Wednesday, June 26, 2013


There is a band of feral cats hanging around the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center these days, but nobody at the Davis Musical Theater Company seems to mind because when they crawl, leap, and dance out onto the stage, the audience loves them.

With this production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats,” DMTC proves that not only can it act and sing, but by golly, those guys can dance!  While DMTC displayed great dancing by some members in its Elly award winning “Chicago,” in this production, directed by Steve Isaacson and choreograhed by Pamela Lourentzos, a cast of 25 dances.  And does it beautifully, starting with the jaw-dropping “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” and continuing throughout the show.

"Cats" was inspired by T.S. Eliot's 1939 collection of children's poems entitled "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats."  The songs are used primarily as a vehicle for introducing new cats and new musical numbers.  Those looking for an actual “plot” will be confused.  If there is any plot at all, it is the very slight mystery surrounding which cat Old Deuteronomy (Nathan Lacy), the leader of the cats, will choose to go to the “Heaviside Layer” to be reborn.

While the decision is being made, some 22 songs about cats will be sung, The music is engaging, and the cats are delightful.

Essential to the success of “Cats” are the costumes and makeup, transforming actors into cats.  Jean Henderson stresses that especially for this show she is the costume coordinator, not the costume designer, and thanks El Dorado Musical Theater and River City Theater Companies for loan of costumes.  Costume painting was done by Jennifer Nachmanoff with wigs by Amanda Walker and assistant Christina Gross.  Erika Wilson and her son did make-up workshops.

When it comes together the look is beautiful, with the exception of Old Deuteronomy, whose old cat costume made him look more like a Biblical prophet than a cat (but he’s supposed to, says Director Isaacson, pointing out his name.)

When he sheds his long old cat fur and becomes Gus, the theater cat, reminiscing about his years in the theater he displays a strong, booming voice and a poise that befits that of a beloved theater mascot.  (“His grandest creation as he loves to tell / Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell” has been an earworm in my head for days now!)

Andrea Eve Thorpe was an outstanding Grizzabella, the motheaten former glamour cat, who hopes to be chosen to go to the "Heaviside Layer.”  Her "Memory," the big hit from this show, was hauntingly beautiful.

Likewise Sarah Farkas as Munkustrap, Jenny Plasse as Bombalurina, and Ben Whitlatch as Bustopher Jones gave first rate performances.

Gabe Avila as Skimbleshanks, the cat on the railway train, gave a crisp performance that was a delight.

In all, the cats were so realistic I felt I had to come home and apologize to my dogs for fraternizing with the opposite species.

“Cats” may not be everybody’s saucer of milk.  Those who prefer a plot show may not enjoy it, but the musical numbers are so delightful, it’s difficult to imagine anybody not liking this production.  I found Act 2 more enjoyable than Act 1, as it gives up all pretense of any plot whatsoever and just presents several stand-alone numbers, each introducing a different cat.

Also kudos to the DMTC orchestra, which may have been the best I’ve heard–all instruments were heard and it was well balanced.

All things considered, a really good show to end DMTC’s 2012-2013 season!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Wizard of Oz

We’ve all been there at some point, in our imagination.

Somewhere over the rainbow, where there are brilliant colors, munchkins, Winkies, good and bad witches and a yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City. A place where all the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

Now, thanks to the first production of the Music Circus season, we can all go there, for real. Whether 7, 17 or 70 the current sparkling production will enchant everyone.

Directed by Glenn Casale, choreographed by Dana Solimando with musical direction by Jeff Rizzo, this version of the L. Frank Baum classic is a real winner.

Adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987 from the motion picture screenplay, “The Wizard of Oz” will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen the 1939 MGM musical, as the dialog and music follow closely (with some minor adjustments) the music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. ("Yip") Harburg.

In the 2003 version of this production, Music Circus paid homage to the original film by making the opening scenes black and white. All costumes were shades of grey or white, set pieces were grey. The only color on stage were the flesh tones of the actors Even the crullers which Auntie Em offered to the farm hands and the hot dog Dorothy’s dog Toto removed from the roasting stick of the traveling huckster, Professor Marvel, were grey. In this production, only Dorothy, her uncle and aunt are dressed in grey, while everyone else, the set, and that hot dog is are muted colors. It’s a design choice that makes no sense.

However, from the time Dorothy lands in Oz, her house flattening the Wicked Witch of the East, until she clicks her ruby slippered heels together and wishes herself back home again, all colors are vibrant and varied and all set pieces are bright and sparkling.

Making her Music Circus debit, Emily Walton is a winsome Dorothy, full of innocence and wonder. She doesn’t try to be Judy Garland, but she so comfortably inhabits the ruby slippers, she doesn’t have to.

Walton’s uncle, Jim Walton, plays the dual roles of the farmhand Hunk in Kansas and the Scarecrow in Oz. He and Emily work well together, and while he doesn’t quite have the boneless quality of Ray Bolger or even 2004′s John Bisom, still he makes a credible scarecrow and best friend to Dorothy.

Shannon Stoeke is Hickory the farmhand and also Oz’s Tin Man. He clanks his way effectively around the stage and is at his most endearing when he learns that the heart for which he has so long hoped is capable of breaking.
Farmhand Zeke and Cowardly Lion are played by Jamie Torcellini. He is perhaps the member of the cast who most does an imitation of the movie, and I must say that his Bert Lahr impression is wonderful, though Torcellini still adds enough of himself to make the role his own.

The best member of this little group of folks off to find the wizard sadly gets no program credit at all, other than a photo. Nigel the dog was perhaps the best Toto I have ever seen. Trained by Bill Berloni, this dog is so well-behaved on stage there were times I wondered if he were a stuffed animal, until he raised an ear or looked around at the audience or up at Dorothy.

When Heather Lee, as Glinda (she also plays Auntie Em) begins to sing to the Munchkins, if you had your eyes closed you might think you were hearing Billie Burke, the original Glinda.

Jacquelyn Piro Donovan scores high marks for her bicycle riding down the Music Circus ramp and onto the stage, and for frightening lots of children in the audience as the Wicked Witch of the West. I did miss the green skin-tone, so identified with the witch, though.

Bill Nolte is a bumbling old curmudgeon as Professor Marvel and later the Wizard of Oz himself.

Others in lesser roles were no less outstanding, such as Doug Carfrae as Uncle Henry and the Winkie General, Zonya Love as the Munchin coroner, tiny John B. Williford as the Mayor of Munchkin city, and Andrew Wilson as Nikko, the Commander of the Monkeys.

The principals are rounded out by a delicious assortment of Munchkins (members of the CMT junior company) trees, poppies, Ozians, optimistic voices and Winkies. There is also a troupe of eight Jitterbugs listed in the program for a number, cut from the original movie and cut, at the last minute, from this production as well.

Kudos to the technical crew who make bicycles, monkeys and broomsticks that fly, balloons that float into the stratosphere, a witch that melts into the floor, an overpowering wizard, a first-rate tornado, eye-blindingly speedy costume changes and a myriad scenery changes, all of which came off without noticeable hitch, the members of the crew were the unsung heroes of the night.

From start to finish this is a wonderful production, which, fortunately is having an extended run at the Wells Fargo Pavilion. Act quickly to get tickets now. Your children or grandchildren will love it — and so will you.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

As You Like It

Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” now presented by the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble at the charming UC Davis Arboretum Gazebo on Garrod Drive, is a strange play. Many times you want to hit the rewind button to try to figure out why things are happening, but you never do.

For example, why is Rosalind (Hayley Palmer) suddenly expelled from the palace of Duke Frederick (John Haine)? For that matter, why does Frederick suddenly decide to abdicate and return the throne to Duke Senior, his older brother? (Must be some powerful unseen holy man who convinces him to give it all up.)

However, unanswered questions aside, this is another enjoyable production by the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble, which always seems to prove that you can put on first-rate productions on a shoestring budget. This, the company’s fourth annual summer production, takes inspiration from Appalachian culture and music, with a band (Gia Battista, Richard Chowenhill, Adam Smith and Tony Dumas, who also jump into bit parts in the play) sounding for all the world like tracks off of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

(Those who would like to understand the lyrics would do well to check out the DSE’s YouTube site, because they are tuneful, but all but unintelligible in the Gazebo.)

Performances range from very good to outstanding. Casey Worthington cuts a dashing figure as Orlando, youngest son of the deceased Sir Roland de Bois, especially in his many classic poses designed to represent wrestling competitions in which he is competing. There is just something about this actor that strikes you as he walks on stage. He has an assurance and self-confidence that is compelling.

Orlando’s older brother Oliver is the menacing Jason Oler, whom I last saw as the playful Puck in Sacramento Theatre Company’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Whether playful or menacing, Oler always delivers, and does so in this production, as he plots the murder of his brother in a wrestling match.

New to DSE, Palmer tackles the meaty role of Rosalind, daughter of Duke Senior, living in the palace of Duke Frederick until her unexplained exile. She handles the role beautifully, flitting back and forth between the female Rosalind and the male persona Ganymede, which she adopts as she travels through the Forest of Arden.

Melanie Marshall, also last seen in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is outstanding as Rosalind’s cousin Celia, who ultimately finds herself in love with a reformed Oliver.

Playing both Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, Haine cuts a dashing, princely figure, though he had difficulty projecting enough to make himself consistently heard in the small Gazebo.

Sarah Cohen has made Shakespeare comic figures her forte and she does not disappoint as Touchstone in this production. She is always a commanding figure and is sure to draw the most humor from her roles.

Davis native son Matthew Edwards returns from a lengthy professional career to make his DSE debut as Jacques, Orlando’s older and Oliver’s younger brother in this production. If the program did not already identify him as the only member of Actors Equity in the cast, it would be impossible not to suspect. He is a figure that you cannot ignore and his performance is impeccable, though rather than overshadowing his fellow actors, he blends in beautifully.

In the role of Phoebe, Samia La Virgne makes an impression and is very funny in the love Gordian knot that develops among all the characters.

In his notes to a 2005 production of this play by Acme Theatre Company, director David Burmester wrote that “‘As You Like It’ is a play about love: physical and intellectual love, sentimental and cynical love, love at first sight, love between friends, love between relatives, imagined love, and deep, lasting love. It is the roles we are often forced to play, either by circumstance or by societal pressure.”

The Davis Shakespeare Ensemble, frolicking in often convoluted love relationships in the Arboretum, play those roles very well.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Les Miserables

There is an old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

It was with that in mind that I approached  Cameron Mackintosh’s “new and improved” 25th anniversary production of Boublil & Schonberg’s “Les Misérables,” the final show of California Musical Theatre’s Broadway series at the Sacramento Community Theater.

“Les Mis” has long been one of my favorite musicals and I was skeptical of any rewrites or changes. I need not have worried. The look is new (designed by Matt Kinley); the musical orchestrations (originally by John Cameron) have been updated by Christopher Jahnke; and certain plot elements have been tweaked by James Fenton. But the story is all there and the emotional punch may be even bigger for the changes.

The new look starts at the very beginning. Traditionally, during the prologue, prisoners march around a bleak yard in a circle while singing. In the new version, they are oarsmen on a ship and the activity makes more sense than the circling.

Kinley’s vision for the set uses pieces which, while large, never overpower the action. He mixes these with projections that effectively help indicate movement throughout the streets and sewers of Paris, and the death in Act 2 is a breathtaking effect.

Peter Lockeyer heads the exemplary cast as Jean Valjean, arrested for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s dying child, and released after 19 years. A bitter man, Valjean takes his anger out on a bishop who befriends him (James Zannelli), only to have the bishop change his life. Valjean resolves to devote the rest of his life to doing good for humanity. Lockeyer has some thrilling moments, from the defiant “Who Am I?” to the poignant “Bring Him Home.” He is simply stunning.

Those who suffered through the terribly ill-cast Russell Crowe in the 2012 movie version of this musical will receive their reward in the powerful performance of Andrew Varela as Inspector Javert, relentlessly obsessed with tracking down Valjean and bringing him back to prison. Varela dominates every scene in which he appears.

Genevieve LeClerc inspires in the brief, but memorable role of Fantine, the factory worker forced into prostitution to save the life of her child. With recent memorable versions of Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” by the likes of Susan Boyle and the movie’s Anne Hathaway, LeClerc still makes the song her own.

Valjean searches for Fantine’s daughter Cosette, being “cared for” by the Thernardiers, Timothy Gulan and wife Shawna M. Hamic. These two provide the comic relief for the show and play off each other nicely, deliciously grimy in Act 1 and clownish caricatures in Act 2.

Cosette and the Thernardiers’ little daughter Eponine are played by Ava Della Pietra and Erin Cearlock, who alternate in the roles. Della Pietra played Cosette on opening night, beautifully portraying the scared little girl, who has been exploited by the Thernardiers while their own daughter is pampered.

Briana Carlson-Goodman plays the grown-up Eponine, in love with Marius Pontmercy (Devin Ilaw), who considers her a friend, as he has fallen in love with Cosette (Julie Benko). Carlson-Goodman is heartbreaking as she walks the streets of Paris alone at night (“On My Own”). Ilaw impresses whenever he opens his mouth to sing. The “Heart Full of Love” trio by Marius, Cosette and Eponine is beautiful.

Enjolras, head of the rebelling students, is given a spirited performance by Jason Forbach, while Julian Silva as the spirited young Gavroche (a role he shares with Gaten Matarazzo) is a delight.

Marius’ “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” sung at the now deserted barricade, bemoaning the death of his friends, is a show highlight.

Backing all of these special performances is a large cast of factory workers, prostitutes, soldiers, rebels and townsfolk giving spine-tingling, rousing renditions of such songs as “One Day More” and the rousing finale, when all the spirits of the fallen unite on stage with the survivors to thunderous applause.

I suspect no fan of the show ever thought that “Les Misérables” needed a shot in the arm to improve it, but this new production brings a fresh approach that does not detract from, and rather improves on the original. It should be mentioned that this version is definitely R-rated with all the simulated sex being carried on by the prostitutes and their customers, but it is otherwise a not-to-be-missed production.