Friday, August 27, 2010

42nd Street

'Kid, you're going out there just a girl from the chorus, but you're coming back a star!'

Or words to that effect.

Shows such as '42nd Street,' continuing through Sunday at Sacramento's Music Circus, still encourage young kids to flock to Hollywood or Broadway, certain that they'll be the next one who steps from obscurity into the spotlight, to become an overnight sensation.

This play's oh-too-predictable book is by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin. '42nd Street' is replete with well-known songs, including - in addition to the title number - 'You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me,' 'I Only Have Eyes for You,' 'We're in the Money' and 'Lullaby of Broadway.'

As for the plot, Peggy Sawyer (Melissa Lone), from Allentown, Pa., arrives in New York in the middle of the Depression, all fresh-faced and certain she'll immediately get cast in a big Broadway musical. She can dance up a storm, but has never been on stage before.

Naturally, the show that'll put director Julian Marsh (Patrick Ryan Sullivan) back on top just happens to be short one girl for the chorus, and so Peggy is chosen.

The show's star, Dorothy Brock (Lynne Wintersteller), is an aging, fading Big Name whose sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Lew Lloyd), has backed the production so that his girl can have another hit.

Interestingly, although all the people in the cast groan about how Dorothy can't sing, dance or act, she does a lot of all three, and quite competently!

An accident on stage causes Peggy to bump into Dorothy during the first out-of-town performance. The show must be stopped because Dorothy's ankle is broken. Peggy is fired.

This leaves the production without a leading lady, of course, so the cast persuades Julian to bring Peggy back, because she's the only chorus member with enough talent to take over the leading role in this big musical. She has just 36 hours to learn some ungodly number of pages of dialogue, several songs and lots of dance numbers.

She's a bit nervous about this, but - trooper to the core - she works herself to the point of collapse.

I won't spoil the show by revealing how it ends, but let's just say lots of tapping and arm waving are involved.

It's all very silly, and involves a lot of suspension of disbelief from anyone with even the vaguest inkling of what goes into producing a show, but what the heck: The important thing is getting from one musical number to the next, and everybody does this exceptionally well.

The real star of this show is choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, whose chorus of amazing tap dancers brings down the house with every dance. 'We're in the Money' is particularly wonderful, thanks to Leon Wiebers' gold costumes. The number is such a knock-out that it gets a reprise during the curtain call.

It's no surprise that Sullivan, making his Music Circus debut as Julian, is such a strong character; he played the role on Broadway and in a national tour of the show. He looks every bit the way we expect a Broadway producer to look.

Lone, returning from three years on Broadway to play Peggy, is an amazing dancer; she effortlessly handles the transition from uncertain ingenue to star.

Wintersteller was last seen on the Music Circus stage being dragged around as Kate in 'Kiss Me Kate.' The hard part here is picturing her as a has-been, although she plays the diva role convincingly.

The supporting cast is outstanding. Zachary S. Berger, as the tenor Billy Lawlor, has a fresh, earnest face; he reminded me of Dick Powell, whom I later realized had played the role in the 1933 film. Berger is an equally talented dancer, and he acts the role with a flair.

Maggie - one of the writers of 'Pretty Girl,' the show within a show - is played by Susan Cella, who makes a big impact.

With terrific dancing, familiar tunes and a predictable plot line, '42nd Street' is good, old-fashioned fun. It's a great way to cap off Music Circus' 60th season.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Marvelous Wonderettes

In a Music Circus season that includes heavy hitters such as 'Funny Girl,' 'Oklahoma!' and '42nd Street,' the inclusion of a lightweight called 'The Marvelous Wonderettes' seemed rather strange.

This isn't a show everyone has heard of, or has been waiting to see.

'The Marvelous Wonderettes,' written and created by Roger Bean, doesn't have a high-powered history. It first opened at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 2001, then moved to Los Angeles, where it garnered many awards and nominations, including the 2007 Los Angeles Ovation Award and a 2007 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. It debuted off-Broadway at the Westside Theater in September 2008, where it ran until 2010.

This Music Circus production is directed by Bean, who helmed the New York run, with choreography by the Big Apple's Janet Miller.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around four young girls at a high school prom in 1958. A boys' singing group, The Crooning Crabcakes, won't be able to perform for the evening, because their leader was caught smoking near the girls' locker room; as a result, The Marvelous Wonderettes are asked to fill in.

Beginning with the Chordettes' hit, 'Mr. Sandman,' the girls run through a long list of popular music from the 1950s, probably familiar to most of the over-50 crowd in the Music Circus' opening-night audience. Songs such as 'Lollipop,' 'Allegheny Moon,' 'Secret Love' and 'Sugartime' follow, one after another, with short bits of business allowing us to learn a bit about the girls.

We discover that Suzy (Bets Malone, one of the original cast members) is in love with the unseen Ritchie, the guy running the prom lights; he blinks the lights whenever she giggles his name. Missie (Misty Cotton, whom we just know will grow up to become a teacher) has a big crush on Mr. Lee, one of the teachers sitting in the audience.

In a bit of audience interaction, an unsuspecting patron is brought up on stage during the number 'Mr. Lee.'

Cindy Lou (Lowe Taylor) is convinced she's going to be named prom queen, and she spends much of Act 1 preening. She also has her eye on the boyfriend of prankster Betty Jean (Lindsay Mendez), a master of mugging.

The rivalry between Betty Jean and Cindy Lou gets a bit old and repetitious by the end of the first act, but the music certainly had toes tapping, and lots of people sang silently along with the familiar tunes.

The second act takes place at the high school's 10-year reunion, with the singers now in miniskirts and go-go boots. Sadly, life hasn't been as kind to these women as their 1958 prom promised.

Cindy Lou went to Hollywood to get into the movies, only to discover that she didn't really want to be in the movies; she just wanted to be somewhere else. She learned that her heart's desire was waiting for her back at the sweet shop, where she worked in high school.

Suzy, pregnant and having marital problems with Ritchie - he's still back at the lightboard - sings a rousing medley of 'Rescue Me' and 'Respect.' She's very funny, transforming her nervous giggle into a helpless sob of advanced pregnancy.

Act 2 ignores the whole psychedelic part of the 1960s and concentrates on story-generating songs, such as Dusty Springfield's classic 'Son of a Preacher Man.'

The show involves additional audience participation, such as having patrons vote for prom queen during Act 1 - with pencils and ballots given to each person entering the theater - and a few other surprises throughout the evening. The counting of the ballots is particularly funny.

Its lightweight origins notwithstanding, this 'jukebox show' delivers in its own way. For people of a certain age, who remember what it was like to be young, with a life full of promise ahead, 'The Marvelous Wonderettes' certainly brings back memories and puts a smile on one's face.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Funny Girl

I'm not sure whether actress Vicki Lewis channeled Fanny Brice or Barbra Streisand during Tuesday's opening performance of the Music Circus production of “Funny Girl,” but whatever she did, it worked for her.

“Funny Girl” is so closely identified with Streisand — who played the role of stage and screen star Fanny Brice for 1,348 performances on Broadway, and in the subsequent film adaptation — that it never has had a Broadway revival.

The show was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including best musical and best composer and lyricist (Jule Styne and Bob Merrell).

The 1968 film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, and Streisand took home the Oscar for her performance.

In this Music Circus production, directed by Glenn Casale, Lewis manages the seemingly impossible task of evoking Streisand, in both voice and mannerisms, and yet somehow making the role her own.

And it's a huge role, in which Lewis sings 14 of the 19 songs. She can belt out a number like “Don't Rain on my Parade” with gusto, yet be touchingly vulnerable in songs such as “People.”

The semi-biographical plot, told in flashbacks, is based on Brice's life and career. With the help of her dance instructor, Eddie Ryan (Michael Patternostro), she lands a gig at Keeney's Music Hall, where her debut as a roller-skating chorus girl turns her into a major star overnight.

It's a quick step to an audition with Broadway impresario Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld (Ron Wisniski), and a leading role in the famed Ziegfeld Follies.

Meanwhile, Brice falls in love with a handsome entrepreneur and gambler, Nick Arnstein (Brad Little), who makes his living on luck.

Eventually abandoning her Broadway career for love, Fanny and Nick settle down in the country to raise a family. Unhappily, things take an unexpected turn for the worse before too long: Nick's luck suddenly runs out, forcing Fanny to make an unexpected comeback to the stage.

Brad Little, well known for his performance in “Phantom of the Opera” — and Music Circus performances as the lead in “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and Javert in “Les Miserables” — is a wonderfully suave, debonair Arnstein. He's a playboy, gambler and con-man, and his ruffled shirt is a subject of much comment on their first meeting.

Nick's duet with Fanny — “You Are Woman, I Am Man” — is outstanding.

Fanny's mother (Alix Korey) and her three card-playing friends — Mrs. O'Malley (Kim Arnett), Mrs. Meeker (Jennie Scott) and Mrs. Strakosh (Helen Geller) — are wonderful as stereotypical New York housewives who share information on everybody's business, and try to top each other with the accomplishments of their own children.

Geller is particularly memorable.

Wisniski gives a solid performance as the beleaguered Ziegfeld, who isn't quite sure what to make of his unusual new star. But he's too much of a showman, recognizing the extent of her talent, to fight her all that much. He evolves, over time, into more of a father figure.

Patternostro gives a noteworthy performance as Eddie, and gets a chance to shine in his own number, “Who Taught Her Everything,” which celebrates Brice's success.

Bob Richard choreographs some stylish dance numbers. The Keeney Music Hall “Coronet Man” and the Follies finale, while short on women, echo the production numbers we identify with Ziegfeld.

Marcy Froehlich has designed some grand costumes, from the over-the-top Follies girls' outfits and colorful trumpet dance finery, to the muted browns and golds of Fanny's Henry Street friends and neighbors.

Done well, “Funny Girl,” is an enjoyable show ... even without Streisand in the lead.

When one has a leading lady as strong as Lewis, the result is a very satisfactory evening indeed.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The first time I saw “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which continues through Sunday at the Music Circus, my review centered on how pun-riddled the show is, and how I spent the evening groaning and rolling my eyes.

I therefore was surprised to count only two audible puns in this production; worse yet, my favorite bad pun was botched. The set-up line, “I'm Muriel, of Omaha,” was so muffled that the following lines — “Pleased to meet you.” “It's mutual.” — didn't get so much as a titter from the audience.

Whether some minor script re-write had taken out most of the puns, or whether the poor sound quality on opening night — much more muddled than usual — was to blame, remains irrelevant. The audience members, particularly two very loud ladies sitting behind me, had the time of their lives.

The show is based on the 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin — itself drawn from 1964's “Bedtime Story,” with Marlon Brando and David Niven — and has been adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics). This Music Circus production is directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford, with musical direction by Darren Cohen.

Burke Moses plays Lawrence Jamison, who has lived on the Riviera for years, playing a faux prince and bilking rich American women out of their money. He becomes a Henry Higgins-esque mentor when he takes a brash American con-man, Freddy Bensen (Timothy Gulan), under his wing to teach him the finer points of swindling.

Gulan played the same role in the touring production of this show, which came through via Sacramento's Broadway Series a few years ago.

“Chimp in a Suit,” sung by Jamison's right-hand man, the gendarme Andre Thibault (John Scherer), is a scene right out of “My Fair Lady,” as Jamison attempts to teach Freddy how to clean up his act. Freddy is a more-than-willing pupil, as he looks around Jamison's mansion and decides that he, too, wants “Great Big Stuff.”

When the first lesson goes terribly wrong — the wooing of hyperactive oil heiress Jolene Oakes (Amy Bodnar) — Jamison is helped out of his predicament by Freddy, who pretends to be a brother with one too many (too few?) chromosomes in his DNA.

It soon becomes apparent that the Riviera isn't big enough for two scoundrels, and so when “Soap Queen” Christine Colgate (Jessica Rush) arrives on the scene, Jamison and Freddie agree to a contest: whoever can get $50,000 out of her will be the winner, and the other will leave town.

The contest soon turns personal, as each vies not just for Christine's money, but also for her affections. More than a few surprising plot twists and turns pop up before the finale.

This is a delightful cast. Moses, who has one of the most flexible mouths since Joe E. Brown, is the suave, elegant and debonair gentleman to Gulan's crass yet delightful cad.

Scherer is a Frenchman (“only by birth and affectation”) who hasn't learned to be a ladies' man yet, until forced to deal with Muriel Eubanks (the delicious Cynthia Ferrer); she's one of Jamison's conquests, and must be kept distracted. Scherer and Muriel provide a delightful subplot to the central story.

Rush is earnest and winsome as the naive heroine, who proves to have more to her than meets the eye.

Bodnar is high-powered and brash as she describes life in Oklahoma panhandle to the clueless Jamison, who finds himself engaged in more than just a little hanky-panky with her.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” has the feel of a classic production with modern elements, though none of its songs is actually memorable. The show is raunchy and crude at times, but always funny; we can't help forgiving the antics of two heroes who are such lovable scalawags.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Three Musketeers

Summer marks the time when the oldest Acme performers must move on to college, and the local theater company brings in a crop of newbies.

Such transitions sometimes can be felt for a show or two, before the fresh faces properly hone their acting chops and blend in with the group.

Not so this time.

Whether the new kids on the block are exceptionally talented, or playwright Ken Ludwig's zany adaptation of Alexander Dumas' 'The Three Musketeers' is a perfect selection for a mixed group of experienced and less experienced young actors, the end result is an absolute delight ... and a marvelous way to close Acme's 30th anniversary season.

This show is fresh. It's fast-paced. It's funny.

And it's modern, with a fifth musketeer - D'Artagnan's sister - thrown into the mix.

What's not to like about a show heavy on swordplay? (I counted 19 sword fights in two hours!) Acme alum and professional fight choreographer Dan Renkin flew in from New York for a week, to build and polish the fights.

His efforts paid off: The kids obviously had a marvelous time on the Veterans' Memorial Stage opening night, engaging in each skirmish with considerable gusto.

Directors Emily Henderson and Allie Polubiec kept the action moving, with no lag time.

Delany Pelz and Alex May's lighting design greatly enhances the production. Hannah May and William Delacorte's set is minimal - a platform makes a sweeping arc around the stage - and so the lighting assumes even greater importance. The first appearance of the original three musketeers, silhouetted against a white backdrop, is extremely dramatic.

The cast includes some particularly good performances, starting with Jeremy Reinhard's Cardinal Richelieu, looking for all the world as if he just stepped out of some 17th century painting. Reinhard makes an excellent villain, as does his partner in crime, Milady (Hope Raymond), who revels in all her delicious wickedness.

Zach Salk also is wonderfully campy as King Louis XIII, pawn of Richelieu, who seems terribly inept and better suited to planning the castle meals than mounting any sort of attack.

The Musketeers give strong and individual performances. Andrew Lampinin is Athos, hiding a deep dark secret. Torin Lusebrink is Aramis, who believes that the ties of friendship are paramount. Antonio de Lorea-Brust is Porthos, the group's extrovert.

Matt Gibson plays D'Artagnan, raised by his father (Sam Wheeler) to be a musketeer, and now headed to Paris to join this select band. D'Artagnan also is placed in charge of his sister Sabine (Gigi Gilbert-Igelsrud), who is to be deposited in a Parisian convent.

Sabine, however, has other ideas. Apparently she's as good a swordsman as her brother - if not better - and isn't about to settle for being locked in some dull convent.

In the minor role of an innkeeper, Alex Clubb has a wonderful scene that I won't spoil by describing. It's a standout moment.

Margaret Starbuck, as the Mother Superior, has a similar brief moment: also handled beautifully.

Kudos to Hope Raymond and Alix Miller on the gorgeous costumes, which go far beyond what one would expect from a company of young people.

This rambunctious 'Three Musketeers' is a huge undertaking, with more than 30 actors, a dozen different settings and almost 100 crucial props. And those great sword fights.

Congratulations to the entire cast, on a job well done ... and to Renkin, for helping make a crucial element truly outstanding.