Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Miss Saigon

Sacramento’s Music Circus closes its 61st season with a Music Circus debut of “Miss Saigon,” the modern version of “Madam Butterfly” by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil, the guys who gave us “Les Miserable.” It is a show that is big and loud and bawdy, but it’s also small and tender and always emotionally raw.

The writers set their story between 1975 during the chaos leading up to the fall of Saigon and 1978 when we see the aftermath of America’s time in Vietnam.

Director Stafford Arima has a stellar cast headed by Ma-Anne Dionisio as Kim, an naive 17 year old country girl who has lost her family and her home and is forced to work as a bar girl in a sleazy club in Saigon, where the owner, “The Engineer” (Kevin Gray) sells his girls’ services to the soldiers. The opening number, “The Heat is on in Saigon” should earn the show an R, or at least a strong PG rating.

Kim is saved from becoming simply a girl someone would hire for an hour when she meets Chris (Eric Kunze), an American soldier who is bored with the club scene. His friend John (Josh Tower) buys the innocent girl for Chris and in the morning, he invites her to live with him.

The bar girls hold a mock wedding for the couple and Chris promises to take her with him when he returns to America.

Three years later, Kim is still in Vietnam with the son Chris does not know he has and Chris is married to Ellen (Misty Cotton). In flashback we see the chaotic scene at the American embassy as they are evacuating Saigon and Kim is unable to reach Chris.

John, now working for an agency trying to connect children of American soldiers with their fathers, finds Kim and learns her secret. He lets Chris know that he has a son. Chris and Ellen fly to Vietnam to find the boy, Kim learns of Chris’ marriage and makes the ultimate sacrifice so her son can have a better life in the United States.

The story is a simple, familiar one, but when given the big musical treatment with lots of glitz and special effects, it becomes something far more and it hits a high note in many numbers.

“Miss Saigon” is perhaps most known for the appearance of a helicopter on stage. I wondered how Music Circus was going to handle that effect, and it was done brilliantly with the use of lights, strobe and sound effects. It added incredibly to the emotional high of the fall of Saigon scene.

There isn’t a weak performance in this hard-hitting musical. Dionisio has played the role of Kim several times before (she originated in the Canadian premiere of the musical in Toronto plus the Australian premiere production and the London Production) and she is a wonder. Her most emotional scenes were gut wrenching and her love for son Tam fairly bleeds onto the stage when she sings “I’d Give My Life for You.”

Kevin Gray as The Engineer is an outstandingly sleazy manipulator who hits his high in “The American Dream,” as he tries to find a way to get into America.

Tower’s John is the rock that centers the piece and his “Bui Doi” at the start of Act 2 was so beautifully chilling. It was by far my favorite number.

Kunze, who has also played the role of Chris before gives a powerful performance and we feel his emotions as he is torn between the woman he loves and the girl he loved.

Misty Cotton has a brief, but memorable role as Chris’ wife, who suddenly learns about the girl he left behind and the child the two of them created. Her “Now that I’ve seen Her” was very poignant.

This is not a show that will leave you remembering any of the songs, but memory of the emotions felt throughout will last for a long time.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I Do! I Do!

In 1966 Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (the guys who wrote “The Fantasticks”) wrote a little two-person show to celebrate marriage. It was based on the Jan de Hartog play, “The Fourposter” and was called “I Do! I Do!” It starred Mary Martin and Robert Preston. The show ran for 560 performances and received seven Tony nominations, including the Best Actor award for Preston.

It was revived in an off-Broadway production in 1996 and has become popular with regional theaters, including 22 years (7,645 performances) at the Chanhassen Dinner Theater in Minnesota, from 1971 to 1993 (the actors who starred as the married couple through the run of the show, got married themselves 18 months into the production).

So it’s not surprising to find “I Do! I Do!” as the penultimate production for the 2011 Music Circus season, though somewhat surprising to find that it has not been performed here since 1979.

The story consists of a series of vignettes following Agnes and Michael from their wedding in 1898 through their 50-year marriage until they leave their family home in the 1940s.

Playing Michael and Agnes in this production are real man and wife (of 24 years) Matthew Ashford and Christina Saffran Ashford, both of whom have lengthy Broadway and off-Broadway credentials (Matthew will be familiar to soap opera fans as Jack Devereaux in NBC’s “Days of Our Lives.”) Both give excellent performances, he as the self-absorbed aspiring writer, she as the long-suffering housewife and mother, though the love for and care about each other shines through any slight negativity that may rear its ugly head.

The story begins on the wedding night for the virginal couple, dealing with “first time” jitters, handled adroitly and without need for explanation with the two songs “Goodnight” and, after a brief blackout, the exuberant “I love my wife.”

Then, in quick succession the couple go through pregnancy, birth, another birth, infidelity, the empty-nest syndrome, marriage of their children, Agnes’ “finding herself” and the continuing advancement into their older years.

Scenic designers Scott Klier and Jamie Krumpf, costume designer Leon Wiebers, and director Will Mackenzie have worked together beautifully to get the actors from their youth to their old age, with most costume changes occurring in view of the audience, through use of several interesting devices. Costumes which are able to morph into other costumes with the addition or subtraction of a coat or scarf, and all in complementary colors work to achieve the desired effect. The final transition is particularly clever.

While in general the music, though pleasant, isn’t anything special, there are a couple of stand-out numbers. One is the song which became a popular hit, “My cup runneth over.” But lesser known songs would include the energetic “Flaming Agnes,” as Agnes defiantly dons an expensive feathered hat and begins to feel her oats.

Another would be the more quiet, reflective, and sweet “Where are the snows?” as the couple begins to settle into middle age. And you can’t forget “When the kids get married,” which has Agnes playing the violin and Michael playing the trumpet (both badly) as they celebrate the approaching empty nest and what they will do when they have it.

“I Do! I Do!” looks at an idealized view of marriage, one which has its ups and downs, but no real external problems (they seem to have enough money, the kids don’t seem to cause many problems, nobody has substance abuse problems — this is no “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”).

If there is a message here, it is that “marriage is a very good thing, though it’s far from easy.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Annie Get Your Gun

Yeehaw!! Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show are back in town!

It has been 11 years since Annie Oakley and Frank Butler held a shooting match at Music Circus, but Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” is this week’s production, directed by Gary John La Rosa, and it is loads of fun.

Berlin’s score is filled with familiar gems like “Anything You Can Do,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” and, of course, the iconic “There’s No Business like Show Business.”

If you are “of a certain age” and remember seeing an early stage version, or the movie starring Betty Hutton, this may not be the “Annie” that you remember. At some point it was revised to make it more politically correct, taking out anything that might be construed as offensive to Native Americans.

So, gone is the number “I’m An Indian, Too” and the ceremony to make Annie Oakley a member of the Sioux tribe, but what’s left gives more dignity to Sitting Bull.

This is, of course, the fictionalized story of Annie Oakley and her relationship with her soon-to-be-husband, sharpshooter Frank Butler, under the auspices of Buffalo Bill’s traveling show.

Music Circus newcomer Beth Malone is a superlative Annie, a wild, illiterate, backwoods girl taking care of her young siblings by shooting local animals and trying to sell them to local restaurants. Over the course of the show, she grows into a mature woman, sure of herself and the equal of Butler, in every way.

Edward Watts, also a Music Circus newcomer, is everything one would want in a Frank Butler. Tall, handsome, virile, charming, but with an exaggerated opinion of himself that makes him aggravating. With a strong baritone voice, his duets with Annie are wonderful, but in his solo, “My Defenses Are Down,” he comes into his own.

Annie has never seen anything quite like this guy and is smitten from the first time she looks into his eyes. The two actors play well off of each other and their on-again, off-again relationship is believable.

The always-satisfying Ron Wisniski (seen earlier this season as Fagin in “Oliver!”) is a bombastic Buffalo Bill, bigger than life as he struggles to find a way to keep his show in the black.

Paul Ainsley is a sardonic Sitting Bull, who has a special soft spot in his heart for Annie and makes her his adopted daughter.

Annie’s siblings are adorable. Haley Finerman as Jessie, Rachel Finerman as Nellie, and cute little Zac Ballard (I hope he gets the chance to play Winthrop Paroo in “Music Man” before he gets much bigger!) are professional kids who do a great job with “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” but they don’t become cloyingly cute.

Heather Lee is a brazen Dolly Tate, Frank’s assistant, who has no love lost for Annie.

The young lovers, Michael D. Jablonski as Tommy Keeler and Jill Townsend as Winnie Tate, are adorable.

The opening “No Business Like Show Business” displays the lively choreography of John Macinis, which is such a big part of the success of this show. The high-kicking dances at the Hotel Brevoort are particularly enjoyable.

This is a delightful little package that obviously was a crowd pleaser, since the Wells Fargo Pavilion had more filled seats than any other opening night this season. Nobody left disappointed.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Two Acme Shows

I am so glad that Acme Theatre’s summer show is in the Veterans’ Memorial Theater … no need to endure the heat of a Davis evening!

This year’s summer show is actually two one-act plays. “Shane of Third Street” was specially written for Acme by alum Brian Daniel Ogelsby (Acme ’02) and directed by Ryan Lagerstrom (Acme ’09) who, we are told, “took a break from directing films and took on the challenge of telling a story live.”

The lines of fantasy and reality blur in this story of Shane, a misfit living on Third Street in a run-down section of town. Alex Clubb gives a powerful performance as a young man whom we first meet preparing for a swordfight with Lord Pain (Nick Mead). No program credit is given for the choreography of the swordfights in the play, but they were staged beautifully.

We learn that Lord Pain is a figment of Shane’s imagination as he prepares for the Bakersfield Renaissance Fair. Other characters come in and out of Shane’s present and become part of his fantasy. Particularly good are Roxanne McNally as the Queen and Callie Miller, as Shane’s sister, Marie.

Mead, who is a menacing Lord Pain, becomes part of Shane’s real life and gives the young man the opportunity to make the sort of choices that a true knight would be expected to make.

Emmett Barnes makes a brief, but memorable appearance as the young dinosaur and the tech crew gets high marks for special effects.

After some delicious local strawberries with whipped cream, we were ready for the second play, “The Secret in the Wings,” written by Mary Zimmerman and directed by artistic director Emily Henderson and Maddy Ryen (Acme ’05). It is described as “seven dark fairy tales interwoven in a kaleidoscope of fractured story telling.” Fractured is putting it mildly.

The story opens with mother (Hannah Nielsesn) and Father (Will Kingscott), who must be the absolute worst parents in the world, going off for the night and leaving daughter Heidi (Gigi Gilbert-Igelsrud) in the care of the creepy Mr. Fitzpatrick (Antonio de Loera-Brust), of whom Heidi is deathly afraid (“He’s an ogre!”) and who clomps about the stage like Bella Lugosi, with a very long, very thick tail.

Mr. Fitzpatrick immediately asks Heidi to marry him, as he does before each of the fairy tales he begins to read to her.

Zimmerman’s fairy tales make the original Grimm stories positively Pollyanna-ish. In one, the eyes of three princesses are removed and they are banished to the desert, where two of them turn to cannibalism.

In another, a princess who hasn’t laughed in years agrees to let the men of the kingdom try to get her to crack a smile, but only on the condition that if she does not smile, the unsuccessful men will be beheaded.

In a third, a princess is resurrected by her loving husband, but rather than rewarding him for bringing her back to life, she takes to the arms of another man.

And so it goes.

Each fairy tale is told until it reaches its most climatic moment and then it ends abruptly without the conclusion being read and the next story starts. At the end of the seventh story, the tales begin to be completed, in backward order, until all conclusions have been reached.

The cast for this play numbers about 30 and many actors play several roles. Many are worthy of special mention, especially Clubb (back from “Shane of Third Street”) as the father of “The Princess Who Wouldn’t Laugh”; (Kashmir Kravitz also gets special mention for doing a good job in the title role). Deanna Gee performs the silent part of “Silent for Seven Years” stoically.

De Loera-Brust is suitably scary as the Ogre, Mr. Fitzpatrick, and Gilbert-Igelsrud handles the role of Heidi, who bridges several of the stories, quite well.

Directors Henderson and Ryen keep things moving and visually interesting. Of particular note is “Silent for Seven Years, or The Seven Swans,” which includes a beautifully choreographed group of swans.

This delightful pairing of plays gives a solid evening of entertainment (and don’t forget to try the strawberries at intermission!)

Thursday, August 04, 2011


Whether you are speaking historically, theatrically or politically, the word “Camelot” conjures up a special time, a special magic.

Music Circus’ current production — its first in the Wells Fargo Pavilion, the previous production of “Camelot” having played in the old tent in 2002 — does not disappoint and hits all the right magical points throughout.

For starters, there is Davis Gaines as Arthur, the unexpected king who is poised on the brink of greatness, but still needs to turn to his friend, the magician Merlin (Time Winters) for advice.

Gaines, with a hefty biography including more than 2,000 performances as the Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway, is an unforgettable Arthur. He neatly balances the uncertainty of a fledgling king with the nobility of a king who is reaching his full potential. His is an Arthur to rival Richard Burton’s, though he has a much better voice.

A newcomer to Music Circus is Lisa O’Hare as Guinevere, the princess brought to Camelot to marry the king in a trade agreement. She’s angry about the her “youth being sold” and afraid she will never have the “simple joys of maidenhood.”

“Shall two knights never tilt for me
and let their blood be spilt for me?
Oh where are the simple joys of maidenhood?”

O’Hare has an elfin charm about her that makes her mesmerizing. There is a special charisma with Gaines that makes it almost impossible to understand how she could be drawn away from the king to an attraction with Lancelot.

The story follows the reign of the idealistic Arthur, who develops the idea of the Round Table, a guild of Knights, that would promote justice and use strength for purposes of good — might for right, rather than might makes right (i.e., no more whacking the heads off peasants just for the fun of it).

One of the knights answering the call is Lancelot du Lac (Sean Hayden), a pompous, self-adulating Frenchman who desires only to serve the great King Arthur. He’s confident, almost swaggering, and his quest for inner perfection to go with his physical prowess annoys everyone, especially Guenevere, who bribes three of the best knights to joust with him.

When Lancelot surprises everyone by winning the jousts and mortally wounding (and then bringing back to life) one of the three, the queen begins to see him in a different light and falls in love with him.

Shannon Stoke is Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred, determined to destroy Arthur’s dreams for a world of laws. He’s a spoiled, bitchy young man whom Stoke played to the hilt; Stoke enjoyed a chorus of boos at the curtain call.

Time Winters is the wise Merlin in the opening scene, the magician who lives life backwards and is able to help Arthur because he can “remember the future” and knows what is coming. But, alas, he is spirited away by the spell of Nimue, the Lady of the Lake (Karen Culliver), leaving Arthur to his own devices.

Winters returns as the delightfully befuddled, eccentric Pellinore, who has been roaming the lands for 18 years looking to fight “the beast.”

(Culliver also returns as Guinevere’s best friend, Lady Anne.)

“Camelot” is the story of honor, of love, of friendship, of betrayal, of remorse and of honor again, as Lancelot and Guinevere deal with their love for each other and their mutual love for Arthur, whom they do not wish to hurt.

Arthur also must deal with his love for his wife and his best friend, but sets thoughts of revenge aside following their betrayal, because he still loves them both and would rather see them happy together than to lose them completely.

In the end, nobody wins.

But it is young Tom of Warwick (Alex Greenlee) who saves the day. He is a lad who has heard tales of the work of the round table and who was inspired to come and serve. Arthur realizes it is Tom who will carry his message to a new generation, and perhaps his work will not have been in vain after all.

Glenn Casale has directed a beautiful production, made more enchanting by the costumes, especially for Guinevere. The costume designer is listed as Mark Koss, with a notation that the original costumes were designed by Marcy Froehlich, with additional costumes designed and built by the Utah Festival Opera. It’s not clear who gets the credit for Guinevere’s costumes, but they were outstanding.

This is a beautiful, memorable production for Music Circus.