Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Into the Woods

“And they lived happily ever after...”

Isn’t that the way fairy tales end?

Not necessarily. “Happily ever after” comes at the end of the first act for Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s “Into the Woods,” at Music Circus this week..

What happens to all those folks who live happily ever after? Do they really live happily ever after? That’s the story Sondheim and Lapine set out to explore, which is given an outstanding treatment in this production directed by Glen Casale with musical direction by Craig Barna.

From the moment one enters the Wells Fargo Pavilion, one is in this magical world. Scenic Designer Evan A. Bartoletti has created what may be the most elaborate Music Circus set to date, a forest heavily laden with leafy branches, trees that stand tall, and then disappear out of sight, and a rocky forest floor which lends itself nicely to separating the “families” of this tale into their own space.

Sound Designer Robert Sereno fills the theater with the sounds of birds and other woodland creatures while the audience members are taking their seats so that by the time the lights go down, you are already in the mood and ready to jump into the story.

The story centers around the Baker (Jeffry Denman) and his wife (Vicki Lewis) and the curse put on the Baker’s father and all of his family years ago by the Witch (Yvette Cason), which has left the young couple childless. In order to break the spell, the Baker must gather four things – a cow as white as snow, a red cape, a golden shoe, and a lock of blonde hair.

How convenient, then, that their neighbors include Little Red Riding Hood (Tracy Katz Paladini), Cinderella (Kim Huber), Jack (of beanstalk fame) (Matthew Wolpe) and Rapunzel (Savannah Smith-Thomas).

One would be hard pressed to find a weak performance in this cast. They are each generally outstanding. Denman gives the character of the Baker an endearing quality and his “No More” is filled with pain.

Paladini, who played Little Red Riding Hood in the national tour, is perfect as the know-it-all moppet who is as matter of fact about swiping sweets from the Baker as she is about meeting Grandma (Karen Culliver) in the belly of the wolf (Jason Forbach).

The stage lights up whenever Cason steps on it. As the witch under a spell in the first act, she is menacing, and her on-stage transformation, hidden by pillars of smoke, into the glamorous witch is impressive.

The brother princes, Cinderella’s (Gordon Goodman) and Rapunzel’s (Jason Forbach) are deliciously over the top, self-centered, and very funny in their “Agony” duet.

There are not a lot of familiar tunes in this show, but it is filled with some beautiful moments, such as “No One is Alone,” sung by Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, the Baker and Jack when it seems that all is lost.

Likewise, the Witch’s “Stay with Me,” a plea to her daughter Rapunzel, is hauntingly lovely.

We sat next to a woman and her small child, who left the show at intermission. This surprised me, since I felt the show was so good, but on reflection I decided that this may be the perfect way to share this production with a small child. At the end of Act 1, it looks like every thing has turned out well for everyone and perhaps it’s best not to disillusion small children by staying for Act 2.

Act 2 is filled with betrayal, the death of beloved characters, sexual indiscretions, and the graphic sounds of the kinds of things that an angry giant on a rampage can do to puny human beings. The survivors do, in fact, ultimately look like they will have a happily ever after but the whole act might be a bit too disturbing for younger children.

This is the best Music Circus production thus far this season and is highly recommended.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Guys and Dolls

Fifteen years have passed since 'Guys and Dolls' appeared on the Music Circus stage.

After seeing director Marcia Milgrom Dodge's sparkling new production, it's hard to understand why the show stayed away so long.

This musical by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows - based on short stories by Damon Runyon, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser - is set on the streets of New York in the 1950s, and the characters are so stereotypically delicious that we can't help falling in love with them.

These are the low-lifes, gamblers, showgirls and gangsters, and the Salvation Army-like missionaries who try to save their souls. And Dodge secured an all star cast to portray them.

Tony Award-winner Gary Beach ('The Producers') is two-bit shyster Nathan Detroit, who runs 'the oldest established floating crap game in New York.' Don't look for the image of a young Sinatra, who played the role in the 1955 film adaptation; Beach's Detroit has been in business a long time, and is a wise-cracking, take-charge guy.

Detroit has been engaged for 14 years (!) to the long-suffering Miss Adelaide (Heather Lee), a singer and dancer at The Hot Box; she's beginning to worry that they'll never get married. Lee, who played this role in the show's Broadway revival, is a gem: a bleached blonde with a Betty Rubble giggle, who dreams of settling down in a real home with Nathan.

Their duet, 'Sue Me,' is a true crowd-pleaser.

Matthew Ashford - known to daytime soap opera fans as Jack Devereaux, from 'Days of our Lives' - is the high-rolling Sky Masterson. He's in town to pick up a few bucks at the crap game, but he picks up more than he bargained for; He falls in love with a straight-laced missionary, Sarah Brown (Montego Glover), when Nathan bets that Sky can't get her to go on an overnight trip to Havana with him.

Sarah, joined by her grandfather and others in their small band of missionaries, attempts (unsuccessfully) to bring God to the people of lower Manhattan. She dreams of romance ('I'll Know') but realizes that Masterson isn't 'it.'

Glover, last seen at the Music Circus in the title role in 'Aida,' made her Broadway debut as Celie in 'The Color Purple.' She has both a beautiful voice and the ability to play physical comedy as well, as evidenced by her antics while 'under the influence' in Havana.

If Sarah's grandfather Arvide Abernathy looks familiar, it's because the role is played by Conrad John Schuck, best known for his long-running role as Sgt. Enright in TV's 'McMillan and Wife.' Schuck, boasting a lengthy Broadway and TV résumé, has a wonderful voice; he also shows Arvide's deep love for his granddaughter.

The cast also includes a wonderful assortment of gangsters who speak in that unique mix of courtly formality and tough-guy vernacular: guys such as Nicely-Nicely Johnson (E.E. Bell), who got his nickname by answering 'nicely, nicely' whenever asked how he was doing. Bell brings down the house with his rousing rendition of 'Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat.'

Will Mann stands out in the small role of Harry the Horse, particularly in the 'Crapshooters Ballet,' danced by the male chorus in the underground location Detroit has found for his game.

P.L. Brown is also notable as Big Jule, who has traveled in from Chicago for the game. Big Jule is appropriately named, as he's large and menacing, and has a voice that could comfortably sing 'Asleep in the Deep.'

Local favorite Rodger Hoopman - founder/producer/artistic director of the 33-year-old Chautauqua Playhouse - has appeared in more than 25 Music Circus productions. He pops up here as Lt. Brannigan, charged with shutting down the crap game.

The right apparel is essential to any production of 'Guys and Dolls,' and Leon Wiebers is particularly successful at creating the male characters by their costumes alone: an assortment of padded shoulders and pin stripes that say 'gangsta' before anybody even opens his mouth.

Add Sky's over-the-top blue number, and the black suit for Big Jule, and it couldn't be more perfect.

'Guys and Dolls' is a delightful show, full of witty dialogue and lots of familiar tunes. This production is certain to satisfy just about everyone.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Erratica: An Academic Farce

Remember the name Reina Hardy; I suspect you'll hear it again.

Hardy's play, 'Erratica: an Academic Farce,' premiered Friday at Old Sacramento's Capital Stage venue and was an unqualified hit.

'Erratica' is Capital Stage's first world premiere to emerge from the company's Playwrights' Revolution project. In 2007, Capital Stage was awarded a $40,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, to create and develop the Playwrights' Revolution. Its goal: to celebrate new works and encourage the creation of bold new plays for the American theater.

Each year, several new plays are selected to participate in a series of round table and staged readings. 'Erratica' is the first of these plays to have been transformed into a fully mounted professional production.

A mere one to two minutes after the play begins, with hormonally charged Professor Samantha Stafford (Stephanie Gularte) speaking to Gregory, an unseen student admirer, the audience was howling with laughter. The pace continued throughout most of the play.

Samantha is trying to write a book on Shakespeare, but distractions abound: Gregory is madly in love with her; her publicist (Jamie Jones) wants her to do something more commercial, which involves Cosmopolitan magazine; and she's persistently haunted by an entity claiming to be the ghost of Christopher Marlowe (Danny Webber).

Meanwhile, Jack Hooper (Eric Wheeler), a librarian who just might be a match for Samantha, has lost a prized manuscript to a mysterious thief.

And Gregory's roommate, Elspeth (Stephanie Altholz), is pursuing her own agenda.

It's all connected, but how?

The play, directed by Michael Stevenson, is blessed with fast-paced dialogue delivered with enough snap - particularly by Gularte - to make it sizzle. ('If someone had come along and written me Sonnet Number 53, for example, I would have jumped on him and wrapped my thighs around his neck.')

It's a huge role for Gularte, who is present in every scene. We've previously watched her in so many serious, meaty roles, that it's fun to see her in something really funny.

We're never quite sure what Marlowe is doing as Samantha's muse, but Webber is quite funny, particularly during his attempts to distract the professor as she tries to give a lecture.

Jones is perfect as the publicist, Lisa Minkman. She can't imagine what Samantha wishes to accomplish professionally, and instead sees only possibilities for how this Shakespeare tome could reach a broader audience if it's 'sexed up' a little, so it'll appeal to the Cosmo crowd.

'New material is the key,' she says breathlessly. 'New female material. Sexy new female material.'

Wheeler, last seen in 'The Complete History of America (Abridged),' is fine in a role that doesn't require so much frenetic energy. His part is smaller than the rest, but he gives a solid performance as a librarian who has discovered a rare document that might be the very thing that Lisa is seeking, to add a little oomph to Samantha's manuscript.

Altholz brings the rather odd Elspeth to life. On the surface, she's merely a love-stricken student ... but she turns out to possess a skill that becomes crucial to the plot.

Jonathan Williams constructed a good-looking and versatile set. Most of the show takes place in Samantha's office, and the strategic movement of a door changes the look of the room, and allows for a variety of meetings. The office bookshelves also are used well, to create the sense of a university library.

The 27-year-old Hardy reluctantly allowed herself to be called up on stage at the conclusion of the opening night performance; she was, unfortunately, decidedly uncomfortable. I hope she finds a way to become more at ease with well-earned accolades: Based on this play, she has many more such evenings in her future, if she maintains such a high level of work.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Altar Boyz

'Altar Boyz,' this week's Music Circus offering, won't be everyone's cup of tea.

The huge empty sections of the theater on Tuesday evening - something rarely seen at the Wells Fargo Pavilion - may indicate that this show didn't appeal to traditional opening-nighters.

But it's a sweet little show with lots of energy and charm and, at 90 minutes (with no intermission), you'll be home in time to watch 'The Daily Show' or David Letterman.

Described as 'a new musical about a struggling Christian boy band riding the wave of America's latest fascination with religion,' 'Altar Boyz' is a satirical look at both boy bands and God music. The score offers lyrics such as

Jesus called me on my cell phone;
No roaming charges were incurred.
He told me that I should go out in the world
And spread His glorious word.
He beeped me!
He faxed me!
He e-mailed my soul!

The cast of five features Matthew (Devin DeSantis), Mark (Jamison Scott), Luke (Ryan Nearhoff) and Juan (Andres Quintero), along with their lyricist, Abraham (Tim Dolan).

Although the play lacks an actual plot, each character has a back-story. Matthew, the leader, keeps the group in line, although he hides a little secret; Mark is gay and Catholic, and struggling with the turmoil that brings; Luke seems to spend a lot of time in rehab for 'exhaustion'; Juan is an orphan seeking his parents, but finding family within the group.

Abraham is the Jewish altar boy who writes the lyrics for the songs.

After years spent performing in bingo halls and youth group rallies, the Altar Boyz have moved on up to a big-city concert: in this case, in Sacramento. They've grown into pop stars with a mission to save the burdened souls in the theater.

Considerable discussion involves the group's sponsor, the 'Sony Soul-Sensor,' which continually scans the souls in the audience and determines how many still need saving. The hook is that the boys must keep singing until all souls have been saved.

(After about an hour, we begin to get impatient with the hold-outs!)

The music varies from ballads to upbeat pop, and even includes a rap about the miracles of Jesus:

His posse's in the water,
Rowin' all night.
While Jesus prayed to his father,
They were hellah far from shore.
And the sea was wicked rough,
When they saw a ghost just walkin' on the water (scary stuff!).

The play includes a bit of audience participation, and a prayer meeting for all the prayers supposedly submitted by audience members prior to the show ... chosen from a revolving drum, as one would select winning lottery tickets.

As Tuesday's performance concluded, some audience members leaped to their feet with cheers ... while others sat in their seats looking stunned, and asking each other what they'd just seen.

It's a pleasant night of theater, but perhaps not the best show to hit the Music Circus stage.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


First we had the Brothers Grimm, whose fairy tales were certain to give nightmares to young children.

Now we have playwright Timm - Stephanie Timm by name - whose 'Picked' is this year's offering by Barnyard Theater, under the direction of Steven Schmidt.

Timm's story has the atmosphere of a retro fairy tale, but with updated language and situations that may push it into the PG rating. It's both old fashioned and as up to date as the popular 'Twilight' vampire series.

Three sisters - Iris (Maddy Ryen), Lily (Camille Beaumont) and Violet (Lindsay Carpenter) - live in 'a raped and pillaged land where wolves prowl the woods, and an endless war is all that anyone remembers.' Iris is 'the eldest and the prettiest.' Lily is 'the middle and the smartest'; she can figure out how to get pitchers down off high shelves, and she's really good at riddles.

Violet, 'the youngest and sweetest,' always helps spiders across streams, and puts out the flames when beggar women are on fire. She's therefore picked to marry a man who lives across the sea, and is expected to live happily ever after.

Iris and Lily continue to live on imaginary food, and long for the day when they, too, can leave the raped and pillaged land.

We watch Lily's coming of age, when she meets Wolf (Josh van Eyken), who awakens new feelings in her. Lily is intrigued, despite Iris' warning that wolves will drag her into the forest and make her belly swell with snakes. Wolf creates tension between Iris and Lily, but Lily also has a protector, Woodsboy (James Henderson), who brings her books and food.

All too soon, we learn that things are not what they appear, when Lily is told she will join Violet and marry her own man across the sea. The play turns quite dark - and grim - before the survivors ultimately live happily ever after.

This is a strange show, albeit well done by a crew of wonderful actors. I've watched Ryen's growth as an actress with pleasure, and she does not disappoint here. Beaumont brings an innocence and an underlying smoldering sexuality to her performance as Lily. Carpenter glows as Violet, particularly when she appears in apparitions, reading postcards she has sent home to her sisters.

Van Eyken is a wonderful wolf in ... well ... wolf's clothing: suave, smooth and deliciously duplicitous.

Henderson is very earnest as Woodsboy, and he displays a range of emotions despite being unable to speak, due to his wooden lips.

As always, it's an adventure to watch a production in Schmeiser's Barn. The company is ready to spray patrons with mosquito repellent, and the barn goats occasionally add their voice at unexpected moments. And who needs a fog machine, when you can create a dust cloud in the dirt of the stage floor?

(My sympathies to whoever is responsible for keeping Violet's wedding gown looking white!)

All told, though, Barnyard Theater once again provides a delightful evening's entertainment.

The company's summer season will include an evening reading of short plays on Friday, July 24, and a performance of short one-acts on Saturday, July 25. If the quality of work displayed in 'Picked' is any indication, both those single-evening events will be worth investigating.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thoroughly Modern Millie

'Thoroughly Modern Millie' is silly.

But the play knows this, and doesn't pretend to be anything but silly.

This sprightly show, making its Music Circus debut, transports the audience back to flapper-era New York and follows the adventures of Millie Dillmount (Mara Davi). The young woman arrives in the Big Apple fresh from Kansas, eager to shorten her skirts and bob her hair ... and get a job working for a millionaire whom she then car marry.

It's what the thoroughly modern 1920s woman does, she tells herself: marry for money, not love.

This old-fashioned musical has lots of great singing and dancing, terrific costumes and a little bit of plot to support it all. The book is by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan, with a new score by Jeanine Tesori. Musically, there's something for everyone, with a bit of Sullivan minus Gilbert, a little Victor Herbert, a touch of Offenbach and some Al Jolson in Cantonese, complete with supertitles.

What more could you ask?

Actually, you'll also spot a subtle nod to W.S. Gilbert, in a scene that could have been inspired by an incident in 'The Mikado.'

That this production reached the stage at all is somewhat of a miracle. It became the obsession of Richard Scanlan, an actor/writer/director recovering from an illness at a friend's summer house, who had only one videotape for entertainment: 1967's somewhat mediocre Julie Andrews/Mary Tyler Moore film musical of 'Thoroughly Modern Millie.'

As Scanlon watched the movie over and over, he began to think he could turn it into a much better stage show. Sticking to his guns during the next several years, he finally got a meeting with the film's screenwriter, Richard Morris. The rest, as they say, is history.

The show opened at the La Jolla Playhouse in October 2000 and went on to Broadway during the first big season after 9/11. It became 2002's most honored new show, winning six Tony Awards, including best musical, best choreography, best orchestrations and best costume design.

Mara Davi, who stars in this Music Circus production, is a talented actress with a huge smile and a voice to match. She also dances up a storm.

On her first day, Millie meets Jimmy Smith (the delightful Matt Loehr), a ne'er-do-well who wins her heart, much against her plan to marry a rich man. Smith directs her to a hotel for young women, which is run by the irrepressible Mrs. Meers (Ruth Williamson) ... who runs a white slave racket on the side, shipping orphaned young women off to Hong Kong, to be sold into prostitution.

Mrs. Meers is an Oriental Cruella de Vil, and Williamson plays her to the hilt. (Interestingly, though, the directors have this faux-Chinese character speak with a stereotypical Japanese accent.) Mrs. Meers is assisted by Ching Ho (Billy Bustamante) and Bun Foo (Reggie de Leon), two immigrants who are trying to bring their mother over from China.

At the hotel, Millie forms a fast friendship with the lovely 'Miss Dorothy' (Megan McGinnis), an innocent sweet young thing who hides a secret.

Millie gets a job working for the very wealthy Mr. Trevor Graydon (Robert Townsend). One of the show's highlights is her job interview ('The Speed Test'), which borrows a patter song from Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Ruddygore,' with new lyrics by Scanlan.

Along the way, Millie falls in love with Jimmy; it's also love at first sight for Miss Dorothy and Trevor Graydon, who instantly break into Victor Herbert's 'Falling in Love with Someone' - from 'Naughty Marietta' - as they meet each other.

But all is not about to end happily ever after, because Mrs. Meers decides to kidnap Miss Dorothy. It's up to Millie, Jimmy and Mr. Graydon - with assistance from Muzzy Van Hossmere (the incomparable Karole Foreman), Manhattan's most celebrated chanteuse - to get her back.

The show includes enough narrative twists and identity mix-ups to satisfy a Gilbert & Sullivan audience, but the plot is irrelevant; the show really is about Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan's music, John MacInnis' choreography and the talented cast's energetic performances.

Tuesday's opening night audience received a special treat: an appearance by stage and screen star Carol Channing, present to promote her upcoming 'Carol Channing and Friends' benefit at the Music Circus, which will raise money for the Foundation for the Arts and California Musical Theater.

Channing gave a heartfelt plea to restore funds for arts in the schools, and she sang a sweet little song that charmed the audience. (She then stayed to watch the show as well!)

Channing will be joined by Jo Anne Worley, Carol Cook and Joyce Aimee; the show will be presented one night only, on Aug. 31. Information and tickets are available at the Music Circus box office, (916) 557-1999.