Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Drive around Davis these days, and you'll see carpets of fallen leaves waiting to be swept up.

If you're looking to do something more creative than just sweeping up those leaves, I highly recommend the production of 'Stomp,' continuing through Jan. 4 at Sacramento's Community Center Theater. The show opens with a dazzling display of what can be done with a push broom, and is certain to add flair to any humdrum sweeping task!

'Stomp' is a 90-minute, nonstop, action-filled show where one learns that just about anything - from garbage cans to plastic bags - can become rhythmic noisemakers. In fact, as one who has raised a number of children, I imagined the upbringing of these performers, their harried mothers yelling 'Will you please stop drumming on the laundry basket!?' ... now having to admit that their kids found a way to turn an annoying childhood habit into a lucrative career.

'Stomp,' a unique combination of percussion, movement and visual comedy, was created in the summer of 1991 in Brighton, in the United Kingdom. The show was the result of a 10-year collaboration between its creators, Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas.

They first worked together in 1981, as members of the street band Pookiesnackenburger and the theater group Cliff Hanger. Together, these groups presented a series of street comedy musicals at the Edinburgh festival throughout the early '80s. After two albums, a UK TV series and extensive touring throughout Europe, Pookiesnackenburger also produced the highly acclaimed 'Bins' commercial for Heineken lager.

The piece originally was written and choreographed by Cresswell, as part of the band's stage show; it proved to be the starting point for the climactic garbage can dance in 'Stomp.'

In 1991, Cresswell and McNicholas first created 'Stomp,' previewing at London's Bloomsbury Theater and premiering at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, where it became the Guardian's Critic's Choice and won the Daily Express 'Best of Fringe' award.

'Stomp' began its run at New York's Orpheum Theater in February 1994, and it quickly went on to win both an Obie and a Drama Desk award for 'most unique theater experience.' By that summer, the first American cast was in place at the Orpheum, freeing the original cast for sell-out tours of North America and Japan.

This incarnation lists 12 performers - John Angeles, Shola Cole, Harmony Costa, Antwan Davis, Michelle Dorrance, Brad Holland, Louis Lebovitch, Michael R. Landis, Guy Mandozzi, Justin Myles, Elec Simon and Niicholas Young - although only eight appear on stage during any individual show.

No program credit is given for the multi-level set design, but the stage is dominated by a metal wall hung with all sorts of noisemakers, from hub caps and highway signs to oversized plastic bins.

Steve McNicholas and Neil Tiplady are credited with lighting design, the lights playing a huge role in the show's feel. Some of the best numbers are lit from each side of the stage, casting large, eerie shadows on the theater walls, and giving it the effect of some ancient tribe dancing by the light of a fire in a cave somewhere.

One of the most clever bits is a kitchen sink number (proving that this cast does, indeed, use everything up to and including the kitchen sink). Watch the guy on the far left, for a very funny ending to this number.

Another number involves oversize inner tubes attached by bungee cords around the waist, giving the whole cast the look of babies in the Michelin tire commercials.

And one clever bit finds the cast going through garbage bags and pulling out all sorts of things, like a paper cup with a straw in it, and finding out what sounds they can get out of each. (Tip: A banana peel is not a good noisemaker!)

The audience also gets involved, as increasingly more complicated hand claps are demonstrated for everybody watching.

This show's appeal was apparent in the family group that sat next to me, all of whom seemed to love the production: a white-haired grandmotherly type, who looked like she might have gotten lost on her way to a Lawrence Welk retrospective; two 30-something parents; and two candy cane-sucking little boys, who began experimenting with the different sounds they could make with their hands as they clapped for each numbers.

I had a feeling that Mom soon would lose her garbage can lids after they got home, or that she'd soon find her kids walking around on aluminum cans.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

'So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye!'

It's not easy to stump Stephen Peithman about musical theater, so I was tickled to have seen a musical that he'd never heard of.

It was called "Turn to the Right" — a musical about baking apple pies — written and produced by "Beverly Hillbillies" actor Buddy Ebsen. It was, without a doubt, the worst musical I'd ever seen.

I'm not sure that it survived into a second week, before fading into obscurity.

And the man who can speak with authority on shows such as Irvin Berlin's 1940 nonhit "The Louisiana Purchase," or Cole Porter's 1929 "Fifty Million Frenchmen," never had heard of my apple pie musical.

There can't be more than a handful of musicals that Peithman hasn't seen, studied, written about and purchased as an original cast recording. His vast library of musical theater recordings — he doesn't know exactly how many ("a couple thousand, I'm sure") — had a lot to do with his weekly radio show, Capital Public Radio's "Musical Stages."

"I pitched the show back in 1983," he recalled. "I told them I thought this was a niche that their programming wasn't handling. I thought a good market existed for it. No one else in the area was doing it.

"And I said I could provide all the recordings myself."

The station agreed, and the show soon developed a loyal following.

But times change. On Sunday, "Musical Stages" will broadcast its final show.

Peithman felt, for many reasons, that this was the time to pull the plug. For one thing, fewer new musicals are coming onto the scene, and he found he was repeating himself more. Additionally, musical theater no longer is the proving ground for "pop songs," as was the case for so many years. We all remember songs from musicals that became juke box hits.

Once the need to build hit tunes was gone, composers began to write songs that were ... quite different.

"Ultimately that probably worked just fine," Peithman said, "but when you're listening, it takes more time than people are willing to give to them, because they may be very complex. And some of them just aren't that interesting. You see them on the stage, and you can enjoy them because they're part of the larger picture."

Not to mention the content issue of many new musicals making it to Broadway.

"I felt I couldn't do some shows. I did edit some, like 'Spamalot,' and remove objectionable words so the FCC wouldn't get on my case."

I actually stumped Peithman with a question that seemed rather obvious: Where did he get his love of musical theater?

"Good question," he responded. "I'm really not quite sure."

While he can't pinpoint any one event or show that had a major impact on his life, he does remember listening to a recording of "South Pacific" because his father had served in the South Pacific, and they had the record album at home.

"My mother did community theater. She didn't really sing, and I don't remember any musicals," he recalled, still struggling with the question.

He remembers seeing the old Hollywood musicals. ("I probably saw every screen musical that came out from the 1950s on.") He always had a love of music, but he never saw a live stage show until he got to high school, when he appeared in "Oklahoma" and "South Pacific."

"They were huge musicals, and everybody was in them."

By the time he reached Humboldt State, he had begun to collect recordings of musicals. He remembers buying "Kiss Me Kate," and his sister had a recording of "The Pajama Game" and "Carmen Jones."

"It was a rather eclectic mix," he admitted.

"I'm not sure how people pick music that appeals to them. The thing with a musical is that it's a self-contained world, and it has an organizational principle to it. It's not like listening to separate pieces of music, although I'm sure some people listen to musicals that way.

"I also was writing plays, and my grade school was very big into music and theater, so I was already writing and performing in my own plays — sometimes with a cast of thousands — which my mother dutifully came to see, no matter how embarrassing they might have been.

"I think I understood the construction process of how these things work. It was intriguing, watching how songs interrelate."

When Peithman moved to Davis in 1970, all the pieces began to fit together.

"I started seeing more shows here, and being in them. I was finishing up my graduate studies. The drama department at that time looked down on musicals, and didn't want to do them, so some faculty and students got together, got some funding from the Associated Students and created what they called the ASUCD Student Musical Theater Company, which was a wondrous thing.

"We did summer shows on the main stage, and that's where I really became involved with theater. I met Lenore (Turner) Heinson that year."

He was not cast in the fledgling company's first show, "The Fantasticks," but he did win the role of Dr. Carrasco in the next big musical, "Man of La Mancha," and met people in the production who have remained lifelong friends.

Peithman quickly became a staple in the Davis theater community, and was a founding member, actor and director for the Davis Comic Opera Company throughout its 30 year history.

In 1991, became the writer and emcee for the annual Citizens Who Care fundraising winter concert, a project that is remarkably similar to some "Musical Stages" broadcasts.

The meat of "Musical Stages" was playing the recording of a show, with Peithman adding background information and describing what was taking place on stage.

"I did all the shows that were great, and a lot of shows that weren't so great.

"Those are always the fun ones."

He introduced his audience to many short-lived shows, such as 1951's "Flahooley," by Sammy Fain & E.Y. Harburg, which starred Yma Sumac and Barbara Cook in their first Broadway roles ... and Sumac's only Broadway role. "Drat! The Cat!" (1968), by Milton Schafer and Ira Levin — the latter best known for "Rosemary's Baby" — concerned a female cat burglar and starred Elliot Gould as an inept police detective, and Leslie Ann Warren as the cat.

Or consider "Minnie's Boys" (1970), by Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady, which starred Shelley Winters as the mother of the Marx Brothers.

That type of format permits only so many things over the years, however, and Peithman began to do variations on the original theme.

"I started having fun by doing things like an all-star 'Annie Get Your Gun' or an all-star 'South Pacific,' in which case I'd play the whole score, but sung by different people from different recordings.

"It's interesting to hear different takes and different styles."

Another variation was the compilation show, where Peithman would fit music to a theme.

"I've always been intrigued by the connections between things. If you're really into the subject, at some point you start seeing how this connects to that, and that connects to this. Sometimes you see things that people totally miss, because it's such a part of your life or your thought process.

"It occurred to me, for example, that almost every American musical for many decades always had a working woman a female lead. I thought that was interesting, because you tend to think of women in the work force as something that hit big during World War II, and then went down the drain a bit, and then crawled back out again later.

"But in musical theater, the female lead is almost always someone who works.

"There are some good reasons for that. If the woman is to meet her man, it's hard if she stays home all the time. And where she works has an impact on the show."

Peithman based an entire show on awful title tunes.

"The worst one was 'Her First Roman,' which was a musicalization of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra. It's actually a rather tuneful, enjoyable little song, but totally stupid and actually one of the worst songs.

"Another was a Jerry Herman song that was the title tune for 'Dear World.' It was just dreadful. The words are dreadful; the tune is good. I don't think Herman could write a bad tune, but the words are just stupid."

Please take your medicine, dear world,
Please keep your pressure down, dear world.
Promise to thrive on each word your doctor speaks,
He'll bring the roses back to your cheeks.
For you've been a pallid and blah world,
Stick out your tongue and say "Ahh," world.
We'll give you plasma and tonic, by the spoon,
So be a dear world,
Take your medicine, dear world,
Keep your pressure down, dear world,
And get well soon!

Peithman did a show about songs that say "I love you" without saying the actual words.

"Musical theater writers, over time, began to think 'I can't write another I love you song,' so they wrote songs that are love songs but don't say 'I love you' ... songs like 'People Will Say We're in Love' or 'This Can't Be Love' or 'It's Almost Like Being in Love.' That was fascinating."

This fascination with themes leads directly to life after "Musical Stages."

Starting in January, Peithman will present what is scheduled as a six-week series called "Connections" — a sort of music-based nod to James Burke's famed PBS television series of the same title — where he'll examine the musical links between seemingly unlikely people or events.

"I'll do a series of shows that will find the connection between composers, between musical works, maybe look at styles or some concepts.

"The first one is 'The Beggar's Opera' and 'The Messiah.' That basically talks about Handel making his name in England. He's a German who's writing operas in Italian and living in England. Go figure.

"It is true that Italian operas were losing their appeal by the time 'The Beggar's Opera' came along, but that one put the nail in the coffin. So Handel realized there wouldn't be a market for his operas any more, so what was he going to do?

"There were several issues: He was running his own opera company, and it was falling apart because they were too expensive. You have big shows, lots of people, sets and costumes ... because almost all of the operas he wrote were classical mythology. You had to pay the theater folks, you had all these costumes, you had set changes ... everything was very expensive.

"And they were all in Italian!

"So he realized he had to do something in English, which didn't take sets and didn't need costumes. Ta-dah ... oratorio! That's absolutely true. So that's one sort of connection.

"Another one is the Paganini 'Caprice for Violin,' which for some reason just took off; everyone wanted to make music based on that one tune. The one that most people use nowadays is Rachmaninoff's 'Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini,' but there were lots of others, including one by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

"His brother, Julian (the cellist), bet that Lloyd Webber couldn't write a classical work based on rock music, so he wrote variations based on Paganini's 'Caprice for Violin.'

"Also in that show, I have Benny Goodman playing something he did, as well as all 22 minutes of the Rachmaninoff, but also pieces by Schumann, Brahms and Liszt ... all based on Paganini."

Peithman insisted he could devote 18 shows to music that has been written around the Faust legend alone.

The future of "Connections" will depend on audience response, but listening to Peithman's fertile brain churning, he clearly has enough ideas to give it a life at least as long as that of "Musical Stages."

Sunday's finale of "Musical Stages" will be a rebroadcast of an earlier show, devoted to songs about New York City, at the end of which the curtain will come down on a long, successful run.

But it's clear that Sacramento radio audiences haven't heard the last of Stephen Peithman.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


The Sacramento Theatre Company has brought back its wildly popular holiday run of 'Cinderella': Mrs. Baden-Rotten and her daughters are terrorizing sweet Cinder once again, and delighting audiences in the prospect.

This version of 'Cinderella' - book and lyrics by Kate Hawley, music by Greg Coffin - embraces the form of a traditional British pantomime, which often takes fairy tales and delivers them in a manner that can be enjoyed by both parents and children. The humor may go over the kids' heads while tickling adult funny bones, but children will be delighted by the slapstick comedy, colorful costumes and sets, and the opportunity to be included in the story.

It's a win-win situation for all. STC's production, directed by Peggy Shannon, does not disappoint.

This is an age-old story - Prince finds girl, prince loses girl, girl loses shoe, prince finds shoe, prince finds girl and almost everybody lives happily ever after - but with quite a few twists and turns along the way.

Heading the list is Tristan Rumery, as Prince Charming; he has a deliciously smooth voice that blends beautifully with Hilary Wells in the title role. (She alternates with Morgan Cook.) Wells' demeanor and innocence are in stark contract to her stepmother and stepsisters ... and it doesn't hurt that she has a wonderful voice, as well.

Cross-dressing roles are a traditional aspect of pantomime, and this production couldn't do better than the trio of William Elsman, as Mrs. Baden-Rotten; Michael RJ Campbell, reprising his role as daughter Goneril; and Brian Rodda, as daughter Regan,

The irrepressible Elsman towers above all in his impossibly high heels, camping around the stage in heavy make-up, and wearing an outfit that would put a Tiffany lamp to shame. It's 'La Cage aux Folles' meets Mother Goose, with the generous help of costume designer B. Modern.

Campbell is the whiny, pouty, zaftig sister, with kewpie-doll lips and wispy pony tails, who causes everyone on stage - and in the band - to bounce whenever s/he jumps.

New to STC is local favorite Jim Lane, who for some reason is left off the program's cast list as Baron Hard-Up, Cinderella's perennially inebriated father, who is totally smitten with his overbearing wife and has let her run him into ruin. Lane provides many chuckles, whether staggering around the stage with his foot in a bucket, or trying to remember ... well ... anything.

New to the traditional plotline of 'Cinderella' are many characters, starting with Caleb Salmon as Buttons, Cinderella's artistic best friend, who is not-so-secretly smitten with her. His woodland dance, with a lovable, large, picnic-basket-stealing bear (Jared Lee), is a lot of fun. Lee's definitely a favorite with younger audience members.

A bit of fairy tale crossover also brings in Bo Peep (Jessica Goldman). Peep is a rabid, anti-monarchy feminist with a Scottish brogue so thick she may spray a few folks in the front row, with her more throaty syllables. Peep herds a flock of sheep as agile as the Rockettes; they all sashay around the stage doing bumps, grinds and high kicks. It's a tour-de-force for choreographer Michele Hillen-Noufer and dancers Tayler Anderson, Maryann Good, Leah Hassett, Ella Isaguirre, JuliAnn Machschefes and Amanda Salmon.

Peep's independence is a real turn-on for the prince's best friend, Dandini (Kyle Welling).

No Cinderella would be complete without a fairy godmother, and Lucinda Hitchcock Cone is charmingly ditsy. Thanks to Giulio Perone's scenic design and Victor En Yu Tan's lighting design, Cone pulls off a pretty impressive transformation of pumpkin and sheep into coach and horses.

Rounding out the cast are Barry Hubbard as the King, and Orlana Klip as the Queen, both down-to-earth monarchs; she even dusts the castle in her frilly apron, and forgets to take it off when the time comes for the big ball.

The show includes plenty of audience participation, which is a lot of fun for the kids, especially during the search for someone to wear the glass slipper.

The company's small band - keyboardist/conductor Gerald Rheault, percussionist Jim Nakayama and trumpeter Tom Shorba - provides a smooth accompaniment for the songs. The musicians also interact nicely with the performers.

'Cinderella' may not be everyone's idea of the ideal Christmas show, but one thing cannot be denied: If you're seeking fun for the entire family, this production can't be topped.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Every Xmas Story Ever Told

We've seen the news reports; we've felt it in our pocketbooks.

There's no denying it: Economic times are tough. People are scaling back on all sorts of things, and seeing fewer Christmas theatrical productions may be one of the cost-cutting measures being considered.

Well, Capital Stage has come up with a solution. Why agonize over which productions to see ... when you can see all of them at once?

'Every Christmas Story Ever Told' is a hilarious show that covers everything from 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' to Charles Dickens' beloved 'A Christmas Carol,' with some surprising other stories in between.

This fast-paced show is written by Michael Carleton, John Alvarez and Jim Fitzgerald, with original music by Will Knapp. This production, directed by Greg Alexander, stars a delightful trio of weirdoes - Anthony D'Juan, Gary Martinez and Jonathan Williams - who play (oddly enough) Anthony, Gary and Jonathan.

In the same vein as the 'reduced Shakespeare' productions, the authors have taken just about every beloved holiday story in existence, 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 everything more or less seamlessly into about 90 minutes of laughter.

The play concludes with a zany rendition of every Christmas carol ever sung, complete with choreography. Sort of.

As far as the play's plot is concerned, Jonathan wants to put on a traditional version of Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol,' the way it was written; he tries valiantly to do so, but his fellow actors are tired of doing only Dickens. They want to salute all the other 'BHCs' (beloved holiday classics) instead.

Jonathan finally relents, on the condition that he also be allowed to perform a straight version of 'A Christmas Carol.'

The trio elicits suggestions from the audience for favorite movies, television programs, Christmas foods, traditions, commercials and so forth. It doesn't stop at Christmas, but also gives a nod to Hanukkah ('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.' ')

The meat of this show, though, is its retelling of all the stories we know so well.

Jonathan is reluctantly dragged into the project when he dresses as the title character for a very funny send-up of 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas.' He's also a fabulous Scotsman and shines as Hermie, the elf who wants to be a dentist in 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' (hilariously renamed, for copyright reasons).

In Act 2, Williams does a credible James Stewart imitation in a salute to 'It's a Wonderful Life.'

Zany D'Juan is hilarious, whether donning antlers and a shiny nose, or saying nothing at all - eloquently - as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Memories of his performance will keep you giggling throughout the holiday season.

As for Martinez, well, you just want to wrap him up and take him home. He plays all the lovable characters to the hilt, with the sincerity that he gives Linus reciting 'The True Meaning of Christmas.' You can't leave the theater after seeing his performance without Christmas in your heart.

Of course, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without fruitcake, and the trio gives salute with 'What the Hell's the Deal with Fruitcake,' which includes a salute to 'The Dating Game' ... 'where we learn all the latest facts and figures on that fruitiest and nuttiest of cakes.'

Nearly every well-known Christmas show is covered during the 60-minute first act, even if only through bad puns or passing comments.

Act 2, only 20 minutes long, is designed to be Jonathan's promised 'A Christmas Carol' ... until Gary realizes they've forgotten 'It's a Wonderful Life.' Until you see these two classics woven together, you may not realize how much alike they are.

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

And as you leave the Capital Stage theater, you'll definitely be ready for the holiday season ... and you'll likely go about greeting everyone with a cheery 'Mata-Ki-Te-Rangi' ('Merry Christmas,' in Icelandic).

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Tuna Christmas

Those quirky citizens of Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas, have returned to the Woodland Opera House, to share their Christmas Eve celebrations with us in a show appropriately titled 'Tuna Christmas.'

Thurston Wheelis and Arles Stuvie are back at the microphones at radio station OKKK, ready to dispense all the local and world news:

'In international news today, Christmas violence flares, leaving thousands dead in Mag ... Mada ... Madg ... I can't even pronounce the name of the place. They're foreigners, so never mind.'

There's DiDi Snavely, who manages Didi's Used Weapons Emporium ('If we can't kill it, it's immortal'), and who is running her annual holiday sale - 'Wouldn't you rather shoot somebody, than watch 'em run off with your new toaster oven?' - and has a rather unusual collection of decorations for her shop's Christmas tree.

Elmer Watkins is inviting everyone to the local Klan's annual Christmas party and skeet shoot: 'Our theme this year is The Whitest Christmas Ever.'

As always, Bertha Bumiller is at her wit's end about her children and threatening to 'put on that Andy Williams album' if they don't shape up.

Sullen daughter Charlene and son Stanley, the town delinquent, are both in the town's production of 'A Christmas Carol' ... by 'Charlie Dickens.' Charlene is taken with the director, Joe Bob Lipsey - who is a bit 'odd' - while Stanley is hoping the production will help him finally get off parole, so he can leave town.

All Stanley wants from Santa is 'a bus ticket out of this black hole.'

But the production may not take place at all, if penny-pinching Dixie Dewberry has her way. The theater hasn't paid the electric bill, and she's threatening to pull the plug on the power, so the show can't go on.

Meanwhile, a town phantom is running around vandalizing the decorations of the homes vying for best Christmas displays, such as putting Fruit of the Looms on the figures in the nativity display belonging to Vera Carp, the town snob.

Sweet Aunt Pearl may know more about the phantom than she's saying, but she's busy looking for a weapon to kill the birds in her front yard.

'I haven't had a gun in my house since I accidentally killed my second husband,' she admits.

The Smut Snatchers of the New Order are trying to get 'Silent Night' banned, because they aren't sure people should sing about 'round young virgins.'

And so it goes...

In addition to all the favorite characters from Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard's first play, 'Greater Tuna,' 'Tuna Christmas' adds new characters, such as Lipsey and waitresses Inita Goodwin and Helen Bedd, among others.

All 22 characters are played by two wonderfully talented actors, the Woodland Opera House's Jeff Kean and the Sacramento-based Runaway Stage Company's Bob Baxter. Both are reprising their roles from the Woodland Opera House's 2001 production of 'Greater Tuna.'

With the help of bouffant hair pieces, a variety of colorful costumes - designed by Laurie Everly Klassen - some interesting set pieces that hide half of the body here and there, and an incredible crew, the actors accomplish the transitions from one character to another so smoothly that the audience isn't aware of what certainly must be organized pandemonium backstage.

The entire crew deserves recognition: Chris Medina, Joseph Franklin, Charene Lauritzen, Ryan Mannie, Dana Smuda, Michael Smuda, Curtis Stupp and Chris Taloff.

Dave Hushbeck is the sound designer, a crucial job in this production.

Kean is credited with set design, which the program notes is based on the original show's production design.

It allows for characters to disappear in one door and emerge seconds later out another as a different character, for curtains to hide parts of the body that are moving into place behind a counter, and so forth.

While the play has a semblance of story from beginning to end, it's really more of a collection of vaguely related skits.

So, gather up your funny bone and head to the Woodland Opera house for a good chuckle and a few guffaws, to get you in the proper mood for the coming holiday season.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens would recognize some - but not all - of his 'A Christmas Carol,' were he to attend the production by the same name at the Winters Community Theater.

When director Howard Hupe put out the call for children to play the five Cratchitt children and the few other youthful roles, so many kids showed up that he decided to use them all. He and his wife, Germaine, 'borrowed' references from other Dickens works and included bits of dialogue that would allow them to add beggars, pickpockets and other children where possible, to give everybody at least a brief moment to shine on stage.

This feeling of inclusivity makes this production of 'A Christmas Carol' quite special: amateurs doing things for the love of it, and the love comes across very clearly on stage, down to the two children who continue in their roles although injured (a young girl in a cast and a boy in a wheelchair).

The entertainment starts with a few Christmas songs by carolers Eleanor Yeatman, Tessas Rawlingon, Richard Kleeber, Dominic Orlando, Mattielyn Long, Sierra Freckman, Jessicca Eldridge, Robert Fischer, David Springer and Hannah Long, with accompaniment by Lona Romagosa. The carolers are used effectively throughout the two-act show, as entertainment between scenes.

Following this introduction, Germaine Hupe takes the stage to give a bit of background about the story, and to tell something of Dickens' life. This helps explain the various themes in his writing, especially in 'A Christmas Carol.'

The play begins as she concludes her remarks, with Dickens himself (Howard Hupe) stepping onto the stage to set the scene for Ebenezer Scrooge's unexpected meeting with his former partner, now deceased, Jacob Marley.

Trent Beeby is a more fussbudgety, ill-mannered Scrooge than the foul-tempered curmudgeon one is accustomed to seeing, but the actor nonetheless sets the stage for the character whose eventual redemption will occur during the next 90 minutes.

The ghost of the chain-laden Marley (Phillip Pittman), whose first appearance is an apparition in a portrait - a great special effect! - initially was so menacing that a nearby father had to take his small child out of the theater whenever the apparition came on stage.

In this version of 'A Christmas Carol,' Marley has a larger role than usual, and remains on stage throughout the show: unseen by Scrooge, but acting as a kind of narrator for the audience. (His menacing persona softens considerably as the evening progresses.)

In due time, Scrooge meets the first of three ghosts: the Ghost of Christmas Past - Germaine Hupe, beautifully ethereal, looking much like Glinda the Good Witch - who takes him back to his own previous Christmases. Alec Romagosa (from his wheelchair) plays the young Scrooge, left at boarding school over the holidays, to be rescued by his sister Fan (Grace Ferguson).

(Romagosa later plays Peter Cratchitt and, in a bit of casting that seems odd for a show with so many children, appears again as Adam, the young boy Scrooge later sends to buy a turkey. Since Peter's scene and Adam's scene are virtually back to back, it would seem that casting a different child as Adam would have been less confusing.)

Robert Fischer is wonderful as the jolly Fezziwig, Ebenezer's first boss, who adores Christmas and loves to party with his staff. Eleanor Yeatman plays his wife, who shows she still can kick up her heels and dance. Dominic Oriando is the young adult Ebenezer, already looking ahead to the fortune he'll one day make, while Manny Lanzaro is his friend Dick.

Mattielyn Long plays Ebenezer's girlfriend, Isabelle (Fezziwig's daughter), and Hannah Long is her sister Mary.

Tom Rost makes a jocular Ghost of Christmas Present, taking Scrooge around the town. They visit the humble home of his clerk, Bob Cratchitt (Richard Kleeberg), and his wife (Anita Ahuja). Their children are played by Elaine Hupe, Grace Ferguson, Alec Romagosa, Brittany Welty and Emilia Orosco, the latter as the crippled Tiny Tim ... who's cute as a button, but couldn't be heard beyond the edge of the stage.

Not that anybody cared. We all knew the lines.

The ghost also takes Scrooge to see the home of his nephew, Fred (Ben Moroski), who had visited him earlier in the day, and Fred's wife, Elizabeth (Tesssa Rawlinson). Moroski gives a strong performance, and he and Rawlinson share good chemistry as they joke about the sour-tempered Scrooge.

Rodney Orosco plays the Ghost of Christmas Future, who shows Ebenezer the things that might come to pass unless he changes his ways ... notably the gleeful thieves who steal things from his house after his death. Old Joe (Larry Justice) is marvelous, and Germaine Hupe returns as Grandmother, accompanied by her real-life granddaughter, Lauren. Eleanor Yeatman makes up this unsavory quartet, as Mrs. Dilber.

The constraints of the Winters Community Center stage make it a challenge to present a large show like 'A Christmas Carol,' but Howard Hupe and scenic artist Jeff Hesemeyer make great use of all parts of the space. I wish the lighting had been a bit brighter, however, as the faces of the actors never are lit very well.

The painted scenic backdrops, however, are lovely.

The show continues through Dec. 6, with one more matinee at 1 p.m. this Sunday. If you find yourself in Winters, here's a good chance to get a bit of Christmas spirit: a beloved Christmas story, cute kids and familiar Christmas carols.

And you even can buy pumpkin pie at intermission!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tuna Christmas

Those quirky citizens of Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas, are back at the Woodland Opera House to share their Christmas Eve celebrations with you.

Thurston Wheelis and Arles Stuvie are back at the microphones at radio station OKKK ready to dispense all the local and international news (“In international news today, Christmas violence flares, leaving thousands dead in Mag... Mada... Madg... I can't even pronounce the name of the place. ...they’re foreigners, so never mind”)

There’s DiDi Snavely, who runs Didi’s Used Weapons Emporium (“If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal), and who is running her annual holiday sale (“wouldn't you rather shoot somebody than watch'em run off with your new toaster oven?”) has a very unusual collection of decorations for her shop’s Christmas tree.

Elmer Watkins is inviting everyone to the local klan’s annual Christmas party and skeet shoot. “Our theme this year is The Whitest Christmas Ever.”

Bertha Bumiller is once again at her wits end about her children and threatening to “put on that Andy Williams album” if they don’t shape up.

Sullen daughter Charlene and son Stanley, the town delinquent, are both in the town’s production of “A Christmas Carol” (by “Charlie Dickens”). Charlene is taken with the director, Joe Bob Lipsey (who is a bit “odd”), and Stanley is looking to the production to help him finally get off parole so he can leave town. (All he wants from Santa is “a bus ticket out of this black hole.”)

But the production may not take place at all, if penny-pinching Dixie Dewberry has her way. The theater hasn’t paid the electric bill and she’s threatening to pull the plug on the power so that show can’t go on.

In the meantime, there is a town phantom running around destroying the house decorations of the homes vying for best Christmas decorations, such as putting Fruit of the Looms on the figures in the nativity display of Vera Carp, the town snob.

Sweet Aunt Pearl may know more about the Phantom than she’s saying, but she’s busy looking for a weapon to kill the birds in her front yard. (“I haven't had a gun in my house since I accidentally killed my second husband.”)

The Smut Snatchers of the New Order are trying to get “Silent Night” banned because they aren’t sure people should sing about “round young virgins.”

In addition to all the favorite characters from Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard’s first play, “Greater Tuna,” “Tuna Christmas adds new characters, such as Lipsey and the waitresses Inita Goodwin and Helen Bedd, among others.

All twenty-two characters are played by two wonderfully talented actors, the Woodland Opera House’s Jeff Kean and Bob Baxter, from Runaway Stage Company, reprising their roles from the 2001 production of “Greater Tuna.”

With the help of bouffant hair pieces, a variety of colorful costumes (designed by Laurie Everly Klassen), some interesting set pieces which hide half of the body here and there, and an incredible crew (all of whom deserve recognition)–Chris Medina, Joseph Franklin, Charene Lauritzen, Ryan Mannie, Dana Smuda, Michael Smuda, Curtis Stupp and Chris Taloff--the actors accomplish the transition from one character to another so smoothly the audience is not aware of what must certainly be organized pandemonium backstage.

Dave Hushbeck is the sound designer, a job which is crucial in this production.

Jeff Kean is credited with set design, which the program says is based on the original production design. It allows for characters to disappear in one door and emerge seconds later out another as a different character, for curtains to hide parts of the body that are moving into place behind a counter, etc.

While there is a semblance of a story from beginning to end, it is more a collection of kinda sorta related skits.

Gather up your funny bone and head to the Woodland Opera house for a good chuckle and a few guffaws to get you in the proper mood for the coming holiday season.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Tuna Christmas (Feature article)

Some twenty-five years ago, some friends called me to tell me about a show they had just seen.

“You HAVE to see this show,” they started, giggling instantly at the memory.

They tried to tell me about the show, but each time, broke out into paroxysms of laughter. I still wasn’t sure what the show actually was, but I knew that it was so funny that my friends were rendered all but speechless ... and so I went to see the show.

It played at a little theater in San Francisco and it had the strange title, “Greater Tuna.” And it was, indeed, very funny.

Twenty-five years later, most theatrically aware people have heard about “Greater Tuna.” It has become a little theater phenomenon and, in fact, by 1985, it was the most produced play in the United States, with schools, colleges, community and professional theaters all anxious to add the hit comedy to their repertoire.

In 2001, Jeff Kean, Artistic Director of the Woodland Opera House and Bob Baxter, Producing Director of Runaway Stage Company, brought “Greater Tuna” to Woodland. The show became the most popular and best attended non-musical production the Opera House had done to that time.

Now the two men are returning with “A Tuna Christmas,” the second in the “Tuna” saga, as its holiday offering (there are two more shows, “Red, White and Tuna” and “Tuna Does Vegas”).

“I’m slapping myself in the head constantly, saying ‘what in the world are you doing?’” laughed Kean

“Greater Tuna” came into existence when creators Joe Sears and Jaston Williams were asked to provide entertainment for a friend’s party. Drawing on their mutual histories in little Western towns, they created a skit in which they delivered news reports from a reactionary radio station in a profoundly conservative market. When their little broadcast from station "OKKK" proved enormously popular, they decided to develop it into a play.

A friend, Ed Howard, collaborated on the script, directed the two actors, and drained his savings account for the $10,000 to mount the production which opened in Austin, Texas in the fall of 1981.

The response was immediate and strong: People loved the show, loved it enough to warrant a second run in December. That run extended into February, during which time it was seen by a critic from “Variety,” who raved about the show in the national press. Within a couple of months, “Greater Tuna” was booked for runs in Hartford, Conn., and in New York. Just over a year after it first opened in Austin, “Greater Tuna” was playing off-Broadway, where it ran a year.

Sears and Williams continue to tour the country with productions of one of the four plays and, in fact, the rights to “A Tuna Christmas” only became available in California and Texas a couple of years ago.

“Greater Tuna” is an hilarious comedy about Tuna, Texas' third smallest town, where radio station OKKK is the best place to get the news, the Lion's Club is too liberal, a local pastor wants to pull books such as “Roots” off the library shelf (“because it only tells one side of slavery”), and Patsy Cline never dies.

The eclectic band of over twenty citizens who live in this tiny town are portrayed by only two performers, making this satire on life in rural America even more delightful as they depict all of the inhabitants of Tuna -- men, women, children and animals.

“What does it say about us that when guys dress up as girls everyone loves it?” asked Kean “A hundred years ago it was funny for men to dress as women, and it’s still funny today” he said, adding, “I am one ugly woman. It’s a good thing I was born a man.”

Though Kean is known locally mostly for his work in set and lighting design, he started life as an actor. (“I started at age 15, as a mugger in a play.”) But he quickly realized that the real fun for him was in working behind the scenes.

“I realized what the life of a professional actor would be and it didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t like that the pinnacle of your career is doing the same role over and over again. Just imagine doing the same role year after year and when show closes you’re back on unemployment again.”

So he got his degree in design and has been much happier since. “You get a lot of variety. Every 4-5 weeks the show changes.”

But every now and then he gets the acting bug.

The 2001 production was not Kean’s first association with “Greater Tuna.” He had directed a production of it when he was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensborough. He knew what a funny play it was and when he ran into Bob Baxter at an Elly awards presentation in 2001 he had a crazy idea that he could bring the show to Woodland – and play the roles played by Jaston Williams.

Baxter remembers their discussion “He asked if I ever did anything outside my own theater,” he remembers. “I said ‘Of course – what did you have in mind?”

Kean told Baxter about the “Greater Tuna” script and asked if he would consider it. Baxter had never heard of the show, but there was, at the time, a production running at Garbeau’s Dinner Theater, which he went to see. He loved it and could easily see the prospects of the two men working together. He agreed to do the show with Kean.

Bob Baxter is one of the founders of Runaway Stage Company founded twelve years ago by five state workers who did theater at night. Their first production was an original melodrama, produced at the Eagle Theater in Old Sacramento. When the production was a success, the Railroad Museum, which owns the Eagle Theater, invited the group to continue to do the show on an ongoing basis.

“The five of us met at a Lyons Restaurant to think up a name for our company,” Baxter explained. They chose “Runaway Stage Productions” because of the association with the Railroad Museum. Though they have now moved into the 24th Street Theater, they kept the original name because of its brand value.

Baxter has been the Producing Director since the company began, but also acts on a regular basis as well. “I perform quite a bit, when a role comes up that I’m suited for and I can’t find anybody else to do it. I enjoy performing. I’m an equity actor and a Screen Actors Guild actor and have worked professionally over the years, but now it’s about performing for the love of it.”

Getting two very busy men, running theaters more than twenty miles apart, to rehearse a very demanding two-person show was quite a challenge, but they were up to the task. “We both have our own companies to run and trying to find time to work together is interesting,” said Baxter, though he admitted that “If you want to get something done, ask the busiest person.”

It has been seven years since that successful “Greater Tuna” production, but the rights to “Tuna Christmas” have only recently become available in California. Many of the characters from the original show, such as Didi Snavely (who owns the Didi’s Used Weapons Emporium), Vera Carp (acting leader of the Smut-Catchers of the New Order), and the DJs Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis reappear in “Tuna Christmas,” though there are some new characters as well.

In the interim there have been some physical changes to the acting duo. Baxter, who played the hefty roles originally created by Jaston Sears has dropped 60-65 pounds. (“I just decided that the feeling of being hungry is not a bad thing. It’s a new philosophy I adopted. My body changed with that and I guess the mental does focus on what the physical needs to do.”)

“He’s lost so much weight that the dynamics have changed and we’ve had to pad his costumes,” said Kean, who noted that the roles call for one character to be thin and the other to be heavy. “We’ve had to change one line of dialog,” he added.

“I have to wear a fat suit for one character now,” says Baxter, adding that “we have fake bosoms that we use for the female characters, but the bosoms are sewn into the costumes.” Both praise the expertise of costumer Laurie Everly-Klaussen for making it all possible.

Kean and Baxter have allotted two weeks just for rehearsing costume changes, which must be done sometimes in as little as 15-20 seconds. There will be two sets of three costume changers, one set for each actor, in addition to other backstage help. “It’s necessary for things to go smoothly,” said Baxter “You have to walk on stage confident what you’re doing as an actor. You throw on a costume, look down and see what character you’re doing and go on side and go out and perform.”

Kean feels that “A TunaChristmas” is a more interesting script than “Greater Tuna.” “There will be those moments when we walk out and look silly, but I think people will come to appreciate the characters more. There’s a bit of pathos in the whole thing. The writers really do love Texas. They’re from Texas and these are their people and they understand them. They’ve known these people and have developed these characters over many years.”

What’s next after “A Tuna Christmas”? Will the Kean-Baxter duo bring us “Red, White and Blue Tuna” next July? Kean is doubtful. “I’m getting a little long in the tooth,” he says.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It's About Time

I just love Pamela Trokanski's dance concerts. Where else can one hear Pink Floyd, Mozart and the soundtrack from 'Pajama Game' in the same evening?

The Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre's 2008 fall concert, called 'It's About Time,' examines the effects that time - and clocks - have on our lives, delves into the history of modern time, and explores the elasticity of time, depending on the circumstances under which we find ourselves.

The six dancers - Caitlin Barale, Nicole Bell, Katy Lundgren, Bekah Shepard, Nicole Smith and Trokanski - perform the Herculean task of dancing nonstop for nearly 75 minutes.

The evening starts with a section titled 'The Memoirs of Jesse James,' a reference to a work by Richard Brautigan, who 'remembers all those thousands of hours that I spent in grade school watching the clock ... my teachers could easily have ridden with Jesse James for all the time they stole from me.'

To a recording of 'Racing with the Clock' from 'The Pajama Game,' the dancers mimic the mechanism of a clock, from the hands to the inner workings. At one point, they twirl long sticks that mimic a clock's face.

Trokanski's stage design adds to the sensation of passing time, with several kinds of clocks displayed on panels, and a fractal-like projection on the back wall that runs throughout the performance. (Patrick Fitzgibbons gets credit for 'technology.')

'Jesse James' moves smoothly into 'NPR and Radiolab' ... which, I have to say, may have worked against the ultimate goal of a dance performance. The narration follows the history of 'time' and the degree to which U.S. railroads influenced the standardization of time. It also discusses the philosophy of time itself.

To wit: Why does time pass so slowly for children, yet so quickly for adults?

In truth, though, this history lesson was so fascinating that I wanted to return home to study up on the origins of time, rather than concentrating on the hard-working dancers in front of me.

This is not to denigrate the dancers, merely to explain that what should have been background material became so interesting that it briefly overshadowed the dancing.

The performance became more of a background to the lecture, rather than the other way around.

'Flight of the Bumblebee' provided an interesting example of the juxtaposition of time: a delightful bit of choreography accompanied by a podcast of the 'Ode to Joy' portion of Beethoven's ninth symphony, digitally stretched to last 24 hours. (Thankfully, only a brief portion of the 24-hour symphony was played.)

Two dancers - not singled out for identification in the program - performed in 'Nancy Grows Up,' against recordings made by Tony Schwartz of his daughter's vocalizations from birth to age 12.

Trokanski's goal in each of her concerts is to be both humorous and thought-provoking. 'It's About Time' succeeds perhaps better than most; it's an absolutely delightful pastiche.

Best of all, if you check your watches when the performance concludes, you'll have spent only 75 minutes in the theater, give or take a couple, and that time will have been spent very well indeed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Man of La Mancha

The Davis Musical Theatre Company has mounted another enjoyable production of 'Man of La Mancha,' continuing through Dec. 7 under the capable direction of Jan Isaacson, with musical direction by Jonathan Rothman,

Dale Wasserman's Broadway hit - with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion - is a musical drama: a play within a play within a play, which tells the story of Miguel de Cervantes (Tae Kim), who has been thrown into prison to await examination by the Holy Inquisition, for having the effrontery to foreclose on a church that did not pay its taxes.

As is their custom with new arrivals, Cervantes' fellow prisoners hold their own Inquisition - a mock trial - and accuse the writer of being, among other things, an idealist and a bad poet. If 'convicted,' he'll lose his belongings, which consist primarily of an unfinished manuscript and a trunk of theatrical costumes and props.

Cervantes mounts his defense in the form of a play, in which he takes the role of Alonso Quijana, an old gentleman who has become delusional and now believes himself to be a medieval knight errant.

Quijana renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha, and travels the countryside with his trusty squire, Sancho Panza (Jason Hammond), fighting beasts and rescuing damsels in distress: 'He ponders the problem of how to make better a world where evil brings profit and virtue none at all; where fraud and deceit are mingled with truth and sincerity.'

He promises not to allow wickedness to flourish.

At first sight, the diminutive Tae Kim seems an unlikely Cervantes; the character is more traditionally a taller, older and more commanding presence. But all doubts are erased once Kim begins to sing, and he steps comfortably into the playwright's shoes.

Kim did have a few difficulties opening night, trying to stay with the orchestra in a couple of places, but otherwise he was excellent.

Hammond is outstanding as Sancho Panza, a large but gentle man who is extremely protective of his master.

The two ride out from Quixote's home on trusty horses. The latter are prisoners in horse costume, and it's unfortunate that the actor playing Quixote's horse is so tall that he prevented the actor from being seen for most of this number.

En route, Quixote does battle with a 'monster' - actually a windmill - and decides to take refuge in a neighboring 'castle,' actuality a local tavern that only appears to be a castle in the faux knight's delusional mind.

The pair encounter Aldonza (Lauren Miller), the weary and bitter barmaid and town trollop, who appears to Quixote to be the lovely and virginal Dulcinea, the maid he pledges to serve, protect and defend with his life. Aldonza is confused by the gentle, courtly manner in which he treats her.

Lauren Miller has made quite an impact while playing roles such as Annie Oakley in 'Annie Get Your Gun,' the secretary Gladys in 'Pajama Game' and Audrey from 'Little Shop of Horrors.' All are brash, bold, colorful women, and Miller delivered them well.

Aldonza is a different type of a role, and Miller definitely has the singing voice for it - despite some harsh notes in her upper register - but her speaking voice occasionally echoes the brassy manner of all those other characters, which could be a bit grating on the ear. Despite that, Miller's Aldonza displays the proper balance of harshness and tenderness toward Quixote.

Steve Isaacson returns in the dual roles of the 'Governor' of the prisoners and the Innkeeper who is talked into knighting Quixote, and giving him the title of 'Knight of the Woeful Countenance.' As always, Isaacson's performance does not disappoint.

Mark Ettensohn is the 'Duke,' who takes an instant dislike to Cervantes; Ettensohn also plays Dr. Carrasco in the charade performance. He too, does a memorable job.

The delusional Quijana is an embarrassment to his respectable family, and the tuneful 'I'm only thinking of him' is sung by Quijana's niece Antonia (Jennifer Berry), his housekeeper (Emily Beal) and their priest (Michael Manley, who has the widest vibrato I've heard from a man in a very long time).

Isaacson's massive set is impressive, with a huge staircase that lowers whenever anyone enters the prison.

The six-piece orchestra is fine overall, although the horn section displays occasional weaknesses, particularly during the overture.

Overall, though, this is a very good production of 'Man of La Mancha,' and it's certain to satisfy audiences.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

THIRDeYE Festival

The UC Davis theater and dance department's annual THIRDeYE Theater Festival once again is showcasing the work of three talented student playwrights and three student directors.

'These three original plays not only provide entertainment,' said artistic director Jade McCutcheon, 'but a forum for debate and discussion.'

The works were created in UCD playwrighting and English courses, where playwrights are encouraged to explore issues that deeply concern them, whether about the environment, death, sexuality, relationships or love.

Solid performances are turned in by Shaya Carp, Desiree M. Doyle and Ashkon Royce Malmoudi in Joe Ferreira's 'The Readers,' directed by Kevin Ganger. Carp and Mahmoudi play Clara and Michael, who live in the poorest of the poor tenement apartments, are engaged to be married, and struggle to make ends meet.

Doyle plays June, their lesbian neighbor, who is attracted to Clara and fearful that Michael's erratic temper might cause him to hurt his fiancée.

The practical Clara is working to pay the bills, while the idealistic Michael is a struggling artist, trying to find a way to live the 'perfect life' in their small, shabby apartment, where the water gets turned off routinely. He is, however, unwilling to work at something that'll actually bring in some money. Arguments about finances are common.

When a large sum of money goes missing from their bank account, Michael confesses he has been seeing 'The Readers,' who are able to read his mind and tell him what his perfect life is, and where his path to success lies. Clara realizes that she doesn't really know this man with whom she is sharing her life, or what he is capable of.

The play explores whether it's possible to make every decision the right decision. And if others could see into our future, do we want them to make our decisions for us?

The incidental mood music by sound designer Reed Wagner is sometimes distracting, and often does not complement the play itself.

Carolyn Duncan's 'When Marcelli Met the Dream Maker,' directed by Jenna Templeton, concerns a 15-year-old writer and her family. The young creator of mythical stories lives with her anorexic sister and eccentric mother, and struggles with the fear of losing her father. Helped by dream-world creatures and characters, the teen makes life-changing discoveries.

Duncan explains that this is her story: 'The pain, the love, the magic are all real parts of me. It was most difficult to write about my own sister's illness.'

The play contains seven scenes, the first three of which occur in different (unnamed) war eras, while the final four take place in the present day.

The printed program is a little confusing: While all the characters have names, they're never referred to by those names in the play itself, so I may have the wrong actors playing the wrong roles. There are three Marcelli women, but only two have last names listed in the program.

I assume Amber Nolan is the young writer, Allissandra Marcelli; if so, she creates a very sympathetic character, as she tries to learn the truth about her father, and expresses concern for her sister's health.

I'm also guessing that Tianna Riva is Allissandra's mother - and also Muse Two, in a dream sequence - and does an excellent job at demonstrating the eccentricities of a parent who is unable to face what might be terrible news.

That leaves either Katie Walton (Danu) or Christina Moore (Morrigan) as Allissandra's sister, who spends her life lying on the couch, afraid to face the world. Whichever actress plays this part does a good job.

The other cast members - Kyle Robinson, William Wong and Steph Hankinson - also tackle several roles, all well.

At the age of 50, with 13 plays already under her belt, playwright Julie Friedrichson - the writer of 'A Piece of Water' - hardly is young. But she came to UC Davis to work with McCutcheon, and wrote her play in McCutcheon's class.

'A Piece of Water,' directed by Daniel A. Guttenberg, explores the roots of emotional crises that result from miscommunication. A cello, a romance and a photographer are central to this unique piece of theatrical poetry.

As Timea (Kristina Stasi) and Freide (Kathryn Hempstead) try to navigate the waters of love in Cold War Hungary, Paula (Kate McGrath) and her partner Rahim (Juan Gallardo) wend their way through a dusty apartment's history, and try to make sense of the present. The two stories intertwine and diverge, flowing in and out of each other toward a conclusion as inevitable as it is elusive.

The old woman, who knows more than she lets on, is played by Sarah Birdsall.

You have only one more chance to catch these new theatrical works, at 2 p.m. today at UCD's Wyatt Pavilion. You'll find this year's THIRDeYE Festival an enjoyable and thought-provoking afternoon of theater.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Color Purple

Standing outside the Sacramento Community Center Theater Wednesday evening, I heard many people commenting on the irony of seeing 'The Color Purple' - a musical with an African-American cast, which deals with subjects that include lesbianism - on the day after we elected the country's first African-American president ... and voted to ban gay marriage in California.

This first North American touring production of 'The Color Purple' is directed by Gary Griffin, with exuberant choreography by Donald Byrd.

This musical adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the 1985 film, which collected numerous Academy Award nominations, including those for stars Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey. (It won none.)

The stage production - adapted by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner Marsha Norman, with music and lyrics by Grammy Award winners Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray - was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including best musical, when it opened on Broadway in 2006.

The story highlights the resilience of Southern black women, as they deal with the harshest of circumstances and the power of sisterhood, to help them cope with the darkest of times.

The heroine of the story is Celie (Jeannette Bayardel), 14 years old as the show begins, whose suffering over the next several decades surely rivals Job's. Twice impregnated with her father's child and forced to watch her father 'get rid' of her babies, she subsequently is given to an abusive man (Rufus Bonds Jr.) who doesn't want her because she's ugly, but who needs someone to take care of him and his children.

Celie remains with him for years but calls him 'Mister,' because he never even tells her his name.

Bayardel, an actress with a powerful set of lungs, gives a memorable performance as the beaten but never broken Celie, whose innocence and goodness make her character so compelling. Her 'I'm Here' brought down the house Wednesday evening, and is worth the price of admission alone.

Celie's one tie to everything good in her life is her sister, Nettie (LaToya London), with whom she is seen at the start of the show, during a moment of innocent play. But after Nettie spurns his advances, Mister forbids communication between the two girls; as Celie goes through her life, she doesn't know whether her sister is alive or dead.

The show's large cast includes many memorable characters, notably Felicia P. Fields in a the show-stopping performance as Sophia, the feisty wife of Mister's son, Harpo (Stu James). Sophia has an indomitable spirit, unbroken despite a brutal beating that leaves her physically and mentally compromised.

Celie's ultimate path away from her abusive life with Mister comes in the form of Shug Avery (Angela Robinson), with whom he has been in love for years. Shug makes Celie believe that she's a beautiful person. Shug helps her re-connect with her beloved Nettie.

And Shug opens Celie's eyes to the beauty of physical love.

'The Color Purple' spans 40 years, and at times has the feel of a series of vignettes that rush by so quickly, we don't have the opportunity to place them in any sort of timeline. The play suffers from the loss of Walker's poignant prose, although the developers worked hard to preserve the book's essence.

The music is vibrant, but the Community Center Theater's horrible acoustics make it virtually impossible to understand most of the lyrics. No song is truly memorable, although all of them work together as part of the whole. Cute numbers like 'Push da Button' and 'Miss Celie's Pants' are made more memorable by the choreography.

A long African sequence in the second act is well done, even if it does smack a bit of 'The Lion King.'

Actually, the second act in general is tighter and more enjoyable. A woman sitting next to me expressed, at the end of the overly long first act, pretty much what I was feeling: 'This is really good, but I'm having a hard time staying awake.'

But by the end of 'The Color Purple,' the abused little girl has become a self-assured, self-sufficient matriarch who is comfortable in her own skin. Truly, the resilience of the human spirit is wonderful to behold.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

No Parole

You get no parole from your family.

That's the theme of Peruvian writer-performer Carlo D'Amore's riveting one-man show, 'No Parole,' which continues through Nov. 9 at the Sacramento Theatre Company's newly named black box theater, The J. Arliss Pollock Stage.

In a line of several one-person shows that have graced the STC stage over the years, 'No Parole' ranks among the best.

The autobiographical work primarily explores the relationship between D'Amore and his mother, who has - shall we say - a 'loose' relationship with the law. From the time D'Amore was a small child in Peru, his mother was able to steal her way into better and better social positions, with the aid of her large purse that could hold many things, all of which could be sold later on the black market, to finance their way of life.

Her accomplice from a young age was her young son, who served as the lookout and became such an accomplished actor that when the family attempted to immigrate (illegally) to the United States, he so convincingly cried about having set fire to the passport page that held the visa stamp, that the border guards let the family into the country after all.

The roughly 90-minute theater piece (without intermission) traces D'Amore's life from birth to the present, and includes many characters, all of them played by the actor himself.

The most fully formed of these characters is, of course, D'Amore's mother, with whom he has a love/not love relationship. (He can't quite say 'hate.') At the start of the show, his estranged mother is being dumped on D'Amore by his brother, after she has a stroke. He takes her in, and then is stuck trying to find her something meaningful to do.

As they adjust to existence together in a tiny New York walk-up apartment, their lifelong relationship is explored in flashbacks.

D'Amore moves so seamlessly from character to character, that the audience gets fully immersed in each new person he becomes. Particularly moving is his mother, post-stroke: a woman still filled with pride, still working all the angles (legal and illegal), but slowed down by the effects of her infirmity.

The play, directed by Margaret Perry, is both funny and touching. It's also occasionally shocking, given the sorts of scams that D'Amore's mother pulls off.

Since he grew up under her influence and learned to be such an excellent actor - an excellent manipulator of people, and twister of the truth - one wonders if this piece is autobiographical ... or merely semi-autobiographical! But what's actually true, or shaped for the show, isn't important; everything hangs together as fact, and that's all the matters.

Myke Kunkel's scenic and lighting design, and Billy Atwell's sound design, are integral 'characters' in the show. Scene changes often are accompanied by sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic lighting changes, along with music or television sound cues, all of them spot-on.

'No Parole' is a wonderful first production in the newly named theater. This riches-to-rags immigration story will introduce you to a collection of interesting characters, provide a chance to explore the lives of a family of Peruvian grifters, and make you realize that no matter how eccentric your relatives are, family remains the tie that binds us all together.

Whether or not we like it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tasty Tunes

If you've been to the Davis Farmers' Market, attended a local political or charitable fundraiser, visited a nursing home, enjoyed the Woodland County Fair or had dinner at Ludy's Main Street BBQ during the past 30 to 40 years, chances are you're familiar with the Putah Creek Crawdads: our own purveyors of old-time acoustic folk music.

Even if you never realized the group had a name.

'You can't help but smile when you listen to the Putah Creek Crawdads,' said Crilly Butler, a longtime Davis resident. 'Their folksy and traditional tunes are always light and fun, and it's obvious that they love to play. I always enjoy catching the first strains of their music as I approach the Farmers' Market on Saturday morning.

'What a great way to start the day!'

I recently had the delightful experience of sitting in during a band rehearsal, at the home of psychiatrist Cap Thomson. When the group took a break, we sat around and discussed their long history.

It's easier said than done, digging through those dusty memories, to remember when the group began or how and when the name got chosen.

'This isn't a youthful rock band,' laughed Thomson, who plays banjo. The group spans an age range of 48 years, from 38 to 86.

Marc Faye, a farmer from Knights Landing, remembers that the four original members started playing together in the 1960s, when hootenanny music was popular and everybody seemed to play a guitar.

'Somebody asked us to be the opening act for a professional performer,' Faye said, 'and we had to have a name. We don't know when that was, but it was probably 1972.'

'Actually, that was after 1980, when we gave ourselves the name,' corrected attorney Oliver 'Chip' Northup, lead singer and guitarist. 'We were going to play for the Newman Club.'

Someone else insisted that 1972 was the closer date, and that it revolved around a talent show. Someone else was sure it was 1965; another member said no, earlier than 1965.


As for the name itself, someone remembered that it came from the fact that the Unitarian Church was located on Putah Creek, which contained crawdads. Someone else thought it came from the line in the song: 'You get a line and I'll get a pole, and I'll meet you down at the crawdad hole.'

(Over the years, the name changed with the location: They've been the Cache Creek Crawdads, the Knights Landing Crawdads and a few other Crawdads along the way.)

'You can write anything you want about us, as far as our history is concerned, because none of us older folks is sure,' laughed the group, as a whole.

'We'd be afraid to challenge you!'

All were pretty much in agreement that the original band's distant genesis was a yearly gathering held by members of the Unitarian Church over at Dillon Beach, when everyone would sit around in the evening and sing music.

'I'd pick up a guitar once in awhile at Dillon Beach, and fiddle around with it,' said Ray Coppock, who taught himself to play as a kid, but hadn't touched the instrument in decades. 'My wife finally bought me my own guitar. I've never been a really good guitar player in terms of fingering, but I do the chording.'

Coppock, who has a degree in journalism and worked as a farm reporter for the Sacramento Bee - until he moved to Davis, to work as an information specialist for the university Ag Extension, until his retirement - never considered himself a singer, either.

'I'd never sung until I got with the Crawdads, but it was fun. I'm a baritone, and you don't 'hear' the baritones; but if they're gone, you miss them. I love doing the harmony.

'I stand on Chip's right side, because my good ear is on the left. I'm guided by Chip's melody.'

Nobody was more surprised than Northup's children, when he became a singer.

'It was accepted in my family that I couldn't carry a tune,' he joked.

But he decided to take a guitar class through the Davis Art Center; he learned to strum the guitar and began to sing to his younger children at night.

'It was a terrible ordeal for my older children.'

But he stuck with it.

'The voice was always there, and I always loved to sing, but I needed to develop an ear for music. I eventually learned how to stay on key all through a song.'

Northup credits Coppock for inspiring him.

'Ray is very, very precise, and very careful to work out a harmony that's satisfying for him on each of our songs. It's fun to listen to him while we're singing.'

Coppock also relies on the steady presence of Thomson, singing and playing banjo on his right.

Thomson, former director of Yolo County Mental Health and former director of the Sutter Center for Psychiatry, learned to play ukulele in high school; while in college, he bought a $5 guitar. But it was an impulse purchase in 1948 that set the stage for the Crawdads.

'I was in Oakland, at a pawn shop,' Thomson said, 'and I saw this old banjo hanging on the wall, kind of broken down. They wanted $8.50 for it, and I couldn't talk them down in price, but I bought it anyway.

'I'm still playing that old banjo.'

Thomson wasn't the only one to get a bargain on the instrument that would serve him for decades. Bass player Marc Faye - who was born in Knights Landing, but grew up on Kauai - learned to play the ukulele at 15, and he made music on that instrument through high school. In college, someone suggested he graduate to guitar.

'I went to pawn shops in San Francisco,' Faye recalled, 'and found a Martin 0018 for $35. I played guitar until the '60s, when everyone else was playing guitars.'

A jazz-playing friend suggested that Faye try accompanying his group on bass. The friend owned three basses, and Faye borrowed one and began working with other groups, as well.

'I had so much fun doing it, I wouldn't give the bass back to him ... so the rascal charged me $150 to buy it. Any group was glad to have a bass, and I was the only bass in town.

'It was the best $150 I ever spent.'

Faye still plays that instrument today.

The Putah Creek Crawdads became more organized several years ago, when Wayne Ginsburg, a retired English and journalism teacher, joined the group.

'I met the group through Rotary, and through politics,' Ginsburg explained. 'I taught at least one of Marc's sons, and I kept running into Marc and Cap at various meetings. Chip was a member of the school board about the time I arrived, but I never met Ray until a Rotary function, when the group was playing and invited me to sit in.

'A month later, Marc invited me to be at another function.'

Ginsburg started playing violin in fourth grade in Fresno, and continued through seventh grade. But as he reached high school, violin was 'no longer cool'; he taught himself to play guitar and took some lessons. But he abandoned music about halfway through college.

'When my son was ready for me to force him to take Suzuki violin, I got out a couple of inherited violins and participated with him for a year or two.

'When he forced me to give that up, I didn't do much of anything again until about two years before I retired.'

Scared of having nothing to do in retirement, Ginsburg did something he'd always wanted to do: He bought a mandolin and started taking lessons. Two years later, he joined the Crawdads and took over arranging the group's gigs. Booking had been fairly haphazard up to that time, but with Ginsburg's many years in social organization, he knew how best to market the group.

About six months before Ginsburg joined, Kate Laddish also became a member of the Crawdads.

'Someone erroneously told these young fellows that I played fiddle,' said the 30-something geologist and educator.

'I didn't.

'I was mostly playing guitar at that point. I hadn't taken a violin lesson since eighth grade, but they invited me to a rehearsal. I arrived with my guitar, which I thought was the instrument I was actually playing, and I said 'I don't actually play fiddle.' I think it was Marc who said 'But you have one, right?' It was my violin.

'I had wished that I played fiddle ... and it turned out that I did. Sort of.'

'Kate has a sensitivity about the way a song should be presented and performed,' Faye said. 'We used to just hack away at it, but we've become more 'performers' now. We're working on getting the hang of this thing.'

'I was totally flattered by what Marc said. It was so much nicer than 'Kate's so bossy, she won't shut up,' ' laughed Laddish, who cannot remember a time when music wasn't a big part of her life.

'Music was always playing in our house, and some of my earliest memories involve music.'

She started taking violin lessons in second grade, in the Berkeley public school system.

'That was the instrument I chose, because a friend played violin. The second song I ever learned how to play was the main theme to 'Star Wars.'

'I think one strength I do have is being able to essentially step outside, and observe what we're playing, and how we sound as we're doing it: to be a participant and an observer, to hear when something really works, and be able to say, 'Oh, that was great; we need to remember to do that.'

'Or say, 'I know this is the way we've always done this, but we always seem to trip up on it.'

'That's one thing I bring to the group.'

Watching the Crawdads perform at Ludy's, it's easy to envision a group-think taking place, as Coppock leans into Northup on the harmonies, and Laddish conducts with her bow, her foot or a certain look in her eye. These musicians have a nonverbal communication that works well for them.

And even after all these years, they continue to work on improving each show.

'I won't say Ludy's inspires us to greatness, because that implies greatness is attainable,' Laddish laughed. 'But I think something gels whenever we play at Ludy's. We sound better.

'Although it could be the beer.'

Enterprise beer columnist Michael Lewis recently told Thomson, 'You're always fun, and the marvelous thing is that you haven't improved a bit.'

'It sounds like a mean comment,' Lewis said, when I requested clarification, 'but I guess I meant they've remained delightfully the same over the many years that I've enjoyed their music.'

'The Putah Creek Crawdads have been an integral part of innumerable special events all over Yolo County for years,' said longtime Davis public events fixture Bob Bowen. 'Their music always brings a smile to my face.'

The group performs some 40 to 50 times a year, often in retirement homes or Alzheimer's facilities.

'Our residents absolutely love the Crawdads,' said Karen Wright, activities director at St. John's Retirement Village, in Woodland. 'We usually have them for our monthly social hour. They're great.'

Joan Callaway and Nancy Keltner, co-founders of All Things Right & Relevant, have had many dealings with the Crawdads through the years.

'I don't know how many times I've called them for one cause or another, and they've always been willing to perform,' Callaway said.

'It's sure a two-way street,' Keltner said. 'The joy they give, and the joy they get. You can just see it: They have so much fun doing it.'

The Crawdads never have made money performing all these years.

'We've never taken any money at all,' Ginsburg said. 'One time just after I joined, I think, the budget account go so big, about $1,500, so we found a particular charity group that was important to somebody. But none of us has taken any personal money out of it.'

Northup reminded him that they once took some of the funds and took their wives out to dinner; another time they bought an amplification system. ('And matching shirts!' Laddish chipped in.)

A recording is in the works now: This project began a few years ago, and the editing is taking longer than anticipated. But the resulting CD will be available. Eventually.

The Putah Creek Crawdads are one of those little gems that make living in Davis so special. They've been making us smile for decades ... and with the love these guys have for what they do, I'm sure they'll continue to entertain for many years to come.

Lee Riggs, of the musical group Riggity Jig, sums it up perfectly: 'It's always a fun time when the Crawdads play. They make the kind of music that makes you smile.

'And that's the point, isn't it?'

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Treasure Island

Shiver me timbers! Thar be a new show in town, and it be a treasure chest full of fun.


The Sacramento Theatre Company production of Ken Ludwig's 'Treasure Island,' directed by Peggy Shannon, is one rollicking bit of action after another. The opening night audience - consisting of a large number of children, some dressed as pirates - just loved it, although this isn't a 'children's show' per se.

Based on Robert Louis Stevenson's book of the same name, 'Treasure Island' tells of young Jim Hawkins, who matches wits with Long John Silver and his mob of pirates, to obtain the legendary Captain Flint's secret treasure. The production is filled with heart-pounding sword fights, edge-of-your-seat rescues and adventures certain to please patrons young and old.

The play's setting is created from the moment one enters the theater, with a huge ship set on stage, and its creaking sounds heard throughout. Arthur Rotch gets credit for his set design, while John Gromada adds to the atmosphere with his sound design and incidental music throughout the show.

While the production boasts many outstanding performances, the most remarkable is that given by young Will Block, in the role of Jim Hawkins. (He alternates with Anna Miles.) Block's stage presence shows a maturity beyond his years, and a level of expertise not entirely commensurate with the limited performance background in his bio.

This is a young man with oodles of talent, who handles very large amounts of dialogue, and with a convincing accent to boot.

The very nature of a show about pirates gives the actors, some of Sacramento's finest, the chance to do a lot of scenery-chewing; this is particularly true of Michael RJ Campbell in the role of Billy Bones, who escaped execution and has stolen the treasure map. Billy arrives at the lodge owned by Hawkins and his mother (Lynn Baker), and forces the other customers to drink with him, sing with him and raise a glass of rum to keep him entertained.

Also chewing the scenery in exemplary fashion are the ruthless Black Dog (Matt K. Miller) and the feared Blind Pew (Brett David Williams), who has sworn to kill Billy.

Many actors assume dual roles. Miller returns as the very prim and properly bewigged Captain Smollet, who pilots the ship, the Hispanola, which will take Jim - bearing the map given to him by Billy Bones, on his death - on a search for the treasure.

Patrick Murphy plays Squire Trelawney, a local nobleman who arranges for the voyage and finds the ship. Barry Hubbard is Dr. Livesey, a father figure to Jim, and with whom the map is entrusted.

Jonathan Rys Williams also plays two roles. He starts as Jim's father, who dies early in the play, and with whom the young lad shares a love of Shakespeare. Williams later returns as the deranged castaway Ben Gunn, a former pirate left marooned on Treasure Island, who is overjoyed to find other people on the island ... and whose only request is for a bit of cheese.

Michael Stevenson turns in an excellent performance as the peg-legged Long John Silver, who befriends Jim and is kind to the boy. Although Silver signs on to the Hispanola as its cook, he does so under false pretenses; he's also a pirate who is out to get the treasure for himself.

Christopher Duval gets high marks for his fight choreography. The show features many opportunities for swordplay among the pirates, and all are carried out beautifully.

'Treasure Island' is fun for all ages. Younger children may have difficulty with the language, which is true to Stevenson's original prose, but they'll love the action.

Particularly the excitement of the first-act conclusion.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Damn Yankees

Rodger McDonald has a fiendishly good time in the Woodland Opera House production of 'Damn Yankees.'

McDonald plays Mr. Applegate, otherwise known as the Devil, who manipulates the action in this sparkling musical, directed by Bobby Granger.

Mr. Applegate is called to Earth by long-time Washington Senators fanatic Joe Boyd (Steven Read), who says he'd sell his soul to see his beloved baseball team win the pennant just once. Enter Mr. Applegate - a great entrance, by the way - who promises not only to give the Senators a winning season, but to allow Boyd to be the man who makes it all happen.

Joe suddenly is transformed into youthful heavy-hitter Joe Hardy (Tim Stewart).

McDonald does such a wonderful job in this role that one wants to check under all that hair, to see if maybe he's hiding a couple of little horns. His satanic persona is assisted by Laurie Everly Klassen's black-and-red costume design, and Jeff Kean's delicious lighting effects.

'Damn Yankees' has a number of familiar songs, such as 'Heart' and 'Whatever Lola Wants,' but opens with the misogynistic 'Six Months Out of Every Year.' This song implies that women have no interest in baseball, but simply sit around the kitchen in aprons, complaining, waiting for their husbands to emerge from baseball season and take notice of them again.

I know many women who would take offense at that portrayal.

But remember that this show - with book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, and music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross - was written in the 1950s, and so we can take it as a quaint historical perspective.

Read, emerging only recently after a 30-year absence from the stage, gives a credible performance as Joe Boyd. He's a little shaky in his portion of the lovely song, 'Goodbye Old Girl,' but delivers a moving and tender reprise during his reunion with his wife, Meg (Kathi Davi), at the play's conclusion.

Tim Stewart steps out of the shadows to become the transformed Joe Hardy. Stewart is sensational, with a voice that fills the Opera House and an eagerness that makes his Joe a fresh-faced, likable ball player. Yet he's also able to pull off the underlying sadness of the man who lives inside him, who still misses the relationship he had with his 'old girl.'

Laura Lothian is mesmerizing as Lola, whom Applegate calls from Hades to seduce his young protégé, after Joe starts to waver in his commitment to sell his soul for a winning season. The lithe and winsome Lothian looks great in all those slinky outfits, and she manages to be both evil and sympathetic.

Brian McCann, also listed as the show's vocal director, is outstanding as Van Buren, the team manager. Although familiar to Davis Musical Theatre Company patrons, McCann is making his debut appearance at the Woodland Opera House; he's a great addition to the company.

Jori Gonzales also is making her WOH debut as Gloria Thorpe, a sports reporter who suspects there's something not quite right about Joe Hardy, and is determined to uncover the truth about the Senators' newest star player.

Kathi Ichtertz is quite good in the small role of Miss Weston.

Other standouts in this uniformly strong cast include Jessica Larrick as 'Sister' and Kathleen Flint as 'Doris,' two women who go ga-ga over Joe Hardy; and baseball players Erik Catalan (Henry), Tyler Russell Warren (Sohovik), Dan Masden (Smoky), Andrew Leathers (Vernon) and Justin Kelly (Bouley).

Gino Platina's choreography is first-rate. The ball players, in particular, display a range of athletic abilities that draw applause from the audience.

The show is set in several different locations, and the confines of the Opera House stage do not lend themselves to the kind of spectacular effects one usually expects from Kean's set design. The ball park, the locker room and the manager's office are quite good; the Boyds' home and the wall outside the ball park are disappointing, but they still work well.

'Damn Yankees' is an outstanding show, with lots of good, wholesome fun. And the original script has been given some interesting enhancements that bring the story up to date in an entertaining manner.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Drowsy Chaperone

A touring production of 'The Drowsy Chaperone,' a completely original musical comedy that became the most celebrated musical of the 2006 Broadway season, opened last week at the Sacramento Community Theater.

The show is directed and choreographed by Tony Award nominee Casey Nicholaw ('Spamalot'), with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and Bob Martin and Don McKellar; all four won Tony Awards.

While not destined to achieve 'old chestnut' status, the show is a delight, revisiting a time before musicals had to have a hard-hitting message ... or be a stage version of a beloved Disney animated film. 'The Drowsy Chaperone' has no deep message, no memorable songs, no cute animals running around on stage.

It's just good, clean fun, with a lot of laughs, a lot of groans - as the lines are delivered - and a lot of madcap mayhem.

The central character, known only as 'Man in Chair' (Jonathan Crombie, who played the role on Broadway), is a music lover who misses the days of old-style musicals. He speaks to the audience throughout the show, as he pulls out one of his old records (remember records?) and plays the original cast recording of his favorite show, 'The Drowsy Chaperone,' which his mother introduced him to.

As the record plays, the show comes to life on stage; Man in Chair narrates throughout, giving the show's history, discussing the actors playing the roles, and commenting on the various musical numbers.

It's kind of like Stephen Peithman's KXPR show, 'Musical Stages' ... but on speed.

As for the show within the show, nothing could be sillier or more formulaic.

Therein lies the fun.

The opening number, 'Fancy Dress,' introduces the show's many characters and lets the audience know right away that this is a plot with tongue set firmly in cheek. A big, fancy wedding has been planned, you see, and all these characters have assembled to make it happen.

The bride is a young actress, Janet Van De Graaff (Andrea Chamberlain), who plans to leave the stage to marry the dashing Robert Martin (Mark Ledbetter). Her producer, Feldzieg (Cliff Bemis), plans to sabotage the wedding, with the help of two gangsters disguised as pastry chefs (the delightful Paul Riopelle and Peter Riopelle).

The gangsters represent some unseen big boss who'll do serious damage to the producer if Janet leaves her show.

Alicia Irving has the role of The Drowsy Chaperone, the bride's elegantly attired friend and confidante, who is tasked with preventing the bride and groom from seeing each other on their wedding day. She states at the outset that champagne makes her drowsy, and then proceeds to down a bottle of it - with a martini chaser - and hence becomes 'the drowsy chaperone.'

The wedding is hosted by Mrs. Tottendale (Georgia Engel, well remembered from TV's 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' and 'Everybody Loves Raymond'). Engel originated this role on Broadway, and is every bit as charmingly and endearingly dingy as we remember from her TV roles.

Mrs. Tottendale's Underling is played by Nobel Shropshire (which sounds more like a character from the play!). Mrs. Tottendale and her Underling have a very funny slapstick scene, which requires Man in Chair to take mop in hand to clean up afterwards.

Another key player is the Latin Lover Aldolpho (Dale Hensley), the self-proclaimed 'King of Romance' who is hired by the producer to seduce the bride, and thus thwart the marriage.

Additional characters include George (Richard Vida), Robert's best man who, along with Robert, does a mean tap dance; Kitty (Linda Griffin), Feldzieg's ditsy aspiring-actress girlfriend; and Trix (Natasha Yvette Williams), an aviatrix who flies in at an opportune moment.

David Gallo's set is ingenious, and it must be pandemonium backstage, given all that takes place in front of the audience.

In the end, everyone lives happily ever after and a wedding does take place, because this is an old-fashioned musical comedy and that's the way those things end. There are, however, a few twists and turns along the way, along with a memorable special effect at the conclusion.

'The Drowsy Chaperone' has received much praise and a lot of criticism, but it would be difficult to imagine anyone not entertained by this delightful pastiche.

Be sure to visit the restroom beforehand, though, because the show runs 100 minutes with no intermission.