Thursday, January 27, 2005

Big River

Over the past decade or two, we have become more accustomed to seeing sign language interpreters at rallies, theatrical productions, on television, perhaps a rock concert...anything that helps the Deaf person to enjoy the event. I have long admired the skill of these people who can bring an appreciation of music to those who have never heard a note.

American Sign Language (ASL) is one of the most commonly used languages in the United
States, other than English. It is the most popular foreign language study for students in colleges and universities across the country. Some schools offer bilingual education in ASL and English.

The Tony award-winning production of “Big River,” adapted from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by writer William Hauptman and the late country music songwriter Roger Miller, and under the direction of Jeff Calhoun, is at the Sacramento Community Theater for two weeks, through February 6th.

This production is presented by The Deaf West Theater and its cast includes deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors in a fascinating new art form which combines speaking, signing, gesture, song and dance. The lead roles are taken by both Deaf and hearing actors, the lines and singing for the Deaf actors being done by speaking actors while the Deaf actor is the actual performer. So seamless is the combination of non-speaking actors and their speaking counterparts that it was near the end of Act 1 before I realized that the speaking actors were actually on the stage, and woven into the action itself.

The play is opened by Mark Twain (Adam Monley), who explains that this is a performance of his story, that should not be construed to have any message or hidden meaning whatsoever.

The stage is set with large pieces, all of which are representations of pages from Twain’s story, some bound and others free, out of which the characters step to start the action.The scenic design by Ray Klausen uses these book pages in ingenious ways, with characters popping out of holes, stepping through doors, peeking in windows, etc., and, when the pages are folded, using them as a raft. The book literally “comes to life” on the stage.

Mark Twain, who acts as narrator and the voice of Huckleberry Finn, is a fine performance by Adam Monley, who is even able to sing lying flat on his back--a challenge for any singer! The multi-talented Monley also plays the guitar, banjo and harmonica at various times throughout the evening.

Finn himself is an animated, impish, delightful performance by Tyrone Giordano, with his pal Jim, the runaway slave played by Michael McElroy, so graceful in his signing as to be poetry in motion. McElroy and Giordano have one of the more beautiful moments in the show when they sing the duet, “Worlds Apart,” which sadly points out that although they have many things in common, their color separates them from one another. In a way, this song also parallels the separation of the hearing world from the non-hearing world.

(In truth, there were moments throughout the evening that I wished I had the ability to understand American Sign Language as some of the scenes, whether because speed of delivery or poor enunciation, were difficult to understand. Foremost among those is a scene with Pap, Finn’s father, Troy Kotsur and Erick Devine (one is the mirror image of the other, one speaks for the other), whose entire scene was quite difficult to understand.

While the story centers around Finn and Jim, there are a large number of characters who pass briefly through the lives of the two, including the unscrupulous duo of Duke (the signing Troy Kotsur and the speaking James Judy) and King (Eric Devine), the sweet Mary Jane Wilkes (Melissa Van Der Schyff), who has an eye for Huck, and Tom Sawyer (Benjamin Schrader), in a surprisingly brief appearance.

However, the strength of this production is the energy coming from a stage full of people, all performing perfectly synchronized American Sign Language gestures while singing the show’s songs. “The Royal Nonesuch” and “Waiting for the Sun to Shine” are perfect examples of the excitement that these choreographed numbers can create.

This is a production the likes of which you probably have never seen before and one hopes it’s the start of a whole new theatrical art form.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Clock

When one thinks of music and the stage, the name “Arthur Miller” does not immediately leap to mind, and so it was surprising to discover that Miller’s “The American Clock,” which Acme Theater is performing at the Veterans Memorial Theater, under the direction of David Burmester, opens with an all-cast rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” with recorded accompaniment, and complete with an attempt by at least one performer to do a soft shoe. But music is a part of the time period of this play, which looks at the lives of Americans just before, and during The Great Depression, when music helped to take one’s mind, at least briefly, off of the dire conditions.

There are no big musical production numbers in Miller’s play, no crisp choreography or stand-out voices, but music very definitely helps set the scene at the opening, and throughout the two and a half hour play, including an audience sing-along of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” at its conclusion.

“The American Clock” follows some 40 characters, played by 14 talented actors, and how they are affected by The Depression. At the heart of the play is the Baum family, an upper class Jewish family living in Manhattan, whose gradual loss of dignity, along with fading fortunes, is exemplified by the family piano, the pride and joy of mother Rose Baum (the always competent Maddy Ryen), who begins to sell her jewelry as the family income fades. They are forced to move to Brooklyn to live with their poorer relatives (Scott Scholes, Randi Famula, and Betsy Raymond), but her pride will not allow her to sell her piano, on which she plays songs which remind her of better times in Manhattan.

Husband Moe Baum (Anthony Pinto), once a successful businessman, appears to be disconnected, both to his family and to the chaos of life around him. When he is forced to accept public assistance, he must ask his son Lee (Dara Yazdani) for subway fare, and to explain to him exactly how to fill out the paperwork.

The family’s crumbling dignity is complete when Rose finally agrees to give up her piano

Lee is the survivor, and the hope for a recovering America. ''I waited with that crazy kind of expectation that comes when there is no hope, waited for the dream to come back from wherever it had gone to hide.'' As he gives up his dreams of going to college, he learns to adapt to a simpler lifestyle and becomes a writer, an observer of the world around him, and an alter ego of playwright Miller himself.

Yazdani gives Lee Baum a believable earnestness and a resilience which makes us know that this is a kid who is going to make it, despite the hardships he must endure.

Wall Street financiers, Arthur A. Robertson (James Henderson) and Clarence (Eric Delacorte) set the stage for the coming depression in the opening scenes, where they are cautiously making plans to sell their stocks and invest the money in gold bars, because they think the banks are going to fail.

While Delacorte is sometimes difficult to understand, particularly in later scenes, Henderson brings great energy to the part of Robinson, a character which appears in several of the vignettes and helps to bind the piece into a whole.

In the heartland, the Taylor family is forced into foreclosure. ''You couldn't hardly believe the day would come when the land wouldn't give,” says Mrs. Taylor (the versatile Betsy Raymond), wife of Henry (Eric Delacorte). The effect of The Depression all across the country is demonstrated with the forced auction of the Taylor farm, and the support the family receives from their neighbors.

The play contains 19 scenes, all performed with Acme’s usual flair. Others in the cast, playing multiple roles are: Arthur Conard, Fiona Lakeland, Zach Leuchars, Julieanne Conard, Vickie Franzen and Kate Williams.

In his notes for the program, director Burmester speaks to the great resilience of the American people as they faced the Great Depression and of Arthur Miller’s “insistence that a robust belief in the country and its future was at the heart of this resilience.”

This jaded reviewer wonders whether the country will ever again see that resilience and robust belief in the country.

Friday, January 07, 2005


The Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice rock opera, “Evita,” in a production at the Varsity Theater by the Davis Musical Theatre Company under the direction of Michael Miiller has several strong things going for it.

This story of Eva Peron, the second wife of Argentine president Juan Peron, needs a strong actress in the title role and DMTC has found its Evita in Andrea Eve Thorpe. Thorpe embodies the character of Eva, a poor girl from the country who slept her way to the top, first starring in B movies, then having her own radio show, and finally, as the consort and later wife to the Argentine dictator, becoming the most powerful woman in Argentina. Thorpe is a terrific singer and a good actress (and anybody who can step into a skirt on stage while wearing spike heels not only has great stage presence, but terrific balance as well!) Her rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” was outstanding, and her death from cancer, at age 33, was quite moving.

DMTC also has a good solid performer in Mike McElroy, who plays Che Guevara. Though there is no evidence that Eva and Guevara ever met one another, Webber and Rice use the character of Che to narrate Eva’s life story and at times serve as an observer or simply as a device that enables the authors to place Eva in a situation where she is confronted with direct personal criticism.. While McElroy’s performance lacked the “sizzle” one would like to see in the character, he still turned in a good performance. Unfortunately, during at least one scene the background chatter of the chorus was loud enough to drown out his words, even with the assistance of a body mic.

While Steve Isaacson doesn’t look like an Argentine, he ably exhibits the demeanor of Juan Peron and gets the opportunity to remind us what a very good singer he is.

A gem of a performance is turned in by Claire Lawrence as Peron’s young mistress, kicked out of his bed and his house upon Eva’s arrival. Her solo, “Another suitcase in another hall” was poignant and beautiful.

John Hancock is a sleazy Augustine Magaldi, Eva’s first lover whom she tricks into taking her to Buenos Aires, and then dumps. Hancock does a good bump and grind that has all the girls swooning.

There is a lot of difficult chorus work in “Evita” and the DMTC chorus, with musical direction by Isaacson, handled it beautifully. The opening number, “Requiem for Evita” and the first act finale, “A New Argentina” were superb.

Michael Miiller’s choreography was particularly good in the business for the “upper class” and the military, whose numbers were crisp and clean. Worthy of note is young Kaylynn Ruthleder, part of the “upper class” and just as crisp and clean as her adult counterparts.

Jean Henderson’s costumes were, as always, beautiful. Eva’s traditional white ballgown was a cloud of white tulle, and her on-stage costume changes were made easy by the front wrap gowns.

The cast needed better coordination with Steve deRosier’s lighting design, as too frequently characters who were supposed to be in the spotlight were only lit from the knees down.

The production uses the traditional movie screen in innovative and interesting ways. The opening movie (which is suddenly interrupted by the announcement of Eva’s death) was an originally filmed Spanish soap opera created, written and directed by Michael Miiller (and translated by Gloria Ochoa). (Pay close attention to the character names--Miiller’s little subtle joke).

Throughout the production, photos from Eva Peron’s life play on the screen, interspersed with live broadcast of the action from the stage. Someone should, however, do something about that annoying label that flashes on the screen after nearly every photo. It’s very distracting.

This production of “Evita” is one of DMTC’s better productions. There are little annoyances throughout (such as the slow scene transitions, presumably because of the length of time to change costumes), but for an ambitious community theater production of a difficult musical, this is worth seeing. The show runs weekends through January 30.