Thursday, July 23, 2015

Peter Pan

Jenn Colella as Peter Pan and Maria Briggs as Jane take to the skies
as Jennifer Hope Wills as Old Wendy watches in “Peter Pan,”
produced by Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion
through Sunday. Charr Crail/Courtesy photo

With a little magic, a lot of fairy dust and some really strong overhead wires, “Peter Pan” bursts through the nursery window of the Wells Fargo Pavilion to thrill children and adults in this week’s first-rate Music Circus production of the J.M. Barrie classic.

The Tony Award-winning 1998 version, which also was made into an A&E TV special, is directed by Glenn Casale, with delightful choreography by Patti Colombo and additional flying-sequence choreography by Paul Rubin.

Three of the actors in this Music Circus production also were part of the A&E production — Paul Schoeffler (Mr. Darling/Captain Hook), Michael Nostrand (Smee) and Kim Arnett, a member of the ensemble.

Jenn Colella, recently co-starring with Idina Menzel on Broadway in “If/Then,” is an energetic Peter Pan — brash, physical, petulant, endearing. She has the swagger of a young boy, and flies through the air with the greatest of ease, sprinkling fairy dust in her wake.

The Darling children, who fly with Peter to Neverland, are Aidan Winn as John, Joshua Davis as Michael and Lori Eve Marinacci as Wendy. Winn is adorable, clutching his teddy bear in his footed jammies. Davis has a Harry Potter-ish appearance with his big glasses. Marinacci is a warm and caring Wendy, ready to be mother to the lost boys of Neverland, until she realizes that she really needs her own mother.

Jennifer Hope Wills is Mrs. Darling, who sings the children a beautiful lullaby (“Tender Shepherd”). Her husband is played by Paul Schoeffler, who also plays Captain Hook.

Schoeffler, who is returning to Music Circus after a long hiatus, has a long performing history with the group. He is simply marvelous, particularly as Hook, roaring orders at everyone, but reduced to a quivering mass of fear when faced with his nemesis, the crocodile, who has already bitten off one hand and wants to come back for the other.

The crocodile (Jake DuPree) is very realistic (and terrifying). DuPree is also the guy inside the Nana the Dog costume back in the nursery and is as believable as a dog as he is as a crocodile.

Michael Nostrand plays Hook’s right-hand man, Smee, the perfect sycophant ready to serve Hook at the drop of a hat.

Colombo’s choreography is outstanding, particularly the dances for the Indians, led by the Indian Princess Tiger Lily (Desiree Davar). Each of the Indian dances was a show-stopper, particularly the somewhat less-than-politically correct “Ugg-a-Wugg.” (Many believe the song employs outdated stereotypes about the American Indian language and culture, both musically and lyrically, and the lyrics were changed for the recent TV special).

Politically correct or not, this drum-infused dance number brought down the house on opening night.
The plot of the frenetic life on Neverland seems to be that the Indians hate the lost boys, as do the pirates, who also hate the Indians. It seems that everyone is chasing everyone at one time or another, though “Ugg-a-Wugg” celebrates a new liaison between Indians and Boys after Peter Pan rescues Tiger Lily from a rock where she was left by the pirates to die.

Suffice to say there is a lot of running and chasing and yelling and the kids in the audience loved it. I personally would have liked the volume of the sound, which can be ear-splitting, be turned down a smidge, but this is a show for the kids, not for grumpy adults.

Special kudos must be given to the ever-efficient Music Circus tech crew, who did yeomen’s duty hauling big set pieces on and off the stage in the dark. Scenic designers Scott Klier and Jamie Kumpf have done a great job particularly in creating the nursery with its overhead shelves lined with toys.

It’s hard to do a bad production of this popular story, and this version by the Music Circus is definitely popular with everyone in the audience, which had a high number of children.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Next to Normal

Andrea Thorpe's character Diana shows her extreme highs and lows in "Next to Normal,"
presented through Aug. 16 by Runaway Stage Productions.
Courtesy photo
 A rock musical that brings mental illness out of the closet is now being presented by Runaway Stage Productions at the West Sacramento Community black-box theater.

For those of us who grew up with musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Meredith Willson, there is a certain formulaic expectation in our musicals, which basically were love stories with a bit of conflict thrown in, which was usually resolved by the finale.

Jonathan Larson shattered that illusion when his “Rent” premiered on Broadway; it was a raw rock opera about AIDS and drugs and lots of not very pretty things. It took Broadway by storm. Then came “Spring Awakening” about puberty and suicide, another blockbuster. They opened the door to other musicals that don’t end happily ever after.

Now, along comes “Next to Normal,” a rock musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), under the direction of Bob Baxter, about bipolar disorder.

The piece began in 1998 as a short sketch about a woman undergoing electroshock therapy and originally was titled “Feeling Electric.” Over the next 10 years it grew and developed and finally opened off-Broadway as “Next to Normal” in 2008 and won the Outer Critics’ Circle award for Outstanding Score and Drama Desk award nominations for Outstanding Actress and Outstanding Score.

After a run in Washington, D.C., it reopened on Broadway in 2009 and was nominated for 11 Tony awards and won three (Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Performance by a Leading Actress). It also became the eighth musical in the history of the Pulitzer Prizes to win a prize for drama.

Mental illness is not pretty and it affects not only the person suffering, but the family as well. Andrea Thorpe (whom Davis Comic Opera Company patrons may remember from her portrayal of Fantine in last year’s “Les Miserables”) plays Diane Goodman, who has suffered from bipolar depression since the death of her son many years ago. This is a tricky role in which the character runs the gamut from confusion to pain to rage, but still must be sympathetic so the audience cares about her. Thorpe carries it off beautifully.

She has a very supportive husband in Dan (Darryl Strohl-DeHerrera), who is willing to help her try many treatments, and try every new medicine that comes along. The emotional toll of Diana’s illness on Dan gradually becomes apparent, as her mood swings begin to wear him down.

Kristina Dizon is perhaps the saddest character, Natalie, the child born after the death of her brother, who has been ignored all of her life and we see how this has affected her. Even her new boyfriend Henry (Tylen Einweck), who doesn’t realize what he is getting into and is very naive in his introduction to mental illness, can’t quite bring happiness to her life.

Outstanding is Michael Roivas as hallucination of the now grown-up dead child, Gabe. His song “I’m Alive” taunts Diane to believe that he is real again.

I am more than memory, I am what might be / 
I am mystery / 
You know me / 
So show me
When I appear it’s not so clear 
if I’m a simple spirit or I’m flesh and blood

Taylor Presnall plays two different therapists with two different approaches to Diane’s problem, neither of whom really seems to understand her problem.

The black-box theater is tiny, making the audience really a part of the family (at one point I considered leaning over and turning off the table lamp that was shining in my eyes!), and with everyone squished in so tightly, moving large set pieces down the narrow aisles is an experience, especially for those sitting on the aisle. But the intimacy adds another dimension to the appreciation of what is happening on stage.

The seven-piece orchestra, under the coordination of keyboardist Deann Golz, is distributed across the two levels of the stage and mostly performs well, except for a couple of spectacular glitches that made the audience jump.

At the conclusion of the play, we have examined everything from electroshock therapy to faulty medication and see the frustration not only for the patient but also for the family. There is a possibility of a happily ever after, but it would take a sequel to know exactly how it all comes out.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


The lights in B Street’s small B3 Season theater go up to reveal Alicia Hunt, The Pilot, in the current production of “Grounded.” She stands tall and proud with eyes shining, because she has just completed a bombing run.

She dares you to take your eyes off of her as she strides around the stage. She exudes confidence and pride that she, a woman, is a Top Gun in the male-dominated Air Force. She is accepted as one of the guys. They go up in their planes, hit their targets and then go to the local bar to drink together, the camaraderie of soldiers in a war.

She revels in her love of “the blue.” She is proud of the “blood and sweat and brains” she has expended in earning her uniform, and she speaks with excitement as she talks of delivering her deadly payloads, “pounding minarets into dust.”

She is a loner, she explains, because men are usually intimidated by her job, but then one night she meets Eric, who is not intimidated. They start seeing more of each other and the inevitable happens: She’s pregnant.

She can’t fly pregnant, and the Air Force grounds her and assigns her to what she calls the “Chair Force,” doing office work. After she marries Eric and gives birth to daughter Samantha, she stays at home to be with the baby for three years.

Eventually, the job of a housewife and stay-at-home mom is no longer enough and she starts yearning for the blue again.

With Eric’s blessing, she returns to her unit, expecting to be reunited with her beloved F-16 fighter plane. But she discovers things have changed. She will no longer be flying a jet over the desert, she will be sitting in an air-conditioned trailer in the Nevada desert piloting a drone flying somewhere in the Middle East, while looking down on her targets and getting orders from a disembodied voice in her ear.

She no longer lives in the blue, but in the “gray” of the drone room. She gets up in the morning, feeds Samantha and takes her to school, then drives an hour to the trailer, works her 12-hour shift blowing up “bad guys” in the desert, then is home in time for dinner and to put Samantha to bed.

There is no more camaraderie and she can’t even share her work with her husband because it’s all top-secret. She no longer feels the power that she felt when flying a plane and under constant threat of death.

The longer she does this job, the more surreal it seems, especially when she discovers that she now sees her targets much too clearly, watching body parts fly into the air as the bombs explode. This brings up a very real question for those of us watching about modern warfare, where kids are just playing video games … but with real lives. It definitely has an effect on our Pilot.

This is a masterful, emotionally charged performance by Hunt, an Equity actress working in Los Angeles and New York, who is a Davis native. She grew up in the Acme Theatre Company, Barnyard Stage, Davis Musical Theatre Company and at other local performing venues.

Director Lyndsay Burch keeps things focused with no lag time in the crisp dialog of The Pilot.

If there is a negative to this production it is the scenic design by Samantha Reno. There is a large cartoon-like sand dune sweeping across the back of the stage, looking somewhat like Donald Trump’s hair, which might have worked well except that video projections are an important part of this story, and they tend to get lost in the busy-ness of the backdrop.

It was a shame to lose so much of that part of the show.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Bye Bye Birdie

Larry Raben as Albert Peterson, left, Amanda Jane Cooper as Kim MacAfee, Nathaniel Hackmann as Conrad Birdie, Sainty Nelsen as Ursula Merkle, Kathryn Mowat Murphy (Mayor’s wife) and Steve Geary (Mayor) perform with the company in “Bye Bye Birdie,” produced by Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion through Sunday, July 12. Kevin Graft/Courtesy photo

 In 1957, rock-and-roll idol Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army, sparking a media circus that probably was tame by today’s standards. Millions of teenage girls went into mourning that their idol was going away to serve his country for 18 whole months.

Writers Michael Stewart (book), Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics), who had been trying to work out the plot for a new musical, took Presley’s induction and ran with it. The musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” now at the Music Circus, was nominated for eight Tony Awards that year, and won four, including the award for Best Musical.

The Music Circus has presented this delightful show four times before, but not since 1999, so it was fun to see it back on stage.

The rock-and-roll hunk, Conrad Birdie in this production, is Nathaniel Hackmann, who bumps and grinds with the best of them, and sings in that Elvis way that knocks girls (and some married women) off their feet. Hackmann is a little more subdued than some Birdies I’ve seen, but he gets his point across.

Conrad is a little short in the smarts department and relies on his agent, Albert Peterson (Larry Raben), to manage his career. This is the role that made Dick Van Dyke a superstar, and while Raben doesn’t have the pizzazz of Van Dyke, his smooth performance and his nimble toes make this a very likable Albert indeed. His “Put on a Happy Face” with Sad Girls Ashley Anderson and Sarah Marie Jenkins was very sweet.

Peterson’s right-hand woman is Rosie Alvarez. Janine DiVita gives a stellar performance. She takes command of the stage from the moment she steps on it and the stage lights up every time she returns. She is simply outstanding.

Rosie has come up with a great plan to make Conrad’s entry into the Army a highlight of his career and suggests that Albert write a song called “One Last Kiss,” which Conrad will sing to one of his millions of teenage fans, picked at random.

Kim MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio, is the lucky girl. Amanda Jane Cooper is amazing. To watch her on stage, you’d think she was a bright-eyed, fresh-faced teenager, totally convincing as one of Conrad’s worshippers. In fact, according to her bio, Cooper is a theater veteran who has a lengthy performing résumé, including playing Glinda in the first touring production of “Wicked.”

Rebecca Baxter is Kim’s mother, a solid performance that would do credit to Beaver Cleaver’s mother. She’s the perfect 1950s housewife, complete with heels and crinoline under her skirt.

I don’t know if he was trying to channel Paul Lynde or not, but Stuart Marland’s performance as Mr. MacAfee was definitely a credit to Lynde, the original Mr. MacAfee. He’s blustery and in awe of his hero, Ed Sullivan, when he learns the family is to be on Sullivan’s show.

Albert’s mother, Mae Peterson, is played by Mary-Pat Green, who is deliciously overbearing and the master of the guilt trip.

Garett Hawe is Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo. The two have just been pinned and Hugo does not take kindly to the idea of Kim being kissed by Conrad. He’s the perfect gawky teen, but he grows up before our eyes as he gradually gets the courage to let everyone know how he feels.

There is an ensemble of teens and townspeople making for fun numbers like “The Telephone Hour” and “One Last Kiss.”

“Bye Bye Birdie” is a show that lends itself easily to adding extras from time to time. A story of a rock idol who needs screaming fans is a great place to use members of the Music Circus junior company, who fill the aisles of the Wells Fargo Pavilion, joining with the chorus, waving Birdie banners, and screaming appropriately. It gave the production the feel of a much bigger show.

This is definitely a high-energy, fun show that evokes a time when life seemed much simpler, though some of the dated references (e.g., the confusion between Mussolini and Rossallini) did not seem to connect with the younger crowd.