Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sound of Music

“The Sound of Music,” currently at the Woodland Opera House, under the direction of Angela Frost Baltezore, may just be the best community theater production of this beloved classic that I have ever seen.

Everything from the actors to the orchestra under the direction of James C. Glica-Hernandez to the lovely costumes by Laurie Everly-Klassen, down to the sets by John Bowles and even the speed and efficiency of the backstage crew changing the scenes was first-rate.

And what’s not to like about “The Sound of Music”? This popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical story of the von Trapp family has more familiar tunes than most musicals. Nearly every single one of them is familiar to everyone in the audience, including ”Do Re Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Edelweiss” and, of course, the title song. If you don’t leave the theater humming at least one of them, you must have slept through it all.

The audience could tell from the very first scene, with nuns gathered on the stairs to the stage singing in bell-clear Gregorian chant, that we were in for something special.

Crissi Cairns Kessler is the earnest young postulant, wanting so much to become a nun; the loving governess who teaches her young charges how to sing, and reminds them about having fun; the woman learning about love for the first time, melting the heart of a military man. Kessler’s winsome personality and beautiful voice are just the frosting on the cake.

Michael Maples is a stern and distant Georg von Trapp, using brusqueness to mask the pain of losing his wife. His children must answer to whistle calls and their only exercise is marching. As Maria works her magic on him, he softens and allows himself to love his children as they are.

The children themselves are wonderful. Director Baltezore has found a group of seven professional young actors, each of whom was talented and disciplined, down to adorable little 5-year-old Anneli Spieler (Gretl), who squirmed a bit toward the end, but who never missed a cue or failed to sing with her siblings.

Emily Jo Seminoff was a lovely Liesl and Christian Salmon as Friedrich hits a high note that was nothing short of amazing. Abby Miles (Louisa), Campbell Salmon (Kurt), Hayley Harrison (Brigitta) and Casey Wathen (Marta) also were perfect in their roles.

Rodger McDonald owns the stage whenever he appears and his Max Detweiler was strong and memorable. He’s a fabulous asset to any production.

Elizabeth Nilsen is sufficiently “upper crust” as Elsa Schraeder, a woman who has her cap set for Georg, but who isn’t sure she’s ready to be mother to seven children. She’s not the most likable character in the story and Nilsen effectively manages to be both beautiful and icy.

But the most memorable character of the evening had to be Nancy Agee as the Mother Abbess, whose guidance helps Maria discover God’s plan for her. Agee has a professional voice and could easily play this role in a professional production. Her “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” was the high point of the evening and when she hit that last high note, it truly sent chills down my spine.

Though this entire production is wonderful, it would be worth seeing if only to hear Agee.

Others in the cast included Mollie Smith as Sister Berthe, Ryan Wathen as Sister Margaretta, Stephanie Blackwell as Sister Sophia and Matthew Kohrt as Rolf, the telegram delivery boy in love with Liesl.

Melissa Dahlberg makes the most of her tiny role as the second-prize winner at the music festival.

Everly-Klassen’s costumes were beautiful, particularly the children’s concert costumes and Maria’s honeymoon dress (as well as her wedding dress).

John Bowles’ set works wonders on the tiny Opera House stage, and including the aisle of the house itself was a wonderful idea. The abbey’s stained-glass windows were beautiful and the painted backdrop of the Alps gave the perfect setting to the outdoor scenes.

This is a not-to-be-missed production, if you are fan of “Sound of Music.” Even if you think you have already seen it, this production makes it worth seeing again.

Master Class

Actress Janis Stevens is a rare gem, and how lucky we are that she chooses to share her talent with us in this area.

Stevens opened in “Master Class,” which is essentially a one-woman show (though there are actually six people in the cast) at Capital Stage on Friday night. Anyone who saw that show, or who will see the show during its run through April 10, will long remember it.

Directed by Jonathan Williams, “Master Class” is based loosely on a series of 12 master classes held by Maria Callas at the Juilliard School in 1971. Callas, you will recall, was the controversial American-born Greek soprano, the lover of Aristotle Onassis and perhaps the definitive operatic diva of the 20th century.

The experience of this marvelous play begins the minute one enters the theater to see the sumptuous set design of Stephen Jones, with the grand piano on a stage surrounded by rich red and brown draperies. The lighting design of Ron Madonia will later add a magical element to the deep folds of those draperies in scenes where Callas goes through flashback moments.

Stevens is in control of the class from the moment she makes her entrance. She is funny, cruel, sardonic, abrasive and sad all at once. In her performance we see the fat, awkward, “ugly” young girl she once was and the beautiful woman she became, as well as the heartache and sheer guts it took to transform one into the other.

There is no real plot to the show. Three aspiring singers come to be critiqued by the diva. With each she is uncompromising, accepting nothing less than perfection.

Wendolyn Cooper, the first soprano, barely gets a note out before she is interrupted. Callas stresses the importance of listening to the music, of hearing the composer’s instructions in the music. Several times Callas interrupts Cooper before she has a chance to get to the second note. She can tell from her body language that Cooper hasn’t listened to the music thoroughly enough to really understand her character.

She stresses that “trying” is never good enough. A singer must “be,” must “do.”

“It’s not a note we have to hear,” she says. “It is a stab of pain.”

“It’s all there in the music,” she tells the singers over and over again.

As the students struggle to understand, we see the emotion Stevens brings to her character. We see the wisdom and the vanity of Callas, the cattiness as she speaks of other singers (particularly Renata Tebaldi, with whom she had a renowned feud).

Ian Cullity is the tenor, Tony, who saunters onto the stage like he is God’s gift to women. He knows he’s good and he’s there to sing songs, not really interested in studying a character in depth. Callas is intrigued by the handsome man but her withering critique soon knocks the swagger out of him.

Laura Pyper is the second soprano, who is sent off in tears by Callas’ remarks about her choice of clothing, but she wins the diva’s respect when she returns in spite of her bruised ego and even has the chutzpah to stand up to the singer.

As she sings her aria, the student fades into the background as Callas remember her own performances and heartaches. It’s an unforgettable moment.

“Tears will get you nowhere,” she says. “Not in the theater, not in real life. Certainly not with me. No one cares how many nights I cried myself to sleep.”

Through all of the class there is Michael Wiles at the piano, sitting ramrod straight and looking like a young Peter Sellers, bringing a slight bit of humor to the proceedings, but in awe of the great singer and eager to cater to her every whim.

Rounding out the class is Andrew J. Perez, the jaded stagehand for whom Callas is just another temperamental singer there to make his day more difficult.

But the night is all Stevens and all Callas, and in the end it reveals the heart of the singer behind her brittle exterior. As she reads a card on some flowers that have been delivered, she remarks, with a sad irony, “It’s always ‘we love you,’ never ‘I love you.’ ”

Friday, March 18, 2011

9 to 5

“9 to 5, the Musical,” this week’s production at the Sacramento Community Center, is a pleasant piece of fluff, without the heart or the intensity of the 1980 movie and, except for the title song, without any songs that you will remember once the curtain goes down.

But it has fun, it has frenetic dance numbers, it has a great, innovative movable set, and it has most of the plot points and dialog from the movie. (The script was written by screenwriter Patricia Resnick, who wrote the film’s script, though this being the less restrictive 21st century, there were a few more risque references in the stage show).

The audience applauded enthusiastically.

The original movie was a wonderful vehicle for songwriter/lyricist Dolly Parton, who played Doralee Rhodes, the buxom secretary whom everyone assumes is the office slut. Parton also wrote the title song. And so it just wouldn’t be “9 to 5″ without Dolly.

This problem is solved by Parton appearing at the start of the show as a huge projection over the stage, setting up the scene and asking the audience to envision 1979, a world of cheap gas, electric typewriters and sexual harassment in the workplace. She then introduces the characters and the story begins.

Basically, this is a story of female empowerment and the women who find they really can get it. It follows three women, the aforementioned Doralee (Diana DeGarmo); Violet Newstead (Dee Hoty), the boss’ private secretary, waiting for her shot at management, which she can never attain because she’s a woman; and newly divorced Judy Bernly (Mamie Parris), who has never held a job in her life and whose whole purpose disappeared when her husband drove off with his secretary.

Director Jeff Calhoun, with the assistance of casting office of Telsey & Co. has done a good job of recreating the movie. DeGarmo looks, talks and walks like Dolly Parton, and Hoty bears a resemblance to Lily Tomlin, who played the role in the movie, only without Tomlin’s level of acerbic wit.

Parris is not quite recognizable as a Jane Fonda look-alike, but the character of Judy was perhaps the least strong of the three. The resemblances helps the audience get into the story right away.

Joseph Mahowald plays the misogynistic Franklin Hart Jr., who objectifies all of the women under his control until a little mishap turns the tables and the three women are able to kidnap and hold the boss captive in his own home while they attempt get the goods on a little double-entry bookkeeping at the office.

Since nobody likes him to begin with, nobody seems to notice that the boss isn’t around except the office snitch Roz Keith (Kristine Zbornik), who is easily distracted by sending her off to a language school to learn French. This frees the women to establish all the nice touches that Hart has refused to consider — personal items on the desks, job-sharing, an in-office nursery, flex time.

But what happens when Hart finally manages to extricate himself from his prison and return to the office?

The plot is often interrupted for big dance numbers, choreographed by Calhoun and Lisa Stevens. The opening number, showing people waking up and going to work, is particularly clever, with all those moving set pieces.

And in the end, Dolly is back to lead a singalong of “9 to 5″ again.

I’m not a big fan of taking perfectly good comedy films and turning them into stage musicals. But Broadway seems to have done it successfully with the likes of shows like “Legally Blonde,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The Wedding Singer.” But the musicals are long on glitz and short on substance, and “9 to 5″ follows suit.

However, there’s no denying that it’s a crowd pleaser and it was nominated for four Tony and 15 Drama Desk awards.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Mystery Spot

What do Santa Cruz’s Mystery Spot and Sylvia Plath have in common?

They are both part of playwright Steve Lyons’ new play, “The Mystery Spot,” now at California Stage in Sacramento, directed by Ray Tatar.

Lyons, whose plays have won multiple awards and been produced in London, Edinburgh, New York City, Boulder, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and elsewhere always knew that he wanted to write a play that used the setting of The Mystery Spot, a tourist attraction in Santa Cruz which refers to itself as a “gravitational anomaly.”

The play was one of four selected for the Ashland New Plays Festival in 2008 and had a staged reading at City Lights Books in San Francisco. It won first prize in a playwriting contest by Actors’ Theatre of Santa Cruz County in 2010.

A great part of the appeal of this staged production is actor Nick Koehler’s interpretation of the principal character Dingo. Dingo is from Oroville and has come to UC Santa Cruz for the women. He has discovered that by sitting on the quad with a cup of Starbucks coffee and an IKEA catalog, and pretending to read Sylvia Plath he can catch the attention of the ladies.

Koehler is just so darn engaging. He’s hormone infused without being either offensive or cloying.

The trick works and Dingo catches the eye of Liz, a Women’s Studies major (Emily Kentta), who actually questions him about his thoughts about Plath (nobody has ever done that before and he tries, successfully, to bluff his way through her questioning).

Kentta gives a solid performance, especially as she learns the truth about her relationship with her mother.

On learning that there is a whole department for studying women, Dingo declares himself a Women’s Studies major, though is disappointed because there is a lot of reading and not a lot of hands on projects involved.

In the meantime, to pay the bills, Dingo gets a job as a tour guide at The Mystery Spot which just, coincidentally, happens to be owned by Liz’s mother Shirley (Michele Koehler), who has a rocky relationship with her daughter.

Into the picture comes the spirit of Sylvia Plath (poet Bonnie Antonini) and the Angel Celestine (Mahlon Hall), who is sending her back to earth to learn something (which is not made clear to her–she has to figure it out for herself).

Antonini sparkles in this role, at times both moody and sultry as she plots for a way to remain on earth rather than return to the afterlife.

Also part of the cast is Mr. Williams (William A. Bergen), who takes several tours of The Mystery Spot trying to convince others that everything is just an optical illusion, and intent on suing Shirley for perpetuating a falsehood.

If the plot sounds a bit convoluted, that’s because it is. The pace is somewhat slow and not all of the actors were secure in their lines (particularly Bergen, who made a better attorney in 2007's “Patriot Act” than he does a skeptic in this play, where he seemed to suffer from opening night jitters.)

Set designer Lynn Perry has attempted to recreate the sorts of optical illusions one would find at the Mystery Spot. It is more effective in some areas than in others.

“The Mystery Spot” is an entertaining, unusual play which runs through April 10 at the California Stage’s main stage.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Guys and Dolls

The popularity of and enduring affection for Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls” is easily seen in its award history. It swept the Tonys in 1951, the year it opened on Broadway (where it ran for 1,200 performances), winning not only “Best Musical,” but also awards for Best Actor, Actress, Director and Choreographer.

It had nominations again for Best Actor (Jerry Orbach) in 1965, and was nominated in 1977 for Best Revival of a Musical.

In 1992 it again won an award for Best Revival of a Musical, as well as awards for Director, Choreographer and Actress, with four additional nominations for the revival. In 2009 it was again nominated for Best Revival.

Various productions also hold Drama Desk awards, Olivier awards and Helpmann awards.

Often called “the perfect Broadway Musical,” “Guys and Dolls” is a perennial favorite for community theater. The Davis Musical Theatre Company last presented the musical in 2004 and is now reviving it for a limited run at the Hoblit Performing Arts Center under the direction of Jan Isaacson.

The book, by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, is based on two short stories by Damon Runyon, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure,” and also borrows characters from other Runyon stories.

Burrows’ book actually won the Pulitzer Prize in letters in 1951, but because of the author’s problems with the House Un-American Activities committee, the prize was never awarded and instead no prize for letters was given that year.

It is the story of good and evil clashing in the bustling streets of New York City, only the good isn’t always completely likable and the evil is often endearing.

Steve Isaacson is reprising his 2004 role as Nathan Detroit, who runs the “oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.” Giving Isaacson the role of a wise-cracking New Yorker is like casting Stallone as a not-too-bright fighter. Isaacson fits the role perfectly and you know you’re in good hands whenever he is on stage.

At the start of the show, Detroit is looking for a place to hold his nightly game because Lt Brannigan (Mike Ball) is hot on his tail and all of his usual locations have refused to let him set up there. This game is particularly important because Harry the Horse (Giorgio Selvaggio) is in town and has brought high roller “Big Jule” (Spencer Johnson), who has lots of big bucks and is eager to earn more.

In the meantime, Detroit’s fiancĂ©e of 14 years, Miss Adelaide (Brittany Bickel), a dancer at the Hotsy Totsy Club, is getting tired of waiting for Nathan to set the date (“Adelaide’s Lament”).

Nathan learns he can use the Biltmore Garage for his game, but must pay $1,000, which he does not have. He tries to borrow the money from Skye Masterson (Travis Nagler), a gambler known to bet on anything. Nathan bets that Skye can’t convince Salvation Army missionary Sarah Brown (Laura Wardrip) to accompany him to Cuba.

While lacking the pizzazz of Isaason’s performance, Nagler looks every bit what one would expect from a New York gambler. And while Wardrip, despite being sabotaged by a terrible wig, had some vocal problems early in the show, she managed to come into her own in her duet with Adelaide (“Marry the Man Today”).

A very sweet moment was the song Sarah’s father (Dave Isaacson — no relation to Steve) sang to his daughter (“More I Cannot Wish You”).

Masterson delivers a group of sinners to the mission in an effort to help save it, as “General Cartwright” (Mary Young) feels that it has been a dismal failure and is ready to shut it down. The song “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from that service is always the high point of the show, and Kyle Hadley as Nicely-Nicely Johnson continued the tradition and did not disappoint.

“Guys and Dolls” is a big, brassy musical that suffers a bit in this production from the muffled sound of the DMTC orchestra, but it still manages to persevere and left the audience applauding enthusiastically at the end.