Thursday, December 31, 2015

Pippin

The company of the national tour of PIPPIN presented by
Broadway Sacramento at the Sacramento Community Center Theater
Dec. 29, 2015 – Jan. 3, 2016. Photo by Terry Shapiro.

“Pippin.” Is it a musical? A magic show? An acrobatic show? Something akin to Cirque du Soleil?

Well … yes to everything.

This 2013 Tony award-winning revival of the original 1972 Broadway hit by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson with choreography by Bob Fosse, is now at the Sacramento Community Center. It’s the 1972 original on steroids, thanks to director Diane Paulus and choreographer Chet Walker, who admits his work is a tribute to Fosse.

The book on its own is not particularly interesting. Pippin is the son of Charlemagne (“Charles” in this production), who has just graduated from university, educated and on a quest to find meaning for his existence. In the original, Pippin’s journey was a play within a play of a touring theatrical group with clown-like performers.

In this most-nominated Broadway show of 2013, the stage is literally a three-ring circus, with breathtaking non-stop acrobatics, amazing magic tricks, and puzzling sleight-of-hand effects which pass by so quickly you hardly realize what’s happening. The non-stop motion is thanks to Gypsy Snider, co-founder of “Les 7 doigts de la main,” a Montreal-based circus company.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this production is that the actors become acrobats and the acrobats become singers. Someone delivers a house-shattering solo and suddenly is twirling several feet above the stage, someone else has been doing somersaults overhead and suddenly is on the stage singing in a marvelous voice. It’s impossible to determine which are strictly actors and which are strictly circus performers.

Gabrielle McClinton is the Leading Player, who has played the role on Broadway. This seductive carnival barker leads Pippin from world to world as he tries to find the extraordinary, her real agenda not fully displayed until the end when she offers him the ultimate opportunity for glory. McClinton is an accomplished singer and dancer and her performance is snappy, physical and amazing to watch.

The title role is played by Brian Flores, making his professional theater debut with this production. He is innocent and engaging, has a great voice, and can climb a rope or leap off into waiting arms with the best of them. As Pippin, he tries war, sex, political revolution and ordinary domesticity in his search for something “completely fulfilling.”

Daddy Charles is played by John Rubinstein, who actually originated the role of Pippin in 1972. No doddering old man, this Charles, whose favorite response to any request is: “Denied!” He’s a despotic ruler, who feels his youngest son Lewis (Erik Altemus, who originated the role on Broadway) is an idiot, though his love for Pippin is strong.

Lewis’ mother Fastrada (Kate Wesler) is Charles’ trophy wife and, dressed in the brilliant costumes of Dominique Lemieux, her “trophies” have never been better displayed. She is ambitious for her son, though sometimes it seems like more intimate than a mother/son relationship.

A real surprise is Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe (Sabrina Harper), exiled from the Charles’ court. Her number, “No time at all,” may be the most surprising of the show, but to describe it would be to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say, it is quite memorable.

The widowed Catherine (Bradley Benjamin) is offered to Pippin to give him a taste of domestic life. Her son Theo was played on opening night by Jake Berman, who shares the role with Ben Krieger. Catherine’s growing love for Pippin is frightening to him because she is nothing “extraordinary” and he must find something extraordinary for his life.

This is an evening of razzle dazzle from the start, a sumptuous marriage of circus and simple musical story. In the end, it is a show you will never forget.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Behavior of Broadus


From left, Francis Gercke, Andrew Joseph Perez and Nanci Zoppi perform in
“The Behavior of Broadus,” playing through Jan. 3 at Capital Stage. Charr Crail./Courtesy photo
Capital Stage is dipping its toe into the musical-theater waters with its first-ever musical, “The Behavior of Broadus,” a show written by “Burglars of Hamm” (Carolyn Almos, Matt Almos, John Beauregard and Albert Dayan). The plot sounds weird but it was oddly entertaining, though possibly one of the strangest musicals I have seen.

If I told you that I saw a show that was a bio-musical about John Broadus Watson, the father of behaviorism and modern advertising, which includes dancing barnyard animals, a talking lab rat, romance and a lots of simulated sex, would it intrigue you? A musical about behavioral science? How can that possibly be entertaining?

Well, the enjoyment of this show, directed by Albert Dayan (one of the playwrights), is due in large part to the marvelous, creative choreography of Ken Roht and the musical direction of Graham Sobelman. Ordinary lyrics are lifted into the stratosphere by the crisp, clean dancing of the 11-member cast.

The press release tells us that this is the “sort of true story” of Watson (Francis Gercke), who started life as a preacher wannabe in South Carolina, converting all the barnyard animals (in wonderful masks by Ann Closs-Farley), but finding that when he went to Chicago he was less successful with people, so he enters the University of Chicago to earn a Ph.D. in psychology and find out how he can better make people accept his message.

Gercke’s performance wonderfully spans his innocent childhood, his religious God complex, his rigid academic years and all the way to the regrets of his old age.

Along the way, he discovers behavioral conditioning when he first teaches Phil the Rat (a very funny Andrew Joseph Perez) to run a maze. He then trains “Baby Albert,” a 9-month-old child (Connor Mickiewicz) first to have no fear of anything, and then to fear the things he previously loved, a fear that will last his entire life.

At the start of a torrid affair with a lab assistant Rosalie (Nanci Zoppi), Watson writes, “Enclosed you will find a graph comparing my feelings for you to those of my wife. As you can see you are now nearly three standard deviations in the lead. Best regards, Watson.”

Not a romantic fellow, this Watson!

Zoppi is very funny, particularly in dealing with her “plasma seepage” and its cure.

Following this scandal, Watson resigns from the faculty and sets up his own private laboratory with Rosalie (whom he eventually marries) to continue his experiments, the results of which he then applied to the world of advertising, and changed forever how advertising was presented to the world. He continues his behavioral manipulation experiments — on his own children — with disastrous results.

An outstanding performance in this production is given by Don Hayden, credited with being Watson’s lab assistant Loeb, but he is at his best as the university head trustee in the hearing to determine Watson’s future because of his “abominable transgressions of adultery and lust.”

The set for this show, by Stephen C. Jones, is very simple, with moving tables and chalkboards. But the projections on the back wall, which cover Watson’s life from actual documents, are by Steve Decker, based on original images by Jason Thompson. They set the mood nicely, as does Decker’s lighting design throughout, but particularly with the deaths of several characters.

Act 1 of this play is fast-paced and consistently funny, while Act 2 is less so, and goes on perhaps too long. But overall, the show is still very funny and worth seeing, if only for the experience.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Miracle on 34th St


I first saw “Miracle on 34th Street” when I was a child. The movie — starring Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood as her young daughter — was released in 1947 and was based on a story by Valentine Davies.

It has, since that time, been my very favorite Christmas-themed story: A mother who works for Macy’s is teaching her daughter reality vs. fantasy, refusing to let the child believe in fairy tales or in Santa Claus, until she meets an elderly man named Kris Kringle who insists he is the real Santa Claus.

I had not seen the musical version, by Meredith Willson, and so was happy to see that it was being presented by the Woodland Opera House. Sadly, the show was a big disappointment, and the bulk of the problem is with Willson himself.

The man who created the wonderful classic “The Music Man” has created a show that consists of mixed emotions from delightful to dull, far too many exuberant full-chorus numbers, a story line that does not flow consistently, and the creepy situation of the friendship between a strange man and a young girl, which becomes so intense she calls him “Uncle Fred,” but her mother doesn’t have a clue what her young daughter is doing.

In 1963 this may seem an innocent relationship — and it is — but it is nothing that would pass so innocently today. (In the movie, Fred was a next-door neighbor and had Susan’s mother’s permission to spend time with her daughter.)

There is even a number, “She Hadda Go Back,” which is essentially “Trouble” from “The Music Man” with different words.

The best musical number in the show is “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which was recorded by both Bing Crosby and Perry Como in 1951 and was stuck into this show 12 years later.

If you combine all the things wrong with the show to begin with and add a trumpeter who was, at least on opening night, definitely not up to the task of a show that relies very heavily on a good trumpeter, the whole thing was a mess.

Even the set was a disappointment. One of Woodland’s best features over the years has been its rock-solid sets, but in this one a whole wall moves when a door is opened. However, with 20 scenes over two acts, I understand that one can’t anchor pieces as well as in a smaller show.

None of these points should take away from the good performances by the cast, however. Makenna Harding-Davis as young Susan Walker is a marvel. Her performance throughout was outstanding and her scenes with Jeff Nauer, as Kris Kringle, were some of the best in the show.

Nauer was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf who could make anybody believe in Santa Claus.

Erik Catalan, as Fred Gailey, the man who wants to help Susan have a more normal childhood, is very good and holds the show together, though his scenes with Susan’s mother Doris (Crissi Cairns) extend the bounds of disbelief. The first time they meet, he plants a passionate kiss on her, the second time they meet, she is yelling and screaming at him, and their third scene has them planning marriage.

Steve Mackay is a wonderful blustery Marvin Shellhammer, Doris’ assistant, filled with unworkable publicity ideas for Macy’s.

Don Draughton is a good R.H. Macy and Ken Watkins does well in the small role of Mr. Gimble, and also the larger role of a balloon vendor in the parade scenes, while Rick Simonson is a believable judge, presiding at the trial that will determine Kris Kringle’s sanity.

The ensemble, a combination of adults and children from Woodland’s young people’s program, was marvelous in each of their ensemble numbers and was a highlight of the production. Of particular note is young Peyton Kessler as Tommy Mara Jr., son of prosecutor Thomas Mara Sr. (Matthew Abergel, who also appears as a policeman), who provides some of the evidence that clears Kris.

The show ends happily ever after and should send everyone home with warm feelings about the holiday, but I felt a need to watch the original movie again. I wish Willson had given this talented cast better material to work with.

On Sunday, Dec. 6, the company will hold a special “Cookies and Cocoa with Santa,” giving children an opportunity to visit with Kris Kringle from the production. Tickets are $10 per child (no charge for adults) and must be purchased in advance.

The event will include storytime with Santa on stage, a chance for each child to sit on Santa’s lap (bring your camera) and a cookies-and-cider reception. Tickets may be purchased for the 5 or 6 p.m. hour.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Christmas Carol

Add cJohn Lamb, left, and Greg Alexander star in the
B Street Theatre production of "A Christmas Carol,"
running through Dec. 27. B Street Theatre
staff/Courtesy photoaption
If it’s November, it must be time to think about “A Christmas Carol.”

This Charles Dickens story has been with us since 1843, when it was first published. In the past 173 years, we have experienced the tale in just about every way possible. It’s been read aloud by the author himself, and there have been stage plays, movies, musicals, a soap opera and even a production performed entirely in Klingon (Scrooge is named SQuja’).

It has been performed by humans, puppets, cartoon characters, dogs and Muppets. Ebenezer Scrooge has been played by Lionel Barrymore, Stan Freberg, Vanessa Williams, Mr. Magoo and Scrooge McDuck, among a host of others.

What more can possibly be done to this beloved holiday classic?

Buck Busfield of the B Street Theatre has figured out a new twist, believe it or not. Busfield’s Christmas shows have become noted for their unusual twists and turns and this “Christmas Carol,” part of the B Street Family Series, is no different.

Sam Reno’s intricate scenic design gives no hint of what is to come, other than noticing that there are an awful lot of doors, many of them a considerable distance off the floor.

We find, as we expect, Ebenezer Scrooge sitting at his desk on Christmas Eve. But Greg Alexander’s Scrooge is complaining about the fact that for the past 173 years, he has to re-enact this story over and over again and he’s sick and tired of it. And the premise is set.

While this is predominately a one-man show, Alexander is joined by four incredibly talented actors listed as “ensemble.” Amy Kelly, Nestor Campos Jr., John Lamb and Megan Wicks play every character who is not Scrooge, which often involves very quick costume changes.

Scrooge decides to outwit the ghosts by drinking lots of tea to keep himself awake so he won’t have to have the same dream again this year. Thus the story becomes real, not a dream. Scrooge doesn’t want to go through the angst of redemption at his gravesite yet again, but redemption comes anyway and is accomplished instead by an intervention so fast-paced that it left the audience breathless with laughter.

The effectiveness of this story relies in no small part on the lighting design of Ron Madonia and the clever “easy on, easy off” costumes of Paulette Sand-Gilbert. There was more than one occasion when I wished they would do a “Noises Off” version of this show because I’m sure what was going on back stage was crazier than what we were seeing on stage.

I will admit that at the beginning I did not like Busfield’s premise, and the middle of the show didn’t seem to know exactly where it was going, but by the end, I decided that I did like it after all.

The little kids in the audience loved it — there is an awful lot of slapstick and other visual humor that appealed to them. But I hope that at some point their parents take them to see a real version of the Dickens classic! It would be a shame if they grew up thinking this was the real deal.

Monday, November 23, 2015

In-Laws, Outlaws and other people (who should be shot)

Audiences will enjoy spending some holiday time with this quirky
extended family in the Winters Theatre Company's production of
"In-Laws, Outlaws and Other People (Who Should Be Shot)." Courtesy photo

 “In-Laws, Outlaws and Other People (Who Should Be Shot)” by Steve Franco may never be considered great literature, or be performed on Broadway, but it’s a fun play that will get anyone in the mood for those big family holiday gatherings approaching.

Now entertaining Winters Theatre Company audiences at the Winters Community Center Theater, this production is directed by Jesse Akers and displays all the things that I love about the Winters Theatre Company.

Akers is also credited with set design and it is one of the better-looking Winters sets, entirely utilitarian, but just … charming.

The show starts and ends with a chorus of seven young children singing carols, but this is no professional choir. It’s just a bunch of kids holding music sheets and singing, mostly on key and looking adorable. Before the start of Act 2 they sing a rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” with drum accompaniment by Hannah Palchik.

As the show begins, Dad (Phil Pittman) and daughter Beth (Caitlin Richards) are getting the house ready for the quirky extended family to arrive for Christmas Eve dinner. Mom (Anita Ahuja) is flying home from a quick business trip.

As the often petulant, distant, somewhat bored teenage daughter, Richards nails it. Even if her fellow actors weren’t so much fun to watch, her performance alone is a good reason to see this play.

Pittman is the level-headed Dad who tries to keep everyone calm despite the trauma that is about to envelop all of them.

Cranky neighbor Mrs. Draper (Germaine Hupe) pops in a few times to remind Dad to light the outside Christmas lights or the other neighbors will be upset.

In pairs, the guests begin to arrive. Bunny (Mom’s sister) and husband Bud arrive first. Donna Akers is wonderful as the aunt who loves to gossip and to run things, while Brad Haney as Bud seems to be most comfortable in an overstuffed chair, with a beer in his hand watching football on TV.

Aunt Rose (Laure Olson) and Uncle Leo (Scott Graff) are in their 80s, wobbly on their canes, and endearingly cantankerous. Rose is the aunt who pinches your cheek and questions you on your life. She’s 83 years old, she’s not afraid to tell you, and nobody is going to boss her around.

Leo and Bud are salty old geezers who derive great pleasure in arguing over just about everything. Graff is wonderfully blustery, trying to find the right words and tripping over his tongue.

Into this mix come Tony and Vinny, two petty thieves who have just robbed a store and don’t want to hurt anyone, but since their car broke down, they need a place to hide out until the coast is clear. Tony (Tyler Tufts) is the leader, a tough guy who isn’t quite comfortable with his role and doesn’t know what to make of this weird family he is holding captive.

Vinny (Manny Lanzaro) follows Tony’s lead, but is terribly inept and obviously new at this criminal business.

Others in the cast include Elizabeth Williams as cousin Tracy; William Haggerty as Beth’s boyfrend Paul, with electric blue hair, who has very little to say; Alex Harris as Paul’s sister Emily; Alison Hapworth Eldridge as their mother, Mrs. Wakowski; and Robert Williams as a police officer (Williams shares the role with Trent Beeby).

The “aw shucks” conclusion is predictable, but charming nonetheless. It will warm the cockles of your heart and get you in the mood for the holidays.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Kites and Kings

Benjamin Franklin (Ted Barton, left), Polly Stevenson (Katie Rubin),
and Temple (Riley Edwards) perform in Sacramento Theatre Company’s
“Of Kites and Kings.” Barry Wisdom Photography/Courtesy photo
I’m sure you remember Benjamin Franklin. You know — one of the fathers of our country? You’ve surely seen his picture on the money.
Ol’ Ben was a pretty impressive guy. He was a politician, a postmaster, a printer, a diplomat and so much more. As an inventor, he gave us the bifocals, and the Franklin stove; as a writer, he left us with wise sayings in “Poor Richard’s Almanac”; and as a scientist, he experimented with electricity.

But even larger-than-life heroes have their flaws. A wonderful world-premiere play, “Of Kites and Kings,” by Gary Wright, now at Sacramento Theatre Company, shows that in Franklin’s personal relationships there was much lacking.

The play is set in a boarding house run by a woman named Polly Stevenson (the always-funny Katie Rubin), where Franklin (Ted Barton, a convincing look-alike Franklin) seems to spend most of his time.

We learn that Franklin has an illegitimate son, William (Dan Fagan), with whom he has an uneasy relationship and the play centers mostly on that relationship — the good, the bad and, yes, the ugly. William has studied law and is a loyalist, which sets up all sorts of enmity between father and son. Both are fighting tyrants. Franklin is fighting King George while his son is fighting his father.

There are flashback scenes to Ben and William experimenting with electricity, which display a time when things were good between them — nice special effects by lighting and sound designer Les Solomon.

Costumes by Jessica Minnihan are handsome period pieces and work well for setting the feel of the play.

Rubin acts as a sort of narrator, as well as a part of the plot. She develops an instant crush on the handsome young William and her descriptions of events often include fantasy rendezvous with William. Rubin also briefly plays William’s fiancée, Elizabeth Downes, in Polly’s fantasy view of her, as an unlikable harridan with a shrill voice, in scenes that seem to play more for the humor (the kind Rubin does best) than for any important plot point in the story.

Toward the end of Act 1, we meet William Temple Franklin who, in a chip-off-the-old-block situation, is the illegitimate son of William. As the enmity between Ben and William intensifies, Ben’s relationship with Temple deepens.

Temple was played in the performance I saw by Adrian Anderson, but he shares the role with Riley Edwards. Anderson played William as a soft, spoiled young man who has affection for his grandfather and little or no relationship with his father.

As the play ends, we have perhaps a bit less of a feeling of awe about Benjamin Franklin because we have seen a serious personal flaw and it pains us.

This show has a lot of humor without being a comedy. It has a lot of serious situations without being a drama, and it discusses a bit of history without being a historical drama. What it is is a fun evening of theater by a top-notch cast.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Into the Woods

John Ewing as the Narrator/Mysterious Man is tormented by the Witch (Eimi Taormina)
in DMTC’s Into the Woods from Nov 13 to Dec 6. Courtesy photo
  
What a wonderful gift the Davis Musical Theater Company has given to Davis with its outstanding production of “Into the Woods.”  Ten years ago, DMTC moved into its new theater (now called the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center) and opened for business with a production of “Into the Woods.”  The progress the company has made over the past ten years shows clearly in this current production.

For those unfamiliar with the show, “Into the Woods,” by Stephen Sondheim with book by James Lapine, is Sondheim’s salute to familiar nursery tales, the first act being a lot of “happily after stories” of people like Cinderella, Jack in the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.  The second act is what happens after “happily ever after” and the consequences one pays for decisions made in life.  It is Sondheim’s opportunity to prove that he doesn’t always have to go into dark psychological places.

Director Steve Isaacson has assembled a top notch cast.  There isn’t a bad apple in the bunch.

The narrator (John Ewing, appearing later as the mystery man) explains that each of four characters have a wish.  Cinderella (Jori Gonzales) wishes to attend the King’s festival; Jack (Joshua Smith) wishes his beloved cow would give milk while his mother (Dannette Vassar) wants him to sell his pet.

The Baker (Tony Ruiz) and his wife (Ashley Holm), desperately want a baby, but are under a curse placed on the Baker’s father and his family years ago by the wicked witch next door (Eimi Taormina).   In order to break the spell, the Baker must gather four things – a cow as white as snow, a red cape, a golden shoe, and a lock of blonde hair.

How convenient, then, that their neighbors include Jack,  Little Red Riding Hood (Ernestine Balisi), Cinderella, and Rapunzel (Rachel Sherman-Shockley).

Each of these actors gives a memorable performance, Smith’s Jack a simple, devoted son who loves his pet cow, while Vasser just gets better and better as an actress.  Ruiz and Holm provide a solid anchor for the story, and Taormina gives a riveting performance. Her act two “Stay with Me,” a plea to her daughter, Rapunzel, is hauntingly beautiful. Gonzales displays her operatic training in a beautiful performance as Cinderella.

Balisi as Little Red Riding Hood is new to DMTC and what a find she is.  She sparkles and dominates every scene in which she appears. She is as matter of fact about swiping sweets from the Baker as she is about finding Granny (Nancy Streeter) in the belly of the wolf (F. James Raasch).

The two brother princes are particularly wonderful.  Rapunzel’s prince is played by Josh Endter and Cinderella’s prince by F. James Raasch.  They are dramatically over the top, self-centered and very funny in their “Agony” duet.  They swoop in and out perfectly.

There are not a lot of familiar tunes in this show, but it is filled with some beautiful moments, such as “No One is Alone,” sung by Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, the Baker and Jack when it seems that all is lost.  “Sometimes people leave you/ Halfway through the wood.” the characters sing, but the message that “no one is alone” gives hope.

Act 1 is upbeat and ends with happily ever after endings.  However, Act 2 is filled with betrayal, the death of beloved characters, sexual indiscretions, and the graphic sounds of the kinds of things that an angry giant on a rampage can do to puny human beings. The few survivors do, in fact, ultimately look like they will have a happily ever after but the whole act might be a bit too disturbing for younger children.

On the whole, DMTC has done a great job with this production and it is highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Steel Magnolias

Gossip and life-long friendships abound in Truvy's Beauty Salon in a scene from the Woodland Opera House production "Steel Magnolias" opening Friday, Oct. 16, and running through Nov. 8. From left, seated, are Emily Delk and Danielle Barnet and, standing, are Nancy Agee, Deborah Hammond and Lenore Sebastian. Karen Alexander/Courtesy photo   

The beauty shop in a small town is the perfect place for good friends to relax and spend an hour, or a day, or a lifetime. Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Chinquapin, Louisiana, is just such a place.

Truvy’s is the setting for Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias,” now gracing the stage of the Woodland Opera House, under the direction of Jason Hammond. The story, based on the life and death of Harling’s real-life sister who died in 1985 from early diabetes, opened off-Broadway in 1987 and closed in 1990, after 1,126 performances.

The all-star movie, with Dolly Parton as Truvy and Julia Roberts as the dying Shelby was a hit when released in 1989. The play then reopened on Broadway in 2005 for a short run, closing after only 136 performances.

It continues today as a popular play for community theaters, and its success depends greatly on the talent of the six women who populate the salon, all good friends who have seen each other through good times and bad times over the years, women who are “as delicate as magnolias but as tough as steel.”

The strength of the show is in the camaraderie of the women, and according to Deborah Hammond (Truvy), the cast came together much as the women they are playing. “The rehearsal process seemed less like work and more like having the opportunity to laugh and visit with good friends each night.”
The chemistry of this cast and their enjoyment of each other came through loud and clear to the audience throughout the play.

Hammond was outstanding as Truvy, big and bold with an open heart and an ear for all the town gossip. Hammond not only brought Truvy to life, with a spark that resonated with the audience, but she was impressive in her hair styling skills as well!

Patricia Glass is Annelle, a new employee at Truvy’s, who is hiding her own secrets and who is very timid at first, but gains self-confidence and eventually fits right in with everyone else.

Danielle Barnett is glowing as Shelby, who comes in on her wedding day to have the finishing touches put on her hair. The show really revolves around Shelby over two years — her wedding, her fragile health, her desire to have a baby, and the sad consequences of that decision, though she hides her condition so well it’s very difficult to believe she is sick.

Shelby’s mother M’Lynn is played by Emily Delk, who has a complicated yet loving relationship with her daughter. M’Lynn has the least to do for the first three scenes, but her raw emotional breakdown in scene four breaks your heart. She’s really the only one of the women who shows extreme emotion and she does it beautifully.

Lenore Sebastian is Clairee, former first lady of Chinquapin. She has a quick wit and a way of diffusing tension with humor. She has a love-hate relationship with the town curmudgeon, Ouiser.
Nancy Agee’s Ouiser, is loud, brash and inappropriate. She apparently dislikes everybody and says things like “The only reason people are nice to me is that I have more money than God.” Yet she is believable in those few instances when she lets her humanity show through the wall she has built around her.

The cast has the advantage of a beautiful set on which to work. Jason Hammond and John Bowles have created a beauty parlor so realistic that the only thing missing was the smell of hair spray and other chemicals. There was, however, one problem with the set, depending on where you sat. Our seats were in the fourth row, on the right, and the couches in the lounge area completely obliterated our view of the second hair-cutting seat. Since M’Lynn spent a good deal of the first scene in that chair, having her hair set, I rarely got a view of her.

This is a story of long-lasting friendship and the close bond among women who have been through so much together. In the right hands, this is a beautiful story that will resonate with anyone who has needed the support of her friends in joy and in sorrow. Fortunately, the Woodland Opera House has the right hands.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche


The cast of B Street Theatre's “5 Lesbians Eating A Quiche”
includes, from left: top row, Elisabeth Nunziato and Stephanie Altholz,
bottom, Amy Resnick, Amy Kelly and Tara Sissom B Street Theatre/Courtesy photo

“5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood, now at the B Street Theatre, may be one of the funniest 60-plus minutes I’ve ever spent in the theater. I did talk with two people who didn’t like it at all, but judging by the others around me, they were definitely in the minority.

It is 1956, when Americans lived with the threat of communism and a nuclear attack, and when same-sex attraction was still the “love that dare not speak its name.” Somewhere in middle America it is the long-awaited day of the annual Quiche Breakfast of the Susan B. Anthony Sisters of Gertrude Stein, whose motto is “No men. No meat. All manners.”

The group’s board of directors, all self-described “widows” costumed and coiffed like the most extreme Stepford Wives (costumes by Paulette Sand-Gilbert), are there to get the festivities started.

By the end of the evening, you may never look at quiche in the same way again.

The audience, all of us (male and female) also “widows,” becomes part of things when name tags are slapped on us as we enter the theater (I was “Nora,” my husband was “Eula”).

The play is rife with innuendo, double entendres, metaphor and repressed sexual tension. We learn that the egg is the most perfect food, the closest food to Jesus, that quiche is the staff of life and that meat should never, ever taint the ingredients of a quiche.

Director Buck Busfield has assembled five of the funniest ladies in the Sacramento area — Elisabeth Nunziato, Amy Kelly, Amy Resnick, Stephanie Altholz and Tara Sissom — and each is in top form in this hilarious comedy.

Resnick is Vern, the mannish woman, who wears boots with her dress, walks with a swagger, and sits with legs spread apart. She is the chairman of the buildings and grounds committee and has turned their meeting room into a secure bomb shelter, since the Red Menace is a real threat. She made a couple of mistakes, though, that will greatly affect the others.

The threat becomes reality midway through the play when a nuclear bomb is dropped and the women realize they are safe, but have to remain in their shelter for up to four years. That’s when things get out of control and they realize that they are safe to express their true feelings. In short order, everyone in the audience is admitting that he or she is secretly a lesbian and Nunziato drops the biggest bomb of the night.

The quiche-eating scene is easily the funniest of the evening, though Sissom ultimately makes the biggest splash.

The plot is absurdly ridiculous, but also surprisingly emotional and in the end it demonstrates how far we have come in the past 50-plus years.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Circle Mirror Transformation



L to R: Heidi Masem, Trent Beeby, Woody Fridae, and Linda Glick
I’ve never heard such a quiet audience in my life.

Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” was quite a change from Winters Theatre Company’s usual wacky comedies, and the new young director, Andrew Fridae, had warned the audience there would be silences in the show that might seem uncomfortable and not to worry that the actors had forgotten their lines. Throughout the play, the audience was in rapt attention so that during the silences you could hear a pin drop.

The director has ignored the Community Center stage and built instead a platform along the back wall of the room on which he has created the look of a studio where an “acting class” is taking place, led by Marty (Linda Glick) a 55-year-old acting instructor who teaches by communication exercises rather than by actual acting scenes. Glick, an instructor of such courses in real life, I was informed, is obviously perfect in the role of instructor, mentor and participant in the activities.

There are four in her class. James (Woody Fridae, father of the director and former mayor of Winters) is her husband and their relationship will come under some scrutiny throughout the evening.

Schultz (Trent Beeby) is a 48-year-old divorcee, full of insecurities, newly single, and hoping the class will help his self-esteem.

Theresa (Ana Kormos) is a 35-year-old gorgeous but lonely woman, harboring her own relationship problems and doing a lot of sublimating.

Lauren (Heidi Masem) is only 19 and hopes the class will prepare her to audition for an upcoming high school production of “West Side Story.” She is the typical sullen teenager, but still serious about doing well in this class.

The play is divided into two acts and each consists of three weeks of the six-week class. Each “week” is a series of acting exercises, some of which may seem silly, but which, over the course of the six weeks, shows how the group has come together, and has grown and been changed by their experiences.

Along one wall of the studio is a large mirror, donated by Sally Teaford, which allows the class to concentrate on the exercises, and not on always facing the audience, which can see them in the mirror when they are looking away.

Director Fridae explained to me that this is a “naturalistic play,” meaning that the action attempts to create the illusion of reality. Fridae (and playwright Baker) succeeds so brilliantly that the audience was totally into what was going on on stage.

This was the second-most-produced play in the United States after its 2009 premiere, perhaps because of the small cast and perhaps because of that “naturalistic” approach, but it’s not as simple as it may seem because it requires a team of top-notch actors who relate well to each other. Fortunately, just such a mix is featured in this show.

Throughout the evening, relationships among the participants form and dissolve. One particularly touching exercise involves one person getting up, introducing him or herself as another member of the group and then giving an introduction based on that person. Some of those introductions were quite touching, especially when the actor speaking addressed something within the person he or she was representing that that person had not realized.

“I am a real artist,” for example, was a real revelation to the person about whom the comment was spoken.

Another surprisingly effective exercise was a conversation between two people where they could each use only one nonsense word, “goulash” and “ak-mak,” for example. The exercise began awkwardly, but as the participants became comfortable with the exercise, an actual conversation began to be discerned.

Things work so organically that one wonders if the actors might be improvising, but it’s all scripted beautifully and directed so expertly that it ends up being a new theatrical experience for all. It’s not until the cast takes a rather unusual bow that you realize it has been a play and not a real-life experience all along.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sense and Sensibility



Teddy Spencer as Edward Ferrars and Laura Klingaman as Elinor Dashwood
Whatever did young women do to find a man in the days before online dating sites?

Jane Austen seems to have had her own 18th-century Match.com, based on the plot of her most popular novels. Her “Sense and Sensibility” is currently having a delicious run at Sacramento Theatre Company, opening its 71st season.

Austen wrote this work in the form of letters, in 1795, at the age of 19, which may explain why she writes so knowledgeably about the thoughts and emotions of young women. It was not published until 1811, by which time Austen had changed the form to a narrative and the title to “Sense and Sensibility.” Its author was the anonymous “A Lady.”

The story follows the fortunes and misfortunes, the loves and heartbreaks of the plucky Dashwood sisters and the wicked and wacky characters who surround them.

Lenne Klingaman is simply outstanding as Elinor Dashwood, the “sensible” sister. She is noble to a fault in controlling her feelings for Edward Ferrars (Teddy Spencer), and later her disappointment in him. (Ferrars also takes a brief hilarious turn, as his brother Robert.)

Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer is sister Marianne, the drama queen who feels love is a waste until she is swept off her feet (literally) by roué John Willoughby (Kevin Gish), who will later break her heart.
This is a superior cast, but outstanding among them are Matt K. Miller, playing the kind of role he does so well as John Middleton, the affable squire who offers lodging to the Dashwood women after they are forced out of their own home. Miller plays Middleton with all the ebullience of Dickens’ Fezziwig.

Adding wonderful comic moments is Laura Kaya as Mrs. Jennings, mother-in-law to John, a substantial woman with a voice that shatters glass, an effervescent personality, and a big heart to boot.

Also in the comic department is Tara Henry as Mrs. Palmer, the ditzy wife of dour Mr. Palmer (Ron Dailey). Mrs. Palmer always finds something to laugh at and when she gets together with Mrs. Jennings, they are as funny as Lucy and Ethel off on some wacky caper.

David Campfield gives a subdued but solid performance as Colonel Brandon, hopelessly in love with Marianne, yet constantly rebuffed by her.

Special mention must be given to the marvelous sets by Renee DeGarmo, which, assisted by tech crew and cast members, roll in and out, twist and turn, and create several beautiful settings without a break in the action of the actors.

Jessica Minnihan’s costumes were beautiful, but I did feel sorry that everyone wore the same clothes for the entire show.

In the end, one always wonders if sense or sensibility will win out, and happily for the Dashwood sisters, they learn to combine them both for a happy ending.

That old guy in the Match.com ads would be so pleased.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Three Sisters

left to right Nina Dramer (Masha), Samantha Hannum (Irina),
Megan Aldritch (Olga) photo by Bruce Clarke
“They'll forget us. Such is our fate, there is no help for it. What seems to us serious, significant, very important, will one day be forgotten or will seem unimportant,” says Lt. Col. Vershinin (Earl Victorine), in one of the many melancholic moments of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” now at Sacramento City College’s Art Court Theater, under the direction of Adrienne Sher.

Over four scenes, we watch the three sisters of the Prozorova family, and the others who inhabit the house run the gamut of emotions from the sheer joy of young Irina (Samantha Hannum) on the morning of her 20th birthday to the overwhelming depression of the whole household five years later.   

This is a powerful, moving, sometimes funny production with an excellent cast.  The sisters are played by Megan Aldrich (Olga), Nina Dramer (Masha) and Hannum.  Each has her own personality, from the stern Olga, forced to be the family leader following the death of their father; Masha, stuck in an unhappy marriage and secretly in love with Vershinin; and Irina, whose idealistic dreams slowly die with the passage of time.

Brother Andrey (Thomas Dean) is a talented young man with no drive whose best job seems to be head of the village council.  Wife Natasha (Devon LaBar), the subject of derision for her fashion choices, becomes the shew of the household.

Also outstanding are Tom Rhatigan as Dr. Chebutikin, an eccentric alcoholic doctor, Sean Thomas Olivares as Soleni, a social misfit in love with Irina and Paul Scott as Baron Tuzenbach, also in love with Irina.

With all of their problems, the emotional connection among the sisters remains strong and is the tie that holds this family together.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Uncle Vanya

Christina Schiesari as Elena and Baki Tezcan as Vanya
perform in the Art Theater of Davis production of
“Uncle Vanya,” running through Sunday. Courtesy photo
The sweltering heat of the valley summer should put anybody in the proper mood to see Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” now at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater, presented by the Art Theater of Davis. The final performance is Sunday at 2 p.m.

This is a new translation by award-winning translator Adam Siegel and Timothy Nutter and directed by Nutter, who explains that the script “follows a script based on the original, translated and adapted into American English. We do our best to preserve the spirit and meaning of the Russian text, while also creating a performance that is our own and will work theatrically for actor and audiences of today.”

Professor Alexander Serebryakov (Sean O’Brien) has moved from St. Petersburg, with his much-younger wife Yelena (Christina Schiesari) to the family country estate run by Ivan Petrovitch Voinitsky — Vanya (Baki Tezcan), his brother-in-law, and Sonya (Jenna Templeton), Serebryakov’s daughter from a previous marriage. He proposes to sell the land and live off the proceeds, a suggestion that upsets Vanya so much that ultimately things are left as they are.

Add to the mix Mixail Lvovich Astrov, a country doctor (Matt Urban), Illya Illyich Telyegin (Corey Shake), an impoverished landowner who lives on the estate as a dependent of the family. He is nicknamed “Waffles” because of his pockmarked skin.

And then there is Vanya’s elderly mother, Mariya Vasilyevna Voinitskya (Gail Finney), and Marina (Lisa Halko), an old nurse.

Vanya is infatuated with Yelena. Sonya is in love with Dr. Astrov. Both infatuations are unrequited, and even Yelena’s flirtation with Astrov ends abruptly due to her sense that security with the professor outweighs dangerous passion.

The weather is oppressively hot and everyone is bored, especially Yelena. But each of the characters is unhappy in his or her own way. Tempers flare and passions are briefly kindled, there are discourses on the absurdity of it all and it makes for an unsettling situation.

Chekhov plays are wordy and so they rely on a strong delivery by the actors. While it was easy to see that each of the actors in this production is excellent, there were projection problems. I missed most of the dialog by Serebryakov (O’Brien), for example, though his partner in many of the discussions, Vanya (Tezcan) was easily understood.

Jenna Templeton as Sofya gave perhaps the strongest performance of all, though Tezcan also was outstanding, as was Christina Schiesari as Yelena, around whom much of the action of the play revolves.

The set, designed by Nutter, begins modestly, with a table and a few chairs on an otherwise empty stage, but it grows in complexity with each of the four scenes as it acquires walls and additional furniture as well as homey touches such as floral arrangements by Donna Nevraumont.

Art Theater of Davis is the little engine that could. They are small, they are dedicated to performing theatrical works that one is not likely to see elsewhere, and they continue to present quality work, with increasing audiences each time.

One hopes that they will receive the audience support that will keep them around for a long time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Seussical the Musical

From left, the mischievous Cat in the hat (F. James Raasch), Gertrude McFuzz (Christie Paz),
Mayzie LaBird (Rachael Sherman-Shockley), accompanied by her Bird Girls (Sarah Green,
Cooper Johnson and Michele Guerrieri), are featured in the DMTC production of
“Seussical, the Musical,” running Sept. 11 through Oct. 4.
Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise photo
“Seussical, the Musical,” by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is a show certain to delight children...and it certainly did at the opening matinee at Davis Musical Theater Company.    But there is also enough grown up humor that adults will enjoy it as well.

Filled with familiar Seuss characters like the Whos in Whoville, the Sour Kangaroo, Mayzie LaBird and her flock of feathery friends, Sneeches and other animals from the Jungle of Nool, the show kept every child I watched spellbound, even the ones who looked to be 3 or 4 years old.

This enchanting production, directed and choreographed by Ron Cisneros with wildly colorful costumes by Jean Henderson and wonderful Seuss-ian set pieces by Steve Isaacson is the sort of show DMTC does best, showcasing both the talented adult cast, and also strong performances by members of the Young People’s Company.  And you can’t beat 30 people on stage dancing to the tune of the 20-piece under-stage orchestra.

While the show is filled with catchy tunes, the book itself is weak and it is thanks to a talented cast that it comes across as well as it does.

Heading the show is F. James Raasch as the Cat in the Hat, who directs the action and gets in a little mischief along the way.  Raasch, who has a beautiful voice, had a great time in the role and stuck in his own ad libs now and then, which were usually very funny, even the one aimed at this critic.

But the heart of this production is DMTC newcomer Nephi Speer as Horton the Elephant.  Speer imbued his character with such gentleness and genuine heart that everybody loved him.  And costumer Henderson had the good sense not to give him some sort of elephantine head gear.  He was dressed simply in grey and his “elephantness” came from his performance.

The Cat’s buddy is The Boy/Jojo, who gets into trouble for thinking.  Jenna Karoly came into the show late, but you’d never know it to watch her performance.  She’s as solid as can be and you could not ask for better.  She and Speer have a lovely duet, “Alone in the Universe,” as each realizes that together they aren’t really alone.

You called my name and you set me free
One small voice in the universe
One true friend in the universe
Who believes in me

While the show has a very thin plot, what plot it does have centers around Horton, first in his discovery of the Whos, a teeny community which lives on a speck of dust, whom Horton promises to protect, and the silly bird Mayzie (Rachael Sherman-Shockley) who, already tired of mothering, entrusts her egg to Horton “just for the afternoon.”  A year later, Horton is still caring for the egg because “an elephant’s faithful 100%.”

The Whos are led the Mayor (Adam Sartain) and his wife (Dannette Vassar).  When JoJo has morphed into a Who, he is the son of the Mayor, who doesn’t know what to do with a child who thinks, so he’s sent off to military school under the watchful eye of Gen. Genghis Kahn Schmitz (Scott Daugherty). Together the three sing the fun patter song, 'The Military.”

Christie Paz is Gertrude McFuzz, the one-feathered bird in love with Horton.  Though Paz throws a spectacular tantrum and can make herself heard when she is angry, she had some problems with projection throughout much of the performance.

Of particular note are 6 year old Gillian Cubbage as Thing 1 and Miller Traum as Thing 2.  Both displayed the stage discipline of older actors and both were absolutely adorable.  Cubbage is particularly impressive with her one-handed cartwheels across the stage.

Steve Isaacson’s set pieces are straight out of Dr. Seuss illustrations and add a touch of authenticity to the look, while his lighting design, particularly in the black light under sea scene with glowing fish was fun.

This is a good family show, but if you don’t have kids or grandkids, come by yourself and enjoy, perhaps with a kangaroo sour, which may be purchased at the lobby bar and consumed in the theater.   


Monday, September 07, 2015

Mr. Burns

 
(From L to R) Amanda Salazar, Katie Rubin, Jouni Kirjola,
Dena Martinez, John P. Lamb, Elizabeth Holzman
Remember “Fahrenheit 451,” when all the books had been destroyed and a little enclave of people, each of whom had memorized a specific book, were teaching that book to a young person so that the words could continue?

That’s kind of how Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns: a Post Electric Play,” now at Capital Stage,  begins. There has been a great apocalyptic event and much of the world has been destroyed. Survivors are finding each other in small groups.

The show, directed by new Artistic Director Michael Stevenson, opens around a fire where a group of survivors tries to remember “Cape Feare,” their favorite “Simpsons” episode, in which Sideshow Bob stalks Bart Simpson with threats to kill him. For the shell-shocked survivors, it’s a bit of normality that helps them push away their fears … for the moment.

Matt (John P. Lamb) and Jenny (Katie Rubin) lead off, yelling lines at each other, as they try to get the show in sequence, with the nervous Maria (Dena Martinez) reacting in delight.

In an interview, Washburn explained that in trying to brainstorm ideas for a script, “We tasked the writers with remembering ‘Simpsons’ episodes, and the dialogue around the remembering of the episode in the first act is largely verbatim from these sessions.”

Interrupting the delight of the group is a new arrival, Gibson (Kirk Blackinton) who has been traveling across the country assessing the damage. The action takes a very somber tone as they learn which cities he has visited and bring out their book of lists to ask if, maybe, somehow, he has come across one of their loved ones.

Eventually Gibson, too, joins in the delight of remembering a beloved television episode.

Joining Lamb, Rubin, Blackinton and Martinez in this top-notch cast are Jouni Kirjola as Sam, Tiffanie Mack as Colleen, Amanda Salazar as Quincy and Elizabeth Holzman as Mrs. Krabappel.

This is a show that will delight fans of “The Simpsons” and perhaps confuse those who don’t know the popular cartoon. It is riddled with references to the cartoon and to the movie “Cape Fear,” on which the episode is based. As someone who only watched the show in the first couple of seasons (there have been 28 seasons!), I know I missed a lot of the references at which many in the audience laughed.

The enigmatic second act, taking place seven years after Act 1, finds a post-apocalyptic theater company rehearsing a show, which includes reminiscing about food and drink they once had (“at this point all I care about my imaginary alcohol is that it is aged”), obsessing on where Diet Cokes have gone (“I know a guy in Wichita who has a stash of Diet Cokes and do you know what he’s selling them for? Lithium batteries, two a can”) and comparing their productions of “Simpsons” episodes with another company’s productions.

The high point in this act is the parody of “The Simpsons” theme song.

If Act 2 left many of us scratching our heads trying to figure out its meaning, Act 3 brought it all together in a fully staged all-musical version of “Cape Feare,” where Sideshow Bob has, for some unexplained reason, become Homer Simpson’s boss, Mr. Burns, a tour-de-force performance by Kirjola (with face makeup reminiscent of Batman’s Joker). Salazar, too, shines as Bart, with Martinez in a lovely Marge wig and Rubin showing all the spunk of Lisa.

Special mention should be made of Jonathan Williams’ set design which, particularly in Act 3, seems identical to the cartoon. Gail Russell must have had a great time designing all those marvelous costumes!

This is not a show for everyone. The script assumes that the audience is already familiar with not only the major “Simpsons” characters but also the minor ones, like Itchy and Scratchy and Apu.
Still, love it or not, there is no denying that the actors give outstanding performances. If “The Simpsons” is your cup of tea, you don’t want to miss this one.

Playwright Washburn perhaps rightly predicts that were we to find ourselves in a similar situation today what we would cling to is not the Bible or Shakespeare, but popular cartoon characters to anchor our memories to a previous, happier time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bars and Measures

“Bars and Measures,” by Idris Goodwin, is a new play commissioned by B Street’s producing artistic director Buck Busfield after seeing Goodwin’s award winning “How We Got On,” a coming of age story of teenagers finding identity in the suburbs using hip hop duels in parking lots.

Busfield envisioned a musical play, based on true events, which would focus not on hip hop, but on jazz and the dueling of two brothers, one a classical pianist and one a jazz bass player.    The idea was sparked by a 2007 article Busfield read about the brothers in the New York Times. “It caught my attention because so rarely is real life more interesting than art,” Busfield said.

Bilal (Jahi Kearse), a passionate jazz musician recently converted to Islam, is serving time in prison on charges of conspiring with terrorists.  Brother Eric (Darian Dauchan) is a Christian and a budding classical pianist.

The love these brothers feel for each other is communicated through their common language, music, on Eric’s regular visits to the prison.  Eric wants Bilal to teach him the meaning of swing and break him out of the rigidity of his training. Their scat duets are some of the high points in this play, as Eric learns the rhythms, but Bilal is trying to get him to embody the feelings in his soul.  Their sessions are what is helping Bilal retain his sanity, while stuck in solitary confinement.  He is writing his story in jazz and he hopes Eric will be able to pass it along to the world.

Noah Agruss is the composer and musical director for this play and his work is crucial to the power and the fluidity of the story.

At the same time that Eric is working musically with Bilal, he is also working to get him freed on all charges, as Bilal declares his innocence and feels that the charge was an example of anti-Islamic profiling.

As the play progresses and the brothers come closer to the date of Bilal’s trial, the breakdown of Bilal becomes more visible, his nerves more in evidence and his body broken by anti-Islamic attacks, mental and physical, within the prison.

It becomes, then, much more than just a play about music, but a play that embodies family, race, religion, politics, and justice. 

The supporting cast includes Jazmine Ramay and Jimmy Sidhu, both of whom play several minor characters.  Both are particularly good in the trial scene.

But it is the powerful performances of Dauchan and Kearse, under the direction of Jenny Koons, which elevate this musical play from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Scenic designer Samantha Reno has created a simple geometric set which, aided by the spectacular lighting design of Stephen Jones lends stark realism to each of the scenes.

The audience gave the opening night performance an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Following its run in Sacramento, “Bars and Measures” will continue on with a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere at Boston Court Theater in Pasadena, Prop Theater in Chicago and Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. I predict that it will have a long life.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hair


Cast members of “Hair,” produced by Music Circus at the
Wells Fargo Pavilion through Sunday, perform one of their
memorable, lively numbers. Charr Crail/Courtesy photo
The moon must have been in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars because peace was guiding the planets and there was a whole theater full of very happy old hippies for the opening of the Music Circus’ final show of its 63rd season, “Hair.”

They came in tie dye shirts and dresses, in love beads, in headbands with flowers in them, and all over the theater these grey and balding folks were flashing peace signs at each other and grinning in anticipation for the start of this 1967 Tony-award-winning “Tribal Love Rock Musical,” with book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, directed by Glenn Casale.

They were not disappointed. With 38 songs (most quite short), many of which have become part of rock music history, there was lots to enjoy. Songs like “Aquarius,” “Donna,” “Hair,” “Good Morning Starshine,” and “Let the Sun Shine In” should bring back memories for just about everyone in the audience.

The mood was set before the first person walked on stage, with beautiful multi- colored and shaped lanterns hanging all over the stage, creating a magical environment from the moment one entered the theater. Cell phone cameras were raised all over the place before the lights went down. In addition to the lanterns, cloth banners were hung in the back above each section of the house, onto which special effects would be projected throughout the evening. Scott Klier (scenic design) and David Neville (lighting design) worked in harmony beautiful to create a total experience for the audience.

While this show, described as a “ground-breaking musical that defined a generation and introduced rock ‘n’ roll to Broadway,” is more about music than plot, at its core it’s the story of a community struggling to find its voice, to question authority, and to change the world to fit what they feel would make things better.

One would think that with a topical show written in 1967 and centered on the Vietnam War that it might be a bit stale by today’s standards, but with the protests about ending the war and reducing toxic pollution and other issues (though I suspect the “save water, folks” sign may have been new!), the struggle seemed as fresh as if it had been written today.

This is an ensemble show more than a star vehicle, but if there is any plot, it is the struggle of Claude, the nominal leader of the tribe, who has received his draft notice. Does he go off to war, or does he burn his draft card? Oliver Thornton gives an unforgettable performance as first the devil-may-care guy who wants to be from Manchester, England, to the mellow, free-loving guy smoking pot and having acid trips, to the young man agonizing about what to do about the draft. He does it all brilliantly.

Peter Saide as Berger establishes rapport with the audience the minute he drops his pants (asking someone in the audience to help him get his leg out) and shows his fringe loincloth. He’s the guy who wants to enjoy all of his tactile and sexual pleasures without paying a price.

Others who deliver impressive performances are, Stephanie Mieko Cohen as the pregnant Jeanie, Laura D’Andre as Sheila, in love with Berger, who sings the emotional “Easy to be Hard,” Bryonha Marie Parham as the powerful Dionne, who takes the lead in “White Boys,” and James Michael Lambert as Woof, who carries the torch for Mick Jagger.

The 24-member tribe is exuberant and have such a joyful camaraderie with each other that it’s difficult not to get caught up in their enthusiasm. In fact, at the finale, several folks were picked out of the audience to come up on stage and dance with the cast.

And yes, for those who know the show and wonder if family-friendly Music Circus was going to include the brief nude scene that ends Act 1, yes they do, and it’s done very quickly and very tastefully — and the show is better for it.

Take a step back to the 1960s and see how relevant the problems of that era are to today, and how well those old songs hold up. The opening-night house was full so tickets may be going fast, but it’s well worth your time to check it out.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Three Days of Rain

Photo by Yarcenia Garcia
Siblings Walker (Eric Baldwin) and Nan (Beth Edwards) are the central figures in Richard Greenberg’s engrossing drama, “Three Days of Rain,” now at Big Idea Theater, directed by Shaleen Schmutzer-Smith. It is about what Walker and Nan believe about their family history, particularly the mind of their emotionally distant world famous architect father, and what they want to find out, based on the father’s enigmatic journal Walker has found, which gives tantalizing hints about their parents’ past.

When the father’s will gives his prized accomplishment, a famous home once featured in Life magazine, to Pip (Ryan Snyder), the son of his collaborator, it is a blow that none of the trio can understand.

Act 2 is set 35 years earlier, with the actors playing their parents and giving the audience answers to the some (but not all) of the questions posed in Act 1.

This is a strong trio of actors.  Baldwin gives and honest and gut wrenching performance as Walker, but it is as Ned, his reserved, stuttering father, where he really shines.

Edwards is a strong Nan, who loves her brother, but can’t quite trust him, since he has disappointed her so often.  As mother Lina, she is less like the described “Zelda Fitzgerald’s less stable sister” and it is difficult to see how she became the mentally needy, alcoholic mother described in Act 1.

Snyder is wonderful as the suave handsome TV idol Pip, and also deftly plays the emotionally unstable Theo, whose untimely death will affect everyone forever.

Though the second act seems rushed, trying to fit in too much too quickly, following the more solid first act, this is a compelling drama certain to satisfy.

Four Stars

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mary Poppins

With just "A Spoonful of Sugar" Mary Poppins (Jori Gonzales)
can make even an unpleasant task a treat for Jane (Marley Michel)
and Michael (D.J. Michel) Banks in the Woodland Opera House production
of "Mary Poppins."  Courtesy Photo
“Prac-ti-cally perfect” is what Mary Poppins might have called the Woodland Opera House production of the Disney and Cameron Mackintosh version of “Mary Poppins.”

The show starts with the wonderful set by Mark and Christine Deamer. Things come down from the top, up from the bottom and slide in from side to side, thanks to the efficient and unobtrusive set crew.

Costumes by Denise Miles are either subdued period costumes or over-the-top fantasy costumes in a rainbow of bright colors for numbers like “Supercalafragilisticexpealidocious.”

Director Angela Baltezore is also the show’s choreographer and the dances are such fun, in addition to the aforementioned “Supercalafragilisticexpealidocious” with its ridiculously complicated hand, foot and arm movements, to the chimney sweeps’ tap dance, “Step in Time” which brings down the house and gives a much deserved and earned encore.

And then there is the cast. Jori Gonzales is more than practically perfect as Mary Poppins. From the moment she floats into the Banks household we take her into our hearts and believe in her magic.

F. James Raasch, in his first Woodland Opera House production, is the consummate Bert, the chimney sweep who has a special relationship we never quite understand with Mary. The man sings beautifully, dances wonderfully and is a magnetic force on stage. (My only complaint is that for someone who works in soot and ashes, his costume is entirely too pristine.)

Jeremy and Tamalisa Carlson make it a real family affair as George and Winifred Banks (their real-life children Kathryn and Brenden are members of the ensemble as Fannie and Danny). Jeremy, as George makes the transition from staid, stuffy banker to caring, carefree father beautifully, while Tamalisa holds the family together with her love for her husband and her children, though in “Being Mrs. Banks” lets us know the price she pays trying to balance her duties as a society wife and loving mother.

Real-life brother and sister Marley and D.J. Michel play the Banks children, Jane and Michael. (8-year-old D.J. was just nominated for an Elly award for his performance as Charlie in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). These kids are amazing, considering that they are in nearly every scene and act, sing and dance beautifully.

Longtime area favorite, Lenore Sebastian is a veritable gorgon as Miss Andrew, George Banks’ old nanny (“the old horror”). Almost unrecognizable behind the fabulous makeup, there’s no mistaking that forceful voice as she belts out “Brimstone and Treacle.” Even members of the audience may shrink in fear.

Likewise, seven-time Chesley Award winner Nancy Agee delivers on my personal favorite, “Feed the Birds.” as the street woman, sitting on the courthouse steps selling her bags of bird seed for “Tuppence a bag.”

Particular mention goes to J. Hunter LaMar as Neleus, the statue that comes to life. He holds his pose for a very long time and then gives full rein to his dance, both solo and with the other Hyde Park statues. My only comment on this character is — can someone please do something about that unsightly material bunching in an inconvenient place as Neleus stands facing away from the audience?

There is an eight-piece orchestra, which plays beautifully, but in venues like the Opera House, with no orchestra pit, the music seems to always be competing with the voices on stage. In particular, when sitting closer to the orchestra (we were in row B), the music under the spoken dialog almost always drowned out what was being said. This kind of battle has been waged in community theater houses for decades and there is no real solution, but it deserves mentioning again.

I don’t know if “Mary Poppins” is the most ambitious production Woodland has ever presented, but if not, it certainly must be near the top. It’s a huge production, but done practically perfectly.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Elly Nominations

Kevin Caravalho, as the curmudgeonly green ogre Shrek,
and David Ewey, as the overly enthusiastic Donkey,
perform a scene from last September's DMTC
production of "Shrek, the Musical."
This role landed Carvalho an Elly Award
nomination for lead actor.
Courtesy photo
Local theaters are among more than 430 Elly nominees for the 2014-15 season, which were announced at an informal nomination reception Sunday.

During the 2014-15 season, 240 shows were submitted by 76 theaters. Davis Musical Theatre Company and The Woodland Opera House led the field of local nominees with eight nominations each. Art Theater of Davis received its first-ever nominations — three.

Davis Musical Theatre
Company’s performing nominations went to Kevin Caravalho, lead actor, “Shrek, The Musical”; Jessica Mckillican, lead actress, “Shrek, The Musical”; Joel Porter, supporting actor, “Anything Goes”; Mike Mechanick, supporting actor, “Anything Goes”; Ana Chan, lead actress, “Peter Pan”; and Arieh Simon, supporting actor, “The Velveteen Rabbit.”

DMTC technical nominations went to Kaylin Scott for choreography for “Anything Goes” and LeAnne Carlisle for costume design for “The Velveteen Rabbit.”

For WOH, acting nominations went to Rodger McDonald, supporting actor in a comedy, “A Flea in Her Ear”; Erik Catalan, lead actor in a young people’s play, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”; D.J. Michel, youth lead actor for the same play; and Frances Thayer, youth supporting actress.

Woodland also picked up technical nominations: Darcie Neill for lighting design for “The Miracle Worker”; Denise Miles for costume design, “Hello, Dolly”; Mark and Christine Deamer for set design, “Disney’s My Son Pinocchio”; and John Bowles for sound design, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

DMTC lead-actor nominee Caravalho, who won the Elly in 2009 for “Seussical the Musical,” had not done theater in a long time “because we had more babies.” But in looking for something for his 3-year-old to watch on TV, he came across “Shrek, the Musical.” It became her favorite show.

He started getting the itch for theater again. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if Daddy could be Shrek?” He checked the DMTC website and found out that the company was planning to do “Shrek” next, so he auditioned and got the role.

“To this day, every time my daughter sees anything with Shrek, she says ‘Daddy.’ My performance came from the heart. I did it for my kids. I am forever enshrined in the ‘cool camp’ because of it,” he said, laughing.

The Elly nomination, though, does take a back seat to another event in his life — three weeks ago he became the father of twins, bringing the family’s number of children to six.

A newcomer to Elly nominations was the Art Theater of Davis, which garnered a supporting actress nomination for Joanna Johnson in “Hay Fever” and two nominations for group founder Timothy Nutter in “Hay Fever,” for costume design and set design.

Nutter was delighted to hear the news, as he had not attended the ceremony. Art Theater of Davis recently lost its theater, but, undaunted, is rehearsing for “Uncle Vanya” to be presented in the Veterans’ Memorial Theater starting Sept. 24. He hopes that YoloArts will be able to take the fledgling group under its wings.

It was also Johnson’s first nomination. Her casting in “Hay Fever’ was almost an accident, but she had lost a role in a musical she hoped to do and was free, so auditioned and was cast as the housekeeper, Clara.

“I loved the show,” she said. “It was a dream to work on. So much fun.”

Anita Ahuja and Dona Akers were both nominated in the supporting actress category for the Winters Theatre Company’s “Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” Winters has been nominated a couple of times in the past, manager Howard Hupe said, but not in many years.

“We used to actively participate, but don’t do that any more,” he said.

Ahuja, nominated for her acting, her first Elly nomination, also directed the show.

“That was not the original plan,” she said, but her original actress had a family emergency and had to drop out three weeks before the show opened. Ahuja stepped into the role, which was more like art imitating life, since her role was that of a wife having to direct a Christmas pageant because the original director broke her leg.

“In my personal life I have directed pageants at my church, so to do it on stage was such a hilarious experience,” she said. “I loved the show. I adore working with children and we had close to 20 children working.”

Named for the late Eleanor McClatchy, a devoted patron of the arts and former publisher of the Sacramento Bee, the Elly Awards celebrate excellence and the outstanding achievements of community theaters and artists in the greater Sacramento area.

Created 33 years ago by local community actors, the Elly Awards have grown from a local Sacramento tradition to now include theaters within a 70-mile radius.

In honor of the 33rd annual Elly Awards, Sacramento Area Regional Theatre Alliance will host two ceremonies this September. The Youth Elly Award ceremony will begin at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13, at Cosumnes Oaks High School Performing Arts Center in Elk Grove. The Adult Elly Award ceremony will follow at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 27, at the Elks Lodge No. 6 in Sacramento (Pocket).

For more information, visit www.sarta.com or call 916-443-8229. SARTA is a nonprofit theater arts service organization.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Best Brothers

Will Springhorn Jr., left, and Christian Martin star
in the B Street Theatre's production of "Best Brothers."
Courtesy photo
The lobby of the B Street Theatre was filled with dogs from Sutter Medical Center’s pet therapy program on opening night of “The Best Brothers,” a play by Daniel MacIvor, directed by Buck Busfield. The promotional material for the play promised that we would leave the theater wanting to get a dog. Sadly, the lobby dogs were the best part of the evening.

Billed as a “bittersweet comedy,” this play is more bitter than sweet, and comedic only sporadically. It tells the story of two brothers, Kyle Best (Will Springhorn Jr.) and Hamilton Best (Christian Martin) — both actors are making their B Street debut — brought together by the sudden death of their mother, Bunny, at a gay pride event involving a drag queen named Piña Colada.

As the estranged brothers meet to plan her funeral, they can’t agree on anything, from the writing of the obituary (should they call her “loving” or “beloved”?), to the date of the viewing (one day? two days? Should there be food?), who will give the eulogy (which ends up a physical struggle in front of the mourners), to what is going to happen to the third “son,” Enzo, the Italian greyhound Bunny adopted, who was her whole life.

It appears that this is a classic tale of “mom always liked you best,” as both men felt the other was her favorite for one reason or another, and Hamilton blames Kyle for their mother’s death. If Kyle weren’t gay, she wouldn’t have been at a gay pride event in the first place.

From time to time, each brother dons one of their mom’s hats and gloves and gives a soliloquy as Mother, which gives us insights into her life, and especially into the men in her life. The actors also briefly each play the invisible dog.

As they come together to go through the contents of her house, more is uncovered about the brothers and secrets are revealed about the relationship of each brother with their mother.

Perhaps the reason this play seemed so wooden was because it appeared that the actors were stumbling over their lines in part. Perhaps as the play progresses, things will smooth out.

The set by Shawn Weinshank was utilitarian, some chrome-framed chairs that moved around a lot. Costumes by Paulette Sand-Gilbert nicely gave a clue to the character of the two brothers, from Hamilton’s clean-cut suits to Kyle’s loud pastel plaid shirt with pink tie.

In the end, the best that can be said about this play is that it is only one act, and so is over in 90 minutes.

And I did not leave wanting to add another dog to our family.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

West Side Story

The Jets perform one of their many exuberant dance numbers for “West Side Story,”
produced by Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion through Sunday, Aug. 9.
Charr Crail/Courtesy photo

 There was a lot of testosterone bouncing off of the Music Circus stage during the opening number as “West Side Story,” directed by Bob Richard opened this week.

The Tony Award-winning musical — with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — may be one of the most energetic musicals around these days. With choreography by Diane Laurenson, based partly on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, this taxes the dancers to the limit, and the Music Circus cast is equal to the task.

The men flew through the air over and over and over again, climbed structures, rolled on the ground, popped back up and then flew through the air again. The ladies stomped, kicked their heels in the air and got spun around by the guys.

Without even thinking about acting or singing, the show is a hit on dancing alone.

This is, of course, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story, modernized and set on the streets of New York. It revolves around the running feud between the Sharks (immigrant Puerto Ricans) and the Jets (native New Yorkers). Some of the material (particularly the barely censored language, such as “Gee, Officer Krupke — krup you”) seems a bit dated, but the hatred between gangs is, sadly, even more relevant today.

There is a wonderful cast. Justin Matthew Sargent is a handsome Tony, with a powerful voice that has a smoothness of butter as he croons songs like “Maria” and “Something’s Coming.” Tony is determined to quit the Jets and find a normal job, and the fact that he has fallen instantly in love with a beautiful Puerto Rican girl strengthens that resolve.

Maria is played by Carolann M. Sanita. She has a glorious voice, and beautifully portrays the innocent excitement of a young girl falling in love for the first time. It is never more evident than in her giddy “I Feel Pretty,” as she prepares for her date with Tony, followed by the anguish of a young woman who feels her life crashing in around her.

German Alexander was the last Bernardo that Arthur Laurents cast, and so originated the role on the first national revival tour. He has a bravado and a swagger that work for his character and he is definitely the guy in charge.

Desiree Davar is a fiery Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Her duet with Maria (“A Boy Like That”) was outstanding, as she struggles to balance her grief at Bernardo’s death, her anger at Maria for being in love with his killer, and her love for Maria, understanding the depth of the girl’s feelings for Tony.

Naomi Morgan is Rosalia, living in America, but still longing for her native Puerto Rico. Her duet with Anita (“America”) and the spirited dance of the women singing about the joys of living in their new country, compared with the problems of the country they left behind, was outstanding.

Shane Rhoades, reprising his 2005 role, is Tony’s best friend, Riff. Riff is the leader of the Jets and is passionate about wiping out the “P.R.s,” as they call the Puerto Ricans, always itching for a fight with a hair-trigger temper.

Rich Hebert is Lt. Schrank, with a deep hatred of the Puerto Ricans. And though he doesn’t much like the Jets either, he’s willing to give them a pass as long as they don’t kill anybody. He’s backed by David Pierini (familiar to B Street Theatre audiences) as Officer Krupke.

Gary Lee Reed is Doc, the owner of the drug store that’s the Jets’ hangout. His anguish and anger following the deaths resulting from the “rumble” came from the depth of his soul.

Maria Briggs is “Anybody’s,” a diminutive tomboy who desperately wants to be a Jet and to prove she’s every bit as good as any of the guys. Her rumpled clothes and unkempt blond hair are in stark contrast to just about everyone else in the cast.

Scenic designers Scott Klier and Jamie Kumpf do a wonderful job creating the back streets of New York on a set in the round, with stairs that go up into the lights and set pieces that drop down from the ceiling to create other indoor scenes. The scene under the freeway — aided by lighting by David Neville and sound by Joe Caruso Jr. and Robert Sereno — is particularly effective.

“West Side Story” is classic American theater, and this Music Circus production does not fail to delight. Opening night seemed to have a full house, so tickets may be difficult to get, but it’s definitely worth your while to try.


Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Argonautika

In her notes to Acme Theatre Company’s production of “Argonautika,” director Maddy Ryen says the story is basically a road-trip tale. Road trips follow essentially the same format — a bunch of buddies get together to go off on adventures, whether by motorcycle (“Easy Rider”), cars (“Blues Brothers”) or maybe on “Trains, Planes, and Automobiles.”

This dramedy by Mary Zimmerman, who has been making a name for herself updating many of the old classic stories, gives us Jason, who gathers a bunch of his buddies, hops on a boat and sails off for many adventures. These include chase scenes, battles, sexy babes, a lot of ingested substances, a monster or two to be defeated and a bittersweet, if not quite as expected, return.

This show closes Acme’s 35th season. While I am usually impressed with what a group of young people can do, the closing shows of any season are usually the best, when the newcomers have had a year to hone their skills and learn how it all works. Thus, this show, which seems to have a cast of thousands, doesn’t have a weak performance in the bunch.

One of my perpetual complaints is that not everyone knows about “projection” and dialog is often difficult to hear, but placing the audience on the stage of the Brunelle Theater gives the cast a full house, and makes it almost impossible to miss any line of dialogue in this lively production.

The plot is pretty silly, but I’m sure it meant something to the Greeks at the time. Jason (Trevor Rinzler), the rightful heir to the crown of Thessaly, is sent by one tyrant king, Pelias (Tina Simson, in an amazing beard that looked left over from a Christmas display), to the kingdom of another tyrant, King Aeetes of Colchis (Chris Monheit), to retrieve the golden fleece — which looks like a table mat-sized piece of sheep’s hide, but which is the symbol of authority and kingship.

Pelias expects that Jason will be killed on the journey and thus be no longer a threat to his throne, but the adventurer is assisted by the gods Hera (Callie Miller) and Athena (Meili Monk), who help him and his buddies out of many scrapes.

All of these actors give wonderful performances, with Rinzler the zealous, committed young hero; Simson, her gender hidden by her long beard and white hair, suitably conniving; and Monheit deliciously strong and evil.

Miller is a beautiful Hera, who pledges herself to Jason after he carries her across a stream, while Monk, resplendent in red, the perfect partner to Hera.

All of Jason’s buddies are excited about the upcoming adventure, but head and shoulders among them all — literally and physically — is Ricky Houck as Hercules. He gives a powerful, yet funny performance as a kind of not-too-bright jock whose strength is crucial to the start of the journey. But his devotion to and love for his partner Hylas (Colin French), is beautiful to watch, and painful to experience his later loss.

Houck later becomes the feet to sister Bella Houck as Boreas, the fearsome giant with the huge fists who does battle with Jason.

Sarah Zaragoza-Smith makes an impression as she joins the Argonauts midway through their journey as Dymas, and Mikaela Manzano as the Son of Pelias also brings a bright enthusiasm to the group.
Camila Ortiz is a demure Medea, daughter of Aeetes, before she became the monster we all remember. She is loving toward Jason, after being shot by an arrow from Eros (Elise Turkovich).

Good work by costume designers Cassaundra Wages and Eliza Buchanan for the arrow Medea wears for the rest of the show and for the white gown that gets redder and redder as she appears to bleed for the next several years.

Eden Tomich and Benton Harshaw have designed a beautiful ship for Jason, split in half to allow for fight scenes and an amazing pre-journey chant sequence.

Katie Sanger and Meli Monk provide the original music while Andres De Loera Brust and Wil Forkin’s lighting design is a great help in many scenes.

Though the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece may be one of the oldest tales in the world, it still has a message for today. Though we may not be dealing with monsters, harpies and gods, the story of feuding kings sending their young men off to die for the cause still rings true.