Thursday, July 13, 2017

On the Town


After seeing Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s superb “Wonderful Town” and Music Circus’ sparkling “On the Town” — both by the team of Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein and both paens to the Big Apple — I have a strong craving for a slice of New York pizza.

The energetic “On the Town” burst onto the Music Circus stage this week, the 1944 musical as fresh as it was when it first opened on Broadway. The show opens with a lament (“I feel like I”m not out of bed yet”) by a workman (Joseph Torello) whose voice is clear and deep and wonderful. He appears as several other announcers throughout the show.

This is the story of three sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York City. It is the first time each of them has visited the city and they are determined to see everything and maybe pick up a lady along the way.

Chip (Matt Loehr) has a tour book his father used many years ago … and he’s determined not to miss anything. Gabey (Sam Lips) falls in love with a picture of “Miss Turnstyle” that he sees on the subway and is determined to find her. Ozzie (Clyde Alves) just wants to find a date because Manhattan women are “the prettiest in the world.”

The trio decide to split up and see if they can find Miss Turnstyle (real name Ivy Smith, played by Courtney Iventosch). They agree to meet up back in Times Square at the end of the afternoon.
Gabey steals the poster off the subway and is pursued through the rest of the show by an umbrella-waving little old lady (Karen Hyland) and a growing posse of police and others.

Chip is accosted by taxi driver Hildy Esterhazy (Jennifer Cody), who has just been fired from her job. She is a real firecracker, oversexed and determined to get back to her apartment for a little canoodling. Cody is marvelous and brings a real spark to every scene in which she appears.

Ozzie heads to the Museum of Modern Art, because he believes beautiful women love art. There he finds anthropologist Claire de Loone (really) played by Holly Ann Butler, who mistakes Ozzie for a prehistoric man. She is engaged to a famous judge, Pitkin W. Bridgework (Donald Corren), who has encouraged her anthropological studies as a way to sublimate her sexual addiction. He is very understanding when he sees her with another man because he knows it is just scientific investigation.

Gabey goes to Carnegie Hall, where the subway poster says Ivy studies, and he actually finds her, but is hustled out by her teacher, the tipsy Madame Maude P. Dilly (Susan Cella), who wants Ivy to keep her job as a cootchie dancer because it pays her bills for vocal instruction.

Through a parade of increasingly sleazy nightclubs, the group ends up on Coney Island, where Gabey finds Ivy again and all end up back on the dock, where we began. As our three heroes say sad goodbyes to the girls before boarding their ship, three fresh new sailors descend for their own adventure in New York! New York!

Original costumes for this dazzling production were by Jess Goldstein, with Music Circus designer Marcy Froehlich. They are wonderfully, colorfully ’40s, down to the seams in the stockings.
Choreography is by Mark Esposito and includes a dream ballet, an effect that would be used even more effectively a year later by Rodgers and Hammerstein in their “Carousel.”

“On the Town” is a lively, flashy production, last seen on the Music Circus stage in 1961. It’s been a long time — and it was worth the wait.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Wonderful Town

Ruth (Gia Battista) gets a lift from the Brazilian cadets in
Davis Shakespeare Ensemble's “Wonderful Town” on stage through Aug. 6.
Yarcenia Garcia/Courtesy photo

 The Davis Shakespeare Festival has strong entries for its 2017 season. Opening with “The Three Musketeers” and “Wonderful Town,” the festival will close in October with “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Sisters Gia and Gabby Battista play the Sherwood sisters Ruth (Gia) and Eileen (Gabby), who have “escaped” their childhood home in Ohio and come to the Big Apple for all of the opportunities they believe it offers.

Ruth is an aspiring writer, while Eileen wants to break into show business. Along the way they feel like fish out of water and have to learn how to become part of that crazy world that is New York.
The musical is based on the stories of Ruth McKenney and was first produced as a play (“My Sister Eileen”) by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov. The music is by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The festival director for this musical is Dennis Beasley, who made such an impression with “Bells are Ringing” last season.

“Bells are Ringing” has a “thin plot,” I said last summer, but the show was fabulous. If that plot is thin, “Wonderful Town’s” plot is even thinner. It is more a study of stereotypical New York types, and Beasley’s cast is so strong that it makes for an enjoyable production.

The girls first learn that lodging is much too expensive until they meet unscrupulous landlord Mr. Appopolous (Kevin Caravalho), who rents them a basement apartment recently vacated by Violet (Annie Dick), who was running a bordello. The apartment is below the street level within clear view of passersby who lean over and look through the windows, and is near periodic explosions from subway constructions.

The multi-talented Caravalho, who plays Cardinal Richelieu in the festival’s other production, “The Three Musketeers” also plays several other members of the ensemble (as do most of the actors). While Caravalho is wonderful in each of his roles, he has such a “unique” appearance, it is often not clear whether he is Appopolous or some other character.

Others in the apartment house include Helen (Andrea J. Love), living with her muscle-bound boyfriend Wreck (Brian Bohlender), who is not strong in the brains department but he sure could “pass that football” in his days as a player. The couple are trying to hide their relationship from Helen’s snooty mother (Jessica Woehler).

Eileen seems to be a dude magnet and all men who meet her fall for her. This includes Ian Hopps, as Frank, who works for Walgreens and sees that Eileen eats for free there every day. Hopps was the romantic lead in last summer’s “Bells are Ringing,” and while Frank is quite a different character, he still makes an impact.

Kyle Stoner is Chick Clark, a sleazy newspaper editor who has designs on Eileen, while J.R. Yancher is Bob Baker, reader for a magazine who lets Ruth know her stories have no chance of ever being published.

There are several beautiful songs, like the lush duet “Ohio,” sung by the sisters when they suffer homesickness. The Battista women have voices that blend together beautifully, like rich melted chocolate.

Gia has several moments to shine in her songs about “One Hundred Easy Ways” and the plaintive “Quiet Ruth.”

Choreography is by Katie Peters and includes everything from Irish jig to swing, to a lively “Conga” by Eileen and a bunch of Brazilian cadets. Music is provided by the on-stage seven-member orchestra, under the direction of David Taylor-Gomes.

From top to bottom, this is a fun production with a strong cast and it shows that the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble continues to grow and thrive.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Bad Jews

Over the years, I have seen actress Tara Sissom in many comedies and have long admired her talent for comedy. However, in Capital Stage’s production of “Bad Jews” by Joshua Harmon we see an entirely different side of Sissom. She is funny, yes, but also angry, poignant — and amazing. She dominates as Daphna, one of the grandchildren of “Poppy,” who has just died.

The four-actor play takes place in a cramped New York apartment where three grandchildren have gathered the day after the funeral of their grandfather, the lone family holocaust survivor. The stated plot concerns which of the three will get Poppy’s “chai,” a gold pendant signifying “life.”

It was given to him by his father, and while a prisoner in Auschwitz he hid it in his mouth for two years until liberation. When he had no money for an engagement ring, he gave it to his soon-to-be wife as a symbol of his love. After he was able to buy a ring, he wore it around his neck for the rest of his life, so this has tremendous meaning for his family.

Daphna is certain that he meant for her to have it after his death. Mild-mannered Jonah (Noah Thompson) doesn’t care and just doesn’t want to discuss it. But cousin Liam (Jeremy Kahn) — who missed the funeral because he was skiing in Aspen and whose mother fed-exed him the chai as his grandfather lay dying — feels it rightfully belongs to him.

There is longstanding enmity between Liam and Daphna and they can hardly stand to be in the same room together. Daphna feels that Liam is really a self-hating Jew who chooses “tapid little Bambi” creatures out of insecurity, since with them he can be arrogant and masculine.

As for Liam, “She is horrifying. Just listen to her. Every other word that comes out of her mouth is some unbelievably offensive insult that we’re supposed to pretend not to hear?”

Things explode when Liam (a self-described “bad Jew”) arrives with his Delaware-born girlfriend Melody (Chloe King). He intends to continue the family tradition and give the chai to her in lieu of an engagement ring.

Though the argument over ownership of the chai is volatile, it unearths a lot of long-held feelings about religion, family and tradition. For Daphna, the chai symbolizes the survival of the Jewish faith and to give it to a gentile is unthinkable.

But as this is basically a comedy, there are some very funny moments in it, like remembering when Poppy took them all to Benihana and everyone was struck with bowel problems. The memory brings the three cousins together literally rolling on the floor in laughter.

But then things that seem very innocent (Daphna asking Melody about her background, growing up in Delaware) suddenly turn ugly when she accuses Melody’s family of the genocide of the Native Americans.

Director Amy Resnick has kept the delicate balance between funny and serious so that you’re never quite sure which you are seeing.

But Sissom is a wonder and Kahn, a newcomer to Capital Stage, is a worthy match for her diatribes.
King’s Melody is innocent and totally ignorant of the seriousness and importance of Jewish history (“I don’t see why any of it matters, you know? Where people come from? People are just people.”) which further inflames Daphna, the rabbinical student and uber Jew whose dream is to go to Israel and join the army.

As Jonah, Thompson spends most of the play cringing, hiding and saying he does not want to be involved in the argument — though in the end it is he who has the biggest impact on everyone, on and off the stage.

This is a unique piece of theater, which ends Capital Stage’s “Love and War” season. It is perhaps my favorite of the six plays in the series of excellent pays. Capital Stage just keeps getting better and better.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

Jessica Grové as Belle and James Snyder as Beast perform in
“Beauty and the Beast,” produced by Music Circus
at the Wells Fargo Pavilion through July 2.
Charr Crail/Courtesy photo

 The folks at Music Circus would like to invite you to be their guest (for a fee) at the opulent production of Disney’s family classic musical, “Beauty and the Beast,” through July 2.

The near-capacity opening night audience had a lot of little princesses, tottering about on jeweled heels, in royal garb with rhinestone crowns.

This excellent production is directed by Glenn Casale and features several Broadway veterans in the lead roles and sumptuous costumes from Casale’s European tour of this show.

The production inaugurates California Musical Theatre’s new state-of-the-art projection system, a series of screens that circle the upper portion of the theater and project things like the rooftops of buildings, trees in a forest, and parts of a spooky castle, allowing for fewer on-stage set pieces and giving the audience a feeling of being in the action.

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Broadway veteran James Snyder as the prince who is under the spell of a sorceress to whom he was once rude. He must live life as a hideous beast until he can learn to love another person and have that person love him in return.

A red rose charts his progress and if the last petal of the rose falls without a love interest in the picture, he will remain a beast forever.

Not only is the prince enchanted, but his entire house staff is as well. The maitre d’ has been turned into the candelabra Lumiere (Michael Paternostro) and the major domo is Cogsworth, a clock (David Hibbard), while Courtney Iventosch is Babette, the flirty feather duster, and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan is Madame de la Grande Bouche, the opera singer who is now a dresser, complete with drawers that open.

Dear Mrs. Potts (Shannon Warne), the teapot, sings the title song. Her son Chip (Cooper Miller, alternating with Mia Fisher) was very cute.

I was pleased to see that as the story progresses, the changes in the staff become more and more pronounced. I have seen community theater productions where this does not happen, so it was appreciated that this professional company follows those directions.

Jessica GrovĂ© is specializing in princesses at Music Circus. She was last seen as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” and plays Belle in this production. Belle is a feisty loner and bookworm in the little town where she lives with her inventor father Maurice (Gordon Goodman). She dreams of finding an enchanted prince who will sweep her away.

After Maurice is set upon by wolves and saved by the Beast, who then imprisons him, Belle agrees to take his place if the Beast lets the old man go.

It’s a rocky start for this eventually happily-ever-after couple, but with help and lessons in being a gentleman from the house staff, the Beast is able to tame his temper and a friendship slowly develops between himself and the young woman. His anguished “If I Can’t Love Her,” which ends the first act, is a tour de force for the actor.

In the meantime, there is the town hunk, Gaston (Peter Saide), who is in love with himself, but determined to have Belle as his wife. His sidekick LeFou (Jared Gertner) thinks of this as a real bromance and puts up with a lot of abuse from this man he admires.

When Gaston leads a band to go and “kill the beast,” it is up to Belle to save this beast she has come to love and, in the process, break the spell.

This is a wonderful production and a great way to start Music Circus’ 67th season. If I have any complaint, it’s that the volume is much too high. I have hearing problems and it bothered me, so I can only imagine what a person with normal hearing would hear.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Legally Blonde, the Musical


Omigod, you guys! Elle Woods has finally come to the Davis Musical Theatre Company, under the direction of Jan Isaacson.

“Legally Blonde” (music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hach) is as light and frothy as cotton candy — and just as pink. It has all the story of the movie with Reese Witherspoon, but without the depth. The scenes are so short (nine in the first act, eight in the second) that there is little time to get a feeling for the characters.

The songs aren’t memorable (except for the opening and recurring “Omigod, you guys”), but the cast is so enthusiastic and the dancing so infectious that you find yourself enjoying it in spite of yourself.
The story follows sorority diva Elle Woods, who came to the university to catch her man and discovers that she was only a chapter in his life. He’s going to become a famous attorney and politician and she … well … she just doesn’t fit into his view of a politician’s wife.

As he goes off to Harvard, flighty Elle does the only logical thing … she studies hard, for the first time in her life, and gets into Harvard Law too, thinking that, given time, she can win him back.
Her parents (Steve Isaacson and Dannette Vassar) are aghast. “You could have a film career out here,” her father protests. “There’s no movie studio there and the girls all have different noses.”

It’s a silly plot, but we get to watch Elle begin to think about things seriously and ultimately have more respect for herself than to want someone like the guy who ditched her.

Ernestine Balisi is the bleach-blonde, pink-clad Elle, with Mac playing her constant companion Bruiser, the Chihuahua. Last seen as Peggy Sawyer in “42nd Street,” Balisi brings the same energy and sparkle to the role of Elle. She and Bruiser work well together and neither had a misstep throughout.

Boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Jonathan Kalinen) is a real loser (to quote a current political figure) and Kalinen brings out all the worst in him until we don’t want Elle to get her man anyway!
Adriel Cruz is Professor Callahan, the womanizing hot-shot instructor who sets his sights on Elle. Cruz gave a subdued performance throughout Act 1 and it was difficult not only to understand him, but to find him all that menacing until he sings the very dark “Blood in the Water.” His performance improved in Act 2.

Mitchell Worrell-Olson is Emmett, Callahan’s teaching assistant, who takes Elle under his wing with a friendship that may grow into something deeper, as he helps her with her studies along with a study group that includes Erynn Kinch as the dark and brooding brainiac Enid.

Ashley Marie Holm makes a wonderful impression as Paulette, the cosmetician who becomes Elle’s friend, as the two of them support each other. Paulette dreams of marrying an Irishman and settling down in the suburbs (she sings the beautiful song “Ireland”). Then along comes the UPS man Kyle (Matthew Evans) to set her heart a-flutter.

Longtime Davisites may know the story of UPS delivery man Tim Spencer, for whom a downtown Davis alley is named. Evans is the epitome of Tim Spencer, in his macho-ness and his short shorts.
A real scene-stealer is Paulette’s dog, Rufus (played by Savannah), a bulldog missing teeth on one side of her mouth, leaving her tongue hanging out all the time. She was definitely a crowd-pleaser.

Rachael Sherman-Shockley plays the bitchy Vivienne with venom. Because the character changes as the show progresses, Sherman-Shockley gave a multi-layered performance and displayed a beautiful voice on “Legally Blonde Remix.”

Morgan Bartoe is Brooke Wyndham, on trial for killing her husband, defended by Callahan and his students. Brooke is an exercise guru and her exercise routine “Whipped into Shape” done with a chorus of women, each with jump ropes, is a highlight of the show. How they sing and jump and still have breath left at the end of the number is a marvel. (Choreography is by Terri Taylor.)

There is a Greek chorus of sorts, made up of Elle’s sorority sisters — Serena (Joelle La Guerra), Margot (McKinley Carlisle) and Pilar (Julia Hixon) — who become Elle’s cheering section.

The message of this musical is to be yourself and that you can be better than you think you are. And along the way, don’t forget to dress in pink!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Hand to God

From left, Margery (Elisabeth Nunziato) leads a church puppet workshop as her son Jason (Ryan Borses)
works his demon-possessed puppet, Tyrone, in “Hand to God”
on stage through July 23 at the B Street Theatre.
Rudy Meyers Photography/Courtesy phototion

When a critic goes to see a show, he or she is usually given a packet of information about the show, the playwright and other pertinent information. When the B Street Box Office handed me a packet for “Hand to God” that included not only a “history of puppetry” but also a “brief history of demonic possession,” I knew we were in for something … unusual.

Unusual is putting it mildly.

This hilariously funny play from the demented mind of playwright Robert Askins is everything a normal person should hate (and some in the audience did leave at intermission). It is raunchy and irreverent, and yet, we in the audience laughed uproariously and gave the cast a standing ovation.
The story concerns a puppet, Tyrone (who resembles a Muppet from the wrong side of the tracks), who is possessed by the devil and is manipulating the life of teenager Jason (Ryan Borses), a young man depressed about his father’s recent death.

Borses gives an outstanding performance as both Jason and Tyrone, who seems permanently attached to Jason’s arm. Borses is able to create distinct personalities for the two characters and accurately displays a range of emotions, including the depth of Jason’s depression and Tyrone’s anger, often simultaneously, in one fast-paced dialog between the two. It has to be seen to truly be appreciated.
The action takes place in a church basement where Jason’s mother Margery (Elisabeth Nunziato) is leading a puppet workshop, as part of Pastor Greg’s (Dave Pierini) outreach to younger people.

Also part of the group are Timmy (Andrew Mazer), the perennial bad boy who is more interested in making moves on Margery than on making puppets. Jessica (Stephanie Altholz) is the polar opposite to Timmy, a goody-two-shoes who tries to keep the peace, despite her own puppet’s desires.

Margery isn’t really interested in the workshop, since she has just lost her husband, and is trying to work through her own grief and depression, which does not include Jason, who turns to Tyrone for comfort.

Tyrone becomes more and more demonic as the play progresses, growing teeth and pointy ears along the way. He and Jessica’s creation, a busty puppet named Jolene, find a mutual attraction and the resulting puppet-on-puppet action, while hilarious, would earn the play an X rating if the beings involved actually had genitalia.

Everyone in this workshop eventually succumbs to their baser instincts and under Tyrone’s delighted cheering, they all give in to temptation to express the hate, lust, violence and fear that exists in all of them. The professional skills of the puppeteers, who keep up a running in-depth conversation while their arms are engaged in unspeakable action with each other, is remarkable.

This wildly irreverent but very funny play also explores the more serious topics such as the nature of grief and the repression of human nature, and ultimately finds redemption and a way to defuse the out-of-control Tyrone.

All of the actors are wonderful, with Mazer as the greaser who appears just dumb and horny, but actually longs for the love that Jason seeks as well. Nunziato’s grief at the loss of her husband is always just below the surface as she is drawn to her baser instincts and ultimately her realization of her feelings for her son.

Altholz is not as prissy “goody two-shoes” as she seems and has her own moments of audaciousness.
Rounding out the cast, Perini is a well-meaning pastor who has the hots for Margery, but manages to keep himself in check.

Samantha Reno’s set is a fun puppet workshop until Act 2, when Tyrone takes over and the change is very striking.

This is a play you really want to dislike and feel somehow you should not be watching, but you can’t help being drawn into the story and laughing uncontrollably throughout.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Lungs


“Lungs,” a play by the young playwright Duncan Macmillan (whose “Constellations” was produced by B Street recently), may have been written with millennials in mind, but it has appeal for all ages.
It follows the lives of M and W (no names are given) through the rocky eras of their lives, an odd love story, but fascinating, in its many twists and turns.

Directed by Lyndsay Burch, this two-person, 100-plus-minute piece features the talents of the amazing Jahi Kearse as M and Dana Brooke as W.

The set by Samantha Reno pictures an amorphous outdoor scene. While the script calls for no set at all, the designer wanted to create an environment that could represent both inside and outside and “the circle of life.” Also, as questions of threats to the environment loom large in this work, this seemed appropriate.

As the action begins, the couple are in line at IKEA when M decides to broach the subject of whether this might be the time to start thinking of having a family. This takes W by surprise and she starts one of her many diatribes about the ethical issues of raising a child in an age where there is political unrest, where climate change is a major issue, and if you really care about the planet, even if you are a “good” person, is it right to have a child? Particularly when the carbon footprint of that infant will be 10,000 tons of CO2?

“That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower,” W wails.
On the other hand, maybe this child will be the one who makes major contributions to all of these problems.

But what about the in-laws, who are none too happy with the whole relationship in the first place? The discussion goes back and forth, agonizing over wanting a baby and worrying about if this is the right time — or if there will ever be a right time.

Both very funny, and then very poignant, these issues are at the heart of this play. The characters are maddening and lovable by turns, each with his or her own flaws, but always, no matter what happens, deeply in love with each other.

W is the more high-strung of the pair, while M is more laid-back, a good man desperately trying to figure out what he can do to make things better for the woman he loves, but not really understanding what she is saying most of the time (a situation any woman can relate to!).

The dialog would put the wordy David Mamet to shame, as it is smart, rapid-fire with impeccable comic and dramatic timing, which works only because of the talent of the two actors. Sometimes the monologues of one or the other of them leaves the audience breathless trying to keep up.

This is a moving, funny, always engrossing play raised to new heights by the talents of two actors. When Macmillan wrote this he was only 30 years old. One wonders what a career he has ahead of him.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Ju;ngle Book


Panthers, tigers and bears! Oh my!

It’s a jungle out there, as Acme Theatre Company presents its annual thank-you gift to the city of Davis on the Art Center amphitheater stage in the form of a free performance of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book,” as written by Acme alum Briandaniel Oglesby and directed by Emily Henderson.
Kipling’s 1894 book was a collection of fables using animals to give moral lessons, and Oglesby gives the story a modern ecological twist.

This version of the story was commissioned by Big Idea Theatre in Sacramento and opened its 2014 season.

The first thing to observe on the Art Center stage is the set, designed by Benton Harshaw, an innovative use of umbrellas of all sizes, shapes and types, painted in various shades of green and grouped together to form the jungle in which the action takes place.

Costumes designed by Cassaundra Wages are fairly minimal suggestions of costumes — ears and a tail, for example, but the most fun costume of all is for the vulture, Kite (Sophia Waxman) whose voluminous wings allow her to fly all over the stage area and Waxman has perfected the art of swooping and settling, quite vulture-like, on a tree stump.

It is the story of the young boy Mowgli (Gracelyn Watkins), orphaned after his parents were killed by the hungry tiger Shere Kahn (Dedrick Underwood). Mowgli is a puzzlement to the creatures of the forest and there is discussion concerning what to do about him until he is adopted by Raksha (Garnet Phinney), a wolf mother who recently lost her cub. She will raise the boy as her son and teach him to be a wolf.

Mowgli joins the pack of wolves, led by Akela (Ben Kimmel) and learns the ways of the forest, though he never quite “belongs,” and is taunted by his fellow wolf cubs. He is the perpetual outsider just looking for a home.

The story is told by the bear Baloo (Cassidy Smith) and his panther partner Bagheera (Cory McCutcheon), who take on the instruction of the young man-cub. Baloo explains that he is “tasked with the edification of the wolf pack. I teach them jungle law and the stories of us Jungle People.”
In his search for a place to belong, Mowgli briefly joins a pack of monkeys but is fascinated by the dangerous snake Kaa (Laura Britt). To escape, Mowgli flees to the nearby city.

The pace of life in the city, with everyone rushing by, is confusing to the young man-cub and when he is discovered by the humans, they, too, are confused by what to do with him, suggestions which include everything from experimenting on him to locking him up in a zoo.

But he is adopted by a wealthy socialite, DeeDee (McKella von Boxtel), who is determined to civilize him. (Husband Duke is played by Underwood, previously seen in the jungle as tiger Shere Kahn.

(In one of the more clever bits of set design, DeeDee’s home is decorated with paintings, represented by cast members looking through picture frames.)

Still finding himself an outsider, Mowgli can’t find a home with his own kind and decides to return to the forest, but in the years of his absence, the forest has been transformed by clear cutting and his old friends are losing their home.

The play ends on Mowgli’s solution for saving his friends and finding a new place away from the destruction of the forest.

This is a play that will delight children of all ages (I sat next to a toddler who was mesmerized throughout). What better way to spend a couple of hours on a holiday weekend than outside enjoying a delightful play?


Thursday, May 18, 2017

The 39 Steps


There is only one way to describe John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps,” now at Wyatt Pavilion — silly, frenetic madness and mayhem.

This Patrick Barlow homage to the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film is based on a John Buchan novel. Described by UCD’s department of theater and dance as “a Hitchcock masterpiece with an action thriller, adding a dash of Monty Python,” this production, directed by Mindy Cooper, will have you gasping for breath between the laughs.

The production also celebrates the 110th anniversary of Wyatt Pavilion, the oldest building on campus.

It is a cast of five — Matt Skinner, Kelly Tappan, Daniel Ferrer, Matthew Murphy and Caitlin Sales — who create more than 100 characters, with lightning-fast costume changes, most in full sight of the audience. One actor may change character three times in a matter of seconds.

The only actor who does not change character is Skinner. He appears as the uber-British Richard Hanny, whose brief encounter with a glamorous woman he meets in the theater (Tappan — like Hitchcock leading ladies, she is a striking blonde) leads to numerous adventures that involve chases across moors, streams and bridges, false identities, and even murder (for which he is, of course, falsely accused).

Poor Hanny will be chased through two dozen locations before the play comes to its end.

The parade of police, spies, rustics, traveling salesmen, innkeepers, newsboys and railroad porters are all played by Ferrer, Murphy and Sales, who did not make a visible misstep despite the zaniness of the action. Watching them change hats, coats and accents is as much fun as watching the people they become.

Big kudos to costume designers Maria Delgadillo, Alisa Sakakura and Autumn Ward, headed by Roxanne Femling.

The creative team of Duke Durfee (scenic design), Pamila Z. Gray (lighting design) and Lindsay Putnam (sound design) create great effects, such as a tribute to Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” when Hanny is chased by a crop duster.

(To the best of my knowledge, director Cooper did not, like Hitchcock, have a brief walk-on, but who can tell with all those characters?)

The innovative use of things — like ladders to represent the Forth Bridge, or big photo frames that double as windows through which characters escape — is brilliant.

The pace is breathtaking and the laughs tumble over each other throughout.

Be advised that if you have difficult reading small print, bringing a magnifying glass is advised. The print in the program is so incredibly tiny that I was not able to read it until I got home and could see it under a magnifying glass.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Stupid F###ing Bird



If Conrad loves Nina and Nina loves Trigorin and Trigorin loves Emma while Dev loves Masha, who loves Conrad — we can only be in a Russian tragedy.

“Stupid F##king Bird,” currently at Capital Stage, under the direction of Michael Stevenson, is a hilarious yet reverential homage to Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

The title came about as a joke, playwright Aaron Posner explained. “I was saying how much I loved ‘The Seagull’ and how much I kind of hated it. As I left the room, I literally said, ‘I should do my own adaptation. I should call it Stupid F##king Bird.’ ” And so he did.

This is more or less the plot of “The Seagull” with the themes more or less the themes of Chekhov’s and, like the original, it is all about theater, including a play within a play in which the audience is invited to contribute ideas. But the lines between reality and stage are blurred and the characters often are not aware that they are actors in a play.

Yes, it’s a little confusing, but stick with it. It’s very funny and all comes together. Sort of. By the final bow.

The marvelous Ian Hopps is Conrad, the tortured playwright desperate to get his play appreciated, especially by his mother, Emma (Rebecca Dines), to whom the play is directed.

Hopps made a big impression in Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s “Bells are Ringing” last summer and does not disappoint in this production, filled with passion, self-deprecation and anguish about his unrequited love for aspiring actress Nina.

Brittni Barger as Nina is a hopeless romantic who longs for a stage career (but isn’t really talented). She is dazzled by the philandering literary legend Trigorin and believes he is her key to fame and fortune.

Dines plays the successful actress and family matriarch Emma, who has had a love/hate relationship with her son for all of his life, which explains a lot about Conrad.

Capital Stage favorite Jason Kuykendall is Trigorin, tall and cool, but easily swayed by the sexual advances of both Nina and Emma. (Warning to the audience: There is a bit of nudity in this show, as well as liberal use of the F-word.)

Comic relief is provided by Jouni Kirjola as Dev, with a smile that comes right out of a cartoon. His smile often hides a breaking heart but he is Con’s BFF and an essential part of his life. Kirjola offers the perfect blend of social awkwardness and charm.

A real find is Wenona Truong, as Mash. The actress comes out of the Capital Stage Apprentice Program and is perfect as the deadpan, perpetually depressed Mash, strumming her ukulele and singing bitter songs to express her unhappiness.

(“My heart has been broken, my heart has been burst / The best that life can offer me is more of the worst …”)

Peter Mohrmann is Dr. Sorn, Emma’s brother, whose role seems to be that of a detached observer, though he secretly has his own feelings of longing, if nobody on whom to focus them. He self-medicates with vodka. He is dying, but nobody knows it. This is the kind of role in which Mohrmann excels and he gives an expected strong performance.

Scenic design is by Timothy McNamara. The set is so impressive it is worth sitting through the intermission to see it changed.

Likewise, Glenn Fox does a good job of lighting, switching from theatrical performance to “reality” by means of lighting changes.

It is Con who tells this story and even as it achieves some success, he’s not happy.

“You know what f-ing sucks about a little success? It just feels like a set up for a new kind of failure — a more painful kind. Because now instead of just my family, I’ll get to have, you know … perfect strangers judging and pitying me, too.”

If the audience is any indication, there’s not a lot of negative judgment in this production. In fact it’s pretty f-ing brilliant.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Treatment


What happens when you put three of Sacramento’s funniest ladies together and tell them to write a play? You get a lot of funny stuff!

B Street Theatre has just opened a brand-new play, “Treatment” by Stephanie Altholz, Tara Sissom and Amy Kelly.

“Buck (Busfield) got us all together and said ‘You’re all funny, despite horrible things that happened to you. I want you to write a play about how funny came out of it,’ ” Altholz said.

A year later, the play is on the stage under direction of David Perini.

Though apparently the life experiences the women have suffered were the inspiration for the play, one would be hard-pressed to figure out who has experienced what. This is a play about other women and can easily be performed by any set of wonderful comediennes.

To write the play, the women decided to go camping so they would have a good atmosphere for brainstorming. Not only did they get ideas, but they decided that this would be the perfect venue in which to set their story. In fact, Sissom took notes on their discussion and those notes became the frame on which they hung the rest of their story.

The setting is a campsite on the one-year anniversary of the death of Jayne’s mother. Jayne (Sissom) has had difficulty saying goodbye and letting go, but she is finally ready to spread Mom’s ashes and has brought her best, lifelong friends, Roxanne (Altholz) and Patricia (Kelly), with her for emotional support.

Roxanne must really love her friend because she is germ- and dirt-phobic, knows nothing about camping and hates what she knows. She looks like she would be more comfortable chairing the local PTA meeting. But she has shown up to support Jayne.

Patricia, on the other hand, loves being there but has brought as much comfort with her as possible, including a slow cooker. Kelly is a remarkable physical comedienne with a wide range of facial expressions that serve her well, expressing everything from glee to depression and just about everything in between.

Jayne wants to commune with nature and has not thought to bring things like tents or sleeping bags or anything else to make it easier to live in the wild overnight. She is centered on giving Mom the best possible send-off.

There is a lot of very funny physical comedy (particularly involving bears), which kept the audience laughing. But as the day passes and the women cope with the various problems that come up, and pass around a large bottle of Jim Beam, walls begin to fall.

Though these are lifelong friends, they discover there are very serious things that they don’t know about each other. Their friendship will be tested, but in the end it is their long-term association with and love for each other that will not only keep them together, but make the bonds stronger.

Oh yeah — and you’ll laugh a lot during the exploration.

The thin plot is not the strong point of this play — the relationship among the women is … and the real-life relationship among the three authors has produced a thoroughly enjoyable result.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Guys and Dolls

 Eimi Taoramina as Adelaide, Travis Nagler as Nathan,
Daniel Silva as Sky and Kirsten Myers as Sarah

 This is a frustrating time to be a critic. Some folks think that “critics” are supposed to find things to “criticize,” but lately the local shows have been so good I have nothing whatever to grumble at.
Another excellent opening this week is the Woodland Opera House production of “Guys and Dolls,” that delightful 1950s Frank Loesser musical, based on the 1920s and ’30s short stories of Damon Runyon. This production is directed by Jason Hammond and choreographed by Staci Arriaga, with musical direction by Jia-Min Rosendale and vocal direction by James Glica-Hernandez.

Set design by Don Zastoupil is minimal and based on a cartoon theme, which works surprisingly well.

It’s a dream cast. While everyone is outstanding, the real stand-out is Eimi Taormina, as Miss Adelaide, the nightclub performer who has been engaged to small-time gambler Nathan Detroit (Travis Nagler) for 14 years and is hoping to finally get him to the altar.

Taormina always has had a sparkle that makes her impossible to ignore when she is on stage. It has been very special watching her progress from “ensemble” to leading roles. This may have been one of her best. She recently announced her impending relocation to the Bay Area, which will be a tremendous loss to several local theater groups.

Nagler, as Detroit, commands the stage. He has the build and demeanor of a jazz-age thug, but underneath the gruff exterior is a heart of gold. He is particularly endearing when shepherding a group of low-lifes to the failing Save-a-Soul mission to help mission director Sarah Brown (Kirsten Myers) look good in front of her boss, General Cartwright (Nancy Agee).

Myers is a beautiful Sarah, with a gorgeous voice to boot. She is dedicated to her calling to bring sinners to God, but is reluctantly willing to compromise her principles if it will help keep the mission on its financial feet. She finds it surprisingly easy with the addition of several Cuba Libras, which she does not realize is an alcoholic drink.

The nefarious gambler intent on deflowering Sarah is Sky Masterson (Daniel Silva) who discovers that he, too, has a heart somewhere as he falls victim to Sarah’s innocent charms.

There are a host of New York characters with wonderful names like Nicely Nicely Johnson (Erik Catalan), Benny Southstreet (Gil Sebastian), Harry the Horse (David Cross) and Big Jule (Spencer Alexander).

It is Catalan who sings the rousing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” made famous by Stubby Kaye in the 1955 movie. Catalan has a powerful voice and gets not only the mission, but the entire opera house rocking with his unforgettable performance.

Bob Cooner is Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s grandfather and her second in command at the mission. He is wise in a grandfatherly way and offers the timely advice, “But more I cannot wish you than to wish you find your love / Your own true love this day.”

Lenore Sebastian is also fun to watch, first as a New York street person, and then as one of the members of the Mission band.

There are many songs in this show that became classics of the era — like “If I Were a Bell,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “Sue Me” and “The Oldest Established Floating Crap Game.”

Denise Miles’ costumes are fun, especially the costumes for Adelaide and the Hot Box dancers. Arriaga’s choreography is splendid throughout the show.

If this newspaper gave stars, I would give this production five stars. But we don’t, so all I can do is encourage all lovers of musicals to get to the Woodland Opera House and give yourself a treat.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Donner Party: The Musical


Just a short distance from Sutter’s Fort, the final destination of the 80-something settlers who started out from Missouri, intending to settle in California, Sacramento Theatre Company is premiering the musical “The Donner Party.”

The new American musical is by Eric Rockwell (music) and Margaret Rose (book and lyrics). The production is directed by Rose and Michael Laun, who have assembled the cream of the crop for the cast.

There is beautiful music in this saga. There is poignancy. There is humor. And there is deep sadness.
What there is not is consistency of tone. At times, with the crusty old grandma on her deathbed, looking for all the world like Ma Joad (Martha Omiyo Kight), it feels like “Grapes of Wrath” while with each “anthem” number (for want of a better word), it seems like something out of “Les Miserables.”

Then there are the “aren’t we having fun on this adventure” numbers, which could be from any musical comedy Western. What it desperately needs is to be unique and not derivative.

That said, this is definitely a must-see, if only for the wealth of talent and for the wonderfully stirring numbers like “Wagons Roll,” which comes early in Act 1 and caused me to whisper “wow!” to myself. It is followed by many (too many, at 19) numbers that are blockbusters, but too many that drag down the forward motion of the story.

A real plus for the show is the live five-piece band playing behind a screen on the stage, under the direction of Samuel Clein.

The Donner Party was led by two families, the Reeds (Michael RJ Campbell and Vivienne Cleary) and the Donners (Jerry Lee and Maggie Hollinbeck). The Reeds, including their four children, all made it to Sacramento, while both George and Tamsen Donner died while their five children survived.

Campbell and Lee are heroic characters who are obvious leaders whose voices boom out over the theater and make this a real experience.

Wives Cleary and Hollinbeck are less bombastic, but perhaps create more well-rounded characters and are the glue that hold their families together.

The children from STC’s Young Professionals are each wonderful, but I must single out Noa Solorio, who alternates in the role of Virginia Reed with Monique Ward Lonergan, as particularly good. She does not take a back seat to anyone.

Cat Yates is the pregnant Peggy Breen, carrying her bairn around for most of Act 1, but a plucky gal who is going to make it no matter what. (And records show that not only she but also her newborn managed to make it to Sacramento.)

The quartet of women — Tamsen Donner, Margaret Reed, Peggy Breen and Mary Ann Graves (Abbey Williams-Campbell) — provide a brief light moment with “He’s the Man I Chose,” laughing about the idiosyncracies of their respected spouses.

Graves has no spouse, but has fallen in love with Charlie Stanton (Sam C. Jones), who dies before they reach the Sierra.

As Act 1 ends, the group is realizing that they have started too late and they are going to be stuck until the snow stops — which is not until the spring thaw. The audience knows there isn’t going to be much levity in Act 2, but there are a lot (five) of reprises from Act 1.

Yes, the subject of cannibalism is handled tactfully (though apparently, recent excavations put that whole issue into question, as no human bones have been identified), but it is not a major part of the story.

I really want this show to be wonderful, and I think it has the possibility to be. I would love to see it go back to the drawing board to be tightened up and presented again in a couple of years.

I have no complaints about any of the performances, and I’d be willing to bet that many people who have seen the show have been googling the Donner Party to get more information about each of the characters they came to know during this show. Eighty-three started out on this tragic journey; 45 made it all the way.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Peter Pan

Armed with his trusty dagger, Peter Pan (Tyler Traum) leads
Wendy (Claire Quillen), Michael (Miller Traum)
and John (Isabella Giannetti) into Neverland

 The Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center was filled with children, parents and grandparents for Sunday’s matinee performance of the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of “Peter Pan.”
They were in for a real treat.

This “Peter Pan,” directed by Steve Isaacson, is a delight from start to finish.

Begin with the better-than-average DMTC sets, designed by Isaacson. From the lovely nursery to the two scenes in Neverland to the scary pirate ship in Act 3, the sets are not opulent, but oh so “just right” for this production.

Cynthia Krivicich has done an amazing job as choreographer. All of the child actors were spot on. In particular the “Ugh-a-Wug” dance of the Indians (which some may consider not politically correct in this day and age, but how can you do “Peter Pan” without those Indians?) was particularly impressive, with the girls as precise as the Rockettes.

New to this production are body mics, which worked flawlessly and unobtrusively. They gave just that extra oomph to young voices that sometimes can’t fill an entire theater, yet without any reverb or unnatural sound to them.

I suspect, however, that Tyler Traum (Peter Pan) didn’t really need a body mic. What a find she is. A product of Sacramento Theatre Company’s Young Professionals program, she definitely gives a professional performance as the young boy who doesn’t want to grow up.

She can convincingly be an obstreperous boy, a wistful orphan, a loving father to a group of lost boys and savior of Wendy (Claire Quillen) and Tiger Lily (McKinley Carlisle). And she flies, too.

The flying crew of Alex Hom, Mike Traum, Matthew Evans and Chris Colbourn do an excellent job of keeping their young charges in the air, using rigging designed by Isaacson.

Another outstanding job is done by Brian McCann, surely the perfect Captain Hook. From the scary pirate who is set on destroying Peter Pan to the terrified man stalked by a crocodile (Tomas Eredia in a marvelous new crocodile costume), McCann excels. He also plays the blustery Mr. Darling in the opening scenes, before his children fly off to Neverland.

Amanda Valli Spence is Mrs. Darling, a calm, serene mother whose job it is to make the house run peacefully and calmly so as not to upset her husband.

The three children — Quillen, along with Isabella Giannetti as John and Miller Traum as little Michael — do an excellent job. Quillen is particularly good.

Brittany Owings is a delightful Nana, the nursemaid dog, and Katie Smith-Induni is Liza is the Darlings’ maid, though I never did figure out how (or why) she got to and from Neverland with the children.

Kudos, too, to James Cubbage, who helped the fairy Tinker Bell flit about the stage so convincingly.
Julia Quillen and Jean Henderson comprise the costume crew and have done a great job, as always.

“Peter Pan” was the very first show that DMTC produced, 32 years ago. In fact, there is a replica of a ticket to that show printed in the program. Isaacson remembered that during Act 1 of that show, the set crew was backstage trying to finish the set for Act 3.

What a long way this treasured community theater company has come in 32 years.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Bodyguard


I never saw the 1992 movie, “The Bodyguard,” so in preparation for seeing the musical version now at the Sacramento Community Center Theater, I rented it. I was unimpressed, and did not have high expectations for the stage show.

I was very happy to have my fears erased. From the explosive first couple of minutes, guaranteed to wake the sleepiest of snoozers, the plot of this musical, while staying true to the film, takes a back seat to the musical numbers, a tribute to Whitney Houston without attempting to imitate her.

This is a good thing, because while Houston was undeniably a wonderful singer, the same was not true for her acting. Deborah Cox, who plays Rachel Marron, the superstar whose life is being threatened, is a fabulous singer and a much better actress than Houston. Songs throughout the evening are sometimes gratuitous, but often are part of a concert Rachel is giving.

Rachel is threatened by a stalker who sends ominous letters and then sneaks into her dressing room and steals a dress. Manager Bill Devaney (Charles Gray) hires former Secret Service agent Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) as Rachel’s personal bodyguard. Frank reluctantly agrees to take the job when he learns of Rachel’s young son, though he has no interest in celebrities.

Mills, who is fierce and stoic, is a former regular on the TV show “Walker, Texas Ranger” and also appeared in such TV shows as “Law and Order SVU,” “The X-Files” and “Dexter.” He is perfect for the emotionally detached Frank — and, fortunately, does not sing.

The role of Rachel’s sister, Nicki, has been expanded and actress Jasmin Richardson has some musical numbers of her own. She is easily equal to Cox in quality (and is, in fact, Cox’s understudy), giving the audience an abundance of talent to enjoy.

But the real scene stealer is young Douglas Baldeo (who alternates in the role with Kevelin B. Jones III) in the role of Rachel’s 10-year-old son, Fletcher. A rendition of “Jesus Loves Me,” which features Fletcher with his mother and aunt, is a sweet moment in the show.

It is the music that keeps this otherwise pedestrian plot moving forward, but there are some eyebrow-raising scenes that grate. Frank, who is such a stickler for security, not only takes Rachel to a karaoke bar without back-up, but even encourages her to sing.

And as it is hate at first sight between Rachel and Frank, it is strange to find the two in bed together after the ruckus that erupts at the bar.

It also seems strange that he would whisk the family away to a deserted cabin in the woods and not realize that they are being followed by the attacker. Such carelessness may explain why he is a former Secret Service agent.

The shocking confession in the movie is not in this musical and the identity of the attacker is also different, and known by the audience since the start of the show.

The show has its problems, but overall it is enjoyable. And for Whitney Houston fans, it’s a chance to revel in more than a dozen of her famous songs.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Daddy's Dyin' Who's Got the Will

Del Shores’ “Daddy’s Dyin’,Who’s Got the Will?” is playing to near sell-out houses at the Ooley Theatre, under the direction of Corey Morris, making his Sacramento directorial debut.

This black dramady is the story of the dysfunctional Turnover family, from Lowake, Texas, gathering after years of estrangement, for a death watch on father Buford.  All the children are desperate to find his will. but it is missing and Buford (Lew Rooker) is so demented, he is of no help.

The roost is ruled by Mama Wheelis (Deborah Shalhoub – Tony’s sister), Buford’s mother-in-law, who rules with a strong hand, doesn’t allow profanity or pre-marital sex in her house.  She has aprons for all occasions, including a black one for funerals.

Sara Lee (Adriana Marmo) is the “good child” who stayed home to care for her father, while sister Marlene (Elise Hodge) is a born again preacher’s wife who lives nearby and helps, when she can, with their father.

Evalita (Bethany Hidden) has not been home for years.  She arrives with metallic red hair and a costume in danger of having a wardrobe malfunction at any moment.  She’s working on husband #6 and hopes to use her inheritance to pay for costs to produce her first record.

Son Orville (Rob McCrea) is a stereotypical redneck wife-beater whose wife Lurlene (Elizabeth Anne Springett) is obsessed with her recent weight loss.

Rounding out the cast is Evalia’s barefoot boy toy Harmony (Mitchell Thompson) who is getting a little tired of Evalita’s self-centeredness, and finds a friend in Lurlene.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Glass Menagerie

David Crane as Tom and Janis Stevens as Amanda perform in Sacramento Theatre Company's
production of “The Glass Menagerie,” on stage through April 30.
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo

“The Glass Menagerie,” now at Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock Stage, was the play that made Tennessee Williams a name in modern theater. The play was loosely based on his own life, his melodramatic mother, his emotionally and physically fragile sister, and himself as the would-be poet brother.

Purists who love this play may not be happy with the vision of director Casey McClellan, who has played rather loosely with the original stage directions.

This is described as a “memory play,” meaning that the action takes place in brother Tom’s mind, so important pieces of furniture and props are used, such as a table on which to eat and a couch, as well as a small table with four or five glass ornaments.

But most of the set and props, things that would not have been foremost in Tom’s memory, are mimed (designers Jarrod Bodensteiner and Renee DeGarmo). Lighting cigarettes, for example, involves an exaggerated match-lighting movement and an accompanying lighting effect (design by Jessica Bertine).

The mixture of set and no set, props and no props is a bit off-putting, though Tom warns “it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”

When an actor takes on a role, it is understood that he or she makes that role his or her own, under the direction from the director, and so David Crane’s overpowering, somewhat brittle Tom seems at odds with the wanna be writer/poet that the playwright described. But there is no denying that the performance is riveting, even though he approaches the role of the narrator of the story with the charisma of a snake-oil salesman.

It is the story of the Wingfield family forever affected by the unseen father, “a telephone man who fell in love with long-distance.” His departure left behind a mother and two children, one of whom is crippled (a word not allowed to be spoken) following a bout of polio.

There can’t have been a better choice than Janis Stevens to play the faded Southern belle, Amanda Wingfield, a woman rooted in the days of the “gentleman caller,” a cross between a strong matriarch and a flighty debutante. There is no doubt that Stevens knows who she is and gives a memorable, beautiful performance. She shines in her belle-of-the-ball finery, dressing up to meet a real gentleman caller, exuding all of the Southern charm she remembers from her youth.

Amanda wants only the best for her children — though her ideas of what they need are based on her own life, not the reality of the children in front of her.

Tom’s older sister, Laura (Katherine Stroller) is painfully shy and insecure, made even more so by the slight limp, which is barely noticeable in this production, but which bothers her a lot. Stroller fades into the woodwork, until her “gentleman caller” Jim (Eric Craig) shows up and there is a sweet scene between the two of them that shows the potential for Laura.

Jim is the gentleman caller Amanda has browbeat Tom into bringing home to meet Laura. She is unaware that he was Laura’s high school crush and the thought of his showing up in her apartment terrifies Laura. Jim was the high school star, but life has not treated him well. Still, Craig provides the one note of normalcy in this odd family dynamic.

The real “glass menagerie” of glass equine figures in this production seems to take on a very small role, but at the end of the play, one realizes more that it is, instead, the Wingfield family who are the glass menagerie, with their fragile, easily damaged egos.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Guards at the Taj


Mohammad Shehata, left, and Rajesh Bose star in "Guards at the Taj,"

The year is 1648 and the location is the Taj Mahal, the night before it is unveiled by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to the public.

The play is “Guards at the Taj,” an award-winning script by Rajiv Joseph directed for Capital Stage by co-founder Jonathan Williams.

There is no indication at the outset as to whether this is a comedy or a drama … and the answer is “yes.” As the play starts, there is fear that it is going to drag because of long silences between the two characters. Then it becomes very funny and after nervous titters, there are deep guffaws, but then it becomes very serious and even shocking.

Rajesh Bose (Humayun) and Mohammad Shehata (Babur) are outstanding actors who make this play come alive. The two play imperial guards stationed at the gate of the Taj Mahal, tasked with the duty of making certain no one sneaks in and sees the edifice before its unveiling the next morning. They are to stand at attention all night and not speak or turn around to look at the building.

Humayun is the rules guy. He stands stoically, as his job description demands, and rebukes Babur, who wants to chat. Babur is the goofball of the two … they are a real Odd Couple. It is Babur who sees the ludicrousness of standing still all night when they are the only two people around.

Eventually, Babur wears down Humayun’s reserve and the two joke and chat together, though until they reach that point one does wonder if this play is going to drag because of the uncomfortable silences while Humayun refuses to talk.

About the time the audience has settled in to enjoy this comedy, suddenly things aren’t so funny anymore and turn terribly black. The two guards have been given an unspeakable job of horrific brutality. To follow orders will change their lives forever. Each man is shaken to his core and in the aftermath one suffers severe PTSD, and the other must make an even worse decision.

This is the story of a bromance that is tested to the extreme. Even in the brutality, there is a sweetness in the relationship between Humayun and Babur. In the testing, the idea of “beauty” is analyzed and we learn how friendship of the men both sustains and ultimately destroys them.

Even in the midst of the horror, Babur brings a note of lightness with his dreams of fantastical inventions and “flying to the stars.” Humayun wants to invent a “transportable hole” to carry around so that one can escape any unpleasant situation, and they discuss the problems with trying to carry a “hole.” Talk of their inventions keep the men’s minds off of their horrific task, at least for a while.
Stephen C. Jones’ scenic design is simple, but handsome, while Timothy McNamara’s lighting and Ed Lee’s sound design add much to the atmosphere.

Perhaps the heroes of this production are the unnamed tech crew who have some amazing jobs between scenes and who get a round of applause each time they exit the stage. Not sure who is responsible for the “props” in Scene 2 but they deserve a round of applause, too (an ironic idea, when you think of it!).

“Guards at the Taj” is not going to appeal to everyone … and if you can’t handle brutality, perhaps you should stay home. But that would be a shame because this is an excellent play that will hold your attention and make an impact. You will be thinking about it long after you have left the theater.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Rumors


Neil Simon wrote his comedy ”Rumors” at a time when he was at one of his lowest points. He was in the process of divorce from wife No. 3 (Joan Balm), and needed something funny to occupy his mind. Work was always cathartic for him and, having written many funny things, he decided to try his hand at farce, which is a different style of comedy.

Comedy is a work of art that is amusing and intended to be humorous. Farce, in contrast, is a type of comedy that is characterized by highly exaggerated and comic situations and crude and one-dimensional characterizations. It has no other aim than creating laughter. (Farce usually also involves a lot of doors!)

By its very nature, farce requires crispness of dialogue and a quick pace to the show. The funny lines (you can’t really call them “jokes’) should come fast and furious and flow one into the other.
The fine cast of the Winters Theatre Company production of “Rumors,” directed by Linda Glick, are probably presenting a comedy, but not really a farce. While the show is enjoyable, the spark that makes a farce pop is missing.

The situation involves a couple who have arrived at the home of friends, intending to celebrate their 10th anniversary with other friends. But nothing is ready, the wife Myra and the serving staff are nowhere to be found, and the husband, Charlie, is on the floor in the bedroom with a bullet wound in his earlobe.

Simon hits a bit of a sour note with the first scene in which a guest, Ken (Philip Pittman), is upstairs with the unconscious (and unseen) host and Ken’s wife Chris (Anita Ahuja) is downstairs waiting for a call from the doctor.

Ken, who is Charlie’s attorney, keeps asking if the doctor has called yet when he does, he tells Chris not to tell him anything and to get him off the phone. Both Ken and Chris are frantic, unsure what happened or what to do to protect Charlie.

In the meantime, the other guests keep arriving. Claire (Ana Kormos) and Lenny (Jim Hewlett) are in a state because someone just ran into their prized new BMW.

Ernie (Brad Haney) and Cookie (Laure Olson) are upset that there is no food available, so Cookie, who is a TV chef (and who wears the most amazing costume you’re likely to see) takes it upon herself to prepare something to eat.

The final couple are Glenn (Manny Lanzaro) and Cassie (Michelle Novello), who arrive feuding and who squabble throughout the play.

Each person has a secret he or she is hiding, which may involve themselves or a rumor they have heard about one of the other guests, and as the lies involved in keeping the others from learning their secret mount, so does the craziness.

All comes to a head when a police officer (Rodney Orosco) comes to investigate and is treated to a highly implausible but entertaining story by Lenny that brings the whole show to an end. Almost. The final minute is a surprise for all.

Excellent in this production are Kormer as Claire, who has a real natural presence on stage; Pittman as Philip, trying to find some normalcy in a situation that is anything but normal; and Novello as Cassie, who doesn’t really have much to do but be beautiful and angry, but does it very well.

The attractive set is designed by Gary Schroeder, Jesse Akers and Sally Alexander and yes, it has all those requisite doors.

The sound, however, is a shrill negative, as there is a telephone, a doorbell and a pager, and the sound crew never could seem to get which ring was which. Each ring was repeated endlessly and was very irritating, as everyone stood around talking about something ringing, but not doing anything about it. (And at some point, someone threatens to wrap the cord of the cordless phone around someone’s neck, which made no sense at all.)

Despite Simon’s stellar career, “Rumors” has moments when his writing is just sloppy. However, this production is still fun overall and the opening-night audience was very entertained by the zaniness on stage.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Tempest

Hope Luna as Miranda (also played by Monique Lonergan) and Matt K. Miller as Prospero |
perform in Sacramento Theatre Company’s “The Tempest.”
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo

 When you cast Sacramento Theatre Company favorites Michael RJ Campbell, Gary Martinez and especially Matt K. Miller in anything, you know you will have a hit on your hands.

Such is the situation with the current production of “The Tempest,” directed by Aaron Galligan-Stierle, his first as director. The production, however, showed no evidence of a newcomer.

Miller is wonderful as Prospero, former Duke of Milan, deposed by his brother Antonio (Ian Hopps) and left to die on a raft with daughter Miranda (Monique Ward Lonergan in the production I saw. She shares the role with Hope Luna). All he is given is a box of books from which he has studied magic. The raft lands on an island, where he and his daughter have been for 12 years.

Prospero has cast spells over the island’s inhabitants. The spirit Ariel (Emily Serdahl), previously imprisoned by the late witch Sycorax, becomes Prospero’s slave. Serdahl is lithe and fragile-looking, playing a guitar to indicate when she is casting a spell.

Caliban (Atim Udoffia), a monster half-human-half-fish, is also enslaved by Prospero and becomes his muscle man. He is a bitter slave whom Prospero describes as “got by the devil himself.”
(It is an interesting casting choice, with Miller the very-white Prospero and Udoffia the very-black Caliban, which may upset some.)

In the midst of a tremendous storm, a ship is wrecked on the shore of the island. The scene features great effects by scenic designer Eric Broadwater and lighting designer Jessica Bertine, though it’s interesting that all the shipwrecked passengers arrive in clothes, designed by Jessica Minnihan, which are neither wet nor torn. Maybe some of Prospero’s magic?

The storm is a marvel, with tremendous wind blowing stage-height panels, strobe lights making convincing lightning and the music accentuating the sound of the wind, all while the actors do their best to portray being shipwrecked.

By fortuitous circumstances, the passengers on the ship include Antonio, Alonso, the King of Naples (Gregg Koski), his son Ferdinand (Sam C. Jones), brother Sebastian (Kevin Gish), and his adviser Gonzalo (Gary S. Martinez). There are also the king’s jesters, Michael RJ Campbell and Jake Mahler, who provide comic relief throughout the play.

This gives Prospero a chance to use his magic and cunning wiles to get his revenge on his brother. Miller’s Prospero, above all else a loving father working to make a match for his daughter with Ferdinand, comes across as less a vengeful king, but more a brother getting back at brother.

As for Miranda, she has lived on the island her whole life and her father is the only male figure she has seen, so this handsome young man sets her pubescent genes pulsing instantly.

Though the inhabitants of the island now are actually in three different places, there is little to indicate that in the set design, and it was sometimes confusing to figure out where exactly the current scene was taking place.

All’s well that ends well, however, and Prospero regains his status as king, the brothers patch things up, Miranda and Ferdinand live happily ever after, Arial and Caliban get their freedom, and Prospero gives a moving epilogue to the audience asking them to forgive him for his wrongdoing.


Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Concussed: Four Days in the Dark


I love Jack Gallagher.

No, wait a minute. I like Jack Gallagher very much. I learned that he is very selective about the people whom he claims to love, saving that term for those in his most intimate circle. Still, I can’t help but think that I really do love Jack Gallagher.

The comedian is opening his seventh one-man show and sixth for the B Street Theatre, his last being 2015’s popular “5 Songs,” a show about which he talks in this current production, “Concussed: Four Days in the Dark,” directed by Jerry Montoya.

Anybody who likes to bike (and who in Davis does not?) will relate to this story, which talks about Gallagher’s biking habits. In fact, the stage is set with huge interacting gears and a bike and the paraphernalia related to his love of biking.

It was, in fact, his love of biking that changed his life, and that ultimately brought about this show. Three years ago, while riding his bike home, he was hit by a car and three days later was diagnosed as having a traumatic brain injury.

The doctor ordered him to bed immediately. He was to stay in a darkened room with no stimuli whatsoever. No TV, no iPad, no radio, no internet, no nothing. He needed to give his brain a chance to heal.

This play, which is both touching and very funny, is like a free association of all the things you think of when you are trying not to think. His biggest fear was that he had lost the ability to find words.
Words are his life, and knowing how to find them, manipulate them, and the ability to cut and paste in his mind while doing a show to match the response of the audience was something he had done all of his professional career. What if he couldn’t do it anymore?

He was 61 when the accident happened, so he talked a lot about getting older, and the predominantly gray-haired audience laughed and nodded in agreement as he recounted, for example, how one gets out of bed when one reaches a certain age.

He talked of parenting his two sons, Declan and Liam, and what he wished he had done differently as a father. In fact, as he began to recover he took trips across the country with each of the boys, the northern route with Liam and the southern route with Declan, just being a couple of guys enjoying being together.

The experience of having a concussion, he believes, was transformative, and he says he’s become a better person as a result. He has learned the importance of being in the moment, not always living for the future. He learned the importance of speaking your love to those for whom you really love, and he even learned a little humility, now that he needs a few notes on stage during his 90-minute shows, something he was proud of not needing before.

(He admits that he can’t remember much about “5 Songs,” though one would not have known there was anything wrong, watching that show at the time.)

Gallagher is a remarkable comedian in that he knows how to work an audience, especially one like B Street, where the audience sits on three sides of the stage. At no point did anyone feel that they were just watching the back of his head. He had a way of unobtrusively involving everyone without being overly obvious about it. It was as if we were guests in his living room and he wanted to include all of us in his conversation.

He also made you feel like he was baring his soul just for you, while telling you that he is a very private person who bares his soul only to his most trusted friends and family.

Most in the audience were middle-aged or older but I think Gallagher’s humor would appeal to just about anyone. Well, maybe not to the two 20-somethings sitting next to me, one of whom slept through the whole show while the other thumbed through the program for 90 minutes. They missed something very special.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

How to Succeed in Business

One undeniable thing about the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s new production of the 1950s-era musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is that, at nearly three hours, it is definitely long.

It is also important to remember, in the 21st century, this is a somewhat historical look at what life was like in the 1950s business world, where nobody thought anything about sexual harassment and women only worked so they could find a husband and settle down in the suburbs to raise a family and “keep dinner warm” for their hard-working husband, trying to rise to the top.

With that in mind, enjoy numbers like “Coffee Break” — what happens when everybody takes their break and there is no coffee. This is one of the better numbers in the show, and is a wonderful example of Ron Cisneros’ always-fun choreography.

There are outstanding performances in this production, directed by Steve Isaacson. Daniel Silva is wonderful as J. Pierrepont Finch, the window washer who decides to climb the corporate ladder with assistance from a 1952 self-help book by Shepard Mead. (David Holmes is the off-stage voice of Mead as he reads aloud what Finch is reading.)

Scott Minor is the perfect president of the World Wide Wickets Company, J.B. Biggley, whose overpowering presence takes charge so that you don’t even realize what a fabulous voice he has until he joins with femme fatale Hedy LaRue (Sarah Kraemer) in a beautiful duet, “Love From a Heart of Gold.”

Kraemer is a Kewpie Doll kind of escort and could easily play Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.” Her job is to be the dumb mistress trying to find a place in Biggley’s corporation, and she does it well.
Chris Colbourn is the detestable Bud Frump, Biggley’s wife’s nephew, the worst case of nepotism. But Colbourn has made this role unique and you can’t take your eyes off of him when he tosses off one of his quips. It is a very memorable portrayal.

This is also an excellent vehicle for DMTC veteran Danette Vasser as Smitty, best friend of Rosemary (Jori Gonzales), Finch’s love interest. Vasser is also credited for lighting design and her pin spots for the angelic-faced Finch throughout the show are much fun.

As for Gonzales, she makes a lovely girlfriend for Finch, but her delivery often did not reach beyond the first two rows and it was difficult to hear a lot of dialog.

This is a surprisingly heavy dialog show, for a musical. Act 1 seems to drag a bit because of the length of time between the musical numbers, filled with dialog that may or may not be audible to the audience.
In the minor role of Miss Jones, secretary to Mr. Biggley, Chris Cay Stewart is the perfect stereotypical corporate secretary until she cuts loose during “Brotherhood of Man.”

“Brotherhood of Man” may be the best known of this musical’s numbers, written by Frank Loesser. It is the penultimate number in the show and will send the audience out with solid ear worms.

Veteran Mary Young, who sings in the chorus, is invaluable, lending her voice just a bit louder on those rare occasions when the women don’t quite hit the notes right. Like a herding dog, she gets them all back in order almost immediately, and then fades back into the chorus. It’s a marvelous bit of teamwork.

DMTC has a fun production here and it should bring lots of laughs for the audience.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Diary of Anne Frank


It is ironic that the Woodland Opera House is presenting “The Diary of Anne Frank” at a time when our government is rounding up illegal immigrants and putting them in detention centers and there is such controversy over refugees seeking asylum in this country.

Frank’s family tried to escape the Nazis by coming to the United States, but that opportunity was blocked by the government, fearful of allowing Nazi spies into the country,

We know, of course, that Anne died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Her dream had been to become a famous writer, and her diary has been translated into more than 60 languages and is perhaps one of the most famous books in the world.

The current production, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, newly adapted by Wendy Kesselman and directed by Dean Shellenberger, is a beautiful tribute to Anne Frank and to her family and their years hiding from the Nazis in the secret annex above Otto Frank’s office.

Rachel Trauner (Anne) has been part of the Opera House’s “Broadway Bound” program for several years, though she has appeared in only two musicals before, says her mother, who sat in front of us for this show.

Taking on such a huge role must have been daunting, but she brought Anne to life beautifully, the spirited 13-year-old who grows into a thoughtful teenager during her two years of concealment. She is mischievous, serious and thoughtful, and the real spark — and sometimes bane —of the family.
Set designer Don Zastoupil has created the claustrophobic world where eight desperate Jews hid for two years, keeping silent during the day and daring to “live” at night. Watching the eight practically climb over each other, with never any “alone time,” one gets a sense of what it must have been like as the group dealt with hope and fear at the same time, sometimes allowing themselves to laugh, often grieving the life they left behind.

Jessica Hanselman plays Miep Gies, an employee of Otto Frank, who was one of the handful of citizens whose assistance was vital to keeping the group alive. Hanselman gives Gies a gentle, sensitive portrayal though occasionally her projection lacked oomph.

Colin Coate plays Mr. Kraier, who assists Gies in bringing food and news to the extended family.
Otto Frank is played by Steve Mackay, the guiding hand and often calming influence on the others. Otto was the only survivor of the group, and the one responsible for bringing Anne’s diary, saved by Gies after their ultimate capture, to the world.

Analise Langford-Clark is his wife, normally another steadying influence but occasionally the pressure gets to her, too.

Gil and Lenore Sebastian play Mr. and Mrs. VanDaan, trying to hang on to their upper-crust lifestyle, while Mr. VanDaan deals with insatiable hunger and Mrs. VanDaan can’t bear to give up her fur coat, the last remnant of her former life, even if it means more food.

As Anne’s sister, Margot, Sammy Caiola is the epitome of a nerdy teenager who is slowly disappearing into her self as the conditions of their self-imposed incarceration become more overwhelming.

Mr. Dussel (Paul Fern) is a late addition to the group, a grumpy dentist who is the most troublesome, as he complains about everything and causes more conflict than perhaps anyone else, with the possible exception of Mr. VanDaan.

Hayden Taillon has the small role of Peter VanDaan, whose role in Anne’s diary was much larger, but Taillon plays the young man as a friend of Anne and a referee of his parents’ many quarrels.

Through Anne’s diary, this band of people have come to represent the millions who either survived or died during the Holocaust. In spite of it all, Anne never lost her optimism and perhaps her famous quote — “… in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” — is something we desperately need to keep in mind these days.


Friday, February 03, 2017

Kinky Boots


What do you get when you mix singer/songwriter Cyndi Lauper with actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein? You get glitz and glam and a fabulous production, with a pair of shoes at the center of it.

The long-awaited “Kinky Boots” is now causing toes to tap at the Community Center Theater in Sacramento. It is a non-stop singing, dancing extravaganza with more sequins than may have graced the Community Center stage in years. The colors! The lights! The music! All pour out over the audience, which caught them with whoops and cheers.

The story (yes, there is one) is actually based on the true story of a five-generation family factory (W.J. Brooks) in Northampton, England. The whole town made shoes, but because of cheap imports that flooded the market in the 1980s and ’90s, many companies were going out of business and Brooks was forced to cut his staff by more than half.

Just as all seemed bleak, the current head of the factory received a call that would change his life. A fetish store in Folkstone commissioned him to create ladies’ shoes for men. Soon, Divine Footwear was born, a subsidiary of W.J. Brooks dedicated to making “kinky boots.” By 1999, the specialty shoes made up 50 percent of the company’s revenue.

(A sad P.S. to the story was that an American company dumped a big debt on Divine Footwear and they were forced to stop production.)

But proving that there is a silver lining to dark clouds, out of that story came an indie movie (non-musical) and now this amazing musical production showcasing the music of Lauper, her first-ever Broadway show, which won her a Tony for Best Musical and Best Original Score, as well as countless other awards.

“Kinky Boots,” however, is more than just the story of rescuing a factory and creating fabulous shoes. It’s about a guy who thought outside the box and took a chance on doing things a little differently. It’s about how unlikely people overcame their differences.

It’s about how two men come together and end up healing each other and accepting each other. And in the end they end up accepting themselves too.

Curt Hansen is Charlie Price, who really isn’t into shoes and who wants to break with tradition and go to London with his social-climbing girlfriend Nicola (Katerina Papacostas). But life changes for him when his father (Tom Souhrada) dies suddenly and Charlie must decide what to do with the factory, and its employees, who have been his lifelong friends.

J. Harrison-Ghee, as Lola, is a force of nature as he bursts though a shimmering curtain and joins the rest of the dancers at a seedy London club where he first meets Charlie. He inhabits the drag-queen role with every ounce of energy he has, and an assortment of gorgeous wigs and costumes. Seeing him on stage is worth the price of admission alone.

In the Fierstein-Lauper version of the story, both men are victims of failed parental expectations, which brings them a bond of understanding, beautifully highlighted in one of the show’s most moving songs, “Not My Father’s Son.”

Each man has his own signature song that comes from the depth of his pain. For Charlie it is “Soul of a Man” berating himself for not being as passionate as his father, and for Lola it is “Hold Me In Your Heart” an accept-me-for-who-I-am statement in the manner of “I Am Who I Am” from “La Cage aux Folles.”

Surrounding these two men are a host of talented actors, including Aaron Walpole as Don, the factory worker who, after a rocky start, learns to accept Lola for who she is.

Rose Hemingway plays Lauren, the girl who has a secret crush on Charlie and who is his biggest supporter when things go wrong. Her “The History of Wrong Guys” was gut-wrenching, and perhaps more lyrical than any other song in the show.

All’s well that ends well and Lola’s “angels,” a sextet of drag queens, save the day in the rousing finale, “Raise You Up”/”Just Be.”

After all, there’s no business like shoe business.