Sunday, July 31, 2005

Once in a Lifetime

“Once in a Lifetime,” by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the latest offering by Acme Theater Company, at the Veterans Memorial Theater, is a huge show. There are some 84 characters listed on the program. Some actors play more than one role, but there is still a dizzying number of actors.

In his director’s notes, Director Dave Burmester explains that more than one-third of the cast is new to the company and more than half the cast has been in no more than two Acme shows. This would explain the unevenness of the performances, a situation that was to be expected this year, with the company having lost so many experienced actors when they graduated from high school last year.

The leads in this fast-paced comedy are very strong; the supporting players need to work on projection and timing, something that will come as they get more experience under their belts, if Acme history is any indication.

This is also a huge show with respect to sets (designed by Burmester), some of which are very large, unwieldy pieces, difficult to move around the stage, which slows the pace of the show many times. Thought should also have been given to better placement of the blacks backstage, as actors can be seen waiting for their entrances.

That said, however, let’s look at the good. This very funny three-act satire takes place in the early days of the motion picture industry, just as Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” has revolutionized the business by making movies talk and creating an instant need for people who are ready and able to jump into the new technology.

George, May and Jerry (Dara Yazdani, Maddy Ryen, and James Henderson) are out of work vaudevillians, down to their last $158 with no prospects for work in sight. Jerry convinces his partners to go to Hollywood to seek their fame and fortune.

James Henderson’s performance as Jerry fairly sizzles. Jerry is the money man, the idea man, the one who has the enthusiasm he wishes to impart to his partners. Henderson has the energy, the pacing, and the comic timing that the role requires and he’s very good.

Dara Yazdani’s laconic performance as George is perfect. George is a good-natured but rather slow-witted guy who becomes the most influential man in Hollywood through a series of lucky coincidences. Yazdani has a dry wit that gets the most out of the humor in his lines.

Maddy Ryen is the tough-talking practical May, in love with Jerry. Her character has some of the funniest lines, which Ryen delivers in a sardonic, deadpan manner. May finds little to bring excitement to her life.

Betsy Raymond as the gossip columnist Helen Hobart was marvelously over the top and a delight.

Madelyn Ligtenberg as Susan Walker, the ingenue who comes under George’s wing, was suitably marginally talented, the girl who wants to be a star, but doesn’t quite have it. Ligtenberg ably brought those characteristics to the role.

Marianne Lagarias is Susan’s mother, a somewhat clueless woman who never changes her costume and who tags around after Susan, not quite sure why she’s there. Lagarias does a good job.

Andrew Conard gave a strong performance as Herman Glogauer, the head of the studio, his performance reminiscent of a young Howard Hughes.

Anthony Pinto was hilarious as the manic director Rudolph Kammerling, the stereotype of every foreign-born director who has ever been characterized in film comedies. He never failed to elicit laughs from the audience.

Julieanne Conard and Laura Flanigan are Phyllis Fontaine and Florabel Leigh, two silent screen actresses who are going to be out of work unless May’s school of elocution can refine their voices to be fit for audience ears. The two are quite funny.

In the small role of the cigarette girl, Rachel Cherones caught my eye. There was not enough substance to her character to really assess, but she had that “certain something” in her brief time on stage.

Costume designer Randi Famula did a great job in creating the feel of the 20's-30's, especially in the night club scenes.

This is not the strongest Acme production I’ve seen, but it’s an enjoyable one that is full of laughs and worth seeing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Crazy for You

In 1930 Ethel Merman starred in the first production of the George and Ira Gershwin musical, “Girl Crazy,” the story of a spoiled New York rich kid who learns about life , love and everything else on a Nevada dude ranch.  In 1943, Judy Garland and Micky Rooney brought the story to the big screen, with choreography by the infamous Busby Berkeley.

In 1992, with the blessing of the Gershwin heirs, Ken Ludwig took another look at the old chestnut, did some extensive rewriting of the plot line, and produced “Crazy for You,” the story of a spoiled New York rich kid who learns about life, love and everything else in the sleepy town of Deadrock, Nevada.  The show won the 1992 Tony for Best New Musical and is this week’s Music Circus production, under the direction of James Brennan, with Choreography by Deanna L. Dys and musical direction by Dennis Castellano.

This is an old fashioned musical in every sense of the word, with predictable plot line (boy meets girl, girl dumps boy, boy finds a way to win girl back), lots of dancing, snazzy show girls, and those Gershwin songs anybody of a certain age will have known from their cradle: “Bidin’ My Time,” “Embraceable You,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” for starters.

In a show like this, it is the cast which makes or breaks it and the Music Circus cast is a stellar one.  David Engel, in the role of Bobby Child is a two-time recipient of the L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation Award for best actor in a musical for his performance in this role.  Engel has the grace of Fred Astaire, combined with the athleticism of Gene Kelly.  His Bobby is a guy who is not going to be stuck under Mama’s thumb working in a bank, but wants to fulfill his dream of being a performer, and along the way it won’t hurt if he can dump his overbearing fiancee and find the love of his life.

Beverly Ward, as Bobby’s Polly Baker, has toured with “Crazy for You” and garnered a Helen Hayes nomination for best actress in a musical while playing Polly at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  She’s a feisty, independent woman stuck in a one-horse town, but determined to take control of her life.  Ward is also a talented dancer who is able to bring all that Ginger Rogers-esque grace to the stage.

While the story centers on these two, there is a fine cast of supporting players including Stephen Berger as Bella Zangler a famous theatrical producer in love with Tess (Joann Hess); Eleanor Glockner is Bobby’s indomitable mother, Lottie Child; Jessica Wright is Bobby’s overbearing fiancee Elaine; Jim Bisom is the descriptively named Lank Hawkins, owner of Deadrock’s town saloon and in love with Polly; Sacramento News & Review film critic Jim Lane does an excellent job as Polly’s Dad, Everett Baker, hanging on to his deserted theater and remembering the glory days when his late wife graced its stage.

Costumes by Steven Howard and Bob Miller are dazzling, especially for the show girls.

Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt and Lighting designer Pamila Gray have created a wonderful look for this musical.  Especially noteworthy are the Broadway scenes, with theatrical marquees represented both by pieces lowered from the flies, and projected onto the walls.

“Crazy for You” is not a show that is going to force you to think, or present any political agenda, or make the audience uncomfortable with questionable lyrics or overly loud music.  But it will set your toe to tapping and leave you humming a tune or two as you leave the theater, and remind you of a simpler time when all a musical had to do was entertain.