Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Rent

The cast rocks out singing “Season of Love” in Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of “Rent.”
The show runs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the
Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center, 607 Peña Drive in Davis.
The show has strong language, adult themes and drug references,
and is recommended for theater goers 13 and older. Courtesy photo

“Rent” was to the 1990s what “Hamilton” became to the early 21st century — a little-ish show that started Off-Broadway, took the theater world by storm and moved to Broadway, where it made show business history.

The show was written by Jonathan Larson, based partly on his own story (and Puccini’s “La Bohème,” with musical references throughout). Larson tragically, died of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, the night before the Off-Broadway premiere. He never got to know what a sensation his show became, how it had a 12-year run on Broadway and how it won several Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Now it has come to Davis. Steve Isaacson, the producer of Davis Music Theatre Company, proudly shared his two degrees of separation with Larson, who was apparently a friend of Isaacson’s drama teacher.

This production is directed by John Ewing, with musical direction by Kyle Jackson and choreography by Cynthia Krivicich and displays a DMTC phenomenon that I have observed over the years.

In its 34 year history, DMTC has made great strides in productions. The quality of shows has become quite good, some better than others. What I have seen, however, is that when the company produces a “new” show, especially a popular one such as “Rent,” which is rarely performed locally, all the best talent from all over the area show up to audition. Based on how many actors in this show are making their DMTC debut, this is obviously the case for “Rent,” which explains why this is such a uniformly excellent production.

It is the emotional story of young artists and wannabes in Manhattan’s East Village, looking for love, inspiration and a place to live. Critics praised it not only for its acting and musical components but for its representation of HIV-positive individuals.

Mark (Philip Graves) is a documentary filmmaker living with rock musician and recovering drug addict Roger (Jonathan Wertz), who is attracted to S&M club dancer and drug addict Mimi (Aimee Rose Santone). Their first meeting (“Light My Candle”) is right out of “La Bohème.”

Zany drag queen Angel (Ethan Mack), who has AIDS, saves Mark and Roger’s former roommate Tom Collins (Kevin Borcz) from a beating and the two fall in love, a relationship which is the most powerful of the show, showing the couple as being happy, with positive outlooks on life, rather than being resigned to their inevitable deaths. Following Angel’s death, Collins’ moving “I’ll Cover You” is the production’s most powerful moment.

That most of the characters have AIDS is subtly revealed at a dinner scene, where someone’s alarm goes off and most of the characters take out pill bottles. Today, when AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, the underlying story of “Rent” is a bit dated, but no less emotional.

Maureen (Cassie Mosher) is Mark’s former girlfriend and current girlfriend of lawyer Joanne (Chantel Aldana).

Benjamin “Benny” Coffin (Kyle Hadley) is an ex-roommate to Mark and Roger and now the landlord of the building in which they live. He has overlooked their rent for a year and is now demanding it or threatening to lock them out of the building.

The story follows the group from one Christmas Eve to another (the beautiful “Seasons of Love” opens the second act and is a highlight of the evening, a poignant acknowledgment of the passage of time and evolution of emotion).

The message of “Rent” is to live for the moment, soak up as much of “life” as you can because you never know how much longer you have to live. Instead of being an overriding sad situation, it is a salute to the love of the characters for life and for each other.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Shrek

“Shrek” is a fairytale turned on its head. The princess waiting in her tower to be rescued by a handsome prince actually has a terrible secret: The prince is a jerk — and the unlikeable hero is a scary ogre who hates everyone.

Making its Music Circus debut, “Shrek the Musical,” with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori is a fun couple of hours, filled with just about every fairytale character you’ve ever known to appeal to the kids; enough double entendres and bad jokes to appeal to the adults; and enough farting and belching jokes to appeal to everyone.

This is not an instant stage classic that we will be seeing again for decades, nor does it have memorable music (except for the closing number, Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer”). But for what it is, under the hands of director Glenn Casale, it delivers. Based on William Steig’s book “Shrek!” and the DreamWorks animated film, its ultimate message is that everyone is worthy of true love (except, maybe, the prince.)

The show delivers some really marvelous effects, particularly the spectacular dragon, created by Richard Bay (who designed 15 puppets for this production). The dragon swoops and flies and turns in circles on stage and above the stage and is amazingly lifelike, and surprisingly flirty.



Shrek (Jacob Keith Watson) is an ogre who was left by his parents in the woods on his 7th birthday (Michael Stark plays Young Shrek), with a package of supplies and good wishes that he find a life for himself.

He’s now all grown, totally anti-social and enjoying the privacy of his little swamp when he is invaded by all of the fairytale characters who have been thrown out of the town of Duloc by the evil Lord Farquaad (Steven Strafford). Farquaad is scheming to make Princess Fiona his bride so he can become king and steal her kingdom. Shrek agrees to help the characters if only to get rid of them and return to peace and quiet again.

“Donkey” (André Jordan, who played the role in the national tour which played here in 2011) makes a dramatic entrance, and begs to be Shrek’s sidekick in his search for Fiona. Donkey is annoyingly endearing and Shrek relents and lets him tag along.

There remains only to (a) find the princess’s castle, (b) make it across the treacherous moat and beat the fire-breathing dragon, (c) manage to get the princess out of a locked room many stories tall and (d) return her to Lord Farquaad.

Piece o’ cake.

Princess Fiona is actually played by three actresses: Mia Fisher as the young Fiona, Ella Bleu Bradford as the Teen Fiona and Kristen Beth Williams as the adult Fiona. This is no shrinking violet. She has waited many years for her freedom and is going to make the most of it. But she bears a terrible secret, which Donkey accidentally discovers.

Several of the lesser characters make an impact, primarily the whiney Pinocchio (Tyler Jones), whose nose grows and shrinks on stage without any visible assistance from Jones himself.

Along the way, there are some marvelous dance numbers, such as the rat dance number, a chance for Fiona to shine, and a song called “Build a Wall,” which brought out titters from the audience with lyrics like:

“I’m gonna build me a wall, I’ll make it ten feet high.
See ya later pal, bye-bye.
No one gettin’ in so don’t you even try.
A ten-foot wall.”

This is just a fun production, which teaches us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and self-acceptance is the way to happiness.

Parents should be aware that it’s rather long; so for younger kids, a matinée might be best.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Forever Question


I enjoy comedy, but I’m a tough critic. It takes a lot to make me laugh out loud. With that said, you should know that I laughed out loud throughout the entire first act of the new B Street production, “The Forever Question” by James Christy, directed by Lyndsay Burch.

The play, which won last year’s New Comedies Festival (a pool of 70 plays hoping to be chosen for a mainstage production this year), is about a couple trying to decide whether or not to have a second child.

Playwright Christy says the idea for this play came after he and his wife had their third child and he started to wonder, “How did I even get here?” Writing “The Forever Question” was his way of examining how becoming a parent changes your life forever — and why, having done it once, we ever do it again.

Actors Peter Story and Dana Brooke are stunning, playing the young couple, Mike and Carolyn, and, throughout the play, several other minor characters including her mother, his father, and his brother. They are so effective because all it takes is a small prop (like a beer bottle or a scarf) and a slight change of facial features to pop in and out of character.

This would be funny for anyone, but anyone who has a child — or more than one child — will especially enjoy it and find themselves remembering their early days of parenthood.

Through flashbacks, the couple remembers their first dating experiences and first sexual encounters. Back in today’s time, they make very, very funny observations about parents, babies, sex, childbirth and relationships between men and women.

Mike’s memories of his first sexual experience had the audience in stitches, and his attempts to prove to Carolyn that he understands menstrual cycles only get funnier and funnier.

Carolyn gives birth to their first child on stage — and you have to wonder how they did that as that basketball sized pregnant belly turns into a blanket-wrapped baby when it’s all over.

By intermission, everyone was laughing so hard that as the audience filed out to the lobby for a few minutes, even the usher was still laughing and sharing his own parenting experiences with people in his section of the theater.

I wish I could say that the second act was as good as the first. It was also very funny, but including the death of Mike’s father, the children growing into rebellious teenagers and both Mike and Carolyn facing the prospect of growing older, the laughs were further apart and not as hilarious. They were still tweaking the script on opening night, artistic director Buck Busfield explained, and I would love to return later in the run to see how it changes as it grows.

The scenic design by Samantha Reno is amazing. B Street asked for donations of toys to help decorate the stage and they received so many that Reno has built marvelous mountains of toys that rise up from the floor and hang down from the ceiling. The toys will be donated to children’s groups at the end of the run.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Beaux Stratagem

The romantic Dorinda (Sophia Nachmanoff), left, attempts to cheer up the grumpily
married Kate Sullen (Megan Abbanat) in Acme's free comedy “The Beaux' Stratagem.”

Restoration comedy, like George Farquhar’s “The Beaux Stratagem,” has always been something the Acme Theatre Company does very well.

Farquhar wrote the comedy in 1707. In 1939, it was partially adapted by Thornton Wilder (an Acme-favorite playwright), but abandoned with the outbreak of World War II. In 2000, Wilder’s 57 page manuscript was rediscovered and, with the permission of the Wilder Estate, Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Sullivan and Gilbert,” etc.) completed the work.

The Memorial Day weekend productions, which are free, have long been a gift to the city of Davis for all of its support of the young people’s theater company — the oldest in Davis (at 39 years, it beats Davis Musical Theatre Company by a year).

The current production is colorful, energetic and just plain silly. Sophia Nachmanoff has outdone herself with costumes that are deliciously over the top, particularly for Lady Bountiful, in an oversized hoop skirt so big and so broad that moving in and around the stage was particularly tricky, but done adroitly by Gavin Pinnow.

No one is credited for makeup design, but the white-face, bejeweled look for everyone was unique and fun, but with some male actors played females and vice versa, sometimes made it difficult to tell who was who.

The fun begins before the show actually starts, as the costumed actors invite the audience to join them in dancing to a Madonna tune. As the music ends, the performers run to the stage and the performance begins.

Jack Archer (Cory McCutcheon) and Tom Aimwell (Cypher McIlrath) are two young gentlemen who have squandered their respective fortunes and now plan to travel through small towns, entrap young heiresses and steal their money. To start, Aimwell poses as a gentlemen and Archer as his servant, the plan to switch on and off as they move to different towns.

They settle in at the inn run by Boniface (Kira Cubbage), whose own daughter Cherry (Sam Cubbage) is attracted to both Tom and Jack, but fears they are highwaymen, come to rob Lady Bountiful’s house

But right off the bat, the men’s plan goes awry when, in the first town, Tom actually falls in love with Dorinda (Nachmanoff), the daughter of the wealthy Lady Bountiful, who specializes in herbal medicine and amputation. She attributes her successes to the fact that her “patients” are so satisfied they never return.

At the same time, Jack makes friends with Mrs. Kate Sullen (Megan Abbanat) whose husband, Squire Sullen (Peter Syverson), is a cruel drunk who actually despises his wife.

In a parallel plot, Tom has a given the box containing the men’s last £200 to Boniface for safekeeping, unaware that he is part of a group of highwaymen, including Hounslow (Odie Lopez) and Bagshot (Emma Larson), who themselves plan to rob Lady Bountiful.

As the plot advances, it focuses more and more on Kate and Jack, who fall in love and want to marry, were it not that she is married, a situation eventually solved by the arrival of her brother, Sir Charles Freeman (Elie Bukowski), and all live happily ever after.

This production has many strong performances and the direction of Emily Henderson kept the action moving crisply at all times.

This is a great way to spend a Memorial Day weekend. Churros and other goodies are available to snack on at intermission and blankets available to rent if the weather turns cold.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Disney's Aladdin


If for some reason I had to leave the theater after the opening number of Disney’s “Aladdin,” now at the Sacramento Community Center, I would have been satisfied that I had already seen an amazing, albeit short, production.

“Aladdin” opens with color, with dancing, with music, with enough sequins to make Liberace happy and with more feathers than you’d find in an aviary. You meet the good guys and the bad guys, you experience a long, scary chase scene that would do credit to “American Ninja Warrior,” and you see amazing sword fights that only get better later on in the show.

Where do you go after such a breathtaking start?

Fortunately, the only way to go is up — and up they go.

Disney’s “Aladdin” is the stage version of the 1992 animated movie, featuring Robin Williams as the voice of the Genie. It’s your standard poor boy meets princess story that ends (spoiler alert) happily ever after.

In between, there is more dancing, more chasing, more sword fights, more incredible costumes by Gregg Barnes and lots of “you won’t believe your eyes” magic. Music is by Alan Menken, with lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin, and some of it is new to the stage production. None of the songs are particularly memorable, but are thoroughly enjoyable in context.

The role of Aladdin is played by Clinton Greenspan for four performances and by Jacob Dickey for the rest. Likewise, the role of Prince Abdullah, the Sultan, is shared between Albert Jennings and Charles McCall.

In the opening number, we meet Aladdin (Greenspan) and his buddies, Babkak (Zach Bencal), Omar (Ben Chavez) and Kassim (Colt Prattes), trying to steal from market vendors and hiding from the law.
At the same time, Princess Jasmine (Kaenaonālani Kekoa) is a very independent young lady, refusing to marry for money but determined to marry for love. She slips out of the palace and finds herself in the marketplace, where she meets Aladdin. Sparks fly and things look good until he is captured for shoplifting and she has to reveal her identity as the Princess in order to save him.

Watching all of this are the evil Jafar (Jonathan Weir) and his henchman Iago (Reggie De Leon, who steals most of the scenes he is in). They make a plot to take over the kingdom. All they need is someone who can go into an enchanted cave and steal a magic lamp for them.

The heretofore energetic production becomes frenetic when Aladdin accidentally rubs the lamp and frees the Genie (Major Attaway, who played the role on Broadway). With an almost constant patter consisting of jokes and terrible puns, milking the audience for applause, Genie dominates the show and his answer to Aladdin’s first wish (to be a prince) was just a tad over the top (maybe it was the 95 monkeys).

Sparks fly again when Aladdin and Jasmine meet once more, and their magic carpet ride was just that — pure magic — perhaps the height of the special effects.

There are more fights, imprisonment, redemption and getting your just desserts before Jafar’s evil plot is destroyed and Prince Abdullah agrees to allow his daughter to marry the pauper.

For those who like their musical instruments to be real instruments and not electronic wannabes, this show will satisfy every desire. The pit band is exceptional.

“Aladdin” closes out the Broadway On Tour series, as well as the Community Center, which will now close for renovation. The 2020 season will take place at Memorial Auditorium, 1515 J St., starting in January with “Dear Evan Hansen.”


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

{LOVE/logic}


  
Andrew Nicholls is UCD’s Granada Artist in Residence for Spring 2019. He comes with an impressive list of credits. He began writing comedy with Darrell Vickers in junior high, and the team wrote for TV, radio and stage, as well as for comedians and cartoonists. They have written for George Carlin and Mickey Rooney, and for NBC’s “Tonight Show” from 1986-92 as Johnny Carson’s head writers. They’ve since created 20 TV series and written over 400 episodes of children’s TV.

Now Nicholls brings his talents to UCD in “{LOVE/Logic},” directed by Josy Miller.

It’s not exactly a drama because there are so many funny situations and lines, though not exactly a comedy because there are serious situations as well. What is not under question, however, is its R rating, filled with adult themes, situations and language.

Rory Gaynor-Flynn plays twin brothers, Daniel and Michael. While he gives a good performance, his self-confidence grew throughout the play and it was nice to see a stronger performance by the end. (According to his bio, he is a neurobiology/physiology major studying to become a diagnostician, but he hopes that one day he can become a full-time actor, which may make him the perfect person to play this role!)

Daniel is a physicist, headed for a conference in Switzerland, when he meets Bronwen (Olivia Coca), another physicist. Through a series of interconnected things, the two become mirror images of each other, unable to physically pass by each other, speaking the same things simultaneously.

They sit on a large train car, designed by John Iacovelli — his final design for the department of theater and dance after three decades in the UC system. The train car breaks into two pieces, moving each piece to the side of the stage, allowing other set pieces to be brought onto the Wyatt stage. The stage crew (Tristan Atkinson, Riley Morris and Stephanie Nielsen, who also play minor characters) are dressed in train uniforms and move the set pieces with choreographed precision.

On the other side of the world is Daniel’s twin, Michael, who has an obsession with women, but who tries to convince Carol (Rabiya Oberoi) that she alone is the love of his life and if she will marry him, he will give up his philandering ways. Oberoi gives a strong performance and, before accepting his offer of marriage, Carol agrees to an odd way to prove that Michael remains faithful to her.

Reagan Price appears as Michael’s adult daughter, both before she is born and years later when she is really an adult. She’s there as his conscience.

Olivia Coca appears later as Elaine, a femme fatale determined to seduce Michael, in one of the raciest scenes in the play. Coca is so successful as Elaine that it’s difficult to find her other character, Bronwen, in her.

The program includes a glossary of what it admits are probably unneeded definitions, but thanks to the list, we can understand that Michael is using a multi-variable associative analytic analysis to predict the origins and result of his interaction with Elaine.

Says director Miller, “The play is a masterpiece in physical comedy and a simultaneous critique of contemporary gender and power relationships. Reality is many-layered, and actors embody characters real, imagined and that occupy the spaces in between.”

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Other Place


Melinda Parrett was born to play Juliana Smithton, a scientist whose research has led to a potential breakthrough which will change the lives of thousands of people. Parrett has the ability to play the cold, aloof scientist, the wronged wife, and, as the play progresses, the confused and terrified woman whose life seems to be unraveling — and do it flawlessly. What is even more remarkable is her ability to switch back and forth among those feelings seamlessly.

The structure of “The Other Place,” by Sharr White, now at Capital Stage, is a little difficult to get into, as it goes back and forth in time, with Juliana both the narrator of the piece and a character in it. But when you get the hang of it, it’s brilliant.

Things move quickly, thanks to the deft direction of Michael Stevenson, and even the many set changes are choreographed so that they are done quickly and do not slow the action at all.

We first meet Juliana at a convention in the Virgin Islands, where she has been invited to give a lecture on a new drug designed to slow the neurological degeneration associated with dementia. She is aware that as a woman she is not necessarily taken seriously by her colleagues, and she dresses the part in a business suit and begins her talk professionally until she spies a woman in a yellow string bikini sitting in the audience. The presence of the unspeaking woman becomes unsettling and eventually the object of Juliana’s derision.

Cut to an interview between Juliana and another woman (Jennifer Martin). We’re not quite sure what the interview is for yet. Through bits and pieces, we discover that she is in the process of divorcing her philandering husband, an oncologist (Jonathan Rhys Williams), who also serves as her doctor because she feels she is dying of brain cancer, as her relatives did before her.

Asked if she has flirted with ideas of suicide, Juliana sarcastically retorts: “Dating them, actually, but they won’t put out.”

There is a crisis involving their daughter, who left the home at age 15 many years before, and the man (Kirk Blackinton) with whom she supposedly left. Juliana has never seen their twins and is trying to set up a way to reconnect with her daughter.

Williams is wonderful as Ian, Juliana’s husband, who is either a philanderer or a frustrated devoted husband, strained to the breaking point, trying to help his wife. He is irritating at first, as the couple argues and he seems uncaring about Juliana’s condition, but as the play progresses and we understand his suffering, you can’t help but feel sorry for him.

These are the elements of the plot and how it all unravels, twists and turns, and ultimately climaxes at the couple’s “Other Place,” a house on Cape Cod. It’s an intense 90-minute drama that is both sarcastic and heartbreaking.

Blackinton and Martin play several different characters; Martin is particularly wonderful as the stranger surprised to find Juliana in her house, who is at first afraid and then sympathetic, responding warmly to Juliana’s needs.

It doesn’t give away the plot to reveal that some of these characters are real and some are not. It is nearly halfway through the play that the truth about Juliana’s condition slowly becomes evident.

Timothy McNamara is credited with scenic and projections design. The setting, indicated by what is seen out the windows on stage, was very effective as was the rain created by sound designer Ed Lee.

There seems to be a tendency to have more one-act, 90-minute plays these days, which can sometimes get to feel draggy by the time the play ends. This is not one of them. The action is crisp and nonstop, and by the end, there will be tears wiped away.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Pajama Game

Seven and a half cents doesn’t buy a heck of a lot, but it’s enough to write an entire musical about. ‘The Pajama Game,” on stage at the Davis Musical Theatre Company, is to classic musicals what “Mad Men” was to TV. It’s a dated world, where sweatshops exist, the boss is king and raises have to be fought for. Nobody has thought of MeToo yet, but harassment is rampant.

With book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, music and lyrics by Jerry Ross and Richard Adler, this Tony-Award-winning musical premiered on Broadway in 1954, the year that director Steve Isaacson was born. It was made into a movie in 1957, starring Doris Day and John Raitt.

You probably know most of the songs, like “Hey There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and “Steam Heat,” the latter the first Broadway choreography by Bob Fosse, showing the classic style which would be so recognizable in future musicals.

The action takes place at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, which has just hired a new superintendent, Sid Sorokin (Tate Pollock) who almost immediately butts heads with the grievance committee headed by Babe Williams (Morgan Bartoe). It’s not clear exactly how these two fall immediately in love/lust with each other, but it happens — though Babe vehemently denies her feelings (“I’m Not At All In Love”).

The grievance committee is concerned because they want a 7 1/2 cent per hour raise in pay. (The date of the show is shown when calculations showed that in a year’s time that would come to $852.74, which would buy a year’s supply of gasoline! It gave the audience a good, if rueful, laugh.)

Pollock says this is his “anniversary show” with DMTC, having started with last year’s “Guys and Dolls.” He has a nice charisma about him. Bartoe has a more meaty role than the feather duster she played in “Beauty and the Beast,” and she rises to the occasion. She has a beautiful voice and her duet with Sid (“There Once Was A Man,” written by Frank Loesser) was great fun.

Exter Hardy is very good as the big boss, Mr. Hasler, who wears a suit beautifully, but has the very best costume for the company picnic late in the first act. Costume designer Jean Henderson has a great sense of humor.

Hugo Figueroa is Heinzie, the timekeeper, responsible for making quotas and keeping the women working. He has the hots for Gladys, one of the secretaries, though is jealous of her relationships with other men. His duet with secretary Mabel (Dannette Vassar), (“I’ll never be jealous again”) is very funny.

Aimee Rose Santone is outstanding as Gladys, wiggling her backside provocatively at many of the males in the company. She, together with Maeve Kelly and Holly McGuinness do a great job with “Steam Heat.” Choreographer Kyle Jackson keeps the trio faithful to the familiar Fosse moves. (In a bit of fun facts, the program points out that the original Gladys, Carol Haney, broke her leg and chorus girl Shirley MacLaine covered for her. She was soon signed to Paramount Pictures, and the rest in is history!)

Matthew Evans is “Prez,” the head of the Union, and another candidate for MeToo attention. Doug Baker is Max, one of the factory’s salesmen. Amy Woodman is cute in the small role of Poopsie, but I was always afraid that her blonde wig was about to fall off.

This is a fun production and someone mentioned to me at intermission that she liked it better than the film, which has to be high praise indeed.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Disaster!

The cast of “Disaster!” includes, from left, Nicole Sterling, Tim Stewart, Natasha Hause,
Jamie Jones and Michael Cross. The Sacramento Theatre Company
production runs through Sunday, May 12.
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo
The laughter was so continuous at the opening night of Sacramento Theatre Company’s “Disaster!” that it was sometimes difficult to hear the dialogue. But that didn’t matter because the plot is more or less negligible to the zany nonsense going on on stage.

This jukebox musical, written by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick (with additional material by Drew Garaci), uses 27 popular songs of the ’70s like “I Am Woman,” “Feelings,” and “I Will Survive,” played by the five-piece onstage orchestra, to move the action forward — action that never stops, thanks to the nimble hands of director Michael Laun.

This is a parody of those silly ’70s disaster movies like “Poseidon Adventure,” “Jaws” and “Towering Inferno.” The setting is the opening of a new floating casino, and the first act pretty much introduces us to the players (a cast of 20 first-rate actors) who will be trying to escape the casino when disaster strikes in Act 2.

Tony (Tim Stewart), whose baby this casino is, has built it Trump-like, ignoring rules and regulations and taking shortcuts wherever possible. Professor Ted Scheider (Casey McClellan) is the disaster expert who knows what is going to happen but can’t get anybody to believe him. They’re all having too good of a time.

New York Times reporter Marianne (Melissa Brausch) is trying to write an article about Tony’s cost-cutting measures, which have made the casino unsafe.

Because there has to be a love story in there, Marianne runs into former lover Chad (Sam C. Jones) and the two rediscover their “Feelings” for each other, which may lead to their peril.

Lounge singer Jackie (Natasha Hause) is waiting for philandering Tony to pop the question. She has two children, Lisa and Ben, both played by Elizabeth Lamora (alternating with Kateyn Reeves), who proves that you can play two characters on stage at the same time if you stage it right!

The guests are great, particularly Nicole Sterling as Sister Mary Downy, a nun with a previous gambling addiction, trying to resist the lure of the slot machines as she attempts to let people know that if they gamble, they will go to hell. Her “Never Can Say Goodbye” is a highlight.

Maury and Shirley (Michael Cross and Jamie Jones) are a retired couple, celebrating Maury’s retirement (“You’re Still the One”). Shirley is a salute to Shirley Winters’ character in “Poseidon Adventure,” who ends up saving the young lovers. Winters’ character called on her swimming skills; this Shirley resurrects her skills as a former high school tap-dancing champion to tap out the morse code instructions to open a watertight door.

Miranda D. Lawson is Levora, a disco diva, who, in songs such as “Theme from Mahagony” and “Knock on Wood,” shows that she’s not quite ready for retirement yet.

Kudos to scenic designers Jarrod Bodensteiner and Renee Degarmo for creating realistic earthquakes and flooding, with the aid of Emma Bramble’s sound design and Craig Vincent’s lighting design.
If you like to laugh, and especially if you were a fan of either ’70s pop music or those crazy disaster films, this is the show for you!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Self - Unseeing





There’s a new theater in town and if its debut production, “The Self-Unseeing,” is any indication, we are in for some exciting shows in the future. The Happy Hour Theatre was founded by area natives Shenandoah Kehoe and Christi van Eyken in August of 2018. Kehoe grew up in Sacramento and studied theater at Sacramento State. Van Eyken is a Davis resident and an alum of the Davis High School drama program.

The Happy Hour Theatre offers opportunities for theater artists to undertake new challenges and expand their ability to make compelling theater.

The company has no permanent home at the moment, but this first production is held at the Black Box Theater in West Sacramento and the Palms Playhouse in Winters. In the immediate future, the company will perform at various venues, without a single home base.

In addition to using local actors and directors, the company plans to produce original works by community members as well as published pieces in order to give local playwrights a place to bring their words to life. Incidental music for each of the five plays presented in this one-hour production is written by local musicians The Bad Barnacles, Mark Butterworth, Band of Coyotes, Odd Moniker, Lucinda H. Cone and Taeko McCarroll.

The debut production consists of five short plays not original to Happy Hour Theatre and which have been performed at least once before. The entire production takes just one hour, and in the West Sacramento location, there is a happy hour in the café downstairs after the show.

“Don’t Bleed on Me,” by Andy A.A. Rassler, directed by Michael Sicilia, features Christine Nicholson and Luther Hanson as white socks in a washing machine, appalled when a colored athletic sock is tossed into the machine, concerned about the proximity of the bright colors and what they might do to the snowy white socks. It is a very funny bit, with not-so-subtle implications about discrimination. The ultimate solution to the problem is very clever — if only it could happen in real life.

“What Are You Going to Be?” written by Steven Korbar and directed by Acme alum Betsy Raymond, pits parents against a stubborn teenager determined to have her own way in the choice of a Halloween costume. Kathleen Poe and John Ewing are marvelous, trying to explain to daughter Natalie Evans why it is not a good idea to go trick-or-treating in a burqa. The surprise ending is wonderful.

In “Mendacity, or the Herd of Elephants in the Room” by Carlos Murillo and directed by Andrew Fridae, Mauricio (Doug Williams) has developed a very strange physical condition to the consternation of wife (Lisa Derthick) and son (Matthew Hurley). This is a very funny 10 minutes. While not in the least political, it will have you thinking of the current administration. The best line in the evening came from this play, where Mauricio describes his pain as “imagine passing a kidney stone during natural childbirth without medication.”

The final two plays are “Sold!” by Donna Hoke, directed by Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, a familiar name to Sacramento audiences, featuring Christi van Eyken, Chris Scarberry and Kathleen Poe, and “Paper Thin” by Lindsay Price, directed by Vernon F. Lewis, featuring Matthew Canty, Emily Vernon, Chris Scarberry and Shenandoah Kehoe. Each of them is unique and enjoyable.

Happy Hour Theatre is off to a terrific start. I can hardly wait to see what they come up with next.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

42nd Street



Someone who saw the opening night production of Woodland Opera House’s “42nd Street” (directed by Robert Cooner) told me that it was spectacular and that I would love it. I am happy to report that it is — and I did.

This formulaic Depression-era story of a girl from the midwest arriving in New York, determined to become a star, was first a Busby Berkeley movie vehicle for hoofer Ruby Keeler in 1933, with book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, lyrics by Al Dubin and music by Harry Warren.

In 1980, David Merrick decided to bring the story to Broadway, under the direction of Gower Champion. The stage version used only four of the songs from the original movie version and added songs from other musicals of the 1930s (including one by Hoagy Carmichael, uncredited in the current printed program). The end result was nominated for several awards in 1981 and won a Tony for best revival in 2001.

The cast of 22 fill the Opera House stage and most of them tap dance through several impressive numbers, each of which brings down the house. The best part was that there was nobody out of line — they were as in unison as a murmuration of starlings. Choreographer Staci Arriaga may be the real star of the show!

The central figure of the story of Peggy Sawyer, played by Ernestine Balisi (who played this same role with Davis Musical Theatre Company in 2017). She arrives in New York, wide-eyed and fresh-faced and certain she’ll immediately get cast in a big Broadway musical. She can dance up a storm but has never been on stage before.

Michael David Smith plays Billy Lawlor, the tenor of the show-within-a-show. Smith is a huge bundle of talent in a less-than-huge body. He’s a triple threat — he sings, he acts and he dances up a storm. He and Peggy have an instant rapport and there is hint of a budding romance, though that is not the focus of the story.

Scott Martin is terrific as Julian Marsh, the producer who believes the show, “Pretty Lady,” is going to get him back on top again, after a series of less-than-successful shows. When counting heads, he realizes that he is short one chorus girl and so Peggy, who just happens to be on the street in front of the theater, is chosen, seeming to learn all the dance routines instantly.

Patricia Glass plays Dorothy Brock, an aging, fading Big Name whose sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (David Cross), has backed the production so that his girl can have another hit. While she has a great voice, she has two left feet and so choreography has to be revised so that others can dance around her to hide the fact that she can’t dance.

Lenore Sebastian and Gil Sebastian are Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, the songwriters for the show, offering comic relief throughout. These local favorites do not disappoint and, in fact, Lenore gets some of the biggest applause at the curtain call.
When an accident takes Dorothy Brock out of the cast, Peggy is chosen to be her replacement, in two days, under Marsh’s direction. Marsh is a harsh taskmaster and when Peggy gets the jitters before the curtain goes up, he utters those immortal lines: “Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you. You’ve got to go on, and you’ve got to give and give and give….You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.”

Nothing like a little pressure!

I won’t spoil the show by revealing how it ends, but let’s just say lots of tapping and arm waving are involved.

It’s all very silly, and involves a lot of suspension of disbelief from anyone with even the vaguest inkling of what goes into producing a Broadway show, but what the heck: The important thing is getting from one musical number to the next – and everybody does this exceptionally well.

Woodland offers consistently fine productions and this one exceeds even their own normal standards. Try not to miss it!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Vietgone

Some time ago, I was chastised by a reader for not warning of “adult language” in a production. So let me say at the outset that if you are upset by adult language, you want to skip “Vietgone,” now at Capital Stage. But if you do, you will be cheating yourself out of a very special theatrical experience.

Is this the new look of American theater? It’s a hilarious comedy that can move you to tears in emotional moments. It’s not a musical, yet entertains with “Hamilton”-esque rap numbers. In place of actual sets, there are projections that enable the story to flip back and forth in time and place and include video news footage from the war era. It even includes a fantasy ninja warrior battle.

While it is contemporary in its examination of stereotypes (both Americans and Asians), and the treatment of immigrants following the Vietnam war, it certainly echoes life today.

As Producing Artistic Director Michael Stevenson completes his welcoming message, he announces that a “special guest” will also speak. Actor David Crane introduces himself as the playwright Qui Nguyen and begins to give an explanation of what might seem confusing about the play, which he describes as an “action sex comedy.”

He explains that though we hear the characters speaking English, they are really speaking Vietnamese and when an American character appears, you’ll know he is American because he will spout American nonsense like “Yee Haw! Get’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle, fries, cholesterol, NASCAR, botox, frickles,” the translation of which will be obvious by the response from the Vietnamese. It is an interesting switch of life and history from the Vietnam perspective, which we rarely, if ever, see.

The story centers on two characters, Quang (Jomar Tagatac), a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, who was unable to bring his wife and two young children out of Vietnam and longs to return, and Tong (Rinabeth Apostol), a Vietnamese refugee, whose fiancée was left behind in Vietnam and she whom knows she will never see again.

Tong came to America with her sharp-tongued mother, Huong (Michelle Talgarow), with strong feelings about America, American food, how Tong should act and the men she should date. Talgarow also plays several other characters, as do Anthony Chan and the aforementioned David Crane.
Quang finds a dilapidated motorcycle, which he repairs and, with this friend Nhan, heads for California. Along the road, the two have one of the funnier sequences, when they taste burritos for the first time and decide that maybe not all American food is terrible.

Kudos to, I assume, Christa Kinch, who gets credit for Properties Design, for the great motorcycle which is ridden all over the stage throughout the play.

For Quang and Tong, it is lust at first sight and their relationship is strictly a physical one until they begin having feelings for each other, something both of them fight.

Director Jeffrey Lo has a deft hand at letting the relationship between the two grow until we see the inevitable — Quang’s conversation with their son some 20 years later.

The play gives the audience a chance to witness American culture as seen through the eyes of immigrants, to hear that for the immigrants the war is over and done with and they are moving on, while Americans hunger for more and more details about what happened in the past.

“My life is more than the eight years I fight,” Quang tells his son. “All I hear is politicians using Vietnam as a symbol for a mistake. ‘If the president not careful, this will be another Vietnam.’ This is not how any Vietnamese wants Vietnam to be remembered….let me tell you about the people. But if you only wanting to know about war, then go rent a movie.”

This is a unique production that is well worth seeing.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Inherit the Wind

Henry Drummond (J. Toney) interrogates a potential juror (Tyler Tufts)
as the judge (Greg Lanzaro) watches. Courtesy photo
Though they have done a few dramas in the many years I have been reviewing productions of the Winters Community Theatre Company, I think of them as doing mostly comedies, with the occasional musical. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I learned the next production was going to be Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s “Inherit the Wind.”

Coming off the stage and into the director’s chair for the first time, Rodney Orosco promised the audience “a good show…maybe a great show.” In all honesty, it was not a great show, but it was a very good show.

Most people know that this is the story of the trial of Thomas Scopes (called Bertram Cates in this script), the teacher who had the audacity to teach his students about evolution instead of creationism in 1925. It is sad to realize that many of the things shouted by conservatives in 1925 ring true in 2019, nearly 100 years later. At the time this was known as “Godless science versus fairy-tale notions.” I’m sure somewhere someone is preaching the same sentiment today. We have not evolved as quickly as expected.

The Scopes trial pitted two of the legal giants of the age against each other — three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (called Matthew Harrison Brady in the play) and Clarence Darrow (known as Henry Drummond).

The impact of the play rests on the performance of these two characters. If they are not strong, the play can fall apart. How fortunate Winters is to have two impressive newcomers in the roles. Will Oberholtzer gives a towering performance as Brady, the self-professed Biblical scholar who defiantly defends fundamentalism. Brady is the more bombastic of the two and Oberholtzer is captivating.

J. Toney’s Drummond is more laconic and sarcastic, but no less effective. He gave a spellbinding interrogation of Brady, whose slow but continuous wilting under the questions was perfect. Brady’s physical condition was hinted at by the attention of his wife (Ana Kormos) throughout the first act and his reaction to the courtroom heat was so realistic, we almost wanted the theater to turn on the air conditioner.

(Toney’s daughter Cameron — last seen in last year’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” — plays the town’s mayor.)

Winters regular Philip Pittman was E.K. Hornbeck, the reporter who covers the trial and arranges for Drummond to represent Cates at the trial. This was another strong performance. Hornbeck knows he is a controversial figure (“I am admired for my detestability”) and uses his reputation to his advantage.

Defendant Cates hasn’t much to say or do, but Spencer Alexander did it well, projecting his concern about his future as well as his feelings for Rachel Brown (Elizabeth Williams, alternating with Sierra Winter), daughter of the town minister, Jeremiah Brown (Tom Rost). Rost is always outstanding and makes a convincing minister, denouncing his daughter as a creature of the devil for her feelings for Cates.

There is a large cast, and Tyler Tufts outdoes himself by playing two characters being interviewed for the jury, one distinguishable by his impressive mustache.

(Also doing double duty is the suitcase, which a reporter (Laurel Brittan) carries in, and off stage, brought back on again minutes later by Rachel, bringing clothes to the jailed Cates.)
Among the many town characters, Germaine Hupe adds comic relief by her many shouted epithets at both Cates and Drummond.

There is a simple set dominated by a stage-wide backdrop by Jeff Hesemeyer. It’s an impressive piece, a vision of the town of Hillsboro, Tenn., strangely reminiscent of the town of Winters itself, both the Putah Creek Café and the Buckhorn easily identifiable.

The debate of creationism vs. evolution continues today and one wonders how many more decades this play is going to remain contemporary.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Flora the Red Menace

If you know the musicals “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” you know the music of the songwriting duo John Kander and Fred Ebb. But you may not be familiar with “Flora the Red Menace,” their first collaboration.


Now is your chance to see this seldom performed show in a sparkling production at Wyatt Pavilion, under the direction of Mindy Cooper, professor of theater, and Granada Artist-in-Residence Judy Blazer, an acclaimed veteran of Broadway and regional theater. Graduate student Diego Martinez-Campos collaborates with Cooper on the choreography (he also performs in the show). Graham Sobelman provides music direction.


At a talkback after one of the performances, Cooper explained the choice of this musical was precisely because there is so little available about the show on the internet and she felt it was the perfect opportunity for the actors to create their own characters without trying to copy something that had been done before.


The show originally appeared on Broadway and won a Tony for Liza Minnelli, making her Broadway debut. It only ran for 87 performances but was revived off-Broadway, with a new book, in 1987, and it had better success.


Though set in 1935 in the midst of the Depression, the story resonates with today’s young people, struggling with many problems, yet with a renewed desire to work to make the world better.


Flora Meszaros (Talia Friedenberg) plans to be a fashion designer and applies at Gimbel’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Altman’s before finally applying at Garret and Mellick’s where she meets Harry Toukarian (Nathaniel Challis), a fellow artist, who stutters when he gets nervous.


Friedenberg’s Flora is a positive thinker, knowing she is somehow going to “make it” (“The Kid Herself”), though not quite satisfied when its seems that she does.


“When it all comes true
Just the way you’d planned
It’s funny but the bells don’t ring”


(It should be noted that none of the songs in this show ever made it into the popular repertoire, though they are fun to hear and in places show where Kander and Ebb will go in the future.)


Harry confesses that he is a communist and may be one of the most likable communists you’ll meet outside of “The Americans.” He is earnest, sincere and knows that he will help change the world, as he urges Flora to “Sign Here” and join the party.

Flora invites Harry to come to her artists’ cooperative loft, which is shared by several other struggling artists, including Kenny (Martinez-Campos) and Maggie (Aubrey Schoeman), dancers who are looking for a big break. They have several fun dance numbers, like “Keeping it Hot.”


Sophie Brubaker adds great passion and comic genius to the role of the uber Communist, Charlotte, especially impressing the others with her acts of the week (“Just Tuesday in the subway I threw a rotten egg/I called a man a fascist and I bit his daughter’s leg.”)


Things become more contemporary in lines like ”Don’t worry, there’ll never be another crash” and the chorus:

“There are people out there with no shoes on their feet 
Who shelter in doorways in snow and in sleet. 
And they search through the garbage 
to find something to eat.”


Flora’s dedication to the party is tested when she must make the choice of whether or not to cross a picket line to correct an error she made that will cost 33 people their jobs. Her decision will affect both her dedication to the party and her relationship with Harry.


Special notice must be made of understudy Katie Halls, who learned everyone’s part and then one day before the opening, filled in on some scenes for one of the actors who had some physical problems. You’d never know that Halls had not been cast in the role from the beginning.


This may not have the pizzazz of Chicago or Cabaret, but it is nonetheless fun to see how Kander and Ebb got their start, and the production is excellent, so this is the way to see it!

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Oliver!


Continuing the celebration of its 34th season of musicals in Davis, the Davis Musical Theatre Company opened an excellent production of “Oliver!”, the musical version of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson with musical direction by David Williams.

The production is blessed with several superb performances.  Recent health problems have prevented Steve Isaacson from taking meaty lead roles lately and I’d forgotten what a truly good actor he is.  He dissolves into the character of the criminal Fagin so fully that you imagine that this is what the role was always meant to be.

His gang of youthful pickpockets – Katherine Berdovskly, Katarina Deltrick, Ailani Gentles, Sage Greenwood, Lexy Hutcheon, Audrey Rycerz and Ruby Schwerin (also orphans in the opening scene) are well rehearsed and wonderfully choreographed.  Audrey Rycerz is the youngest in the cast (her mother Rachel is the housekeeper Mrs Bedwin).  For one so tiny, she was amazingly consistent, knew every word and didn’t miss a beat in any of the dance numbers.

Brian McCann is always a winner and his Mr. Bumble, the beadle of the workhouse where Oliver Twist is raised, is outstanding.  His pairing with Dannette Vassar as the widow Corney, matron of the workhouse, is inspired.  The imposing stature of McCann and the diminutive stature of Vassar make for bits of humor not possible in other productions.  Their “I Shall Scream” is particularly funny.

Also outstanding is Elliot DeJong as the Artful Dodger. A member of the Young People’s program, DeJong is moving into main stage productions and it’s easy to see why.  He dominates in most of his scenes and takes the stage confidently.

Gabriel Mark plays Oliver and while he has a beautiful clear voice (that can hit all those high notes in “Where is Love”) and is a winsome actor, he is having too much fun on stage and needs to learn that starving orphans don’t have smiles on their faces when being chased by the beadle, or when being threatened by the evil Bill Sikes (Jesus J. Madrigal).  If he learns how to compose his facial expressions, he will be an outstanding Oliver.

Hanna Van Noland, is Nancy, the girlfriend of the villainous Bill Sikes (not Sykes, a common spelling error) who ultimately becomes Oliver’s protector, at her own peril.   She has a strong voice and is appropriately emotionally torn in the lovely “As long as he needs me,” where she describes why she remains with an abusive partner.

Deborah Bromley is Mrs. Sowerberry, who with her husband (David Muerle) owns the funeral establishment where young Oliver is sold.  Bromley has an ear piercing shriek.

(Bromley is also a member of the ensemble while Muerle later pays Mr. Brownlow, the man who rescues Oliver after he is arrested for stealing.)

Steve Isaacson and Kimmie McCann are the set designers for this production.  There are many sets, the set for Brownlow’s home the most beautiful of them all.  The cast is mesmerizing as they move the huge pieces around in the dark, as coordinated as a choreographed dance number.  The size of the pieces does somewhat slow the pace of the total production, but it’s worth it.

At the conclusion of opening night Steve and Jan Isaacson were presented with 35 red roses, in honor of the 35th anniversary of the decision to start a theater company.  Both Isaacsons pointed out the importance of the “family” this all-volunteer company has become.  The capacity audience gave them thunderous applause.


Thursday, February 07, 2019

STOMP

If the guys with brooms in the 10-minute opening segment of “STOMP,” now at the Sacramento Community Center, were to take a trip up north and apply their expertise to a 240,000-acre forest, they could wipe out all the debris on the floor in short order.

“STOMP” is a 90-minute, nonstop action-filled show where one learns that just about anything — from garbage cans to plastic bags, to matchboxes —  and even the kitchen sink — can be incorporated into a segment.

Nearing its 40th year, “STOMP” is a unique combination of percussion, movement and visual comedy, created in Brighton, U.K., in the summer of 1991, the result of a 10-year collaboration between its creators, Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas.

Its success has to have been a “gotcha” nod from all those pot-banging kids whose mothers told them to stop making all that noise.

The group first worked together in 1981 as members of the street band Pookiesnackenburger and the theater group Cliff Hanger. Together, these groups presented a series of street comedy musicals at the
Edinburgh fringe festival throughout the early ’80s.

After two albums, a U.K. TV series and extensive touring throughout Europe, Pookiesnackenburger also produced the highly acclaimed “Bins” commercial for Heineken lager. The piece was originally written and choreographed by Cresswell as part of the band’s stage show; it proved to be the starting point for the “STOMP” climactic garbage can dance. (It’s worth checking out “Heineken bin commercial” on YouTube!)

In 1991, Cresswell and McNicholas first created “STOMP,” previewing at London’s Bloomsbury Theater and premiering at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, where it became the Guardian’s Critic’s Choice and won the Daily Express “Best of Fringe” award.

Between 1991 and 1994 the original cast played to capacity audiences around the world, from Hong Kong to Barcelona to Dublin to Sydney.

“STOMP” began its run at the Orpheum theater in New York in February of 1994 and quickly went on to win both an Obie and a Drama Desk award for “Most Unique Theater Experience.” By the summer of 1994, the first American cast was in place at the Orpheum, freeing the original cast for sellout tours of North America and Japan. The company made a special appearance at the Academy Awards in 1996, with an original piece involving live synchronization of classic film clips and onstage action, featuring 20 performers from all five nominated movies.

“STOMP” performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in an after-midnight performance as part of President Clinton’s millennium celebration and later there was a Muppet-“STOMP” collaboration for

American television.

In 2006, the New York production passed its 5,000th performance, and in 2011 as it entered its 18th year at the Orpheum Theater, beating the previous winner at that theater, “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Most recently, 40 performers from 12 different countries appeared together in the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic games.

The program lists 12 performers, men and women, in the cast: Kayla Cowart, Jonathon Elkins, Desmond Howard, Alexis Juliano, Guido Mandozzi, Artis Olds, Jeremy Price, Krystal Renée, Ivan Salazar, Cade Slattery, Steve Weiss and Joe White.

It is impossible to tell who is who, other than “the guy in the baggy pants who got the audience clapping, the girl with purple hair, the childish guy with the odd hat,” etc.

There is also no program credit for the multi-level set design, but on stage is a metal wall hung with all sorts of noisemakers, from hubcaps to highway signs to oversized plastic bins.

Steve McNicholas and Neil Tiplady are credited with lighting design, and the lights playing a huge role in the feel of the show. Some of the best numbers were lit from each side of the stage, casting large, eery shadows on the theater walls and giving it the effect of some ancient tribe dancing by the light of a fire in a cave somewhere.

Choreography for numbers with brooms, wooden sticks and a number of other things rivals the synchronization of the Rockettes.

There was audience involvement, too, as increasingly more complicated hand claps were demonstrated so the audience could respond — and respond they did.

Not surprising, there was an enthusiastic standing ovation as the group appeared on stage for one final encore.

“STOMP” was last here in 2008, so it is unlikely that it will return again soon. Take the opportunity to see it while you can.