Friday, December 19, 2014

The Fantasticks

A small number of lucky people had the good fortune to attend the opening of “The Fantasticks” at Wyatt Pavilion on Friday night. 

This engaging production, with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt is directed by Kathryn Morison and features Elio Gutierrez as El Gallo, Giana Gambardella as Luisa, Matt Skinner as Matt, Roberto Aguilar as Luisa’s father Bellomy, and Jason Moscato as Matt’s father Hucklebee.  The traveling players are Matthew Benitez as Mortimer and David D’Olimpia as Henry. Edward Sukla is the Mute.

Music is listed as being provided by keyboardist Vuthithor “in” Chinthammit, who, not surprisingly, has no bio in the program.

“The Fantastics” is the world’s longest-running musical, having run an amazing 42 years, from 1960 to 2002 or 17,162 performances.  It re-opened off Broadway in 2006 and continues to run today.  It was awarded the Tony Honors for Excellence in Theater in 1991.   

This is a popular show for high schools, and community theater since the set is minimal and the cast is small, but that should in no way minimize the impact of the simple story of a boy and a girl being tricked into falling love by their fathers, falling out of love, going out into the world and returning home again after negative experiences.  They learn that if they want to find their hearts’ desire, they should look no further than their own back yard.

The small, intimate setting of the Wyatt Pavilion is perfect for this intimate show.

From the moment Elio Gutierrez makes his entrance as the narrator El Gallo (a role made famous by Jerry Orbach), singing the iconic “Try to Remember” and inviting the audience to use their imagination and follow him into a world of moonlight and magic. you know that you are in for something special. The charismatic Gutierrez is smooth and confident, with a sly hint of larceny about him from time to time. He dominates whenever he is on stage.

Gambardella is the innocent 16 year old Luisa, in her full-petticoated virginal dress designed by award winning Costume Designer Roxanne Femling.  Gambardella’s voice is beautiful as she sings about her dreams (dance till 2 o’clock, wear her hair unfastened, and to be the kind of girl who is kissed on the eyes).  She wants “Much More” out of life

Skinner’s Matt is a young man head over heels in love with the girl next door, whom he can only see over the unseen wall (mimed by Suela) the fathers built in a faux feud designed to make their children fall in love with each other, because the way to make children do what you want them to do is to tell them “no.”

Moscato and Aguilar give engaging performances as the two scheming fathers, eager for their children to be married to each other.

When the fathers decide it’s time for the young people to fall in love, Hucklebee tells Bellomy of his plan to end the feud by having Luisa "kidnapped" by a professional so that Matt can "rescue" her and appear heroic.

Things don’t quite go as planned, however. They meet with El Gallo, who is to arrange for an abduction.  Discussion is made about what kind of abduction the fathers want. The fathers decide not to stint themselves, but do it well and settle on a “first class rape.” 

D’Olimpia and Benitez  as, respectively, ancient ham actor Henry and hangdog death-scene specialist Mortimer, hired as the would-be abductors, capture the audience with their antics.

Matt foils the abduction attempts, but exposure of the plot changes the relationship between Luisa and Matt and each decides to leave home and go out into the world, separately, to seek their heart’s desire.  Returning later, dejected and emotionally injured, the children realize that everything they wanted was each other, only now they understand it more deeply.

This is a delightful production that deserves a wider audience than it got on opening night.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn

There is a moment in theater that I just love. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s magical. It’s that moment when the actor on stage has so engaged the audience and they are giving him or her such rapt attention that you can almost feel the silence.

Most of the time you hear people moving in their seats or other soft, unobtrusive noise. But in the magical moment, you can literally hear a pin drop.

I heard that moment several times at the opening-night performance of the world premiere of “Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn” by Rick Foster, now at the Sacramento Theatre Company, under the direction of Peter Sander.

Janis Stevens so embodies the character of Katharine, and gets more and more inside her as the play progresses, that by the last quarter, there is no longer any doubt about who is sitting on that stage talking to you.

It’s all Mitch Agruss’ fault.

The Grand Old Man of Sacramento Theater (whom some may remember from his television days as “Captain Mitch”) was watching a Katharine Hepburn interview a while back, when it hit him that Hepburn would make a great character for his friend Janis Stevens, who already had won critical acclaim for her one-woman shows such as “Vivien” (about Vivien Leigh) and “Master Class” (about Maria Callas).

So he contacted their friend, playwright Rick Foster (who had written “Vivien”), with his idea. Stevens was intrigued, Foster did some research on Hepburn, and now it has come to life on STC’s Pollock Stage.

The time is New Year’s Eve, 1999, and the setting is a bleak attic, where Katharine, age 92, sits in a wheelchair and begins speaking with the audience. She explains that she entered the “undiscovered country” of old age at age 90 and now, at 92, she’s trying to create a map for how the rest of her life should go.

Joining Stevens is Marty Parker in the small role of the long-suffering Mr. Rotterdam, a non-speaking role, but he is there to help Miss Hepburn and to be bossed around by her. Playwright Foster says we don’t know if he is a stage hand or a personal assistant or something else, but it is up to the audience to decide for themselves who he is.

As she begins her soliloquy, Katharine reflects on her family, who she assures us were perfect (though she also remarks sadly, several times, that she never made her mother proud and that her mother never saw any of her movies).

The Hepburns were the stiff-upper-lip New Englanders who were so detached from their feelings that after their oldest son Tom took his life when Katharine was 13 (she found the body), his name was never spoken in the family again, after his funeral. In fact, Katharine took Tom’s birthdate, Nov. 8 (coincidentally the date this play premiered, and the birthdate of Janis Stevens!) as her own for many years as a tribute to her brother, who still haunts her 92-year-old self.

She shares with the audiences her various romances with Howard Hughes (“yes, that one,” she says, coyly) and others, but saves her heartfelt feelings for Spencer Tracy, with whom she spent 27 years (and then would not attend his funeral out of respect for his wife). The ache of his loss is still visible on her face when she discusses him.

We get a picture of a surprisingly insecure Katharine, who pushed herself to step outside the box. She was the first artist to buy a property (“The Philadelphia Story”) for herself and go head-to-head with the studio bosses and not only win their battles, but an Oscar to boot.

The performance of Janis Stevens in this role is one you will long remember. She exudes Hepburn’s indomitable spirit without trying to become a caricature. She doesn’t just play Hepburn, she is Hepburn.

Treat yourself to this once-in-a-lifetime performance. You won’t be sorry.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

My Fair Lady

They could have danced all night. 

Under the capable hands of choreographer Ron Cisneros, the cast of Davis Musical Theater Company’s production of “My Fair Lady” danced around Covent Garden, the Ascot Races, and an Embassy ball, and they got Alfred P. Doolittle to the church on time.

Directed by Steve Isaacson, this production brought the DMTC faithful to their feet with a standing ovation at the end of the show.

This is a show that has a special place in Isaacson’s heart because it was his first memory of music.  He remembers the iconic album cover of Al Herschfeld’s drawing of George Bernard Shaw as God manipulating the puppet strings of Rex Harrison, manipulating the puppet strings of Julie Andrews.  “For years I thought God looked like George Bernard Shaw,” he says.

Isaacson’s love of this Lerner and Lowe musical is apparent in every scene.

It had been Jori Gonzales’ dream to play Eliza and her dream comes to life as she dons the rags of the flower girl Eliza, later struggling to learn her vowels, and finally making a triumphant appearance at an Embassy ball, ultimately finding her voice and pride in herself as a woman. Gonzales has a beautiful voice and one loves to float along on her high notes.

John Haine takes a little adjusting to as Henry Higgins, but once one realize he is only going to use a barely perceptible British accent and can concentrate just on his performance, he does a beautiful job. Better no accent than a bad accent.  This Higgins has little concern for the rules of social conduct, cares little for his appearance (rumpled, ill-fitting trousers), and treats everyone badly, but his fun side comes out in the classic “I could have danced all night” and his petulant confrontations with his mother (the always delightful Dannette Vassar).

Richard Kleeberg is Higgins’ sidekick, Col Hugh Pickering, without whom Eliza might never have consented to subject herself to Higgins’ relentless elocution lessons.  Kleeberg is a blustery Pickering, with Arthur Sullivan-like mutton chops.  But he is the eternal gentleman, who (almost) always treats Eliza with dignity and respect.

Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, the dustman who is not above selling his daughter to Higgins–but not for too much money, because too much would change his life, is given a royal treatment by the marvelous Brian McCann. McCann is always a delight to watch on stage and he does not disappoint in this production.

Scott Scholes is the lovesick Freddy Eynsford-Hill, so enamored of Eliza that he prefers to spend all of his time “on the street where she lives.” Scholes brings a clueless innocence to the role and a tenor voice that is outstanding.

Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce is given a fine performance by Catrina Ellis.  Mrs. Pearce is critical of much of what Higgins does, but she is a loyal employee and follows his directions to the letter.

“My Fair Lady” must be a costumer’s dream (and nightmare!), with all those elegant gowns for the ball, fun costumes for the dustmen of Covent Garden and the spectacular black and white costumes for the Ascot races.  Jean Henderson does a wonderful job with this show and Ascot, in particular, is memorable.  Eliza’s white gown and red coat for the Embassy ball are dazzling.

Isaacson also designed the sets, which are utilitarian, though not outstanding.  Higgins’ study, with its elevated “library” is quite nice and the steps entering the ball look steep enough that one is glad there is a bannister for the women in high heels to hold onto!

“My Fair Lady” is a classic piece of American musical theater and DMTC has served it up in good shape for the Davis audiences.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Miracle Worker

I will admit to having some concerns when I learned that Emily Jo Seminoff was going to be playing Helen Keller in the Woodland Opera House production of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker.”  I have watched Ms. Seminoff move from talented child actor into adult roles and I wondered if she could pull off the role of the young Keller child.

I need not have worried.  This talented young lady made the role her own and her age and height were irrelevant  She was Helen Keller.

Every bit her equal in the role of Annie Sullivan, the young woman hired to teach Helen, was Patricia Glass, whom Opera House faithful may remember as Miss Tweed in the recent “Something’s Afoot.” Glass’s Annie is full of spunk and fire and, despite her inexperience, is willing to fight for her pupil. She is passionate about giving Helen every chance to fulfill her potential, despite her handicaps.

(I once had a friend who was blind and deaf and who insisted she was not “disabled,” but merely “handicapped, like in golf.”)

The intense battle scenes between Helen and Annie, as the latter attempts to teach her pupil manners and to try to get her to understand the concept of “words” were wonderful and must have left both actresses exhausted.

A scene in the Keller dining room in particular, which ends act 1, owes much of its effectiveness to set designer John Bowles, who has created such a solid set that bodies falling against walls or doors or knocking over tables and chairs works so well that nobody so much as shakes and the furniture withstands the abuse it takes.

The whole set by Bowles is a marvel, on that small opera house stage, since it is designed on several levels, including an upstairs bedroom, and a downstairs area later used as a detached cottage where Annie and Helen spend 2 weeks alone together.  While things are cramped, they still all work wonderfully.

The supporting cast all handle themselves well.  Richard Lui as Captain Keller, who loves his daughter, but, along with the rest of the family, makes too many allowances for her bad behavior, which undermines Annie’s work with the child. He is frustrated that Annie doesn’t have her under control in a matter of an hour or two on her first day.

Sara Wieringa gives a lovely performance as Helen’s mother Kate, whose love for her daughter is palpable, even as she fears some guilt over Helen’s condition.  She vacillates between wanting to support Annie, but hating to see Helen suffer under Annie’s stern hand.

Anthony Raddigan makes a striking, sardonic James, the only person  in the family who sees that Annie’s approach to the girl is vital to her progress.

In smaller roles are Emily Delk as Aunt Ev, Melissa Dahlberg as the maid, Viney, and Belle, a specially trained and certified Assistance Dog from Canine Companions for Independence , who plays Helen’s dog Lacey, and handles herself very professionally on stage.

The audience is taken on such a roller coaster of emotions in this production, directed by Dean Shellenberger, that when Helen finally “gets” the notion that things have words and words have meaning, there was a lot of sniffling and wiping of eyes in the audience.

Annie Sullivan went on to live with Helen Keller until her (Annie’s) death in 1936.  Helen’s list of accomplishments as an author, lecturer (she eventually learned how to speak), and political activist is impressive.  She was one of the founders of the ACLU, campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, and birth control. She died in 1968 and was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971.

One wonders what might have happened to that blind, deaf, out of control little girl if there had not been an Annie Sullivan in her life.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The Sacramento Theatre Company, the oldest professional theater company in Sacramento, has chosen the Steinbeck classic to open its 70th season, a season dedicated to “Legends, Epics and Icons.”

STC gives us a powerful production, with all of the emotion of the original book, thanks to a talented cast and the original period-style music of Sam Misner and Megan Pearl Smith of Davis, who also appear as several characters throughout the show.

The adaptation of Steinbeck’s story is by Frank Galati; it won a Tony Award for best play of 1990.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is an epic tale of one family’s enduring spirit in the face of incredible hardship. Set during the Great Depression, the play follows the Joads, a family of tenant farmers who are driven from their Oklahoma home to California due to drought, economic hardship and agricultural changes incited by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Was there ever a more perfect time for the revival of this story? The climatic change was the yearly dust storms that rolled across The Plains, killing off crops and making the soil uncultivatable; the migrant workers of the 1930s were “Okies,”coming from Oklahoma to California on the promise of farming work, as welcome then as are today’s Mexican migrant workers; and haven’t there always been heartless bankers ready to foreclose on a family’s mortgage in order to line their own pockets?

Kirk Blackinton is Tom Joad (the Henry Fonda role in the 1940 movie), recently released from prison after killing a man in self-defense, and returning home to find that his family homestead is abandoned. With the house slated for demolition by the mortgage holder, the family has packed up and decided to move to California, where they have hopes of jobs and better living conditions.

As the play progresses, Tom, a good man, who at first just wanted to reunite with his family and resume his life, becomes more and more filled with rage as he and his family are beaten down by a system that seems to target the poor for extra punishment. There are messages here for the revolutions we see around the world today.

En route home, Tom meets Jim Casy (Kurt Johnson), a preacher who has lost his faith and now is a wanderer, getting help where he can. Casy becomes the moral voice of the piece, Johnson giving a flawless and riveting performance.

Heading up the Joad family are Matt K. Miller as Pa Joad and Laura Kaya as Ma Joad. Miller’s character is stoic and subdued while Kaya’s character is the heart of the piece, fighting for her children and hanging on to the belief that if they just work hard enough, things will be better.

Granma Joad is played by Vada Russell as a crusty old woman, devoted to her ailing husband (Phillip Ryder). Ryder later appears as the mayor of Hooverville.

Alissa Doyle is “Rose of Sharon,” the newly married, newly pregnant young daughter, who endures more tragedy than most people many years older, with the desertion of her husband and the death of her baby. In the end it is she who brings a semblance of hope to everyone. It is a delicate and lovely performance.

Misner and Smith each take several roles, including adding music to the piece. Misner is particularly moving as the “Man going back,” giving up on the promises of a better life in California.

Smith gives a marvelous performance as a 1930s version of a born-again Christian. She also appears as other anonymous members of various groups that the Joads meet along their journey.

The young Joad children are from the STC Young People’s Company, each role double-cast. Opening-night performances were by Owen Larson (alternating with Elliott Thomas West) as Winfield Joad and AJ Welker (alternating with Haley Finerman) as Ruthie Joad.

Likewise, Arcadia German alternates with Sydney Christoffersen in three other roles.

We really want things to improve for the Joad family, for something promised to actually come to pass, but it never does. However, the important thing is the family love and loyalty that binds them and their indomitable pride and dignity, which appear unsquashable.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hello, Dolly

Well, hello, Dolly.  It’s so nice to have you back in town!

Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi (Lisa Quoresimo), the lady who “arranges things” (like furniture and daffodils...and lives) has marched onto the stage of the Woodland Opera House and taken possession.

This production of the Jerry Herman/Michael Stewart musical based on the book by Thornton Wilder was directed by Cheryl Watson, with choreography by Staci Arriaga. Quoresimo gives Dolly energy and heart as she sets her cap for the curmudgeonly “half-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (Steve Mackay) and in the process manages to pair up a few other couples as well.

Dolly is coming back to life after a period of widowhood and is searching for a “sign” from her previous husband Ephram that it’s OK to marry again.

Mackay is a low key misogynist who appears to want a replacement for his deceased wife only as someone who can clean the house. (“It takes a woman all powdered and pink / To joyously clean out the drain in the sink”)

At the same time he is determined to prevent his niece Ermengarde (Devon Hayakawa) from marrying the love of her life, Ambrose Kemper (Cameron Turner) because he feels the young artist will not be able to provide a steady living and that Ermengarde is too immature to be married.

Hayakawa’s character has very little to actually speak, but she whines beautifully.  I have been impressed with Hayakawa whenever I’ve seen her on stage and she does not disappoint in this role which is perfect for her.

Vandergelder owns a hay and feed store and his two employees are chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Eddie Voyce) and Barnaby Tucker (J. Hunter LaMar). Both are excellent, especially Voyce, who commands the stage whenever he is on it. 

The two men, who have never left Yonkers, decide to blow up some tomato cans in the basement of Vandergelder’s store to make it uninhabitable for a day, and go off on an adventure in New York, while their boss is marching in the Fourteenth Street Association Parade.  The thirty-three year old Cornelius vows not to come home again until he’s kissed a girl.

“The girl” turns out to be Miss Irene Molloy (Dani Barnett) who runs a millenary shop with her clerk, Minnie Fay (Emily O’Flaherty).  The women, convinced Cornelius and Barnaby are eccentric millionaires, spend the day with them. O’Flaherty, a 9th grader at Emerson Junior High, nicely balances a giggily young girl with a more mature woman in her performance.  I would not have guessed that she was so young.

Mollie Smith is perfectly cast as Ernestina Money, the girl in the bizarre outfit, hired by Dolly to annoy Vandergelder and set him up for her own eventual conquest.

Most of Act 2 takes place at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, “the fanciest place in New York.”  The choreography for the waiters has always been one of the most memorable parts of “Hello Dolly” and this production is no exception. Head waiter Rudolph (Spencer Alexander) prepares his service crew for Dolly Levi's return: their usual lightning service, he tells them, must be "twice as lightning". The waiters in this production are up to the challenge and the “Waiters’ Gallop” is something to behold.

Dolly makes her entrance to the title song resplendent in a gorgeous sequined red gown.  Kudos to costume designer Denise Miles.

The orchestra does well, under the capable hand of James Glica-Hernandez, and congratulations to the program people for getting (almost) all of their names in the program.  (Sorry, strings!)

By now, “Hello, Dolly” is a beloved old war horse that is a sure fire audience pleaser, and the Woodland Opera House gives her all the respect that she deserves.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


 The Davis Musical Theater Company has opened a lively, splashy, thoroughly enjoyable production of “Shrek, The Musical,” directed by Steve Isaacson and with choreography by Ron Cisneros. This is a show that is sure to be a hit with audiences of all ages. In fact, the full house on opening night was a nice mixture of children, parents and older adults, all laughing and applauding enthusiastically.

Based on William Steig’s book “Shrek!” and the DreamWorks animated film, this is the story of everybody’s favorite ogre, with the message that everyone is worthy of true love. It is filled with familiar nursery-rhyme characters, double entendres, great costumes, fun dance numbers, and more belch and fart jokes than I’ve ever seen in one show before.

This is not an instant stage classic that we will be seeing again for decades, nor does it have memorable music (except for the closing number, Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer”). But for what it is, it delivers.

Essential to the success of any production of “Shrek” is an actor who can convincingly become the title character. DMTC is blessed with the talented Kevin Caravalho, who is so convincing you’re surprised to discover there is a real man under all that padding and green make up. I would be hard-pressed to think of any actor who could do better with this role. This production is worth seeing if only for Caravalho’s performance.

Fortunately, Caravalho is backed up by a host of equally talented performers. There is hardly a weak link in the massive cast. Shrek’s sidekick is Donkey, played for all the broad comedy the role requires by David Ewey, despite some costume problems opening night (it’s hard to hold your ears on straight when you have hooves, not hands, to work with!) Despite the costume malfunction, Ewey was consistently funny, worming his way into curmudgeonly Shrek’s heart, whether the ogre thinks he wants a friend or not.

Travis Nagler is the diminutive Lord Farquaad, scheming to make Princess Fiona his bride so he can become king and steal her kingdom. The actor does well playing the role on his knees, with fake legs dangling in front of him. He is even able to dance.

Jessica McKillican plays an enthusiastic Fiona, thrilled to be released from the prison where she has spent her entire childhood, confused about who Shrek really is, but eager to meet her intended husband to be … and also hoping to keep her own secret hidden. No shrinking violet, this heroine is equal to Shrek in every way.
Lizzie Carey and Mia Piazza play Fiona at young and teen ages and the transition from one age to the next is done flawlessly.

Jonathan Kalinen is very funny as Pinocchio and his growing nose was hilarious. My only problem with him is that his high pitched voice sometimes made it difficult to understand him.

This is also a three-generation production, with Mary Young playing several roles, including Mama Shrek, who sends her young son off to live on his own. Daughter Wendy Carey Young is Gingy, the Gingerbread man, and Lizzie Carey is Wendy’s daughter and Mary’s granddaughter

There are some outstanding dance numbers in this production, particularly by the Duloc Dancers in incredible costumes rented from the Theatre Companyof Upland. 

Fiona also does a wonderful dance number with the Pied Piper, played by Tomas Eredia, and his rats.

The marvelous dragon (her name is Donisha, Director Isaacson tells me), was designed and built by River City Theatre Company and lent to DMTC by Granite Bay High School. She swoops and flies and turns in circles on stage and is amazingly believable.

This is another winner from DMTC and should be popular with everyone. Kids in particular will love the bright costumes and the chance to see a “real” dragon. By the end of the show, everyone will want to give the lovable ogre a big hug.

Monday, September 15, 2014


What does it mean to “hear”?

Can you hear if you are deaf, by understanding the world around you through lip-reading or sign language? Can you be deaf to those loudly speaking around you, though your hearing is just fine? Can you hear with your eyes, reading what others are signing?

These are some of the questions explored by playwright Nina Raine in her powerful play, “Tribes,” now at Capital Stage in Sacramento, under the direction of Jonathan Williams.

It is the story of a dysfunctional Jewish British family, headed by parents Christopher (Lol Levy), a retired academic, and Beth (Jamie Jones), a wannabe writer. Their grown children are , Daniel (Benjamin T. Ismail), who is writing a thesis arguing that language doesn’t determine meaning; Ruth (Elizabeth Holzman), an aspiring opera singer; and Billy (Stephen Drabicki), just home from university.

Sylvia (Brittni Barger) is the woman who enters their lives and turns long-held perceptions on their head.

As the play begins, the family is seated at the table, engaged in an argument. There are actually several arguments going on, each seemingly nastier than the next.r whines continually that he can’t find any good nuts in the nut dish, while Daniel is upset because Ruth is dating a man nearly her father’s age. Daniel is also upset that all of his grown children are still living at home with their parents and repeatedly asks when they are going to move out.

Daniel whines continually that he can’t find any good nuts in the nut dish, while Christopher is upset because Ruth is dating a man nearly her father’s age. Christopher is also upset that all of his grown children are still living at home with their parents and repeatedly asks when they are going to move out.

The F-word is sprinkled liberally throughout the play.

Through all the cacophony of the arguments, Billy sits calmly, reading, his back to the audience. Through dialog of the others, we learn that Billy is deaf, but he is proficient at lip-reading. In fact, we learn later, he knows nothing of sign language, because his parents didn’t want to raise him to be handicapped.

This becomes a major theme of the play when Sylvia, who is losing her hearing, enters the picture and attempts to teach him how to sign. Billy begins to realize that life can be lonely and frustrating when he has to rely on lip-reading, but that his social life opens up significantly when he becomes part of the signing community.

The actor playing Billy is crucial to the emotional arc of this play and Drabicki, who played the role in the Canadian premiere of the play, is perfect. A hearing-impaired actor himself, and member of the New York Deaf Theater and the Association of Musicians with Hearing Loss, he embraces the conflicting emotions of a deaf man living in a hearing world and the complicated relationships within his own family.

I found that I wondered how difficult it must be to learn to speak with a British accent when one is hearing-impaired.

Barger, as Sylvia, beautifully conveys the strain she is under, as the child of deaf parents who is now, in her adulthood, losing her own hearing. She becomes the translator for both the hearing and deaf members of the family.

As Billy moves deeper and deeper into the signing world, this production adopts a beautiful artistic quality, as the words that are projected on the wall to translate for non-signers in the audience have an almost choreographed quality to them.

Other members of the cast are equally strong, with Ismael’s Daniel outstanding as he fights the voices in his own head and displays his own mental problems, though his love for his brother is painfully apparent.

One scene particularly displays the worlds in which each brother is living, when Christopher turns on the radio to help drown out the voices in his head and Billy begs him to turn it off because it causes buzzing in his ear through his hearing aids.

Director Williams has molded a complex family whose emotions, whether they are loving or angry, are over the top and which shows each member in his or her own little tribe, keeping the others out.

By the end of the play, we might all be questioning how we relate to others, and whether we are really communicating as clearly as we think we are.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Ladies Foursome

Everyone has secrets. That seems to be the takeaway message from the very funny Norm Foster play “The Ladies Foursome,” now making its American premiere at the B Street Theatre, under the direction of David Pierini.

Foster is Canada’s most-produced playwright, with B Street staging several of his plays for American audiences. He has had more than 40 plays produced on professional stages and has been compared to American playwright Neil Simon. He is a master of writing everyday dialog and finding the meat of very simple situations, like friends meeting for a round of golf.

The current production is not a female version of Foster’s “The Foursome” — which also premiered at B Street — but it did inspire the current comedy, following four women as they navigate the ups and downs of life on the links.

Three friends meet for a memorial 18-hole round of golf in honor of their friend, from whose funeral they have just come. Catherine died suddenly of a freak accident. The four women have played golf together every week for the past 14 years and believe this is the perfect way to honor her memory.

Margot (Amy Kelly) is a successful businesswoman, a workaholic whose dedication to her business has lost her both her husband and her daughter. She’s the down-to-earth, practical one who tells it like it is. She really hates golf, “but where else can you drink this early in the morning and people think it’s normal?”

Tate (Tara Sissom) is a stay-at-home mom of three, locked in an unhappy marriage to a physician. Her hormones are raging, but her sex life leaves a lot to be desired. Tate has unfulfilled dreams and fears she may have “frittered away her life.” She is the most empathetic of the group. It is she who thinks that “something” should be said before they tee off, and then wonders if it’s going to be religious and if that means she should remove her visor.

Connie (Melinda Parrett) is a popular local news anchorwoman who has no lack of sex in her life. She’s tall and beautiful and knows it. She’ll flirt with anyone, anywhere, and throughout the game we learn a lot about her sexploits, yet she never discusses her big secret.

For this memorial round they are joined by Dory (Shannon Mahoney), another of Catherine’s friends, a stranger to the other three, but someone who apparently has known the deceased quite well, as Catherine spent two weeks each year in the wilderness at the Lake Arrowhead Inn run by Dory and her husband.

As they play through each hole (great kudos to the sound effects person!) they discuss life, love, men, sex and careers. They even discuss religion “God’s a man. The Bible says He rested on the seventh day. A woman wouldn’t rest on the seventh day. She’d say ‘I need to reorganize that closet.’ ”

Dory’s relationship with Catherine (whom she calls Cathy, though the other women thought their friend hated to be called Cathy) was quite different from the other three and she seems to know a lot about her that the others never realized.

There are a lot of laughs in this tightly written, fast-paced comedy, and tucked among the laughs are secrets that will be revealed before the end of the play. There is a dark side to the comedy, which gives the play its depth.

The strongest character in the play is Catherine herself, the relationship each of the women had with her, and the effect she had on their lives.

This is a delightful play that will have audiences laughing heartily and perhaps fighting back a tear or two as well.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

DMTC at 30

Things are busy at the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center as the Davis Musical Theater company prepares for its 30th Anniversary Gala, to be held on Saturday, August 23 at 6:30 p.m.

“Last night we had a Young Performer’s Theater committee meeting in the women’s dressing room, the cast of “Shrek” was rehearsing the big tap number on stage, and in the lobby, singers were rehearsing for the Gala,” laughed Jan Isaacson, who added that set building and painting for the upcoming production of “Shrek” were also taking place on the dock in the afternoon.

The gala anniversary evening, at only $15 per ticket, will include hors d’oeuvres and a light dinner catered by Symposium Restaurant, followed by an evening of musical theater songs and highlights from dozens of productions that have been offered by DMTC over the years.

“I found people who performed from the beginning of the company,” says Jan, “so it will start off with ‘Oklahoma’ in 1987. Joe Anthony is coming back to perform ‘Oh what a Beautiful Morning.’ I picked selected songs from different decades. Mary Young is going to do ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ from ‘Gypsy.’ Jay Joseph lives in Las Vegas and he’s coming back to sing ‘Buddy’s Blues’ from ‘Follies.’ The pièce de resistance of the evening is going to be Ben Bruening’s half hour movie tracing our history from the very beginning to now.”

Mayor Dan Wolk, a long time supporter of DMTC will present a proclamation congratulating DMTC on its 30th anniversary and thanking the company for its commitment in making performing arts accessible for all in the Davis, California region.

"I am so delighted about presenting this proclamation to Jan and Steve Isaacson and DMTC. As someone who is an alum of DMTC, has been a performer in a number of musicals, and who recognizes the importance and joy of community theater, this celebration has particular meaning to me,” Mayor Wolk said.

Bob Bowen, Promotions Manger for the City of Davis. laughs ''If someone had told me, back in 1984, that DMTC would be around for 30 years, I'd have thought their gaffer's tape was wound too tightly, Having produced my fair share of theater, I know how demanding and stressful it is to raise money and produce theater in Davis. For DMTC to produce a series of adult and children's shows - every year, and for more than a quarter of a century - is a testament to the their passion and energy for theater."

Statistics show that many community theaters which get off the ground and achieve some sort of success generally begin to peter out around 30. The founding members start to get older and can’t do what they did 30 years before, the younger members don’t have the dedication. Ultimately they call it quits, throw a big party to celebrate a long and productive life.

At 30, the Davis Musical Theater is just hitting its stride. Last year their house was amazingly 91% full and they expect to equal or surpass that this year. The company appears to be healthier than ever with exciting plans for the future.

DMTC produces six Main Stage musicals and five Young Performers Theater musicals annually. That’s more than one hundred performances on the DMTC stage each year. What keeps things so vibrant and alive?

“There’s a real sense of family about the group,” says actress Dannette Vasser, who joined in 1997. “There’s not the backstage drama that you sometimes find in other theater groups. It’s a very comfortable place to be. Everybody gets along and a lot of that is due to the atmosphere Jan and Steve foster. They’ve created this to be a family place, where all different members of the community can work together to put on a show.”

“I consider DMTC my musical theater home,” says Mary Young, who has been with the company since she followed choreographer Ron Cisneros to Davis and performed Lady Thiang in the company’s second show, “The King and I.”.

Mary, who lives in Roseville, never thought she would ever drive to Davis to perform but once she started she “just never stopped.” “It has a lot to do with Jan and Steve. They are such good human beings,” she said. “I had a really bad car accident a few years ago and Steve just put me in the next show. Didn’t make me audition. It was my road to recovery. Physical therapy, mental therapy. What better place to go and just play.” Young will be performing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from "Gypsy" at the anniversary show.

Young’s daughter Wendy was in the fourth grade when her mother joined the company, and she literally grew up with DMTC. “She was one of the children in 'King and I,'” Young said, “and I remember washing black hair dye out of her blond hair.”

Young has had an opportunity to perform with not only her daughter but also her grandchildren on the DMTC stage. In fact, the upcoming “Shrek” will feature 3 generations of Youngs. “I haven’t been able to perform with all three of my grandchildren,” she says, “But it’s on my bucket list.”

She remembers when DMTC moved from the Veterans' Memorial Theater into a small theater they built in the Davis Commerce Park on Second Street, near Sudwerk ... and being escorted out to the Port A Potties during evening rehearsals.

People who started at the Second Street theater were like “the survivors, ” laughed Marguerite Morris, who joined DMTC out of high school in 1985 at age 19 to play Hodel in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

That was the show, Steve remembers, where Pat Piper bought the very first DMTC season ticket (she would later become DMTC’s first lifetime season ticket holder.)

Morrison remembers the difficulties working in that small theater and the company’s eventual move downtown to the Varsity theater.

The landlord of the Second Street facility eventually raised the rent so high that DMTC had to think about finding a new place to perform. Bob Bowen, who met Jan and Steve while all were in the Davis Players, proved a valuable friend.

'When they built their first theater in rented space over on Second Street, I got involved. I also got involved when they approached the city for a loan.

'Since DMTC still owed money on that loan, we negotiated a deal for them to use the newly renovated Varsity Theater, beginning in January 1993, so they would remain viable. I acted as their Varsity landlord until the Davis City Council changed the Varsity back into an art film theater.'

“One of the things that makes me want to do shows there is the people,” said Morris. “ I’ve made excellent long term friendships there. It’s a family.” Morris herself will be singing the Mother Abbess' "Climb Every Mountain" from "The Sound of Music" at the gala performance, one of her favorite roles.

Morris’ daughter Rachel performed in 8 shows, when she was 9-11. “There is always a tight knit group of kids as well as adults. There’s no real age barrier. A lot of the older kids take younger kids under their wing and show them the ropes.”

John Ewing, who joined as an actor in the late 1980 and moved on to become a designer and director and member of the Board of Directors, has a slightly different take on why he has stuck around. “One thing I like about DMTC is they’ve always been really great about being open to anybody, they always had open auditions. I get a real thrill out of taking something from nothing and creating a show for an audience. The great thing about the way DMTC does their shows is that so many ordinary people, not necessarily pursuing theater as a career, have the opportunity to experience it. You can’t get that anywhere else.”

Ewing points out that people come and people go, but he most values the ones who have stuck around, people like Lenore and Gil Sebastian, who were in the very first show Ewing did and are still around.

“I’m excited about Saturday’s Gala, that people who performed years and years ago have been invited back to perform again.”

As the company has grown, the expertise of the Young Performer’s Theater (started as “DMTC’s Children’s Theater” in 1987) both in its performers and its parents has grown and become an essential part of the DMTC family.

Jen Nachmanoff is a mom who came to DMTC because her daughter Sophia wanted to perform.”I’m a ceramic artist and have learned how to paint here at the theater, so I’m now a painter too. I didn’t know how to paint before I came here, but I’ve learned on the job. So I help with the scenic artistry. We find out we can do things we never knew we could do.”

Jen oversees the decorative tiles on the wall (continuing the work begun by Jeni Price). She helps families create tiles and has been overseeing the design and firing. I’ve only been here three years, but it feels like forever. It’s the volunteers who make DMTC.”

Children in the Young Performer’s Theater learn all aspects of theater, not just performing, and kids as young as 10 now run the light board for main stage shows. “They’re focused, they’re mature, they know what they’re doing. The kids who run the light board are phenomenal,” said Steve proudly.

Lighting is a big part of every production, and an aspect which the audience, for the most part, is unaware. Someone told me once that if the audience doesn’t notice the lights, the lighting designer has done her work well.

On October 18, 1985, when DMTC opened its first show at the “Old Theater,” which had no walls, insulation, heating or air, Steve remembers chaos on opening night, when Diane Wershing was running the lights. There had been no time for lighting rehearsal.

“I remember going to the theater for opening night and HOPING that they had hung lights,” Wershing said, “Luckily, it was a show that I knew inside and out, so as long as someone was going to hang the lights and hook up something for me to control them with, I figured I could wing it. I was hoping beyond hope that there was something for me to work with, and lo and behold there was. A little 6-dimmer board that I could hold in my lap in the back row of the audience. I ran the lights from there.”

More recently, in the final performance of “South Pacific,” the 10 year old light board just died. Light board operator Mia Piazza turned on the board and there was no response. They were faced with having to cancel a show that was sold out. But they were able to turn on the house lights and the work lights, and Steve went out to face the audience. “This was going to test how good a salesman I am. I explained that our light board died and someone in the audience cried out ‘the show must go on!’ We did the whole show with just the work lights on and the house lights on. When we finished a scene and we’d cry out ‘scene!” It was like a recital. The audience loved it!”

One thing that separates DMTC from many theater companies is it has been and remains an all-volunteer organization, and everyone works on everything. Actors know when they audition that they will be expected to help build sets or help in some other way.

“Except for the piano player we’re still all volunteer,” said Jan proudly. “We have the best volunteers around. People love it here. They’re here because they want to be here. It’s not a paid job. I always say we must be doing something right.”

They even have a complete all-volunteer orchestra. Nikki Nicola and Pam Thompson both get all the musicians. “We had 26 for ‘Les Miserables,’” Jan pointed out proudly. “We never have to worry about the orchestra. Ever. People ask ‘how do you get your musicians to volunteer.’ I tell them they all get a free cookie and a drink at intermission. The ushers go down, take the orchestra order before the show gets started, at intermission they bring it down there. They love not having to get dressed up.”

Steve adds, “Other music directors ask ‘how do you get them to volunteer?’ I say....uh...ask them?”

Costumer Jean Henderson has been with the company for 17 years and for her recent 70th birthday, a surprise party was held and she was told the theater had been renamed for her. “It came as a complete surprise,” she said. “I was so shocked.”

Henderson loves the DMTC family. “I don’t like to be with just old people. I like the diversity of age, I get to know what’s going on in the world. I’m not the retirement home kind of person.”

One of her new roles, since DMTC got a liquor license, is to handle the bar before the shows and at intermission. “People like being able to take the drinks into the theater. I try to find something that will represent the show.” For “Peter Pan” she found a drink that used Cpt Morgan rum. “We had ‘Barricade lemonade’ with vodka and sparkling water for ‘Les Miserables,’ a Spamarita for ‘Spamalot,’ and a Fa-Gin for ‘Oliver!’.

As the company has aged, the shows have gotten bigger. On April 14, 2012 DMTC’s second performance of “Titanic, the Musical” opened exactly 100 years to the minute of the sinking of the great ship. Ludy’s Main Street BBQ recreated the last 11-course meal served on the great ship, as a fundraiser for over 50 patrons.

Thanks to donations by many patrons, the company was able to buy mirrors for a spectacular production of “A Chorus Line” in April of this year

In June, Steve directed “Les Miserables,” the show he had dreamed of directing since he first saw it in 1988. The production was described by one patron as “the best night I’ve had in this theater.”

Though the Davis Musical Theater Company does not always get the respect or the attention it has earned, the fact is that they have outlasted every single theater company in Davis, that they are the longest-running, year-round, non-professional musical theater company in California, and that the quality of productions has continued to improve every year over the past 30 years, as evidenced by their loyal audience (40% of which comes from Davis and 60% of which comes from other areas). The company has proved that they are indeed doing something right.

As DMTC start its new season, the company is deserving of a hearty bravo! for a job well done

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

La Cage aux Folles

The Music Circus is closing out its 2014 season with a sparkling production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s musical, “La Cage aux Folles,” directed by Tony Spinosa and choreographed by Dana Solimando.
“La Cage” was a big hit in 1984, when it won six Tony awards (it had been nominated for nine). Revivals in 2004 and 2010 both won Tonys for Best Revival; it’s the only musical that has won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical twice and the only show that has won a Best Production Tony Award (Best Musical or Best Revival of a Musical) for each of its Broadway productions.

A scaled-down London production was produced in 2008 and it was this scaled-down show that opened on Broadway in 2010 and is what is being presented on the Music Circus stage.

The story is based on a 1974 French film of the same name and focuses on St. Tropez drag club owner Georges (Brent Barrett) and his longtime partner Albin (Alan Mingo Jr.), who stars as “Zaza” in the club.

The two have raised a son, Jean-Michel (Michael Lowney), now 24, who is Georges’ biological child whose mother abandoned him at birth. It is Jean-Michel’s announcement that he is engaged to be married — to a girl (“where have we gone wrong?”) — that sets the action of this comedy in motion.

It seems Jean-Michel’s fiancée Anne (Julie Kavanagh) is the daughter of the head of the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party,” whose stated goal is to close the local drag clubs.

Jean-Michel wants to bring Anne’s parents home to meet his own parents, but he wants to bring his real mother into the house and relegate Albin, whom he finds an embarrassment, to anywhere other than the family home.
The stage is set for comedy, tragedy and emotion.

This revised version of the show has some noticeable differences from the original, specifically in the tempo and genre of some of the familiar songs. “A Little More Mascara,” for example, was written as an up-tempo Broadway musical-sounding song, but in this version it is more a bluesy number. Likewise, there are dialog changes and plot points that make no sense (why are Anne’s parents spending the night, when in the original they were only coming for dinner?).

But these are minor complaints from someone familiar with the original version, which won’t be noticed by newcomers to the show.

There are wonderful performances in this production. Barrett is very strong as Georges. The actor has a very long theatrical history and he is the glue that holds the show together.

Mingo seemed to take a while to get his engine revving. He was perfectly fine as Albin, but there was initially little chemistry with Georges and he didn’t hit his stride until Albin’s signature “I Am What I Am,” a very powerful song of pride and defiance that closes Act 1 and brought cheers from the audience. Act 2 was his. From the moment he stepped onto the stage dressed as a woman, and introducing himself to Anne’s parents as Jean-Michel’s mother, his performance was golden.

Lowny is an uptight spoiled brat as he heartlessly tosses aside the only “mother” he’s ever known in order to impress his future in-laws, but he’s head over heels in love and has lost his head. Thank goodness he finds it before the end of the show.

Reggie DeLeon is the “butler/maid” (there seems to be some confusion about which he/she is), and plays the part in a much more subdued fashion than most actors I’ve seen in this role, but he is very funny anyway.
Kevin Cooney is M. Dindon, the uptight one-man moral majority. Watching him loosen up a little was a delight.
Mme. Dindon (Heather Lee) is a repressed political wife who seems only too happy to learn of the relationship between Georges and Albin and seems thrilled to be able to let down her hair for once. Literally.

Barbara McCulloh is Jacqueline, owner of a famous restaurant by the same name. One is never sure if she’s a good guy or a bad guy, but McCulloh plays her to the fullest and has a nice duet with Albin.

“Les Cagelles,” the dancers at the club (Brian Steven Shaw, Steven Wenslawski, Adam Lendermon, Steve Schepis, Thay Floyd and Christopher Shin), nearly steal the show in every one of their dance routines. However, I miss the days when there were more dancers and there used to be one or two girls mixed in with the guys, and the audience didn’t know who until the big reveal at the end.

This nicest thing about this musical has always been that it is a simple love story where the lovers happen to be of the same gender, and watching the Music Circus audience leap to their feet to applaud that is very refreshing.

Thursday, August 07, 2014


What is set in 18th-century Scotland, is filled with Highlanders in kilts with sporrans and swords, has lads and lassies in love with one another, bagpipes, hills of heather, good Scottish whisky … and was not written by Diana Gabaldon, author of the historical science-fiction adventure-romance “Outlander” series?

It’s Lerner and Loewe’s beloved “Brigadoon,” this week’s Music Circus offering, directed by Glenn Casale and featuring lively choreography by Bob Richard.

Brigadoon is a magical 18th-century Scottish village which, thanks to a 200-year-old miracle, rises out of the mist for one day every 100 years. Americans Tommy Albright (Robert J. Townsend) and Jeff Douglas (Jason Graae), lost on a hunting expedition in the Highlands, stumble across the village and, unaware of anything unusual, get caught up in the lives of the citizens.

Tommy is engaged to Jane back in New York but something is missing. He’s been looking for that elusive something that will make his life complete.

In Brigadoon, Fiona MacLaren (Jennifer Hope Wills) is “waiting for her dearie,” a man to complete her, who doesn’t seem to be among the local populace.

It’s almost, but not, quite love at first sight for these two as they gather heather on the hill for the wedding of Fiona’s sister.

Townsend’s Tommy is reminiscent of “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, tall and somewhat distracted, with his reserve melting as he finds himself attracted to this lovely lass he has just met.

Wills is a lovely Fiona. Her red hair gives a roundness to her face and you just know she must have freckles. She believably falls head over heels for this stranger and they have some beautiful moments together.

As Tommy’s sardonic friend Jeff Douglas, Graae has no depth of character, is bored with life and can’t understand Tommy’s attraction to Fiona. However, he has caught the eye of Meg Brockie (Tory Ross) and they have some funny moments together.

Ross is a lusty, larger-than-life Meg. She is very funny whether describing her mother’s wedding day or determined to woo and win some sexual favors from Jeff by describing to him “the real love of her life.”
Fiona’s sister, Jean, is beautifully played by Courtney Iventosch. As the story opens, it is Jean’s wedding day and the whole village is preparing for that evening’s wedding. Iventosch is positively ethereal as she dances with the other women and with fiancé Charlie Dalrymple (Brandon Springman)

Charlie is head over heels in love and can’t wait for his wedding (“I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean”).

Harry Beaton (Luke Hawkins) is the only person in the village unhappy about the wedding because he is in love with Jean himself and, because of “the miracle” he can’t leave Brigadoon without destroying everyone, so he’s stuck watching the woman he loves be so happy with the man she loves. Hawkins is dark and brooding, as befits his character.

Harry’s dad Archie (Ron Wisniski) is the village tailor, trying to unsuccessfully draw Harry into the business, while Rich Herbert is Andrew MacLaren, the father of the bride, thrilled to be hosting her wedding.

Gordon Goodman is Mr. Lundie, the village schoolmaster to whom Fiona brings Tommy and Jeff so he can explain “the miracle” to the two men.

Amanda Peet plays Maggie Anderson, who loves Harry and who performs an achingly painful funeral dance after Harry’s death.

There are wonderful moments in this show, such as the dance of the sword dancers (Eric Anthony Johnson, Adam Lendermon, Steve Schepis, Brian Steven Shaw and John B. Williford), performed at Jean’s wedding. It is amazing that they can dance in such tight spaces with such precision, and without glancing down at their feet in relation to the swords.

Special mention also needs to be made to bagpiper Josh Brown, who accompanies the body of Harry back to the village. If you love a good bagpipe (as I do), it was wonderful to hear.

Back in New York, Karen Hyland is Tommy’s fiancée Jane Ashton. Having seen Tommy fall in love with Jean, it’s difficult to see what he found appealing in this social-climbing ice cube and very easy to understand what “something” was missing for him in their relationship and why he is willing to risk everything to try and find it again.

Brigadoon presents a contrast between empty city life and the warmth and simplicity of the country, with the message that love is love even when there are centuries separating the lovers, which brings this review full circle and back to Diana Gabaldon!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Rememberer

Acme Theatre Company is presenting “The Rememberer” by Steven Dietz at the Brunelle Performance Hall at Davis High School through Sunday, Aug. 10.

“The Rememberer” tells the story of Joyce Simmons Cheeka, a member of the Squaxin tribe from the Southern Puget Sound area who, in 1911, was removed from her family and placed in a government-run Tulalip Indian school, where she is forced to give up her own language and the customs of her people in order to be “Christianized and civilized.”

The Indian boarding school movement began in this country after the Civil War. The Tulalip School was established in 1868 with only one dormitory, but by 1907 the school had a capacity enrollment of 200 students, ranging in age from 6 to 18.

The schools across the country reached peak enrollment in the 1970s, with 60,000 students enrolled. However, due to reports of abuse occurring in such schools, enrollment began to decline and by 2007, most of them had been closed.

In preparation for telling Cheeka’s story with respect, director Emily Henderson explains that a small group of students — the Dramaturgy Team — met regularly to study the Indian Boarding School system, the history of the Pacific Northwest and the Squaxin culture. This team then designed a series of weekly workshops to share the information they gathered with the rest of the cast.

I think the end result is a presentation that would make Cheeka proud. “The Rememberer” is the story of one woman’s journey through two worlds and the way she learns to weave them together.

As with too many Acme productions over the years, this play suffers from poor projection on the part of too many of the actors. While some of the more experienced actors did a wonderful job of getting their words out to the audience, some others, while getting the mood of a scene just right, tended to lower their voices, making it almost impossible to hear what they were saying.

Still, I was able to follow the story of young Joyce, who manages not only to learn the ways of the white man, but still honor her own heritage by becoming the “rememberer” for her tribe, the keeper of tribal history and lore.
Eden Tomich is the adult Joyce, who acts as a narrator for the play and who moves around the bare stage with the dignity of her character, remembering the time when she was young, learning the lessons of her people from her grandfather, Mud Bay Sam (Wil Forkin) and grandmother Emily Sam (Meili Monk).

The death of the grandfather is particularly touching because Joyce realizes that the job of being the “rememberer” now falls to her; it is what she was trained to be.

As the young Joyce, Camila Ortiz plays the role with a gentle dignity, a spark of fire as she speaks up for her rights, and always giving her character a nobility far beyond her years.

Andres de Loera-Brust was outstanding as Dr. Buchanan, the physician who founded the Tulalip School and also served as Indian agent for the reservation. He was empathetic, while still maintaining firm control of his students. He shows Joyce there can be kindness in the white man’s world.

Brian Stewart also turned in a strong performance as Mr. Conrad, the teacher you love to hate, in a battle of wills and ideology with a stubborn Joyce.

Cassidy Smith was the stern Superintendent who espouses the philosophy that you must “kill the Indian to save the man,” and Megan Kraft was Miss Brennan, the sewing teacher who won’t let Joyce sew a fish on a quilt, while Danielle Schlenker is the nurse who is more gentle and sympathetic to her young charges and who makes Joyce her assistant during a flu outbreak at the school.

Trevor Rinzler is a young Indian boy whom Joyce comforts while Chris Farmer is Henry, Joyce’s cousin whom she loves to tease.

A cast of nearly 40 actors bring this story to light, on a multi-level, mostly bare stage, but with nice touches such as the sinks at which the school girls line up each day to brush their teeth. Nice job by designer Brian Stewart.
The lighting design of Wil Forkin added greatly to the mood of the piece.

After 33 years, I despair of ever having an Acme show where projection is uniformly good, but I do wish it had been a bit better with this piece. Still, despite losing so many bits of dialog, this was an excellent production, giving an education to the audience about a piece of history of which we may not have had much knowledge before.
The members of Acme, and especially director Henderson, have done themselves — and Joyce Simmons Cheeka — proud.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

South Pacific

 It was some enchanted evening at Music Circus’ opening of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “South Pacific.”

This 1950 Tony Award-winning musical, based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Tales of the South Pacific,” is an old war horse, but its popularity has not dimmed. At times, the plot seems very dated. At other times, one marvels at — and is perhaps depressed by — the consistent timeliness of its message.

Rodgers and Hammerstein were not afraid to tackle the problems of the day, albeit in a musical way. They made a courageous statement about racial bigotry, which was not a popular thing to do in the 1940s, and yet the song “You’ve Got to be Taught” remains today — sadly, perhaps — an anthem to answer the bigots of every race, gender and sexual orientation.

“You have to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade. You have to be carefully taught. … You have to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6 or 7 or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate.” (It’s a simplistic explanation still today for the reason it is so difficult to achieve peace in many parts of the world.)

“South Pacific” is the odd musical that neither opens nor closes with a big musical number, instead opening on the veranda of the home of plantation owner Emile deBecque (John Cudia), where the children, Jerome (Matthew Feniger) and Ngana (Ayanna Navarro) — both adorable, disciplined and talented actors — are singing a French children’s song, the same simple song that ends the show as well.

DeBecque, a French expatriate, is entertaining Arkansas-born Nellie Forbush (Beth Malone), a nurse from the nearby naval base, with eyes toward making her his wife, to fill the loneliness of his life on the island.

Malone establishes herself as a winsome Nellie with her first song, “A Cockeyed Optimist,” with her Kellie Pickler-type accent and sparkly personality. She struggles with her feelings for deBecque, weighed against the reality of his life before she met him. She seems to have no problem accepting that he has killed a man, but can’t handle the reality of his late Polynesian wife.

When Cudia opens his mouth to sing “Some Enchanted Evening,” one has to gasp at the voice. I wish they had put some gray in his hair as he really doesn’t seem old enough to play this character, but there is no denying his talent or charisma, and there is no doubt why Nellie has fallen for him in a matter of only a couple of weeks.

Returning for her second appearance as the Tonkinese woman, Bloody Mary, is Armelia McQueen, who is simply marvelous. She will sell you cheap trinkets, grass skirts, shrunken heads or the body of her young daughter, if she thinks you’ll make beautiful babies together. Her “Bali Ha’i” is outstanding.

Mary has her eye set on Lt. Joe Cable (Eric Kunze, reprising his role), arriving on the island, hoping to enlist deBecque’s help with a covert mission to spy on the Japanese. Cable is young and handsome and, when offered Mary’s daughter Liat (Briahna Yee), he easily succumbs to the temptation, though when faced with the opportunity to marry her, he can’t so easily turn his back on his rigid New England upbringing. The anguish of his situation is painfully clear in his “You Have to be Taught.”

The Liat-Joe plot line feels strikingly inappropriate in this day and age, where there is such emphasis on sexual exploitation of innocent young girls. The lieutenant is taken to meet a very young girl for what becomes an instant physical encounter. As the two embrace for the first time (this being a show from 1949, the manner of the encounter is only hinted at, when the lights go down and then come up on a shirtless Joe lying in the lap of a happy-looking Liat), there is such depth to the emotion that it does not ring true. But the plot line has been playing successfully for more than 50 years, so the audience must not mind.

Providing comic relief is Jeff Skowron as Luther Billis, a Seabee who is a wheeler-dealer, out to make a buck whether it’s making grass skirts or doing laundry for Nellie (who praises his pleats). He has a big, mercenary heart and when he causes a diversion to allow Cable and deBecque’s operation to succeed and is chastised by the Commander, he’s thrilled to discover the unauthorized action cost the military $600,000 because his uncle told him he’d never be worth a dime.

While Skowron is a delight whenever he is on stage, he is at his best in the Thanksgiving show, doing “Honey Bun” with Nellie and the other nurses.

Music Circus stalwart and favorite Ron Wisniski turns in an outstanding performance as Cmdr. William Harbison, trying to keep everything on the base in order. He barks out orders like Mayor Shinn in “The Music Man.”

The ensemble is excellent, particularly the Seabees, a group of men who each have small solos to sing. As someone remarked on leaving the theater, “there is no weak voice in this cast.”

“South Pacific” evokes situations and emotions still prevalent today. In the end, it is through the children that we see hope for a more tolerant tomorrow, a tomorrow for which we are still waiting, more than 50 years later.

Friday, July 18, 2014


The Woodland Opera House sounded like the gymnasium of Rydell High School as the full house cheered, shrieked and wildly applauded the talented cast of “Grease,” that 1971 musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey that spoofs high schools of the 1950s (the story is set in 1959).

I will say at the start that this is a spirited production filled with outstanding performances, but I always have difficulty with this show. I like the show and I hate the show. I like it because it has wonderful musical numbers like “Greased Lightnin’,” “We Go Together,” “Born to Hand Jive” and “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” It has great dance numbers (handled beautifully by choreographers Crissi Cairns and Angela Baltezore).

But I hate the message. Sandy (McKinley Carlisle) met Danny (Donovan McNeely) over the summer and the two fell in love. But when school starts, she’s the new kid, and he’s the head “greaser” and is too cool to admit he likes her.

She joins the “Pink Ladies,” who would have been the “bad girls” in my 1950s high school. They’re the ones who smoke, drink and sleep around, yet you can’t help liking them. Not sure why they admitted Sandy, who has high moral values, dresses conservatively, doesn’t smoke or drink and doesn’t even have pierced ears (which, in my school in the 1950s, was a sure sign of a “bad” girl!).

Yet by the end of the show she realizes her only hope of being accepted by the Pink Ladies and Danny is for her to frizz her hair, put on skin-tight leather and lots of make-up, pierce her ears, start smoking and in general look like a slut. Or, as someone put it to me recently “A happy ending means changing yourself and compromising your morals for a guy.”

Then we can sing a reprise of “We Go Together” and everybody lives happily ever after.

Ironically, the popular film with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (which I watched when I got home from the matinee!) gave it a kind of O. Henry ending, with Danny changing to please Sandy and Sandy changing to please Danny. The original stage show does not do that.

That said, let’s get to the actual Woodland production, directed by Crissi Cairns, which is lots of fun. Carlisle is both the virginal Sandy and the bad girl Sandy and plays both full out. McNeely nicely balances the softy who fell for Sandy and the tough guy who has to cover up his feelings so his friends won’t think him weak.

Rizzo (Gabby Delgado) is the head of the Pink Ladies, a gruff, hard-edged girl who obviously has had a hard life and now is faced with a possible pregnancy she didn’t anticipate. She has the right attitude for the role, yet she managed to show her vulnerability as well.

Amy Miles plays Frenchy, who can’t quite make it in high school and only wants to be a beautician … and then discovers she can’t make it in beauty school either. She gets help from a Teen Angel (Sean Covell) whom she sees in a dream and who encourages her to go back to high school.

Marty (Abby Miles) has an eye for older guys and flirts shamelessly with slimy radio disc jockey Vince Fontaine (Mike Maples), who comes to Rydell to do a show from the boys’ gym and maybe get a little action on the side.

Emily Jo Seminoff, who has a long history with the Woodland Opera House, and other local theaters, is the always-hungry Jan. As usual, Seminoff lights up the stage and it is always such a pleasure to see her perform.
Horacio Gonzalez nailed the role of Danny’s best friend, Kenickie, and gave us an exuberant “Greased Lightnin’ ” in displaying his new/old car.

Tomas Eredia as Sonny stood out from the rest of the Burger Palace Boys. He’s obnoxious and the first one to make fun of someone, but Eredia’s performance makes him likable despite it.

Dalton McNeely is Roger, who has a thing for Jan, and is the buffoon of the group. His solo, “Mooning,” was very funny.

Seth Rogers rounds out the quartet as Doody, foolish and gullible.

You can’t have a high school story without the dweeb, and Cameron Turner as Eugene fits the bill to a T. His ruffled shirt for the high school dance (Denise Miles is the costume designer) was particularly fetching.

The program, printed to look like the Rydell High newspaper, is cute, but there wasn’t enough room to list the band, which is too bad because they did an excellent job under music director Lori Jarvey.

This is a show I really want to dislike, but when you have a good production like Woodland’s, that’s difficult to do. This show has been a popular favorite of community theaters and high school productions for decades and it’s easy to see why, though its message will always make me cringe.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Maple and Vine

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by a world that is filled with hundreds of emails, tweets and Facebook status updates; a world where the 40-hour work week is no more; where many are working 80 hours a week and consider that normal?

Is the stress getting to you, buddy?

Well, Capitol Stage’s “Maple and Vine” by Jordan Harrison, directed by Peter Mohrmann, may be just the escape you need. “May” being the operative word here.

Katha (Stephanie Gularte) an executive with Random House, and Ryu (Wayne Lee), a successful plastic surgeon, are a power couple living in New York but feeling the pressure of their jobs and the emptiness in their lives after Katha’s miscarriage a few months before.

Enter Dean (Jason Heil) and Ellen (Shannon Mahoney), a couple from the Society for Dynamic Obsolescence, a group of 1950s re-enactors who live in their own compound where every day is 1955, there are no cell phones, or computers. A time when wives didn’t worry about finding themselves because their job was to run the house and raise the children while fathers brought in the money.

Ryu is unsure about giving things a try, but Katha is enthusiastic and to save their marriage, he agrees to go along.
Hints of problems surface when Dean and Ellen refer to them as a “mixed-race couple” (Ryu is Japanese, though born in Long Beach) and say they will have to move to an area where mixed-race marriages are tolerated.

“We have everything in microcosm, yes. So there are areas with the spirit of the south and areas that have more the feeling of the north.”

Katha (who changes her name to Kathy to blend in more with the community) and Ryu begin studying 1955 so they can fit in better. They acknowledge that sometimes things will be bad and agree that if they need to remember the 21st century they will use a safe word — they decide on “Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

Ryu gets a job working in a box factory for floor boss Roger (Ryan Snyder), who is forever making references to Ryu’s Japanese ancestry.

The second act is more uneven than the first and sends the audience off in all sorts of directions — sexism, homophobia, racial bigotry. Kathy uncharacteristically instructs the members of her neighborhood about how to be intolerant of her Japanese husband in order to make the 1955 experience more authentic: “We don’t expect flaming crosses on our lawn; that would be out of proportion. But here are some ideas. You might stare at me in the supermarket. You might tell Ryu how much you like Chinese food. Your teenage boys could bang trash can lids outside our house … I know that we’ll be able to find even more ways to give each other an authentic experience.”
The big surprise reveal toward the end of the show comes from left field and leaves one wondering what is going to happen to these people as they grapple with 2014 problems in 1955.

The ensemble for this show is marvelous. Gularte gives an outstanding performance, both as the 2014 executive and the 1955 Stepford-ish wife, embracing all of the simplicity of an earlier time and even embracing the negative aspects of it.

Lee is wonderful as a man with a sardonic secret — that he’s really a plastic surgeon, when everyone else accepts him as a box maker, but so in love with his wife that he’s willing to follow her into this wacky old world.

Heil is a smarmy salesman who has an answer for everything and could sell refrigerators to Eskimos, though he doesn’t always practice what he so eloquently preaches.

Mahoney is a marvelous throw back to June Cleaver, the perfect 50s wife, while hiding a big secret.

Snyder is wonderfully campy in Act 1 as Katha’s gay co-worker, and in Act 2 barely conceals his feelings of superiority to a man he thinks is an Asian refugee unable to do more than put a box together.

This is billed as a comedy, and it is very funny, but it goes beyond comedy into areas you never expect to explore by the time it ends, and will give the audience something to think about long after the final bows have been taken.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Mary Popppins

The Music Circus’s first-ever production of “Mary Poppins” is nothing short of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

In his introduction to opening night, Richard Lewis, president and CEO, said this was the biggest show the Music Circus had ever done. And based on the number of things that come out of the ceiling, go into the floor or rotate around the stage, I believe him.

Not only is it a big “stuff” show, but it’s a wonderfully acted show as well. Kelly McCormick, making her Music Circus debut after extensive regional theater and national touring companies for “Les Miserables” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” is a perfect Mary Poppins, the enigmatic nanny who arrives just in the nick of time to help the Banks family find their way to a better overall relationship.

McCormick sings, dances, flies and inspires. She has a warm relationship with the Banks children, takes no prisoners in the discipline department, yet can kick up a heel or two with chimney sweep Bert (Robert Creighton). She is more than “practically perfect.”

Creighton is a delight. He seems to know “things” about Mary and has a special relationship with her, but he keeps her secrets. And he dances up a storm, particularly in the show-stopping “Step in Time” on the rooftops of London with the other chimney sweeps.

Mary’s relationship with the Banks children is critical, and Music Circus has two excellent young actors in those roles.

Davis’ own Noa Solorio — who cut her acting chops in the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s Young People’s Theater, and already has two other Music Circus seasons under her belt — is Jane, too old, really (she feels) to need a nanny, but warming to Mary and entranced by the magic she brings to the household.

Ben Ainley-Zoll is Michael Banks, a bit of a scamp and more mischievous than his sister, but a kid who just wants his dad to go fly a kite with him.

David Engel is father George Banks, a stiff-collared businessman who believes parenting should be left to his wife and the current nanny. He has forgotten what it is to be a kid and needs a Mary Poppins to give him gentle reminders.

Long-suffering wife Winifred Banks is Shannon Arne. Winifred is a former actress stuck into London society and hating it, and unable to quite connect with the business associates her husband wants her to court. She is a warm and loving mother, but seems unable to understand why her children are out of control much of the time.

Helen Geller makes a wonderful impression as the “bird lady,” selling birdseed for “tuppence a bag.” She is a street person, but warm and caring toward her birds, and her song “Feed the Birds” is a lovely moment in the show.

Steve Schepis is a marble statue of the god Neleus come to life in the park. He has a marvelous dance routine and befriends the children.

Ruth Gottschall is Miss Annie, the nanny you love to hate. She is George’s former nanny who offers “Brimstone and Treacle” instead of a spoonful of sugar in the children’s daily tonic and rules with an iron fist. I am surprised she didn’t get hissed by the audience.

Of necessity, much of the fantastic Banks house one would see in a Broadway production of this show cannot be duplicated on the Music Circus stage, but unlike the disappointing “A Chorus Line,” it didn’t matter for this show. Use of the entire theater for the chimneys of London, Music Circus techies who whisk furniture in and out with amazing speed and precision, and a magical kitchen that certainly does surprising things creates Mary Poppins’ world beautifully.

Lewis announced that the show is already nearly sold out, so tickets may not be possible to get, but through Raley’s, a special children’s rate is offered. Children (as well as their adult companions) will certainly love this show.

Friday, July 04, 2014

The Hound of the Baskervilles

How do you write a review about a show that you can’t really talk about without spoiling the fun?

That is the dilemma I am struggling with in reviewing “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” which opened recently at the B Street Theatre.

Set aside any preconceived notion you may have about Sherlock Holmes mysteries. This wacky adaptation of the familiar Arthur Conan Doyle story by Steven Canny and John Nicholson could have been written for the Marx Brothers or The Three Stooges.

All the characters are played by three talented actors. Greg Alexander is mostly the befuddled Dr. Watson, gone to investigate a suspicious murder in Holmes’ stead. Jason Kuykendall is mostly Holmes, though also plays a few other memorable characters, of both genders, while John Lamb is everybody else. I suspect that it must look like Act 2 of “Noises Off” backstage most of the time, with all the quick — very quick — costume changes that go on.

(The costumes by Paulette Sand-Gilbert take a lot of wear and tear and seem to hold up well.)

But as things speed up, there are on-stage costume changes, too, with conveniently placed scarves, hanks of hair, wigs, hats and what have you sitting around the stage or in containers that double as furniture. There is a hilarious tour through the Baskerville family portrait gallery, which is one of the funniest bits in a long line of very funny bits.

Definite kudos go to props intern Brianne Kuffell for keeping all the props straight and easily accessible.

In addition to playing the characters from the Holmes story, the actors also are playing actors, conveniently named Greg, Jason and John, who are forever conferring with each other and with the audience regarding things that have just taken place.

And when a section of the script seems unclear, well … let’s just do it again, double-time. And they do.

A show like this requires a fairly minimal set to allow for all the physical comedy, and Samantha Reno has designed a set that can be moved in countless ways, while a backdrop projects scenes of wherever the cast is supposed to be, whether out on the moors, in a fancy hotel or at 221B Baker St.

Director Buck Busfield adroitly walks that fine line between believability, however silly, and over-the-top camp, and gives the audience sort of the actual Conan Doyle story, but which will never be quite the same again.

Not being an expert on Sherlock Holmes, I can’t know in my gut what a real aficionado would think of a beloved classic treated in such a fashion, but the opening-night audience didn’t stop laughing throughout the two acts, and I think that is high praise indeed.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing

“Much Ado about Nothing” is the second of two offerings in the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s summer festival, playing through Aug. 3 at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater.

It is fun that the pairings in both plays — “Much Ado” alternates with “She Loves Me” — are the same. Love interests Laura Baronet and Ian Hopps (Amalia and Georg) in “She Loves Me” become Hero and Claudio in “Much Ado.” Susanna Risser and Matt Edwards (Ilsa and Kodaly in “She Loves Me”) become the relationship-phobic Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado.”

These two plays were chosen for this festival because the pairs were so similar. Director Rob Salas felt that presenting the two plays in repertory would help strengthen each. In fact, that decision works beautifully.
“Much Ado About Nothing” was written in the middle of Shakespeare’s career, just after the “Comedy of Errors,” “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He would go on to explore more serious topics with his tragedies.

“Much Ado” relies on two schemes. One is to convince Beatrice and Benedick they are in love. The other is to prevent the marriage of Hero and Claudio. All this occurs when Don Pedro (Tim Gaffaney), on his way home with his army, stops at the home of his friend, Leonato (John Haine), the governor of Messina.

DSE has chosen to set this play in the 1940s, just after the end of World War II, and Salas sees the fiery Beatrice as a “Rosie the Riveter” type, strongly independent, quick-tongued and needing no man in her life. Risser projects all of these qualities.

Benedick, who openly despises the whole idea of marriage, is not quite as sleazy as Edwards’ “She Loves Me” counterpart, but he is the master of wisecracks and one-upsmanship. Ultimately, however, it is he who is tricked into admitting his feelings for Beatrice.

The other love pair is the virginal Hero and the jealous Claudio. Baronet’s face glows as she expresses her love for Claudio and plans their upcoming nuptials.

But nobody expected the scurrilous plot of Don John (Matt K. Miller), a dark and thoroughly despicable character. He contrives with Don Pedro’s servant Borachio (Pablo Lopez) to convince Claudio of Hero’s infidelity.

Hopps, almost always likeable in both plays, becomes a disappointment as Claudio (he’s supposed to be!) when he so easily believes the lies that Hero has betrayed him, and publicly humiliates her. Baronet’s character does a right proper meltdown, thinking her life has been ruined. But we like Claudio again when the accusations against Hero are proven to be false.

An overstuffed Miller returns in Act 2 as Dogberry, the buffoonish constable. This is a delightful performance, aided by the comedic antics of Gabby Battista as Verges, which steal the show. Dogberry’s bumbling ends up saving the day, and the relationship of Hero and Claudio.

Incidental music for this production is provided by a trio of musicians, headed by musical director Richard Chowenhill. The reason for setting the play in the 1940s is that it provided the opportunity to use a swing style of music. “Swing is very flexible so we can really work all the different tones in the play,” Salas said.

This show belongs to Risser and Edwards. Their chemistry is undeniable as they convey both scorn and love for each other. Watching them perform, one cannot help but note how totally modern they seem. This is a tribute both to Shakespeare and to Salas’ excellent direction.