Friday, June 26, 2015

Robert Lautz (feature story)

Playwright Robert Lautz is living with prostate cancer.

“I’m terrible,” he laughed when I asked him how he was doing. “It’s terminal, but at least this is a slow-growing cancer.”

Lautz is a longtime Davis resident who moved his family to Minnesota a month ago, where his wife’s family lives, but he was back in town briefly to watch the opening of his new play, “Third Date” at the Wilkerson Theater in Sacramento.

Lautz’s first play, “The Meaning of it All” ran at the Wilkerson in 2012.

“You did a review where you didn’t trash it,” he reminded me. “You encouraged me to keep writing, so that’s why I wrote a second play. It was as a great learning experience as my first play.

“I’ve written a comedy about cancer,” he said “ ‘Fun with mutant cells’ is the alternate title.”

Some may think it’s odd to be writing a comedy about cancer, but Lautz explained that initially, it was a series of notes to keep track of all of his medical records, but so many bizarre things happened during his treatment that he thought it might make a funny play.

And it is.

The show opened two weeks ago, and Lautz was there for the opening.

“I was thrilled,” he said. They had full houses on opening weekend and “the performance just got better and better.” He was most pleased that the audience “got it.” The point had been made.

Lautz stresses that “cancer has some clout. Doctors and nurses make a point of being very courteous and very gracious. You even get valet parking.”

But the play does hit home with doctors.

“My GP who has been my doctor for 20 years came to see it,” the playwright said. “Afterwards he said that ‘Generally we’re in the habit of creating a distance between ourselves and the patients. This reminded me not to do so.’ ”

Director Maggie Adair Upton added that a lot of cancer survivor groups have been attending.

“They either like it or they hate it,” she said, adding that one of her friends saw a preview and had to leave. There had been enough cancer in her life and she had just had enough.

“It’s a tricky show to do, but I think it’s important and I’m glad we are doing it,” Upton said.
“One woman at a talk-back after the show said parts of the play made her squirm,” said Lautz, laughing. He told her his alternate title would have been “Caution: Sections of this play may make you squirm.”

Many of those who were uncomfortable were Lautz’s friends and co-workers from the California Arts Council, where he worked for many years, who felt it was difficult to watch, knowing that these were his own experiences.

“It happened to me. Everything,” he said.

“I’m a musician,” he told me, adding that he played the vibraphone and drums and graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1976, with a degree in composition. In fact, the incidental music before and after the show was composed and performed by Lautz.

He grew up in California, but moved back East with his family for high school and college. Then he decided to return to California.

“I borrowed my father’s car and drove to Santa Cruz,” he said, adding that his father never got the car back.

He became a street musician, playing on the streets and in malls and performing gigs up and down the California coast, whenever he could find work, supporting himself for some 20 years. During that time, he met his wife in a jazz club.

It was after his wife became pregnant that he decided that “this jazz musician thing may not work out financially.”

In 1995, he ended up on the California Arts Council, a move that would bring him to Davis. By this time he had two daughters, ages 4 and 2, and real estate agents took him all over Sacramento looking for a house.

“Then I drove out to Davis, first getting lost on Olive Drive. But we fell in love with the town. It was a great place to raise our daughters,” he said.

Friends in Sacramento warned him that Davis was where the liberals were, “but we came from Santa Cruz!” he added, laughing.

He worked for the Arts Council for eight years “and then the budget went way south” so he worked for another state agency for a while and then returned to the Arts Council, where he continued to work after his 2007 cancer diagnosis until his family’s move to Minnesota.

Lautz said his character, Richard Montauk, is kind of a sexist pig who has a teenaged daughter with whom he has little relationship and a wife from whom he is divorced. Through the course of the play he is very subtly transformed by his experiences.

“A friend said he really didn’t like Montauk, but toward the end he did.”

So Lautz achieved his ultimate goal, and can a playwright ask for more than that?

The show runs 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays through July 4 in the Dennis Wilkerson Theater at California Stage’s R25 Arts Complex. Visit for information.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Big River

It was a surreal experience attending Music Circus’s “Big River” in a week where we are still reeling from the slaughter in Charleston, S.C., which has ignited an active debate over the display of the Confederate flag and the use of the N-word.

“Big River,” with book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by Roger Miller (who won The Tony and Drama Desk Awards for his work), is a retelling of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the story of two runaways — Huck Finn, fleeing his cruel father, and Jim, a runaway slave, who travel together and become good friends. The story is set sometime prior to the Civil War. (Twain, who published it in 1884, was vague about the exact date.)

Needless to say, slavery plays a big part in this play and the slave scenes feel emotionally raw, particularly this week. The language, true to the period, is offensive to our ears today. The reaction of the audience, with spontaneous applause when Jim’s chains are removed and he wins his freedom, was, I felt, an indication that the whole audience was feeling the same raw emotion.

This is an outstanding production, with a superb cast. Ben Fankhauser is a bit old to be playing the 13-year-old Huck Finn, but he is a real pro who commands the stage, with a great voice that does particularly well in the ballads and in his duets with Jim (Phillip Boykin).

Boykin is definitely old for the role of Huck’s companion, though the age difference melts away with Jim’s back story of having been separated from his wife and children, and with the paternal role he takes in Huck’s life.

And what a voice! I’m sure the roof must have been vibrating with the power of his delivery in “Muddy Water” and “Free at Last.” Boykin gives Jim a quiet dignity that is at the heart of this show.

Though none of the tunes are familiar, Miller’s music (such a far cry from “King of the Road” and “Dang Me”) in this, his only Broadway musical, runs the gamut from ballad to country to hillbilly to gospel, with the spectacular Jennifer Leigh Warren as the slave Alice raising the roof in the gospel song, “How Blest We Are” to audience cheers.

James Michael Lambert played Tom Sawyer with all the boyish charm and energy that a young boy should have, though his role in this particular Twain story is a small one.

Rich Hebert is Pap Finn, Huck’s deadbeat dad who turns up unexpectedly to take Huck to live with him. Pap is a drunk and his “Guv’ment” railing against the current government is very funny, though he himself is one scary dude, and Huck finds a way to fake his own murder so that he can escape his father’s clutches.

Two delightful characters are the King (William Parry) and the Duke (Jeff Skowron), two shysters who hitch a ride of the raft with Huck and Jim and proceed to slowly re-enslave Jim before selling him back into slavery.

They are such fun to watch and their “The Real Nonesuch” is a delight. Skowron’s Shakespearean monologue (a mash-up of every famous line you remember) is very funny.

A character that seems to exist only to toss in a small role for someone disconnected from the plot of the story is that of the Young Fool, played by Dennis O’Bannion. His “Arkansas” was another high point of this show already full of high points.

While this is primarily a male-driven story, women come in for their share of stage time, with Mary Jo Mecca as the Widow Douglas and Angelina Sark as Miss Watson, the two women determined to tame the wild Huck and give him some manners.

It was so nice to see that Music Circus remembered that it has a turntable, which was used to very good effect, particularly in propelling the raft downstream in a cloud of fog.

This is a real winner for Music Circus and highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Uncanny Valley

“The Jetsons” had Rosie, “Star Wars” had C3PO, “Star Trek” had Mr. Data, “Jeopardy” had Watson and Sacramento’s Capital Stage has Julian.

“Uncanny Valley,” by Thomas Gibbons, directed by Jonathan Williams, is part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, in which three or more theaters premiere the same new play within 12 months. “Uncanny Valley” premieres have already been held in Shepherdstown, W.Va.; Philadelphia; and San Diego.

Human beings have long toyed with the possibility of robots who can be our helpmates, our servants and maybe even our friends. The play deals with, but doesn’t quite answer the question of, what it means to be human and explores the futuristic world of non-biological humans who look, move, talk and think like human beings.

On a beautiful set designed by Stephen C. Jones that is both modern and futuristic at the same time, neuroscientist Claire (Jessica Powell) sits with the head and torso of Julian (Michael Patrick Wiles) who, over a series of short clips, learns how to move his head in a human-like way, speak in a less robotic cadence, raise his eyebrows, smile, etc.

In each clip he is a bit more complete. He gets an arm, then another arm, and finally legs, all while he becomes more “human” and acquires more of a personality, a curiosity about the world, an awareness of self — and a bond with Claire.

Ultimately, Claire lets Julian know that he has been created for a specific purpose. A wealthy, dying man has paid more than $200 million to develop a being into which can be uploaded all his memories, his characteristics, his DNA, so that he can live on after his physical death.

He has requested a body that resembles himself at age 34, the age at which he felt he was at his physical best. Problems arrive, following the original Julian’s death, with his biological son, age 44, who can’t accept the new Julian as his father.

The plot was inspired by an experiment in Russia where a multi-millionaire, Dimitry Itskov, is having a cyborg created that is basically identical to him, with the hopes that he will live hundreds of years after his death.

The term “uncanny valley” describes “the emotional responses humans have toward robots,” writes literary manager Stephanie Tucker. “… As robots become more human-like, humans feel increasingly empathetic toward them — up to a point. When robots become too lifelike, they seem ‘uncanny,’ and most humans grow increasingly anxious and repelled by them.”

While this is a thoroughly enjoyable play, there are certain parts of it that are “off.” With all of our experience with robots in movies and on television, it is easy to believe that such a being could be created and that it could be used to duplicate a living person so that he could live a longer life.

What is not believable is Claire’s relationship with Julian. We learn that he is not her first such creation and so it makes unbelievable her growing parental attraction to him, and her obvious pain at the thought of releasing him to have the download completed, knowing she will not see him again.

It is a flaw in the writing that seems strange as she begins to treat Julian as a real person, then uncharacteristically reveals much of her unhappy personal life to him, without such incidents ever having any sort of resolution (or even explanation) for the audience, though they are of huge importance to Claire.

Later, when Julian interferes with her life, it is ironic that she becomes angry: “What gives you the right to interfere in anyone’s life …” She later goes on to remind him that he’s “not a person at all.”

And there it is — she has worked long and hard to make him as lifelike as possible, to make him ready to take on the life of her rich employer, and now that she has succeeded so beautifully, she questions whether it was a good idea and whether she has, instead, created some sort of benign monster.

Wiles gives a wonderful performance as Julian, his slow advancement to humanoid believable and his completed self, returning to visit Claire, with just a hint of malice that the original Julian may have left out of the information gathered to pass along to his robot counterpart.

Watching him walk around the stage as the blended Julian, the actor makes it clear that there is a part of the old Julian slowly blending with the new Julian.

As for Powell, she starts as the ultimate professional and by the end of the play she is hardly recognizable as the person she was at the beginning, having been overcome by the problems in her personal life and her relationship with Julian.

But the ending is unsatisfactory. Perhaps the playwright designed it that way so that we would all go home discussing the play. There certainly was a lot of discussion among the audience on the way out of the theater.

Monday, June 22, 2015


Local girl makes good / Weds famous man / I was slap in the right place / At the perfect time / Filled a gap — I was lucky / But one thing I say for me / No one else can fill it / Like I can

That, in a nutshell is the plot of the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “Evita,” now at the Davis Musical Theatre Company, the final production of DMTC’s 30th season.

Last performed by DMTC in 2005, the current production is directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson, with musical direction by Jonathan Rothman and Steve Isaacson.

The principal characters in this show are Eva Peron, wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron, once known as “the most powerful woman in the world,” and Che Guevara (whom she never met in real life), who acts as narrator and observer of her life.

Che’s narration keeps this musical from becoming a celebration of Evita and instead focuses on how she slept her way to the top, embezzled from the government, and pulled the wool over just about everyone’s eyes, all while presenting a public persona that many people in Argentina adored.

Kate Murphy makes a fine Eva Duarte Peron, wannabe celebrity who uses her body to get what she wants, all the way up the class ladder to creating the image for politician Juan Peron. That image allows him to be so beloved by the “descamisados,” the working-class people, that it propels him into the presidency.

She is always haughty, and knows what she wants and how to get it. Her “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” the show’s signature song, was lovely.

Coury Murdock was powerful as Che, giving the role the right sardonic tone, and allowing himself to become angry with so much about Evita’s life.

The role of Juan Peron often takes a back seat to that of Evita and Che, as he doesn’t have that much to do, but F. James Raasch has such a powerful voice and presence that no one would ever give him a back seat in anything.

Likewise is the voice of Magaldi (Tony Ruiz), the Argentina club singer, the first in a series of lovers Evita chooses to help her achieve fame and fortune. Ruiz is a suitably sleazy character as he woos the young girl … and then gets snared in her trap.

Dancers George Morales and Kaylin Scott did a beautiful tango, choreographed by Ron Cisneros, in the background of a nightclub scene.

Nicolette Ellis appears in the small role of Peron’s Mistress, whom Evita tosses out when she takes over. The song “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is the loveliest song in this show, and Ellis sings with such sweet sadness that she makes a big impression.

There is a large chorus of aristocrats, army soldiers, dressers and two groups listed as “adult ensemble” and “children’s ensemble.” They may not dance with the precision of Rockettes, but Isaacson has created some very good numbers, which they execute quite well.

I wanted to particularly point out Ryan Everitt, whose dancing was more professional than the rest, and 6-year-old Gillian Cubbins (last seen as a munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz”), who is again irresistible. She’s the smallest one on stage (by a big margin), but she sings the words to every single song (some in Spanish). This girl will be one to watch as she grows up.

DMTC is trying out its new sound system with this show. There are now body mics and the stage itself is wired. This made a big difference in the balance between cast and orchestra, and this was the very best I’ve ever heard the DMTC orchestra as a result.

Jean Henderson’s costumes are, as always, gorgeous, especially Evita’s gown for the “Don’t Cry for Me” number.

The stage is a bit bare. Producers had planned to use projections of photos of Eva Peron’s life on the back wall, as they did in 2005, but somehow that did not work and so the large, blank white wall kind of intruded on everything. Except for one glitch, the movable set pieces designed by Steve Isaacson worked well.

The show will be presented at 8:15 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:15 p.m. Sundays through July 12 at the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center, 607 Peña Drive in Davis.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Evita (Feature Article)

Eva Peron, C 1949
“She was rancorous, revengeful, foul mouthed, low class, not in the sense of money, but in spirit.  She was really a resentful person.  If she didn’t like someone, she was very mean to them.”

Marta Induni, whose granddaughter Jackie is part of the cast of Davis Musical Theater Company’s “Evita” pulled no punches in expressing her feelings about Eva Peron.  Induni is a native of Argentina and came from a very “politically aware” family.  She was 15 when Juan Peron’s wife died so has many memories of her years as the first lady or Argentina.

“It was a very bad time,” she remembers.  “It was the triumph of the mob.  Sometimes they did some things for some people that helped them so there were lots of fanatics who really loved them and admired her.”  She recalls that though Eva had been an actress, appearing in bad movies prior to her meeting with Peron,  the movies were all confiscated after she became the first lady of Argentina.

“She had absolutely no taste but they got very good people to make her look presentable.  All her clothes were from Dior.  She had good features but she was not a beauty.  She was the lady of hope, like she was the virgin Mary or something like that.  But she was a whore.”
Induni is one of a handful of people from Davis’ Latin America community who are involved with the upcoming DMTC musical (Coury Murdock from Nicaragua is playing Che Guevara and George Morales of Honduras, a member of the ensemble, are two others.  Daniel Silva, the concertina player, is learning the bandoneón, a particular type of concertina popular in Argentina, by Skype from a woman in Argentina).  Induni feels the musical may glorify the Perons, but she thinks it has beautiful music and she was surprised at how accurately Buenos Aires, and the class distinctions of that time were portrayed in the movie.

Patricia Maccari, another member of the ensemble, grew up in Argentina and moved to Davis with her husband in 1999. She understands the Peron era from both sides because her mother’s family were among the poor who got the worst of the Peronistas and her father’s family lived in an industrial area which benefitted from the policies of Juan Peron.

“My dad’s side worked with iron and metal.  They had their own workshop at the back of the house.  My aunt remembers Peron and Evita’s visit to Mendosa, the area where they lived, which is a very productive industrial province.  (The wine industry is big there.)  Peron would build complete neighborhoods and would give the workers all these benefits.  So that side of the family supported him.  My grandfather was one of the workers who enjoyed the benefits of the government.”

In the musical, Che Guevara (whom Eva never met) is the one to point out all of the duplicity of the administration.

“He’s a metaphor for the far left people,” said Induni.  “Peron sometimes did things that weren’t so bad, so it was hard for a very left wing person to oppose them, but at the same time he was a Nazi.  It was a very strange combination of things.”

Jan Isaacson has done extensive research on how the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical came to written.  “It was really more Tim Rice,” she explained, saying that at the time Lloyd-Webber was busy with a musical version of Jeeves and Wooster with Alan Ayckbourn and came late to the Evita project.  She explained that he initially planned to tell the story from the viewpoint of Evita’s hairdresser, until he thought Che Guevara would be more interesting than some unknown hairdresser.

Elaine Paige, the original Evita, said that the role changed her life.  “Eva was a wonderful actress: strong, forceful, but with a vulnerable side.”

The vulnerable side was particularly apparent in her last days, Induni remembered.  “Peron exploited her to the end.  She was practically dying and he was on one occasion in a convertible and she was standing there with a fur coat and looked like a ghost.  He was passing her around when she was dying.”

She remembers seeing reports about Eva’s death.  “I was in high school when she died.  They announced her death and they embalmed her body and put the glass-topped coffin in the lobby of the Labor Department building.  All state employees had to go, like it or not.  There were long queues of people. People sincerely wanted to see her.  Each time somebody came to kiss the glass that covered the coffin, there was a nurse with some cotton and alcohol cleaning for the next kiss.”

When I asked Induni whether her family went to see her, she scoffed and said certainly not.

Love her or hate her, there is no denying that Eva Peron, at one time called the most powerful woman in the world, was a force to be reckoned with and, thanks to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber, it appears that her legend may live forever.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Third Date

THE THIRD DATE actor Gary Weinberg

When you hear that there is going to be a whole show about prostate cancer, it may give you pause. Surely not the way you want to spend an hour and a half of your life.

However, “The Third Date” by Robert Lautz is not a depressing show about a disturbing subject. Along with the inevitable poignant moments and a lot of information about prostate cancer there are also a lot of laughs because, let’s face it, cancer can be funny. Really! It’s what gets us through the really rough times. This is a witty, revealing and enjoyable play. Trust me.

This one-man show, directed by Maggie Adair Upton, is part of two new plays being presented at the Wilkerson Theater as part of California Stage Theater Company’s “Sac Solo Series 4.” (The other is “Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed,” written and starring Richard Winters.)

This the second play by playwright Lautz, a former Davis resident whose “The Meaning of it All” premiered at the Wilkerson Theater three years ago. At that time I said that it was a promising start and that I hoped it would not be another five years before we see more from Lautz.

Lautz took that as encouragement. Using his own experiences as a cancer patient, and working with dramaturge Lauren Sullivan, he has improved upon his freshman entry and is solidly in his sophomore year as a playwright.

Gary Weinberg plays Richard Montauk, a successful advertising man whose life is thrown into turmoil when he is diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. He’s kind of an unlikable male chauvinist pig whose wife has divorced him, but who, at the start of the play, is at the beginning of a possible new relationship and is uncomfortable, not quite knowing what could happen.

He then takes us back through his diagnosis, his endless treatments, his medications, his fights with the insurance company, the frustration with doctors. It’s a no-holds-barred journey which includes the dreaded digital prostate exam, the colonoscopy and endless humiliating procedures (as a woman who has gone through several pregnancies, I took fiendish glee seeing a man put in those compromising positions that we know all too well!)

There is no pussy footing around with terminology either. He calls a penis a penis. Many times. In fact, at one point he reads a whole bunch of colloquial euphemisms for that appendage, similar to the list for “vagina” in “The Vagina Monologues.”

There is helpful information to be had too, like the fact that chemotherapy kills testosterone and that if a man ever hopes to function sexually again, he must take Viagra every night, not for sexual performance, but to ensure that he will continue to have nocturnal erections which will keep his musculature in shape.

Women will also identify with his reactions to hot flashes, another side effect of the chemotherapy.
At the end of his treatment, he is broken, physically and emotionally and ready to re-examine his life and decide how to reshape it in order to become a better person.

Weinberg gives a marvelous performance in a 90-plus-minute piece that is loaded not only with the day-to-day thoughts of a cancer patient, but also a lot of technical information and jargon. Director Upton has cleverly used the device of Montauk referring to his journal to read the audience bits that he has written during his journey … it is obvious that it gives actor Weinberg a chance to remember where in his delivery he is, but it works and is a forgivable crutch, given the amount of material he is dealing with.

Weinberg was also dealing with a sweltering theater at the premier performance. Though the air conditioning worked at the start of the play, by the end of it, everyone in the audience was fanning themselves and Weinberg had sweat pouring off his face.

I sometimes think that the California Stage organization and its three theaters are some of the best theater in Sacramento that nobody has heard of. The small Wilkerson Theater had fewer than 25 people in the audience for its opening performance, which is a shame, as this is a good play with an important message and should have a wider audience.

One additional note: The play is dedicated to Cathy Manzano, a “Birch Lane Mom” who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2009.

“The Third Date” runs Saturdays only (matinee and evening performances) through July 4.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Explorers Club

(from L to R) David Silberman, Greg Alexander, Dave Pierini, John Lamb,
Jason Kuykendall, Stephanie Altholz
An outrageously funny comedy has them rolling in the aisles at the B Street Theater in Sacramento.

“The Explorers Club” by Nell Benjamin is tautly directed by Buck Busfield assisted greatly by Technical Director Steven Schmidt and Scenic Designer Meg McGuigan.  There isn’t a noticeable false movement or shaky piece of equipment in the play, which is key to its enjoyment.

Jason Kuykendall is Lucius Fretway, the acting president of the Explorers Club, a good old boys’ club of 1879 London.  Lucius wants to propose Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Stephanie Altholz) for membership as she has recently discovered the lost city of Pahatlabong and is set to present to Queen Victoria a member of the NaKong tribe (looking for all the world like an escapee from Blue Man Group–or a Smurf).  Lucius feels this qualifies her for admission to the Club, which has never had a female member. 

(The Royal Society, which debuted in 1660 did not admit a woman until 1945, Canada’s Royal Society barred women until 1938 and France’s Academy of Sciences would not elect a woman to full membership until 1979, even blackballing Marie Curie).

Lucius’ proposal rocks the membership - Professor Sloane (David Silberman), a biblical archaeologist who has proof that ancient Jews migrated to Ireland and that all Irishmen are really Jews; Professor Cope (Allen McKelvey), a herpetologist with a beloved snake named Rosie; and Professor Walling (Greg Alexander), obsessed with his pet guinea pig.

Phyllida’s wild tribesman has a name too long to pronounce, so she has called him Luigi (after a former boyfriend) and rewards him for proper behavior with treats, much like one would a dog.  John Lamb’s performance steals the show and would be worth the price of admission alone, were it not that the rest of the cast is so perfect as well.

It is clear that Lucius is in love with Phyllida.  He has, after all, named a plant after her, but any hopes for a romance are dashed by the return of the club’s rightful president Harry Percy (David Pierini), a larger than life explorer who claims to have just discovered the “east pole,” and who takes an instant shine to the woman and, unlike Lucius, is not shy about letting her know his feelings.

The action in this farce is rapid fire and unrelenting.  Delivery of drinks from the bar, by Luigi, who fills in for the missing bartender after his disastrous introduction to Queen Victoria sparks an international incident, is hilarious.

Winston Koone is Bernard Humphries, secretary to the queen, come to the Explorer’s club to capture the offending Luigi and Eason Donner is Beebe, an explorer whom Percy abandoned and left to the natives, returning to exact revenge.

Outside there are angry crowds representing several different groups who have bones to pick with someone inside...or with each other.

Don’t attempt to make sense of any of this, just relax and enjoy the laughs which are non-stop.

Meg McGuigan’s set is gorgeous, giving a real feel of one of those wood-paneled men’s clubs, with overstuffed furniture, Persian rugs, and trophies on the wall, where stuffy old men go to share brandy and cigars without the intrusion of the fairer sex.

Paulette Sand-Gilbert adds authenticity with her beautiful costumes, particularly the Navy costume for Harry Percy (which he admits he had worn in a production of “H.M.S. Pinafore.”)

This show takes you prisoner from the first line and does not let go until you are weak from laughter two acts later.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

My Fair Lady

From left, William Parry as Colonel Pickering, Glory Crampton as Eliza Doolittle and Paul Schoeffler as Henry Higgins perform in “My Fair Lady,” produced by Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion through June 14.
Charr Crail/Courtesy photo

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” is the lead-off to another fun Music Circus season. (It will be followed by “Big River,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Peter Pan,” “West Side Story” and “Hair.”)

This production is directed by Glenn Casale, who also directed “My Fair Lady” at Music Circus in 2001.

Based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” this popular classic tells the story of Henry Higgins, a self-centered, overbearing linguist who claims to be able to take a flower girl from Covent Garden, give her lessons in grammar, elocution and etiquette, and in six months pass her off as a lady of refinement at an embassy ball (or make her qualified to be a lady in a flower shop, which is even more difficult).

Paul Schoeffler (reprising his role from 2001) is a strong and powerful Higgins, the Music Circus sound system sometimes at such a level that it was almost painful. Nonetheless, he turns in a masterful performance and is at his best, perhaps, in his final song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” He first expresses his anger that Eliza has left him, and then realizes how much he has come to care for her and how much he will miss her.

Making her Music Circus debut, Glory Crampton, who played Eliza under Casale’s direction in Pittsburgh, has a gorgeous voice and is believable both as the raggedy flower girl and the elegant lady. Her “I Could Have Danced All Night” was a particular delight as she revels in the joy of finally having “got it” and celebrating with Higgins and his pal, Colonel Pickering.

Under Casale’s direction, Eliza’s first correct pronunciation of “The rain … in Spain … falls mainly … on the plain” is halting and unsure; she gains confidence the more she repeats the phrase correctly. Casale’s Eliza did this in 2001 as well and it reads more accurate than the smooth versions we see in other productions.

William Parry is Colonel Pickering, a fellow linguist who joins together with Higgins to pay for Eliza’s lessons and insist that she be treated with respect. It is because of Pickering, ever the gentleman, that Eliza learns how a lady should be treated, not just how she should behave.

Eliza’s father, the irrepressible Alfred P. Doolittle, is played deliciously by Stephen Berger. Doolittle, who attempts to sell his daughter to Higgins, later believes Higgins has ruined his life by mentioning him as one of the most noted spokesmen on middle-class morality of this country to an American billionaire, who leaves the dustman a sizable inheritance.

Doolittle has two outstanding numbers in the show, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Both showcase choreographer Bob Richard’s work at its best.

The character of Freddy Eynsford Hill, played by Jason Forbach, has got to be one of the sappiest characters in musical theater history. All he has to do is hang around Higgins’ house and moon over Eliza, with whom he fell instantly in love when he met her at Ascot.

He sings “On the Street Where You Live” many times, fully and in segments. Fortunately, Forbach has a magnificent voice, but I’ve always felt kind of sorry for poor Freddy.

Shannon Stoeke plays Professor Zoltan Karpathy, a former student of Higgins who now uses his learned talents “more to blackmail and swindle than teach.” Higgins’ triumph is Karpathy’s report on this mysterious Miss Doolittle’s real background.

Toni Sawyer plays Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mother, who takes a liking to Eliza and cheers her on when she finally has the gumption to stand up for herself.

Mary Jo Mecca is a steadfast and loyal housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce.

Marcy Froehlich is credited with costume design and the costumes are magnificent, particularly Eliza’s ball gown. But the real standout of the costumes are for the Ascot Races scene, perhaps the most famous scene in the play. The dresses are wonderful, the hats amazing.

But it is sad that the audience gets to really see only half of them, since the characters kind of mill around the stage while singing. How much better it would have been to make use of the Music Circus’s mechanical turntable — they have it, why not use it? — so that the costumes pass by all sections of the house, allowing all in the audience to fully appreciate each of them.

I also take issue with the fact that the characters freeze when watching the race, but nobody moves, no heads turn as the sound of hoofbeats pass by. You would think that each character is interested only in the split second that the horses pass where he or she is standing and not in the actual outcome of the race.

The finale of the show is very slightly different from the original, and a wonderful change in staging, which shows how much self-confidence Eliza has gained in the past six months. Bravo on a very slight but significant improvement.