Monday, February 24, 2003

How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

After watching the opening moments of Davis Musical Theatre's current production, "How to Succeed in Business without really trying," one might think a touring Broadway show had slipped into the Varsity theatre unannounced. David Holmes' performance as J. Pierrepont Finch, the ambitious window washer who climbs the corporate ladder to the top of the World Wide Wicket Company is that good. He is matched by an equally strong performance from Andrea St. Clair (who is also the show's choreographer) as Rosemary Pilkington, the woman who sets her cap for him.

It is only when the curtains part to reveal the modest set that one remembers that this is community theatre. Over the years, DMTC has given us some amazingly good productions and some not so good. "How to Succeed" is among the best.

Director Steve Isaacson and choreographer St. Clair have crafted a show which is sprightly and crisp and assembled a cast which does it justice. It would be untruthful to say that every performer delivers a professional quality performance--this is community theatre after all. But there are enough top notch performances that one forgives the less professional. The amazing thing is that Isaacson has wrung some of the best performances out of his less professional actors that I have seen since reviewing DMTC.

"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" is written by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, based on the Pulitzer prize winning self-help book of the same name by Shepherd Mead. This is not a musical with tunes you've heard all your life, but still songs like "I Believe in You" and "Brotherhood of Man" may be familiar to some.

The show is set in the 1960s, years before the phrase "sexual harassment" would enter the common vocabulary, and so it must be viewed in its historical context. "Leave your political correctness at the door," director Isaacson warns, but there is little offensive in this humorous look at big business of the day, other than a little leering at the secretaries, a situation which is handled nicely by a reminder that "A Secretary is not a toy."

As Finch begins to make use of his self-help manual, he finds ways of manipulating just about everyone. He convinces Human Relations director Ben Bruening that he has a personal relationship with the CEO, J.B. Biggley (Arthur Vassar), and Bruening agrees to give him a job in the mail room. (The reliable Bruening delivers a solid performance--and his diction is impeccable.)

In the mail room, Finch meets Bud Frump (Tony Kelly), the slimy nephew of Biggley and a firm believer in nepotism. Kelly is marvelously smarmy as the creep you love to hate, but he is no match for the clever Finch.

Finch finds a way to get on the good side of Miss Jones, Biggley's prim and proper secretary, who discovers that she really has a wild side. The indomitable jazz-singing, skat singing Lenore Sebastian is a knockout in a rare supporting role.

What would a big business story be without a femme fatale? Lauren Miller, as Hedy LaRue, fills the bill nicely. Miller, in her second performance with DMTC, is tall and beautiful and knows how to wear stilleto heels.

A wonderful find for the company is Megan Rose Garcia, as Smitty Rosemary's sidekick who is helping her win the hand of the oblivious Finch.

Gil Sebastian is deliciously funny in the dual roles of the retiring mailroom supervisor Twimble and the Chairman of the Board, Wally Womper.

Once again, the confines of the Varsity theatre leave little room for more than utilitarian sets, but Isaacson has made the most of what he has to work with. Of particular note is the on-stage elevator, through which just about every entrance is made, even into and out of the men's bathroom. ("If you have an elevator, use it," he says) The marvelous thing about the elevator is that it worked every's the sort of thing that is ripe for timing accidents, but there was nary a one.

Jean Henderson's costumes appropriately suggest office atmosphere, and she's had some fun with things like Smitty's opening act pink business suit and the vamp attire for Hedy.

St. Clair's snazzy choreography is irresistible. It will at the very least set your toes tapping, if you don't exit the theatre waving your arms in the air in the manner of a last act finale.

"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" is a real winner for Davis Musical Theatre Co.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

The Vagina Monologues

Imagine Meg Ryan multiplied by 15. That will give you a bit of the sense of 15 women simulating orgasm on the stage of the Varsity Theatre.

The event was Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," sponsored by the Women's Resources and Research Center, the Department of Theatre and Dance, and Campus Violence Prevention Program as a fund raiser for the upcoming "V-Day" (February 14). Funds raised during the run of this production will beneft the Family Protection Clinic of UCD Law School and the Hmong Women's Heritage Association.

This is the fifth time I've seen The Vagina Monologues in the past 12-15 months and the amazing thing to me is the wide variety in interpretation of the material. The piece, which grew out of interviews that Eve Ensler did with more than 200 women, recount the wide range of feelings that women have regarding that central portion of their anatomy.

Of the piece, Ensler explains, "I talked with hundreds of women. I talked to old women, young women, married women, single women, lesbians, college professors, actors, corporate professionals, sex workers, African American women, Hispanic women, Asian American women, Native American women, Caucasian women, Jewish women. At first, women were reluctant to talk. They were a little shy. But once they got going, you couldn't stop them."

The resulting script is funny, frank, poignant, and definitely contains "mature" material. The program explains that "performers read from the script to remind the audience that these are real women's stories."

Ensler performs it as a solo. Without Ensler, it has been usually done by three actresses sitting on the stage, each reading from the script. The UCD production, under the direction of John Lawton-Haehi (and assistant Shannon Davis) takes a different approach.

The curtain opens on fifteen women sitting in chairs or on the floor, dressed in shades of black accented by bright red feather boas (visually quite stunning). The material is then performed, sometimes by the group as a whole, each reciting a line or two, sometimes by individuals stepping out of the group to do a solo piece. The program does not list the names of the individual performers, which is a little frustrating for a reviewer.

This year's group consists of: Emily Grande, Jihna Ejan, Stephanie Sanchez, Marie Masson, sunny Nordmarken, Margaret McClellend, Antoinette Kohlmeister, Holly Rash, Keisha Sheffield, Jennifer Hoofard, Jaime Williams, Linda Rentner, Lauren Miller, Laura Gephart and Rebekah Piplo.

It's a more uneven assemblage than the previous cast. There are exceptional performances, and ordinary performances, and some who had difficulty with projection, so that their lines got lost in the vastness of the Varsity Theatre.

But, as the saying goes, "when they were good, they were very, very good."

Among the "very, very good" pieces was "The Flood," the story of a New York Jewish grandmother who is being asked about her "down there" for the first time in her life. The actress who brings this woman to life does so so skillfully that you forget she is a young college student and see, instead, the old woman she is portraying. The old woman is alternately appalled and delighted to be talking about her "down there," and in the end amazed that anybody would even be interested.

A piece I had not seen before, about the naming of vaginas was beautifully acted.

"My Angry Vagina" is very funny piece, given a bravura performance, about the indignities that vaginas are forced to suffer--everything from tampons to the "cold duck lips" of gynecological examinations. ("Why the rubber gloves? Why the flashlight all up there like Nancy Drew working against gravity, why the Nazi steel stirrups, the mean cold duck lips they shove inside you?")

Always a strong moment, "The Little Coochie Snorcher that Could" does not disappoint. A strong, striking actress recounts the story of a woman who grew up hating her vagina and how she learned to love it and herself.

The penultimate moment is a litany of types of orgasms, culminating in one gigantic triple orgasm for 15. The audience laughed and cheered.

The piece takes the audience to the depths of reality, with accounts of the rape of women in Bosnia and genital mutilation and then leads them out again with stories which are funny or just plain touching (such as the interview of a 6 year old girl. The actress playing the 6 year old is delightful).

While this year's offering does not have the impact of last year's, the sold-out house was on its feet cheering at the end and I don't think anybody went home unaffected. The cause is a good one. The play is a delight. And be sure to buy some of those chocolate truffles in the lobby before you go in!

Stars: 4