Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Chorus Line

There is one singular sensation out at the DMTC Performing Arts Center, as the Davis Musical Theater Company presents its latest production of “A Chorus Line,” directed by John Ewing, with choreography by Pamela Lourentzos.

Before the show started, co-producer Steve Isaacson was delighted to announce that as a result of a successful internet fund-raising campaign DMTC was able to afford more realistic mirrors on the stage, and what a difference it made!  When those mirrors rotated around to face the audience, there was a literal gasp at how wonderful it looked.

For those unfamiliar with this show, it is not your run of the mill plot show.  There is no boy-meets-girl story, and while the finale is triumphant for some, not for all.  There is also no “star” of the show.  It is a show which depends on a very strong ensemble, which is precisely what director Ewing has assembled for this production.

The show takes place in one day, at a cattle call for dancers for an upcoming unnamed Broadway show.  Twenty three dancers show up for an audition for eight roles, and they go through not only a 2 hour grueling dance audition, but also must plumb the depths of their psyches to convince director Zach (Dean Shellenberger) that they would work well in this show.  Most will be eliminated.

When Diana (Rachelle Jones) sings the show’s signature song, “What I Did for Love,” near the end, the audience has a very good idea of what exactly singers, dancers, and actors do for love in order to perform.  Jones’ rendition of this song is very moving.

The opening number, “I Hope I Get It” blends brash optimism, fear, and insecurity, as each dancer expresses his or her hopes for finally landing a job.

Part of the audition process involves answering some very pointed questions about the dancers’ past lives, and their responses take us through the songs of this Marvin Hamlish-Edward Kleban musical. 

Mike (Trey Quinn) tells of being dragged to his sisters dance classes as a young boy, falling in love with what the students were doing, and, on a day when his sister couldn’t get to class, stealing her shoes and running to take her place. And there he stayed “for the rest of his life.”

Bebe and Maggie (Rebecca Crebbin-Coates and Cooper Johnson) sing the lyrical “at the ballet,” remembering their days dancing ballet and how it saved them from unhappy home lives.

The cute, but not very talented Kristine (Jessica Arena) and her new husband Al (Scott Scholes) try to explain Kristine’s problems with staying on tune.  (It is worth noting that the role of Al in the 1985 movie was played by the late Tony Fields, a Davis High graduate)

Caitland Martin plays the over exuberant, sensual Val whose career has been plagued not being a beauty, no matter how talented she may be (“Dance: Ten, Looks: Three”)

Cassie (Christina Castro) is Zach’s former mistress, who left the chorus line to have a career as a solo performer.  With the lack of success, she is back trying to get into the chorus.  Zach is particularly harsh with her and Castro emotes effectively in her song “The Music and the Mirror,” as she tries to explain that this is all she has now.

Sheila (Jori Gonzales) has a tough exterior which hides her own insecurities.  When Zach insists she let her hair down (literally), she begins to open up.

Devon Hayakawa plays Connie, a role played in the movie by Davis’ Jan Gan Boyd.  Hayakawa is the youngest in the cast, but you’d never know it.  She is easily on a professional level with the rest of the cast.

But if the evening went to one performer in particular it was to Peter Giovanni, playing Paul, a painfully shy man hiding a secret he dares not to reveal to the cast at large.  Giovanni gives such a poignant performance that it moves the audience to tears.

In truth, it is Paul’s secret (he’s gay) which dates this musical.  In this day and age, nobody would care, and I suspect Paul would not be quite so pitiful, but in 1975, when the play opened on Broadway, we were still three years before Harvey Milk was elected to public office in San Francisco, and several years before anybody ever heard of AIDS.  “Gay Pride” was unheard of.

Given that, it may be surprising that “A Chorus Line” won nine Tony Awards that year and went on to be the longest running musical in Broadway History (15 years), until it was dethroned by “Cats.”

But the show’s appeal cannot be denied.  And when the cast assembles on stage, dressed in gold and white and standing in front of those gorgeous mirrors, it takes your breath away.  Rockette precise they’re not, but oh so all but. 

DMTC knocks it out of the ballpark with this production.!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A sparkling new production of “A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” directed by Michael Laun, exploded onto the Sacramento Theater Company stage over the weekend and left the audience weak from laughter.

Described by Laun as “perhaps one of the most brilliantly conceived musical comedies ever written,” “Forum” has not been seen on the STC stage since the 1981-82 season. The show almost never saw the Broadway stage, due to a plethora of problems.  Jerome Robbins was hired to direct, but then dropped out of the show.  Phil Silvers was expected to star, but refused (as did Milton Berle who felt the performance schedule was too rigorous).  Finally Zero Mostel was cast and George Abbot hired to direct, but when the show was not working in its out of town performances, Robbins was brought back to fix it.  But there was bad blood between him and Mostel (who never forgave him for “naming names” during the period of the Black List.  In fact Mostel and Jack Gilford, also in the show, had both been blacklisted and Gilford’s wife–“the sweetest lady in the world,” according to Mostel – was also named). 

However, realizing that Robbins would be good for the show, Mostel agreed to work with him as long as he didn’t have to socialize with him.

Stephen Sondheim's most tuneful musical is a madcap musical sex farce set in ancient Rome and based on the comedies of Plautus (254-182 BC).  The book is by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart with musical direction (and recorded music) by Samuel Clein and choreography by Scottie Woodard.  As the lights go up on Scenic Designer Kelly James Tighe’s massive set featuring three buildings, many doors and many exits, one does not have to wonder what kind of show is about to be presented.

The intent of the play is clear from the moment Prologus (the incomparable Michael RJ Campbell), who later plays the slave Pseudolus, introduces the action with the hit song from the show, “Comedy Tonight.” As the song progresses, other characters are introduced and demonstrate their importance to the plot  

Most memorable of these initial characters are the courtesans in the house of Lycus (Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly) – Tintinabula (Lindsay Kristine Anderson), Panacea (Jennifer Martin), The Geminae (Gina Coyle and Kevin Foster), Vibrata (Andrea St. Clair) and the towering Gymnasia (Renee DeGarmo).  The gyrations over, under, and around Pseudolus are memorable.

Campbell dominates as the slave who will do anything to win his freedom.  His wing man is Hysterium (Scottie Woodard, who gives an aptly named performance!)

Pseudolus is slave in the house of Senex, an old man, played by Joe Vincent, returning to the Sacramento stage after an absence of 50 years.  He has obviously aged well. 

His wife, Domina, is the delicious Lenore Sebastian, alternately harpie and seductress and with the help of an incredible wig makes it believable, as the song states, that she will be playing Medea later this week.

Their son Hero (Matt Surges) is feeling the stirrings of puberty and has fallen in love with the beautiful, yet vacuous Philia, a virgin (Megan Odell on the night I saw the show, alternating with Meghan Greene, both of whom are part of the Young People’s program).  Philia has been brought to Rome to be sold to the Miles Gloriosus (Jacob L. Smith) and has been programmed to give her body to her owners, but her heart remains with Hero, an arrangement that doesn’t really sit well with Hero.

When Jacob L. Smith as Miles Gloriosus strides onto the stage to claim his bride, he was making his STC debut and the audience was blown away by his powerful voice. He’s the perfectly cast self-centered “hunk” for this play!

Jim Lane plays Erronius, an old man who is roaming the world looking for his two children, stolen in infancy by pirates.  Lane’s role is a small (though pivotal) one, but each time he comes on stage, he garners gales of laughter.

Matt Dunn, Gina Coyle, and Kevin Foster are “the proteans,” or “everybody else,” playing males and females. soldiers and eunuchs each with a quick change of costume and adjustment of vocal level.

This play has everything needed to make it enjoyable – funny characters, funny situations, mistaken identities, endless chases...and a happy ending, of course.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Value of One

The Pamela Trokanski Dance Theater, now in its 29th season at its workshop on Del Rio Place, is presenting “The Value of One,” with two remaining performances this weekend.

The piece includes approximately 20 dancers with a mix of ages from 7 to 85. There are members of the Pamela Trokanski Dance Theater (Nicole Bell, Sara Delorena, Evelia Fernandez, Sharon Riddle, Irem Sogutlugil, Michele Tobias and Trokanski herself), the PTDT Apprentice Company (Annie Cui, Maddie English, Alison Luck, Kate Macauley and Lindsey Su) and The Third Stage, Northern California’s only multi-generational contemporary dance company (JoAnne Craig-Ferraz, Mia Mangney, Ece Midillioglu, Denise Odenwalder, Cindy Robinson, Marla Shauer, Allegra Silberstein and Adrienna Turner).

The work explores the ripples people leave behind their lives, often without their knowledge. It shows how individuals are affected by interactions with others.

It asks how people are defined at different stages in life, whether they are 7 or 83 or somewhere in between.
The show begins with a recorded message introducing the theme, and explaining that all actions have repercussions. The African proverb, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito” was used to remind people that one person using their cell phone could affect the entire audience. (It was one of the best “turn off your cell phone” messages I’ve ever heard.) “The needs of the one do not outweigh the needs of the others,” the audience was reminded.

The entire group assembled for the opening number, “Stand” by R.E.M., segueing into a number about individual uniqueness, with Michele Tobias talking about her grandfather’s comments that any day that he woke up “on the right side of the dirt was a good day.”

The whole piece was shaped by individual dancers who had recorded feelings about their lives. Ece Midillioglu, 7; Adrianna Turner, 10; and Mia Mangney, 12; described interactions with school friends, the problem of moving to a new school and the influence of a special teacher.

Ece and Adrianna danced to a song by Jewel (“All About Me”) which energetically showed the joy of being a young girl. As they danced in mirror image to their story, six dancers performed along the back wall of the stage, bringing smiles to the audience.

“The World,” by Matthew Ryan, danced by Nicole Bell, explored the “Butterfly Effect” postulated by Edward Lorenz, which says that a change as small as the beating of a butterfly’s wing in one part of the world can affect something else in another part of the world.

A group dance to music by Ane Brun showed sheer joy, “Love, Love, Love … Jump for Joy!”

Allegra Silberstein, the oldest dancer at 83, told of growing up on a farm and the life steps that brought her to becoming the poet laureate of Davis. Silberstein’s moving work sets a wonderful example for anyone who thinks that active life ends at any certain age.

“Hands,” with music by Jewel, asks the audience to find meaning in and connection to the world around us. “If the whole 13.8 billion-year history of the universe was laid out and scaled to the length of a football field … our part of that field, the entire history of human beings, takes up the span of one adult human hand.”

So, knowing this, one might question why would people ever even get out of bed? Although I think that the better question might be: What do we do with that hand?”

In a section that Bob Fosse would love, the dancers explore their hands, connection to each other and to the world and, indeed, “what we do with that hand.”

Tobias was back again, exploring her relationship with her twin sister and how that shaped her life. Evelia Fernandez danced about her father and hiding emotions; Sara Delorena danced about leaving her mother and alcoholic stepfather; Denise Odenwalder talked about a ring challenge; and a “Sand” solo, with music by Nathan Lanier, was danced by Irem Sogutlugil.

By the end of the show, the dancers had drawn the audience into their very personal worlds and let them see how their experiences have shaped — and are shaping — their lives.

The show runs a little over an hour and is a good way to spend an afternoon.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Visiting Mr. Green

It’s another one of those generational bonding plays that we have seen lately (witness “4000 Miles” at Capital Stage and last at Sacramento Theater Company’s own “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks”). STC is presenting “Visiting Mr. Green,” a two man show starring the always wonderful Gary S. Martinez as 86 year old Jewish widower, Mr. Green, and new-to-STC Ryan Blanning as the rising young executive, Ross Gardiner.

The play is a first by playwright Jeff Baron. It premiered in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1996, had a year-long run off Broadway. It has since had more than 300 productions in 37 countries and has been translated into 22 different languages. It has been nominated for 10 different awards around the world for “Best Play,” and won 7 of those awards.

Director Marie Bain explains that the play deals with “the universal concepts of family, friendship, rejection and forgiveness” and discusses the concept of which is more important, the individual or the community?”

Martinez gives a flawless performance as the elderly curmudgeon, grieving for his recently deceased wife, and too proud to admit that he is helpless without her. His life is spiraling out of control. The 60-something Martinez is perfect as the 86 year old Green. Every time he slowly walked across the stage or tried to get into or out of his recliner I saw many of the 80-somethings I see at the local Senior Living facility.

Blanning is initially not very likeable as the brash, smug, impatient young man, forced by a judge to perform community service for the next six months, visiting Mr. Green once a week, as punishment for driving recklessly and nearly hitting the old man.

Green wants nothing to do with any help from anyone, especially Ross, and Ross doesn’t want to be there, but the judge won’t let him off.

The play is two acts, with four scenes in the first act and five in the second. There are black-outs at the end of each scene, the following scene taking place a week later. In this manner, we see the slow growing of a relationship, if not exactly friendship, between the two men.

After two sparring rounds between the two, in Act 3 Ross has a breakthrough when he brings Green soup from his favorite kosher deli and Green discovers that Ross, too, is Jewish. The wall between them begins to crack a little bit.

Over the rest of the play there is a growing, if wary, friendship between the two men, both of whom are harboring deep hurts. Ross is gay and has been disowned by his family. Green’s daughter married a non-Jew and he has not spoken with her in years. Green insists that Ross just needs a good woman, Ross can’t understand Green’s disowning his daughter because of whom she loves.

With these revelations, the script develops problems. Anybody who has been in any discussion about race, religion, or sexual orientation in the last 20 years will find the dialog uninspired, cliche, and repetitive. Though the play is set in 1996, it is being performed in 2014, when it is no longer shocking in most circles to be gay, so that aspect of the plot seems old and tired, though Bain does what she can to make it seem fresh.

The conclusion is predictable, though there will be a few misty eyes before the finale.

It is difficult to understand the appeal of this play, though the awards it has won have mostly been in countries where to be gay, or orthodox Jewish may be less accepted than here in this country, so it may be an eye opener for audiences there.

Still, “Visiting Mr. Green” is worth seeing, if only for watching Gary Martinez at work, and seeing Ryan Blanning’s transformation from an unlikeable to sympathetic character.

Scenic designers Jarrod Bodensteiner and Renee Degarmo have created a nice apartment so homey you felt like you could sit down and read the newspaper on the couch at intermission.