Thursday, April 30, 2009

O What a Beautiful Morning

Lots of whooping and hollering and energy bounced off the walls of the rehearsal space in UC Davis' Hickey Gym Tuesday evening.

The source was a music/dance rehearsal for the upcoming production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Oklahoma!,' which opens Saturday at the Mondavi Center's Jackson Hall. Boots stomped, cowboy hats flew, petticoats swirled and cowboys performed backflips in the air.

'I'm actually a gymnast, so that's why I'm doing the backflips,' explained Mark Curtis Ferrando, one of the two airborne dancers.

While the men danced, the women, in a sea of white petticoats, sat on the floor with books or laptops, waiting for their turn. Emma Goldin - playing Laurie in this production - limbered up on the practice barre; Brett Duggan, a dark and brooding Jud Fry, sat in a corner and looked dark and brooding.

Earlier in the evening, I had met with director Mindy Cooper. Lots of whooping, hollering and energy bounced off the walls there, as well, as her 5-year-old twins chased each other around the interview room.

'They've grown up backstage,' Cooper explained, saying that their first experience with theater was at 6 months of age, when she choreographed the Broadway production of 'Dracula,' and the babies came to all the rehearsals.

'It's divine to introduce kids to theater.'

In a way, she's following in the footsteps of her own mother, who directed a high school musical while Cooper played in the prop box.

Cooper, the UCD theater and dance department's current Granada artist-in-residence, got involved with musical theater through the back door.

'I came up as a performer through the ballet world, and not through summer stock. I really came up as a dancer, and I got my Equity card to join a Broadway show, which isn't how you usually do things.'

The Baltimore-born Cooper attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, quitting at 18 to join a dance company.

'I joined the Kansas City Ballet and then decided I didn't want to be a big fish in a little pond, and so I moved to New York.'

She danced for some well-known dance companies in the Big Apple, and was dancing with Twyla Tharp when that legend disabled her company.

'I thought, what do I want to do now?' Cooper recalled.

'What bubbled up, from that time in my life, was I remembered that when I was 16, I couldn't wait to get my driver's license. I wanted to get into the car, roll up the windows and sing every show tune that I knew.

'I thought, 'I've done a lot of comedic and dramatic roles in the ballet world, and maybe I need to sort of take it to the next step and use words.' I was really lucky and had a lot of good breaks, and learned a lot in a very short time, about doing more than dancing on stage.'

Her first Broadway show, 'Song and Dance,' was the perfect segue. In the first act, Bernadette Peters sang; in the second act, the dancers danced, and sang one song at the finale.

Cooper discovered that she loved working in musical theater, but she wanted more than the hurried Broadway rehearsal schedule. She began assisting other choreographers, in order to be more involved with the creative process.

'Then, one day, I realized I no longer was a very good assistant, because I was having my own ideas. So I started choreographing, and I still was performing, and then choreographing led to directing.'

Cooper came to Davis to direct 'Urinetown' in 2007, and enjoyed the experience.

'I had an incredible time working a situation that isn't 'time is money.' In New York, everything is 'chop chop,' and there isn't a lot of play time.'

She also enjoyed the collaborative process of the university setting.

'To me, theater is the most wonderful, ultimate collaboration, and I had a really good time here. For 'Urinetown,' a lot of my collaborators were professors, but I also worked with student designers.'

Because the experience was such a success, she was invited back to direct 'Oklahoma!' ... but was it the right show for her?

Thanks to Cooper's unusual background, she never had done a Rodgers & Hammerstein play, but - coincidentally - she had just directed a Bay Area show called 'Musical of Musicals, the Musical,' for which she won several awards.

'I did a lot of research on a lot of Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, and I fell madly in love with them in the process. I sat and read 'Oklahoma!'

'I know that we need more hope in the world, and it really spoke to me on that level.'


The admiration between Cooper and her cast is mutual.

'I love my cast,' she said. 'We decided to open auditions to the community, knowing a lot is asked for this show; the talent pool needed to be wide. I did not want to have singers sing and then dancers dance, which was what you did when the show was created in the 1940s: The singing chorus sang, then they brought in the dancers.

'I also wanted to have our leads do their own dancing in the dream ballet. I knew that I wanted a lot of great performers: triple threats. We shook the trees: I think it's very well cast.

'My husband makes fun of me, saying 'You fell in love with your cast,' but you have to. You fall in love with every cast.'

Goldin, a UCD senior in religious studies, minoring in music, admitted that 'Oklahoma!' has been her favorite since she was a little girl. She was part of the cast of 'Urinetown' and is happy to work with Cooper again.

'The best thing about working with Mindy is that she doesn't treat us like students; she treats us like adults, like any other production, because she wants it to be good.'

The cast all liked their assignment to create back-stories for their characters.

'We sat down early in the process,' Cooper said, 'and I gave them all names. Knowing that there is some shyness at the beginning of a rehearsal, I set up duets and trios, and then they wrote their back-stories. It gives me a grid to build on: There are a lot of incredible, beautiful, intricate stories.

'These are brainy kids, and they did their homework.'

David Green decided that his character is Benjamin Franklin Bartlett Jr.

'I took the name because I had a great, great grandfather who was named Benjamin Franklin Moore, and so I figured it would be a fun way to use his name.'

Green explained his character's back-story: After the man's first wife died, he moved out west and remarried in Oklahoma Territory.

'My name was mentioned in the script: that's how famous I was. Apparently, there was a Bartlett farm that burned down somewhere, and that actually was my uncle. His barn burned down after they discovered oil on the land, suspiciously enough. So I just take care of the farm.

'My parents are both dead, so I take care of the farm, and I'm madly in love with Miss Helen. She doesn't return my affections, but I'm confident that I can win her over with persistence.'

Mark Ferrando's wide-eyed enthusiasm is ideal for his own character's back-story.

'My character's name is Fred Kelly; he's a cowboy from Kansas. He's the youngest cowboy. He's about 17, and so he's exploring Oklahoma because he thinks he can stake land there ... but he didn't pay attention in school, so he didn't know that the land stake happened long before he arrived.

'He's ignorant, but he's young and all ready to go.'


'This play is all about hope,' Cooper said, 'and I'm delighted to have a lot of hope in my life.'

Hope has been very important to her, particularly this year. She was diagnosed with cancer while directing a show at the Lesher Center, in Walnut Creek. She went through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy here in California, while her husband and friends commuted from New York to support her.

Her last radiation treatment took place two weeks before rehearsals for 'Oklahoma!' began. Knowing that the show was coming up helped her get through the difficult parts of her treatment.

'It was great for me to do pre-production when I didn't feel good, to give myself something to focus on,' she said. 'I love my work. I've always been very blessed to do what I love for a living. It was really great to know I had something to get out of bed for. By nature, I'm a hopeful optimist, and I don't necessarily look with rose-colored glasses, but it has been incredibly uplifting to work on this piece in my life.

'And isn't that great how art and nature collide?

'The life lessons in this piece are so beautiful. Aunt Eller has two moments that will knock your socks off. The message of the piece speaks very loudly to me. There are no accidents: Things come into our lives at the right time, and I believe this show came into my life now for this reason.

'And to just work with these incredibly wonderful students ... it's fresh and honest; there's not a lot of game playing. It's been incredibly refreshing, in a lot of ways.

'I'm a lucky girl.'


I left Hickey Gym and stopped for dinner at a nearby restaurant. When I emerged, the sun had turned the sky pink. While walking up A Street to my car, from somewhere in the background I heard a male voice singing, 'Oklahoma ... where wind comes sweeping down the plain...'

Seconds later, I was passed by two guys on bikes - wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats - singing the song at top volume, as they pedaled up the street.

This, I thought at that moment, will be a great show.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fits and Parts: My Life in Stages

This is a difficult time for theater across the country. Many previously reliable sources for donations have dried up and with the economy in the shape it’s in, patrons aren’t going out to see live theater as much right now. Most of the local area theater companies are struggling to find inventive ways to stay afloat.

Sacramento Theater Company was scheduled to end its 2008-2009 season with “Noises Off,” a rollicking comedy about what it’s really like to put on a show. It’s a big show that takes a huge set and costs a lot to produce. But the money wasn’t there to produce it. According to Artistic Director Peggy Shannon, in comments made to a pre-show audience, funds scheduled to be available during the summer will allow for the show to open the 2009-2010 season, but cancellation of “Noises Off” left a big hole in the current season.

The ever-inventive Shannon turned to resident actor and long-time STC favorite Matt K. Miller and asked if he would be willing to write and perform a one-man show about the journey of his life as an actor, and the circuitous route he took to Sacramento and to STC. Miller agreed and some 3-4 weeks later, the final draft of “Fits and Parts: My Life in Stages” was approved.

The show opened Saturday night to what had to have been a disappointingly small crowd, but those who were there laughed heartily, clapped loudly, and gave Miller a standing ovation at the conclusion of the 90 minute piece.

One of the most fun things a theater goer can do is to sit and listen to other theater folks reminisce about their experiences. Many of America’s most beloved performers made a good living after their movie careers were behind them by going out and sharing the stories of their careers with fans. Actors like Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly, and Cary Grant did it. Elaine Stritch turned her memories into a Broadway show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” which was a smash hit in New York and in London.

Theater folks know how to entertain and how to tell a good story, and Matt K. Miller knows how to tell a good story.

He talks of growing up as the youngest of five in a Catholic family where he quickly learned how to get the attention of adults, and credits his Mom with being his best audience, even when he was misbehaving.

He talks about Catholic school and how much he enjoyed being an altar boy because it was like giving a performance, where the altar served as his stage, he wore a costume, and used the bells rung during the Mass as a prop.

He talks about first paying gig and his years in Chicago doing “Shear Madness,” America’s longest running play. He was able to come and go from the play, depending on when he had other gigs, and over several years played all of the male roles.

He likens his years in Los Angeles to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. While in LA he discovered a talent for doing voice overs and was much in demand for translations of Anime. (The Internet Movie Database lists nearly 50 cartoons for which he has done voice-overs).

Finally, in the fourth of his four stages, he talks about meeting Peggy Shannon and the circumstances that led him to Sacramento, where he has met the love of his life, married, and is now raising an 18 month old son. (When asked at the Q&A following the show what advice he would give his son, should the boy want to go into show business, he quipped “double knot your shoe laces and make sure your fly is zipped.”)

In the traditional pre-show talk, Shannon refuses to talk about what the audience will hear in Miller’s 90 minute monologue and, in truth, to discuss it more than peripherally would ruin the surprise of taking the journey with Miller, but suffice it to say that it is a sparkling, witty delight from start to finish.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Musical theater has a tradition known as the '11th hour number.'

It comes about midway through the second act, when the audience may be getting tired of sitting for so long. It may be bright and funny, or emotionally stirring. It's designed to make you sit up and start tapping your toes, or perhaps whisper 'Wow!' to your companion.

If a show isn't doing well, the 11th hour number can make you forget all the bad stuff that came before.

The 11th hour number in the Davis Musical Theatre Company production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera, 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' is 'Herod's Song.' Paul Fearn's Herod - dressed in an outlandish zoot suit that must be seen to be believed, and backed by a colorful assortment of dancers - easily steals the show.

Following tradition, 'Herod's Song' actually marks a turning point and seems to rouse everybody on stage.

This is one of the things to like in this production, which covers Jesus' life from Palm Sunday to his crucifixion.

Steve Isaacson's direction is satisfactory and appropriate: The action takes place on an essentially bare stage with a platform, all in front of the onstage orchestra, which has been let out of the pit. The production has some beautiful moments, such as the Last Supper and the final tableau, which is breathtaking.

Rand Martin's choreography is delightful; all the ensemble numbers work and are executed quite well. The Palm Sunday number, 'Hosanna,' is a lot of fun.

Jean Henderson's costumes always enchant, and she has outdone herself with Herod and his entourage.

The chorus members are well rehearsed and sound quite good, and we're willing to forgive the fact that most of the Apostles are female.

Some of the minor players are excellent. Eimi Stokes draws great applause as Simon, in 'Simon Zealotes.' Adam Sartain's Annas is noteworthy, and Andy Hyun (Caiaphas) has a marvelous bass voice ... although the music occasionally dips too low even for him.

Tony Osladil is memorable as the anguished Pontius Pilate, who wants to wash his hands of the whole business - 'If this man is harmless, why does he upset you?' - but ultimately is forced to send Jesus to his death.

All that said, this show's success rests on the big three: Jesus of Nazareth, Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene.

Judas is falling apart, because he fears that this man he has followed and loved is becoming a stranger, and is being influenced by the adulation of the crowds. Judas also is concerned about the deepening relationship between Jesus and Mary, a woman of questionable virtue.

Judas comes to believe the only way he can stop what he sees happening, is to collaborate with the enemies of Jesus and assist in his capture.

I've wrestled with how to handle my commentary about Judas. Given that this is community theater, with a volunteer cast of amateurs - people doing this for the love of it - it may be best to give this particular actor the benefit of the doubt, and hope that I caught him at a bad time.

The opening night performance was so bad that I've decided not to embarrass the actor by publishing his name.

I imagine this is what Jesus would have done, under similar circumstances.

I wanted so badly for this actor to be good ... or at least to get better, as the show progressed after its excruciatingly painful opening number. But he didn't, and it hurt to listen to him, although he certainly put heart and soul into the character's anguish.

David Holmes' Jesus is best during his quiet moments. His voice is beautiful and controlled, but during the more intense scenes he tends to shriek, often winding up off-key. Holmes did, however, improve throughout the opening night performance.

One can only hope, as he settles into the role, that he'll control his musical emotional outbursts as well as he handles his tender moments. He obviously has the ability to do so.

Emily Cannon-Brown makes a lovely Mary Magdalene, obviously in love with Jesus, but not certain how to handle a relationship with this man, the likes of whom she never has encountered. Sadly, Cannon-Brown also tends to be shrill, and she occasionally wanders off-key during her songs' most emotional moments.

Actually, even the technical end of things seemed not quite ready on opening night, with a body microphone or two that went off and on with irritating regularity, and some steps that initially weren't anchored; I worried every time someone used them.

All told, this show is uneven. I'm hard-pressed to say whether the good outweighs the bad. If Holmes can better modulate his more intense moments, he and Fearn (Herod) would make this 'Jesus Christ Superstar' worth seeing.

And let's just hope Judas improves as the run continues.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Frost / Nixon

"Frost/Nixon," the Tony Award-winning new play by Peter Morgan, which continues through Sunday at the Sacramento Community Theater as part of the Broadway Series, has been touring the country and playing similarly large venues.

One must ask why.

While the cast does include 11 roles, this is essentially a two-person play; even with the help of a giant multi-section TV screen hanging above the stage, the drama cries out for a more intimate setting.

The timing of the play's appearance also is odd, given the recent release of the highly touted film adaptation, which starred the original Broadway cast. This may have accounted for the smaller than usual audience at Sacramento's opening-night performance.

All that said, there's no denying that this production of "Frost/Nixon" is a compelling drama, and well worth seeing.

Morgan's play tells of the 1977 interviews between talk show host David Frost (Alan Cox) and almost-but-not-quite impeached President Richard Nixon (Stacy Keach).

Through narration, Jim Reston (Brian Sgambati), a journalist who spent years methodically documenting Nixon's crimes, sets up the background. The story begins with Frost, a talk show host whose popularity had declined in the United States and who was, at the time of Nixon's 1974 resignation, hosting a chat show in Australia.

Three years later, Frost contacted Nixon's people to request an interview. Nixon's publicist, Swifty Lazar (Stephen Rowe), convinced the former president to accept Frost's offer of $600,000; Nixon Chief of Staff Jack Brennan (Ted Koch) set up the terms. The two men met for a series of interviews.

While the meat of this play concerns the interviews themselves, much of the nearly two hours (no intermission) is spent on details concerning the planning of the interview. Frost recruited Reston and ABC news producer Bob Zelnick (Bob Ari) to comb through all the available information surrounding the Watergate scandal, resulting in the discovery of a conversation between Nixon and Charles Colston: a dialogue that proved the president had obstructed justice.

When the two men finally meet, the interviews have the atmosphere of a boxing match, with each man in his own corner, his own crew on hand to advise and primp between rounds. Nixon, having learned the ins and outs of television, is acutely aware of his "sweating problem" and is careful about where to hide the handkerchief he'll use to wipe the sweat that he knows will make him look guilty.

Cox brings an airy charm to the role of Frost, the quintessential talk show host. By the end of the play, it seems blatantly obvious that the admissions he elicits from Nixon stem from Frost's experience on the talk show circuit, and his intuition about people. He allows long silences for Nixon to fill, for example.

One wonders, all these years later, if the interviews would have been as successful if the questioner been someone as hard-hitting as Mike Wallace (who also requested an interview with the former president).

Stacy Keach's Nixon is, without question, the play's highlight. He does not attempt to look like the former president, or copy Nixon's distinctive speech patterns. Yet Keach has the mannerisms down, and we quickly accept him in the role. His strength as Nixon grows as the play progresses, and may hit its peak during a late-night telephone call (apparently invented for effect) the president makes to Frost, the night before the final portion of the interview.

At this moment, Nixon finally reveals his sense of insecurity.

During the final interview, Frost slips into the driver's seat and becomes the hard-hitting reporter his handlers wanted him to be all along. Close-ups on the overhead screen show a subject — Nixon — brought face to face with the proof of his complicity, and a realization of what he had done to the country.

The moment is masterful.

Last week's audience was smaller than usual for opening night, which is a shame; this powerful piece of theater deserves to be seen.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

DMTC at 25

At 2 a.m. on March 2, 1984, Jan Isaacson woke husband Steve and told him it was time to start a family.

That's not exactly what she said, but after interviewing a number of people involved with the Davis Musical Theatre Company over the past 25 years, it's clear that this was what she meant ... whether or not she realized it at the time.

What she actually said was that they'd get up in the morning and start a musical theater company.

'It's going to involve kids, adults and senior citizens. We're only going to do musicals, and it's going to be called Davis Musical Theatre.'

Never one to argue, Steve said OK and went back to sleep. In the morning, they put the wheels in motion.

The seeds of this idea were planted back in 1973 at Miami Dade Junior College, where a painfully shy Steve was playing drum in a band. A clarinet player from Brooklyn introduced herself, stole his drum sticks and ran away.

'I thought, 'This must be flirting,' ' said Steve, who proposed to Jan three days later.

Steve was working on obtaining his master's degree in music, while teaching at Larry White Music School in Hialeah. Jan was an art major at Florida International University.

But they were miserable in Florida.

'I was sitting home one Saturday morning, just hating life and looking at the giant palmetto bugs - which are like dates with legs - and I said I gotta get outta here,' Steve remembered.

Then, by accident, he saw a news report about this little town in California that was 'doing something about air pollution.' Steve remembers being impressed by how young then-mayor Bob Black was.

Steve and Jan packed all their belongings into a VW squareback and headed for California. Jan had never been farther west than Pennsylvania. Their welcome to Davis was punctuated when the car's third gear went out, as they drove beneath the train bridge into the downtown area.

Steve soon joined a band playing at Central Park during the weekly Farmers' Market. Then he was called and asked to play drums for a production of 'Dames at Sea,' being mounted by West of Broadway. He agreed, and Jan helped back stage.

Just like that, they were set on a course that eventually would plunge them headlong into creating a Davis theater group dedicated to modern musicals.

1984 was, I vividly recall, a golden age of theater in Davis. My family was involved in the theater scene, and my husband Walt remembers an impressive nine to 10 shows performed during a 10-month span by the Davis Comic Opera Company, KMA Productions, the Davis Players, West of Broadway, and the Sunshine Children's Theater.

But Jan believed that Davis really needed 'a musical theater group that produces large-scale, family entertainment.' She also felt that ticket prices should be low: 'No more than $5. Why have ticket prices so high that nobody comes?'

'What we need,' she told Davis Enterprise entertainment editor Del McColm, 'is a musical that will have half the town acting on stage, and the other half applauding in the audience.'

People were invited to attend an organizational meeting.

'I said that if nobody shows up, we're not doing this,' Steve recalled.

But people did show up. Obviously, folks were interested in the new theater company.

They decided to start big, with a production of 'Peter Pan.' That debut show was directed by Bob Baxter, who had directed for Music Circus; music direction was handled by Jim Arnold, lead singer of The Four Lads.

My daughter, Jeri, was the stage manager; she remembers a lot of problems. The production had four large, heavy sets ... and almost no tech crew. For the most part, the cast members served as de facto tech crew, but that presented some difficulties during Act 3, while everyone was singing on stage. Behind the curtain, the set had to be changed from the bulky pirate ship back to the heavy pieces that made up the nursery ... in less than three minutes.

Jeri begged friends to come to the theater and help, because so few hands were available.

Walt also remembers that the opening night performance began while people still were building Act 3's pirate ship on the Veterans' Memorial Theater loading dock.

'You could hear Skilsaw noises in the theater,' he laughed.

The fledgling company was navigating some growing pains.


For its second show, DMTC chose 'The King and I.' Lady Thiang was played by Mary Young, whose most recent performance with DMTC was last year's 'The Sound of Music.'

Young had performed with Sacramento's Music Circus and, since she lived in Roseville, never expected to audition for a show in Davis. But she had worked with choreographer Ron Cisneros; when she learned he would be doing DMTC's 'The King and I,' she followed him.

Daughter Wendy was in the fourth grade at the time, and she literally grew up with DMTC.

'She was one of the children in 'King and I,' ' Young said, 'and I remember washing black hair dye out of her blond hair.'

Young also remembers when DMTC moved from the Veterans' Memorial Center into a small theater they built in the Davis Commerce Park on Second Street, near Sudwerk ... and being escorted out to the Port A Potties during evening rehearsals.

Walt still winces over the barber chair he designed for the first production of 'Sweeney Todd.'

'The chair had to collapse, so people could go down a slide after they were killed. I tested it with our son Tom, who was about 14 years old at the time, and it worked fine. But then we took it into the theater and put Vince DiCarlo in it. He was a big guy, and when we tried to collapse the chair, it didn't budge.

'I had to completely rebuild it.'

Rich and Julie Kulmann, who also still perform with DMTC, joined the company in 1988. Julie became part of the ensemble for 'Carousel,' and Rich came along with the next show, 'Fiddler on the Roof.' Both also have served on the company's board of directors.

Julie caught pneumonia during one production, and had to be taken to the hospital.

'Charlotte French saw me come off stage after the final number, and wouldn't let me go on for the curtain call,' she said. Julie recalls all the company members who visited her in the hospital, and being able to get into costume and make the final curtain call for the last performance.

'People were so caring,' Rich added.

Julie glows when she remembers the 70th birthday party Jan and Steve recently held for her, in the lobby of the Hoblit Performing Arts Center.

The landlord of the Second Street facility eventually raised the rent so high that DMTC had to think about finding a new place to perform. Bob Bowen, who met Jan and Steve while in the Davis Players, proved a valuable friend.

'When they built their first theater in rented space over on Second Street, I got involved. I also got involved when they approached the city for a loan.

'Since DMTC still owed money on that loan, we negotiated a deal for them to use the newly renovated Varsity Theater, beginning in January 1993, so they would remain viable. I acted as their Varsity landlord until the Davis City Council changed the Varsity back into an art film theater.'

Actress/lighting designer Dannette Vasser, a recent UC Davis graduate, came along in 1997, for a production of 'City of Angels.' She had auditioned for the previous show, but wasn't cast; even so, 'City of Angels' was one of her favorites, so she decided to give it another shot.

Second time lucky.

'I stuck around and never left,' Dannette said. 'The group is so warm and friendly; it really becomes a home for a lot of people. I met my husband here. Arthur and I had to schedule our marriage between shows, so that everybody could be there.'

In time, Steve Isaacson began teaching Dannette the intricacies of lighting design.

'He gave me the opportunities to learn lighting, and to design. It's a blast.'

Arthur was responsible for Ben Bruening joining the company in 1995. The two Davisites had been friends since they were 4 years old; when Vasser was cast for 'Brigadoon,' the shy Bruening thought, 'if Arthur can do it, maybe I can too.'

Bruening auditioned for 'Carousel' and wound up doing the next nine shows.

'Steve became one of my best friends over the course of a very short period of time,' Bruening said.

He also caught the eye of a young viola player during rehearsal for his eighth show.

'We sat together at Eppie's after opening night,' said Ben's wife, Noel. 'We rubbed elbows ... this was called flirting!'

'We're a DMTC love story,' Ben added.

'A lot of DMTC marriages have taken place over the years,' said Mary Young, underlying the sense of family felt by everyone involved with the company.


Young Kendyl Ito just performed Brigitta in the recent production of 'The Sound of Music.'

'It was her first experience at DMTC,' said her mother, Karen. 'Jan and Steve welcomed us with open arms.'

Kendyl, already a theater veteran, said, 'It's different here than other theaters. Even if you're new, it's very warm and fuzzy.

'I'm trying out for 'The Music Man.' '

Kennedy Wenning did her first DMTC Young People's Theatre show at age 13, and now regards DMTC as a second home.

'All my friends are here,' she said.

'It's like a family here; it's definitely strong,' said Adam Sartain, who played Cogsworth in the most recent production of 'Beauty and the Beast,' and also plays tuba in the orchestra.

Marc Valdez joined DMTC in 2000 for 'Evita,' and he stuck around to become the company treasurer in 2002.

'The challenges of the treasurer position, in this decade, have mostly revolved around trying to finance construction of the new theater. We're still in that position, and will remain so for years to come.'

Christine Totah's daughter, Camille, has performed with DMTC since she was very young. Son Adam, only 18 months younger, also wants to act, but he has autism. A collaboration among Dr. Blythe Corbett of UCD's Mind Institute, director Jenni Price, Totah and the Isaacsons has resulted in the SENSE program, which pairs 'typical kid' members of the Young Performers Theatre company with autistic counterparts.

The program is exploring the therapeutic effect of stage performance for autistic children, and early results are wonderfully promising.

'This could be the program that makes that happen,' Totah said. 'When you have a disability, you're often very isolated in the community; community theater is a great way to get involved with other people. Everybody walks away feeling a little bit better. Nobody walks away empty-handed.'

On that long-ago morning in 1984, Jan Isaacson thought she and Steve would create a theater company. Clearly, they've done that ... and much, much more.

'Jan and Steve just keep yanking at ya,' said my son Ned, also a DMTC alum, 'and more power to them. With DMTC, the show always goes on'

'If someone had told me, back in 1984, that DMTC would be around for 25 years, I'd have thought their gaffer's tape was wound too tightly,' Bowen said. 'I know how demanding and stressful it is to raise money and produce theater in Davis. For DMTC to produce a series of adult and children's shows - every year, and for a quarter of a century - is a testament to the their passion and energy for theater.

'Since Davis elementary school teachers these days rarely have the time and support necessary to produce plays and musicals, the DMTC Young Performers Theatre addresses a real need for Davis children to get involved.'

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Main Stage Dance/Theatre Festival

As I walked toward the UC Davis Main Theater in the approaching twilight, I saw what looked like a headless white torso sitting on the ground, with a golden cap where its head should have been.

As I drew closer, the torso began to move; it was a girl with a blond pony tail, sitting on the ground, her head lowered to her chest. I then realized that others were in various poses all around me, moving very slowly, while a recording of bell sounds emanated from an unseen speaker somewhere in the bushes. More bodies in slow motion were at the theater door, as well as inside the lobby.

This was our welcome to UCD's annual 'Main Stage Dance/Theater Festival,' and I was witnessing part one of 'Symmetry Study #15,' a work choreographed by Jess Curtiss, based on a concept he developed with Maria Francesca Sacroni, and performed by Nicole Chaffee, Michelle Chau, Meghan Davis, Jed Downhill, Gregory Duque, Nina Galin, Shirley Gao, Kristi Kilpatrick, Kelly LeVasseur, Sandra Lopez, Elisabeth Ottenheimer, Sunita Randhawa, Marissa Ward and Alice Wong.

Part two of the piece opened the second half of the show, while an original video by Kwame Braun played on the back wall.

'Symmetry Study #15' is one of an ongoing series of installations and presentations built around the concept of symmetry. Patrons will be amazed by the control of the bodies, and the difficulty of adopting - in such slow motion - what sometimes are very intricate poses.

The video, an overhead shot of other dancers going through various couplings, suggests the effect of watching a colony of slow-moving June bugs.

After many years of reviewing this annual dance show, I've learned that one never knows what to expect. The production always features something interesting, and something to delight.

I had two 'delights' this year.

'Picture Imperfect Portraits' is choreographed by Hillary Feineman-Klausner and danced by Jason Masino, Anna Schumacher, Lauren Ward and Rebecca Walters. Production designers played a big role in this piece: costume designer Funmi Alabi, scenic designer Tony Shane, and lighting designer Reed Wagner.

Feineman-Klausner's work is the story of a family portrait, charmingly depicted, with many interactions between the parents and two daughters. As the choreographer explains, the work 'explores how idiosyncratic members of a family together form as a unit, and the relationships they have with one another.'

The music for this piece is created by composer/sound designer Isaac Blackstock, whose influences are from romantic and contemporary composers such as Gustav Holst and Danny Elfman, and the electronic music of Hirokazu 'Hip' Tanaka. This variety of stylistic influence lends an eclectic and modern edge to the score.

I also enjoyed 'Aller/Arret (Go/Stop),' choreographed and danced by Kelly Fleischmann, accompanied by Shayna Carp and Eva Loney. This more traditional dance style uses familiar pieces of music to demonstrate how life is in a constant state of momentum, which inevitably stops to change direction.

'Life takes us on a journey that often can be monotonous until we're given a chance to just be free,' according to Fleischmann.

Nothing is monotonous about Nina Galin's 'Life Among the Institutions,' which opens the program. Galin explains that her work is never quite the same twice running, which is clear from her interaction with the audience - as she enters the theater from the rear - and her use of on-stage props, which have a mind of their own.

She explains that her work addresses the interaction between institutions and individuals, and she notes that, 'Narrowly, the institutions on my mind are the California educational system and Shakespeare.' Her piece is presented while she recites Hamlet's soliloquy while forcing chairs - placed around the stage in a seeming state of disarray - into a greater sense of order.

'Computer Games,' choreographed and danced by Lucas Macdonald, accompanied by Nicole Chaffee, Natasha Cooke, Joya Kazi, Kristi Kilpatrick, Claudia Shekufendeh, Ryan Stone and Baote Wen, explores the interaction of simple rules in the making of a dance. Each performer is given the same set of fundamental commands, based upon the actions of the surrounding dancers.

As with a game of chess, the simple movements of many pieces create a deceptively complex system.

The show concludes with choreographer, scenic designer and writer Tyler Eash's 'I, Saint John, the Speaker.' The piece asks why we gather meaning from our physical and mentally cultivated environment, and examines how we find value and potential spectacle in mundane performance.

The work's creative catalysts include perceptions of common ideas, unfiltered thought processes, translations through forms of measurement, early iconic Christian art, and grandiose exaggerations of pedestrian movement.

Costume designer Christina Moore contributes to Eash's storytelling, with a subtle deconstruction of street clothes mixed with dance wear.

The 'Main Stage Dance/Theater Festival' continues through Sunday ... plenty of time for you to discover your own delights.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

American Buffalo

David Mamet can be exhausting.

Character development in his plays comes from lengthy dialogue delivered rapid-fire, and everything must be crisp and clear for it all to work.

Thanks to director Janis Stevens and outstanding performances by Capital Stage co-founders Peter Mohrmann and Jonathan Rhys Williams, and newcomer Joseph Baldridge, the current production of Mamet's breakthrough 1977 tragicomedy, 'American Buffalo,' works beautifully.

The story revolves around three inept, small-time crooks planning that one big heist: the score that will make their lives better. The plan grows out of the purchase of an American buffalo nickel, and the fantasy these three guys build around the man who purchased it.

In reality, though, this is a study in ineptitude.

Donny Dubrow (Mohrmann) runs Don's Resale Shop, a 1970s Chicago junk shop. The set is beautifully designed and dressed by Williams and Karyn Carl.

As played by Mohrmann, Donny is the 'heart' of the piece. He has taken young Bobby (Baldridge), a recovering drug addict, under his wing, and is teaching him about loyalty and the ethics of the streets:

'Well, Bob, I'm sorry,' Don says, 'but this isn't good enough. If you want to do business ... if we got a business deal, it isn't good enough. I want you to remember this.'

'I do,' Bobby insists.

'Yeah,' Don answers, 'now ... but later, what?'

He pauses.

'Just one thing, Bob. Action counts.'

Another pause.

'Action talks, and b------t walks.'

Donny has decided that the guy who paid $90 for an old nickel must be a coin collector, and therefore must have a valuable coin collection, and that his home could be robbed when he isn't present.

Bobby is sent to watch where the guy goes: to get a feel for when he is and isn't home. The young boy is eager to please, but can't seem to do anything right. He obviously worships Donny, but seems a constant disappointment. Baldridge capably portrays a man not that long into recovery.

Williams gives a sizzling performance as Teach, the Art Carney to Mohrmann's Jackie Gleason. Teach is a bundle of nervous energy: He can't sit still for a moment, and is filled with ideas for how to pull off the perfect heist. Teach is a born loser, but he'll never perceive that all his ideas are doomed to failure.

Williams' costume literally makes the man (kudos to costumer designer Rebecca Redmond). He's a study in polyester and leather: a real street-guy aiming for flashy, but merely looking cheap.

We can't help liking Donny, Teach and Bobby, despite their obviously despicable characteristics, because all three are devoted to each other; we're therefore drawn into their offbeat friendship. The incident that brings the play to its conclusion demonstrates how each man is affected by this unspoken affection for the others.

While 'American Buffalo' deals with the planning of dark deeds, much humor exists in the interactions of the three characters. The humor derives from the shape and form of the language, almost as much as their actual dialogue. Without the snap, crackle and pop demonstrated by these three actors, this might be a quite different play.

During a question and answer session that followed our performance, Stevens pointed out the timeliness of 'American Buffalo.' This play deals with some very small-time crooks, but at a different time and in a better setting, their plans to rip off a customer could just as easily be a conversation taking place in the board room of AIG.

In fact, the play debuted shortly after the Watergate scandal broke, during which we learned how high-level officials conspired to hold back information from the American public. Same story, different setting.

'American Buffalo' is a Mamet classic, and this outstanding production is well worth seeing.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


I would have thought everyone was familiar with Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning story of "Harvey," made into a now-classic movie with Jimmy Stewart back in 1950.

But judging from the sounds of surprise coming from some sections of the audience at the Winters Community Theater production that debuted last weekend, perhaps the story isn't as well known as I assumed.

Trent Beeby directs a charming little version of this saga of the gentle, clueless and probably more than slightly inebriated Elwood P. Dowd and his constant companion: Harvey, a 6-foot, 31/2-inch white rabbit that only Dowd can see. Harvey is a "pooka," you see: a mischievous Irish spirit. (Or, rather, you don't see.)

Tom Rost gives a wonderful performance as Dowd, the perfect gentleman for whom a tall rabbit seems not in the least odd, and who seems totally oblivious to the chaos and embarrassment that his invisible companion seems to cause. Rost is extraordinarily polite and extremely likable, and gives the character both a childlike innocence and a sense of dignity.

"I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I'm with," Dowd says.

Elwood was the sole recipient of his mother's fortune upon her death, which gives him the freedom to spend his time visiting friends at various drinking establishments.

"Harvey and I sit in the bars ... have a drink or two ... play the juke box," Dowd explains. "And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine, and they smile. And they're saying, 'We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella.' Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We've entered as strangers ... soon we have friends."

Elwood is contrasted by his sister, Veta Louise — played by the always delightful Germaine Hupe — who was excluded from her mother's will, and so lives in Elwood's house and is supported by him. Veta Louise is a social climber, and her brother's imaginary companion is a source of great embarrassment, both to her and to her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Molly Davis).

How will Myrtle Mae ever find a proper husband, when her uncle is the town laughingstock?

(I must mention that Myrtle Mae has the best poodle skirt I've ever seen. Kudos to costumers Ann Rost and Germaine Hupe!)

Only one avenue is available to Veta Louise: She must commit her brother to the famous sanitarium run by Dr. William R. Chumley (Michael Barbour), to get Elwood out of her life ... and take over the trust fund.

But the sanitarium is a study in dysfunction: One nurse (Anita Ahuja) flirts blatantly with Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Jim Hewlett), while a sadistic attendant, Duane Wilson (Rodney Orosco), is only too eager to inflict painful procedures on new patients.

He's a male Nurse Ratched — from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" — but with a sardonic wit.

As a result of some confusion about who is the patient — and who is the person admitting the patient — Veta Louise is hauled off to be stripped and put in the baths, while Elwood is ignored.

Veta Louise calls in her attorney, Judge Omar Gaffney — Howard Hupe, whose performance is second only to that given by Rost — hoping to sue the sanitarium for all her indignities.

Meanwhile, Elwood has long discussions with Dr. Chumley about Harvey, as the two men — and the rabbit — make the rounds of various drinking establishments: "I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it."

The play has a dated feel, and occasionally moves very slowly. By the end, though, the audience (along with Dr. Chumley) believes in Harvey.

And gives him a nice round of applause at the curtain call (!).

The cast also includes Anne Castro DePonte as Miss Johnson, Valerie Whitworth as Mrs. Chauvenet, Ann Rost as Betty Chumley, and JoAnn May as the cab driver. Whitworth needs to work on her projection, as she could barely be heard, even in this small theater.

Although likely not the most polished play you'll ever see, this production of "Harvey" displays such charm that you can't help but like it.