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.