Tuesday, May 29, 2012


After two years of teasing, California Musical Theatre finally brought the touring Broadway production of “Wicked” to the Community Center Theater for a four-week run, double the usual time.

Judging by the long line of patrons snaking into the building, the virtually filled theater, and the wild applause that greeted the lowering of the lights prior to the overture, the wait had been worth it.

There’s no question about it, this musical is magnificent. It features a large cast, a spectacular set, beautiful costumes and more special effects than have been seen on the auditorium stage in a very long time. There is an added plus of a real orchestra that does not need so much amplification that your ears hurt.

It’s easy to see why this musical has won every major award possible (35 of them), including the Grammy Award, the Olivier Award, three Tonys and six Drama Desk awards, including best musical. Ticket sales for North America have totaled $1.8 billion.

The success of the musical has boosted the sales of the Gregory Maguire book, already a bestseller, to nearly 5 million.

The story is Maguire’s prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” answering such questions as “why is the wicked witch green?” “Does she have a name?” (Yes — Elphaba — Maguire’s homage to L. Frank Baum’s name), “Was she born mean, or did she become mean?” and “Can anyone really be as sticky sweet as Glinda?”
The fast-paced show travels to all the familiar places we know from “The Wizard of Oz” and the little hints and quotes from the movie are fun to find tucked in among the Stephen Schwartz music, Winnie Holzman script and Eugene Lee set.

Having seen the show once before in San Francisco and being very familiar with the original cast recording, what I liked about this production was that Nicole Parker (Elphaba) and Alli Mauzey (Glinda), who both played the roles on Broadway, made the roles their own, with a more subdued (in spots) performance, a different emphasis on parts of familiar songs, allowing one very quickly to lose the image of Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, who originated the roles.

Glinda is the overly perky, blond cheerleader type who arrives at Shiz University surrounded by her adoring entourage and just knowing she is going to end up with the most handsome guy on campus. She is a flibbertigibbet concerned only with herself, her looks and what makes her look good.

Elphaba, having had a sad childhood that included abuse at the hands of her father, and being made to be the caretaker for her disabled sister Nessarose (Emily Ferranti) — someone should drop a house on her — is a serious student, concerned about real-world problems. If she weren’t stuck in Oz she’d be at an Occupy protest somewhere.

The two are assigned to be roommates, and it’s loathing at first sight, though the emotional “For Good,” at the end of the show, tells what kind of effect each has had on the other as their friendship has grown.

Rounding out the cast are a host of Ozians, such as Boq (Justin Brill), the Munchkin who is in love with Glinda and is willing to do anything she wants to win her heart, though in the process he loses his own.

Andy Kelso is Fiyero, who arrives at Shiz the male equivalent of Glinda … not interested in study, wanting only to party and hang out with the most beautiful girls on campus. Over the course of the show, he finds true love and undergoes perhaps the greatest transformation of anyone in the show.

P.J. Benjamin is the Wizard, harboring a secret longing all of his life and realizing, too late, that he didn’t have to look farther than his own front yard because it was there all the time.

Liz McCartney is Madame Morrible, headmistress at Shiz, who takes Elphaba under her wing when she discovers the girl has magical powers that can help her in her own goals.

Though this is a long show (and plan for a long wait in the parking lot afterwards), it passes in an eyeblink. I saw children of all ages in the audience and big groups of them all over the theater who cheered everything. It’s a good-feeling show that will leave you on a high. And the Act 1 finale will give you goose bumps.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr

Something’s afoot at the Davis Art Center. It is Acme Theatre Company’s annual gift to the city of Davis, a free production on the center’s outdoor stage, preceded by a barbecue, giving everyone a chance to buy a burger, have a cup of strawberries with a sinfully large dollop of whipped cream, and lounge around on the grass waiting for the show to start.

This year’s production is “The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged)” by Jess Gorgeson, Adam Long and Daniel Singer of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and directed by Emily Henderson, Geoffrey Albrecht and Hope Raymond.

This is a parody of all of Shakespeare’s plays, traditionally performed by only three actors, but ingeniously arranged so that nine actors can actually do the roles.

Improvisation plays an important role and it is normal for the actors to deviate from the script and have spontaneous conversations about the material with each other or the audience, giving the appearance of something that may be being made up on the spot.

After an “overture” of sorts by many instruments from tuba to kazoo, it was announced by Brian Stewart that the evening’s show would feature an all-male cast. This prompted instant outrage from the female actors in the audience, who organized a protest on the spot, pulling women out of the audience to join in a protest march and occupy the stage.

Peace was restored when the men agreed to let the women be understudies and the play got under way. Beginning with “Romeo and Juliet,” the men (Stewart, Aaron Hirst and Antonio de Loera-Brust) found ingenious ways to work their way through several plays. “Titus Andronicus” was done as a cooking show with Loera-Brust as the hand-less chef, and, recognizing that none of the three was African-American, “Othello” was presented as a rap.

All of the comedies were combined into one convoluted reading by Hirst (the justification being that they all recycle the same plot devices anyway).

When the men ran out of steam, the women “understudies” (listed in the program as “The Company” — Leah Julian, Alina Lusebrink and Hannah Nielsen) took over the stage to present all the histories as a football game, with the crown as the football. Lusebrink’s death as Julius Caesar was a sight to behold. It naturally segued into the sequel, “Anthony and Cleopatra,” where Nielsen displayed a most electric-looking wig.

“Macbeth” was reduced to a witch’s pot and a duel, but done in thick Scottish brogue.
As the first act comes to an end, the stage is littered with crumpled pages of the plays that have been done. Only two are left undone, “Coriolanus,” which they refuse to do because they feel the “–anus” part is vulgar, and “Hamlet.”

The actors are nervous about doing Shakespeare’s most difficult play and run out of the theater, leaving technician Camilla Biaggi nervously telling jokes to the audience and finally calling for intermission, to give herself time to find the missing actors.

Naturally, the actors never return and it is left to the tech crew (Biaggi, Wil Forkin and Nick Mead) to do “Hamlet,” which they do with the help of some audience participation — a couple of people pulled from the audience and the entire audience enlisted to become Ophelia’s subconscious, her ego, superego and id, all to help her produce the perfect reaction to being ordered to “get thee to a nunnery.”

When they finally finish “Hamlet,” the cast does it again, in double-time, and then backwards.

To say this show relies on slapstick is a gross understatement, but it is wonderful fun and all the action should keep even small children entertained. What better way to spend some time on your holiday weekend, than stopping by the Art Center for a hilarious show done by incredibly talented and dedicated young actors?

Thursday, May 17, 2012


It is tragic that composer/lyricist Jonathan Larson never lived to see the phenomenon that his musical, “Rent,” has become. He died of aortic dissection caused by Marfan’s syndrome on the morning of Jan. 25, 1996; the show opened for its off-Broadway run that night.

“Rent” played to sold-out houses, and its run was extended until April 1996, when it moved to the larger Nederlander Theater; it subsequently became the eighth-longest running show in Broadway history, and grossed more than $280 million.

It won every major best musical award, including the Tony, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Tours of “Rent” have criss-crossed the country almost continuously since late 1996. It has been translated into every major language and performed on six continents. The show had such a loyal following in New York that the term “Renthead” came to be used to describe fans who would line up for hours in advance, just to get the $20 rush tickets; they subsequently boasted of having seen the show dozens of times.

One obsessed fan claims to have seen it more than 1,100 times during its 12-year run.

Now, UC Davis’ Studio 301 has brought “Rent” to the Wyatt Pavilion, under the direction of Mitchell VanLandingham and musical direction by Elizabeth Tremaine.

This is obviously a scaled-back version of the musical, but nonetheless enthusiastic, as the performers give it their all, and the intimacy of Wyatt Pavilion helps the audience feel more a part of this group of latter-day Bohemians.

“Rent” is an updated version of Puccini’s opera, “La Boheme,” the music from which is played in brief interludes throughout the show. It tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians who struggle to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side, under the shadow of AIDS, at a time when drugs are plentiful.

(Already that theme is dated, as with new medications AIDS is no longer a death sentence and those living with the disease no longer take AZT on strict schedules.) The characters have become a “family they chose,” young people living with life, loss and love.

There are some incredibly gorgeous songs in this show (like “I’ll Cover You,” “Santa Fe,” “Without You” and the iconic “Seasons of Love”), all of which are done beautifully by the cast. The more upbeat tunes suffer from Wyatt Pavilion’s muddy sound system and shoddy sound balance.

All dialog emanates from the same place in the center of the stage, no matter where the actor may be in the building (even when the actor is behind the audience!). The poor sound system also makes crisp diction impossible and a lot of plot points may be lost.

Kyle Lockridge plays filmmaker Mark Cohen, the central figure of the story, whose video, which he shoots throughout the action, forms the narration. Costumer designer Christine Deniz has decided to put him in a more subdued costume than the traditional brightly colored scarf and horn-rimmed glasses that have been such an integral part of the character’s identity. Lockridge’s performance, too, was a bit more subdued than one would expect from this character, though he was competent enough.

Michael Roscoe is the songwriter, Roger Davis, who falls in love with exotic dancer Mimi (Malia Abayon), a drug addict.

The heart of the show is Angel Dumott Schunard, a gay drag queen dying of AIDS. Angel was played the night I saw the show by Ulysses Morazan, substituting for Jason Phillips. One could not ask for a more affecting and moving performance than that given by Morazan, who was tender in his love scenes with Tom Collins (Marcos Sastre III) and outrageous in his dance numbers.

Sastre’s ministrations to Angel and his grief following his partner’s death were heartbreaking.

Others in the cast include Erica Kalingking as attorney Joanne Jefferson, partner to performance artist Maureen Johnson (Rachel Wagner). Ryan Geraghty is Benjamin Coffin III, who was appropriately unlikable as the landlord.

The director and cast are to be congratulated on giving a credible performance of a big Broadway musical.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Little Shop of Horrors

If I had any houseplants, I would not feed them after seeing what happens with Audrey II, the strange plant intent on world domination.

“Little Shop of Horrors,” the new musical at Sacramento Theatre Company, is a musical adaptation of the 1960s Roger Corman science fiction movie of the same name, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman.
Directed by Michael Laun, and choreographed by Jerald Bolden, this is the story of a strange plant from outer space that finds its way into a Skid Row flower shop, owned by the blustery Mr. Mushnik. The plant is nurtured by Seymour Krelborn, a nerdy shop clerk who likes to experiment with plants and who is madly in love with the naive and somewhat ditzy shop girl, Audrey.

Seymour sees the chance to transform his life and win the heart of Audrey when the curious plant flourishes under his care. The plant, which he names “Audrey II,” is actually a talking creature from outer space and the only way to keep it alive is by feeding it human blood.

When Seymour becomes anemic from Audrey II’s nightly feedings, he is forced to find alternative sources of nourishment for the plant, drawing Seymour into a web of greed and deception that spirals out of control. The results are both hilarious and harrowing.

Andrew J. Perez leads a marvelous cast as Seymour. With his wire-rimmed glasses, tennis shoes and timid demeanor, he makes a perfect nerd, who is determined to save this pathetic, dying plant (“Grow for Me”), and then feeling growing dread as he realizes what the plant needs to eat (“Feed Me”). He can also be tender, in his profession of love to Audrey (the girl) in their duet “Suddenly Seymour.”

Jessica Goldman totters about the stage on ultra high heels, a bit top heavy with a prominent decolletage and a longing to get out of Skid Row and move to “Somewhere That’s Green.” She is victim to her abusive boyfriend, the evil dentist Orin Scrivello (William Elsman), who regularly beats her up, but she feels she doesn’t deserve anything better because she has “a past.” Goldman gives Audrey a beautiful air of vulnerability and innocence.

You have to wonder what sort of dental experiences Ashman had in his youth, given the sadistic antics he has written for Dr. Scrivello. William Elsman is evil personified as he gyrates around the stage in black leather, alternately taking quick sniffs of laughing gas and wielding a huge drill with which to work on Seymour’s mouth.

Elsman not only plays Scrivello, but several other characters as well, male and female, and is listed in the program as “Orin and everyone else.”

Michael R.J. Campbell plays Mr. Mushnik, the flower shop owner who plucked Seymour out of an orphanage and gave him a place to sleep (on the floor of the shop, under the desk) and allows him to have one Sunday off every two weeks. I love Campbell in just about everything he does, and he does not disappoint in this role.

There is a sort of Greek chorus of school dropouts who hang around the flower shop and keep the audience up to date with what is happening. Crystal (Miranda Lawson), Ronnette (Ure Egbuho) and Chiffon (Gabriella “Ella” Isaguirre) keep the action moving and each has a moment to shine. Lawson, in particular, displays a great set of pipes whenever she steps into the spotlight.

But with all this talent, the show really belongs to Audrey II, the plant whose size increases with every scene. Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly is the booming voice of the plant, at times frighteningly commanding, at other times deceptively whining and pleading for help.

Aaron Hitchcock is the man who really brings the plant to life and gives it such character. He is assisted by Tom Block, Javen Crosby, Daffyd Wynn and Garrick Sigl.

Music is by a small, unseen four-piece combo led by conductor Dan Pool. The wonderful set is by Jarrood Bodensteiner, with lighting design by Jessica Bertine. Jessica Minnihan’s costumes are fun — from the drab, nondescript outfit of Seymour, to the provocative dresses of Audrey, to the glitz of the do-wop girls.

Michael Laun has created a tight, fast-paced production that never fails to delight. “Little Shop of Horrors” is a lesson of what can happen when you wish for it all, get it and then have to deal with the consequences.