Thursday, May 29, 2008

Phantom of the Opera

If there was any doubt that the award-winning Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “The Phantom of the Opera” is a true "spectacle," the multi page "tour facts" handed out to reviewers is proof enough. (The replica of the Paris Opera chandelier weighs 1000 lbs, and contains 6,000 beads and 50 radio-controlled lights; there are 2,700 yards of fabric in the drapery, 141 candles rise out of the deck to form the underground lake, there are 230 costumes, and one life-sized elephant).

It may be stated that "Phantom of the Opera," directed by Harold Prince, is one of the world's most popular musicals. This is a show guaranteed to bring an audience to its feet at the curtain call, with cheers and wild applause, whether or not there is any substance to the script, whether or not the music is repetitive, whether or not the sound system allows you to understand the dialog, or whether the performances are top notch. There is so much gold and glitter and pizzazz that the spectacle alone is enough.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's songs (with lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe), such as "Music of the Night" and "All I ask of You" have become some of the most recognized today.

With a stage show which has been around since 1986, following the original book by Gaston Leroux, and several movie versions, there are few who are not familiar with the story of the masked disfigured musician who lurks beneath the catacombs of the Paris Opera House. He is in love with Christine Daaé, an aspiring young soprano, and sets about making her a star by terrorizing the owners and members of the resident theater company.

Stephen Tewksbury as the Phantom is an imposing figure, but a bit too melodramatic (though how else can you be when your role requires you to holler from all corners of the stage, climb up into the procenium, and sing from within a gilded set of angels?).

Sara Jean Ford as Christine is marvelous. She gives the role the proper degree of innocence and naivete and she has a show stopper with her, "Wishing you were somehow here again," which she sings at her father's grave. (Ford will be replaced by Marni Raab on June 1 and Kelly Jeanne Grant will also play the role at selected performances)

Greg Mills as Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, Christine's other suitor, is more convincing as the lovestruck youth and he has an excellent voice.

In smaller roles, Bruce Winant (Monsieur Firmin) and D.C. Anderson (reprising his role as Monsieur André), provide comic relief as the new owners of the Paris Opera, who discover they have purchased not only a theater company, but its phantom as well.

Nancy Hess, as the ballet mistress Madame Giry, the only one who actually seems to know the Phantom, gives a solid performance.

Kim Stengel handles the role of opera diva Carlotta Giudicelli well, with a firey temperament and a strong voice.

John Whitney plays the rotund tenor, Ubaldo Piangi, as a stereotypical buffoon.

There are wonderful visuals in this production, thanks to the production design of Maria Björnson. The rehearsal of the opera Hannibal is sheer opulence, and shows the marvelous choreography by Gillian Lynne. (The elephant is the star of this scene!) Lighting designer Andrew Bridge also gets applause for his realistic depiction of true "footlights" for the stage.

One of the most famous scenes, the Phantom piloting a gondola through the "lake" in the basement of the Opera House, is every bit as impressive as when I first saw this show in London, with fog rising off the water, and those 141 candles to light the way, as the boat glides across the stage as if on a real lake.

"The Phantom of the Opera" is a lush, beautifully directed musical with familiar melodies and strong performances. No one attending this production will come away disappointed.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Carnival of Follies

Playwright/Director Dave Burmester describes his play, “A Carnival of Follies” as a “Where’s Waldo” of quotes, characters, situations, staging, and in-jokes from the past 28 years of Acme Theater, the perfect way to end Acme founder Burmester’s 28 years as the company’s director.

Indeed, while this zany pastiche has enough giggles on its own merits, those who have been following Acme, American films, television and a host of other media, will enjoy it that much more. It has a little bit of everything, from Jack Benny to Fricandeau and lots and lots in between.

“It’s probably the least literary show I’ve ever done. I’m not William Shakespeare. I’m not Arthur Miller or Thornton Wilder. As much as I love them, I can’t be them. I am who I am,” said Burmester. Fortunately, what he is is a very funny guy. Oh the show was slow in spots and it wasn’t always easy to tell who was who because the dialog went by so quickly, and for that reason it was difficult to figure out the plot, at first, but nobody sitting on the grass at the Art Center amphitheater was complaining...and everybody was laughing.

They laughed at the slapstick humor, the corny jokes, and the lively dances to Raymond Scott music. They laughed at familiar situations in unfamiliar settings. They laughed at the Zanni (Geoffrey Albrecht, Vivian Breckenridge, Kane Chai, Torin Lusebrink, Hannah May, Matt Northup, Genevieve Whitman, and Danielle Wogulis), who kept the audience entertained between scenes, moved set pieces, and played background sound effects.

In writing his play, Burmester collected all of his favorite bits of theater, types of characters, types of situations, etc., and wove a story line around them. Though the play is set on “two incredibly long days in 1733,” it still has a modern feel to it.

It begins with Smeraldina (the ebullient Hope Raymond, always to be counted on) supposedly reading a fairy tale, but in reality setting up the action that follows, a story which includes twins separated at birth family feuds, and the beautiful Isabella (Delany Pelz) the object of every young man’s affections (and a couple of old ones too!).

(One of my favorite bits was the “birth” of the children in the play.)

Most of the action whirls around Truffaldino (Sean Olivares), the servant of Signore Pantalone (Alex Kravitz). Truffaldino’s inability to read sets off the action which is central to the story, the delivery of a love letter which, of course, gets into the wrong set of hands more than once, each time changing the flow of things. Olivares is very funny and great at slapstick humor.

Pantalone is neighbor to Signora Scarpazone (Kate McFarland), mother to the beautiful Isabella and her sister Flaminia (Emily Tracy). The miserly Pantalone and Signora Scarpazone have been feuding ever since their romance dissolved because of Pantalone’s love of money.

Pantalone’s two sons, Silvio (Zach Salk) and Rosario (Billy Baria) vie for the love of Isabella (though Rosario is secretly in love with Flaminia instead).

And then there is parallel plot of the young Duchess Aurelia (Celsiana Warwick), about to come of age and be free of her guardian, Spavento (Ethan Jaffe, who does great evil characters), who has his own plans to get rid of the Duchess and take control of the government himself, a government from which he has been siphoning gold into his own coffers.

Aurelia is secretly in love with “Il Bandito Negro,” the Robin Hood-like character who takes from the rich and assists the poor. Nobody knows his identity, but the dashing Ortensio (John Ramos) seems to know an awful lot about him.

Into this mix throw twins separated at birth, identified only by “a peculiar birthmark situated in a ‘delicate’ anatomical location”(and an interesting G-rated way of examining them), female characters disguised as men, a lot of great swordplay, outright gratuitous slapstick bits, chase scenes, fight scenes, and a happy ending for all the good guys, with all the plot threads neatly tied together.

Costumer Hope Raymond brings lots of primary colors to the stage, John Ramos has designed a wonderfully versatile set on a thrust built out onto the grass, decorated by Genevieve Whitman. Emily Tracy choreographed the dances, which are so much fun. Fight choreography is by Acme alum, Dara Yazdani, with Delany Pelz as fight captain.

As Dave Burmester rides off into the sunset, he can hold his head high, having created a delicious evening of fun and frivolity.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tennessee Williams wrote 'A Streetcar Named Desire' in 1947, and Blanche DuBois has depended on the kindness of strangers ever since.

Director Lydia Venables treats her kindly in the production that continues through June 8 at the Woodland Opera House.

The 1951 Marlon Brando film put the focus on the character of Stanley Kowalski, a construction worker who has lured his wife, Stella, away from her rich family to a cramped apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

But the play actually centers around the complicated relationship between sisters Stella (Amy Vyvlecka) and Blanche (Lee Marie Kelly) - both of whom have endured disappointment, loss, pain and hardship - and their struggle to survive.

Stanley (Brien Rife) is a possessive man with a volatile temper, but it's plainly obvious that he and Stella have an active and satisfying sex life that makes the rest bearable. Stella is torn between her love for Stanley and her love for her delicate sister, who needs protecting.

Rife's Stanley is crude, loud and menacing: quick to anger and prone to throw things when he becomes infuriated. But he's obviously madly in love with his wife, as the famous wail proves ('Stella! Stella!'), when he realizes that an upstairs neighbor, Eunice Hubble (Georgann Wallace), has taken Stella in to protect her from Stanley, after a particularly violent outburst.

But Stanley always puts his own wants and needs ahead of everything else, and doesn't realize what he has until he has lost it, and finally commits the unforgivable sin.

Vyvlecka gives Stella a real heart, and makes it obvious how much this woman loves her husband, even when he becomes abusive. We also can see what Stella gets from this dysfunctional relationship, as Vyvlecka adeptly displays her character's sensual attraction to her husband.

Blanche is a fragile soul, who struggles to retain her sanity while her world crumbles around her: the suicide of her young homosexual husband, the loss of her beloved family home at Belle Rive, the loss of her teaching job following an affair with one of her high school students. We get hints of a checkered past as a woman of loose morals. She hides a drinking problem.

But Blanche arrives in New Orleans with a trunk full of frilly clothes to meet all of Stella's friends, and she maintains an air of distracted gentility.

Kelly's performance is superb: She is coquettish, disgusted, fearful, tender, sensual and vulnerable, and she gradually slides into madness.

Dean Shellenberger gives a wonderful performance as Harold Mitchell, a large, shy man who lives with his mother; he's smitten with Blanche, whose like he never has seen before.

He plays the gentle suitor, only to turn his back on her when the truth comes to light. He turns cruel, as he strips away the colored lantern she has placed on a naked lightbulb, and forces her to confront her literal and figurative reality.

Great Collet (Steve Hubbell), Pablo Gonzales (Erik Catalan), Andy Hyun (a young collector), Leslie Kenyon (Matron) and Michail Buse (Doctor) complete the ensemble, each delivering solid performances.

Scenic designer Jeff Kean beautifully portrays not only the cramped, claustrophobic apartment that the Kowalskis share with Blanche, but also - by extending the set to the adjoining off-stage boxes - the French Quarter itself.

In 'Streetcar,' Williams gave the world a gumbo filled with failure, vulnerability, depravity and the helpless fragility of the human mind. Venables has mixed this ingredients with the expertise of a master chef, and served the results with panache.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Measure for Measure

What are the appropriate boundaries of governmental power, and how can citizens fight back when such limits are overstepped?

If you have the ability to help a fellow citizen, but doing so compromises your moral or religious beliefs, are you obligated to act?

How far should outdated laws be prosecuted before inhibiting the free expression of the people?

If I were to ask such questions, you might think I was preparing a letter to a newspaper's op-ed page.

And therein lies the proof that Shakespeare's works can be as current and topical as they are timeless, for these issues are faced by the characters in the UC Davis theater and dance department production of 'Measure for Measure.'

While many of this play's elements - notably bedroom mix-ups and stock comedic characters - have caused it to be listed as a comedy, 'Measure for Measure' has very little 'comedic' about it (and this production has very few laughs), and thus it has been called one of the bard's 'problem plays.'

The plot centers on Angelo (Jesse Merz), empowered by the Duke of Vienna (Timothy Orr) to rule the citizenry in his absence, with the assistance of Escalus (Sarah Cohen). While all believe the Duke is taking a brief sabbatical, he actually uses this opportunity to disguise himself as a friar, and then wander about the city and personally observe the extent of its moral decay.

Angelo, who today would be classified as an extreme fundamentalist, decides to use his temporary powers to enforce an archaic law against fornication; he begins shutting down bawdy houses and putting fornicators to death. One of these fornicators is Claudio (Daniel Reano-Koven), a young man who has impregnated his fiancee.

Claudio's sister, Isabella (Gia Battista), a novice in a convent, is made aware of her brother's plight; she comes to plead for his life.

On seeing Isabella, Angelo - like so many modern-day zealots with feet of clay - falls in immediate lust with her, and attempts to blackmail her into his bed. The choice is her virtue or Claudio's life, Angelo tells her, knowing that even if she were to report him, nobody would believe her.

But the Duke is made aware of the plot, and he hatches a scheme of his own to save Isabella's virtue and reveal Angelo's duplicity.

A parallel comic storyline follows the banter among a 'flamboyant bachelor,' Lucio (Kevin Ganger); the brothel owner, Mistress Overdone (Cody Messick); and her employee, Pompey (Stephanie Hankinson).

Eventually, the good get their reward, and the bad their just desserts: All's well that ends well.

Director Randy Symank has mounted a strong production. The play is set in modern dress: so modern that the sex workers - Maryanne Reveles, Tracy Kutt, Karen Askeland and Kelly Fleischmann - wear tight, skimpy black dresses and wigs of electric fuschia, blue, green and copper.

The performances are excellent across the board, with Orr and Battista rising above the rest. Orr gives the Duke a likable, accessible demeanor; Battista brings a glowing 'goodness' to her character. Her passionate argument with Angelo is particularly moving.

On a lesser note, someone decided to add music to the production, for reasons I cannot fathom. Isaac Blackstock is credited with 'electric music composition,' and Rich Gaarde as music director and arranger, with vocals performed by Allison Minick and Isaac Blackstock. While nothing is wrong with the music, it feels gratuitous and out of place; it also adds nothing but extra minutes to the overall production.

I didn't mind the dancing so much - choreography by Hope Mirlis - but the 'Let's take a break here, and sing lyrics that aren't Shakespeare's words, which the audience can't understand anyway' parts easily could have been dropped.

'Measure for Measure' points a finger at hypocrisy, corruption and human frailty: sadly, all themes that seem much too applicable to today's political climate, and which make this Shakespeare classic all the more appropriate for a university production.