Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Damn Yankees

At the start of the second act of the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of “Damn Yankees” — directed and choreographed by Rand Martin — the coach of the Washington Senators (Scott Minor) gives his team a big pep talk. After the pep talk, the team does a rousing rendition of “The Game.”

It made me wish that Minor had given the pep talk to the entire cast before the show started. The show is OK, and I suspect DMTC devotees will enjoy it, but it desperately needs some energy.

“Damn Yankees,” by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, is a modern version of the Mephistopheles story, the story of a man who so desperately wants his beloved baseball team to win the World Series that he’s willing to sell his soul to the devil to make it happen.

Joe Boyd (Mike Ball) has been an avid Senators fan all his life, a fact that has bothered his wife Meg (Chris Cay Stewart) throughout their marriage, but she has learned to live with it (“Six Months Out of Every Year”). Once again, the team is facing another losing season.

When Joe cries that he’d be willing to sell his soul for a penant win, “Mr. Applegate” appears (Tim Gaffaney) and promises Joe that not only can he ensure a win for the Senators, but Joe himself can fulfill his lifelong dream and be the player who saves the day. All he needs to do is sign a contract, pack up his cleats and his bat, and leave a note for Meg.

No fool, Joe, he insists on an escape clause, to which Applegate reluctantly agrees (certain he can find a way to work around it). The play, and the game, is on.

“Damn Yankees” relies heavily on a strong, vital Applegate. While Gaffaney is a good actor, sings well and dances well, he lacks that pizzazz that make the performance rise to the level of great. Applegate’s signature number, “Those Were the Good Old Days,” is such an audience pleaser that an encore was written into the script, despite the fact that applause had died off before Gaffaney returned to sing it.

Ball gives a competent performance as Joe Boyd and the difference between the middle-aged Boyd and the young, vibrant Joe Hardy who appears when the contract is signed is like night and day. Kevin Foster’s first notes establish him as a very good singer and he is outstanding in each of his scenes.

Jenny Plasse plays Gloria, a reporter who follows the Senators around and who is the only one who picks up that there is something odd about the team’s new superstar. Plasse is fun to watch, especially when she is being tossed about by the team during “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Moe.”

The choreography throughout was clever and would have been much better if the ensemble had maybe a few more rehearsals. The team dance numbers are striking when all the men are in precision, but when one or two are on the wrong foot or can’t get back in sync with the others, it just looks sloppy.

I am assuming that with additional performances under their uniforms, the precision will improve, and will then truly be a wonderful thing to watch.

Likewise, the chorus doesn’t always start on the right key for their songs, but eventually they find their way back, with the help of DMTC’s 20-piece under-stage orchestra.

Danielle DeBow is Lola, called from the netherworld by Mr. Applegate to seduce Joe. She undulates nicely through her signature song, “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” though since Joe’s love for his wife is so strong, in this case Lola doesn’t get what she wants.

But she becomes a sympathetic character when she and Joe both commiserate about their respective dues owed to Applegate. Their duet, “Two Lost Souls,” was one of my favorite numbers.

Others in the cast include Jan Isaacson as Sister and Mary Young as Doris, two middle-aged Senators fans, and Steve Mo (Rocky), Mark Suarez (Smokey), James Cubbage (Sohovik), Adam Sartain (Linville) and stage manager Marc Valdez as the baseball commissioner.

The children — Iona Cubbage, Keiran Cubbage and Anthony Swaminathan — also did a good job.

I think fans of DMTC will enjoy this show. It can only get better as the performers settle into their roles. There’s a lot of fun stuff going on on stage and if they get Coach Van Buren to give everyone a pep talk before the curtain opens, DMTC could hit this one out of the ball park.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Pirates of Penzance

The famous “Pirates of Penzance” rolled into Sacramento this past weekend, and took the town hostage. And the town loved it.

The delightful Gilbert and Sullivan classic — presented by Light Opera Theatre of Sacramento and directed by Katie Daley, with musical direction by her husband Philip Daley — will continue this weekend at the 24th Street Theater in Sacramento and then play Feb. 24-26 at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater in Davis.

There hasn’t been much Gilbert and Sullivan in Davis since the Davis Comic Opera Company ended its 30-year run. And if you have been longing to hear a good patter song or two again, this is definitely the shop for it.

This wonderful production starts with what may be the best community theater orchestra I have heard. However, Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados may find it confusing that the overture has been shortened, lopping off the first 2½ minutes and starting with the slow “Ah leave me not to pine” rather than the upbeat “With Catlike tread.” Daley points out that the omitted section is played, instead, at the end of the show, as the audience is leaving.

As the chorus of pirates enters and begins its “Pour o pour the pirate sherry,” the audience is again blown away by the rich, full sound. The female chorus is equally as impressive, and when the two combine for “Hail Poetry,” it sends chills down the spine.

The principals are all outstanding, but head and shoulders among them is Sara Haugland as Mabel, one of the wards of Major General Stanley (Michael Baad), who falls in love with the young ex-pirate Frederic (Ian Cullity).

Haughland has a bearing and a voice that shine, and her affection for her young lover is poignant in their parting song “Ah, leave me not to pine.”

Cullity is no slouch either, very earnest in his desire to fight his former comrades, and then again a slave to his sense of duty when a problem arises concerning the length of time of his indenture.

Baad has had years to perfect his Major General Stanley, and perfect it he has. When he began his famous patter song, “I am the very model of a modern major general,” I wondered how in the world he was going to do the final section, which traditionally is considerably faster than what has gone before.

He not only did it significantly faster, but his diction was crystal-clear and as near as I could tell, he didn’t drop or slur a word. That feat alone makes this production worth seeing.

This is a family affair so it’s no surprise that Chris Baad plays the Pirate King and Debbie Baad is Ruth, Frederic’s former nursemaid, now a piratical maid of all work. Both Baads are quite good, though it would have been better if Debbie had a bit more volume. However, it’s such a small thing, it hardly matters. Chris swashes a nice buckle and makes a fun pirate.

Bob Schroeder, as the Sergeant of Police, also could use a bit more oomph, but his body language as he trembles in his boots out of fear of confrontation with the pirates is great fun.

In the smaller role of Mabel’s sister, the hormone-charged Edith, Kelly Daniells is one of those actors you simply can’t take your eyes off of. She is cute as a button and sings up a storm and I kept thinking what a great Ado Annie she would make if someone wants to do a production of “Oklahoma!”

The show is presented with super titles, which not only display the song lyrics that you otherwise might not catch, but also the entire libretto, a great help for a show like this where language and word play are so crucial to the humor.

Surprisingly, there are inconsistencies between the super titles and the script. I know “Pirates” pretty well and as near as I could tell, the actors got it right and the super titles had it wrong whenever there were discrepancies.

This is a wonderful production, rich in sound, with excellent performances. The whole thing is a lot of fun. You have a first-rate opportunity to catch it at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater and I highly recommend it.

And if you’re a real die-hard, do what about a quarter of the Sacramento audience did — come wearing your very own pirate costume. They say that the production is rated “arrrgh.”

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play

(Actors from left to right: Katie Rubin, Shannon Mahoney and Michael Stevenson)

Capital Stage general manager Keith Riedell came on stage before the start of “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” and gave the usual instructions about where to find the exits, asked everyone to turn off their cell phones and then said, with a wicked look in his eye, “or at least set them to vibrate.”

Sarah Ruhl’s comedy, directed by Peter Mohrmann, is set at “the dawn of the age of electricity, circa 1880s.”

For a little background, electromechanical vibrators were first used in medicine in 1878 to treat women for what was described as “hysteria,” a condition whose symptoms include any number of conditions with no clear physiological cause, historically treated by sexual stimulation.

Vibrators were available as a consumer product by 1900. The vibrator was the fifth home appliance to be electrified. It was preceded by the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle and the toaster. It would be another 10 years before the electric vacuum, iron and frying pan became available as consumer products.

“In the Next Room” features Dr. Givings (Michael Stevenson), whose practice is primarily concerned with treating sufferers of hysteria, mostly women. As he explains it, “The congestion in your womb is causing your hysterical symptoms and if we can release some of that congestion and invite the juices downward, your health will be restored.”

While Dr. Givings is producing orgasms in his office, the room next to the family living room, he is blissfully unaware that his wife Catherine (Elena Wright) is suffering her own bout of “hysteria,” brought on by depression over her inability to breastfeed their newborn child, and her husband’s inattentiveness.

Into the office come Mr. and Mrs. Daldry (Greg Alexander and Katie Rubin). Mrs. Daldry has been suffering from hysteria for some time. As Dr. Givings proceeds to give the woman her first treatment, he regales her with an amusing story about Benjamin Franklin and violent convulsions caused by electric current. “Do you feel calmer?” he asks his patient.

Stevenson, as Dr. Givings, is just so wonderfully detached from what he is doing to his patients. These treatments are all very scientific for him and he keeps that aloofness no matter what is happening on his examination table.

Wright, for her part, runs through a gamut of emotions throughout the play as she gradually reaches the depths of her frustration, and convinces her husband to try his good vibrations on her. She later shares her experience with Mrs. Daldry and with her baby’s wet nurse, Elizabeth (Victoria Alvarez-Chacon), who remarks that it sounds very much like the feelings that should happen in love-making between men and women, a concept totally foreign to the other women.

As for Rubin, was there ever a more perfect role for her? She is hilarious as she experiences her first unexpected arousal and returns again and again for more treatments.

It should be noted that while Dr. Givings has discovered the value of “paroxysms,” the concept of afterglow is completely ignored. This is definitely a slam-bam-thank you-ma’am treatment and the patients are on and off his exam table so quickly there’s hardly time to shake hands before it’s all over.

Kirk Blackinton plays the artist Leo Irving, suffering his own form of hysteria and treated by Dr. Givings’ own invention, The Chattanooga, a vibrator slipped into the anal cavity to stimulate the prostate gland, while Givings’ nurse Annie (Shannon Mahoney) operates the foot pedal which controls the speed.

This is a fast-paced comedy with an amazing amount of dressing and undressing on stage. Costumes by Gail Russell are integral to the period of the piece and are not only beautiful (especially those lovely corsets) yet must be easy to slip on and off quickly.

Stephen C. Jones has designed a two-level set, which places Dr. Givings’ medical office a small step up from the family home, separated by a single door. The office is clinical in appearance, including the vibrating machines, while the home is filled with lush furniture, Oriental rug and one of those new electric lamps that everyone is talking about.

In the interest of full disclosure, there is brief full male frontal nudity, but it is tastefully done and integral to the story.

This is a fun comedy and everyone should drop by Capital Stage to see what all the buzz is about.