Thursday, September 28, 2000

Beauty and the Beast

It’s a tale as old as time: She’s the daughter of the crazy old town inventor, ridiculed by the townsfolk for her bookishness and her dreams of finding her prince charming. He’s a prince with a curse on his head, hiding his hideous form away in a creepy old castle, feared by the townsfolk because he’s “different.” The two outcasts find each other, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

The touring company of the Tony award-winning “Beauty and the Beast,” directed by Robert Jess Roth, opened Wednesday night at the Sacramento Community Center. This big, bold, opulent production had the audience, adults and children, totally captivated. Roth has managed to tell the simple love story with just enough glitz to keep it moving crisply and always entertaining, but never detracting from the message of seeing truth beneath physical appearance, or discovering the redemptive power of love.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a technician’s dream, from the lavish sets by Stanley A. Meyer which flew in from above, rolled in from the wings, swiveled on turntables or just hung there looking every bit like the real thing, to the lighting design by Natasha Katz, which included a marvelous moon-and-stars backdrop. And then there were the special effects--candles which ignited at a moment’s notice, sparkles, flashes, strobe lights, a headless kid who didn’t develop legs until the finale, and a transformation from Beast to Prince that would have done David Copperfield proud.

Danielle Bossardet is delicious as Belle, the spunky heroine, who, to save her father’s life, agrees to live in the castle of the Beast forever. Greg Norman as the Beast is fierce and then endearingly tender as his love for Belle grows.

Edward Staudenmayer, as the town hunk, Gaston, the muscle-bound fool who is determined to marry Belle, swaggers onto the stage like a combination of Jethro Clampet and Little Abner. He’s the villain you love to hate, and as male chauvenists go, none can hold a candle to this Gaston.

His hapless foil, Maurice (Ron Lee Savin) was a delight, with a body made of rubber as he is routinely whacked about the stage by Gaston, enhanced by the great sound effects design by Jonathan Deans. Each amplified “whack” is a reminder that this is really a cartoon, effectively brought to life on the stage.

The supporting players are a marvelous collection of cartoonesque characters. Cogsworth the fussbudget clock (Ron Bagden) and Lumiere, the Candlestick holder (Jay Russell) nearly steal the show with their antics and groaners like “You’ve cut me to the wick...” They are balanced nicely by Janet McEwen, a Debbie Reynolds-like Mrs. Potts, the teapot.

There are some gems in the smaller rolls, particularly Louisa Kendrick as Babette, the feather duster, and Monica M. Wemitt as Madame de la Grande Bouche. Ivy Fox, Amber Stone and Tia Marie Zorn as the three silly girls swooning for Gaston are likewise delightful.

The score by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, from a book by Linda Woolverton, will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Disney animated feature that was the basis for this show. There are six new songs added for the stage, with lyrics by Tim Rice, plus another song (“Human Again”) with lyrics by Ashman, which was cut from the movie.

Choreography by Matt West is a delight. It’s not easy to design for dancing pieces of furniture, but West does well and the familiar “Be Our Guest” is a show-stopper. Lesser known musically, “Gaston,” a drinking song with intricate moves involving beer steins, is absolutely fabulous.

Costumer Ann Hould-Ward won a Tony for her designs for “Beauty and the Beast” and it was richly deserved. Of particular interest are the increasingly intricate costumes for the servants-turned-household objects, as they come closer to permanently becoming objects.

This is a show which will amuse and delight children and adults alike, and at its end you will believe that miracles do happen, people can live happily ever after, and that inner beauty can tame the beast.

Friday, September 22, 2000

Best of Broadway

Glitz! Glamour! Tap dancers! Kids! A cast of over 200. What else could it be but Best of Broadway's musical extravaganza, "Lights on Broadway," opening last weekend to a near capacity audience in the Bert Chappell Theatre on the Hiram Johnson High School campus.

Now in its 28th season, Best of Broadway was the brainchild of Producer/Director David L. MacDonald, who saw it as a way to raise money for a local boys' home. Twenty-eight years later, MacDonald is still running what has become an annual event. It's "amateur" in the purest sense of the term--people doing something for the love of it--but there's nothing "amateurish" about this production.

From the opening, "Staying Alive," the start of a three-number tribute to disco, to the finale, with Mardi Gras revelers singing on the stage, in the boxes, in the aisles, and passing out necklaces to the audience, this is a non-stop delight. There is never a dead spot and the parade of local performers, which included the current reigning Miss Sacramento, Sherilyn Peek, is an impressive tribute to the talent in the Sacramento area.

MacDonald has chosen this year's material from some lesser known Broadway shows, giving the audience a chance to become more familiar with such works as "The Fix," "The Boy from Oz," "Hot Shoe Shuffle," and "Swing," along with old favorites like "Oklahoma," "The King and I" "South Pacific" and Carousel." In Act 2 a condensed version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was performed, ending with a lovely rendition of "This I Pray" sung by Kalynn Dodge.

While all of the principals were excellent, there were some outstanding performances. Randy Solario appeared in several numbers, but was best in "I've got to be a Rug Cutter" and "Go to Rio" (with the equally delicious Kathryn Skinner). Lisa Teeple brought a Betty Boop-like coquettishness to "How Lucky Can You Get." Joe Moss was the perfect "Song and Dance Man." Lynda Williams overcame some mic problems to give full voice to "Alleluia." Cheryl Debose brought down the house with "Sweet Georgia Brown." Eleven year old Christopher Carlson (late of the cast of the touring company of "Les Miserables") was an audience favorite with his "Bigger Isn't Better," from Barnum.

Just when you think surely the local talent bank has been exhausted, out comes an ensemble of some 70 children, all dressed in sequins and tap shoes, to perform "Don't Be Anything Less" from "Snoopy." The children were disciplined, professional, amazingly talented and showed the result of lots and lots of rehearsal under the direction of choreographer Gina Cox and choral director Wendy Frampton Holly. Keep an eye on the smallest little blonde in the center...she's adorable and every bit the professional.

"Lights on Broadway" is a tour de force for costume coordinators Gayle Battaley and Heather Strickler. There were sequins galore, fur, feathers, tuxes in black, white and blue, and even a tribute to "Cats," with those wonderful feline costumes. Six people are listed on the program as "backstage monitors" (under coordinator Judith Malkasian). One can only imagine the scene, as there were a number of very quick costume changes for large numbers of people.

Choreographers Diana Ruslin and Terri Taylor-Solario keep the action moving, with dance numbers that are interesting and varied, from disco to swing to tap to samba.

Dan Kern has created a simple but effective set which evolves from a disco bar to a cathedral to a mardi gras party with the simple change in draping of curtains or placement of lamps. A rose window is added to the balcony for "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" scenes, nicely back lit by lighting designer Dion Cook (who added a hint of twinkling candles in the interior of the "cathedral.") A separate fence piece is wheeled on stage for the "Cats" tribute.

Almost as much fun as the action on stage is the performance of sign language interpreters Christie Lindsay and Carol McConnell. Watching these women at work makes one understand how it is possible for the hearing impaired to actually feel the beat of the music and enjoy the rhythm of the production.

Production Coordinator is Mary Taylor, and Music Direction is by Mark Stivers, who conducts the 4 piece offstage band.

Performances are held at the Bert Chappell Theatre on the Hiram Johnson High School campus, 65th St. at 14th Ave. in Sacramento on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays through September 30. Ticket prices are $20 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. Tickets may be purchased by phone or in person via the Best of Broadway Box Office at 4010 El Camino Ave., Monday- Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 pm. or through any outlet. Call (916) 974-6290 or visit the web site at for more information.

Sunday, September 10, 2000


Each game of chess
Means there’s one less variation to be played

Appropriate lyrics for a show which has seen more variations than most. In 1980, lyricist Tim Rice developed the concept in a 5-page synopsis, exploring how the Cold War affected the lives it touched, much the same way chess pieces are moved about on a chess board

Rice’s synopsis was expanded and with music written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (both of ABBA), was first recorded as a “concept album” in 1984. The first staged production did not occur until 1986. There have been several rewrites, including an ill-fated 3 hour production which ran for only 68 performances on Broadway.

The version which was first presented in Chicago in 1990 is a splendid opener to the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s 16th season. Directed by Steve Isaacson, the production gives us pre-Glasnost stereotypes of good guys and bad guys, with a chess board as the battlefield.

Costume designer Jean Henderson sets the stage by dressing her good guys (the Americans) all in white and her bad guys (the Russians) in black, with red ties. The ensemble are in black or shades of gray.

The story follows two chess grandmasters--the boorish, self-centered American champion and his Russian challenger--through two matches, one in Bangkok and one in Hungary--during the last throes of the Cold War. The plot does not follow smoothly, from one scene to the next, so crisp diction is a must for understanding all the elements. Regretfully, this was not always the case in Saturday night’s performance.

The action begins in 1956 Budapest, where Gregor Vassy (Doug Ackerman, impressive in his DMTC debut), is hiding with other refugees, and teaching his young daughter Florence (Julia Spangler) to play chess. He arranges for Florence to be sent to safety in America, but breaks a chess piece in two, giving her half and keeping half for himself, as his promise that they will one day be reunited.

The scene shifts to 1985 Bangkok and a press conference for the two competitors in an impending international chess competition. The American, Freddie Trumper (played to the hilt by Jeremiah Lowder, in his DMTC debut) acts like an obnoxious jerk, irritating his opponent, Anatoly Sergievsky (Troy Thomas), and embarrassing his assistant, the now grown-up Florence (Andrea Eve Thorpe).

Tempers flare at the chess match itself and Freddie storms out after accusing Anatoly of somehow cheating. In attempting to smooth things over, Florence arranges for a meeting between Freddie and Anatoly. Freddie instead goes out on the town and gets drunk (“One Night in Bangkok”). When Freddie doesn’t arrive for the meeting, Florence realizes she has feelings for Anatoly and Freddie, arriving late, catches her in Anatoly’s arms. Anatoly apologizes and Freddie agrees to accept his apology but only because a fan has offered him $100,000 to continue the match. He turns abusive to Florence, who moves out of his suite.

In the middle of the match, Anatoly decides to defect to the west, aided by Freddie’s press agent, Walter (Clifton Wood). He takes Florence with him and when questioned by reporters, justifies his decision by explaining that my land’s only borders lie around my heart (from “Anthem,” beautifully sung by Troy Thomas).

Act two finds us in Budapest where we are asked to suspend disbelief and accept the fact that a Russian defector could safely travel behind the Iron Curtain only 3 months later to continue a chess match. For some reason which is not made clear, Walter, who aided Anatoly to defect, and who is really working for the CIA, is now working with Anatoly’s former assistant, KGB agent Molokov (Tim O’Laughlin) to convince Anatoly to return to Russia. In an attempt to pressure him, they arrange a meeting with Anatoly’s wife, Svetlana (Charlotte Mraz). Svetlana and Florence meet alone and admit that neither can give Anatoly all that he needs. They sing the hauntingly beautiful duet, “I know him so well,” a high point of the evening.

Anatoly is given many reasons for returning to Russia and must choose between his love for Florence and his love for his family. As he makes his decision, we realize that even international chess players are the pawns of their nation's diplomatic corps, security services, and marketing analysts.

The small DMTC orchestra does a superb job under the direction of Mark Ottinger II. Choreography by Tucker Tye Davis (who also plays the Arbiter) is particularly good in the Bangkok nightlife scene. The ensemble is strong, especially in the second act’s opening Hungarian folk song.

The set, designed by John Ewing, is a simple raked black and white chessboard, with the addition of neon signs (some even written in Thai) brought in for “One Night in Bangkok.”

Chess runs weekends through October 1 at the Varsity Theatre.