Wednesday, November 07, 2001

A Funny Thing Happend on the Way to the Forum

A funny thing happened on the way to the Varsity Theatre. And an even funnier thing happened inside the theatre, as Davis Musical Theatre Company kicked off its 17th season with "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and music by Stephen Sondheim

Director Bobby Grainger addressed the audience before the show began. "I've assembled a wonderful cast," he beamed. He had every right to be proud. The cast for "Forum" is one of the consistently strongest DMTC has seen. It would be difficult to find a weakest link.

Stephen Sondheim's most tuneful musical is a madcap musical sex farce set in ancient Rome and based on the comedies of Plautus (254-182 BC). It's presented as a play within a play and we watch the actors on stage get into character, begin the story, and step out of character from time to time for interaction with the audience.

The story centers around a crafty slave named Pseudolus (Brian K. McCann, Sr.), who desires his freedom and discovers a way to get it.

McCann provides the quality performance DMTC fans have come to expect from an actor who has given such memorable interpretations as Mr. Bumble in "Oliver!" and Juan Peron in "Evita." Pseudolus is the quintessential con artist and McCann plays him to perfection.

Balancing McCann's bombast is Hysterum (Aaron Gaines), the eunich who runs the house of Senex (Steve Isaacson), father of Hero. Gaines gives an interpretation which is believable and just effeminate enough, without going overboard.

Pseudolus' young master, Hero (Jason Stevens), is in love with Philia (Pheonix Vaughn [Derrick--yes it is "Pheonix", not Phoenix], a would-be courtesan (though still a virgin) in the house of Marcus Lycus (David Holmes). Pseudolus makes a bargain with Hero that if he can get Philia for him, Hero will grant his freedom.

The choice of Vaughn to play Philia was a perfect one. With ivory soap clear skin and wide eyes, framed by curly blonde hair and dressed in virginal white, she is the picture of innocence. When she sings "I'm lovely," we believe her.

Philia has already been sold to the great warrior Miles Gloriosus (Jeremiah Lowder), which means Pseudolus has a lot of conniving and weaseling to do if he's going to capture the girl for Hero and win his own freedom. Lowder is an experienced hand at doing "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," as this is his third production of the show. He was previously seen as a protean in one production and in another production as Hero.

Steve Isaacson tickles the funnybone as the henpecked Senex, a dirty old man who wants to sew a few wild oats while his wife Domina (Becky Luther) is out of town. His "Everybody ought to have a Maid" (sung with Pseudolus, Hysterium and Marcus Lycus) is one of the evening's highlights.

Adding to the fun is a series of mistaken identies and interesting chases which resemble a French bedroom farce. And, since this is a comedy, there's a happy ending, of course.

There are no minor roles in this show. The "Proteans," (Clocky McDowell, James Stark, Tim O'Laughlin, Aaron Rogers ) are jacks of all trades, performing all the smaller roles such as citizens and soldiers (but they are particularly effective as cupids) and are very funny.

There is also a houseful of wonderful courtesans--Laura Nelson as Tintinabula, Keri Newton and Kristen Heitman as the Gemini Twins, Lori Jones as Vibrata, Abby Johnson as Panacea and the statuesque Amy Graves, in the tallest-heeled leather boots imaginable, as Gymnasia.

Dick Mangrum as Erronius makes the very most of a small part and each time he appears on stage it is to a bigger laugh.

Mark Allen has created a delightful set, which combines the stately manor of Senex with the wildly decadent brothel of Marcus Lycus, which could easily have been plucked from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district during the 60s.

As always, the 8-member DMTC orchestra kept the tempos brisk, though there were moments throughout when the volume made it difficult to understand some of the lyrics.

Costumer Jean Henderson had a lot of fun designing this show, with togas for the citizens, military costumes for Miles Gloriosus and his men, and the wonderful costumes for the courtesans. A little body make up could have been used to cover up 21st century tan lines, but it's a minor complaint in an otherwise good looking show.

DMTC has picked a rousing start to its new season. It's a show with no message, except to sit back, relax, and forget about the troubles of the world for a couple of hours. You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, November 03, 2001

Little Shop of Horrors

If you find a strange plant which appears suddenly following a total eclipse of the sun, walk by and leave it alone. That seems to be the message of Director Peggy Shannon's sparkling new production of the high-spirited "Little Shop of Horrors," which opened Friday night on the main stage at UC Davis.

From the moment the "Do-Wop girls," high school drop outs who hang around Mushnik's flower shop "down on skid row" make their entrance, dancing in snappy precision, the audience knows it is in for a real treat. The girls are played by Antonia Carrillo McCabe, Georgia Boyd, and Linda Noveroske Rentner and act as a quasi Greek chorus, filling in the story between scenes. Each of the girls gets her own chance to shine in solo bits. Boyd in particular is a knockout when she gets "down and funky."

"Little Shop of Horrors, by lyricist/librettist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken (whose more familiar credits include Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," and "Aladdin"), is a musical adaptation of on the 1960's Roger Corman science fiction movie of the same name.

Its hero, Seymour Krelborn, is the timid employee of a failing skid row flower shop. Seymour was rescued from a skid row orphanage by the irrascible Mr. Mushnik (Adam Sartain), and has spent his life living in the flower shop, working for Mr. Mushnik, and hiding his love for the sweet, dippy shop girl, Audrey.

Seymour sees the chance to transform his life and win the heart of Audrey when the curious plant he has been nurturing flourishes under his care. The plant, which he names "Audrey II," is actually a talking creature from outer space and the only way to keep it alive is by feeding it human blood. When Seymour becomes anemic from Audrey II's nightly feedings, he is forced to find alternative sources of nourishment for the plant.

One could not find a better Seymour than Drew Hirshfield. The talented actor portrays the nerdy shop clerk perfectly, and with a rubbery body that would do justice to Ray Bolger, his physical comedy is marvelous.

Stephanie Gougé has captured the essence of the caricature of Audrey beautifully. Mincing around in high heels, with a generous décolletage, and a stiffly sprayed blonde hairdo, she embodies the essence of the naive shopgirl. Audrey yearns to leave skid row and live "somewhere that's green," dressed like Donna Reed and watching Lucy on "a giant 12" TV screen," but her lack of self esteem keeps her tied to a go-nowhere job with an abusive boyfriend. She is, after all, a "woman with a past" and unworthy of the love of someone as nice as Seymour.

Sniffing laughing gas and gyrating across the stage, Isaac Woofter as the sadistic leather-clad biker/dentist Orin Scrivello, is a real crowd pleaser. Woofter takes command whenever he appears, and he is the man you love to hate.

(Scrivello also plays two other minor characters. Notice should be given, as well, to Michael Yap, Jennifer Anson, Sam Tanng, and Hiroshi Osaza, who also play several minor charactes.)

Seymour gains the attention of the world when he begins to display Audrey II and when the plant begins to grow to monstrous size (special recognition needs to go to Bryan Martin and Jessie J. Eting, Jr. who give Audrey II life). Unfortunately, as it grows larger, Audrey II becomes more demanding and Seymour finds himself caught in a frenzy of greed and deception which spirals out of control. The results are both hilarious and harrowing.

At the end, the true mission of Audrey II is revealed and the audience is warned not to feed the plants.

There was no skimping on the set, the obvious recipient of much care and attention. Robert Frye has effectively created the look of a skid row neighborhood, with Mushnik's shop on a huge turntable which dominates the stage. (A particularly nice touch was a clock on the flower shop wall that actually changes time--an interesting challenge on a set which is always in view of the audience)

Music is under the direction of trumpet virtuoso Peter Nowlen, whose five piece band plays offstage, with projection of Nowlen himself on a screen under the light booth, to aid the singers to keep on beat.

Choreographer Sunny Smith has taken a group of mostly non-dancers and made believable dancers out of them. She has succeeded particularly well with the do-wop girls.

Clare Henkel's costumes are fun--from the drab, nondescript outfit of Seymour, to the provocative dresses of Audrey, to the glitz of the do-wop girls.

Shannon has created a tight, fast-paced production that never fails to delight. While there is no deep message here, "Little Shop of Horrors" is a fable of what can happen when you wish for it all, get it, and then have to deal with the consequences.

Thursday, October 25, 2001


While standing ovations have become the norm in this country for just about everything, it is rare that an audience rises to its feet as one body before the performers have even had a chance to come out on stage for their bows.

Such was the situation with Wednesday night's opening of Elton John and Tim Rice's Tony award winning musical, "Aida" at the Sacramento Community Center, as part of the first official national touring company. Seldom has such an ovation been more deserved.

With a uniformly excellent cast, it's difficult to know exactly where to begin, but it seems appropriate to begin with the visuals. The scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley and particularly the lighting design by Natasha Katz had a real starring role in this production. The vivid primary colored backdrops, the minimal but effective sets, an amazing sailing ship, and the incredible lighting effects for everything from a standout solo by Aida, bathed in a dozen spotlights, to inventive use of laser lighting and one special effect at the end, which I will not spoil by revealing here. Even if the cast had been mediocre, the show would be worth seeing for the stage design alone.

Fortunately, however, the cast is anything but mediocre.

Giuseppe Verdi it ain't, and those expecting a "Grand March" may be disappointed, but Elton John and Tim Rice have faithfully retold the well-known story (adding a new character, Mereb, Radames' Nubian servant, for what seems to be occasional comic effect). This is the classic love triangle of an Egyptian princess, Amneris, the captured Nubian princess, Aida, who has become her slave, and the noble Egyptian soldier, Radames, whom both women love.

As Aida, Simone (daughter of world-renowned singer, Nina Simone) is sheer perfection. She was firey as the princess who finds herself captured and treaded as a slave, tender in her love scenes with Radames, and an absolute knockout in her solos. The Act 1 finale, "The Gods Love Nubia," Aida's promise to her enslaved people that Nubia will never die, leaves the audience breathless.

An equal match for Simone is Patrick Cassidy (the youngest son son of Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy and brother of Shaun and David Cassidy) as Radames, who gives a powerful performance as the reluctant Pharoah-to-be, torn between his duty to marry a woman he does not love for political reasons, and his growing love for Aida.

Kelli Fournier as Amneris, acted both as narrator and as participant in the action. She's a princess interested only in clothes and fashion ("My Strongest Suit"), but acquires more queenly virtues as the play progresses. (Both Simone and Fournier are from the Broadway company of "Aida.")

An outstanding trio, both vocally and visually was "A Step Too Far," which opens the second act with the three principal characters describing how they find themselves entangled in conflicted loyalties and emotions.

Neal Bernari injected an incredible amount of power into his role as Zoser, Radames' father. He took command of the stage whenever he stepped into a scene.

Substituting in the role of Mereb, Tim Hunter gave a memorable performance as the Nubian slave who delivers Aida from the slave ship to the palace, and suddenly recognizes her as his princess ("How I know you"). He takes her to the Nubian camp, where her people plead with her to lead them.

It is also Mereb who guides Aida to the prison cell of her father Amonasro (Jerald Vincent), captured by Radames' army. Together the three plan an escape for Amonasro during the wedding of Radames and Amneris. To save her father and nation, Aida must betray the man she loves ("Easy As Life").

Amneris overhears a conversation between Radames and Aida, and discovers their affair, and that her upcoming marriage is a sham. Aida attempts to flee to Nubia with her father, there is a tragic end for the star-crossed lovers, but in this Disney-produced version of the story, there is also hope for future happiness.

Choreographer Wayne Cilento paints beautiful visual portraits with his dancers. Of particular note is a number featuring warriors dancing with bows and arrows, silhouetted against a red backdrop.

Robert Falls has directed a stunning, seamless production with a strong cast which will not disappoint any audience. You may not exactly go out humming the score, but you certainly will remember the look of this sumptuous production for a long time.

Sunday, September 09, 2001

Best of Broadway

Balloons fell from the ceiling, streamers fluttered from the balcony, a flag unfurled on the back of the stage, confetti was shot from cannons on the side of the stage, there were sequins and twirling batons and strobe lights and a glitter ball.

It was the 29th annual Best of Broadway production, opening September 7 and running weekends through September 22 at Luther Burbank Theatre in Sacramento.

This show is Aida meets Martin Luther King. It's the Davis Children's Nutcracker meets Busby Berkley. It's Broadway, Birmingham and Egypt. It's 100 kids dancing in Cat in the Hat hats and another 100 adult singers and dancers tapping, swinging, leaping, roller blading, and twirling. It's a blind chorister, a chorus of signers for the deaf. In other words, there's something for just about everybody. If you don't like what's happening on stage right now, wait 5 minutes and you'll see something different.

Best of Broadway is a not for profit arts organization dedicated to bringing a live theatrical experience to the community. It's goals are to educate through music, song and dance and to entertain and inspire local children, youth and adults. Judging by the nearly sell-out crowd, they have definitely met that goal.

Over 700 would-be performers auditioned for this show, which ultimately cast the best 250. These are the best of the best that Sacramento has to offer and it is a credit to producer/director David MacDonald, choreographers Kat Ashley, Diana Ruslin and Terri Taylor-Solorio and to the 150 volunteers who work behind the scenes that this musical extravaganza is able to be put together in only six weeks.

While there are a few weak spots, a sound system that was too loud and occasionally distorted, and some performers who were better than others, the strengths in this production more than compensated for its shortcomings.

Best of Broadway presents old chestnuts like "42nd Street" (the rousing show opener) and "Give My Regards to Broadway" (the finale), but in between MacDonald introduces the audience to new works they might not be familiar with.

By far the outstanding numbers of the evening were from "King," the musical story of Martin Luther King. Bill Miller as King brought down the house with his "Every Single Moment" and especially "I Have a Dream." As Coretta Scott King, Darlene Tellis-Muhammad could not have been better.

For those who cannot afford tickets to the touring company of Tim Rice's "Aida," Best of Broadway has devoted nearly half of the first act to musical numbers from this show. Yvette Gauff makes a regal Aida, and Ruben Serna is a studly Radames. Reggie Koffman is outstanding as King Zoser, singing "Another Pyramid." Irma Weldon completes the quartet as Amneris.

A lesser known musical getting lots of exposure in this production is "Grail: The Rock Opera of the Future." Excellent performances are turned in by Lea Shimonoff (in a wonderful black leather costume), Joshua Gonzales, and Justine Berger. A couple of dancers are to be complimented for performing on roller skates during "No There There."

Dancers also shine in "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" from "Mama Mia." Choreographed by Terri Taylor-Solario, this number features wonderfully graceful leaps.

Act 2 gives solo performers and small ensembles an opportunity to shine. Patricia Brennen, Kennaya Lambert, Annette Williams, and Angi Wolf were wonderful in "It's a Woman's World" from "The Full Monty." Brennen also belts out a wonderful "Over the Rainbow." Duane Lewis is impressive as he leads a chorus in "Gonna Build a Mountain" from "Stop the World"

A small group of dancers gyrates through a "Three Little Maids" from "The Hot Mikado" that both Gilbert and Sullivan would be hard pressed to identify.

Best of Broadway: A Musical Explosion is a technician's dream. More care is taken with lighting effects than one expects to find in a volunteer show. There are follow spots everywhere, and wonderful color combinations, all blending perfectly with the action on stage, and even turrets outlined in lights for the "Grail" segments. Lighting Designer Dion P. Cook has worked overtime putting this show together.

Costumes were coordinated by Karen Berman, Cathy Carpenter, Sheri Howe, Lenore Justman, Joan Pohlman, Diane Potter and Heather Strickler, who seem to have cornered the Sacramento market on sequins. This is a fabulous looking show and each number is more memorable than the last. When the entire cast appears on stage at the finale, dressed in red, white and blue and waving to the audience it is an amazing sight to behold.

Almost as much fun as the action on stage is the performance of sign language interpreters Christie Lindsay and Carol McConnell and a third woman who is unnamed in the program. 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. Their unison interpretation of "Give My Regards to Broadway" should win all three Elly nominations.

The Herculean task of Production Coordinator is handled adroitly by Mary Taylor. Music Direction is by Mark Stivers, who also conducts the offstage band. Diane Ford is the adult choral director, and special kudos to Erin Johnson, the children's choral director.

Performances are held at Luther Burbank Theatre, 3500 Florin Ave. in Sacramento on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays through September 22. Ticket prices are $22 for adults and $16 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.

Saturday, September 08, 2001

Sound of Music

At the curtain call for "The Sound of Music," which inaugurated Davis Music Theatre's 17th season, there were cheers and lots of flowers for the performers. The audience of friends, relatives, and long-time supporters were celebrating what DMTC does best: give local actors and actresses the chance to do what they love most. DMTC epitomizes the word "amateur" in its best sense: People who perform for the love of it.

And what's not to love in this popular musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein? The familiar tunes are those many have grown up with--"My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," "Edelweiss," and of course the title song.

"The Sound of Music," directed by Jan Isaacson, with musical direction by husband Steve, is a family affair. It features Wendy Young as Maria, the young postulant who leaves the convent to become governess for a family of motherless children. In her long history with DMTC, Young, who has been performing since age 7, played Liesl in a previous production of this same show. She has now grown into a mature young woman and was a warm and affectionate Maria.

Also in the cast is Wendy's mother, Mary Young as the blustery Sister Berthe, who struggles to find the answer to "how do we solve a problem like Maria?" Young has long been a favorite of DMTC audiences.

The Bruening family is represented by Ben, as an energetic Max Detweiller, the opportunistic entrepreneur who is determined to exploit the singing Von Trapp children for his own benefit.

Ben's wife, Noelle has several small roles, including the "Danke Lady," winning second place at the Salzburg musical festival. Her enthusiastic acceptance is very cute.

Two of the von Trapp children are played by real life brother and sister, Edward (Kurt) and Amber (Gretl) Bianchi. (the other children are Melody Davi as Liesl, Steven Garman as Friedrich, Maggie Roesser as Louisa, Julia Spangler as Brigitta and Ariel Pytel as Marta. Amber's mother, Jeannie, also plays the Baroness Elberfeld)

The von Trapp children are perennial crowd pleasers, and this group works together quite well, even if their harmonies aren't always right on.

Colby Salmon plays Rolf, the young Nazi torn between his love for Liesl and his dedication to the Fatherland. Colby's father Chris also appears on stage as one of the "Nazis/Party Guests" and also plays in the orchestra along with several other Salmons. (There are about as many Salmons in this production as there are von Trapps).

Reprising his role from the 1989 production, Warren Harrison is the rigid, widowed Georg von Trapp, a retired officer in the Imperial Navy. Since his wife died, von Trapp has strictly run his house like a militaristic, humorless naval ship - there is no time for play and his regimented children function like a troop of automaton-sailors. He learns from Maria what it is to be a father

Laura Parkes is outstanding in the supporting role of Elsa Schrader, who has her cap set for Georg until she realizes his obvious affection for the young Maria. This is Parkes' return to the theatre after a long hiatus, and one hopes this is the start of a long association with DMTC.

Dannette Bell, in the small role of Frau Schmidt, the housekeeper, is charming.

Janet McNeil, in her DMTC debut, gives a notable performance as the Mother Abbess, whose affection for Maria leads her to send the young girl off from the convent to find the will of God regarding her true vocation.

Cheryl Barker is making her on-stage debut as Sister Margretta, after years of playing piano in several DMTC orchestras.

The chorus of nuns has been well trained and brings back memories of Catholic school days and singing Gregorian chant. Their habits could be a little more uniform to make the picture complete, but one can't fault their singing.

Costume design is by Jean Henderson and one does have to wonder why the von Trapp children appear at the Salzburg Music Festival wearing the same clothes made from curtains which so upset their father in Act 1. But overall, Henderson has given us a good looking show--and Elsa's party gown is a knockout.

Sets by Steve Isaacson are minimal in spots, but the stained glass window for the convent was very impressive.

The notable thing about this production is the enunciation. Without exception every single performer could be heard and understood throughout the theatre. In these days of amplified performances, this is a rarity.

The expanded 19 piece DMTC orchestra, under Isaacson's direction, was excellent, and greatly added to the production.

Amateur groups don't always have the most trained voices or advanced acting skills but there's a quaint innocence and sincerity that lies at the heart of enjoyable theatre experiences. The connection between audience and performers at "The Sound of Music"'s opening night proves that this enduring musical will continue to draw large audiences. It's a wonderful show for children. And it is in the very best tradition of amateur theatre.

Stars: 3

Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Show Boat

The title on the program for Music Circus' final offering of the 2001 season says "Show Boat," but there were times during the interminable 3 hours when it felt more like "Titanic," and it would have been a blessing to let the captain go down with the ship.

Alan Young as Cap'n Andy, the captain of a showboat on the Mississippi river, is an embarrassment. Despite use of a body mic he could not be heard, which probably didn't matter, since he couldn't remember half of his lines anyway (and I swear was reading them from a script at one point, though supposedly in character, giving directions to the performers on the show boat stage). His Cap'n Andy had no personality whatsoever and he only became believable in the nightclub scene on New Year's Eve where he's supposed to be drunk and bumbling as he listens to his daughter Magnolia make her singing debut at the Trocadero night club.

It is a shame that the "name" performer for this production is so weak when there were others in the cast who are so strong.

At the top of the list is Derrick Smith, as Joe, a deck hand on the Cotton Blossom. His "Old Man River" was a show stopper and he received the highest accolades at the end of the show. But not even "Old Man River" could save this production.

As Joe's wife Queenie, Inga Ballard is outstanding. Queenie is a small role, but she stood out from the rest of the cast. Her duet ("Can't Help Lovin' That Man") with the showboat chanteuse Julie Lavern is terrific.

Beverly Ward and Kerby Ward as Frank and Ellie, the comic/dance duo are wonderful. Beverly Ward is a funny commedienne and the dance numbers for the two of them, especially the tap number, "Goodbye My Lady Love" were great fun.

Magnolia, the daughter of Cap'n Andy and his wife Parthy, who steps into the lead in the showboat's melodramas when Julie is forced off the showboat, is played by Dale Kristien. Kristien has an operetta quality voice and a face that could grace a cameo. She made a lovely Magnolia.

Marcia Mitzman Gaven gives an uneven performance as the singer Julie, who is of mixed race, but who passes for white until she is betrayed by a spurned suitor. She is re-discovered in Act 2, having fallen into decline. Though obviously under the influence of the liquor in the bottle she carries around before and after her singing the song "He's Just My Bill," the song is performed straight, with no hint of the ravages that alcohol have taken on her body and her voice. Though the voice is beautiful, the performance is not always credible.

Likewise there is an unevenness to the performance of Richard White as the river boat gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Though White sings well and seems to do everything right, he lacks the suave personality that one expects of Ravenal. There is little chemistry between him and Magnolia. He is at times so stiff that their love scenes might have been from one of Cap'n Andy's melodramas.

Patti Karr's Parthy, Andy's sharp-tongued wife, had some trouble with her lines as well, though it may just have been difficulty working off Young's Andy. It would have been nice to see some hint of real affection for Andy shine through that harsh exterior.

In a small bit of pantomime, Chris Weikel is outstanding and, along with Derrick Smith, was one of the highlights of the evening.

Abby Sassoon as the young Kim, Gaylord and Magnolia's daughter, was very believable, and provided one of the few scenes where Ravenal seemed to genuinely show affection.

Costumes designed by Dione H. Lebhar are lush and colorful and seem to be authentic down to the high button shoes. Parthy's dress for Act 2 was a knockout.

Once again Choreographer Bob Richard has provided an energetic, fast paced, well rehearsed, visually pleasant set of dances.

However, there is absolutely no excuse for Leland Ball's direction of this show. We were seated on the side of the house opposite the orchestra and must have watched 3/4 of the show from the back. One wonders if the actors were directed to face the orchestra, or whether they were so under-rehearsed that they needed the exaggerated conducting of Music Director Dennis Castellano to keep up with the tempo. Even when Ball used the turntable (which he did often), as the table would turn, the actors would pivot to continue facing the orchestra. At first it was annoying, and then it became irritating.

However, the coup de grace came in the final scene. For the dramatic moment when Gaylord and Magnolia are reunited after 20 years, Ball has placed chorus members in the aisles close to the stage, which effectively blocks large portions of the audience from seeing any of the action on stage whatsoever. I have absolutely no idea what Magnolia's reaction was because all I saw was the back of a chorus member's head.

For the price of Music Circus tickets, patrons deserve better than this show.

Stars: 2

Tuesday, July 24, 2001

Music Man

There were somewhat fewer than 76 trombones at the finale of Music Circus' opener, "The Music Man" Lawsuits by five people in the neighborhood prevented the traditional inclusion of a local high school band for the closing musical number. However, even without the splash that the addition of a band would have made, opening production to Music Circus' 2001 season does not lack for energy or enthusiasm.

Meredith Wilson's story of River City, Iowa and the effect of a
traveling salesman on small town life in early part of the 20th
century has been delighting audiences for decades and the current
production, directed by Leland Ball, does not disappoint. Ball's
direction makes use of every bit of space in the Music Circus tent,
imaginatively setting scenes in the aisles, giving the amazing Music
Circus tech crew the opportunity to rush onto the stage in the dark
and change the scenery. The end result is a high energy, fast moving
show which keeps the audience involved until the final notes.

Michael G. Hawkins commands the stage as Harold Hill, the con artist
who intends to bilk the town out of its money by selling them on the
idea of a boys band.

Sarah Tattersall is Marian, the Librarian who suspects Hill, but
succumbs to his charm, and to the difference he brings in the life of
her young brother, Winthrop. She has a clear soprano that soars in
numbers like "Goodnight, My Someone" and "My White Knight."

Michael Federan steals the show in his scenes as Winthrop, a winsome
lad with a lisp who is brought out of his shell by the notion of
playing a trumpet and marching in a band. Director Ball has given
Winthrop the chance to shine by doing backflips and walking on his
hands across the stage at one point.

Hannah Mae Sturges as the young Amaryllis sings a lovely duet with
Marian, nicely expresses her frustration in trying to be friends with
Winthrop, and she plays a mean "cross-hand piece" as well.

Another scene stealer is Casey Nicholaw as Marcellus Washburn, Hill's
accomplice. He dances a lively "Shipoopi," but is at his best in "The
Sadder but Wiser Girl."

Veteran Music Circus performer Lenny Wolpe is a marvelously droll
Mayor Shinn, whose malaprops and bluster make him the perfect
stereotypical small town mayor.

As his wife, Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn, Gina Ferrall is a delight. Her
ode to a Grecian urn or two is especially fun.

The School board--Michael Dotson, Bob Sutton, Matt Castle and Chris
Weikel--sing those great barbershop melodies and, with their
increasingly complementary costumes (ending with a white ensemble
trimmed in red, even down to the shoes), are wonderfully reminiscent
of that bygone era.

Brian Shepard and Mia Price as the lovers Tommy Djilas and Zaneeta
Shinn are cute and gawky and fantastic dancers.

Choreographer Bob Richard has assembled an energetic and talented
group of dancers and works well within the limitations of the small
Music Circus stage. Small numbers, such as "Sadder but Wiser Girl"
and "Pickalittle" are fun, but he shines in the bigger numbers like
"Iowa Stubborn," "Seventy-Six Trombones" and "Wells Fargo Wagon."

There is great difficulty in staging a show like "Music Man" in the
round. Much of the action does not lend itself to easily playing to
the entire house, and so we saw several scenes from the back side, but
Director Ball seems to have compensated for this by alternating the
direction in which the scenes are played--the gymnasium scene faces
one direction, the Paroo porch faces another, etc. When the action
lends itself to lots of movement, the set is a raised platform in the
middle of the stage, from which the action can rotate to face each
section of the house, in turn.

The sets by Michael Schweikardt are simple, but work well. Local
establishments are represented by signs which hang from the lighting
rig, the 4th of July celebration in the gymnasium becomes bunting
which is lowered to drape the upper portion of the stage, the
footbridge sets squarely in the middle of the stage and is easily
shuttled off by the hard-working tech crew.

"The Music Man" takes us back to the simple days when the town social
was the biggest event of the week, and when the arrival of a stranger
in town could set the town on its ear. You'll tap your toes and clap
your hands, and leave the theatre humming "76 Trombones." (But hum
softly so you don't disturb the curmudgeons in the neighborhood.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2001

Peter Pan

From the moment that Megan Houpt flies through the window of the Darling family nursery and onto the stage as Peter Pan, in the show of the same name currently being presented by Davis Musical Theatre Company, the audience sits up and takes notice. Houpt is wonderful as the boy who refused to grow up. She brings electricity to the role, and is able not only to walk and talk at the same time (and quite well), but also to sing and fly at the same time. She simply MAKES the production.

Peter Pan, closes DMTC’s 2001 season, and brings full circle 17 years of musical theatre in Davis. Seventeen years ago, Peter Pan was the first production done by this then-fledgling company, which now has 165 productions under its belt.

The current production is an example of DMTC at its best. Director Michael Miller, in his fourth production for the company, has assembled a very strong cast. In addition to Houpt, Rodger McDonald in the dual role of Mr. Darling (the father of Wendy, John and Michael), and Capt. Hook, the pirate out to get Peter Pan, is outstanding. He is a strong presence as Mr. Darling, but he excels as Hook, directing his pirate band in bumbling attempts to capture Pan, the Lost Boys, and the Indian Princess, Tiger Lily, yet terrified of the jaws of the crocodile who once ate the pirate’s hand and is always looking for a chance to finish the rest of the meal.

Michael Campbell as Smee, Hook’s right hand man, is very funny, as the delighted giggles from the youngsters in the audience will attest.

As the Darling children, Maggie Roesser (Wendy), Steven Garman (John) and Sarah Yablon (John) are wonderful. Roessner, in her DMTC debut, is a marvelous addition to the company. She and Houpt play well off each other. Yablon seems to be specializing in “pants” role early in her life. She was last seen as the young Tommy in “The Who’s Tommy.” She is adorable and completely convincing as a young teddy-bear toting young boy.

Vanessa Born is delightful to watch as Tiger Lily, particularly in the dance numbers, choreographed by Ron Cisneros. (Be advised that the Indian dialog is terribly dated and decidedly not politically correct. In an era where Disney Studios has refused to re–release “Song of the South” because of racial stereotypes, one questions the wisdom of bringing back this version of “Peter Pan”)

Others in the cast include Karen Day as Mrs. Darling and the grown up Wendy, Christina Day as Liza, Kelly Daniells as Jane, and enough actors of all ages as Lost Boys, Pirates, Indians, Trees, Animals and Shadow Dancers, to rival the Davis Children’s Nutcracker at the final curtain. There was some opening night nervousness and missed lines, but ones assumes that will improve through the run of the show.

Cisneros’ choreography is outstanding. Whether it’s Pirates dancing the tango or the tarantella or Indians doing what amounts to a close order drill, the dance numbers add immeasurably to the fun of the production.

Miller’s staging keeps the production moving at a fast clip, and also provides some stunning visual moments, such as one scene where the Indians are seated in a line across the top of a wall and down the steps, providing an notably artistic backdrop to the scene.

Costume design by Anna Johnson run the gamut from the plush red velvet of Hook’s costume through the rag-taggle clothes of the Lost Boys, to several animal suits. Nana, the nursemaid dog (played by Aaron Rogers) is wonderfully shaggy and huggable. Costumes for the lion (Scott Griffith), Ostrich (Heather Tinling), Kangaroo (Marc Valdez) and Bear (Wendy Young) are fun, though the ostrich bears a striking resemblance to a bald eagle. The best of the lot, however, is the crocodile. The marriage of costume and actor (Carrie Gifford) is reminiscent of the stage version of “The Lion King,” and both costumer and actor are to be congratulated.

Special mention should be given to Carrie Gifford, Ryan Gifford and Michael Miller, who are listed as “flight instructors.” Flying four actors around the stage at the same time can be a difficult and dangerous thing to do, but at least from the audience perspective, it all seemed to go off without problem. Miller has staged his flying sequences so that attaching and unattaching actors from the rigging is done as inconspicuously as possible (though it’s obviously not possible to entirely eliminate the sight of harnesses and cables)

Carol Callahan has created an imaginative set, which includes the Darling nursery, with a lovely brass bed for Wendy, and doghouse for Nana, and the Neverland forest, with cloth tree trunks which can be rolled up into the flies for a quick scene change to the pirate ship.

The small DMTC orchestra was again adequate in accompanying the production, but does make one wish for an orchestra pit.

When the Tinker Bell (clever use of a laser light) is in danger of dying, Peter Pan asks the audience to clap if they believe in fairies. The applause restores the fairy to life and all ends happily.

“Peter Pan” will make you believe in fairies. And in pirates, in Indians, and in little boys who never want to grow up.

Bring the kids and let yourself be transported back to Never-Never Land. It’s a trip that you will very much enjoy.

Sunday, March 04, 2001


Everyone remembers Maj. Frank Burns, the pompous, pedantic medical officer played by Larry Linville, on the classic TV show M*A*S*H. Linville lost a battle to lung cancer last year, but when alive, he developed friendships with members of the Winters Community Theatre.

As a tribute to Linville, Winters Community Theatre was given the opportunity to present the world premiere of a comedy, “Seeds,” written by Linville and his wife Deborah Guydon Linville. The show opened on Friday night at the Winters Community Center, under the direction of Howard Hupe. The opening was attended by Deborah Guydon Linville, several family members, and Linville’s longtime friend, Gary Burghoff (Radar in M*A*S*H).

“Seeds” is a modern day comedy which deals with the subject of artificial insemination. At its best, with a somewhat faster pace, it has the potential to rival a bedroom farce, with people coming and going out of doors and windows, double entendres, and secret sexual liaisons.

At its worst, the dialog stretches the bounds of credibility. With some tightening, it might have been possible to shorten exchanges so that they had a ring of truth to them, but alas, that was not the case here.

There are, in truth, many funny situations, and many funny lines. But a lot of the dialog concerning the secret revelations which unfold throughout the evening, just don’t work.

The action takes place during one evening at the apartment of Thomas (Chad Frazier), who is about to introduce his soon-to-be significant other Andrea (Gina Wingard) to his mother. Thomas has planned the perfect evening--champagne, pate, caviar, and dinner at a very exclusive Chicago restaurant. Andrea, anticipating a special “dessert” after dinner, has bought a silken nighty and the couple are looking forward to advancing their relationship to the next level.

Plans are disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Herb Darwin (an excellent characterization by Scott Graf), an eccentric and newly retired aerospace engineer. Herb claims that as a man alone, facing his waning years, he realizes that he has no one special in his life, and so he is trying to locate any children he may have fathered when he was earning money selling sperm to the “Onan Institute.” He claims that Thomas is his son.

It’s difficult to know if the problems with the ensuing scenes, where Thomas expresses ire and vehemently denies the facts presented to him are the fault of the script, or of the many line flubs on opening night. Suffice to say that they don’t work.

The group awaits the arrival of Thomas’ mother, Gloria (Diane Taylor), confident she will help everyone to sort out the truth. But it appears that there is more to the story than even Herb revealed and concerns a summer of love and a couple of flower children named Sunshine and Earth Dog.

This being a comedy, in the end everything is sorted out and the twists and turns of the plot have smoothed out, leaving everyone to live happily ever after.

There are nice little touches throughout the script, such as Thomas’ intermittent telephone conversations with the doorman, Carleton (a reminder of the old Rhoda TV series), and Gloria’s membership in the Daughters of Upstanding Heritage (DUH). But if Winters was the “out of town” tryout for this production, it needs a bit more reworking before it’s ready for the big time.

Ken Grubaugh, Bob Taylor, Larry Jutus, Howard Hupe and Gary Schroeder have created a nice utilitarian apartment scene for Thomas, and Jerry Cushman’s sound design, especially regarding Thomas’s remote controlled ambience enhancer is very well done.

Seeds runs through March 11 at the Winters Community Center, 201 Railroad Ave., Winters.

Tuesday, January 09, 2001

Our Town

Think back to a time before computers, a time before cell phones, a time before television. Think of a time when a date with your best girl was a soda at the drug store, and when the first kiss was a very big deal.

Think of Grover’s Corners.

Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire is the setting for Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “Our Town,” presented by Acme Theatre Company, under the direction of David Burmester.

The play consists of three acts, with three years between the first and second act and nine years between the second and third act.

The principal actor is the Stage Manager, who remains on stage the entire time explaining much of the action. He is aware of the present, and privy to both the past and the future. Jasen Oler handles the role of Stage Manager competently. He seems perfectly at home as he walks across the nearly bare stage, describing the town, painting the scene, and acting as a liaison between cast and audience.

In the first act we follow a typical day in Grover’s Corners, and meet some of its citizens, as they go about their daily business. George Gibbs (Chris Schmidt) and Emily Webb (Eleanor van Hest) are young adults, living next door to each other, best friends, going to school together, and sharing secrets, dreams, and homework tips, leaning out their respective bedroom windows.

Their mothers, Mrs. Webb (Emily Henderson) and Mrs. Gibbs (Eden Kennedy-Hoffman) spend a lot of time doing kitchen duty--preparing meals, stringing beans for supper, and making a home for their husbands and children, including George’s sister Rebecca (Alexis Beddard) and Emily’s brother Wally (James Henderson).

"Both of those ladies cooked three meals a day - one of 'em for twenty years and the other for forty - and no summer vacation. They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house ... and never a nervous breakdown. It's like what one of those Middle West poets said: You've got to love life to have life, and you've got to have life to love life... It's what they call a vicious circle,” says the Stage Manager.

The fathers, newspaper editor Mr. Webb (Pheelykx Guttenberg) and Doctor Gibbs (Nick Herbert) chat over the back fence and talk about the goings on in the town. We meet other citizens of Grover’s Corners--Howie, the Milkman (Steven Schmidt), Joe Crowell, the newsboy (Josh Nielson), and Constable Warren (Dylan Myles-Primakoff).

Act two is dedicated to marriage. We witness George and Emily falling in love and we are all invited to the wedding, which is attended by all the townspeople, including a very excited Mrs. Soames (Alaina Boys).

Act three takes place in the town cemetery. Emily has died in childbirth and is buried in the town's cemetery on a rainy, dreary day. There she is reunited with those friends and neighbors who have died before her, and who help her adjust to her new existence. Though Emily is granted one day to return to her old life, we watch her accept death as a natural extension of life and begin to disengage from life, as she finds peace in death.

One of Wilder’s requirements in staging “Our Town” is that the play must be done on a bare stage, with a minimum of props. In his notes to this production, Burmester expresses his desire to make this production different from Acme’s 1987 production, and so he turned to live sound effects. The sound technicians, Clarissa Lyons, Jessica Harris, Sarah Hartmeyer, Nick Herbert, David Markman, Rob Rogers, Steven Schmidt and Jake Stoebel have created a wonderful array of gate squeaks, bowl stirring, silverware clanking, and other sounds that you would find in daily life, but it unfortunately is one of those great ideas that doesn’t work in actuality. The sounds are very distracting and in some cases unnecessarily highlight a bit of pantomime that an actor may have forgotten.

But despite the distraction of the sound effects, Acme has once again presented a polished, professional production. In the end, its simple message teaches us the true value of life. As the Stage Manager says, "Whenever you come near the human race, there's layers and layers of nonsense .... We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names ... that something has to do with human beings."

Three more performances of “Our Town” remain--January 11, 12, and 13, 8 p.m. at the Veterans’ Memorial Theatre. Tickets available at the box office on the night of the performance.

Monday, January 08, 2001


Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist is hardly a story which lends itself to a sprightly musical. An orphan boy forced to slave in a workhouse until he gets sold to an undertaker, and who then runs away to join a band of thieves apprenticed to the crafty and cunning Fagin. It has poverty and child abuse and crime and murder. Not the typical stuff of musical theatre. And yet Lionel Bart’s adaptation has become one of the most beloved musicals of all time.

The elements that make this show work are the endearing children in the cast, strong principal characters, and upbeat musical numbers that keep the show moving along at a steady clip.

Unfortunately, there is nothing sprightly about Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of Oliver!, which opened this weekend. The tempos are slow and the show, at nearly 3 hours, drags terribly. However, despite tempo problems, Director/Choreographer Jan Isaacson has created a good looking, imaginatively staged, creatively choreographed production.

The children’s chorus, which opens the show, is small, but for the most part well disciplined, showing a surprising number of good voices for a group so young. “Food, Glorious Food” was a testament to the amount of hard work that the children put in to get the dance numbers right.

Nine year old Ed Bianchi in the title role looks the perfect Oliver. He has a wonderful stage presence and the perfect look of an abandoned waif. He was hampered in Act 2 by being put in a bed on the upper level of the set so that his body was not visible to a good portion of the audience, and his voice was not able to project over the blankets that covered him, but when blocked appropriately he was a delight.

Steve Isaacson was restrained by a cervical collar, but it did nothing to hamper his performance. Except for lacking any attempt at a British accent (which most of the rest of the cast managed to carry off very well), Isaacson’s Fagin was a delightful mix of evil and whimsy, struggling with some long-forgotten principles and trying to decide between his principles and his inherent greed.

The talented Colin Sphar brings a cocky assurance to the role of the Artful Dodger, Fagin’s right hand boy. He is a good actor who moves well on stage and has a strong singing voice.

Equally impressive were Brent Null’s Mr. Bumble and Lexie DeRock’s Widow Corney. Both had strong clear voices and played off each other very well.

Others in the cast included Tim O’Laughlin in a Mr. Sowerberry, a characterization which was almost more “wolfman” than “undertaker,” Sarah Null as Mrs. Sowerberry, Helen Spangler as Nancy, Megan Houpt as Bet, Tommy Callahan as Bill Sikes (not “Sykes” as spelled in the program--this reviewer is sensitive to the proper spelling!), Ben Bruening in the dual roles of Noah and Mr. Brownlow and Noel Bruening as Old Sally.

Act II’s “Who Will Buy” singers -- Savannah Scott, Christa Garnett, Tim O’Laughlin, and Brian McCann -- were exceptionally strong.

Mark Allen has designed a two-level set which functions well as an orphanage, the “Three Cripples” public house, Fagin’s hideout, or Mr. Brownlow’s mansion with the hanging a a few simple pieces and placement or tables. The use of a fog machine at two points of the show seems a bit out of place. While the intent was obviously designed to create the sense of foggy London, the noise and nozzle of the hose were distracting.

There were twelve instruments listed for the off-stage orchestra, under the musical direction of Steve Isaacon (no conductor is listed in the program), though the sound would make one question whether all 12 instruments were playing at the same performance.

Oliver! is a good family show which children and parents alike will enjoy. Its shortcomings are few and are more than compensated for by its strengths.


"With true love anything is possible--even miracles,” says Mr. Lundie, the wise old philosopher of Brigadoon (played with much dignity by Tim O’Laughlin). And therein lies the message Davis Musical Theatre’s production of the Lerner and Loewe musical, currently delighting audiences at the Varsity Theatre, through January 28th.

Director Steve Isaacson has created a sprightly, sparkling production, which moves at a steady clip and draws the audience in from the opening strains of the backstage chorus.

Isaacson has assembled a strong cast headed by Jaime Tvrdik as Tommy Allbright, the American who stumbles across the magical Scottish town of Brigadoon on the one day in 100 when it comes to life. Tvrdik, who bears an uncanny resemblance to David Letterman, is making his DMTC debut and is welcome addition to the company.

Tommy falls in love with the village lass Fiona McLaren (wonderfully played by Amanda Duran). Their duets, some of the more memorable Lerner & Loewe music (“It’s Almost Like Being In Love” and “The Heather on the Hill”) are outstanding.

Comic relief is provided by Tommy’s heavy-drinking pal Jeff Douglas, played by DMTC veteran Ben Breuning and by Meg Brockie, the lusty wench who sets her tam-o-shanter for him. What Jan Isaacson, as Meg, lacks vocally she makes up for in enthusiasm and energy, though she probably would have been better off not attempting a Scottish accent.

(For the most part, the accents used by the rest of the cast sounded authentic to an American ear and were carried consistently throughout the show.)

Supporting players were generally excellent. Dena Lozano is a sweet Jean McLaren, preparing for her wedding to Charlie Dalrymple (Seth Arnopole). Arnopole has a steady tenor, though his “Bonnie Jean” could have used a bit more volume.

Chris Garcia is the Hapless Harry Beaton, who threatens to leave Brigadoon and cause the town to disappear forever. His fight with Tommy stretches credibility a bit (Tommy can knock him down several times, but apparently can’t reach his arm to hold on to him long enough for the others to help bring him back to town), but it’s a minor point.

Dave Mauck as Angus MacGregor, Bruce Wallace as Archie Beaton, and Cliff Wood as Sandy each give strong performances (and special recognition should go to Brian McCann who, while not given a character name in the program, has several small solos and is outstanding).

A decided highlight of this production is the choreography by Amanda Duran. Program notes indicate that this is Duran’s first attempt at choreography and the professional results she has achieved would indicate that she has a real talent for the job. The dances were imaginative and the dancers well drilled. Particularly noteworthy was the sword dance, performed by Chris Garcia, Cliff Wood and Marc Valdez.

The DMTC orchestra was in fine form, and the addition of bagpiper Liz Steuber for the funeral of Harry Beaton was particularly effective.

Jean Henderson’s costumes give the right taste of an 18th century Scottish village, and the parade of tartans was a colorful display.

Set design was by Ron Easley and lighting design by Mark Allen.

At the end of Brigadoon’s day, Tommy must decide if he’s willing to risk all to stay with Fiona, or return to his own life and his fiancee (Noel Breuning) in New York and give her up forever. "It's the hardest thing in the world to give up everything...but sometimes it's the only way to get everything," advises Mr. Lundie. Tommy’s ultimate decision proves indeed that “with love all things are possible.”