Saturday, December 14, 2013

Santaland Diaries

What does a newly arrived wannabe actor do in New York when he can’t find a job, when his dreams of being on “One Life to Live” don’t pan out?
Well, Aaron Wilton as David — using the journal of David Sedaris as adapted by Joe Mantello — is going to tell you in Capital Stage’s funny, irreverent production of the one-act, one-man show, “The Santaland Diaries,” directed by Janis Stevens.

Despite its name, this is not a show for the kiddies, so don’t bring them along, but prepare yourself for a rollicking good time.

Wilton is likeable and energetic, and he uses the entire theater for his stage, bouncing around the actual stage, and then bounding out into the audience to lounge on the stairs, or direct a comment to a member of the audience. He brings everyone into his world as he describes how he came to be Crumpet, the Elf in Macy’s Santaland, during one December.

He describes the interview process, his thrill at being hired and then the intensive training that he goes through, following regulations contained in the “Elfin Guide,” a very thick binder. He explains that “most of the managers are former elves who have worked their way up the candy-cane ladder, but retain vivid memories of their days in uniform.”

Then comes a tour of Santaland, which is described for us in glowing detail, including the “Oh, my God” corner, where people first see Santa and the long line ahead of them, and the “vomit corner,” where nauseous children lose it all.

The next day is elf dress rehearsal and David receives his costume. “My costume is green. I wear red-and-white striped tights, a yellow turtleneck, forest green velvet smock, and a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.” (The costume is based on a design by Gail Russell.)

The set by Olivia McGiff is a surprise, because you wonder how they are going to dress up the very bland stage on which David begins his monologue, and suddenly the wall opens to reveal a dazzling set, festooned with all the Christmas trappings and a chair for Santa.

The diary continues through the experiences dealing with children and their parents. “It’s not about the child or Santa or Christmas or anything, but the parents’ idea of a world they cannot make work for them.”

There is one unfortunate section of this play that bothered me a lot. It is Sedaris’ description of the day the special-needs kids come to see Santa. It’s very funny and the audience laughed uproariously, but the playwright makes a lot of use of the “R-word,” a word that can be very painful and offensive to parents of special-needs kids.
I tried imagining how the audience would have reacted if he had used the “N-word” instead and decided I could not let that pass without comment, as I know parents of special-needs kids who are very upset about the common usage of that offensive word. It tainted, for me, what had been a very enjoyable comedy.

The moment passes, however, and “David” makes it through the rest of his stint at Macy’s, turns in his Crumpet costume and goes to say goodbye to the manager. “Suddenly I loved this woman … I felt certain … together we would share a special moment.”

Uh. Not so much.

Do yourself a favor and take in this comedy. It will put you in good spirits for the coming holiday. There’s even an elf called Dreidle, an attempt to appeal to everyone!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It's a Wonderful Life: The Musical

Unless you have been living under a rock since 1946, you are familiar with the beloved holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

It’s the show that proves that we may not know what impact we make on the lives of others, but suicidal George Bailey — with the help of an angel, Clarence — gets to find out how his life changed his hometown of Bedford Falls.

By way of disclaimer, I have to admit that this was never my favorite Christmas movie, and I’m not sure that music improves it, but the Sacramento Theatre Company has a winner in its production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: the Musical,” this year’s holiday offering.

The show — with book and lyrics by Keith Ferguson and music by Bruce Greer — was first performed at the University of Michigan in 1986. Performances followed in Warsaw, Ind., in 1988; Milburn, N.J., in 1990; and Washington, D.C., in 1992. In 2005, a staged reading was held at the Shubert Theater in New York, as a benefit for the Actors’ Fund of America.

The show was the holiday choice for the Majestic Theater in Dallas in 1998 and became its annual holiday production for five consecutive years.

Now “It’s a Wonderful Life: the Musical” is making its Northern California premiere, directed by executive producing director Michael Laun.

The original music for this show is rather odd, reminiscent of “The Music Man,” lots of popular music of the 1940s, and “Les Mis” all rolled into one. The choreography is lively and done well, the voices are for the most part quite good and yet the show drags a bit, which is really due not to the production or the performances, but to the nature of the story, which takes forever to do the set-up to George’s emotional breakdown.

It’s a wonderful cast of 27, some of whom are double-cast and alternate within roles. Jerry Lee is George, who, as a young man, had grand plans to see the world, then go to college and become a famous architect. Instead, being the good son, he gives up his plans in order to save the Bailey Building and Loan Association, following his father’s death.

It is brother Harry (Sean Patrick Nill) who gets to have the opportunities George hoped to have, while George stays in Bedford Falls and marries Mary Hatch (Jackie Vanderbeck), with whom he has four children. Vanderbeck is spectacular, the perfect wife to George, as self-sacrificing as he is, and the actress has a gorgeous voice to boot.
George’s nemesis, Mr. Potter, the richest man in town, is played by Gary Martinez. I have seen Martinez in the role of the angel, Clarence, several times and it’s odd to see him be such a mean old man, but he is perfect in that role.
As for Clarence, the second-class angel hoping to win his wings, Jim Lane is endearing and, though bumbling, eventually finds his footing … and earns his wings.

Michael RJ Campbell plays George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy, distraught at the loss of an $8,000 deposit, which brings the Building and Loan to the brink of ruin. Campbell, frequently seen as the larger-than-life Ghost of Christmas Present, seems to be a shadow of his former self, though he still gives a larger-than-life performance.
Anthony Dicorti and Jerald Bolden play the town cop and taxi driver and give good performances, but are probably best known because their character names are Ernie and Bert. (Muppet people claim that any connection between these characters and the beloved Muppets is strictly coincidental.)

Laura Woodruff deserves mention, playing Violet Bick, seductively sweet on young George, and later Ruth Bailey, Harry’s wife. She has a classic beauty and shines on stage.

The four Bailey children are each double-cast, but it is the youngest, ZuZu (Emily Trnka, alternating in the role with Noa Solorio), who catches the audience attention as she recites her famous line about every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.

Sacramento Theatre Company has produced several Christmas classics, which are repeated many times over the years, and it is clear there is now a new show that will enter into circulation and be presented many times in years to come.