Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Elemeno Pea

There is a moment early in the production of “Elemeno Pea” — currently at the B Street Theater under the direction of David Pierini — that sets this particular production a step above the mere run-of-the-mill character study comedy that playwright Molly Smith Metzler may have intended it to be.

The character Michaela (Melinda Parrett), a billionaire’s latest trophy wife and mistress of the expensive manor on Martha’s Vineyard, has just returned home unexpectedly. She has had a terrible shock and she needs the support of her paid assistant and friend-for-hire Simone (Lyndsay Kail). Simone is, at the moment, entertaining her sister Devon (Stephanie Altholz) for the weekend (with Michaela’s permission) in the estate’s luxurious guest house.

Michaela bursts through the door and falls into Simone’s arms, starting to bare her soul, needing Simone’s support The two women are sitting together, Michaela revealing a stream of very personal things she and Simone have discussed before and suddenly she realizes there is someone else in the room.

Without moving her body or doing anything obvious, we see Michaela change from the vulnerable woman she had been back into the in-charge matriarch. We see an ever-so-slight change in facial expression, an invisible mask coming over her face, a determined relaxation of the body, the smile just a touch more gracious and more phony, the emotions suddenly put in check as she steps into hostess mode and greets the visitor.

It’s an amazing transformation, with Parrett barely moving a muscle, but it’s an obvious change. It could have been played much differently, more broadly perhaps, but this subtle transformation is an indication of what a well-directed, tightly performed work this is. Parrett is a wonder throughout the play, whether she is the center of the action or a part of the background, her emotions always apparent in the way she sits, the way she moves, the way her mouth trembles ever so slightly.

But Parrett is only one of the talented cast of five that includes Lindsay Kail as Simone, a talented author, unappreciated by even her family, who put her dreams on hold and sold her soul to the devil, in exchange for a hefty salary, a chance to live in luxury, wear designer clothes, travel around the world, and have everything she thinks she wants.

The price is being at the beck and call of Michaela 24/7. We see the conflict in Simone, who professes to love her life, but whose nervousness at the way her sister Devon treats the house gives her away as she carefully and precisely returns duck decoys to their rightful place when Devon moves them.

Devon (Stephanie Altholz) has just come through a terrible relationship, is working at the Olive Garden and sleeping on a beanbag in her mother’s basement, but she wouldn’t trade it for all of Simone’s luxuries, if it means giving up who she really is. She does not have an unexpressed thought and she quickly becomes the raspberry seed in Michaela’s (and Simone’s) wisdom tooth, refusing to relax her principles even when a handsome bribe is offered. Altholz makes her the character to whom we most relate.

Alex Robertson plays the handyman Jos-B (because Michaela already had a Jose … think about it) who appears to be Michaela’s puppy dog, flattering her with pet names, chaste kisses and overt sexual banter while he really hates the woman and has no compunction about talking about his real feelings behind her back. He is another of Michaela’s “friends for hire” who does not hesitate to drop the charade when the situation presents itself.

Rounding out the cast is Kurt Johnson as Ethan, longtime friend of Michaela’s husband, and Simone’s fiancé. Ethan is a caricature of the stereotypical Martha’s Vineyard resident, in salmon-colored trousers and absurd bleach-tipped coiffure and a vocabulary full of verbal texting shortcuts.

It is difficult to understand what Simone sees in him, unless it’s her chance to finally express her independence. Johnson plays this character to the hilt and seems to be having the time of his life doing it.

This is a very funny play that pits lives of the rich vs. the lives of the rest of us. The rest of us come out the winners.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Closer than Ever

One of the many outstanding songs in “Closer Than Ever,” a musical revue at the Sacramento Theatre Company, is called “The March of Time.” In it, the four performers – Jerry Lee, Kristen Heitman, Andrea St. Clair (who may be familiar to Davis Musical Theatre and Woodland Opera House audiences), and Nick Adorno sing about getting older:

I wasn’t ready for the burnouts
I wasn’t ready for the jokes
I wasn’t set for seeing cellulite
Or being parent to my folks…

The song was particularly meaningful to me the night we saw the show because that afternoon we had attended a birthday party for a 79-year-old friend, attended by lots of people we had not seen for many years. I was struck with more gray in the hair, more artificial parts, more stooped shoulders, more canes. We were all victims of the march of time.

While Broadway has been presenting many shows lately, hoping to draw a younger audience, as it must if the American Musical is to survive, this little 1989 off-Broadway revue shows there is still relevant material to appeal to an older audience.

The show was cobbled together by Richard Maltby Jr. (lyricist) and David Shire (composer) from songs they had written that had been cut from previous shows. The end result is an evening of short stories, which, without dialog, eloquently capture the human soul (according to director Robert Marra).

Maltby himself has said he believes people are more interesting in real life than when they are stage characters. “I would like to see songs that are at least as complex as my friends.”

You probably have never heard of most, if not all, of these songs, but I overheard more than one member of the audience walk out of the theater saying, “Now I have to buy the CD.”

Some of the highlights include the poignant “She Loves Me Not,” which deals with unrequited love … in some surprising permutations.

St. Clair does a very funny rendition of “The Beat, The Tiger, The Hamster and The Mole,” making her case for the irrelevance of men.

The ensemble number “There’s Nothing Like It,” the most energetic of the songs, talks about the things we do to our bodies in the name of fitness. It had the audience in stitches.

In “Miss Byrd,” Heitman shows how one can make the most of one’s coffee break, while St. Clair sings the poignant, life-changing anthem “Life Story,” which could be the life story of many of us.

Act two opens with St. Clair, Heitman and Adorno singing “Three Friends,” about the love/hate relationship among lifelong friends … and the value of those relationships.

Pianist Samuel Clein joins in the first-act finale and also with Heitman on “There,” while Rod Verette, the bass player, gets to shine with her in “Back on Bass.”

Jerry Lee, who seems to be everywhere these days, has some wonderful songs, maybe the most emotional of which is “If I Sing,” a tribute to the lyricist’s father and his contribution to his son’s appreciation of music.
Lee also joins with Adorno in the lovely “Fathers of Fathers,” beautifully expressing the parenthood experience.
Adorno and Heitman discover the positive points of a second marriage in “Another Wedding Song.”

“Closer than Ever” is probably a show you’ve never heard of, the songs are songs you’ve never heard before and yet anyone who has the good fortune to catch this little gem at Sacramento Theatre Company is certain to recommend it to all of their friends.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Woodland Honors an Opera House Treasure

“It’s been a good run, but I just have to shake things up a bit,” said Jeff Kean, current managing director and company Pooh Bah for the Woodland Opera House. Kean, who leaves his job after 18 years at the end of the month, says it’s been “an interesting confluence of events” that has led him to his impending retirement.

Kean arrived in Woodland in 1996, after working for four years in Texas.
While Kean started out wanting to be an actor (“I started at age 15, as a mugger in a play”), he quickly realized that the real fun for him was in working behind the scenes. He credits one of his acting instructors, who had been a professional actress in New York for many years, for giving him the real story of the kind of life he could expect as an actor.

“I wanted to have a home and a house that I live in. You’ve gotta be willing to go on the road for months and I didn’t want to do that, so I switched over to design my last couple of years,” he said. “I then went to grad school and got a couple of paying gigs. Somehow I transitioned into management because people needed managing. But I enjoy that.”

And the Opera House has enjoyed his management. On Saturday night a ceremony was held to honor the soon-to-be-retired manager, with participation from many Opera House members, as well as member of the community.

Each member of the audience was handed a life-size paper cut-out of Kean’s head in one of the many roles he played in the 2008 production of “Tuna Christmas.” Our instructions were that we were to raise the cut-outs whenever we heard the word “Jeff” coming from the stage.

 Kean and his fiancée, Laurie Weidner, were seated in thrones in one of the side boxes of the theater, drinking champagne from Waterford crystal glasses, while Master of Ceremonies Steve Cairns opened the festivities with a video of members of the community, with comments about the guest of honor.

There was a telephone call from Lou Anderson, former stage manager of the Opera House, now living in Arizona, who reminisced about his time working with Kean.

“I’ve been lucky to get good staff people,” Kean said in his interview. He singled out Don Zastoupil set designer for eight years. “Brilliant set designer. His stuff was just incredible,” said Kean, also mentioning current tech director John Bowles, “a wonderful guy, who creates great stuff.”

Outgoing Opera House board president Mike Patmas commented that thanks to Kean, the Opera House was “well-managed, solvent, in the black, with money in the piggy bank.”

Kean lists as his management highlights “running at least a break-even operation. We established an endowment fund, which is doing really well. We’re generating income to pay for maintenance, so that’s really a safety net for us. Very few theaters have a safety net. We’ve got one.”

In addition to running a break-even operation, the Opera House has purchased a building which they own outright. “That’s a wonderful addition. We have two studios over there, a shop and a costume shop and storage. Having that is a major advantage.”

And then there were all those theaters he helped design. In 2006, Woodland passed Measure E, which would allocate funds for the improvement of the Opera House and expansion of its program. First Kean worked with architects to plan an expansion of the current building, but only got as far as adding an elevator and five new bathroom stalls for women before the economic downturn happened. When things began to pick up, he again worked with an architect to design a theater using the old State Theater space, but that plan fell through. Then he worked to plan turning unused space at the adjacent Daily Democrat into a theater expansion, but so far nothing has come of that.

“That’s politics,” says Kean, who shrugs and adds, “They’re supposed to redo the City Hall, redo the library, redo the Opera House, redo all the pools in town, reopen the one that’s been closed and do roads. So far they have done some road work. The pool remains closed, City Hall is just like it was. The library is almost closed. And the Opera House got an elevator and five new toilets. That’s what the citizens of Woodland got for $60 million.”

When asked if it was frustration with politics that caused him to leave his job, he replied, “No. I’ve lived here a long time. I’m used to it. But if the State Theater project had gone forward, if I had seen some determination on the city council’s part to follow through on that project, I would have been honor bound to stay and see it through. I couldn’t have left. I would have seen it through and got it up and running, which probably would have been another four or five years.” He added: “The city voted $3 million dollars to expand the Opera House out of the sales tax money. We’ve used about half a million for design of the building that didn’t work and elevators and the bathrooms and all that. As far as I’m concerned there’s still two and a half million on the table.”

On stage, Mayor Skip Davies expressed his good memories of working relations with Kean and added, “the city isn’t going to forget its obligations to the Opera House.”

Kean was also presented with a state proclamation, signed by State Senator Lois Wolk, D-Davis, which listed his many accomplishments, including the five extra bathroom stalls in the women’s bathroom.

“My legacy is five extra stalls in the women’s room,” said Kean with a laugh. “I’m putting a little plate in the second stall from the window on the right. It says ‘Jeff Kean sat here for 13 years.’ You know actors. They like to leave their name in theaters! It’s exactly where my chair used to sit when it was my office. I couldn’t ask for a better legacy. Leave ‘em laughing.”
In addition to a memorial bathroom stall, the “green room” of the Opera House is now being renamed the “Kean Room.”

Kean seems most proud of the fact that he has built such a competent team that he knows he is leaving the Opera House in good hands. “Angela Baltezore is an excellent administrator, she’s a good director, she can act and she runs a great education program. She’s a good teacher.”

As for Kean, he admits to being tired. Before Woodland, he had never stayed in one place for more than four years, but he’s been here for 18. “It just isn’t fun for me any more,” he says.

Of course there is also his fiancée moving to Southern California for her job and it’s no fun facing a long-distance relationship either. He’s ready to take some time off to smell the roses and walk on the beach before deciding where his life is headed.

“Woodland is a wonderful place,” he says. “I enjoyed everything I’ve done here, but I just wasn’t enjoying theater any more and that really was alarming. It wasn’t hard, but it became a chore. I didn’t want it to be a chore and I was in a position to do something about it. The theater transition was going to be seamless and into the hands of people I trust.”

Monday, January 13, 2014

Something's Afoot

“I’m sorry, the bridge is out. You’ll have to spend the night” was the title of a show more than 35 years ago, at the original Palms Playhouse. It is also the theme for the new murder-mystery musical currently at the Woodland Opera House.

“Something’s Afoot,” by James McDonald, David Vos and Robert Gerlach, and directed for Woodland by Jason Hammond, is a gem of a piece that is the musical version of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians.”

The premise is that five people are invited to spend the weekend in a mansion on an island. Each of them, of course, has his or her secret, and unbeknownst to each other, they all have paths that cross. Of course, after all have arrived, a terrible storm comes up, which washes out the road and the bridge and they are stuck there. The master of the house, Lord Rancor (whom we never see, except in portrait), is found dead by the butler minutes after the guests arrive.

As the show progresses, the cast begins to be killed off in bizarre ways and the hunt is on for the killer.

Director Hammond has assembled a marvelous cast to play the quirky guests and staff of the manor house. Patricia Glass is Miss Tweed (a salute to Christie’s Miss Marple). She is a no-nonsense gal who takes charge of the investigation once the bodies begin to pile up (the police can’t be contacted, of course, because the phone lines have been cut)

Hope Langdon, the ingenue who is just thrilled to be included for this marvelous weekend (though she doesn’t know why) is played by Jennieke Cohen. She has a wide-eyed innocence and is awed by everything, especially the unexpected visitor Geoffrey (Eddie Voyce). The script calls for Hope to be blonde and one lyric had to be changed because the actress is a brunette … but I was probably the only one in the theater who noticed that!

Voyce is perfect as a member of a British college rowing club who fell overboard in the storm. He has the “shoulders back, chin up” stereotypical attitude we often see in British movies.

James Glica-Hernandez steps out of the orchestra pit and onto the stage, making his Opera House debut as a singer in a book musical. He’s the evil nephew who has come to the manor house to find the will of Lord Rancor and discover if he is the legal heir or not. Based on his performance, I suspect this will not be the last on-stage performance for the Opera House’s resident musical director. He was very funny and has an amazing voice.

Nancy Agee is Lady Grace Manley-Prowe (erroneously introduced by the butler as Manley-Pro, which defeats the humor of her name!), a proper older English woman who is indignant to discover that she is not going to have the weekend alone with Lord Rancor. Agee plays it for all it’s worth, though as the bodies begin to fall, she does loosen up a bit for the delightful “Carry On.”

Col. Gillweather, a military friend of Lord Rancor’s, is played by Jeff Nauer, who may have the best death scene in the show. He makes it hilarious.

Jim Rollans plays Dr. Graburn, a small role that should teach the character not to answer phones in someone else’s house.

The house staff consists of Clife, the butler (Spencer Alexander), the first of the cast to fall. His part is important, but very brief.

Chris Cay Stewart as Lettie, the copper-haired Cockney maid, is very funny, and Flint, the handyman (Colin Coate), is deliciously crude. The two may have the best song in the show, “Problematical Solution,” which describes an escape method Clive can offer the saucy maid.

Director Hammond is also the set designer and has created a marvelous manor house, despite the confines of the Opera House stage. The audience will have a great time discovering the surprises that pop up throughout the evening.

Oh — and that portrait of Lord Rancor on the wall is actually of Jeff Kean, Woodland’s soon-to-be-retired managing director, who also is the voice heard on the recording played at the end.

I am an unabashed fan of this show, having played the doorbell in the orchestra of a production in 1984 (I rang it five whole times — my first, and last, theatrical performance), so I am very critical of how this show is treated, and I am pleased to say that under the direction of Hammond and the talented actors, it is alive and well and in excellent hands.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014


Between 1929 and 1933, Christopher Isherwood lived in Berlin, which formed the backdrop for stories he wrote on his return to London, published as “The Berlin Stories.”

One such story, that of writer Clifford Bradshaw and cabaret singer Sally Bowles, was dramatized by John Van Druten as the play, “I am a Camera” (later made into a movie).

In 1966, John Kander and Fred Ebb won a Tony Award with their musical version, which they called “Cabaret.” The musical, of course, was made into a very popular film vehicle for Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in 1972. Anyone familiar with the movie might be confused by the stage production, which is quite different from the film.

The Davis Musical Theatre Company last produced “Cabaret” in 2005 and has opened a new production at the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center.

There are four outstanding performances in this production. Joshua Smith as the Master of Ceremonies (or Emcee) at the Kit Kat Club, where most of the action takes place, is a perfect blend of comedy, decadence and dispassionate observer of the changing society around him. With a twinkle in his eye, he leers at the audience and makes fun of serious things. His performance is a delight.

Likewise, Dalton McNeely — last seen as “the round-headed kid” in Woodland Opera House’s “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and Marius in “Les Miserables” — gives strong voice to Cliff Bradshaw, a man somewhat out of his element in decadent Berlin and with the sexually forward Sally Bowles (Katherine Coppola). While the delivery of McNeely’s spoken lines is somewhat soft, when he begins to sing, he fills the theater.

The character of Cliff has gone through many permutations in the various versions of the story. He has been heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual. In this production, there is no hint of homosexuality, though McNeely’s chemistry with Coppola is not strong.

Steve Isaacson plays the old Jewish grocer, Herr Schultz, finally finding his love with the landlady Fraulein Schneider (Mary Young, who was born to play this role!). The story of Schultz and Schneider is significantly more important in the stage musical than in the movie, and the bittersweet relationship, and ultimate end of it, is poignant.

Isaacson’s tender handling of the feelings between the two of them beautifully mixes dignity with deep sorrow, as well as optimistic nationalism. The audience knows what lies ahead for him, but Schultz is convinced that, though he is Jewish, he identifies as German, and as a good German, he will be safe.

Scott Scholes is listed in the program as “tenor soloist,” but his rendition of the solo lines in “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is superb and sets the tone for the gradual acceptance of Nazism with spine-chilling effect.

Coppola is a beautiful Sally and has a pleasant voice, though one could not describe her as a “belter.” Her rendition of the title song was a bit anemic, and one didn’t get much of a feeling of deep affection between her and Cliff.

Gabe Avila is Ernst Ludwig, who meets Cliff on the train to Berlin and is responsible for his choice of living space and his introduction to the Kit Kat Club. Ludwig is a likeable character until we realize that he is working for the Nazis.

Dani Barnett plays Fraulein Kost, a bubbly young woman with a lot of male “cousins.” She exudes exuberant sexuality.

Though unseen through the costume, Tomas Eredia makes a great gorilla in “If you could see her through my eyes,” delightful in his pink tutu.

This production is directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson, with music direction by Jonathan Rothman and costume design by Jean Henderson. Steve Isaacson is the set designer, and the Emcee gets high marks for making it down the very narrow stairs without tripping!

Monday, January 06, 2014

The K of D

Laura Schellhardt’s “The K of D” seems a strange choice of a play for Acme Theater Company because it was written as a piece for one woman, playing 16 different characters.

Director Maddy Ryen explains that “The author’s notes on the play says: ‘This play was originally created as a one-actor play. It might be performed with more than one actor. I look forward to seeing what that looks like.’ ”

Given the author’s blessing to shape the play to fit a full cast, Ryen was happy to have a script that would use 12 talented actors, rather than the smaller cast shows that Acme often does in the wintertime.

“It has been quite interesting to see what it looks like,” says Ryen. “Many moments in the script feel very different with a full cast of characters than they would with a single actor alone, and it was a new experience interpreting a script originally intended as a one-woman show. It gave us a lot to talk about in rehearsal.”

“K of D” (which means “kiss of death”) tells the story of Charlotte, a young woman who can’t quite find a way to proceed in her life because of one traumatic event, witnessing the death of her beloved twin brother Jamie, hit and killed by a car. His last act before dying was to kiss her goodbye and ever since, it is said that anything she kisses, dies.

Is that really true, or not? It has become an urban legend told by the town’s young people as they sit around a campfire scaring each other, and trying to make sense of both Jamie’s death and Charlotte’s “kiss of death.” They are both horrified and titillated by the idea of the death of one of their own, and Charlotte’s power to cause death.

In here program notes, director Ryen admits that “there is a lot in this play that I still can’t make sense of…” but the cast does a first-rate job of exploring those things, whether any conclusion is reached or not.

“The Girl” (Callie Miller) acts as the story’s narrator. Miller does a masterful job of keeping the action moving and displaying a number of emotions, from happiness to sadness to sympathy to concern. She was wonderful to watch.

Camila Ortiz was Charlotte, the traumatized girl who is on stage most of the time and who has no lines, but whose face tells multiple stories of her past, her relationship with her parents, her despair over the loss of her brother, and her feelings of alienation from her peers.

Jake Kelly is Quisp Drucker, who appears to be the leader of the group of five young people processing the tragedy of the death of Jamie McGraw, though The Girl explains that the real leader is Becky Rae Voss (Tina Simpson), the bubble gum cigarette blowing girl who has the answer to everything.

It was Cole Yambrovich, as Trent Hoffman, who had the strongest presence. Like Howard in “Big Bang Theory” his role was not big, but he made an impression. Aaron Hirst played his quiet brother Brett, who spoke when it became necessary.

The group was rounded out by Meili Monk, as Steffi Post, who played it in a Sandra Oh-ish way and was fun to watch.

Charlotte’s parents were Alice Moylan, an uptight woman dealing with her own insecurities, and Brian Stewart, an overbearing father who has an iron hold on Charlotte, which she is trying to remove.

Kenya Oto has the very small role of Jack Whistler, and William Forkin plays his son, the man who killed Jamie. He has a swagger and a sneer that make him instantly the villain of the piece.

Sydney Maguire plays a series of Johnny’s girlfriends. Her part is very small, but she did a great job of creating different characters for each of the roles.

The Paula Trokanski Dance Workshop is a great venue for Acme and it must be satisfying to play to a full house. Director Ryen has done an excellent job shaping this one-woman show into an ensemble piece that plays to Acme’s strengths. And high marks for whoever devised the firefly scene, which was magical.