Friday, March 31, 2006

Ascending / Descending

“Ascending / Descending In Spite of, Despite, and Anyway” is the title of the Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre’s Spring Concert, in the Dance Workshop Theater on Del Rio Pl. The show lasts for an hour and a half, without intermission and features dancers Nicole Bell, Caitlin Barale, Lisa Lin, Katy Lundgren, Rosie Shelton-Mottsmith and Trokanski herself.

The recorded music for this concert is by English composer Peter Gabriel, noted for his world music, described as “pictorial and imaginative.”

The concert is divided into six sections, each inspired by a piece of poetry. The first was “Treasure Hunt” by Robert Penn Warren (Hunt, Hunt again. If you do not find it, you will die.) Prior to the start of the concert, I had been reading a story in which the hero was searching through a grove of trees for the lost treasured memories of his youth, and so as this number started, with three pairs of dancers, one standing, one lying curled around the standing dancer, the visual image evoked a grove of trees through which one might be searching for lost treasured memories of youth, especially as the standing dancer began to “unfold,” much as a tree coming into bloom.

The music becomes more strident, with a Middle Eastern sound to it, the dancers moving with such precision that at times it is like one body with 12 arms and 12 legs.

For a section inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s “On Death,” the dancers were joined by Ashlyn Savidge and Phoebe Anderson, who represented youth and age, respectively. “For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one,” writes Gibran. “And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.” The dancers, in their black leotards and red vests presented a vision of dancing to life.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” speaks of the roar of the waves and “ignorant armies” clashing at night. As the piece opened, the strident, rhythms of the music and the mechanical look to the choreography was reminiscent of the feel of a robot factory and segued into the dancers pairing off, one pounding another into submission, and then raising the “fallen” dancer back again.

“35/10" based on a poem by Sharon Olds was a lovely piece where in the passage of time and the shift from generation to generation, the underlying theme of “replacement,” was shown in the simple act of brushing another’s hair. It was also a beautiful reminder that dancers bodies come in all shapes and sizes and ages.

There was a return to Gibran with a piece based on “On Joy and Sorrow,” showing that “your joy is your sorrow unmasked.” As the piece begins, the dancers present mirror images of each other, showing the yin and yang that are sorrow and joy, that one is merely a manifestation of the other, that without sorrow there is no joy, and vice versa.

Bringing the work full circle was the closing segment based on e.e. cummings’ “Oh Sweet Spontaneous” a joyous celebration of Spring, in which the dancers, joined again by Anderson and Savidge, return to the visual imagery of the tree in the first segment.

The lighting design of Myvanwy Morgan added greatly to the ambience of each of the pieces.

The Spring Concert runs for two more performances, March 31 and April 1 at 8 p.m.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Man of La Mancha

The Broadway hit, “Man of La Mancha,” by Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, currently at the Woodland Opera House, delivers a simple message which should resonate with anyone today who is overwhelmed by all the negative that surrounds us--war, famine, pestilence, floods, fires, the incompetence of world leaders... “Man of La Mancha” reminds us that with so much darkness in the world, humanity continues to hope.

Director Bob Cooper’s excellent production rises above the level of most community theater productions, with an outstanding cast, without a weak link in the bunch.

Rodger McDonald combines all of the qualities that the principal role demands. He is uneasy as Miguel de Cervantes, the prisoner, awaiting trial by the judges of the Inquisition for daring to assess a tax against a Catholic church, and commanding as Miguel de Cervantes, writer and actor, who agrees to present an entertainment for his fellow prisoners as his “defense” for the trail that will determine whether he gets to keep his belongings or not. He is the befuddled Alonso Quijana, an old man losing a grip on reality who has become an embarrassment to his family, and he is dashing and noble as Don Quixote de La Mancha, the imaginary character Quijana becomes, who tilts at windmills, thinking they are dragons, and who fights for the virtue of his Lady.

One expects a stirring performance of the show’s signature song, “The Impossible Dream,”and is not disappointed, but is just as moved by the sweet “Dulcinea,” sung to Aldonza, a serving wench and town whore whom Quixote insists on treating with dignity, gentleness and respect.

As Quixote’s friend and manservant, Sancho Panza, Paul Fearn is funny without being a caricature. He is slavishly devoted to his friend and would lay down his life for--or with--him, if need be.

Michelle Drever brings a sultry seductiveness and a world-weary attitude to Aldonza, who is puzzled by, irritated by, and intrigued by this stranger’s vision of her. She finds depths in herself that she did not know were there...and is uncomfortable by her discoveries. Drever has a powerful voice which can also achieve a soft gentleness that would melt the hardest of hearts.

Veteran actor and film critic for the “News and Review,” Jim Lane, adds another feather to his cap with a strong performance as the prison “Governor,” who becomes the Innkeeper in Cervantes’ play.

Andrea St. Claire does well with the smaller role of Antonia, Alonso’s niece, who is concerned about his fading competency and, more importantly, what will happen to his estate. St. Claire has a beautiful, strong voice and is able to change her persona when she moves from prisoner attire into the gown of the noblewoman, Antonia. She is another asset to this strong cast.

The “bad guy” is Matthew Abergel in the triple roles of the Duke, Dr. Carrasco, and the Knight of Mirrors. He is cruel and sardonic and handles the role well.

This show actually has a pit orchestra, under the direction of Dan Pool, which adds great depth to the sound and with stage mics (so much less distracting than body mics) there was no problem at all being heard over the instruments. With a fine orchestra in the pit, however, it was a bit puzzling as to why the director felt the need to use recorded music for mood at times.

Jeff Kean created a beautifully massive, impressive set which very realistically depicted a dungeon holding cell. However, the illusion was broken twice, once by flying in a windmill for the scene where Don Quixote has mistaken the windmill for a monster of some sort, and once when a confessional was flown in at the start of Act 2. Since all of the action takes place in the dungeon, the use of these realistic set pieces momentarily shatters the illusion that has been created thus far. It would have been much better to go with the descriptive passages, have Quixote’s battle take place off stage, and fashion a confessional out of something within the cell itself, as they did Alonso’s bed at the end of the show.

Kean’s lighting design, however, worked well, using cool tones for the real-time prison setting and warmer tones for the fantasy of the play-within-a-play.

Costume design by Laurie Everly-Klassen was, as always, excellent. The pull over gown for Antonia was particularly lovely.

This “Man of La Mancha” is an outstanding production which gives hope for good things happening in the world, despite often overwhelming odds.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Quality of Care

"Quality of Care" is a first novel by Elizabeth Letts, a midwife with whom I worked in an ob/gyn office many years ago.

In truth, this probably is not a book I would have picked up to read, just because it's not the sort of book that I read recreationally. But when my friend, another midwife, was here visiting, she and all of the hospital staff who had known Elizabeth were buzzing about it because, of course, everyone had read it (and my friend Lynn is one of the people acknowledged in the book for having taught Elizabeth about "the quality of care.")

And so I bought it.

I expected it to be good, based on the response from everyone who had read it, and it was. It's the story of Clara, a doctor who is being investigated for an unfortunate tragedy which occurred on her watch, but the tragedy sets off an interesting journey into Clara's past to get answers and to find direction.

This is an easy read, but a real page turner. I discovered that once I was into the story, I couldn't put the book down until I finished.

As soon as I finished, I ordered Elizabeth's just-published second novel, "Family Planning" and am looking forward to seeing if the quality displayed in this first book continues to grow in her second.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery have come to Sacramento and it all takes place across the street from the capitol. I’m sure there is a joke in there somewhere.

Razzling and dazzling the opening night audience, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Tony award winning musical, “Chicago” returned to The Broadway Series at the Sacramento Community Theater for a limited two-week engagement.

“Chicago” points the finger at this country’s perennial fascination with bad boys (and girls) and our raising them to near cult status, as we salivate over every gory detail, the more salacious the better. Think Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, O.J. Simpson.

This musical is based on actual events during the 1920s, when reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins reported on the trial of a young woman (Beaulah Annan, “the prettiest murderess”) who killed her boyfriend and then called her husband to tell him, as a popular fox trot record played in the background. As Beaulah sat awaiting trial, she announced that she was pregnant, prompting the headling, “Beaulah Annan Awaits Stork, Murder Trial.”

Years later, William Wellman turned the story into a satirical movie called “Roxie Hart,” starring Ginger Rogers, in which the heroine, to kick-start her show business career, confesses to a Chicago murder. Funny man Phil Silvers played her lawyer.

This movie was the inspiration for choreographer Bob Fosse’s collaboration with Kander and Ebb to produce “Chicago, the Musical,” which opened on Broadway in 1975, with Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera as the the two jailbirds competing for publicity for their respective crimes. The show closed after a two year run, unable to compete with “A Chorus Line,” but was brought back again in 1996, under the direction of Walter Bobbie with choreography by Ann Reinking (in the style of Bob Fosse) when it won 6 Tony Awards, Drama Critics Circle Awards, Astaire Awards, Olivier Awards, Helpman Awards and a Grammy for best cast recording (among many other accolades). The 2003 movie won the Academy Award for best picture.

The appeal of this show is something that is impossible to capture on film with quite the same energy or excitement. Watching large clumps of people executing complex dance steps and making it look effortless is an experience not to be missed.

As Velma and Roxie, Terra C. MacLeod and Michelle DeJean are superb. In each there are echoes of Verdon and Rivera, and I found myself understanding that Fosse had these two specific women in mind when he originally choreographed this show, the moves seeming to be unique to each character, but specific to the style of dancer.

Greg Evigan is marvelous as the smooth, charming, yet slick lawyer, Billy Flynn, who knows how to work the press and, for a price, make his clients such sympathetic figures that no jury would convict them. Billy’s “All I Care About,” performed with several chorus girls armed with fans that would do credit to Sally Rand, is a knock out.

Carol Woods brings down the house with Matron “Mama” Morton’s “When You’re Good to Mama.” She’s a real powerhouse who received the biggest ovation at the end of the evening.

Roxie’s long-suffering husband, Amos Hart, the man who loves his wife no matter what, was given the appropriate downtrodden characterization by Kevin Carolan, but he has his moment to shine as he sings “Mr. Cellophane,” and shine he does.

There are marvelous ensemble numbers in this piece, which rely as much on choreography as they do on lyrics. The “Cell Block Tango,” where each woman explains how she happened to kill her husband/lover is marvelous, and “We Both Reached for the Gun,” where Billie coaches Roxie in how to give her court testimony are both outstanding.

Scenic design for this show is by John Lee Beatty, who places the orchestra center stage, with character entrances and exits over, under, around and through the orchestra box. Dramatic lighting is provided by Ken Billington and the costumes, elegant yet decadent, are by William Ivey Long.

Chicago is one of those musicals that will have you clapping enthusiastically, and then leaving the theater humming “All that Jazz,” and what more could one want from an evening’s entertainment?

Death of a Salesman

Last month, eight Nebraska meatpackers took a chance on a dream, plunked down money for the Powerball Lottery, and won the biggest jackpot in U.S. History.

The rise in popularity of insanely large lotteries, reality shows with millions of dollars in cash at the end of the road, and Internet get-quick schemes shows that the dream of the good life is as alive today as it was for Willy Loman in 1949 when Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” first debuted on Broadway. The UC Davis production, under the direction of Kent Nicholson, now playing on the Main Stage, will feel as up to date with today’s struggling families as it did to audiences nearly 50 years ago.

Tom McCauley, a working actor for more than 30 years, and now an MFA candidate, is an excellent choice for the role of Willy Loman, who has worked as a traveling salesman all of his life, but now, at 60, is wearing down and trying to decide how he’s going to support his family. McCauley has perfectly captured the look of a man beaten down by life, a little frightened of what lies ahead, but still trying to keep his dreams alive. Despite his disappointments in life, Willie takes pride in two things: First, his ability to make friends, and the host of friends he has made throughout his career (“I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ’Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?”).

Willy’s second pride is the accomplishments of his oldest son Biff (Matt Rapore), former high school football star, who Willy is convinced is going to take the professional world by storm.

Biff’s problem is that he can’t possibly live up to Willy’s grandiose fantasies for him. He never received his high school diploma and has been fired from every job he’s held. All he really wants is to move out west and work with his hands. Rapore was off to a slow start as Biff, but as his confidence grew, he gave a powerful performance. The final showdown between Biff and Willy, is skillfully handled by both actors.

In the shadow of his brother is Happy Loman (Michael Yost), who shares Willy’s inflated image of his own importance and questionable moral choices. Yost is makes the audience feel Happy’s frustrating attempts to get his father to notice him.

Lisa Klein is Linda Loman, Willy’s long-suffering wife. Linda is the stereotypical wife of the 40s, taking care of her husband’s needs, supporting his dreams, but with her own frustrations. She mostly suffers in silence and it is her emotional strength which keeps the family together, until things finally explode beyond her ability to control them.

Matt Sullivan is Charlie, Willie’s next door neighbor, who owns a successful business and whose son Bernard ®. Andrew Hess) is a successful lawyer, who has always regarded Biff as his hero.

Willy’s boss, Howard Wagner (Dan Hakim) is a young man whom Willy has known since he was a baby, but Wagner regards Willy with condescension and when Willy goes to him, hoping for a change in his work conditions and perhaps an advance on his salary so he can pay the insurance bill, Wagner fires him.

Willy is losing his grip on reality, and his life seems to be played in the here and now, and in flashbacks to Biff’s glory days and to the days when his wealthy older brother Ben (John Crosthwaite), who recently died, was still alive.

Lighting designer Daniel Goldin uses cool tones for the “here and now” and warm tones for Willy’s flashbacks.

Scenic Designer, Martin Flynn has built a massive, functional set with a colorful backdrop showing the cramped neighborhood in which the Lomans live, and a multi-level house where the action can easily move from bedroom to kitchen to hotel.

In his director’s notes, Kent Nicholson points out that, like Willy Loman, many of us are embracing a system bent on destroying us. “Today there is a cultural obsession to get ahead no matter who we leave behind.”

We have not learned much in the past nearly 50 years. We are, most of us, still Willy Loman, trying to make it in a world that seems determined to keep beating us down.

Willy took comfort in the knowledge that if he had no money to show for his lifetime, at least he had a wealth of friends. The ultimate irony was that the only people at his funeral were his family and his one close friend.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Insides OUT!

Stop what you're doing right now, go to the telephone, call Sacramento Theater Company, and order tickets for the production of Insides OUT! the powerful one-woman show by Katie Rubin. It's that good.

Insides OUT! is a no-holds barred, emotional, funny, gut-wrenching look at the 29 year old Rubin’s journey through alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction, food addiction, and self-loathing throughout her high school and college years and ultimately, to the path of recovery. While this sounds like a heavy evening – and, in spots it is – Rubin makes the one hour piece a mesmerizing experience. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cheer. Not bad for an hour’s work.

In a sort of prolog, Rubin talks with the audience and explains that in her study of Carl Jung, she learned that the human psyche is made up of several different archetypal characters. Rubin has identified seven different characters in her own psyche and has named most of them. As she begins the formal part of her program, Baby Katie (who is 6 years old) takes over to tell the story. She is joined by The Perfect Monster, whose job it is to remind Big Katie of what a terrible person she is, and that no matter what she does, it’s never good enough. Then there is Hank, “the Trickster,” who leads Big Katie to alcohol, drugs, food, and heavy partying, and in party mode Sylvia, “the Romantic,” takes over as the archetype who can’t get enough sex. Sylvia figures that if Katie can just find the right man, she’ll never have to work again.

Somewhere in the middle of all these conflicting characters, there is a “wise woman” whom Big Katie stumbles upon in a bathroom mirror one day, whom she gradually learns to trust, and who helps her to put all of the others in their place.

The piece itself uses comedy, poetry, song, improvisation and monologue to tell the story, and we see that, despite the criticism of The Perfect Monster, Rubin is more than adept in each area. Her singing voice is particular strong and her poetry is raw and filled with emotion.

She brings a message which will resonate with most people and she has such an open, likeable demeanor that she creates a safe place from which to begin to identify your own archetypal characters.

Rubin began her career as a comedic writer/performer at Amherst College with her first original piece, “PartyBoobyTrap.” Her second play was produced through the 2000 New York Fringe Festival. "Insides OUT!" is her third original piece and her first one woman show.

She is a graduate of the Theater and Dance program at Amherst College. She has studied at the Wynn Handman Studios, at Annie Bogart's SITI Company and has an MFA from UC Davis. Rubin’s involvement with recovery and the 12-step process has led her to perform this one-woman show at recovery centers.

The press release for this show warns that “Insides OUT! contains mature subject matter and language and is appropriate for high school and college age audiences and above.” Given the insecurities of high school students in general, and the difficult life decisions they are often forced to make, I feel this show is not only “appropriate” for high school students, but might go so far as to say attendance at this show should be encouraged for high school age students.

The show is booked for a nine-week run at Sacramento Theater Company. Following each performance there is a question and answer session with Katie Rubin, who creates a palpable bond with her audience, which makes in-depth questions safe to ask.

Run, don’t walk, to the Sacramento Theater Company and see this show. You won’t be sorry that you did.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Titanic: The Feature

This article was originally supposed to run before the show opened, but space constraints necessitated that it not be run until the following week. This is the article I wrote about the projected opening of the show...

Steve Isaacson was like a little kid on Christmas morning. “What is finally starting to dawn on me is--this is our place,” Isaacson gushed. “This is ours! Look at all this ROOM! I am just so excited about this. My God this is real.”

He was giving me a backstage tour of the new Hoblit Theater for the Davis Musical Theater Company’s upcoming production of “Titanic: the Musical” which opens February 24. It is the largest show the company has ever presented, with 47 in the cast,

I made a comment to normally unflappable costumer, Jeanne Henderson about the number of costumes necessary for such a big show and how nice it must be to have the space to get them all done in a more timely fashion.

“It would be, except I had to move in the middle of it,” she said, rolling her eyes, explaining that now that the theater was completed and DMTC was moving out of its former storage unit, she had to move all of the costumes previously in storage over to the new building, at the same time that she was constructing new costumers for the current show.

Isaacson took me into the Barbara Jackson Costume Shop, which I had visited when the theater first opened. The cavernous space I had seen in November was now filled with costumes. Racks ran the entire length of the building, on both walls, two racks tall, the top rack nearly reaching the ceiling.

“It’s the largest walk-in closet in Davis,” Isaacson joked.

The racks were designed by Doug Hicke and Dixon High School shop class teacher, Bill Scott. The men designed a system which would allow the clothes to hang without touching the wall. The actual forming and welding of the “stand offs” was the final exam for Scott’s advanced class (80 students). The entire system was installed by Scott, Hicke and his father, and Henderson’s husband Alex. “For years the Davis Musical Theater Company has loaned costumes for Dixon High School drama productions,” said Scott. “I thought it was time for a little helping hand pay-back.”

As Isaacson and I passed to the other side of the theater, the cast was on stage rehearsing the opening number, while choreographer Ron Cisneros refined the blocking. Isaacson, who is also the musical director, stopped to listen. “We have some of the best singers we’ve ever had in this show,” he said, as the chorus reached the final notes of the number, the richness of the sound a wonderful demonstration of how full a chorus can sound when it includes 22 men (“that’s unheard of,” Isaacson said).

Some modifications had to be made to the open orchestra pit so that the stage could be moved forward, allowing the ship’s passengers to use a larger deck area. This resulted in cutting a hole in the floor for the conductor. “After my welcoming speech on stage, I turn and jump into the hole,” Isaacson laughed.

The special changes to the Hoblit Theater make it immediately obvious that “Titanic: The Musical” is a show which never could have been produced in DMTC’s former home, the Varsity Theater.

Time alone would have been a factor. The demands of such a huge show, with such a large, complicated set would never have been possible in a theater which the company only inhabited for a few weeks prior to opening. And then there are the kinds of semi-permanent changes which cannot be done in a rented space.

Technicians were nailing things to the specially built platforms on either side of the stage, which will act as the bridge and the first and 2nd class passengers’ decks. The two sections of the ship will be joined by a false proscenium (the arch that goes over the stage), tying the whole thing together into one big ship.

The set designer for “Titanic: the Musical” is Mike McElroy who, coincidentally, will also play Thomas Andrews, the builder of the Titanic, in the show itself. The multi-talented McElroy has performed in other shows, and designed lights for DMTC before, but this is his very first set design.

“I’ve worked on building a lot of sets,” he said, “but this is the first time I’ve ever designed a set.”

When the new season was announced last year, McElroy knew that this was a project he wanted to undertake. He also felt that he was ready.

“The last show I did was ‘Victor, Victoria,’ at Runaway Stage. It had a massive set. Watching the set designer there build that monstrosity was a big inspiration to me. It gave me a few ideas on construction techniques. I felt a lot more confident.”

McElroy began mentally planning his design nearly a year ago, although actual construction didn’t start until early January.

The tech crew is in the process of building the third piece of the set, a 35' by 12' wooden deck which will actually tilt as the ship begins to sink.

In preparation for sinking his Titanic, Isaacson has acquired a 6,000 lb winch that runs on a car battery. It’s his newest toy and Isaacson is very proud as he jokes about the technical workings, “It’s got gazunta circuitry. It’s got this giant thing so it unrolls and then you hook it up and then you just turn it and it has a remote control and it just pulls and lifts it.” (Got that?)

Again, this mechanical set-up would not have been possible at the Varsity Theater, as the winch must be firmly attached to the walls in order to begin to pull the large deck to a realistic slant.

“Let’s hope your set won’t sink, like the real Titanic,” I joked with McElroy

“Hopefully it will sink,” McElroy laughed, as he turned away from me, began singing, and walked onto the stage, to join the rest of the cast.

“Titanic: The Musical” opens on February 24 and runs weekends through March 19.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Mary, Mary

"Everytime I think I'm out, they pull me back in," must be how Alex Cross feels. Here he thought life was settling down, that he could stick around the FBI, be a Dad, take his kids to Disneyland, and then what happens? Someone starts cutting up pretty ladies and he's back on the case again.

This time he's on loan to the LAPD after the murder of an actress whose face was cut to ribbons so that she was nearly unrecognizable. This sets off a string of similar murders, each with an accompanying message to the local gossip columnist.

While Alex is looking for the bad guy or gal, he's also fighting his ex-wife for custody of their son. The custody battle seems a bit contrived, especially when it comes to the ultimate resolution.

But naturally Alex solves the case and Nana-Mama is there to scold him for putting the kids in danger yet again. He promises that he's finished with all the dangerous stuff for good...but is he? Only Patterson's next book knows for sure.

But once again, James Patterson has given us a page turner with sex and violence and home cooking, and isn't that what we expect of Patterson?