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.