Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mud Blue Sky

From left, Tara Sissom, Jamie Jones, Elisabeth Nunziato and Alexander Pannullo
deal with a 7-Up explosion in "Mud Blue Sky,"
on stage now at the B Street Theatre in Sacramento. Courtesy photo

 There was a time when many high school girls wanted to be stewardesses (in the era before men were allowed to serve airline passengers and they became “flight attendants.”)

There was something about the glamor of the life, flying all over the globe, serving famous passengers. The dress code was strict, there was a set weight limit and girls learned how to wear the proper amount of makeup so they always looked perfectly beautiful. The life was glamorized in the recent television series “Pan Am.”

Marisa Wegrzyn’s “Mud Blue Sky,” now on the B Street Theatre’s Main Stage, shows the reality behind the glitz and the glamor. The life of constant layovers leads to many nights in dingy hotels, absurdly early mornings and much time spent away from loved ones.

While this script is very funny, the work probably should be more properly considered a “dramedy” for the moments of pathos and sensitivity it displays. But mostly it’s just knee-slapping funny.

The setting is a dreary hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare airport and Beth (Jamie Jones) has just checked into her room, one of questionable cleanliness. She’s exhausted, her back hurts, and she just wants to be alone.

Sam (Elisabeth Nunziato), however, is ready to party and tries to entice Beth into a night of drinking and carousing. When not trying to play the party girl, Sam is on the phone dealing with her teenage son spending his first week at home alone, and feeling guilty that she isn’t there to help him with the problems he is encountering.

Beth seems desperate to get Sam out of her room, supposedly so she can get some sleep before their 5 a.m. wake-up call.

Nunziato and Jones have worked together so much over the years that watching the sparring between them in this play is like watching old friends bicker.

As it turns out, Beth isn’t planning on sleeping at all, but is meeting her teenage drug dealer, Jonathan (Alexander Pannullo), in the parking lot to buy some marijuana from him to help her get through the night. He has been her supplier for a couple of years and they have an odd friendly relationship.

It’s Jonathan’s prom night and his date has ditched him to go out with other friends. He looks rather lost in his tuxedo selling drugs to a middle-aged woman in a parking lot.

Pannullo is new to B Street and one might think he came from the young people’s program, so convincing is his teenage Jonathan. In fact, he is a UC San Diego graduate with a solid list of theatrical credentials behind him.

Jonathan ends up in Beth’s room to collect money from her, where he is discovered by Sam, who is later joined by Angie (Tara Sissom), a former flight attendant who lost her job because of her weight problems.

The dialog among these four souls, each at loose ends over what to do about their various concerns, is rapid-fire and funny, but there is an undercurrent of sadness for all of them. There is Sam’s guilt over being an absent mother, Beth’s decision about whether to take a severance package and leave the job before she is fired, Jonathan’s angst about what to do with his life and Angie’s apparent happy life, hiding how much she misses the camaraderie of the flying world.

There is no real plot to this show, and no real resolution at the end, but it’s more like sitting around with some old friends, having a few drinks, laughing and sharing memories. Like taking a brief flight, the passengers/audience can enjoy sharing the moments before the plane lands and the play ends.

Opening-night patrons are always treated to champagne and hors d’oeuvres at the end of the play. This night, we were greeted with Styrofoam containers of airplane-like dinners and bowls of peanuts. It was the perfect way to keep everyone in the mood for a while longer.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hound of the Baskervilles

Joe Higgins as Mr. Frankland, Michael RJ Campbell as Dr. John Watson
and Sean Patrick Nill as Jack Stapleton perform in
Sacramento Theatre Company’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
Barry Wisdom Photography/Courtesy photo
Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson are traipsing out onto the moors now to solve the crimes of the mysterious “Hound of the Baskervilles,” at Sacramento Theatre Company,

This adaptation is by playwrights R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette, who have kept the basic mystery intact while adding bits of humor between Holmes and Watson as well as some plot and character twists along the way.

Reprising their roles as Sherlock and Watson from STC’s 2011 production of “Sherlock Holmes: the Final Adventure” are William Elsman and Michael RJ Campbell, respectively, both of whom give impeccable performances. Elsman is tall and erudite and sees clues that no one else catches; Campbell is the blustery, sometimes sardonic, always-faithful Watson. He is the “human element” that the OCD Holmes relies on in order to connect with a case’s human side.

The play begins in Holmes’ drawing room, where he is complaining to Watson that life is boring and that his most recent crimes have offered him no challenge. Right on cue, a challenging case comes knocking at his door in the person of Dr. James Mortimer (Casey McClellan).

The wealthy Sir Charles Baskerville has been found dead in his home, seemingly of natural causes, but Mortimer is suspicious because Sir Charles died with an expression of horror on his face and he noticed “the footprints of a gigantic hound” nearby.

The Baskerville family supposedly has been under a curse since the era of the English Civil War, when Hugo Baskerville offered his soul to the devil for help in abducting a woman; he reportedly was killed by a giant spectral hound. Sir Charles believed in the curse and apparently was running away from something when he died.

Mortimer fears for the life of Charles’ heir, Sir Henry (“call me Hank”) Baskerville (Dan Fagan), a cowboy from Canada. Hank is unconcerned about the curse, despite a mysterious anonymous warning note he receives, and moves into Baskerville Hall anyway.

Holmes finds the mystery intriguing though he claims he has another matter to attend to. He sends Watson to observe the goings-on and meet the local characters — each of whom has his or her own reason to have wanted Sir Charles dead. (Holmes, in the meantime is doing his own investigation, unbeknownst to Watson.)

Others in the cast include Matthew Rives as the butler Barrymore, Cynthia Speakman as his wife, and Aviva Pressman and Sean Patrick Nill as the neighbors, Beryl and Jack Stapleton. Some have projection problems and their lines were lost.

What makes this production so much fun is the scenic design by Jarrod Bodensteiner and Renee Degarmo and the lighting design of Jessica Bertine. While the whole stage is a rocky section of the Devonshire moor, pools of light focus on smaller scenes while the setting is soundlessly changed on the other side of the stage, the technicians working in pitch darkness.

William Myers’ sound effects, particularly the creepy growls and attacks of the hound, add a particular creepy quality to the story.

You can never go wrong with a good Sherlock Holmes mystery, and with the likes of Elsman and Campbell at the helm under the direction of Michael Laun, this one is a winner.

Monday, April 25, 2016


From left, Tomás Eredia as Harry Beaton, Erik Leiken as Piper
and Scott Griffith as Sword Dancer are in
the DMTC production of “Brigadoon,”
on stage from April 22 through May 15.
Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

I had no idea there were so many men with kilts in Davis until I entered the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center for opening night of Davis Musical Theatre Company’s “Brigadoon.”

The lobby was full of them, including one man who brought his bagpipe (though didn’t play it), as well as women in various types of plaids, from skirts to sashes. The bar was serving a Scottish-named drink and I expected to see haggis at the snack bar.

It was all great fun and a good way to get in the mood for a trip back to Scotland to that mysterious highland town that appears out of the mist only once every 100 years.

The Lerner and Loewe classic has been around since it first appeared on Broadway in 1947 and became more popular when made into an MGM musical in 1954, with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. It has always been one of my favorites, and I was happy that this DMTC production, directed by John Haine, did not disappoint.

From the beautiful choral numbers sung by all the townspeople to the lively Scottish dancing choreographed by Ron Cisneros, this is a loving production enjoyed by the near-capacity crowd on opening night.

We first meet Tommy (F. James Raasch) and his sardonic friend Jeff (Coury Murdock) while they are wandering, lost in the Scottish highlands. Tommy confesses that he’s rather lost in his own life, too, engaged to a girl he’s not sure he loves, and part of a world in which he does not feel comfortable. The sounds from the waking Brigadoon seem to come right on cue.

Raasch is a likeable fellow who was a good choice for the role of Tommy. As for Murdock, the character Jeff has few, if any, redeeming qualities. He has a negative and sardonic outlook on life, which is not helped by the flask he keeps raising to his lips.

The two stumble into this 18th-century village enjoying the third day of their “miracle,” which will be explained later by the wise Mr. Lundie (Jeremy Carlson). Tommy is instantly drawn to Fiona MacLaren (Jeri Gonzales), who’s in town to shop for the wedding of her sister Jean (Jessica Arena).
The character of Fiona is quite a departure from the fiery Aldonza that Gonzales played in “Man of La Mancha” and she could not have done it better. Her voice has the strength to handle the most operatic melodies, yet her personality is warm and engaging.

Also outstanding is Scott Scholes, as Charlie Dalrymple, Jean’s fiancé. He had a delightful innocence about him as he contemplates his wedding (“I’ll go home with Bonnie Jean”).

Also outstanding is McKinley Carlisle as the bawdy, libidinous Meg Brockie, who lures Jeff to her shed and proceeds to show him that the Scots are more “generous” than they have a reputation for being. Her lusty “The Love of My Life” is great fun, as is her “My Mother’s Wedding Day.”’

Tomas Eredia had the monumental task of stepping into the role of Harry Beaton — Jean’s angry, scorned suitor, who threatens to destroy Brigadoon by leaving it — when the original actor cast in the role broke his leg two weeks before the opening. On the whole, he handles the role well, but he needs to work on “being dead” a bit more convincingly.

Alison Weaver, as Maggie Anderson, performs a heart-breaking grief dance following Harry’s death. We feel her pain.

The ache of the funeral is further spotlighted by the mournful bagpipe of Erik Leiken (who doesn’t love a good bagpipe?).

Jean Henderson’s colorful costumes add to the atmosphere of a Scottish village, especially in the entrance of the clans, with each decked out in its special tartan sash.
There is a new name in the pit, Peter Kagstrom as music director, who did a fine job with the DMTC underground orchestra.

For anyone who has enjoyed this delightful story over the years, or who just believes in magic and wants to see it appear on stage, this is an engaging production.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Alice in Wonderland

“You must be mad,” said the Cat, “Or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Greg Alexander’s adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland,” now at the B Street Theater as part of the Family Series is billed “for ages 5+.”  They got that right.  The little kids sat entranced and laughed uproariously at the zany antics on stage.

This is not your mother’s “Alice,” nor is it Lewis Carroll’s.  The outrageous frenzy was great for the kids, but wore a bit thin.  The beloved fairy tale turned into a moralistic lesson in 12 step programs, self-help groups, and parenting lessons thinly disguised as life in Wonderland.

Alice is not a little girl, but a petulant, self-indulgent teenager, with lots of food allergies, and glued to her cell phone.  She, with her friends, speaks in Internet-ese and says “OMG!” and “Like-Like-Like!” a lot.  When she follows the White Rabbit she loses first loses her GPS and then her cell phone itself, in strange ways peripherally related to Carroll’s story, and has no clue how to survive.

Ultimately, this becomes a lesson in realizing she had those skills all along (I expected someone to invite her to click her heels together).

The weirdness of the script should not take away from the fine acting by the cast, particularly Stephanie Altholz as Alice, who has developed the annoyingly accurate screeching inflection of a spoiled teenager and John Lamb, in several roles, each one fun to watch, particularly the caterpillar.

Music composer Noah Agruss along with playwright Alexander has written some cute songs, particularly the opening number, familiar to anyone living in the Internet age.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


“Newsies,” now at the Community Theater in Sacramento, is another mega hit from the Disney machine. It is a stage adaptation of the 1992 Disney movie, inspired by a newsboy strike in New York in 1899 where an organized group of children brought the city to a halt. Hundreds of boys and girls who sold newspapers on the streets of New York formed a union and marched onto the Brooklyn Bridge and other places around the city in order to put a halt to traffic and other businesses.

While they were not happy with working conditions, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when publishers Joseph Pulitzer decided to raise the distribution prices the newsboys had to pay to get papers in the first place in order to increase his profits.

The kids won. Eventually the newspaper magnets came to a workable compromise with the spokesmen for the newsies and presumably everyone lived happily ever after.

“Newsies,” the musical, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and book by Harvey Fierstein is filled with high-energy physicality with about 15 male dancers who provide enough dancing for the most ardent of dance enthusiasts. They leap, they somersault, they tap up a storm.

When the show opened on Broadway in 2012, it was planned for only 101 performances, but it quickly gained such a cult following that it ultimately ran 1005 performances, was seen by over 1 million people and made Disney another $100 million. The show received eight Tony nominations and won the award for choreography and original score.

It is fortunate that the story is easy to follow because the always horrible acoustics at the Community Theater made it just about impossible to hear the words being sung. I was afraid it was my hearing, but have since heard from several other people that they couldn’t understand any of the lyrics either.
But then you aren’t likely to go home humming any of the tunes either. They are pleasant and enjoyable, but there is nothing memorable about them.

The universal “urchin look” of the boys made it difficult to tell one from the other, but Joey Barreiro as Jack Kelly, the leader of the pack who wants to leave New York and move to Santa Fe, and Zachary Sayle as “Crutchie,” his crippled friend were both quite good, as was Morgan Keene as Katherine, harboring a secret that could make or break the strike.

The real star of this production is the set designed by Tobin Ost. It looked like it was made with the world’s largest erector set, a massive collection of metal boxes and staircases that rolled in and out and around, and ended up as one giant wall across the stage for the finale. Onto the backdrop are projections of scenes from around New York that add a note of authenticity.

This is a triumphant, feel-good musical, with lots of things to like, but not destined to become a classic theatrical work.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

West Side Story

“West Side Story” — the classical musical with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — debuted on Broadway in 1957 and set a musical style that moved musical theater in a whole new direction.

It opened last weekend at the Woodland Opera House, under the direction of Angela Baltezore, with musical direction by Dean Mora and vocal direction by James Glica-Hernandez.

“West Side Story” is, of course, the “Romeo and Juliet” story, modernized and set on the mean streets of New York. It revolves around the running feud between the Sharks (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.

Those in the audience opening night were in for a big treat. This is a wildly energetic show, with powerful performances and lively dancing (choreographed by Staci Arriaga).

There are 10 newcomers in the 28-member cast, which may account for the quality of the overall performances, several of which were outstanding.

Donovan McNeely was powerful as Riff, the leader of the Jets gang. Likewise, most of his crew rose above the norm for memorable performances.

Daniel Silva fairly crackled with barely repressed rage as Action, while Bailey Robinson-Burmester was dynamic as A-Rab and Jordan Hayakawa works her darndest to make herself one of the gang as Anybodys.

The Sharks were led by Kevin Gruwell as Bernardo, a powerful performance. The extra heft on his body made for a more menacing Bernardo, unquestionably the leader of this gang.

Raymond Whitney as Chino had a smaller role, as the potential mate for Maria, but in the crucial moment, his pain and anger were palpable.

Of course, the lovers in this story are Tony (Joshua Wheeler) and Maria (Giana Gambardella), both newcomers to Woodland. In a run-of-the-mill production of this show, Wheeler, an excellent singer, could stand tall as Tony. But when up against the passion and fire of the members of the two rival gangs, his energy just could not match and he paled in comparison, though still gave a fine performance.

Gambardella, on the other hand, gave an impeccable performance. She beautifully portrays the innocent excitement of a young girl falling in love for the first time, never more evident than in her “I Feel Pretty,” as she prepares for her date with Tony, and the anguish of a young woman who feels her life crashing in around her as Tony falls victim to Chino’s gun.

Another newcomer to Woodland is Christina Castro as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Castro is a real firecracker, showing all the Latin temperament that Anita should. She may have been at her best in the number “America,” flashing her colorful skirts (costumes by Denise Miles).

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 Maria’s feelings for Tony.

There is a full orchestra of seven under the baton of Dean Mora. I was most impressed by Cassandra Brokken, who often played her bass, in that cramped orchestra space, almost like a guitar.

There’s not much you can do to pretty up a stage to represent the back streets of a New York slum, but scenic designer John Bowles has found creative ways to use chain-link fences and creates enough levels, using boxes and walls, to allow the men to jump, somersault and chase each other around the street like a Cirque du Soleil rehearsal.

This is a must-see show for lovers of musical theater. All involved in this show, whether on stage or backstage, can be proud of the end result their hard work.

Sunday, April 03, 2016


It was 3 a.m. on a day way back in 1984 when Jan Isaacson woke husband Steve and told him it was time to start a family. Not that kind. Rather, she told him they needed to start a theater company. Jan envisioned a company that would encompass all ages and feature only musical theater productions.

And so they did. The Davis Musical Theatre Company spent many years “homeless and wandering,” according to Jan, looking for a permanent location. It found that stability in 2005, when the company built the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center, a 240-seat theater in Davis.

At 32 years of age, DMTC is now the state’s longest-running, year-round, nonprofessional musical theater company that includes a full orchestra and a young performer’s theater.

“We must be doing something right,” Jan says of the company’s longevity.

For its principal players, DMTC’s success is rooted in its homey vibe. “There’s a real sense of family about the group,” says DMTC actress Dannette Vassar, who joined in 1997. “There’s not the backstage drama that you sometimes find in other theater groups. It’s a very comfortable place to be.”

Over the years, the company has grown from a struggling community theater to a first-rate amateur theater.

After a recent performance of Man of La Mancha, Nancianne Pfister, a veteran of the Davis theater scene, was so impressed she wrote a letter to its directors. “Everything about [the show] was without flaw: music, acting, directing, set, costumes … the show was a true lift to my soul,” she wrote.

There are two shows left in DMTC’s current season: Brigadoon, which opens April 22, and The Music Man, which will open June 17.