Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's a Grand Night for Singing

If you want a good-looking, Broadway-worthy cabaret show, get someone with Broadway experience to create it for you.

Mindy Cooper - director for Sacramento's Cosmopolitan Cabaret's 'It's a Grand Night for Singing' - has brought her Broadway experience to Sacramento.

Cooper choreographed Broadway's 'Dracula: The Musical,' and 'Wrong Mountain,' and also directed the Mondavi Center's beautiful 'Oklahoma!' a few years back.

'A Grand Night for Singing' has a classy feel to it.

The simple set, designed by Jamie Kumpf, has enough pillars and platforms combined with cool-colored lighting by Sally Slocum and a winsome cast. Add Chris Schlagel at a grand piano, and you have a production that's undeniably appealing.

The show is a melange of songs from 11 Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, from the very well-known ('Oklahoma!,' 'The King and I' and 'Sound of Music') to the lesser known ('Flower Drum Song' and 'State Fair') to the rarely heard ('Cinderella,' 'Me and Juliet' and 'Pipe Dream'). If you are a Rodgers and Hammerstein fan, 'It's a Grand Night' is your cup of tea.

The songs are presented in random order - there must have been a scheme in the mind of Walter Bobbie, who conceived the program back in 1993, for putting songs together in a certain format. But for the audience, that reason must have escaped them in the enjoyment of the rhyme (while all the while scrambling about in your brain trying to place the current song with a certain show).

(Fans of the Citizens Who Care annual concert - this year a tribute to Peggy Lee - probably will miss Stephen Peithman's narration, which helps put songs in perspective and gives interesting background information.)

Lisa Ferris, Ryan Drummond, Melissa Wolfklain, Justin Michael Duval and Jill Van Velzer did a generally good job, with some outstanding moments, such as Wolfklain's 'I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy,' which was adorable, and Duval's emotional 'Love Look Away.'

Some songs gave a bit of a shock to see presented in a totally different setting, such as 'Maria' from 'Sound of Music,' which we know as the song the nuns sing about a difficult postulant becoming, instead, the frustrations of a lover about his girlfriend.

Or 'Honey Bun' - originally a camp song sung by soldiers putting on a funny play for each other - turned into a sensual spoof with a girl actually playing the girl part instead of a guy in drag. The air band which accompanied it was very funny.

The three women also give a strange turn to 'Many a New Day' and 'Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair,' that we are accustomed to being bright cheery upbeat numbers, but in this production become more sensual.

The show ends with gorgeous harmonies in 'I Have Dreamed.'

I suspect this is a show that will appeal more to those of us 'of a certain age.' In fact, at the matinee performance we attended, you could count on the fingers of one hand those who did not have gray hair (or no hair). But if you enjoy Rodgers and Hammerstein's music and want to spend a pleasant couple of hours listening to it, this is a good place to do it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Spring Awakening

Written 26 years before, Frank Wedekind's controversial play 'Spring Awakening, a Tragedy of Childhood' closed after one night in New York in 1917...

Amid charges of obscenity and public outrage, the play was rarely seen for the better part of the 20th century - until the musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Slater took Broadway by storm in 2007, won eight Tony awards, and gave new life to Wedekind's work.

Now the UC Davis student-run Studio 301 is bringing the original play to the Wyatt Pavilion on campus.

Studio 301 shows that its subject matter - teenage desire, suicide, abortion, incest and homosexuality - is as explosive and important today as it was a century ago.

When asked at the talk-back following opening night last week what the relevance to today's world was, director Mitchell VanLandingham listed things like Columbine, Proposition 8 and the escalation of bullying and teen suicide as examples that show, perhaps, we have not advanced as far as we think.

'Spring Awakening,' which is set in Germany in the 1890s, follows the lives of three teenagers - Melchior (Michael Lutheran), Moritz (Ryan Geraghty), and Wendla (Elizabeth Tremaine) - as they struggle with their entry into sexual awareness. In their community, sex is not spoken about between parents and children.

For example, when 14-year-old Wendla asks her mother to tell her where babies come from, the mother tells her daughter that women have children when they are married and in love. She gives no further explanation of sex and changes the subject. It is not surprising, therefore, that when she and Melchior become friends things get out of hand, setting the scene for one of the play's tragedies.

Extreme corporal punishment is the accepted method of dealing with children.

Martha (Stephanie Moore) confesses that her father beats her over trivial things, and also sexually abuses her.

Melchior seems to know more about life and sexual activity than any of his friends and his thesis explaining things for Moritz (complete with illustrations) becomes the catalyst for another tragedy.

The nine actors in this production (others are Skylar Collins, Gillian Heitman, Matt Kronzer, Ulysses Morazan and Rachel Wagner) all take multiple roles and all are very strong.

Lutheran makes an impression since he projects best and there is never a problem understanding him.

Geraghty's character is maybe the most complex and the actor handles it adroitly. Morazan may have the most memorable scene in the play.

Costume designer Esteban Gonzalez has chosen a monochromatic scheme for his costumes, with everyone in black, white or shades of gray, which neatly reflects the society in which the characters live and provides a stark contrast from the occasional red used to indicate violence or trauma.

Unlike so many works that claim to tell the truth of adolescence, 'Spring Awakening' offers no easy answers - or redemption. It is a difficult story and definitely not for younger children, but it has a great impact on its audience and leaves us with much to ponder.

'Spring Awakening' continues Thursday through Sunday.

All performances are at 8 p.m. with the exception of Sunday's 2 p.m. matinee.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

reasons to be pretty

Beauty may be only skin deep, but according to playwright Neil LaBute, author of 'reasons to be pretty' (lower case letters his), now playing at Capital Stage in Sacramento, that may be enough.

'reasons to be pretty' - directed by Janis Stevens -is a very black comedy that tells the story of four rather plain people. Steph (Stephanie Altholz) is a hairdresser, while her boyfriend Greg (Cole Alexander Smith), Kent (Chad Deverman) and his wife Carly (Allison Rich) are in go-nowhere jobs in a box factory. Greg is really the good guy and if there is a bad guy it would be Kent, who sees himself as a stud and who is proud of having hooked the beautiful Carly.

The whole play revolves around something slightly negative that Greg said to Kent about Steph's appearance. He called her appearance 'regular.' Carly reported the incident back to Steph and as Act 1 begins, Steph is in a blind rage, using more f-words per minute than an episode of 'The Sopranos.'

Through of all Steph's rage, Greg is clueless about why this is such a the big deal and why he's in so much trouble. Steph sees Greg's remark as indicative of everything that is wrong with their relationship. She feels that if he loved her he would consider her beautiful, even if she wasn't - she should be beautiful to him. Feeling she is only 'regular' compared to other women is the unkindest cut of all, though Greg continues to plead that he loves her looks.

As Steph's anger intensifies, she is throwing clothes into a suitcase, ultimately declares an end to their four-year relationship and storms out.

Unlike men in other LaBute plays, Greg actually acknowledges his weaknesses and is wracked with remorse over the fact that he has hurt Steph so much. In fact, he spends most of the play trying to get back in her good graces, though she feels he has committed an unforgivable sin.

As time passes, Greg, a voracious readeer who reads Poe and Hawthorne during his breaks, has to learn not only to live with Steph's decision, but to tolerate the increasingly boorish behavior of the muscular Kent.

Though married to Carly, Kent is also not above getting a little something on the side, if ya know what I mean (wink-wink, nudge-nudge). He brags about his affair with the new office hottie and asks Greg to keep his secret.

Carly is pregnant and Kent believes she should get herself to the gym the day after giving birth so she can keep her good looks. ('Carly's getting kinda rubby now, but that's sort of cute, too. Never seen her with an ass like that before. ... I'll put up with it, though. For now. Long as she hits the gym like the day after the delivery, we're all fine.')

He expects Greg to keep quiet about his affair, which, initially, Greg does.

The two come to bloody blows, however, when Greg finally declares he'll no longer provide an alibi for his friend.

The four actors in this piece know their characters well. Smith's Greg is the guy you want to like. He's an ordinary, decent man who is trying to do the right thing, and trying to learn from his past mistakes.

Deverman is the perfect blue-collar worker who thinks he's God's gift to women. He swaggers around the stage, preening, convinced he is every woman's dream.

Altholz deftly shows Steph's anger, her humiliation and the difficulty she has with her continuing love for Greg, though she's unable to forgive him for his remark.

Rich shows the insecure, vulnerable side of Carly, as she confronts her suspicions about her husband's infidelity.

Jonathan Williams has designed an ingenious set that is able to convert from bedroom to office break room through the use of various openings set in the back wall.

Though 'reasons to be pretty' may not itself be pretty, it's a fine performance by four talented actors and another interesting, thought-provoking show for Capital Stage.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Wizard of Oz

It's a brave thing to take an iconic movie such as “The Wizard of Oz” and put it on the stage, especially when the script is almost verbatim what people know from the movie.

But the Woodland Opera House has created a delightfully enchanting production, directed and choreographed by Jason Hammond (who also designed the sets), with musical direction by Jeff Poppings.

Danielle Hansen is not only a wonderful actress and singer, but she managed to stay in character, and not miss a note or a word of dialog while all the while dealing with a Toto who was determined to upstage everyone, and even attack a couple of the other actors.

Hansen handled Bella the pup skillfully, taking her offstage when her barking threatened to drown out everyone else, and still gave us a Dorothy who was sweet, innocent and full of hope and wonder. Congratulations, Danielle — it was a memorable performance.

Dorothy's companions on her travels around the land of Oz could not have been better cast. Matthew Kohrt as the Scarecrow is thin and floppy and his dancing was every bit as delightful as Ray Bolger's in the film.

Eric Alley, in his “dream role,” is a noble Tin Man, with a big voice and a big heart in his empty chest.

Erik Catalan, sharing the stage with his daughter, Munchkin Naomi, is just plain fun as the Cowardly Lion.

Angela Frost Baltezore is returning to the Opera House stage after a 35-year hiatus (during which time she managed to win 15 Elly awards for performances elsewhere) to play both Aunt Em and Glinda, both roles played well.

Patricia Glass, last seen in Woodland's “Noises Off,” is the Wicked Witch of the West and has great fun chewing up the scenery, though her performance is not enough to scare the little children in the audience.

Dennis Updegraff does an OK job as Uncle Henry, but he really pulls out all the stops as the Oz Guard.

James C. Glica-Hernandez emerged from the orchestra pit to play only his second on-stage role in 20 years, yet acquits himself well as Professor Marvel and The Wizard of Oz.

Members of Woodland's Young People theater program do an outstanding job as Munchkins and those who have larger roles, particularly Riley Spieler as the Munchkin Mayor and Bailey Robinson-Bermester as the Coroner, give highly polished performances.

Hammond's choreography is perfect, especially in “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” and “The Jitterbug.”

The scenery is brightly colored and cleverly designed to give the impression of magical entrances and costume changes ... and it worked beautifully, particularly in transforming an overalls-clad farm girl to a pinafore-wearing Oz girl.

Not surprisingly, Laurie Everly-Klassen's costumes were wonderful. It must be such fun to design a show that has so much fantasy about it.

There are a few special effects that work better on film (such as the exposition of the Wizard), but basically most come off quite well. I loved the departure of the balloon.

Small children in the opening night audience loved the show. Adults loved the show. For those familiar with the movie, it will be fun to hear the songs as they were originally written, complete with the verse that precedes the better known choruses. It was also fun to have “The Jitterbug,” cut from the movie, included.

If Bella learns to stop attacking her fellow actors and to listen instead of barking all the time (or leaping up on Dorothy to get a treat) this will be a much more enjoyable show, but kudos to the cast and crew for dealing with her in such a professional way.