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 fiancĂ©e, 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.