Thursday, December 31, 2015


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.