Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Every Christmas Story Ever Told

If you’re trying to decide which of this season’s holiday theatrical offerings to attend, why not just see them all at one sitting?

Capital Stage Company is presenting “Every Christmas Story Ever Told!!” by Michael Carleton, John Alvarez and Jim Fitzgerald with original music by Will Knapp, directed by Greg Alexander. It is, in a nutshell, hilarious.

A man sitting behind me told his companions that he had seen the play the year before but had laughed so much that he didn’t remember a lot of it, so had returned to see it again. That pretty much sums it up.

In the same vein as the “reduced Shakespeare” productions, the authors have taken just about every beloved holiday story ever told, added a bit of Christmas history from around the world (who knew that Christmas had such a black side?) and a few familiar classic Christmas commercials, and blended them all more or less seamlessly into about an hour and a half of laughter. The play ends with a zany rendition of every Christmas carol ever sung, complete with choreography. Sort of.

Of course, the thing that makes all this zaniness work is three incredible actors, Eric Wheeler, Gary S. Martinez, and Anthony D’Juan, playing, conveniently “Eric,” “Gary,” and “Anthony.”

Eric is the one who wants to put on a traditional version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” the way it was written and who tries valiantly to do so, though his fellow actors are tired of doing only Dickens and want to salute all the other “B.H.C.s” (beloved holiday classics) instead. Eric finally relents, on the condition that he also be allowed to perform the straight version of “A Christmas Carol” too.

The trio elicits suggestions from the audience for favorite movies, television programs, Christmas foods, traditions, commercials, etc. It doesn’t stop at Christmas, but also gives a nod to Chanukah ("It bears similarities to other Jewish festivals: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat!") and Kwanzaa ("The best part of Kwanzaa is that you'll never see a special called 'A Very Brady Kwanzaa'.")

But the meat of the show is the retelling of all the stories you know so well.

Wheeler gets a chance to display his comic expertise as such characters as the Grinch, Hermey (the elf who wants to be a dentist in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) and, in act 2, makes a terrific Scrooge/George Baily in a salute to “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

D’Juan is hilarious in all of his roles, but especially as the Ghost of Christmas Future, where he does an unbelievable charade.

Martinez is loveable in a “cowardly lion” sort of way, a big man with the gentleness and simplicity of a child, bringing all the heart-tugging moments. He gives a beautiful rendition of Linus’ “True Meaning of Christmas” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and he plays nearly all the characters (except George Bailey) from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the midst of all the frenzy on stage, Martinez becomes the heart of the season.

They nearly don’t do “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” because of copyright infringement problems, but decide it’s OK if the hero becomes Gustav the Green-nosed Reingoat,

A section on fruitcake gives an opportunity to revisit the set of the old “Dating Game” and there are salutes to Christmas in Australia and in W(h)ales. Over the course of the 60 minute first act, nearly every well known Christmas show is covered, even if it is only in bad puns or passing comments.

During the 15 minute intermission, the audience is invited to participate in another BHC tradition – buying stuff (candy, drinks, subscriptions to the rest of this year’s season, etc.)

Act two is only twenty minutes long and is designed to be the Eric’s promised “A Christmas Carol” until Gary realizes that they have forgotten “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Not until you have seen these two shows interwoven do you realize how much alike the two classics are. (Wheeler also does a pretty good Jimmy Stewart impression.)

Jonathan Williams has designed a clever utilitarian set that folds and unfolds. Rebecca Redmond is credited with costume design–and some of those quick changes are quite ingenious. The lighting design of Steve Decker and sound design of Brad Thompson are also critical to the effectiveness of this play.

Save yourself a bit of extra time for holiday shopping by getting your fix of BHCs in one spot. “Every Christmas Story Ever Told!!” is an absolute delight. Evening start times for this show only are 7 p.m., so the kids can enjoy it as well.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Noises Off

(the review)

Done right, Michael Frayn’s hilarious farce, “Noises Off” is probably the funniest comedy you’ll ever see on any stage. It requires impeccable split-second timing, incredible agility, a breakneck pace, and even for an American cast, a proper British accent.

Set designer John Iacovelli describes it as “daunting for even professionals.”

Thanks to director Jules Aaron and a fabulous cast, “Noises Off” is “done right” on UCD’s Main Stage, where those who will be fortunate enough to obtain tickets (opening night was nearly sold out) will have the opportunity to laugh until their sides ache until December 2.

“Noises Off” (which refers to sounds which are meant to be heard from offstage) is the story of a hapless English acting troupe who are touring a production of a farce called “Nothing On.” It is a comedy in three acts, the first of which is the dress rehearsal for the play, which is opening the next day. Matt Rapore is perfect as the director, “Lloyd,” who sits in the audience and despairs of ever getting things right before opening night.

Act 2, which is almost more mime than actual recited lines, takes place at a matinee performance one month later, as seen from backstage, when the cast has been together long enough that interpersonal relationships are starting to interfere with the performance on stage. The stage manager, Poppy (Kate McGrath) gets a chance to shine in Act 2, and shine she does, suitably harried by the antics of the actors, and struggling with her own personal problems.

By Act 3, the tour has fallen apart and everyone is just trying to get through the last performance, which they barely do. It’s hard to know which is the funnier, Act 2 or Act 3. There are also a lot of sardines involved.

When I interviewed the actors a week ago, I learned that some had extensive stage experience, and at least one had never been on stage in a performance before. Director Aaron has created such a well-run machine that it would be impossible to pick out the veterans from the neophytes. All turn in excellent performances.

Amy Kronzer, as Dotty/Mrs. Clackett (the former being her real name and the latter her name in the play within the play) is an excellent character actress. The young Kronzer was completely believable as the over-the-hill dotty Dotty, who can never quite remember her lines or her blocking. Dotty is the anchor around which most of the action revolves and Kronzer takes her job of being very funny very seriously.

John Crosthwait is the elderly, alcoholic, nearly-deaf Selsdon, who plays a Burglar in the play and who really isn’t ever sure where he is or what he’s doing. Crosthwait could not be better at bringing this character to life.

Looking better than anyone should look in lingerie is Emily Somers as the empty-headed Brooke/Vicki. Somers (who assures me she really is a brunette) is the ideal vacuous blonde, obsessed with her looks and her figure and oblivious to everything around her.

Samuel Hardie is hilarious as the inarticulate Gary/Roger, who thinks he is making helpful suggestions, but who never actually finishes a thought. His is an amazingly athletic role and some of the things he is able to do are incredible. Gary, perhaps more than most, needs to be razor sharp, and Hardie is.

Belinda/Flavia is the peacemaker. She is the one who always tries to calm people but doesn’t help much when she spreads gossip about her fellow cast members. Alice Vasquez handles this task quite well. She may not have the same amount of slapstick that most of her fellow cast members do, but she’s perfectly suited for the part.

Ben Moroski is the mild-mannered Frederick/Philip, who is susceptible to nosebleeds at the mere mention of violence, yet manages to have several pratfalls of his own throughout the evening.

Matthew Kronzer is very funny as the laconic Tim, the overworked stagehand / bookkeeper / understudy.

An imposing solidly built set is integral to the performance of this multi-door comedy and designer John Iacovelli’s set fills the bill magnificently. Stage manager Emily Hartman, whose job it is to keep everything running smoothly is an unsung heroine of this play and must be given kudos for a job well done.

While a review doesn’t generally mention the printed program, this one, by Maish Simon, Lily Wong, Melanie B. Glover and Janice Bisgaard is not to be missed–be sure to read it carefully.

They say laughter is great medicine. If such is the case, this production of “Noises Off” is the perfect therapy for the woes of your day to day life!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Virgo: Hebrew Rising

The Sacramento Theater Company program cover describes comedian Brian Diamond’s one-man show, "Virgo: Hebrew Rising" as "anxiety done to perfection." Personally, I found it a bit "over done."

Diamond is the son of two deaf parents, one Jewish and one German, raised as the only white kid in Compton, California, and later a trailer trash kid in a more affluent area of Pollock Pines. He was a funny looking kid with weight problems and a lazy eye, while his brother Lance was handsome and popular.

Diamond is someone who has seen a lot of pain and frustration in his life. Following in the footsteps of countless comedians and monologists before him, the comedian took his pain and turned it into an act, perhaps finding the sharing of his life and his problems with an anonymous audience as therapeutic (and more profitable) than working things out in psychotherapy.

Combining bits from his comedy routines with speculation about the factors which have made him he is the way he is, and slide shows of his family and friends, Diamond attempts to sort out the complexities he sees in his life.

"I have no control over my life or my career. I have no job, no money and no girlfriend. My life’s a country western song!"

The jumping off point for all this introspection is his break-up with his live-in girlfriend Shana, whom he loves very much. Instead of being emotionally distraught by her leaving, he is more upset by the fact that his living expenses just doubled. He gives a complicated (and funny) financial calculation balancing the decision about finding a new apartment with keeping the old one and paying Shana’s part of the rent. And he wonders why he is more concerned with money than he is with the loss of the love of his life. When did he become the guy who found money so important? Is it because he grew up not having any?

Over the course of the hour and 45 minutes (about 45 minutes too long), he asks rhetorical questions about why this part of his life is that way it is, and why that part of his life is the way it is. He wonders whether it is nature or nurture. For example, is he neat, orderly, and methodical because he was born a Virgo, or because that’s how he was raised. (As the Aquarian daughter of a Virgo mother and the mother of a Virgo son, I enjoyed this section)

The best part of the material comes early in the show, as he gives the audience an idea of the pros and cons of growing up with deaf parents (how it affects his relationship with the administration of his various schools is particularly funny). He also uses more sign language more during this section of the show and one gets a fascinating view of what it’s like to both speak and sign at the same time.

The prologue emphasizes the dual ethnicities of Diamond’s parents, though the comedian himself seems to dwell on his Jewish father and his Jewish ethnicity and we learn little about his German mother, except that she seems to have bonded with several unsavory men over a period of time. We don’t learn what role he feels the German part of his ethnicity has played in making him the man he is today.

Diamond is a likeable guy and his material is funny in a gentle rather than a "socko" sort of way. It is a pleasant evening, but the material does begin to wear thin after the first hour.

The piece is directed by Matt Foyer, with a simple set by Myke Kunkel and lighting by Dale Marshall.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Noises Off

(The feature article)

Ten people stood in a circle in the middle of the living room of the mansion. They shook their hands, shook their feet, grabbed their tongues, wiggled their buttocks, rolled their heads, and recited tongue twisters like “Betty Botter bought some butter, but she said the butter’s bitter...”

It was just a normal warm-up preceding the night’s rehearsal of Michael Frayne’s hilarious comedy, “Noises Off,” opening at the UC Davis main theater on Thursday, November 15, under the direction of Granada Artist-in-Residence, Jules Aaron.

Frayne got the idea for his play while standing backstage, watching Lynn Redgrave in “Chinamen,” a farce he had written for her. He realized that what was going on backstage was as funny, if not funnier, than what was happening on stage and decided he would write a play which would reflect that.

“Noises Off” (which refers to sounds which are meant to be heard from offstage) is the story of a hapless English acting troupe who are touring a production of a farce called “Nothing On.” It is a comedy in three acts, the first of which is the dress rehearsal for the play, which is opening that night. Act 2 is a matinee performance one month later, as seen from backstage, and Act 3 is a performance near the end of the 10 week run when everyone is bored and anxious to be finished with the play. The comedy involves the mishaps that occur during the performance and the friction among the actors involved in the fictitious show. There is a lot of slapstick comedy involved.

“We’re trying to connect the physicality of the play by doing exercises,” Aaron explains to me, as he passes in front of me and shouts to the cast, ““Don’t lose track of the musicality of it, but make it make sense.”

“The warm ups are really important for this show because it’s so physically demanding,” explained assistant director Stephanie Wilcox. “The actors also have the British accents to master. It’s difficult to wrap your mouth around some of the lines if you haven’t warmed up. We do an extensive warm up every night to make sure they’re really ready to go and have the extra energy to say everything and run around, especially in Act 2.”

“It’s a beast of a show,” laughs Emily Hartman, stage managing her very first show at UC Davis (though she had done a bit in high school and assistant stage managed four shows last year.) “It’s a baptism by fire,” she adds. “I wouldn’t suggest all stage managers start with a show like this, but you can’t drown, so you just have to keep swimming.”

Jules Aaron praises Hartman and Wilcox for being invaluable to the production. “‘Noises Off’ definitely ranks with the most difficult plays I’ve directed,” he said. “It easily ranks with doing a Broadway sized musical or doing a very large Shakespeare, where there is difficult text to work with or there’s difficult integration of music and choreography.”

Aaron knows whereof he speaks. This year’s Granada Artist-in-Residence has directed more than 250 stage and television productions. His credits include 18 Drama-Logue Awards, three Backstage Garland Awards, and four Bay Area Theater awards, among many others.

A long-time friend of Emmy award winning set designer John Iacovelli, who teaches in UCD’s MFA design program (“This may be the 40th show we’ve done together over the past 20 years,” said Iacovelli), Aaron was brought to UC Davis specifically to direct this show. He is delighted to be living in Davis.

“I knew a lot about Davis because John and I are friends and I’ve heard stories for years, but it didn’t quite prepare me for the town, which is so interesting. I was only here four days when I decided there was no way I wasn’t going to have a bicycle. It’s so great because there are no hills. Everything is flat,” he gushed.

He took himself to the annual police bike sale and bought a yellow bike. “I probably paid more than most people pay, but I had to have the yellow bike. There was a serious bidding war between me and another person.”

The director also loves the feel of a campus town. He taught for 20 years at Cal Arts in Valencia and ran their MFA program for 17. “Cal Arts is like a big box with corridors and no sense of
‘campus,’” he described. He now does projects for the American Academy of Dramatic Art, at its Los Angeles campus. “That also is just a kind of a block of a building with a couple of bungalows,” he said, “...but faced with this campus which is really a campus... and the most eclectic buildings I’ve ever seen. When I did my first walk thru I was amazed at the architecture. It’s wild and it’s so large. I’ve done the acting program at UC Riverside and I’ve taught at USC and at the Cal States, so I’ve been at a variety of campuses but this is certainly the biggest and most eclectic of any I’ve been on.”

Arriving at UC Davis, Aaron was pleased with the quality of the Department of Theater and Dance, especially his “Noises Off” cast. “They are a good bunch of people and they bring a very good energy to the project. They have mutual respect for each other, which is very important. They respect the stage manager. They’ve been trained well in that sense.”

For Amy Kronzer, a native of Nevada City who is playing the role of Dottie, the theater diva who can barely remember her lines, Aaron has been a dream to work with. Kronzer, who has been acting since she was a young child and formed her own theater group at age 16, glows. “I’ve never been so prepared for a show before. Usually we’re still working on things up to the last minute, but for this show, we were ready a long time ago, so we could really dive into these characters and make them our own because we were so prepared.”

Amy’s brother Tim is doing his first comedy. “It’s quite a stretch for me, but Jules is fantastic.”

“It’s a great experience,” said Emily Somers, playing the ditzy blonde Brooke. “Jules is a professional and for those of us who want to work in professional theater some day, it’s a great opportunity to work with a director who has had this experience.”

Somers may have one of the more complicated roles to play. “She’s the traditional ditz but she thinks she’s a serious actress. She’s very serious about her exercises, her warm-ups and everything about acting, so she takes it very seriously. Playing bad acting and trying to do it well is a fun challenge.”

All of the cast love working on the huge set, particularly Samuel Hardie, appearing on stage for the first time. Hardie is a design major who felt that seeing things from an actor’s point of view would help him become a better designer. “When everything is so dependent on the set, you need a set designer who has paid close attention. Only as an actor can you truly appreciate the details that are involved in it.”

John Iacovelli’s set was originally created for a production in San Jose, after which it moved to the Pasadena Playhouse and then the Marines Memorial theater in San Francisco, where it had to be lifted 2-1/2 stories on a steep hill and loaded through a window. “The funny thing was that we all started living the lives of the people in the show,” laughed Iacovelli. “It was like living in some third dimension. Every so often people would jump from the 1st to 3rd act. It was only terrifying to us because we were the only ones who knew how screwed up it got.”

Iacovelli also had high praise for what he has seen of the university’s production. “I was really impressed with how well these student actors are doing with this show that is daunting for even professionals.”

John Crosthwaite was brought in “out of retirement” to do the character role of the elderly, nearly deaf Selsdon. Crosthwaite is also helping with fight choreography. “I do a lot of improv comedy and this is one of the crazier things I’d ever seen,” he laughed. “There is some pretty advanced farce stuff. Safety is huge because at any moment someone could just fall or a door could take someone’s nose off.”

“We’ve done several safety trainings,” added Hartman. “There are so many doors. So many possibilities for things to go wrong if the actors are not aware of their surroundings.”

Matt Rapore gets the job of keeping everyone in line, in the role of the director, Lloyd. “My role is slightly different from other people in the play because I’m sitting in the audience for almost the whole first act. I have to separate myself from the actors and play that director. I’ve looked to Jules and other directors I’ve worked with for inspiration to formulate this character. Michael Frayne’s play is so complex and technical but if it’s done well and done right it can be one of the funniest plays ever. Hopefully we’ll have people keeling over with laughter.”

Watching the cast go through their paces during rehearsal, there is little doubt in my mind that people will indeed be “keeling over with laughter” as they watch the antics of this dedicated, well-drilled cast.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


It was during the chase scene at the start of act 2 of the Davis Musical Theater Company’s new production of Lerner & Lowe’s “Brigadoon” that the age-old question was finally answered. A soft murmur went through the audience as we realized that we finally knew what a Scotsman wears under his kilt.

Brigadoon is a fairytale about a mysterious village in the highlands of Scotland which, thanks to “the miracle,” only appears one day every hundred years. For the townsfolk, life goes on a usual, but every morning when they awake, 100 years has passed in the outside world. “The miracle” was an agreement between the town cleric and God to spare the inhabitants from the threat of witches. The only threat to the village now is extinction, if anyone were to actually leave and break the spell.

The set for this show (designed by Steve Isaacson) is beauty on a modest scale. There is a lovely arching bridge festooned with garlands of greenery. There is heather on a nearby hill, and, at the start of the show, there is a huge book which sets the theme of a “fairy tale” very nicely.

The opening song is a choral number. I have been consistently impressed with the quality of the choral ensembles for DMTC (Isaacson and Laura Marzluft are credited with Musical and Vocal Direction). Their rendition of the title song was hauntingly beautiful.

Into the picture come Tommy Albright (Brennan Cull), a young man looking for meaning in his life. Tommy is engaged to Jane (Sue Sablan), but there is something missing and he doesn’t know what it is. He has some on a hunting trip to Scotland with his friend Jeff Douglas (Michael McElroy), a sardonic sidekick with a drinking problem. The two are lost and trying to sort out their map, which places them exactly in the location of ... nothing.

Suddenly the mist begins to lift and there is a quaint little village. The townsfolk are in the midst of preparations for the wedding of Jean MacLaren (Katherine Coppola) and Charlie Dalrymple (J.R.Humbert) when the oddly dressed strangers arrive.

(The Learner & Lowe script does take a bit of suspension of disbelief. If the time table is to be believed, the villagers are living in 1746, yet they seem to know about “America.” But let that pass!)

Jean’s sister Fiona MacLaren (Caitlin Kiley) has been ruminating about the lack of love in her life and how she’s waiting for that special someone to come along (“Waiting for My Dearie”) when the disillusioned Tommy walks into her life. Can we guess where this plot is headed?

Once again, DMTC has assembled a stellar cast. Though Gene Kelly played Tommy in the M.G.M. musical, there is a lot of Bing Crosby about Cull’s appearance. Cull was last seen as Curly in Oklahoma and I don’t remember him having projection problems in that production. His voice, to be sure, is strong and clear and wonderful, but much of his dialog is lost because he speaks so softly. Still he gives a wonderful performance as a man falling in love for the first time and then facing the decision of whether to give up everything for the woman he thinks he loves, or lose her forever.

Kiley is a winsome Fiona, full of spirit and longing, not willing to settle for second best, yet yearning for a love of her own as she helps her sister prepare for her wedding.

Many in the cast are excellent, such as Humbert, the eager bridegroom with the big voice, and Lauren Miller, last seen as Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun,” as the lusty Meg Brockie, who quickly gloms onto Jeff and drags him off for a little canoodling.

Tony Gabrielson is Harry Beaton, Jean’s scorned suitor who threatens to bring an end to Brigadoon by leaving the village. In chasing Beaton to prevent him from leaving, the whole theater is used and townsfolk often pass Beaton in the process. There seems to be no logic why they would bump into Beaton and then continue to run past him. Again, another bit of suspension of disbelief.

All is forgiven, though, during the sword dance at Jean and Charlie’s wedding. Dancers Tony Gabrielson, Katherine Coppola, Chris Petersen, Scott Sablan, Ryan Westlake, Jabrille Shelton, Dian Hoel, Lorna deLeoz, Lindsay Dibben and Shannon Kendal deserve kudos for their perfectly executed dance.

A bagpiper, Chris Van Wart is listed in the program, but for some reason did not appear on stage for the funeral march. (A pity–I love the bagpipe!)

DMTC has a hit on their hands with this production, as evidenced by the near capacity audience at the Hoblit Performing Arts Center on opening night.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Whistle Down the Wind

Hundreds of people went knocking on the door of the Sacramento Community Center Theater on Halloween evening, asking “trick or treat.” Which they got is up for debate.

The Andrew Lloyd Webber/Jim Steinman musical, “Whistle Down the Wind” can best be described as Elmer Gantry meets The Music Man, with a bit of racism and every western you’ve ever seen thrown in for good measure.

There is only one way to review this show, and that is to divide it up into two parts – the performances themselves, and then the show itself.

A woman I spoke with in the parking lot after the show said that it was “...uh...’thought provoking.’” I think she was being kind. “Mind boggling” is closer to it. It’s Lloyd Webber, so there is the hum-able tune which is reprised countless times throughout the evening until it becomes an ear worm (a song you can’t get out of your head) as you walk back to your car. The tune was pleasant enough, but the rest of the music was essentially forgettable.

The story was just “off.” It was as if this is what someone from England thought that an American classic would look like. (It’s what Woody Allen might have done to “Oliver Twist,” were the tables turned.) There’s the good kid. There’s the bad kid. There’s the black kid who’s OK sometimes, but other times is subject to blatant discrimination for no discernible reason (except that she likes the bad kid). There’s a revival meeting which seems to have little purpose except to do a song about snakes. And there’s the posse which is hunting an escaped convict and is out for blood, as are all southern posses, of course.

What bothered me the most was that the story takes place in a small town in Louisiana in the 1950s. People have lived in this town for generations. Everybody knows everybody else. Yet some of the townsfolk speak with very strong Louisiana accents–some of the time. Other townsfolk never show a sign of an accent–ever. In the principal family, there are three children and a father. The two youngest children have very thick accents; the father and oldest daughter have no accent.

And then there’s the nasty sheriff who snarls “Le’s go git him,” straight out of some stereotypical Western. Stuff like that, along with the perennial problem of sound system distortion making the dialogue of all of the children unintelligible, tend to prevent you from becoming immersed in the story.

That’s the “trick” part. The “treat” part is that there is little to fault with the performances. Andrea Ross is dazzling as “Swallow,” the oldest daughter in a family which has just lost its mother. She radiates goodness, sincerity and gullibility. She has a beautiful voice and she is the girl would be proud to have as your daughter.

Eric Kunze is “The man” Andrea finds sleeping in her barn, the man whose first words, as a bolt of lightning wakes him up are “Jesus Christ!” leading the devoutly religious Andrea to believe that he is the Son of God, the answer to her prayers. Kunze is an intense, angry man who begins to show a more human side as Andrea doggedly believes in his divinity.

Of course he’s not really Jesus. Or is he? A spectacular conflagration at the end raises questions about that point which are left to the audience to answer for themselves.

There are enough holes in this story to make it look like Swiss cheese. There is a great problem with believability and not really enough good music to make it worth the price of admission. So I’m afraid I left the theater with my trick or treat bag empty.

The Martian Child, a Love Story

There was a Martian mopping my kitchen floor.

The Martian’s Dad told me that Martians love to clean.

The Martian’s real name is Sean and he is the adopted son of science fiction author David Gerrold (perhaps best known for being the writer of Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles.”). Sean’s story, “The Martian Child” is about to be released as a movie, starring John Cusack with Bobby Coleman playing the role of Dennis, the boy who believes he’s a Martian. (Sean legally changed his name from “Dennis”at the same time that his adoption was finalized.)

Gerrold always wanted a child, but as a single gay man, the route for him was obviously adoption. He had already spent more than a year filling out forms and submitting to interviews. “The hardest thing about adoption is that you have to ask someone to trust you with a child,” he says.

In 1992, Gerrold attended the National Conference of the Adoptive Families of America in Los Angeles. While there, he wandered into a room with “rows of tables and heart-tugging displays. Organizations. Agencies. Children in Eastern Europe. Children in Latin America. Asian children. Children with special needs. Photo listings, like real estate albums. Turn the pages, look at the eyes, the smiles, the needs...”

Then he saw the picture that changed his life. It was at the back of a book from the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services. The photo had been added by someone as an afterthought on the day of the conference.

It was a snapshot of a boy with a bike on a sunny, tree-lined sidewalk. “He was caught in the act of shouting or laughing at whoever was holding the camera,” Gerrold remembers. “His blond hair was wild...his eyes shone like stars behind his glasses, his expression was raucous and exuberant.” Gerrold felt that he had found “his” son.

He arranged for a meeting with Dennis’ case worker, where he learned that the boy’s mother was a substance abuser and alcoholic who had abandoned her 1½ year old child in a motel room. His father had died of a self-induced overdose. By 1992, the boy had already been in eight foster homes, and abused in two of them. He was hyperactive, with attention deficit disorder and possible fetal alcohol syndrome. He was classified as “hard to place,” a euphemism for “unadoptable.”

After a lengthy process which included more conferences with social workers and trial visits with Dennis, Gerrold was given the OK to start the adoption process.

This was not an instant “happily ever after” story. Dennis had already been sent away from so many places that he expected the adoption to fail too and he tested the limits. “I had to prove to him that nothing he could do would make me quit, that he was finally in a home where he was loved and nurtured and where he could thrive,” the boy’s father said.

Dennis threw tantrums. “The first time he had a tantrum, I held him in a basket hug for 45 minutes,” said Gerrold. “I told him ‘I’m not giving up on you.’” The next time he only had to hold him for 20 minutes, and by the third tantrum, the boy admitted. “I don’t want to act like this any more.”

It was within the first few months of Dennis’ adoption process that Gerrold got the idea for “The Martian Child.” He was at a party where some women were talking about their children while the kids were playing in the swimming pool.

“They were talking about one of the little girls who thought she was a Martian. At the word ‘Martian’ my ears picked up. The mother explained that her little girl felt she had been implanted in the mom’s tummy. Right away I’m thinking ‘what can I do with that?’”

Gerrold thought that it would be funny if Dennis were really a Martian, but the boy said he was not. “That screwed up a beautiful story idea,” he laughed, “but I wrote the story as if he had answered yes.”

There was lots of material from which to draw. The father and son had been playing games, such as guessing color of M&Ms , wishing for stop lights to turn green, wishing for baseball players to hit home runs. At one point Dennis, always afraid that his luck would change again, said that Gerrold was making him use up all his wishes on trivial things. “No, you can have as many wishes as you want,” his father reassured him. This conversation became a part of the story.

“Almost everything in the story is true,” said Gerrold. “I wanted to capture how much I loved my kid. All of the neat stuff. I began to tweak pieces of dialog. It all fit together that Dennis’ Martian wish was to have a dad.”

Gerrold finished his novelette in 1993, about the time Dennis turned 9. “We had been together 9 months and had reached a point where we had a real father/son relationship. I was having a great time being his dad. The story had become a love letter.”

“I thought it was neat that someone would take time to write a book about my life and to include me in something special like that,” the adult Sean (now 23) remembers. “I was really proud of my dad.”

The problem was that publishers didn’t know what to do with the story. It wasn’t, strictly speaking “science fiction,” yet the Martian aspect took it out of the realm of normal fiction as well. Then Christine Catherine Rush, the editor of “Fantasy and Science Fiction” magazine decided to take a chance and published the story.

Two weeks after “The Martian Child” appeared in print the fan letters started pouring in. “It’s one thing to get letters like ‘you touched my heart’ or ‘I really liked it’,” said Gerrold, “but we were getting letters that were so over the top, things like ‘This is the best story I’ve ever read in this magazine since its beginning.’ It was startling.”

The story won the “triple crown” of science fiction that year: The Nebula, the Hugo, and the Locus Readership Poll. “That only happens once every ten years or so,” Gerrold points out, proudly.

Gerrold and his son went to Scotland for the Hugo Award ceremonies. “That was so cool,” Sean remembers. His father brought him up on stage to accept the award. “He asked me if I wanted to say anything,” says Sean. “I took the microphone and said ‘buy my dad’s books,’” he laughed.

Tor Books, which had published the Starsiders series, Gerrold’s books for young people, was looking for new books from the author. It was decided to expand the original novelette into a full length book. The resulting 190 page hardback was the closest Gerrold had come to writing an autobiography. Friends marveled at its uncharacteristic candor.

After publication of “The Martian Child” in book form, several offers to put the story on the screen came in, but Gerrold was waiting for just the right one.

David Kirschner Productions expressed interest and a workable deal was signed, although the screenplay would be written by Seth A. Bass and Jonathan Tolins. Screen credit for Gerrold was arbitrated and ultimately it was agreed that it would read, “based on ‘The Martian Child,’ by David Gerrold.”

John Cusack was cast in the role of ‘David,’ though he would be a widower, rather than a gay man. “I don’t have a problem with his being a straight guy,” said Gerrold. “The story isn’t about being gay and adopting. The story is about adopting, and the focus of the story is that there are kids who need homes, special needs kids. I’m not an activist about gay people needing to adopt. I’m in this because children need loving parents. That was the point of the story when I wrote it in 1993 and it’s the point of the movie now. Being gay is a very minor point in the novel version of the story. My only objection to ‘David’ being a widower is that you don’t adopt a child to fill a hole in your life, you adopt a child to provide something for a child’s life. If someone wants to adopt because they are grieving lost love, that disqualifies them. You have to have your life in order. That must be in the script. ‘David’ can be grieving, but he has to have both feet on the ground. The only valid reason for him to adopt is that he wants to be a dad.”

The movie was being shot in Canada and Gerrold and his son visited the set a few times during filming. “Bobby Coleman makes a good me,” said Sean. “He’s certainly cute enough,” he laughed. “We were on the set for two days and if we had stayed longer, I could have had a role as an extra in the film, but we had to leave.”

Gerrold was pleased with what he saw. “John Cusack and boy did a wonderful job with the relationship. For those who feel concern that I ‘sold out,’ I haven’t. I think it’s important to make the point that straight people can be just as good parents as gay people. It’s not a critical point for the movie,” Gerrold chuckles.

“This story has always been about one thing only: how much I love my kid,” says Gerrold. “Despite the initial settling in problems, one day you realize he may be a loathsome reptilian thing, but he’s MY loathsome reptilian thing. The story is not about the dad being gay or who died or how to raise a kid, it’s about that shift from the real face of not knowing who this other person is, to loving them for who they are, regardless of who they are. Every parent experiences this. That’s what happens in a love relationship. The movie is about that moment in time when a little boy and a grown man become a father and a son. I hope people see it as a simple father/son story and not add stuff to it. It’s like a souffle, if you add too much to it, it collapses.”

Sean, now 23 - Bobby Coleman - David Gerrold
taken at "The Martian Child" premiere in L.A. 10/18/07

La Traviata

You know you’re seeing a low budget production when the conductor gets up at the end of Act 1, grabs a flashlight, jumps on the stage and starts moving sets.

Capitol Opera’s production of “La Traviata,” at the Veterans Memorial Theater for one more performance, 3 p.m. today, is a very low budget production. It’s so low budget that there are no technicians or designers listed in the program, so it’s hard to know whom to blame for the technical problems.

An opera should be judged on its music, but there is also a world which is created, whether that world be one of a concert version or a semi-staged version or a full fledged production. When you stage an opera, even one with only seven people in the cast, there should be some care taken to make all the elements mesh.

The set (which I learned from the web site, not from the program, was probably designed by Roger Smith...but I may be wrong) was lovely, for a low budget production. It had elements which nicely created the illusion of a 19th century drawing room. Why then, for heaven’s sake, did they decide to add chrome chairs, probably borrowed from the meeting room of the Veterans Memorial Center? It threw the entire “feel” of the set completely off. Didn’t anybody have a few wooden chairs to lend to the production?

Likewise, Violetta (Elizabeth Geantner) and her maid Aninna (Elena Yakobovsky) wore lovely dresses which nicely represented the period, while Flora (Jennifer Kay) and all the men were in modern dress. Alfredo (Zachary Sheely) looked like he’d just walked out of an office on the UCD campus, and Dr. Grenvil (Roger Smith) wore a trench coat, carried a briefcase, and used a shiny modern stethoscope.

The lights seemed to be run by the Veterans Memorial Theater staff, with light cues being given from the conductor (Corey Wilkins), turning around from the pit to indicate a light change. (The house manager also told us that Wilkins was the director of the piece, but he is not given program credit for it.) At one point, I think Wilkins was running the lights himself, since he disappeared for awhile, during which time the lights went out, then he came back in, and wandered around seeming to look for a way to get into the orchestra pit.

Even the printed program has problems, with the opera described as “a masterpiece of fated love,” when I think they meant ill-fated. The synopsis for Act 2 also lists “a band of fortune-telling gypsies and some matadors who sing of Piquillo and his coy sweetheart.” The synopsis must have been lifted out of some book without even being read, since there were no gypsies or matadors and no song of Piquillo.

Despite the length I have given to these glaring elements, the opera itself – the singing and acting, that is – was better than I expected. “La Traviata” is based on Alexander Dumas’ “Camille” (“La Dame aux Camelias”), and tells the story of a romance between the consumptive courtesan Violetta and a young, penniless nobleman, Alfredo Germont, a relationship that cannot end well, with tuberculosis as the silent third partner.

Geantner stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. She has a wonderful soprano that is occasionally a little uneven in the upper range, but is mostly impressive. She is also a convincing actress who wrings every bit of emotion she can from the character.

The same cannot be said of Sheely as her lover Alfredo. Sheely’s voice is a bit tight and he had difficulty with some passages. He could bring convincing emotion from the character beautifully, as in the Act 2 scene with his father (Olando Tognozzi), but it was not consistent throughout the 3 acts.

Jennifer Kay gave a strong performance as Flora who hosts the two parties which take place during the opera and Elena Yakobovsky was likewise strong in the small role of Aninna, Violeta’s companion.

The cast was filled out by Roger Smith in multiple roles (marquis, Barone, Dr. Grenvil) and Steve Hill (Gastone).

Stella Wang did yeoman duty as keyboard accompanist, nicely augmented by Alexi Kodash and Tania Acajedo on strings.

It was a shame that the Veterans Memorial Theater was so sparsely populated because despite its many technical shortcomings, this is an enjoyable 2-1/4 hours. Reviews from previous Capitol Opera shows indicate that other performances have been given in much smaller venues and I suspect that in a smaller venue this would be quite a different show.