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.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Becoming Dr. Ruth

Anne O’Sullivan got the audience’s attention right away.

“People don’t look at the elderly as sexual beings. … Worse, some older people don’t see themselves that way.” Since most of the people in the audience for the performance I attended had white hair, they were interested immediately.

O’Sullivan is playing famous sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer in a new play, “Becoming Dr. Ruth” by Mark St. Germain, now at the B Street Theatre, directed by Jerry Montoya.

Like Julia Child (who worked for the OSS during World War II), the diminutive Westheimer has a more interesting back story than simply that of a cute little old lady who likes to talk about sex. In fact, though she delivers sexual advice throughout the 90-minute show, sex is actually the least interesting part of her story. The very last thing this show is is salacious.

The setting is Westheimer’s apartment in 1997, shortly following the death of her third husband, Fred Westheimer (to whom she was married for 36 years and raised two children). She is preparing to move across town and as the show opens, she is on the phone talking to one of the movers, to whom she ends up giving marital advice.

As the lights come up and she notices the audience, she hangs up the phone and begins talking to those watching. As she packs various items into boxes, she reminisces about them and the memories they evoke.

Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Wiesenfeld, Germany, in 1928 into what seems to have been a close, loving Jewish family. Though not religious, she did get early training in Judaism by being taken to synagogue by her father, from whom she learned the lesson of always keeping a smile on her face and never allowing her negative feelings to show on the outside.

Her father was captured by the Nazis when she was 10 years old and taken to a labor camp shortly after Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass” when windows of stores, synagogues and homes were broken in the first night of a series of pogroms). Young Karola was sent to Switzerland under a program called Kindertransport, and thus avoided the fate of her family, all of whom eventually died at Auschwitz.

Life was not great for her in an orphanage in Switzerland and when she was 17, she moved to Palestine, where she lived on a kibbutz. She had her first sexual experience there … and liked it.
She joined the Haganah, part of the Israeli Defense Force, but because she was so short (4-foot-7) she was trained as a scout and a sniper. She was wounded by an exploding shell during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and it took several months before she could walk again.

The play continues to tell her experience trying to get an education in France and in the United States, where she eventually earned her teaching credential, something she had wanted all of her life.

Her first radio show ran for 15 minutes in 1980 and was immediately so popular that it expanded to an hour. The Dr. Ruth phenomenon was born, and continues to this day, where she still answers questions, but now through her website.

Director Montoya nicely moves Westheimer’s story through her apartment, designed by Alex Polzin. At all times, the audience feels like a visitor listening to a fascinating lady tell her story.

O’Sullivan honors Dr. Ruth and makes her a believable character rather than a caricature.

Some performances will have talk-backs following the show. Our talk-back featured a fascinating Holocaust survivor whose own story was as harrowing, or more so, than Dr. Ruth’s herself. By all means, stay.