Friday, December 31, 2010

Cirque Dreams: Holidaze

Ed Sullivan would be so pleased with 'Cirque Dreams Holidaze,' the current offering of the California Musical Theatre.

The spectacle - created and directed by Neil Goldberg - has twirling plates, people tossing other people up in the air (and catching them), balancing acts, unicycles and, my personal favorite, quick-change artists. And more glitter than you'll find on a Las Vegas stage.

It was The Ed Sullivan Show on steroids ... and continues through Sunday.

It's a self-described 'wonderland of fantasy and disbelief,' a rock opera, circus, musical, and holiday show all rolled into one, which scores with almost every act and then spoils it by ending with an amazingly offensive finale.

The stage opens on a Christmas set with gigantic, oversized tree, nutcracker and candy canes. The idea is that we are looking at the toys' view of the Christmas room, and we are to be given a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on when all the humans go to bed.

Three characters - Dickens (Matthew Conti), the Ice Queen (Denise Nicole Estrada) and the Angel (Julie Wacksman) - guide the audience, with song (ear-splitting levels and speaker distortion making it almost impossible to appreciate the music), through the various scenes, performed by amazing athletes representing seven countries (USA, Russia, China, Ukraine, Brazil, Latvia and Ethiopia).

Some of the more memorable bits include 'Twirling Around,' a group of girls who twirl 'baubles' on ropes, tossing them high into the air and back and forth to each other. A bit which started out calmly, that turned out to be extraordinary.

A man balances a series of plates, crystal glasses and lighted candles on his chin as he walks up and down a ladder, ending with dismantling the stack piece by piece.

An adorable little girl has an interaction with Santa Claus that includes balance and rigidity and amazing control by the little girl.

A gingerbread house is constructed while gingerbread men dance around and a child is tossed up and in circles over and over by (his father's?) feet.

The Bell Conductor (Peterson Jardim from Brazil) has a long audience participation segment that ends the first half of the show.

It is very funny and involves five randomly selected audience members scattered throughout the theater. The husband of radio host Mary Jane Popp was one of those chosen to play the bells and gave it his all, to much applause.

The second half of the show brings bicyclists, more gymnasts and a flock of people in penguin suits who tumble, skate and march around the stage while the principal penguin (who might have been the balancing guy from Act 1 ... most performers are not named in the program) balanced on an assortment of tiny, movable objects.

A controversial piece, 'Angels in Flight,' is actually quite beautiful, if you don't think about what is going on. Two long silk pieces float down from the skies while cut out angels with more chiffon are lowered and the cloth spread out. Flying angels Dmytro Deyneko and Svitlana Guranchyk begin a very sensuous, very physically demanding aerial dance, where their bodies intertwine with one another and with the material.

The only problem with this otherwise beautiful number is that the theater is filled with the glorious voices singing 'O Holy Night.' As the choir sings 'this is the night of the dear Savior's birth' it was looking more like it was the night of our dear Savior's conception. After the show ended, a woman walking next to me was saying that she is not a religious person, but even she found the number offensive.

'Cirque Dreams Holidaze' is well worth seeing, especially if you miss acrobats on television!

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Christmas Carol

There are three suggestions I would offer to Sacramento Theater Company for improving its otherwise excellent production of 'A Christmas Carol.'

** Cut the fog by at least half. The stage was filled with fog so much of the time that it stuck around to make for foggy dinner-table scenes and foggy office scenes and, most frustratingly, made some characters completely disappear in billowing white fog during a dialog scene - to say nothing of choking nearby audience members.

** Turn down the thunder. The woman sitting next to me talked with her child through the whole first act. Because I glared at her, she apologized at intermission saying that her son couldn't hear what the actors were saying because the thunder was so loud.

** Make the vocal reverb a ghost of productions past. 'A Christmas Carol' has been delighting audiences for decades without giving an echo to the ghostly voices. It was particularly awful when Scrooge and Marley had a scene together and Marley's reverb somehow affected Scrooge's mic as well.

'A Christmas Carol' has been a beloved holiday classic for STC for a long time. There was no reason to go high-tech.

I would also suggest that in a production where 16 roles are double-cast there should be some sort of board indicating which actor is playing which particular role that night. This is especially gratifying to the parents of the younger actors, who would like their child to get the recognition he or she deserves.

All that said, however, the actual performances were quite good.

Matt Miller makes a wonderful Scrooge. I have seen him do the role before and I found touches in his characterization this time that I may not have noticed before. He kept Scrooge's arthritic hands all the way through and didn't forget in certain scenes. I was particularly impressed in scenes where all he had to do was to observe the action going on around him. Sometimes an actor can be more effective doing and saying nothing than to be the person speaking. Miller never lost the moment. It was impressive.

Jim Lane is a man of many parts, first as the ghost of Jacob Marley, where he was suitably scary (if difficult to understand through the echo), dragging his chains and giving dire warnings to Scrooge about his potential future. He shows up in several scenes in the ensemble, and finally is Old Joe, the broker who buys the deceased Scrooge's belongings from the staff who stole them on the death of the miser.

Maggie Hollinbeck is lovely and ephemeral as the ghost of Christmas Past, who proves that she, too, has a hard edge to her as Scrooge's memories turn painful. Hollinbeck later appears as Mrs. Cratchit.

The multitalented Michael R.J. Campbell also plays several roles, most notably the Ghost of Christmas Present - larger than life on his elevated throne. He appears again as the jolly Fezziwig, Scrooge's old employer who shows the Scrooge of today how to create a pleasant workplace. Once again, he is the current husband of Belle, the love of Scrooge's life.

The delicious Lucinda Hitchcock Cone is Mrs. Fezziwig, whom everyone (especially her husband) obviously adores. The actress returns later as Belle, the Matron.

Gillen Morrison is wonderfully noble and ebullient as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's long- suffering clerk, who certainly has much to complain about, yet doesn't. This is the sort of role at which Morrison excels. He also plays the fiddler at Fezziwig's Christmas party.

Six year old Dylan Margolis was an absolutely adorable Tiny Tim.

Young Ebenezer is played either Hank Minnick or Dafydd Wynne (no indication of which child played the role), and gave a tender, sensitive performance. His duet with his sister Fan (either Elle Berti or Caitlyn Shannon) was lovely.

Special mention should be made of either Lauren Metzinger or Courtney Shannon as the Beggar Child. (I'm very sorry - for this night's performance - I can't give proper credit to the right child).

Kudos to director Michael Laun on giving us 'A Christmas Carol' with lots of heart - another wonderful holiday gift for the Sacramento area.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Every Christmas Story Ever Told

Capital Stage has brought back its delightful holiday gift, “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some),” written by Michael Carleton, James Fitzgerald and John K. Alvarez and directed by Jonathan Williams. The show opened on Sunday at the Delta King Theater in Old Sacramento.

This year’s cast adds Artistic Associate Peter Mohrmann to the veterans, Eric Wheeler and Gary S. Martinez (conveniently playing characters named Eric, Gary and Peter). The trio work beautifully and Mohrmann adds a delightful touch to the cast.

This year’s incarnation adds topical material such as Sarah Palin, Lindsay Lohan, and our Governator and it gives Wheeler a chance to do spot-on vocal impressions of Ray Romano and Tim Gunn.

(While these names may not immediately say “Christmas” to you, be assured that in context, they do.)

This 1-1/2 hour piece begins on a serious note, with Eric determined to read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” only to face revolt by his cast, who are tired of doing the Christmas classic and want to pay homage to all of the other familiar Christmas shows and customs. Eric finally relents, on the condition that he also be allowed to perform the straight version of “A Christmas Carol” too.

Lights come up and the audience is called upon to shout out their favorite Christmas “thing,” whether carol, story, movie, or TV movie. It doesn’t stop at Christmas, but also gives a nod to Chanukah ("It bears similarities to other Jewish festivals: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat!") and Kwanza ("The best part of Kwanza is that you'll never see a special called 'A Very Brady Kwanza'.")

Then the zaniness begins. From Gary’s favorite commercial, Santa Riding in on a Norelco shaver, to Eric as a reluctant, but hilarious Grinch, the trio begin to work their way through as many BHCs (Beloved Holiday Classics) as they can.

While two cast members are off stage getting ready for the next bit, the remaining one is standing on stage reading facts off of 3x5 cards about Christmas traditions around the world, such as the story of Holland’s “Sinterklaass,” who arrives on a steamer from Spain with his helper, a twisted dark gnome known as “Black Peter” who punishes bad children. (The writers seem to have looked for the darkest holiday traditions they could find.)

Wheeler gets a chance to display his comic expertise as such characters as the Grinch and Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a show which is nearly not included for, we are told, copyright reasons. To get around the problem Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer becomes Gustov the Green-Nosed Reingoat.

In act 2, Wheeler gives us another spot-on vocal imitation as Jimmy Stewart in makes a terrific “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and a hilarious Mr. Smithers (from “the Simpsons”) Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”

Mohrmann is particularly fetching, looking more like Carmen Miranda than the Ghost of Christmas Present and also is very funny as a Jim Lang-type host of the fruitcake version of “The Dating Game.”

I have now seen Gary S. Martinez in this show three times and I’m still in love with his character. He can be very funny and lovable, and he wins my heart each year when he stands there, as Linus, reciting “The True Meaning of Christmas.” It seems that each year I say that he’s the “heart” of this play–but he really is.

Just when you think the play is over, the cast realizes that they have left out Christmas music and give a dizzying rendition of Every Christmas Carol Ever Sung.

I promise you will leave this theater with a sprig of holly in your heart and a “Mata-Ki-Te-Rangi” (“Merry Christmas” in Icelandic) on your lips.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Miracle on 34th Street

My very favorite Christmas movie ever is “Miracle on 34th Street,” written for the movies in 1947 by Valentine Davis. It starred Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, a very young Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle (Gwenn won the Oscar that year for best actor in a supporting role).
There have been three remakes for television, a movie remake for the big screen and a Broadway musical version in 1963.
In or around 2006, Will Severin, Patricia DiBenedetto Snyder and John Vreeke adapted the story for the stage and that stage adaptation is this year's holiday offering by the Woodland Opera House, under the direction of Jeff Kean.
There is a danger in adapting a familiar film to the stage, that being that while you can do short scenes that dissolve into other short scenes rather seamlessly in a movie, on a stage, brief scenes in one setting followed by a brief scene in another involve complicated set changes.
Even though director Kean has costumed his set crew with colorful Santa hats and uses sets on wheels that move in and out quickly, it still sometimes has the feel of “say a couple of lines, wait, say another couple of lines and wait again” while the sets are being changed.
It's an unavoidable problem that Kean sometimes manages to occasionally solve by having two characters stand on one side of the stage without a set while two other characters stand on the other side. Only a pool of light indicates there is a change of scene.
Setting aside the choppiness of the action in a show that has more than 30 scenes, the overall production is certain to delight audiences.
Jeff Nauer is a wonderful Kris Kringle, hired by Macy's when its parade Santa Claus (Matthew Taul) shows up drunk to work. Kris is later hired to be the in-store Santa and causes an uproar when, in the spirit of Christmas, he sends the parents of children to different stores when they are unable to find their child's desired toy at Macy's.
Kris' immediate boss is Doris Walker (Jen Smuda-Cotter), an embittered woman who is out to teach her daughter Susan (Ani Carrera) the realities of life and refusing to allow her to believe in fantasies such as Santa Claus.
Doris' neighbor Fred Gailey (Matthew Moore) is trying to help the little girl have a more normal childhood, especially when he offers to let the homeless Kringle stay with him.
The adult actors give good performances, and Ani Carrera is perfect in the role of a too-wise-for-her-age child who just really wants to believe in Santa Claus.
There are excellent performances in smaller roles, particularly Charley Cross as Mr. Macy, and Steve Cairns, who plays the multiple roles of Mr. Gimble, Charlie Halloran and prosecutor Mara, determined to have Kris committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Spencer Alexander is the perpetually blustery Mr. Shellhammer (the real character's name, and presumably no relation to Woodland Opera House education director Angela Shellhammer).
Bruce Lohse is suitably judge-like in his portrayal of Judge Harper, who must decide Kris' fate and who runs the risk of telling all children everywhere that there really is no Santa Claus.
Kean's sets are ingenious, whether they are rolled on or flown in, often one being rolled on while the other is halfway up into the rigging. When finally in place, they work beautifully.
Laurie Everly-Klassen has put together a large collection of costumes very true to the 1940s, giving a completely authentic look to each scene.
“Miracle on 34th Street” drags a bit, but only because of the structure of the script, not because of the contributions of those involved. It is still a delightful couple of hours and should be a lot of fun for everyone who attends.
Bring tissues. After all these years, I still get misty-eyed at the ending!