Thursday, December 28, 2006

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas"

Ask anyone to name their top five Christmas themed movies of all time and it’s a pretty sure bet that “White Christmas” will be on the list for most people.

When you transfer such a well-known and beloved film to the stage, you’d best be very careful to do it well, because a large portion of your audience is going to be watching to see how good a job you do.

Judging by the enthusiastic response on opening night of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at the Sacramento Community Center, the experiment was an overwhelming success, despite what must have been a technician’s worst nightmare, with curtains that refused to cooperate (several times), lights that went on when they shouldn’t and off when they shouldn’t, audible banging from backstage, and set pieces that didn’t quite get into place on time.

Yet, the technical glitches didn’t seem to matter in this slick holiday pastiche, which will run through January 7.

While this show is, of course, based on the 1954 musical with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, don’t expect it to be a carbon copy.

The story of the famous song and dance team of Wallace (Michael Gruber in the Crosby role), and Davis (Greg McCormick Allen) who meet aspiring sister act of Betty Haynes (Christina Saffran Ashford in the Rosemary Clooney role), and Judy Haynes (Tari Kelly), and head to a ski resort which turns out to be run by Wallace & Davis’s old World War II commanding General (Stephen Godwin), who has fallen on hard times and is looking at a bleak ski season, as Vermont is experiencing unseasonable warm temperatures is familiar.

The story turns into a “find a barn and put on a show to save the General,” and it all ends predictably with beautiful snow on stage and in the audience.

However, there are plot differences from the movie, new characters and character twists, and additional Irving Berlin songs not found in the movie, such as “I Love a Piano” (which film buffs will recognize from “Easter Parade,” not “White Christmas”) and “Blue Skies,” to name but two.

Michael Gruber has a lovely crooning voice, displayed best in his “Count Your Blessings.” Greg McCormick Allen is a talented hoofer with a pleasant demeanor who is a good partner for Gruber.

Christina Saffran Ashford displays a lush voice with her emotional delivery of “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” and Tari Kelly (the role will be played by Taryn Darr beginning December 29) has a bubbly personality and gets a chance to shine in several dance numbers, especially the spectacular “I Love a Piano.”

Carol Swarbrick plays Martha Watson, the sardonic inn housekeeper immortalized by character actress Mary Wickes in the film. In this version of the story, however, Martha has a show biz background and when she belts out “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” she brings down the house.

Stephen Godwin was a world-weary General Waverly, who becomes a sentimental favorite as he tries to make the adjustment from military to civilian life, even 10 years after the end of the war. My only disappointment with this production is that “The Old Man,” Waverly’s surprise at finding all his old military outfit at the Inn, doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of the film.

Keaton Whittaker (who alternates with Olivia Spokoiny) is Susan, the General’s young granddaughter, who has show biz in her genes and belts out her own reprise of “Let Me Sing.” Whittaker is a real scene stealer and clearly an audience favorite.

Making the most of a the tiny role of Ezekiel, the stage hand, Clayton Corzatte was perfect and received an ovation at the final bow.

Anna Louizo’s set design was beautiful, with both detailed settings for the inn and splashy backdrops for the big dance numbers. The closing snow scene was straight from Currier and Ives.

Costumes by Carrie Robbins were straight out of 1954, with the huge crinoline skirts for the girls and shocking bilious green suits for Wallace and Davis’ first big production number.

The production is under the direction of James Rocco and David Armstrong and one of only four cities given special permission to present this new stage adaption during this holiday season.

Ticket sales are brisk, but there are a still few left to be had. Call now for a chance to take your family to see this delightful holiday gift to the Sacramento area.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Christmas Carol

You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry...Ebenezer Scrooge is coming to town. In fact, he’s already here, snarling his way around the stage at the Sacramento Theater Company as it revives the perennial favorite adapted by Richard Hellesen from the classic Charles Dickens novel, with music composed and adapted by David de Berry. The production is directed once again by Philip Charles Sneed.

The production will continue to entertain audiences through December 24

This is a real extravaganza for STC, with a cast of 40 (many roles are double cast) including six members of one family: Amanda, Caleb, Campbell, Christian, Colby and Cooper Salmon.

Though music is an important part, this is really more of a play with music than a musical. Extensive narration, straight out of the pages of Dickens’ original work, overlaps with the action, and the narration is delivered by actors who also move the set pieces around the stage as they verbally set up the next scene. The music is not intrusive, but adds just the right touch at just the right moment. The accompaniment is pre-recorded.

Once again, the scenic design of UCD graduate John Klonowski (with complementary lighting by designer Victor En Yu Tan) effectively twists, turns, and rolls around the stage creating minimal settings, which nicely suggests the fuller settings they represent.

As the show begins, Davis student Camille Totah, now 13, whom we have watched grow up in local theatrical productions slowly walks across the stage as a young beggar child, singing “Advent Carol,” as she asks for a donation from the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge.

This year’s Ebenezer Scrooge is played by veteran actor David Silberman (Jacob Marley in last year’s production), who makes everyone’s favorite curmudgeon a believable character, without becoming a caricature.

Don Hayden steps into the chains of Jacob Marley, come to warn his old partner of the pain that will befall him if he does not change his ways. Marley sets up the visits of three spirits who will help him to look back over his life in the hope of helping him make some changes before it is too late.

I never have understood why Dickens writes that the spirits will come on three successive nights, when the first comes on Christmas eve and the last leaves before Christmas morning...or what Scrooge does on the days between, but that answer is long-buried with the author.

Michele Hillen is the ghost of Christmas present (and later Mrs. Cratchit), who guides Scrooge to the school he attended, and his first place of employment, happier times of his life before he became so centered on money. Cooper Salmon plays the youngest Scrooge, Brennan Villados is Ebenezer the apprentice, and Colby Salmon is -Ebenezer the young man.

Anna Miles makes a strikingly lovely entrance as Fan, Ebenezer’s sister come to bring him home from school. As Fan sings the beautiful “Home at Christmastide,” there is a brief softening of the present day Ebenezer’s heart as he remembers the young beggar child whom he shunned the day before.

Scrooge visits himself as a young apprentice to the ebullient Fezziwig (Mark Standriff, who appears later as the Ghost of Christmas Present), and as the young man whose burgeoning love of money forces a break-up with his beloved Belle (Lauryn Caruso, who later also plays Martha Cratchit, and still later Belle’s daughter). Mary Baird is the equally ebullient Mrs. Fezziwig in an amazing costume.

Standriff returns as the jovial Ghost of Christmas Present and accompanies Ebenezer to the home of his nephew (George Schau), a man of modest means whose heart seems full of love for everyone, even his miserly uncle.

At the home of his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit (the delightful Gillen Morrison) and his wife (Gillen) Ebenezer has another tug at his heartstrings as he watches the crippled Tiny Tim (6 year old Campbell Salmon, whose brother played the role last year). Others in the Cratchit family are Carey Porter reprising his role as Peter, Amanda Salmon as Belinda, Cooper Salmon as Edward, and Caruso as Martha.

Zack Sapunor has no words to speak as the Ghost of Christmas yet to come but makes the most of the opportunity to look menacing.

By the end of the story, of course, Scrooge has come to see the error of his ways, makes nice with his nephew, sends “Turkey Boy” (Christian Salmon) off to buy the biggest bird in town and have it delivered anonymously to the Cratchits and we realize that the dire scenes projected by the Ghost of Christmas yet to come will be altered, everybody will live happily ever after, and Tiny Tim will grow stronger and live to offer many more “God Bless us every one”s

As for Scrooge, “His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Weight of Memory

Each season, the UC Davis Theater and Dance Department's Dancing on the Edge series brings new work by contemporary choreographers to the local stage. This year, Granada Artist-in-Residence Ellen Bromberg and choreographer Della Davidson have collaborated to create “The Weight of Memory,” a provocative performance piece combining image, movement, and language.

Bromberg has been creating dances for solo artists and companies for over 30 years. Since 1996 she has been working at the intersection of live performance and media, creating her own works as well as collaborating with other choreographers. In 2005, she collaborated with Della Davidson and John Flax on “A Dream Inside Another,” based on “The Stories of Eva Luna” by Isabel Allende.

Based on ten short verses by writer Karen Brennan that describe one woman's changing inner state as she transitions from sleep to wakefulness, “The Weight of Memory” features seven dancers - one man (David Orzechowicz) and six women (Jennie Amaral, Ann Dragich, Adi Hamou, Meghan Moyle, Randee Pauvfe and Whitney Peterson) - who move through the fluctuating landscape of the woman's inner life. At times dynamic, at times tranquil and meditative, the dancers' movements within an ever-shifting environment of light, video, and sound create a "visual poem" informed by Brennan's acute attention to sensory detail and her ability to capture a moment in time and expand upon it.

The focal point of the work is a bed made of “memory foam,” (accentuating the theme of “memory”), and each of the ten segments (called “the 10 birds”) begins “When I woke up....” and deals with both the man in her bed and the birds which surround her (the reason for which is revealed at the end).

“When I woke up the man beside me rolled over, as was his custom. It was as if he were telling me to go back to sleep. Too many birds in the room, now they were beside me, flicking their feathers.”

This work is a tour de force for the audiovisual department, working with the concept and video design of Ellen Bromberg, scenic design of Victoria Livingston-Hall, and lighting design of Javan Johnson. Three large, irregularly shaped and angled panels define the performance area, described as a “deconstructed room with fluid walls,” and a multitude of projections set the stage for trees blowing in the breeze, birds flying in the air, or simply someone tossing about in bed. The blending of text and dance is indicated before the performance begins, when the text of the narration is projected, and moves across the panels.

Projections of trees rustling in the breeze begin the performance, so well incorporated into the whole that the audience can almost feel the breeze blowing through the theater.

One projection which impressed me was a simple one of a man lying in the bed, next to the live female dancer. Her body made impressions in the foam mattress as she moved, as did his, so that it was difficult to determine whether it was a real dancer or a projection, as the live and projected images blended seamlessly into each other.

“When I woke up it was green and frightening...the birds had arrived and they were insistent...” precedes the most impressive section of the work, a section which would have pleased Alfred Hitchcock, as the lead character is surrounded by birds projected from above and below.

“The Weight of Memory” blends memories, associations, and images together, in a multimedia extravaganza which creates a unique theatrical experience.