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.