Thursday, September 28, 2006

Movin' Out

With the California Musical Theatre’s Wednesday night premiere of the 2006-2007 Broadway Series, the Sacramento Community Center played host to the 1,000th performance of the “Movin’ Out” national tour, which premiered on January 27, 2004 in Detroit.

“Movin’ Out” is really a dance show with “strong musical content,” rather than a traditional musical. But there is choreography by the legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp to 22 songs of rock and roll legend, Billy Joel, loosely woven into a flimsy plot line to give the show logical progression from A to Z. It’s a short show. Even with a back-up in the parking lot, you’ll be back in Davis by 10:30 p.m.

Joel had been asked many times for permission to translate his songs to the stage, but had always refused until the call from Tharp. Whatever Twyla wants, Twyla gets. The two legends discovered that they shared a sharp eye for presenting stories in new and unique ways. Tharp felt that Joel’s songs were filled with emotional stories and specific characters that could be the basis for a compelling story. The show opened at the Richard Rogers Theater in New York on October 24, 2002 and played 1,037 performances before closing in December of 2005.

The massive yet minimal set by Santo Loquasto puts the “piano man” at the top back of the stage, along with a 10 piece band, while the action takes place below on the stage floor. Donald Holder’s lighting design plays a major role in creating mood and putting on a spectacular lighting show.

Darren Holden, the “piano man” sings the lyrics (if you’re not a Joel fan, it might be nice to get a C.D. or two and read some of the lyrics, because the lyrics are difficult to decipher) and has such nimble fingers that in the opening number of Act 2, “Invention in C Minor,” your eyes are drawn to the piano rather than to the dance that is going on on stage.

What little plot there is deals with a group of six high school friends and follows them from their senior prom until many years later in their lives. It covers loves lost and found, as well as sex. drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The guys go off to fight in Vietnam and one of them is killed. Those who come home have a difficult time adjusting, but ultimately it all ends happily at a high school reunion, with rekindled hope, love and friendship.

Eddie, the “bad boy,” the loner, the guy with all the problems, is danced by Brendan King, though if the audience thought he looked a bit different after he got off drugs and cleaned up a bit in Act 2, that’s because King was replaced by Lawrence Rabson for the last quarter of the show.
Eddie’s two buddies are James, danced in this performance by Sean Maurice Kelly, and Tony (David Gomez). The men (and all the dancers in the ensemble) are amazingly athletic (watch Eddie doing one-handed push-ups!) and yet do a lovely old-fashioned dance, tongue in cheek, to “Waltz #1 (Nunley’s Invention)” prior to their induction into the military and subsequent tour in Vietnam, where James is killed.

Holly Cruikshank plays Brenda, a femme fatale who is dating Eddie in high school but then finds herself drawn to Tony as the group begins to grow older and start their adult lives. Cruikshank has impossibly long legs and is at her seductive best in “Uptown Girl” and shines in her solo, “Air (Dublinesque)”

Laura Feig is Judy, the “sweet one” (the sweet ones always wear white gloves). She and James are engaged at the start of the show and her heartbreak following his death was beautifully portrayed in the first act finale.

Leave your thinking caps at home for this one, but bring some shoes that will allow you to tap your feet, because you’ll be doing that throughout. This is a visual spectacle, a choreographic triumph and just a darn fun evening for fans of either Billy Joel’s music, or great dancing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

West Side Story

Every chorus of male dancers should have Robert Coverdell at the head of the line. Coverdell, who plays Riff in “West Side Story,” the first production of the Davis Musical Theater Company’s 22nd season, was born to dance. He has a tall lanky body that moves with a fluid motion and he makes everybody look good (and some of those guys behind him were definitely not born to dance, but give it the ol’ college try).

“West Side Story,” directed by Steve Isaacson (who is also credited with musical direction) and choreographed by Dian Hoel is a continuous roller coasters of highs and lows. Just when the energy lags and someone can’t quite get the pitch right, along comes a number like “Officer Krupke,” the outstanding number from this production, where everybody – Henry Holloway, Andy Hyum, Ryan Warren, Alex Poe, and Edward Nelson – is right on the money ... and Nelson, as Big Deal, does amazing leaps and somersaults. This number has the sizzle that should be found in all the dance numbers, and sadly is not.

The show is a little difficult to review, with no musical numbers listed in the program (and hence no way to identify minor characters singing solos), and no biographies for the actors, but it appears that there are a lot of new names to the company in the cast..

“West Side Story,”is the classic musical with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, which debuted on Broadway in 1957 and set a musical style which moved musical theater in a whole new direction.

It is, of course, the Romeo and Juliet story, modernized and set on the mean streets of New York. Teri Kanefield is credited as “Scenic Artist,” and I’m not sure if that means she was responsible for the look of the entire show, but the opening bare stage was nicely designed with a brick wall at the back, and projected lights to hint at the fire escapes of tenement buildings. The upper level apartment balcony for Maria’s bedroom was perfect.

I wondered how it was going to go when I saw that there were only four people in the orchestra (Jonathan Rothman on piano, Isaacson on drums, Chris Weisker on oboe and Vicki Davis on bass), but somehow the orchestral arrangement was so well done that you almost didn’t miss the full orchestra for which Leonard Bernstein wrote the score.

The story revolves around the running feud between the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and the Jets (the native born Americans). Some of the material (particularly the barely censored language, such as “Gee, Officer Krupke--krup you” and “when the spit hits the fan”) seems a bit dated, but the hatred between gangs is, sadly, even more relevant today.

Colby Salmon in the role of Tony obviously has a very good voice and good stage presence, but had breath and pacing problems in his opening number. He appeared to grow in confidence as the evening progressed. He is a strong actor and worked well with Chelsea Baldree, as Maria.

Baldree, too, could use a bit more oomph when singing in her lower register but was a sensitive Maria, the innocent young girl newly arrived from Puerto Rico to marry her brother’s friend Chino (Nick Peters). Over the course of two hours, she learns how to hate, and Baldree makes the transition from innocent girl to angry girl nicely.

Bernardo, the head of the Sharks, is played by Davis Ott who, like Coverdell, presents a wonderful dancing figure and very believably portrays the leader of a Latino gang.

Amanda Morish is outstanding as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend who seems to spend most of the first act doing deep backbends as Bernardo continually sweeps her off her feet. She has fun with “America,” comparing the positives about this country with the negatives in Puerto Rico, and she is also able to bring out the rage of a woman who has just lost the love of her life in “A Boy Like That.”

Kayla Sheehan has the minor role of Rosalia, who argues with Anita about the pros and cons of Puerto Rico vs. the United States. She gives a solid performance throughout the production.

This is a big show for a small company and DMTC handles it adequately, though not outstandingly. I suspect that as opening night jitters fade with the principals, we will see more of the polished performances which are hinted at here, and as the entire cast settles into the run, there will be more precision to the dance numbers. All the elements are there and with a bit more energy this could be a good production.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Best of Broadway

Ask any theater goer to list the top ten Broadway shows and you’ll probably get things like "Oklahoma!" "Music Man," or "Sound of Music." It is unlikely that you’ll find "Martin Guerre," or the "Tonight’s the Night," the compilation musical, based on the songs of Rod Stewart (and described by one reviewer as "...starts in Hell and sadly doesn’t get any better.")

So one questions whether "Musical Mystique," the 34th annual "Best of Broadway" musical revue, now at the Luther Burbank Theater in Sacramento through September 24, is actually the best of Broadway, but there is no denying the sincerity of the participants, or the hard work and love that goes into this production. (There are nearly 100 names in the program listed as ushers alone, and 30 listed for the concession stand.)

Best of Broadway was conceived by David L. MacDonald in 1973 as a way to raise money for a local boys’ home, and has grown to become one of the largest non-profit, volunteer community shows in Northern California. The cast consists of over 150 singers, dancers, gymnasts and musicians, ranging in age from 7 to 70, who are chosen from open auditions. Many alumni of Best of Broadway have gone on to actually perform on Broadway.

While there are a few weak spots in the current production -- an inconsistent sound system that was too loud for some and not loud enough for others, and some performers who really shouldn’t have been given solos -- the strengths in this production more than compensated for its shortcomings.

David L. MacDonald is the producer director of this revue, with musical direction by Dan Pool and adult choreography by Diana Ruslin and Terri Taylor-Solorio, with Kat Bahry heading up the choreography for the children’s ensemble, numbering some 50 children. Bahry, along with children’s choral director Enrique Ruiz did a fabulous job with the children, some of whom were obviously born to perform.

Marji DuBois, Jim Crogan and Corey Rickrode are credited with choral direction for the adult ensemble and did an excellent job.

Special mention must also be made of the sign language interpreters. Cristie Pell is the chief interpreter and I have marveled at her work, now, for several years. Her three assistants were not listed in the program. Each took one of two numbers at a time to sign, but Pell did the lion’s share and one could easily see how she made music come alive for the non-hearing members of the audience.

This high energy production is filled with 52 musical numbers from 15 different musicals, and there were definite high points. The choreography for "Step in Time" from "Mary Poppins" was a knockout.

Dewight Mitchell and Elise Reese gave depth to two numbers from "Ragtime," with Mitchell returning later for two numbers from "Brooklyn, the Musical" and Elise Reese with an unbelievable wig for "You Can’t Stop the Beat" from "Hairspray."

Randy Solorio works overtime this year, with his Fonzie-esque presentation for two lengthy sections, the Act 1 salute to "All Shook Up," which features the songs of Elvis Presley, and the Act 2 songs from "Tonight’s the Night." Solorio can shake, rattle and roll with the best of them.

"Tonight’s the Night" also features Robert Lenzi on guitar, bathed in pools of light.

Marji DuBois has an outstanding voice and is featured in seven different numbers, all of which come alive because of her performance.

Josh Gonzales and Tae Kim sing the roles of Martin Guerre and Arnaud du Thil from "Martin Guerre." Both men have marvelous voices, particularly Kim, whose slender build belies the power and the depth of his voice.

Enrique Ruiz, Dewight Mitchell, Ryan Ritter and Aaron MacDonald do an excellent impression of The Four Seasons in the selections from "Jersey Boys."

The children’s chorus, which performs "Supercalifragilistic" in Act 1, returns in Act 2 looking like they ran wild in a Halloween costume shop, with the assistance of costume coordinators Cathy Carpenter and Joan Pohlman. Dressed as doctors, clowns, police officers, ballerinas, and just about any costume you can imagine, they did a very cute rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python’s "Spamalot." There is one little girl in green doctor scrubs with a stethoscope around her neck who is having such a good time you can hardly take your eyes off of her.

You can’t think about Best of Broadway without thinking about numbers--numbers of songs, numbers of people, numbers of costumes, numbers of volunteer hours which go into putting on this amazing production. It’s a visual extravaganza and an incredible labor of love for those involved.

And best of all, it goes to support many worthy causes.