Monday, June 30, 2014

She Loves Me


Prior to the opening of its very first musical, “She Loves Me,” directors Gia Battista and Rob Salas welcomed the audience to the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s new home: the Veterans’ Memorial Theater. Salas invited everyone to enjoy the show and then return home and tell all of their friends, enemies and acquaintances how awesome it is.
Fortunately, I have a much wider audience than anyone else in the theater, so I am here to tell everyone — this is one awesome show!

“She Loves Me” by Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, and directed by Battista, is the first non-Shakespeare production for DSE and is being presented as part of the Davis Shakespeare Festival, in repertory with “Much Ado about Nothing.” (Check their website, www.shakespearedavis.org, for which show plays on which date).

To start, leaving bug spray outside, entering the air-conditioned Vets’ and sitting in soft seats was wonderful already. The set by Tatiana Kuilanoff is simple, but well-constructed and adequately represents the parfumerie of Mr. Maraczek (Matt K. Miller).

Miller, a familiar face to Sacramento theatergoers, is perfectly cast as Maraczek and plays him in the spit and polish, crisp gentlemanly fashion of a Leo G. Carroll. He runs the gamut of emotions from perfectionist boss to depressed husband to angry cuckold to needy invalid to warm friend, and plays each of these emotions beautifully. He is a wonderful addition to the DSE ensemble.

“She Loves Me” is the third (of four) adaptation of the 1937 play “Parfumerie” by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo. In 1940 Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan brought it to life in “The Shop Around the Corner.” Judy Garland and Van Johnson set it to music in the 1949 film “In the Good Old Summertime,” and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan brought it up to 1998 with “You’ve Got Mail.”

Briefly, two employees of a store dislike each other at first sight, which makes working together difficult. At the same time, both employees are secretly carrying on an anonymous correspondence with a “Dear Friend” met in some sort of lonely hearts group, and both have become infatuated with their disembodied correspondent. Neither realizes that the disliked co-worker is the “friend” in question.

Laura Baronet is Amalia, hired by Maraczek because she helps him win a bet by selling a music box that store manager Georg (Ian Hopps) was certain would never sell.

Baronet is warm, with a sharp edge to her. She is lonely, a bit desperate, and pinning her hopes on meeting her Dear Friend. Baronet displays a good comedic sense and has a beautiful voice. Her second act “Vanilla Ice Cream” song was both funny and a poignant act of self-discovery.

Hopps is a winsome Georg, immediately lovable. He’s a loyal employee and very good at his job, though that darn Amalia just gets under his skin at times. When he discovers who she really is, his true nature shines through. Though every song he sings is a pleasure, his “She Loves Me” is a real highlight of the show.

This show has a stellar supporting cast, including Susanna Risser as the middle-aged oversexed saleswoman Ilona Ritter, not so secretly carrying on an affair with the shop’s rou√© Kodaly (Matt Edwards) who is so sleazy you want to wash your hands at intermission.

Georg’s good friend is Sipos (John Haine), a middle-aged man with a family who becomes Georg’s wing man as he approaches his date with his anonymous girlfriend.

Pablo Lopez is delicious as Arpad, the delivery boy who has higher aspirations. His “Try Me” was very funny.
Tim Gaffaney first appears as a private detective hired by Maraczek, but he completely shines in a later scene as a waiter at a restaurant that insists on a “Romantic Atmosphere.” Gaffaney here makes much of a small role, proving that there are no small roles!

An ensemble of customers, lookers-on, diners, etc., are played very well by Gabby Battista, Caitland Martin and Patty Shade.
The five-piece band, under the direction of Emma Gavenda, is on stage, hidden by the scenery, but not hampered by it. They provide a lush accompaniment for the action on stage.

This production is pure enjoyment from start to finish. The only thing that kept opening night from being a five-star performance is a problem was an audio one that I hope will be fixed later in the run. All the actors wear body mics and the sound was problematic at this first performance, sometimes much too loud, sometimes too soft. As there was a sound check going on when we got to the theater, I assume this is a situation they are aware of and are working on.

This had the feel of a professional production and bodes well for upcoming productions at future festivals. I just worry that it will be difficult to bring enough patrons to the show to meet the expenses of the larger venue. The show runs for six weeks … there is no excuse to miss it!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Chorus Line


Theater in the round may not be the ideal way to present Michael Bennett’s 9 time Tony award winning, “A Chorus Line,” now at the Music Circus, under the direction of Stafford Arima.

That is not to say that this production was not spectacular.  The opening number alone will leave the most robust in the audience panting from the sheer athleticism of a stage full of dancers leaping, twisting turning and dancing their hearts out.

For those now old enough to see the show (it opened in 1975, so it is quite likely that it is now playing to a whole new generation, unfamiliar with it), this is a two hour audition for eight roles in a show that is being cast by director Zach (Eric Sciotto) a mostly disembodied voice giving the dancers directions.  Zach appears on stage from time to time, but his part is mostly unseen.

Throughout the audition each of the finalists (some in the opening number dancers are eliminated after that number) tells his or her story, sings and/or dances and “really hopes I get this job.”

While the singers and dancers are for the most part outstanding, one problem with doing this in the round with a sound system where every voice comes from center stage, whether the performer is on stage or in the aisles of the Wells Fargo Pavillion is you are often busy trying to find out who is speaking and where the speaker actually is standing, and so a lot of the intimacy of a proscenium stage is lost.  By the end of the show, there are few actors with whom you have an invested relationship.

The circular stage is also difficult for the more intimate scenes when, of necessity, half of the audience watches the action from the back.  The character of Paul (Xavier Cano) may be one of the more emotional of the cast and the last time I saw this show he brought me to tears, but since I witnessed his entire interaction with Zach from behind him, it didn’t have the same impact. Cano gave it his all and was one of the few for whom I felt a twinge later in the show, but I didn’t get a chance to love him the way I wanted to.

At the end of the show, when Diana (Selina Michelle Verastigui) sings “What I did for Love” you should feel in your gut what all dedicated, talented performers really go through for their art, because you have watched it all throughout the show, but again, with not much invested in their lives it becomes an emotional song, which Verastigui puts all of her heart and soul into, but it doesn’t have the impact it might have had if we knew the performers better.

The biggest disappointment, however is the finale.  A Chorus Line is known for the crisp choreography of dancers standing in front of a mirror wall, their numbers growing, as the rest of the cast joins them for the iconic “One”

It is impossible to use a mirror on the Music Circus stage and while the dancing is crisp and impeccable and the circle dancing, escalating in speed breathtaking, the impact just can’t be the same as it is on a proscenium stage.  Adding lots of lighting helps, but I missed that grand finale.  This was just a good finale.

However, with those caveats of a cranky old critic (I’m sure most of the enthusiastic audience never gave them a thought), the performances were outstanding.  Cassie (Kate Levering, a veteran of more than 15 Music Circus shows), a one time rising “star” now unable to get a job and wanting to start over again in the chorus was desperate and poignant, trying to get past her former relationship with Zach and just get a job. 

Jennifer Foote is Sheila, an aging chorine with a chip on her shoulder hiding the sadness of her childhood.  She joins Juliane Godfrey (Bebe), Chelsea Morgan Stock (Maggie) in singing the poignant “At the Ballet,” which describes how dancing saved them.

Allison Blair McDowell mops up the stage as Val, whose looks prevented her from getting jobs until she found a unique way to solve the problem.  Her song is always an audience favorite.

Nick Varricchio makes an impression as Mike, telling about his start in dancing, by literally stepping into his sister’s shoes.

Newlyweds Kristine (Katie Huff) and Al (Adam Fleming) are funny, trying to explain Judy’s problem with vocal pitch.

This production is definitely an audience pleaser, and, my own personal disappointments aside, should be a big hit for Music Circus.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Les Miserables

Forty-two cast members. A 25-piece orchestra. Hundreds of costumes. Amazing lighting effects.

“Les Mis√©rables” is the show that Steve Isaacson has dreamed of directing since he first saw it in Los Angeles in 1988. Now the Davis Musical Theater Company has finally brought it to the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center, playing to a sold-out, opening-night audience which gave it an enthusiastic standing ovation at the finale.
This is a mostly outstanding cast, whether principals or chorus. The first act finale (“One Day More”) will give you goose bumps, and there are minor characters who will knock your socks off.

F. James Raasch, returning to DMTC after a 26 year hiatus, is Jean Valjean, that hapless hero imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to keep his sister’s child from starving to death. Raasch gives his character nobility and dignity and his “Bring Him Home” was achingly poignant, as he prays to God to keep his daughter Cosette’s boyfriend safe in the coming battle.

A bitter man, Valjean takes his anger out on a bishop (Jeff Nauer) who befriends him, only to have the bishop change his life. Valjean resolves to devote the rest of his life to doing good for humanity.

Nathan Lacy could give Russell Crowe lessons in how to play the role of Javert. The Inspector is obsessed with Valjean and determined to see him back in prison — years after he turned his back on his parole — despite the honorable man he has become in the interim.

Andrea Eve Thorpe is Fantine, the factory worker whose secret is the child she had to leave behind, whom she now works to support. She imbued the character with tremendous pathos and heart and it was just too bad that she was saddled with a curly blond wig that made her head look more like Harpo Marx and was out of place among the tattered factory workers. No wonder they all hated her.

But that did not prevent her from giving a knockout rendition of the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream.”

Fantine’s young daughter Cosette (Lily Linaweaver on opening night, alternating with Katie Smith-Induni) was a little taller than one might expect, but she was very fragile as the scared little girl who has been exploited by her caregivers. The older Cosette (Jori Gonzales) has a lovely duet with Marius and at her wedding wears one of the most beautiful bridal gowns I have seen (kudos to costume designers Denise Miles and Jean Henderson).

The villains we love to hate were Thenardier (Mike Mechanick) and his wife (Cyndi Wall), caregivers to Cosette, who were loud, gross, over the top and very funny. Obviously audience favorites. “Master of the House” is always a crowd pleaser and this was no exception.

Eimi Taormina is their daughter Eponine. (The younger Eponine is played by Smith-Induni, alternating with Linaweaver.) It is a role Taormina was born to play and she did not disappoint. “On My Own” will tug at your heartstrings, as she sings of her love for young Marius, who has given his heart to Cosette.

Scott Scholes as Marius is nothing short of outstanding. Scholes was seen in last year’s “Cabaret” as “tenor soloist” who set the tone for the whole show, and in this production, he takes his talents another step forward and makes Marius a more memorable character than he sometimes is.

The real treat of the night was Ryan Favorite as Enjolras, the leader of the student rebels, who gave a spirited performance with a powerful voice which made you sit up and take notice.

Marley Michel as Gavroche, the street urchin, had a lot of spunk, but sadly not a lot of volume, but his (or her, as Michel is female) death was handled so emotionally that it brought tears.

One cannot review this show without giving the set a big bravo. Thanks to what Isaacson described as “Flintstone mobility,” the student barricade on the street put itself together, turned itself around, and took itself off stage again. It was a marvel.

James Cubbage also deserves mention for the intricate lighting design. There were a few glitches on opening night, but when it all works right, it’s wonderful. I particularly liked the water effect in the Paris sewers.

For a company the size of the Davis Musical Theater Company, this is a monumental undertaking, but it was handled beautifully and the audience left thrilled. (“This is the best night I’ve had in this theater,” one patron told me).

Tickets are selling fast and many performances are nearly sold out, so order soon.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Wicked


It is clear when you enter the memorial auditorium and see a fire breathing (or rather smoke blowing) dragon hanging over the stage, when you watch Glinda float to the stage in her metallic bubble, or when the Great and Powerful Oz starts huffing and puffing, why “Wicked” has been declared a “cultural phenomenon” by “Variety,” “The best musical of the decade by “Entertainment Weekly,” and has won over 50 major awards, including the Grammy and three Tony Awards.

There’s no question about it, this musical is magnificent.  A large cast, a spectacular set, beautiful costumes and more special effects than have been seen on the auditorium stage in a very long time.  There is an added plus of a real orchestra that does not need so much amplification that your ears hurt.

It is also clear why after an absence of only two years, the California Musical Theater Company is already bringing it back.  The ~2,500 seat house appeared to be, if not completely full, at least very nearly full.

“Wicked” is based on the wildly popular novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire, which tells the “back story” of the beloved Oz characters.  It is Maguire’s prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” answering such questions as “why is the wicked witch green?” “Does she have a name?” (Yes--Elphaba--Maguire’s homage to L. Frank Baum’s name), “Why is she so mean?” “What do we know about her sister, other than that she was killed by a falling house?” and “Can anyone really be as sticky sweet as Glinda?”  (We never do learn if there was ever a Witch of the South, though).

Maguire’s book was adapted for the stage by Winnie Holzman with music and lyrics added by Stephen Schwartz.

Those familiar with the performances of Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, who originated the characters on Broadway will find that Emma Hunton (Elphaba) and Gina Beck (Glinda) have made the roles unique to themselves. Hunton, a powerful Elphaba, has appeared in no previous productions of this show, though Beck, making her U.S. debut, did play Glinda in London.

The characters meet at school.  Glinda is the overly perky, blonde, cheerleader type, who arrives at Shiz University surrounded by her adoring entourage and just knowing she is going to end up with the most handsome guy on campus.  She is a flibbertigibbet concerned only with herself, her looks, and what makes her look good.

Elphaba, having had a sad childhood that included abuse at the hands of her father, and being made to be the caretaker for her disabled sister Nessarose (Jenny Florkowski) is a serious student, concerned about real world problems, in particular the fact that something baaaad is happening in Oz, as Professor Dillamond (a goat) (Tom Flynn) is losing his ability to speak and forgetting how to understand, as are many of the heretofore English speaking animals in the country.

Through an error, Glinda and Elphaba are assigned to be roommates and it’s instant loathing for both, though over time Glinda can’t help herself and decides to help Elphaba become “Popular” (one of the perky hummable tunes from this show).

Rounding out the cast are a host of Ozians, such as Boq (Jesse JP Johnson), the Munchkin who is in love with Glinda and is willing to do anything she wants to win her heart, though in the process he loses his own.

Nick Adams is Fiyero, who arrives at Shiz the male equivalent of Glinda...not interested in study, wanting only to party and hang out with the most beautiful girls on campus.  Over the course of the show, he finds true love and undergoes perhaps the greatest transformation of anyone in the show.

Tim Kazurinsky is the Wizard, harboring a secret longing all of his life and realizing, too late, that he didn’t have to look farther than his own front yard because it was there all the time.

Alison Frasesr is Madame Morrible, headmistress at Shiz, who takes Elphaba under her wing when she discovers the girl has magical powers that can help her in her own goals.

There are wonderful enchanting moments in this show (such as the Act 1 Finale) and the tender farewell of Glinda and Elphaba, singing “For Good,” a song with which anyone who has had and lost a good friend can identify.

It’s a long show, but passes in an instant.  It’s also a pricey show, so see if you can win one of those $25 Wicked lottery tickets.  A day-of-performance lottery for a limited number of orchestra seats will be held. Two and one-half hours prior to each performance, people who present themselves at the Convention Center Box Office, 1301 L Street, will have their names placed in a lottery drum; thirty minutes later, names will be drawn for a limited number of orchestra seats at $25 each, cash only. This lottery is available only in-person at the box office, with a limit of two tickets per person. Lottery participants must have a valid photo ID when submitting their entry form and, if chosen, when purchasing tickets. For questions about the lottery, call the box office at (916) 557-1999.