not in the Stars

People have been asking me for years why I don’t review shows at the B Street Theater in Sacramento.  I have heard wonderful things about productions there, but when I started working for The Enterprise, it was not on my list of theaters to review.  The criterion was that if there was a Davis person in the show, or in some other way involved with the show, I could review it.  But that was never the case with B Street.

Recently, however, Buck Busfield, the Producing Artistic Director of B Street, realizing how many people in Davis come to his shows, convinced The Enterprise to let me add that theater to the list of places where I go, and so I went off on Sunday to my very first B Street production, “Not in the Stars,” a romantic comedy written and directed by Busfield.  Apparently it is a B Street tradition that Busfield write an original show each year during holiday time.

This show, in fact, was originally a one-act produced in 1994, the cast including Kurt Johnson, also in tonight’s cast.  It was reprised in 1996 when B Street was going through financial difficulties.  The cast then included not only Johnson, but also Elisabeth Nunziato and Dave Pierini, both appearing again in the current production.

Busfield decided to resurrect the show and expand it into a full evening’s entertainment.  It is still a work in progress, he explained to me, saying that they had made major changes before opening night and would probably continue to tweak the show as it continues through January.

The show actually made me kind of angry.  It was so amazingly good, so tightly written and so beautifully acted, that I was upset I had missed years of similar productions.

While this is the annual Christmas show, this is not a play about Christmas.  There is a red couch on stage and a character wears a green coat, but direct reference to any December holiday is nonexistent.

What is existent is a very funny script, with three seasoned actors, each playing 2 characters whose live intersect in two acts.

Act one centers on book editor Yvonne (Nunziato), nervously waiting for a blind date, Clare (Johnson) to arrive.  Yvonne is a bundle of neuroses, having been married to a man who left her for her best friend, and having had her share of bad dating experiences.  So self-protective is she that she rejects Clare on first sight, deciding after one look that they are not destined to be soul mates.

Clare has his own neuroses to deal with.  He’s an actuary whose job it is to calculate risks and he opens a dialog with Yvonne, a dialog that sizzles, as the two dance the dance of two neurotics who are better suited for each other than either is willing to admit.

Pierini plays two roles in the first act, that of Mac, a hapless telephone repair man whom Yvonne mistakenly thinks is Clare, and later a waiter at the restaurant where Clare and Yvonne end up going for dinner.  The dialog between the three at the restaurant progresses like a well oiled machine, displaying how attuned these actors are to each other and how well they work together.

Act two centers on Mac, at home with wife Maria (Nunziato again), complaining about the “nutcase” he visited earlier in the evening, the only real connection between Act 1 and Act 2  Mac is the guy who knows everything and wants to make sure you realize that. We’ve all known them. The person whose only interest in what you are saying is so he can top it or expand it or tell you how you’re wrong. He’s not a bad guy and he obviously worships the ground his wife walks on, but at the same time, he doesn’t listen to a thing she says and hasn’t a clue how dissatisfied she is.

Maria is a mousy woman who only wants a night out by herself to get away from Mac for an hour or so.  Nunziato has changed clothes from the bold take-charge costume of Yvonne into a muted pastel outfit of Maria, whose very clothes show how closed she is. (Costume design is by Paulette Sand-Gilbert.  I also liked the change to a pink lipstick match her other muted colors.)

Maria leaves a bewildered Mac and takes herself to a local hotel bar, where she meets Paul, the bartender, who becomes a good sounding board for her, until Mac, worried that she is out in the world all alone, finds her and interrupts her conversation with Paul.

Back at their home again, Maria’s solution to taking back her life is ingenious and had the audience in stitches.

The show ends with Mac examining his actions and...did he learn anything?  A simple telephone call may change everything.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A Christmas Story

It was 30 years ago this year when the now-classic movie, “A Christmas Story” appeared on the screen.  Partly based on Jean Shepherd’s book, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash,” the film was released just before Thanksgiving in 1983 and became a surprise hit. By the time Christmas rolled around, the movie had already been pulled from most theaters because it had been "played out". After complaints were lodged at the theater owners and the studio, the film played on select screens until after the first of the year 1984.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of this movie, the Winters Community Theater is repeating the stage version, by Phillip Grecian, first staged by Winters in 2005. This time around it’s Howard Hupe in the director’s chair, assisted by Ellie Yeatman and Jesse Akers.

It’s a big show for Winters, with 15 characters played by 13 actors, most of whom give strong performances.

As Ralph, the grown up “Ralphie,” who narrates the story throughout, Scott Taylor was a perfect choice.  He has a good rapport with the audience, a winning smile, and he makes us all remember our childhood and the adventures we had. In fact, based on the chuckles throughout the play from many men of a “certain age” in the audience, it was easy to see why this hits such a resonant chord..

Sam Peterson is the young Ralphie, his heart set on an official, Red Ryder, Carbine-action, 200-Shot, Range Model, Air Rifle for Christmas, but knows he’s fighting a losing battle because his mother is convinced he’ll put his eye out.  Peterson’s Ralphie is often shy except in the company of his buddies Flick (Ulysses De la Cruz) and Schwartz (Garret Matheson).  Ralphie enacts many fantasies, such as conversations with Red Ryder himself (Greg Lanzaro, who also plays Santa Claus and a Tree Seller)

Trent Beeby reprises his role from the 2005 production as Ralphie’s father, known as “The Old Man.” He’s the perfect sit-com Dad.  Never really utters anything profound, is a bumbling “fixer” of things like the furnace (at which time he excells in unintelligible expletives that shock his family), but is obviously a loving father.

Mother (played by JoAnnMay) is a housewife in the shadow of all those housewives of the 50s.  She’s Beaver’s mother, Jim Anderson’s wife, and Donna Reed all rolled into one.  She runs the house quietly and efficiently, while all the time letting her husband think he’s in charge.  The only battle she doesn’t win is the battle of the famous “leg lamp,” which The Old Man wins using the answers to the questions she gives him.

Jackson Olton is Randy, Ralphie’s younger brother, who has little to say because he spends most of the play wrapped in several layers of warm clothing to protect him from the elements when he goes outside.

Kyle Gardiner is an evil Scut Farkas, the school bully who shows his true nature when Ralphie finally gives him his comeuppance.  He is also Santa’s elf, perhaps the only elf I’ve seen with an evil glint in his eye.  Great facial expressions for Gardiner.

There are a couple of scenes off the stage in a classroom set up on the same level as the audience.  DonaAkers is the teacher, Miss Shields, whom Ralphie hopes to impress with his great writing skills.  Sadly, the scenes are all but unintelligible to the opposite end of the auditorium.  We were aware there was talking going on but other than Miss Shield’s shriek of “you’ll put your eye out,” the rest of the dialog was not able to be heard.

The trio of girls, Sophia Tolley as Esther Jane (who has a crush on Ralphie), Emilla Orosco as Helen, and Paige Davis as Alice were all very cute, especially huddled together giggling, and casting sidelong glances at the boys.

This is a fun family show which should be enjoyed by audience members of all ages.

When we left the theater, I asked my husband if he had ever had a  Red Ryder, Carbine-action, 200-Shot, Range Model, Air Rifle and he said that he wanted one.  He said he never did, because his mother thought he would put his eye out.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Spring Awakening

“Spring Awakening,” the Tony Award-winning rock musical directed by Granada-in-Resident Artist Stafford Arima, opened this week in the UC Davis Main Theatre in Wright Hall on campus.

When I saw the Broadway production in Sacramento a few years back, the audience was mostly middle-aged people who were decidedly uncomfortable with the sexuality of Act 1 and who did not return for Act 2.
Needless to say, this is not the situation with the university audience, who may have tittered nervously during the “masturbation song,” but who gave the show a standing ovation opening night. Reports are that the second night was sold out.

“Broadway’s most talked-about musical” — with book and lyrics by Steven Sater (based on the play by Frank Wedekind) and music by Duncan Sheik — won eight Tony Awards (out of 11 nominations) in 2007 and has acquired a cult following.

It is set in the repressive Germany of the 1890s, a Germany where corporal punishment is the answer to every parental or educational problem and “communication” had not been invented yet. Young pubescent Wendla (Lea Michele look-alike Jessica Walsh), for example, asks her mother where babies come from after her sister gives birth. She is yelled at and told that it happens when a man and woman love each other and are married.

As that is the sum total of her sex education, it is not surprising that when she and boyfriend Melchior (Elio Gutierrez) experiment with sex (in an amazingly realistic scene on the floor in the front of the stage), the inevitable happens and Wendla has no idea why she is pregnant.

The Geeky Moritz (Marcos Sastre III) seems to spend a good part of his time on stage, bent over to cover a growing erection. He finally finds relief masturbating behind the closed door of the bathroom, while his father yells at him to come out.

She said, “Give me that hand, please, and the itch you can’t control.
Let me teach you how to handle all the sadness in your soul.
(insert lyrics here better not printed)
She said, “Love may make you blind, kid, but I wouldn’t mind at all.”

Teryn Gray brings the most poignancy to her character Ilsa’s song, “The Dark I Know So Well,” wherein she describes the abuse she is suffering at the hands of her father.

I don’t scream, though I know it’s wrong
I just play along
I lie there and breathe
Lie there and breathe

Along with masturbation, premarital sex and child abuse, “Spring Awakening” also tackles the subjects of sadism and masochism, suicide, homosexuality, incest, partial (or perhaps only questionable) nudity, abortion, reform school and a finale that could have been predicted at the end of Act 1.

It also includes a whole song, complete with appropriate hand gestures, whose title cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

“The Sound of Music” it ain’t!

However, despite the grim nature of the subject matter, the UCD actors give it a professional-quality performance (I actually liked it better than the Broadway production I saw) and should be applauded for their success.
Skylar Collins, Anna Kritikos and Jonathan Conklin deserve kudos for their performances in multiple roles as the token adult female and male characters.

John Iacovellli’s scenic design, of multi-level platforms on massive scaffoldings, added to the cold, impersonal atmosphere of the story, and Michael Palumbo’s lighting design was particularly spectacular, especially the rainbow-colored cloud at the finale.

Music director Erik Daniells led an ensemble of six who performed quite well, though I never did figure out where they hid them during the show.

This production of “Spring Awakening” is a strong show with an important message and it is playing to exactly the right audience.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Crazy Horse and Custer

“Crazy Horse and Custer,” a new play by Jon George, directed by Michael Laun, opened on Saturday at Sacramento Theater Company, to incredible much so, that I am somewhat uneasy writing any review of this show.  I have the feeling that no matter what I say, it is going to offend someone, but I will take a stab at it anyway.

“Speaking not just for the Plains Indians, but for all Native Americans, Crazy Horse tells of what was lost forever for his people when they won at the Little Big Horn. George Armstrong Custer, the “Boy General” of the Civil War, speaks for all  those American qualities he cherished and ultimately died to secure for himself and his country. Crazy Horse and Custer goes beyond the iconic images of these two warriors to explore the men behind the myths and the imperatives in their characters that drove them to a conflict greater than the battle they fought.” So reads the press release from STC.

Controversy over the play arose when Doug Bissonette, a member of the Lakota tribe and representative for the estate of Crazy Horse, claimed that the play misrepresented the warrior.  Though Louis Leonardo, who plays the role in this play, traveled to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and met with the family of Crazy Horse, when the family read the script, they asked that the play not be presented.

Wilmer Mesteth, spiritual leader of the Ogala Lakota, said, “This play is based on fiction and we don’t understand in our culture what they are trying to portray and we feel that it is offensive.”  He also added, “Lakota people respect our leaders, our chiefs, our ancestors. We don’t do such things as this. We are reverent about our leaders, we don’t make jokes about our leaders. The ways people talk about leaders in the press, we don’t do that.”

Articles in “Indian Country” talked of protest and drum circles planned for opening night.  I wasn’t sure what we were going to be walking into.

But, in fact, there were no protests, and two invited members of the Ogala Lakota, guests of Sacramento Theater Company and the playwright, were introduced to the audience before the play began.

As to the portrayal of Crazy Horse, I can only speak as a white woman and what I saw in the incredible performance of Louis Leonardo was a portrait of a noble man, a bit of a loner, who describes his experiences growing up and learning respect for the earth and its creatures, who dispels the myths about the “savage Indians.”  He describes the tradition of warring between tribes (which did not include the sort of slaughter we have seen on movie screens for decades).  He talks of falling in love, and losing that love.  He displays his pride in himself and his ancestors and respect for ancient tradition.

Ultimately he shows how the battle of Little Big Horn set the stage for all that has followed, including moving masses of people to reservations, the loss of land, the slaughter of buffalo and all of the atrocities committed on all tribes of Native Americans, and the manipulation by the American Government.

A quote in the program, from the research unit of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian says, “Jefferson suggested that if the various Indian nations could be encouraged to purchase goods on credit they would likely fall into debt, which they could relieve through the sale of lands to the government.”

In contrast, the equally incredible performance as George Armstrong Custer by Kirk Blackinton reveals a megalomaniac with eyes on the White House, a former wunderkind convinced of his invincibility, and still maintaining, even in death, that the world today would be significantly different if other generals around him had listened to his advice.

The structure of the play gives the first act to a long monologue by Crazy Horse, followed in Act 2 by a shorter monologue by Custer, and closing with a brief dialog between the two former adversaries.

Scenic Designer Renee Degarmo has done the best she could do to create “the great plains” on the tiny Pollock stage (and succeeded surprisingly well), and a great deal of the atmosphere is thanks to the wonderfully subtle lighting design of Ron Madonia.

This is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and now that it’s out there, under Laun’s deft directorial hand and the fine performance of Leonardo, perhaps there will be a change in sentiment about the portrayal of one of the great names in Lakota history.  I feel it is an important play for all of us who learned our history from books and movies, which vastly distorted the reality of the Battle of Big Horn

Monday, November 11, 2013


One thing about the actors of Davis Musical Theatre Company, when they are good, they are very, very good and “Oliver!” — directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson — is very, very good.

While the sets are more utilitarian than lush, there is nothing merely utilitarian about the performances. Arieh Simon, in the title role, is the perfect Oliver Twist. He’s the right age, his thin frame makes it believable that this is a workhouse kid, and he’s a marvelous actor. He also has the vocal ability to hit the high notes in “Where is Love.” It’s an engaging performance.

Michael Mechanick is Fagin, the charismatic bad Pied Piper with his band of child thieves; he gives a memorable performance as a man who is getting older and wondering what the future holds for him. And for a guy of size, he is wonderfully light on his feet.

(Director Isaacson hits a wrong note, though, with the box — about which Fagin is so secretive and protective — being used as a prop in “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” with all the boys putting jewelry in it, when later Fagin is so worried that Oliver might have actually seen it.)

Jimin Moon is an electrifying Artful Dodger, the well-dressed head of the pickpockets in Fagin’s entourage. He and Oliver have good chemistry and Moon’s performance is unforgettable.

The Beadle, Mr. Bumble (Brian McCann), and the workhouse housemother, the Widow Corney (Dannette Vassar), nearly steal the show. Both actors are at the top of their game in “I Shall Scream,” which had the audience screaming with laughter.

It is not often that much is said about the funeral parlor owners, Mr. Sowerberry (Scott Scholes) and his wife Mrs. Sowerberry (Katherine Coppola), but these two actors are also excellent. Assisting Scholes’ performance is his pasty complexion and serious expression.

Brooke Flores is Charlotte, working for the Sowerberrys, and Shane Osterhoudt is Noah Claypool, her cruel boyfriend who taunts Oliver.

Kellee Thompson is Nancy, the long-suffering chanteuse with a warm heart. She is locked in an abusive relationship from which she cannot escape because she loves the guy and knows that he needs her, yet she sacrifices much to help Oliver. Thompson has a strong set of pipes and belts out each of her solos with gusto.

Nancy’s friend, Bet, was given a robust performance by Erin Piepgrass. Piepgrass is older than traditional Bets, but she is striking on stage and it’s hard to ignore her.

The bad guy in the story is Bill Sikes (written as both Sikes and Sykes in the program … being a person of the “y” persuasion, I naturally prefer the spelling “Sikes.”), played by Gabe Avila in this production. He is dark and brooding and though from his more diminutive frame you wouldn’t think he could be very intimidating, he has a chillingly cold bloodthirstiness about him.

Sikes’ dog, Shadow is played by Avila’s own dog and gives one of the more polished canine performances I have seen from a non-professional dog.

DMTC veteran Michael Manley was a warm and compassionate Mr. Brownlow, the man who rescues Oliver. He’s the guy everybody hopes for as a grandfather.

Dani Barnett has the small role of the flower vendor in the Act 2 opening and it should be noted that she has a beautiful voice. The other vendors — Summer Rejmankova, Jonathan Kalinen, Katherine Coppola and David Ewey — also were quite good.

Isaacson’s choreography was energetic and sometimes a bit over the top but well performed and particularly fun in numbers like “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Oom-Pah-Pah.”

Costume design is by Mary Hickman and all work well, though I did wonder how Oliver managed to find a jacket somewhere between his escape from Sowerberrys' and meeting Dodger.

This is an entirely entertaining and satisfying production. The DMTC family invites you to consider yourself at home, consider yourself part of the family … and have a good time watching them perform.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical

There are more sequins, feathers, glitter, wigs and platform shoes than you can shake a stick at in the touring musical production “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” which opened this week at the Sacramento Community Center Theater. There were dancing paintbrushes, twirling cupcakes, all sorts of flying things, and every animal unique to Australia, from kangaroos to frill-necked lizards, all dancing and singing their way into the audience’s hearts.

“Priscilla” is the musical version of the 1994 movie about three drag queens traveling across Australia’s outback in a big bus on their way to a gig in Alice Springs. The book is by Stephan Elliott (who wrote the original screenplay and directed the film) and Allan Scott, and the music is the most eclectic assortment of covers you can imagine. Everything from Dionne Warwick to Madonna to The Village People to Giacomo Puccini … and John Denver? … among others. There is even a brief salute to ABBA.

The story focuses on Tick/Mitzi (Wade McCollum) and his desire to travel across the outback to meet his 8-year-old son Benji (Shane Davis), whom he has never seen. He brings along two friends, the flamboyant Adam/Felicia (Bryan West) and former drag queen, now transsexual Bernadette (Scott Willis). The three will get an act together to perform in Alice Springs, at a club owned by Tick’s estranged wife Marion (Christy Faber).
The three travel in a bus they name Priscilla, which is so much a part of the story that it’s surprising it didn’t get its own curtain call. It is a bus of many colors, conceived and designed by Brian Thomson, with an interior decorated like a tacky desert motel. The electrified bus moves, rotates and becomes a video screen for some amazing light shows.

This high-energy show is one sizzling production number after another, each bringing thunderous applause from the audience, but while the plot follows that of the movie, the intensity of the glitz robs the story of the poignancy that made the movie special. There are moments of introspection and of tenderness, a sweet love story developing between Bernadette and Bob (Joe Hart), the mechanic who repairs Priscilla and then comes along for the ride, and the emotional meeting of Tick and Benji, but it felt as if the soul of the piece was missing.

However, nobody in the audience was missing anything, as everyone thoroughly enjoyed the 500 or so costumes, 60 wigs, 150 pairs of shoes (nobody can wear a pair of impossibly high heels like a drag queen!) and more than 200 hats and headdresses — there are 65 wig changes, the fastest one taking about 15 seconds.

And there’s a flying Greek chorus, too. The “Divas” (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West) who pop in or are lowered down from the flies in a rotating collection of amazing costumes to accompany the stars in such numbers as “It’s Raining Men,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “MacArthur Park.” It’s “flying by Foy,” the most prolific theatrical flying service in the world, the company that elevated stage flying to a modern art form.

The three hero(ine)s of this production face homophobes and bullies and their own fears and insecurities, but as their bond of friendship deepens, they maintain their dignity throughout and triumph in the end … looking simply fabulous, of course.

Monday, November 04, 2013

The Miser

The Woodland Opera House’s Rodger McDonald has directed a production of Moliere’s farce, “The Miser,” and wisely cast himself in the title role. This is the kind of role that McDonald does so well, and once again shines in this production.

Harpagon is a penny-pinching irascible old skinflint fixated on his fortune and may well have been the inspiration for such characters as Scrooge McDuck, Oliver Twist’s Fagin, and Jack Benny. He has money hidden all over his house and has buried some of it in the garden and spends all of his time skulking around, afraid that someone will discover his hiding places.  He insists that banks are not to be trusted (hmmm...)

Supporting McDonald is a uniformly talented cast including Matt Wieringa as Cleante, Harpagon’s style-conscious son, in love with the neighbor Marianne (Jen Smuda-Cotter), whose only fault is that she comes from a poor family and has a sick mother, and thus is no fitting bride for his son, according to Harpagon, though he fancies the comely maid himself.

In the meantime, Cleante’s sister Elise (the captivating Sara Matsui-Colby) is in love with Valere (Matt Taloff in an outstanding performance), who has taken a job as stewart to Harpagon in order to be near Elise. But Harpagon has plans to marry his daughter off to a wealthy man of his own choosing, Seigneur Anselm (Steve Mackay).

The action picks up when Harpagon announces he plans to marry Marianne immediately, but assistance comes in the person of the match-maker Frosine (Analise Langford) whose quick thinking helps to smooth things over.  Langford has some of the funniest lines in the play (“What’s the point in marrying an old man if widowhood was not in the marriage contract?”)

Through it all, Harpagon is focused on keeping track of his money and when some of it disappears, he demands that everyone be arrested, those in the house, in the town, in the suburbs, and even in the audience, as he breaks the fourth wall to accuse members of the audience of being in on the plot to rob him.

It’s a fast-moving, convoluted plot that is only resolved by discovery of heretofore hidden blood lines linking some of the members of the cast.

Even before the story begins, the audience is in for treats by the “zanies,” masked figures who act as clowns (and later become characters within the play, and then back into their zanies attire again).  Director McDonald explains that these are “the spirits of drama originating from Commedia which comment and interact with the story, along with moving the furniture.”  They have evolved into our modern day circus clowns.

Set design for this production is by John Bowles, who has created a utilitarian set with Harpagon’s ingenious chair at the center.

Denise Miles’ costumes are beautiful, except for Harpagon, whose tattered bedclothes and threadbare head covering reflect the miserliness of his soul.

“The Miser” is not necessarily a non-stop laugh-out loud play, but for an evening of fun and diversion, it definitely fits the bill.