Friday, October 12, 2007

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

While I was not permitted to review Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, by the Davis Musical Theatre Company's Young People's Theatre, because the newspaper policy is to not review children's theatre, I decided to write and post a review anyway.

This is an amazing production. Credit goes to MJ Seminoff & Emily Jo Seminoff, who directed, choreographed, and designed the sets and costumes. The sets reflected the shoestring budget, but when you have a cast of 47 talented kids on stage, you can forgive a bit of skimping in the set department.

Katie Quiring, Tyler Warren and Erin Carpenter also helped with choreography and the cheography is one of the strengths of this production, as each scene gave such a delightful "tableau," each different from the one before. Partly this was due to the size of the cast, but much was due not only to the design of the numbers, but the crispness of the performers. (I particularly liked Joseph's brothers popping their heads in from the side of the stage.)

Costumes were inventive, using things that kids would wear anyway (matching jeans and tennis shoes) with a bit of "costume" on top and delightful headgear. Joe's coat, designed by Jez Cicero was one of the best I've seen in prior community theatre productions I've reviewed. Truly spectacular.

As for the cast, it was exemplary. The role of the narrator was divided up among three singers, Caitlin Humphreys, Kennedy Wenning and Rebecca Rudy, who blended well and who each had good solo voices.

Chris Peterson, as Joseph, was simply outstanding. His bio in the lobby says he has been performing since age 6 and has done 30 shows and his experience shows. Not only is he completely at home on stage, but he has a terrific voice that never wavered once.

Joseph's brothers gave great performances. I don't know why, after so many years with the high school jazz choir, but I'm always surprised to find a chorus of young men, in their mid-teens, who are comfortable singing and dancing on stage, and who do it better than some adult choruses I've seen over the years. Little Matthew Fyhrie, as Benjamin, was adorable. In some ways he reminded me of puppy Mabel, stuck in with all the big guys, but mimicking their every move and doing it very well.

Soloists in various numbers, Nora Unkel in "One More Angel," Mark Lillya in "Caanan Days" and Meek Craig in "Benjamin Calypso" did a great job. When Craig reprised her song during the curtain call, her movements were so fluid she appeared to have no bones at all.

Staging for "One More Angel" was such fun, with Noel Parente playing the goat the brothers slaughter to convince their father of Joseph's death.

Andrew Lemons was somewhat sabotaged, as both father Jacob and the Pharaoh, by a faulty microphone which prevented his voice from being heard most of the time. Still as the Elvis-Pharaoh he gyrated nicely and deserved the screams of the girls.

The Ishmaelites, Alex Totah, Danika Carlisle, Ella Gallawa, Guiliana Salerno, Jumi Nanakida, Eric Nishiyama, Maria Martinelli, Matt Lemons and Sally Li were adorable, all being the youngest members in the cast, all made up with long beards.

By any standards, adult or children's theatre, this was a terrific show. The theatre was nearly full tonight and is almost sold out for the three remaining performances, so I guess word has got about and people are coming to see it, even without a review!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Of Mice and Men

With “Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck invented a new form of writing, the “play-novelette,” a novel that could be played from its lines or a play that could be read as a novel. It was first produced on Broadway in 1937, revived on Broadway in 1974 and again in Chicago in 1980. There was a movie in 1939, another in 1992, and two television productions, in 1968 and 1981, as well as a Turkish television production, “Fareler ve insanlar” in 1975.

This timeless classic story of solitude, longing and deep friendship has struck a chord with people around the world and rings true as much today as it did 70 years ago.

The Sacramento Theater Company production, directed by Michael Stevenson, remains faithful to Steinbeck’s original script – and the production is stunning.

The story centers around George and Lenny, farm workers who travel from job to job, trying to get together enough money to buy their own place and “live off the fat of the land.” George is the leader of the two, because he’s the one with the brains.

The classic description of Lenny is of a physically large, powerful man whose mind is slow and childlike. It is the way I have always seen the part played. Stevenson’s decision to make Lenny not only slow, but also obviously retarded was unusual.

That said, however, Matt K. Miller (George) and Jason Kuykendall (Lenny) turn in flawless performances. I can only assume that Kuykendall has spent a lot of time observing retarded people. Not only his speech pattern, but his body language, hand and facial movements were so convincing the “actor” got lost in the “character.” Lenny is a big-hearted man who loves to stroke soft things, but has no concept of his physical strength and can easily kill small, weak things without meaning to.

Miller’s George is a quick-tempered bulldog of a man who is both frustrated with Lenny, and at the same time feeling a brotherly love for him and a need to protect his friend at all costs, even when the “cost” is so very high.

Much of the play revolves around conversations between Lenny and George, George’s tirades at Lenny for his inability to remember simple commands, contrasted with the story that Lenny always wants George to tell him, about the place they will own, what they will grow and especially the rabbits that Lenny so passionately wants to raise and care for.

The supporting cast of this production is on a par with Miller and Kuykendall, all turning in outstanding performances.

Brett Williams is Slim, the “mule driver,” and perhaps unofficial leader of the ranchands. He’s a likeable guy and becomes a friend to George.

David Silberman gives heart and soul to Candy, who lost his hand in a farming accident and sees the writing on the wall for his future on the ranch. Candy’s one love is his old dog, literally on his last legs.

Aaron Wilton is Curley, the son of the Boss (Floyd Harden), a jealous man with a beautiful new bride, a chip on his shoulder and a hair trigger temper.

Vivian Kerr is Curley’s wife (never named), who is already bored with her new husband and bored with life on the ranch where she longs for someone to talk to. The ranch hands regard her as a slut, but Kerr gives her a sympathetic innocence.

Eddie Jackson is Crooks, the Negro blacksmith, who must sleep in separate quarters because the races don’t mix. He’s bitter and sardonic and sees George and Lenny’s plan to own their own place for what it is: an impossible dream.

The last two farmhands are David Campfield as Whit and David Pierini as Carlson, an angry, self-indulgent man without a soul.

Arthur Rotch is scenic and lighting designer for this production, effectively creating the barren landscape of the Salinas Valley and the rustic out-buildings of a run-down farmhouse. Though not, strictly speaking, a part of the production itself, the silhouettes created by the farm structures against the backdrop during set changes are striking in and of themselves.

Michael Stevenson has treated this Steinbeck classic with reverence and has directed a production which is exceptional. Miller and Kuykendall have created characters who will not soon be forgotten. The production is top notch all the way.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Music Man

I can only assume that someone slipped some adrenalin into the punch backstage during the intermission on opening night of Woodland Opera House’s production of “The Music Man.” The difference between Act 1 and Act 2 was striking.

When we left the theater at the end of the show, we noticed that all of the cast photos were hanging on the board, as usual, but there were no labels identifying who was who. This led me to believe that the problem opening night was that the production, directed by Angela Shellhammer with musical direction by Laura Snell, just wasn’t as ready as everyone hoped it would be.

All the elements for an excellent show are in place. It’s visually stunning, with one glaring exception. The choreography by Shellhammer and Eva Sarry is creative and technically well executed. The performers all have impressive credentials and some were excellent on opening night, but not all. There is a nice pit band, though someone in the horn section needed to brush up a bit on “the think system” before the next performance.

Everyone was working very hard, but there was just a terrible lack of energy in Act 1. Oh they worked their little tails off, but “Music Man,” Meredith Wilson’s paean to small town America, circa 1912, is a snappy show with a lot of sizzle and Act 1 had neither snap nor sizzle.

Rodger McDonald makes a great Harold Hill, the swindler who makes his living selling non-existent boys’ bands. He has a strong voice and wonderful chemistry with Gina Marchitiello as Marian Paroo, the town librarian. Unfortunately McDonald had an inordinate number of dropped lines and bungled lyrics. He covered nicely, but the fluffs were noticeable.

Marchitiello has a lovely voice and was spot-on throughout. Her Marian strikes just the right balance between indignant, suspicious librarian and the woman whose heart softens as she gets to know Harold.

Her mother, Mrs. Paroo, was played by Nancy Agee, who created a likeable character who is pushing her daughter into a relationship with the stranger in town.

Jeff Nauer was outstanding as Marcellus Washburn, Harold’s old accomplice, now living a “straight” life with a sweet girlfriend (Jessica Larrick as Ethel Toffelmier). His “Shipoopi” at the start of Act 2 set the stage for the energized act to follow.

Particularly endearing was Samuel Stapp as the shy, lisping Winthrop, whose life is turned around by Harold and the anticipation of the boys’ band.

Abby Miles was cute as Amarylis, who is sweet on Winthrop, but who teases him anyway. Her duet with Marian was charming.

Casey Camacho played the town “bad” kid, Tommy Djilas and did a wonderful job, as did Kendra Evans as Zanetta Shinn, his girlfriend and the mayor’s oldest girl.

Mayor and Mrs. Shinn need to be larger than life. The mayor is a pompous blowhard with the eloquence of George W.Bush and his wife Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn should take center stage whenever she appears. Unfortunately, whether due to actor decisions or stage directions Stephen Kauffman and Nancy Streeter did not fill the bill. Kauffman’s halting, befuddled delivery actually managed to kill each laugh twice. A line like “I don’t think I could be clearer if I was a buttonhook in the wellwater” usually gets laughs, but when you stop after “buttonhook,” there is no laugh. Nor is there a laugh after you add “in the wellwater.” It just doesn’t work, but most of the mayor’s lines were delivered in that manner.

Streeter gave a fine performance, but it didn’t do credit to Eulalie. For example, when all the women are arguing about who is going to tell Harold a bit of gossip, Eulalia should roar “I’ll tell!” not interrupt in normal tone of voice. Eulalie knows she’s a figurehead and she needs to act like one.

The barbershop quartet of Harry Baertschi, Kent Borrowdale, Wayne Raymond and Jim Newlove improved as the show progressed.

The costumes for the show were outstanding, as one has come to expect from costumer, Laurie Everly-Klassen. So it seemed very strange that anvil salesman Charlie Cowell (Andrew Hyun) was put in a skin-head wig which flapped about on his neck, fooled no one and was only a distraction.

Past experience with Woodland Opera House has led me to believe that this show really just needed a couple of more rehearsals. It’s hard to do a bad “Music Man” and this is basically a very good show. As it settles into the run, I’m sure the wrinkles will get ironed out (and the skin head wig glued down more securely).

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dirty Story

Don’t read this review.

I’m serious.

Ever since I left Capital Stage Friday night, I thought about how to write this review without giving away one of the most clever plot twists that I have seen...and unless I want to make the review only one or two paragraphs, there just ain’t no way. part of the review. If you are at all intrigued – and I hope you will be – I’ll let you know when to stop reading! This is definitely a show you will go home talking about. If you are familiar with the previous works of playwright John Patrick Shanley (I was not), the twists and turns might not be quite as surprising as they are to those who are new to this writer.

As the play begins, it seems to be a heavy drama with dialog that would rival David Mamet for length and rapid-fire delivery. Wanda (Stephanie Gularte) is an idealistic young writer who has sent the manuscript of her novel to the writer she worships, Brutus (Scott Coopwood). The two meet at a Manhattan Park, occupied also by a quiet British man (Timothy Orr), who is, like Brutus, playing a game of chess with himself.

Brutus rages at Wanda, tearing her novel to shreds with his criticism, telling her the only advice he can give her is to throw it away and start all over again. "Never write a book like this again. Confine yourself to nonfiction. Better yet, restrict yourself to reading. Your manuscript has no understanding of the possible, much less the utterly unoriginal, very long ‘what if?’...It’s all sugar and no sh*t."

Wanda returns with passion and admits that "I want to improve myself and I’m willing to pay the price."

Abruptly Brutus calls an end to their meeting and we move to scene 2, Brutus’ apartment in the Meat District. The non-stop conversation continues, but it’s getting a little weird. Brutus confesses turning for inspiration to old movies, such as "The Perils of Pauline." He even has a costume he wears while watching the movie. He’s performing a perfectly choreographed verbal dance as he gets Wanda into the outfit, the wig and offers to take her photo dressed as Pauline, despite her misgivings.

"You’re obviously afraid, entrenched, unimaginative, and bourgeois. You wanna know why your writing doesn’t penetrate? Because you’re gutless."

It’s all very funny and she’s laughing about it when suddenly it isn’t funny any more. Ropes are involved. A chain saw is involved. Suddenly it begin to seem like some sort of sick sado-masochistic relationship.

Just as in "The Perils of Pauline," the boyfriend Frank (Harry Harris) arrives in the nick of time, kicking in the door to rescue the fair damsel, who orders him from the room, stating that she can take care of herself.

"Don’t feel bad, Frank," says Brutus. "It’s modern life. Either you’re the villain or the victim. Those are the only roles available. No one is exempt." can stop reading now.

As Act 2 begins, it’s a whole new world. A saloon. Timothy Orr ("Lawrence," the quiet Brit from Act 1) is now "Watson," a bartender and Frank appears to be the saloon owner, swaggering about, lording it over Watson, who remembers the day when he was in charge and Frank was his minion.

Call me slow, but it’s not until Wanda arrives that the brilliance of this story began to reveal itself as a political allegory on the Israeli-Palestine situation. It’s only as the Act 2 dialog progresses that we see how it all ties in with what has been said in Act 1, as Wanda begins to talk about the apartment she has been sharing with Brutus and how it originally belonged to her grandfather (she has the deed to prove it), and she wants Brutus out. It becomes clear that Frank represents the United States, Watson is Great Britain, Wanda is Israel and Brutus is Palestine and the verbal interplay among the characters is delicious.

Shanley reduces the whole history of Israel/Palestine to its least common denominator and gives the audience a lot of belly laughs along the way (particularly the cartoonish character of Frank, a combination of George W.Bush and Uncle Sam).

The cast of this show is top notch. Gularte again displays a range of talent from the dramatic to the absurd in the blink of an eye. Coopwood is a powerful Brutus, bestriding the narrow world like a colossus. Harris is over the top as Frank and playing the perfect buffoon. Orr makes an amazing impact with his understated performance.

Jonathan Williams has directed a first-rate political satire and one that will not quickly be forgotten.