Wednesday, April 21, 2010

All Shook Up

In order to enjoy the Woodland Opera House production of 'All Shook Up' - directed by Bobby Grainger, with music direction by Richanne Baldridge - it's necessary to forget all about the inane plot and dialogue.

It can be summed up pretty simply: 'Footloose' meets 'Mamma Mia.'

This musical, based on the songs made famous by Elvis Presley, tells of a town where the mayor (Nancy Agee) has passed the Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act, which means no public demonstrations of affection ... and absolutely no dancing or rock 'n' roll.

Cue a surprise visitor: a motorcycle-riding, guitar-playing, hip-shaking stud named Chad (Lafras le Roux), who is guaranteed to shake, rattle and roll things up. Repressed feelings start popping out all over the place.

Playwright Joe DiPietro borrowed liberally from Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' and 'As You Like It' for his plot, which involves women dressing as men to woo the guys they desire, and love letters sent by way of intermediaries. You'll also detect hints of 'Hamlet' and 'Romeo and Juliet,' along with the notion of music being the food of love.

Try to follow this:

Dennis (Elio Guiterrez) is in love with Natalie (Amber Jean Moore), who is in love with Chad (Lafras le Roux), who is in love with Miss Sandra (Whitney-Claire Roeder), who is in love with Ed ... who actually is Natalie disguised as a man, to become friends with Chad. Natalie's father, Jim (Jeff Nauer), also is in love with Miss Sandra; Sylvia (Priscilla Harris) is in love with Jim.

Then there's the mayor's son, Dean (Eric Alley), who falls for Sylvia's daughter, Lorraine (Megan Sandoval). Not to mention Sheriff Earl (Steve MacKay), who has been in love with the mayor for years.

Sadly, all reference to The Bard ends with these borrowed plot elements. Happily, intelligent dialogue isn't necessary when you have good performances and fun dancing.

The performances and dances are great fun, from the opening number - 'Jailhouse Rock,' which I'm guessing occurred in some youth facility (unfortunately, I was seated at the back of the house and couldn't understand all the dialogue) - to the last bit of 'Burning Love.'

Le Roux's hips snap so smartly that we almost hear them click into place whenever he swivels his pelvis. His performance has enough Elvis to keep that image in mind, but Le Roux also has his own style, which works well for the character.

Amber Jean Moore is Natalie, a grease-monkey gal who 'never met a motorcycle I couldn't fix.' She falls for Chad and adopts the disguise of 'Ed' in order to be close to him. Moore is the epitome of a young girl with her first really big crush.

At the same time, Guiterrez's Dennis is the perfect nerd: helplessly and hopelessly in love with Natalie, who barely knows he exists, other than as a good friend.

Sandoval is a real standout as Lorraine, the daughter of the local café owner. Saldoval is irresistible, and we can't take our eyes off her when she's onstage.

As Lorraine's mother, Harris is less effective as an actress, but she brings the house down when she sings. Harris has a long history in gospel music, and it shows.

Alley is a surprise as Dean, who initially appears to be a stereotypical military school student. His reserve melts when he falls in love with Lorraine, and decides that 'It's Now or Never.'

Choreographer Gino Platina's dance numbers are excellent, and even include a tap number.

Laurie Everly-Klassen has done a nice job of dressing the cast in typical 1950s styles, and the real stand-out is Lorraine's poodle skirt.

If you liked Elvis and his music - or lively dancing and 1950s music in general - this show is for you.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Little House on the Prairie

It’s difficult to determine what creators (Book by Rachel Sheinkin, music by Rachel Portman, Lyrics by Donna DiNovelli) had in mind when they set out to bring Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” to the stage.

It has the feel of something written by devoted fans of the books or the10 year television program–or both, who decided to stuff the whole thing into 2 hours and 40 minutes. It’s a whirlwind that takes Laura from little girl to teacher to bride and which encompasses snow storms (great technical effect by Adrianne Lobel), destructive fires, and more cloud-filled skies than you’ve ever seen in your life.

In one respect, it is the sweeping saga of the homesteaders who settled the mid-west and as such it has the potential for being the “Oklahoma” of its day, but the music isn’t nearly as good, and there is no time to get to know most of the characters in any depth, though there certainly is enough spirit to go around.

It’s not the performances at all which are to blame, but the whole show itself. Kara Lindsay is delightful as Laura, with an enthusiasm for life that threatens to explode out of her body at any moment. She has a big voice, boundless energy, and an engaging personality certain to win over the hardest of hearts.

Sister Mary (Alessa Neeck) is the “good girl,” quiet and obedient, but lovingly winsome and who seems to accept her blindness with aplomb. In fact the show never dwells at all on how she feels about the loss of her sight. “I’m blind now? Oh. Ok. Where do I go next?” (Not a quote from the show)

Anastasia Korbal is charming as the youngest daughter, Carrie, and is head an shoulders better than twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, who played the role on TV.

Steve Blanchard is big and strong and has a big, strong voice as well. He makes quite a good Charles (“Pa”)

Sadly, the weakest of the family is probably the reason why most people will buy tickets to this show. Melissa Gilbert, who played the role of Laura all those years on television, is an OK Caroline Ingalls (“Ma”). There’s nothing wrong with her performance, it just can’t quite match that of her co-stars, especially vocally. Fortunately, she only has one solo to sing (“Wild Child”) which is very sweet and I only counted four actual notes that she had to hit. She pulled it off, but she’s no singer.

The real fun character to watch is Kate Loprest as bad girl Nellie Oleson. Loprest received applause at her first entrance, those bouncing blonde curls identifying her immediately to fans, and she did not disappoint, though she was more fun than her TV counterpart. Her “Without an Enemy” may have been the best solo song in the show. And she definitely makes an impression on a fence.

Kevin Massey plays Almanzo Wilder, whom Laura eventually weds, though theirs is a strange courtship. Massey also gives a strong performance and his numbers driving a team of horses are inventive.

(It is also interesting to note that Gilbert’s son, Michael Boxleitner, is making his stage debut as Willie Oleson in this production.)

Scenes which used the entire company to either travel across the country (great visual of a moving wagon train), or move about a growing town were the best. Set pieces are simple, but able to be mixed and matched in ingenious ways to create several looks.

The production has some interesting visual effects with wildly colorful sunsets, a star-filled sky, an impressive snowstorm, and a fire effect that was decidedly realistic. Sound Designer Carl Casella also had some interesting effects for horses.

I suspect “Little House on the Prairie” will be more of a hit with people who are NOT familiar with the television program as with those who are. A noticeable number of people left at intermission – no less than seven seats next to us, for example, were empty during the second act.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Black Pearl Sings

Live theater offers good performances, not-so good performances and - if you're very lucky - the occasional brilliant performance.

Crystal Fox, as Alberta 'Pearl' Johnson in the Sacramento Theatre Company production of 'Black Pearl Sings,' gives her audience a brilliant performance.

Frank Higgins' play, directed here by Michael Laun, is very loosely based on the story of Lead Belly (Huddie William Ledbetter), the iconic American folk and blues musician who was notable for his strong vocals, his virtuosity on the 12-string guitar and the songbook of folk standards he introduced.

Ledbetter was 'discovered' at Angola State Prison by musicologists John Lomax and his son, Alan. They recorded hundreds of Lead Belly's songs for the Library of Congress, and may have been instrumental in the singer's early release from prison.

Higgins has made this a two-woman play: Pearl and the researcher, Susannah (Lynn Baker), who sees this singer as her ticket to a good job in a male-dominated profession.

Susannah and Pearl meet at a women's prison in Texas, where the latter is serving time for mutilating an abusive boyfriend.

It's a wary dance from the beginning, as the two women engage with each other. Each wants something from the other, and both are trying to find a way to get that thing.

Susannah obviously wants Pearl's songs as a means to advance her career. While working in Appalachia, Susannah previously has uncovered songs traceable back to Ireland, only to have the credit usurped by her supervisor. By attempting to find someone who has learned the songs of the slaves - and, better still, songs that 'predate slave times' - she hopes to take her rightful place in the halls of academia.

Pearl can't see the value of her songs, but she hasn't heard from her 22-year-old daughter in weeks, and is afraid something has happened to her. Pearl, desperate for information about the girl, decides that maybe Susannah will help find her daughter in exchange for some of the songs she knows.

This give-and-take goes on throughout the first act, while an uneasy friendship - or something that approximates it - develops between the two women. Ultimately, Pearl's songs help win her an early parole, with Susannah's assistance, if she'll agree to visit New York and appear at various academic meetings.

Act 2 brings Pearl to New York and into the public eye. As her 'guest' attracts public attention, Susannah loses sight of the fact that she originally was seeking authenticity, and begins to script appearances that mold Pearl into the character she thinks the public wants: a transformation designed to cast Pearl in a more appealing light to academic institutions.

From the moment Fox sings the old slave song, 'Trouble So Hard,' she grabs the audience.

This is not a musical: Other than the occasional, barely audible strum of Susannah's zither, all the songs are performed with no instrumental accompaniment.

But these songs come from Pearl's gut, pass through her heart and take no prisoners. We not only sense her lifetime of troubles, but we hear them clearly in the anguished sounds that come through the performance.

It's difficult to know what to make of Baker's performance. The character is so affected in speech and mannerism that she seems more two-dimensional than fully realized. Even the brief moments, when her humanity breaks through the coldness of her character, are difficult to believe.

That said, by the time the play reaches its emotional conclusion, there isn't a dry eye in the house ... including those of the actresses.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Show Must Go On

In the early 1980s, the Sunshine Children’s Theater was presenting an original musical called “Go-Go the Blue Gorilla.”  My 12 year old son Paul had the role of Rapper, the Parrot, the interlocutor of the piece.  It was Rapper who kept the plot of the story rolling along.. At one point he was supposed to deliver his lines from the branch of a “tree.”  Budgets being what they were for children’s theater, they had no tree, but they placed him in one of the doors that opens out over the stage of the Veterans Memorial Theater, some 10-15 feet above the stage.

Paul came down with the stomach flu the day of the performance and had no understudy. If he didn’t go on, they would have had to cancel the show.  Paul thought he could do the show, despite his illness. People stood in the wings in case he had to make a quick exit and all the young actors knew they might have to cover for him -- but we worried most about his perch so high above the stage, when he was already feeling queasy. One of the dads (who happened to be a doctor) climbed up the ladder behind him, to watch closely and grab him if he looked unsteady.

Paul got through the show, except for having to rush off stage right before the final scene. His sister delivered his final line for him.

This was our first experience with the theater tradition of “the show must go on” (a phrase coined by Noel Coward in 1950 when he was writing a song by the same name).

Paul would have to go on again several years later, when he was the lead singer for the band Lawsuit, a 10 piece band which also included his brother Ned, sister Jeri and sister-in-law Marta.  To this day I don’t know how they got through the first show, at Sudwerk, after the death of our son David, who had died a couple of weeks before.  During the song “Funny,” which contained the lyric “there’s a broken soldier who’s going home...,” there was an instrumental break during which Paul leaped off the stage and came to sob on my shoulder, and then climb back up on stage again and finish the song.

Theater people cope in the most horrendous of situations because the show must go on.  There is an audience which has paid good money to be entertained and doesn’t care what is going on in your personal life. 

William S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) addressed that very issue in the operetta, “Yeomen of the Guard.”

Though your wife ran away with a soldier that day,
took with her your trifle of money;
Bless your heart, they don't mind - they're exceedingly kind -
They don't blame you - as long as you're funny!

In the fall of 1984, the late Amy Patten was playing an important role in the Davis Comic Opera Company’s (DCOC) production of "Man With a Load of Mischief."  Her husband, Gordon, who suffered from Parkinsons, had been in steady decline for some time. At the Champagne Gala performance, as Amy circulated among the crowd, serving hors d’oeuvres from a tray, people asked her how Gordon was doing.  "About the same," she replied.  It was only later that everyone learned that Gordon had died that weekend.  Only Jim Hutchinson, with whom she shared most of her scenes, knew of Gordon’s death.  She trusted him to help her if she suddenly got lost in the script. She explained later, “I didn’t want to bring the show down.  I didn’t want the show to suffer because of me.”

Director Ray Tatar recalls an actress who was doing a production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” at California Stage.  Just before opening night, her 26 year old brother died.  The actress made the decision to do the performance anyway.  She had the final lines of the play, the “all the world’s a stage” piece, enumerating the 7 stages of man.  “When she got to that speech something came over her and she just started staring off into space,” said Tatar. “The audience waited for a couple of minutes– that’s a long time in a show that moves at a pretty steadfast clip.  It was quiet in the theater.  The audience was reading the reality of her expression.  She finally just fired her way through it to the end.  The audience roared approval as the other actors carried her off.” She finished the run of the play without further problem.

Actor Stephen Peithman’s sister, Ann, died the week before the opening of "Man of La Mancha," produced at UCD in the mid-1970s.  Peithman  played the villain, Dr. Carrasco ("The Knight of the Mirrors") and there were no understudies for any of the parts.

“When my mother called me to tell me that my sister had died after a sudden and virulent recurrence of cancer, she told me not to worry about leaving the show.  In fact, the first words she said, after ‘Your sister died this afternoon’ was ‘And you know she would have wanted you to stay in the show.’

“Actor David de Berry, playing Cervantes, gave me a hug before the show on opening night, and I remember thinking as the opening music began, ‘This is so unreal.’ 

“The show went beautifully, and to this day, I can't listen to the overture from ‘Man of La Mancha’ without thinking first of Ann,” says Peithman.

Sometimes incidents happen on stage and actors have to cope.  Actress Deborah Hammond knows this very well. 

As Patty in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” Hammond and another actor were fighting over a pencil in a scene.  The pencil was oversized, made from a large dowel.  Hammond’s blocking was to snatch the pencil from the other actor’s hand, the other actor still had quite a grip on it and when he released it the pencil  jabbed her in the eyebrow and caused a gash.  She finished the show before heading to the hospital.

In another situation, while in the role of Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” Hammond flung herself backwards, as directed, and experienced stabbing pain in her abdomen.  She completed the final act and went straight from the theater into emergency surgery to have her gallbladder removed.  (Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to finish the run.)

While playing Muzzy Van Hossmere in Runaway Stage’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Hammond left the stage to complete a quick costume change.  She ended up falling down a small flight of stairs, head first, to the dressing room.  Other actors tried to sit her down and examine her; but she made her change and returned to the stage.  When the other actress entered the scene she was thrown a bit by the blood trickling down the side of Hammond’s face.  She managed to complete the performance and the run of the show

Patrick Van was set to appear in Davis Musical Theater Company’s recent “Kiss Me Kate,” when the week before the show opened he was hospitalized with suspected H1N1 (it turned out just to be the regular flu).  Van was released from the hospital in the late afternoon of opening night, went home to shower, and went to the theater. “I asked the director if any of my blocking had changed and asked my fellow cast members to nudge me if I looked confused. I knew that I just needed to pull things together for three hours and then I could sleep all the next day.”

Jennifer Teal remembers tearing her anterior cruciate ligament during ski camp a week before Acme’s “Time and the Conways.” “As long as I didn’t straighten my leg, I could still walk on it,” she says. Patrick Van remembers that “she would walk around the stage and stand behind a couch so she could support herself.  Her knee would pop out every once in awhile.” Teal adds, “We postponed surgery until the week after the show.  It was a valuable experience in terms of keeping commitments.”

Local singer/actress Lenore Heinson (in the days when she was Lenore Turner) didn’t let a little thing like pregnancy keep her from performing the title role in “Countess Maritza,” with San Francisco’s Lamplighters.  She was in her first trimester of pregnancy during rehearsals and was sleepy most of the time.  Someone drove her from Davis to San Francisco each night so she could sleep in the car, get out, sparkle during rehearsal and then sleep all the way back to Davis again.

By the time the show opened, the pregnancy started to show and the costumers had to find ways to expand her costume to keep up with her expanding girth.  She was double-cast in the role, and eventually had to leave the last two weekends to the other Maritza when it became impossible to hide the pregnancy any longer.

Sometimes an actor simply can’t perform and others are grabbed at the last minute to fill in, with little or no rehearsal.  Jason Hammond recalls, “One year, at Christmas time, I got a call to fill in for an actor who had been cast in a movie and had to go into production immediately.  The director asked me to learn the role of Tom Jenkins in “Scrooge the Musical,” to be performed the next evening…so I began memorizing.  Several hours later, the director called again and informed me that he had been mistaken -- it wasn’t the actor playing Tom Jenkins who was leaving the cast, but his twin brother who played the role of Harry, Scrooge’s nephew.  Needless to say, I had no sleep that night!”

In 1993, Adam Wright, playing Orlando, in Acme Theater Company’s production of  “As You Like It” came down with pneumonia during tech week. The Stage Manager, Andrew Hendrix, stepped in and played the role for three of the four performances. Andrew was off book by the second night.

In 1997, Qasim Shah, cast in Acme’s “Emma's Child,” took his own life only weeks before the show was to open. Evan Drane stepped in and did a remarkable job, as did the entire cast, considering the circumstances. “It was one of the most difficult moments of my life,” remembers director Dave Burmester.

During the Davis Comic Opera Company’s first production of “A Little Night Music,” Myrna Woodhead missed the second act because she went to the ER with food poisoning. Myrna was part of the quintet. "Sandra Silva sang Myrna's lyrics, and everyone else just did what was needed to make the new configuration workable," says Stephen Peithman.

Theater people pull together during times of crisis and accomplish amazing things.

California Stage was doing an out of town production of “Real Women have Curves.”  The set consisted of a number of flats but when the tech crew went to put the set together, they discovered they had left the crucial piece that holds it all together back in Sacramento.  One technician told another to hold the set upright while he went to find something to make it all work.  It turns out he drove an hour back to Sacramento to get the missing piece, leaving the original technician holding the set upright for 40 minutes while the first act went on.  (At intermission they found something backstage that would support the set.)

During the run of the Davis Comic Opera Company’s 10th anniversary show, the tech crew arrived at the Veterans Memorial Theater at 2:30 in order to get ready for the 4:00 matinee, only to find an inch of water on the stage and two inches in the pit. (The drain outside had backed up causing the water to come in under the door, across the stage and into the pit) “The pit water was not only messy; it was dangerous because of the electrical necessities there,” recalls Nancianna Pfister.  “Our gallant technical crew spent the next hours quite literally bailing us out.  The show opened only 12 minutes late.”

Directors aren’t immune either. “I had emergency heart surgery on the eve of tech week of ‘The Water Children,’” explains Burmester.  “Tom (Burmester) and Emily (Henderson) shepherded the show through dress rehearsals. I remember telling the doctor that I couldn't have surgery. ‘I have a show opening in nine days.’ His response: ‘That's okay. You'll be able to see the show.’ And I did. Before that, though, on opening night after the show, the whole cast came over to our house to give us a blow-by-blow of a great first night. I had just gotten out of the hospital, and it was one of the best nights of my whole life.”

Bob Bowen remembers “When I was producing and directing Nutcracker somewhere about 1981 or 1982, I got the flu. I was really ill and also lost my voice. Instead of staying home and resting, I strapped on a portable P.A. speaker and dragged myself down to the theater to make sure the show went on.”

Theater people are strange creatures, but they are very aware of their commitment to the audience, to give them the best possible performance–no matter what. “Even if you’re injured, once you’re in that zone of being in a show when the lights are on, you get such an adrenalin rush Your body forgets that your head hurts or you have a sore throat,” says Patrick Van.

The show must go on because there are no other options.  Theater folks are masters at improvisation and last-minuteness, They dream the impossible dream, so the show goes on.