Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Music Man

Choreographer Ron Cisneros and Costumer Jean Henderson were the clear winners in the new Davis Musical Theater Company production of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” under the direction of Steve Isaacson. I am consistently impressed with what Cisneros can do with a mixed group of dancers and non-dancers and make it all look cohesive.

And there are lots of people on stage. Perhaps more than I remember seeing on the DMTC stage before (many of them children of varying sizes from adolescent down to very young). The choreography makes this good show a very good show.

As for Henderson, she must have been seeing stars before she finished the costumes. The 4th of July scene is filled with stars and stripes of all sizes. The whole look of the production is crisp and clean and makes the action on the stage pop.

Add to the excellent choreography and costumes is a solid cast of performers, reuniting many old timers who haven’t worked together in awhile.

Rand Martin may not be the most dynamic Harold Hill you’ll ever see, but he handled the role well, unfortunately flubbing several lines at the performance I saw. But Hill is the traveling salesman you can’t not like and Martin does a good job.

Laura Wardrip is excellent as Marian Paroo, the librarian who is not easily taken in by this stranger who promises to create a boys’ band to prevent the youth of River City, Iowa from being corrupted by the new pool table in town. Wardrip has a lovely voice and she looks beautiful, especially in the gown she dons for the town social.

As Marian’s mother, Lenore Sebastian is first class, with an Irish brogue that sounds authentic to this American ear.

Michael Carey rounds out the Paroo family as Winthrop, the shy young boy with a lisp, still brooding over his father’s death two years before, whose life is changed by Hill and his promises.

Gil Sebastian is a bombastic Mayor Shinn, the master of the malaprop and home grown phrases (“I couldn’t make myself more clear if I were a buttonhook in the well water.”) who only wants his town councilmen to “get that spellbinder’s credentials” and to keep the town hoolligan away from his oldest girl.

As Shinn’s wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, Mary Young has a role to sink her teeth in. She’s awful–but she’s supposed to be and she relishes the chance to sing off key and preen over all of the townspeople.

My one disappointment with the direction or choreography (not sure which was responsible) was for the tableau of Grecian urns done by Eulalie and her women friends. There seemed to be no difference between “one Grecian urn” and “two Grecian urns,” nor did they really create anything that came close to resembling “fountain.” It’s supposed to be bad, but it could have been a little better at being bad.

Marcellus Washburn was Hill’s old buddy from years before, who happens to be in the town when Hill decides to set up shop. He’s Hill’s second banana and there is no better than Paul Fearn. Always reminiscent of Buddy Hackett (who played the role in the movie), Fearn was the perfect choice for this role.

Matt Kohrt is Tommy Djilas, the town hooligan and McKinley Carlisle is Zaneeta Shinn, the mayor’s oldest girl. They make a cute couple.

Rich Kulmann in the small roles of the train conductor and later the town constable had serious projection problems and could barely be heard, something unusual for the veteran Kulmann.

Marc Valdez is appropriately smarmy as Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman determined to warn the town about Hill before it’s too late.

The town councilmen, Rich Price, Rick Wennstrom, Don Stephenson and Andy Hyun make a great barbershop quartet, though their tempos seemed a bit slow from time to time.

The "Pickalittle Ladies," who fill Professor Hill in on all the gossip about Marian, are irresistible.

Isaacson is credited with scenic design and I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, knowing that things often get done at the last minute and the Isaacsons were called out of town for a death in the family. The backdrop seemed to have no correlation to the show itself and added nothing to the look of the stage except a lot of empty sky and buildings out of proportion with what was supposed to have been Main Street.

But even with all of its little flaws, you have to work really hard to do a bad production of “Music Man” and this one is a delight.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Complete History of America (Abridged)

You'll never think of the national anthem the same way again, after seeing Capital Stage's very funny production of 'The Complete History of America (Abridged).'

The play was written by Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor of the Reduced Shakespeare Company - perhaps better known for 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)' - and is directed by Stephanie Gularte.

This production stars Eric Wheeler, Gary S. Martinez and Jonathan Rhys Williams. The three actors work well together, and their chemistry may be due, in part, to their previous collaboration on 'Every Christmas Story Ever Told,' presented at the Delta King in previous years.

Like Stan Freberg did in his 'Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America' back in the 1960s, Long, Martin and Tichenor adopt a 'take no prisoners' approach while closely examining the country that gave the world 'its first democracy, man on the moon, Mark Twain and 'America's Next Top Model.' '

(The 'first democracy' may not be quite right ... but let it pass.)

Where Freberg chose to start with Columbus and Isabella negotiating the price of sailing ships, Long, Martin and Tichenor begin with Amerigo Vespucci and his wife Sophia, as they debate the value of his world maps.

'I'm trying to make a name for myself,' he tells her.

And then he sets sail to fulfill his dream, 'in a vessel full of dreams, pastrami and cheap wine' ... to the theme from 'Gilligan's Island.'

From there, it's a quick trip - well, two acts - to sorta-kinda the present day, skipping a decade or two because nothing really happened.

You'll hear Betsy Ross (and her sister Diana) explain how the design of the flag happened to be chosen. You'll see witch-hunting Puritans in Massachusetts and the Rev. Feral Orwell, who leads his youthful parishioners in games of Pin the Blame on the Warlocks and (literal) Hangman.

Along the way, the play includes enough to delight (and offend) just about everybody. During the post-production chat with the actors after the show the night we attended, a woman expressed her discomfort with how the script treated Native Americans. Someone else was bothered by the treatment of the assassination of Lincoln. Someone else was offended by the depiction of a female Vietnamese spy (Jo Chi Minh, whose brother's name is Ho).

But it's all in good fun, and nobody is spared the playwrights' barbs, and the end result is hilarious.

Each actor plays many roles and literally wears many hats. Martinez, who did well in the slower, more child-like roles of 'Every Christmas Story,' pulls most of the female roles in this production, and plays them to the hilt.

Paulette Sands-Gilbert (costumes), Michael Coleman (props/set dressing) and the backstage assistants who helped with the quick changes deserve huge credit for this show's success. Without the outlandish costumes and props, it would be a very different experience.

The playwrights premiered 'The Complete History' in 1993, and updated the last half of the second act in 2004, before the Bush-Kerry election.

'Of course, we constantly update the pop culture references,' Tichenor said.

'A number of topical references are in the script. The humor and relevance of these will fade over time, so we encourage each production to change these references, to keep them as up-to-date as possible.'

With that in mind, it's not clear where Long, Martin and Tichenor leave off, and Capital Stage steps in. But the end result is delightful, no matter who wrote it!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Lion King

There's no doubt about it — "The Lion King" is one impressive spectacle. The opening number alone is worth the price of admission and well deserving of the cheers it elicits from the audience.

The Sacramento Community Theater underwent massive revamping for this touring production of the Tony-award winning version of Walt Disney's popular cartoon. Two new aisles have been created by removing four seats in each row, from the stage to the back of the house, giving room for animals to enter from the back of the theater. Two of the performers also begin the show in the balcony, thus putting the entire audience squarely in the middle of the action.

As the opening number, "Circle of Life," unfolds, sung by the wise old baboon Rafiki (Phindile Mkhize), the stage gradually fills with wildlife. Antelope jump, birds fly, giraffes stroll magnetically, cheetahs walk cautiously, zebras prance, an elephant lumbers onto the stage, followed by her baby, and, as the gigantic sun rises, the audience is transported to some African savannah and the story begins.

The story of "The Lion King," by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, can really be described as "Hamlet on the Savannah": the young prince whose father is murdered by his brother, the son's angst and guilt, the father becoming a larger-than-life figure after death, his ghostly counsel giving the son courage to return to avenge his father, the comic relief characters of Timon and Pumbaa.

But the Shakespeare analogy fades into the background when confronted by such a feast for the senses. "The Lion King" relies more on costume and spectacular lighting design (by Richard Holder) than actual set pieces, and so the show is equally as impressive in a touring company as it was when I saw it in London.

Director Julie Taymor (the first woman in Broadway history to win the Tony award for best director of a musical) also designed the costumes, which are an integral part of this show's appeal. Faced with the task of bringing a cast of animals to life, she chose to make the human actors actually part of the animals themselves, without losing their "humanness." And so it is that animal and human blend together so seamlessly that one is able to believe in the "animalness" of the characters.

This production features an outstanding cast. Dionne Randolph is an imposing Mufasa, the king. He has perfected the slow, rolling moves of a big cat, and his love for his young son is a touching thing to see.

Chaz Marcus Fleming (or Marquis Kofi Rodriguez — which young actor was not specified) was outstanding as young Simba, with lots of high energy, yet convincing in this tender moments with Mufasa.

Andre Jackson, the adult Simba, nicely morphed into a high-energy adolescent, who achieves nobility when he accepts his role and returns to Pride Rock to assume his rightful place as Mufasa's heir.

Timothy Carter as Scar, the lion you love to hate, was appropriately haughty and dislikeable, as were hyenas Andrea Jones, Randy Donaldson and Andrew Frace.

Tony Freeman added comic moments, as Zazu, the king's right hand hornbill. He had some of the funniest lines in the show.

Bob Amaral as Pumbaa the warthog and Mark Shunock as Timon the meerkat were very funny, and were especially valuable in giving some substance to Act 2.

The music by Elton John and Tim Rice has become familiar to anyone with a child of a certain age. The costumes are some of the most ingenious designed for a musical production. And the production values overall are outstanding.

The meat of this show is really in Act 1. It has the best songs and most of the story has been told by the intermission. While Act 2 is necessary to bring things full circle, it has the feel of something that has been padded to the nth degree. It has more of the wonderful choreography of Garth Fagan, and more of those antelope prancing across the stage, but the act seems lackluster in comparison to Act 1. It does, however, have one of the show's most spectacular effects, in the apparition of Mufasa.

"The Lion King" is worth every penny. It's a wonderful night of theater for the entire family.