Thursday, August 10, 2017

Damn Yankees

From left, Dennis O’Bannion as Vernon, Dallas Padoven as Rocky,
Justin Keyes as Smokey and Stephen Berger as Van Buren
sing a number in “Damn Yankees,” produced by Music Circus
at the Wells Fargo Pavilion through Sunday, Aug. 13.
Charr Crail/Courtesy photo

The Music Circus has hit a home run with its current production of “Damn Yankees,” the modern-day version of “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” set in the dugout. While this is the seventh time Music Circus has presented this show, it is only the second time in the Wells Fargo Pavilion.

This Richard Adler/Jerry Ross musical, directed by Charles Repole, features Jason Graae as the devilish “Mr. Applegate,” who enters from beneath the stage in a cloud of red smoke and carries his own smoke with him, in case you forget from whence he came. (How did they do that? Kudos to costume designer Heather Lockard.)

For a production of “Damn Yankees” to really soar, one must have a terrific Mr. Applegate, the role made famous on both stage and screen by Ray Walston. Applegate should steal the show, and steal it Graae does. His signature song, “Those Were the Good Old Days,” was an all-out production number using all of the Music Circus raised platforms. It was a high point of the evening.

Applegate has been summoned unwittingly by Joe Boyd (Jeff Howell), a lifelong baseball fanatic, who dreams of a winning season for his beloved Washington Senators. After a particularly painful loss, he cries that he would sell his soul for a winning season.

Enter Mr. Applegate, gleam in his eye and a contract for Joe’s soul in his hand. Not only will he give him a winning season, but he himself can become the player who saves the team. Naive Joe makes sure he has an escape clause in case he decides this life is not for him and agrees, singing a bittersweet farewell to his beloved wife Meg (Lynne Wintersteller, last season’s Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly”).

The transformation from middle-aged, balding, pudgy Joe to tall, young, virile Joe (now called Joe Hardy, played by Zach Trimmer) is pretty impressive.

Meanwhile, the team is suffering the depression that comes with yet another loss and gets a pep talk from manager Benny Van Buren (Stephen Berger), who reminds them that all a team needs is “Heart.”

Applegate, in the guise of Joe’s agent, coerces Van Buren to give his client an audition. Joe, of course, impresses everyone with both his batting and fielding and is signed immediately to the team.

A reporter sent to get a story on the team (Danette Holden), is fascinated by Joe and determined to make him a star. She sees him trying to find shoes that will fit him and dubs him “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” Holden’s role is small, but she’s fun to watch.

With Joe at the helm, the Senators make a big turn-around and are on top of the league, heading into the World Series, but Joe finds he misses his wife and his old life and even manages to rent a room in his old house so he can be around her (“A Man Doesn’t Know”).

As Applegate realizes Joe is about to exercise his escape clause, he summons Lola from Hades to be a seductress. Lindsay Roginski slithers and shimmies and does all she can to seduce Joe, who is only centered on his memories of his wife. It may be true that “whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,” but not in this instance. Instead, she and Joe become friends.

Applegate sets up more roadblocks to keep Joe from returning home, but in the end, true love wins out over evil and Applegate must return to Hades.

If you love dancing, this is the show for you. Choreographer Michael Lichtefeld has created some great numbers, including “The Game,” a raunchy reminder of what players give up in order to focus on playing the game.

“Damn Yankees” is a fun show that should appeal to baseball fans, their long-suffering spouses and anybody who just enjoys spending an evening watching a bunch of talented actors give it their all.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

My Fair Lady


“My Fair Lady” has been called “the perfect musical.” The Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” opened on Broadway in 1956 and set the record for the longest run on Broadway up to that time.

It was followed by a hit London production, a popular film version and numerous revivals. It has won countless awards for the show itself and for many of the performers.

Over its 60-plus-year history, “My Fair Lady” has been a staple of community theaters around the world.

The Woodland Opera House production, which opened last week under the direction of Andrea St. Clair (who also choreographs), can add its name to the list of outstanding versions of this theater classic. With an exceptional cast, amazing costumes by Denise Miles, and a skeleton, but competent six-piece orchestra directed by Lori Jarvey, this show is a definite audience-pleaser.

Over the years, I have seen Rodger McDonald play numerous roles and have the impression there is nothing he can’t do well. Henry Higgins is certainly a role that seems made for him. He’s no Rex Harrison, of course, but as the stern taskmaster who takes the cockney flower girl under his wing, intending to turn her into a “princess,” he’s excellent.

In the light-hearted moments (like “The Rain in Spain”) it’s fun to see Professor Higgins let down his hair, and his “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” will break your heart.

David Cross is solid as Higgins’ colleague, Col. Pickering, who agrees to pay for Eliza’s lessons as part of a bet between himself and Higgins. Pickering is the man who makes Eliza realize how a lady should be treated.

Jori Gonzales, as Eliza Doolittle, is simply loverly. I loved watching not only her cockney and her “lady” but also the midway point, which took perhaps more acting.

Her best acting may be in the scene where she says nothing at all. As Higgins, his staff, and Col. Pickering are dancing and celebrating the triumph of the ball, totally ignoring Eliza, the look on her face was poignant and heartbreaking.

But stopping the show — twice — is the bombastic Brian McCann, as Eliza’s profligate father, Alfred P. Doolittle. He brings down the house in both acts, with “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

Freddy Eynsford-Hill is a thankless role. He’s a lovelorn nebbish whose real job is to serve as distraction while the crew is changing the set. However, Alex Grambow has a beautiful voice and is so hopelessly in love with Eliza that you can’t help but love him.

Charlotte French has not been seen on the local stage in a long time and even in the small role of Mrs. Higgins, she reminds us of what a force she has always been. Her “Bravo, Eliza” was a short line but definitely memorable.

There are wonderful moments throughout the show, but everyone’s favorite is always at the Ascot races. The costumes are fabulous and the hats alone are worth the price of admission.

The production is a real winner for the Woodland Opera House and if you have never seen it — or haven’t seen it in a long time — by all means get tickets and give yourself a real treat.


Friday, August 04, 2017

The Odyssey


Acme Theatre Company opened one of its stronger productions this week.

“The Odyssey,” an irreverent and witty version of Homer’s classic tale by Mary Zimmerman, is directed by Alicia Hunt, former Acme member, who made an amazing impression in her one-woman show, “Grounded” at B Street Theater two years ago.

“I’ve worked them very hard,” Hunt said, and it shows. This is a strong cast and other than the vocal projection problems in some of the actors, always an issue with Acme, the production is very good.
Don’t expect any help from the program, though. The names appear to have been printed in reverse alphabetical order with no rhyme or reason as to who comes on stage when. Unless a character is called out by name (by someone who can project), it is impossible to know who is who, especially in a dark theater.

And it doesn’t help that there is a typo in the program. Two are listed as Zeus/drummer, when Giancarlo Gilbert-Igelsrud is the only drummer. His drumming is essential to creating many of the scenes. He’s a treasure, with the very best costume of the night. All percussionists should wear flashy gold.

But enough of the complaints. The show opens when McKella van Boxtel walks on stage as a tourist trying to get the history straight and is transformed by two muses (Cassidy Smith and Emma Larson) into the character of Athena, who will help Odysseus (Ryan Johnson) through his travels home from the Trojan War, which ended 10 years ago.

Van Boxtel does a wonderful job, a master of disguise who becomes the ever-present being in Odysseus’ journey.

Smith provides vocals in several spots and displays a beautiful voice.

Odysseus is eager to get home to his wife, the patient and wise Penelope (Garnet Phinney), but Poseidon (Mez) is holding a grudge and refuses to let the hero return home. Penelope spends the show fending off suitors.

Johnson gives a powerful performance as the tortured Odysseus, whose return home involves encounters with characters like the enchantress Circe, the goddess Calypso and the Sirens, beautiful creatures who lure sailors to their death by their singing (Gracelyn Watkins plays both Circe and Calypso as well as one of the Sirens).

Waiting at home with mama Penelope in Ithaca is Odysseus’ son Telemachus, played by the Chris Colfer look-alike Grey Turner. At only 14, Turner is one of the youngest in the cast, yet gives one of the strongest and most memorable performances. This young actor is going to be a pleasure to watch as he moves through his time with Acme.

There is also an absolutely fabulous Cyclops eye for which the tech crew gets high praise.

Odysseus takes this journey home with his BFF Eumaeus (Rocket Drew) who is there at the end to get rid of Penelope’s many would-be suitors and convince her that Odysseus is, indeed, finally home.
This is a perfect show for high school-age actors. As director Hunt says “they are enduring experiences that high schoolers viscerally understand: loss, isolation, searching, adventure and, above all, the pain and beauty of love.

We are very fortunate in Davis that we have such an organization as Acme, which can get high school kids excited about learning the classics and working so hard to bring them to life.