Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Crazy for You

To describe “Crazy for You,” the final production in the 2012 Music Circus season, as “energetic” would be to do it a disservice. It goes beyond energetic.

When “Crazy for You” opened on Broadway in 1992, New York Times critic Frank Rich said the opening was “… the moment at which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British.” He went on to describe the show as “the American musical’s classic blend of music, laughter, dancing, sentiment and showmanship with a freshness and confidence rarely seen during the ‘Cats’ decade.”

With music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, both of whom died before this show was developed, one could hardly call this a “new” show, musically. But Ken Ludwig, who wrote the book, called this a “new Gershwin musical comedy,” and Broadway fell in love with it. It was nominated for nine Tony Awards (and won three, including Best Musical and best choreography) and eight Drama Desk Awards (winning two, again Best Musical and best choreography).

In 1930 Ethel Merman starred in the first production of the George and Ira Gershwin musical, “Girl Crazy,” the story of a spoiled New York rich kid who learns about life , love and everything else on a Nevada dude ranch. In 1943, Judy Garland and Micky Rooney brought the story to the big screen, with choreography by the infamous Busby Berkeley.

In 1992, with the blessing of the Gershwin heirs, Ken Ludwig took another look at the old chestnut, did some extensive rewriting of the plot line, and produced “Crazy for You,” now delighting Music Circus audiences. Though Ludwig kept some of the original songs (most notably the first act finale, “I’ve Got Rhythm,” which is a show stopper) he also included other familiar songs from the Gershwin collection. The result is a show where every one of the 20 songs is a hit.

To match the material, director James Brennan has an all-star cast. Noah Racey (who may remind Davis residents of local song-and-dance man, Bob Bowen) is a great physical performer, whose body bends, quivers and contorts in ways you’d never imagine. He is in 11 different musical numbers, but his best moment may be in a “mirror scene.”

Anne Horak is the perfect Polly Baker, daughter of Everett (Paul Keith), hanging on to his deserted theater and remembering the glory days when his late wife graced its stage. Horak’s Polly is a feisty, independent woman stuck in a one-horse town but determined to take control of her life.

While the story centers on these two, there is a fine cast of supporting players including Matthew Shepard as Bela Zangler a famous theatrical producer in love with chorine Tess (Kim Arnett); Alix Korey is Bobby’s indomitable mother, Lottie Child; Robin Masella is Bobby’s overbearing fiancĂ©e Elaine.

The villain of the piece is Lank Hawkins (Aaron Serotsky), who owns the saloon next door to the theater and has his eye on expanding his own property. He also is sweet on Polly and sees Bobby as a threat to both of his plans.

The cowboy trio (straight out of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) are very funny, particularly Eric Gunhus, as the bearded Moose, who plays the bass like a guitar.

Choreography by Deanna L. Dys is outstanding, especially for the aforementioned “I Got Rhythm” and “Stiff Upper Lip.”

While the costumes by Marcy Froehlich are spectacular, especially for the big chorus numbers, right out of the Ziegfeld Follies, I was drawn even more to Polly’s dresses, which though somewhat plain in appearance had great “twirling” skirts and were perfect for all of her ensemble numbers with Bobby.

2012 has been a stellar year for The Music Circus, with exceptional productions and near full houses. With “Crazy for You” they are going out where they started — at the top of their game.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Fiddler on the Roof

Music Circus is presenting “Fiddler on the Roof” this week, directed by Glenn Casale.

“Fiddler” is one of those musicals that lulls you into a sense of complacency and then hits you over the head with its message.

Most of the first act is fun and funny, from the spectacular circle dance (“Tradition”) that opens the show, through the dreams of young girls for a perfect husband (“Matchmaker, Matchmaker”), to the personal relationship of a poor milkman with God and his conversations with the almighty (“If I were a rich man”) to the uneasy, but cordial relationship between the Jews and the Russian soldiers (“To Life”), to various examples of young love and the beautiful wedding of the first daughter.

Just when you have laughed and cried sentimental tears and are feeling good about this small community of the fictional village of Anatevka in 1905 Czarist Russia, it all turns dark and remains dark through the end of the show.

Based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, this is the heartwarming tale of Tevye (Bob Amaral) and his wife Golde (Adrienne Barbeau) and their five daughters. Tevye struggles to balance his deep faith with the realities of a changing world, a task that is sometimes as shaky as a fiddler on a roof.

Amaral brings depth to the role of Tevye and when he glances up into the lights and begins his conversations with God, you believe he really sees something up there. His anguish over the marriage of favorite daughter Chava (Kristen J. Smith) to Russian soldier Fyedka (Will Taylor) was palpable.

Stage and screen star Barbeau, who began her career with acting classes at Music Circus, made her Broadway debut as Hodel in a 1960s production of “Fiddler.” Now she returns as Tevye’s wife, Golde, particularly good in the duet “Do You Love Me?” where she gradually realizes that after 25 years she has come to love this man who was an arranged marriage.

Music Circus favorite Helen Geller is Yente, the matchmaker, determined to find the perfect match for every unmarried person in Anatevka.

Lauren T. Mack may be one of the best Tzeitels I’ve seen. Tevye’s daughters usually kind of blend together for me, but Mack stood out as a strong woman, with a touch of her mother’s sharpness, a woman who will rule her house with a firm hand and who is not afraid to stand up to her father when he attempts to marry her off to Lazar Wolf, the Butcher (another Music Circus favorite, Ron Wisniski).

Tzeitel’s intended, Motel the tailor, was given a good portrayal by Allen E. Read.

Jordan Bondurant is a memorable Perchik, the idealistic tutor who wins the heart of Hodel (Leah Horowitz).

There are wonderful moments in this production, particularly the Sabbath scene, where members of the town gather all over the theater to join in the action on stage, candles flickering softly as they sing the “Sabbath Prayer.”

It was another sell-out crowd on opening night and ticket sales are brisk. This is a wonderful production, so order your tickets soon!


Aphra Behn was the first professional English female playwright, in the middle of the 17th century. She was one of the most prolific dramatists of her time; she was also a spy for the court of Charles II.

Behn also was wonderfully scandalous, even by modern-day standards. She was famous not only for being a pioneer female writer in a male-dominated profession, but also for addressing issues of gender and sexuality. Her forte was comedy and she created strong, independent female characters who unapologetically made their own choices.

Behn is the subject of a very funny play, “Or,” (the comma is part of the title), written by Liz Duffy Adams and directed by Heidi Volker, which is being presented through Friday by the Barnyard Theatre Company at the historic Schmeiser Barn west of Davis.
Once again, Barnyard Theatre has assembled a stellar cast, headed by Hope Raymond as the ambitious, sensual Behn. Sean Olivares plays King Charles II. Rachel Pinto is Nell Gwynne, one of the first English actresses (previously, women had not been permitted to perform on the stage) and also mistress of both Charles and Aphra.

Behn’s husband William, presumed dead, is played by Geoffrey Albrecht.

The multi-talented Sarah Cohen plays Lady Davenant, the widowed proprietor of an acting company, who rattles off a monologue that runs the better part of two solid pages of dialogue. It’s a performance that stops the show with applause.

The maid Maria is played by Alexandra Moreno, and the “Jailer” opening night was Timothy Smith. Don Saylor, Kane Chai, Jenna Templeton and Sam Wheeler each were assigned the role for one performance.
The action begins in debtor’s prison (a really nice effect by set designer Davin Gee), with Behn composing a letter to the king, who has not paid her for her services. She writes her note in rhyme:

Here in debtor’s prison I do lie
For lack of funds promised me as your spy.
To nag and scold my own adored king
Believe me, pains me more than anything.
But justice to myself demands no less
Than princely favor and full recompense.

Before she can finish her note, she is visited by a masked stranger, eventually revealed as the king, who informs the writer that her debts have been paid and she is free to leave. He wants her as his mistress, an idea about which she is less than enthusiastic. But she needs a place to write, so they strike a bargain, with Behn dictating the terms, which include intimacies that do not extend to the bed.

The rest of the action takes place in the apartment rented to Behn by the king, where we first meet Gwynne, who is eager for both a professional and personal relationship with Behn, who is more than willling. There is opportunity for bedroom farce-like action with a front door, a bedroom door and a closet door, all of which get used for hiding and revealing.

When William returns from the dead, he is plotting to kill the king, unaware of Behn’s relationship with him and his proximity to William. The solution to the problem comes from an unlikely source, which Behn dutifully records in her pages.

Virginia Woolf once wrote, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

In “Or,” Liz Adams has sprinkled the grave of Aphra Behn liberally with flowers and given us a wonderful, if not quite historically accurate, picture of a remarkable woman, beautifully interpreted by the talented actors of Barnyard Theatre.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Music Man

Last night I had one of those special theatrical moments that I will remember for a long time. It was opening night of Music Circus’ 20th production of “The Music Man,” one of my favorite musicals. Shirley Jones, who originated the role of Marian Paroo on Broadway and who played the role in the classic movie, was playing Marian’s mother, Mrs. Paroo. Her real life son, Patrick Cassidy, was doing the role of Harold Hill.

At the end of this wonderful production, when all the bows had been taken, Ms. Jones took the microphone and shared memories of making the movie with actor Robert Preston. She then sang a brief duet with her son, to tumultuous applause. It was a real “wow” moment and brought down the house.

There were a lot of “wow’ moments in this rollicking, delightful production, directed by Glenn Casale. After the always wonderful opening number, of traveling salesmen on a train complaining about the swindler Harold Hill, who has ruined so many towns for them, the entire town of River City, Iowa, explodes onto the stage with “Iowa Stubborn.” Such a colorful, tightly knit production number with lots of fresh-faced earnest young people mixed in with all the adult characters.

There follow all the scenes in which Hill convinces the town it needs a boys’ band and collects the money for instruments, uniforms and instruction books, all with the knowledge that he will be long gone from the town before the parents discover they have been conned.

Cassidy is a suave Hill, who plays the role of a slick swindler with great panache. It is easy to understand why he has a girl in every town.

Jason Graae plays Hill’s old partner, Marcellus Washburn, now settling for respectability and a nice girlfriend, Ethel Toffelmier (Diane Vincent), but ready to join Hill in one last swindle. Graae shines in leading the town’s young people in the dance, “The Shipoopi.”

If I confess a guilty secret, Shirley Jones has always been the only Marian Paroo for me, all others paling in comparison. How fortunate, then, that Brandi Burkhardt is so wonderful that I easily accepted her in the role. With an amazing voice and a no-nonsense personality, she makes the perfect match for Cassidy’s Harold.
Jones herself, of course, is great as Marian’s mother, the widow Paroo. Loved her Irish accent and her duet with Marian was lovely.

Young Winthrop Paroo, Marian’s shy, lisping younger brother is played by Carter Thomas, who has a lengthy performing resume and is a member of actors’ Equity. He is simply wonderful. He takes command of the stage in “Wells Fargo Wagon,” and is adorable in “Gary, Indiana.” While perhaps a bit tall for a 10-year-old, it didn’t matter when he began to perform.

The feuding members of the town’s school board, Jacey Squires (J.D. Daw), Ewart Dunlop (Jack Doyle), Oliver Hix (Michael Dotson), and Olin Britt (Joseph Torello) are a wonderful hit as a barbershop quartet.
Music Circus favorite, Ron Wisniski is Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman, determined to bring Hill to justice once and for all and plays it to the hilt. (My favorite line: “anvils have a limited appeal.”)

The town’s first couple, Mayor and Mrs. Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn (Kevin Cooney and Paula Leggett Chase) are great characters and Mrs. Shinn’s Delsarte dance company is a delight.

“The Music Man” always makes me feel happy and, based on the filled theater last night, and the report that the show is almost completely sold out (though there are still a few tickets left), there are lots of others who agree with me. As productions go, this Music Circus production is one of the best.

 Patrick Cassidy and Shirley Jones