Sunday, February 21, 2016


The B Street Family Series has opened an outstanding production of a new version of the “Frankenstein” story, written by B Street associate producer and author of many Family Series plays, Jerry Montoya.

Walking into the small theater and looking at the gorgeous set by Samantha Reno was a hint that the audience was in for something special.

And indeed it delivered on that promise.

The story is set at Villa Diodati, on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where Mary Shelley (Megan Wicks) and her husband Percy (Bryan Staggers) are hosting Lord Byron (Michael RJ Campbell), his personal physician John Polidori (John Lamb) and Mary’s stepsister (and mother of Byron’s illegitimate daughter) Claire Clairmont (Stephanie Altholz).

A discussion breaks out about ghost stories and whether women are capable of writing one, something about which the men scoff. Mary suggests a contest to see who can write the best ghost story.

The retelling of the Frankenstein tale is effectively handled, with the actors slipping into and out of characters in the story while Mary narrates.

Megan Wicks is simply electric as she paints the picture and characters of her ghost story. Aided by the lighting design of Les Solomon, she strides around the stage, striking dramatic poses that grab the audience and holds them until she moves again.

Solomon’s contrasting lighting for the Shelley home and the Frankenstein story is often subtle, but definitely leaves no question about whether we are in “today” or the fantasy tale of Mary Shelley.

Michael RJ Campbell is expansive as Lord Byron but positively terrifying as the corpse brought to life (though it is interesting how an undead person who can only roar loudly in one scene becomes so erudite in the next!). Campbell simply could not be better in this role.

Bryan Staggers gives a perfect performance as the somewhat effete Percy Shelley, the take-charge ship commander, and the skittish assistant to Dr. Frankenstein in the story itself.

John Lamb has the more difficult task, as a relatively minor character in the drawing room gathering, then the power-mad scientist discovering the “philosophers stone,” said to give immortality, and finally the terrified man who doesn’t know what he has created or how to stop it.

His experiments are aided in no small part by the special effects of beakers that bubble over in various colors and pots that smoke on cue. Good work on the part of technical director Steven Schmidt and his crew.

Altholz, who looks like she just stepped out of an old fashioned cameo portrait has less to do in her role as Claire, but does it very well nonetheless.

In an age where “The Walking Dead” is one of the most popular shows on television these days, “Frankenstein” is timely, and Montoya’s well written script gives lots for the adults in the audience to enjoy and enough scary stuff to delight the kids.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Happy Armenians

The country of Armenia has not had an easy time of it throughout history. It has been occupied by different dynasties from Ottoman to Iranian to Russian, among others. And then, between 1915 and 1918, during WWI, was the Armenian genocide, which killed 1.5 million victims and sent millions of women, children and the infirm on death marches into Syria (sound strangely familiar?) It is now a small sovereign state, bordered by Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and you don’t hear much about Armenia these days.

Playwright Aram Kouyoumdjian seeks to rectify that situation and to bring Armenia to light. His play, “Happy Armenians,” presented by California Stage and Vista Players at the Wilkerson Theater, supposes that there are parallel universes. In our universe all these terrible things happened to the people of Armenia, but in a parallel world, Armenians not only eluded the history of oppression and persecution, but actually became the most powerful country and has dominated the world for 600 years. Its main enemies are the warlike Swiss, whom they must guard against.

The only problem this parallel Armenia has is that the King (Gregory DePetro) is childless, and he will die within a month. His heir can only be his nearest blood relation, who happens to be Levon (Daniel Hubbard), a history teacher from Los Angeles, in our universe.

By some mysterious process that the beautiful scientist, Siran (Heather Lynn Smith) has been perfecting for some 10 years, Levon is taken from our universe and moved to the parallel Armenia where he is expected to learn all there is to learn about running the country in the little time the King has left.

Kouyoumdjian has been working on this idea for several years and says that “the script started coming to life earlier last year, as Armenians around the globe were commemorating the Genocide’s centennial.” He knew he wanted to write a play that commemorated the genocide without being a “Genocide play.”

And, in fact, he has done just that. “Happy Armenians” is a comedy, which may not be full of big belly laughs, but the humor is often subtle (like references to the warlike Swiss), and gets much of its humor from how various tragedies in our world were handled in parallel Armenia. (Their Wall Street equivalent is wonderful).

This production is fortunate in that all five of the cast members originated their roles in Los Angeles, so have been playing these parts for a long time and have perfected them.

As the King, DePetro is regal, sincere, and convinced that he is leaving his Kingdom in good hands. He is quite cavalier in his treatment of his enemies and at times reads like a Star Trek script.

His queen, Jade Hykush, dedicates her performance to her grandparents, who were survivors of the Armenian genocide, so for the actress, this role is very personal and we feel the intensity of her emotions as she first does not believe her healthy appearing husband is really dying and then her anguish at his death.

Hubbard, as Levon, starts out as a befuddled man who can’t understand where he is and what he is doing there, but over the course of the 90-minute play grows in confidence and willingness to assume his responsibilities on the death of the King, of whom he has become quite fond.

Smith’s performance as Siran is at the soul of the play as it is she who convinces Levon that he is indeed the right person to assume the crown. It is also obvious that she is falling in love with him, and she will be a fitting queen for him to support and help him rule the country.

Rounding out the cast is Tavis L. Baker, as Patrick, the only non-Armenian in the King’s circle, who must keep his true identity secret, for xenophobia exists in this Armenia as well. He is confidante to the King and becomes friend and advisor to Levon as well. It is clear that these two will not only continue the King’s vision for the empire, but improve on it, using Levon’s knowledge of history from his own universe.

A big part of the effectiveness of this play is the original music of Ara Dabandjian, whose recorded themes hit just the right emotion of various scenes. Likewise, the lighting design of Henrik Mansourian and Kirk Glover create a perfect atmosphere for any universe.

As we watch Levon step into his new role as King, we might wonder what the world would have been like if we had lived in this parallel universe, which seems so logical and orderly, instead of the one we inhabit.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Last Five Years

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, at Green Valley Theatre Company is a falling in and out of love story.

Cathy (Jennifer Morrison), an aspiring actress, and aspiring writer Jamie (Kevin Caravalho, who also directed the show) switch back and forth. Cathy starts at the end of the relationship and works backward to the beginning; Jamie starts at the beginning and works forward to the painful ending. The two meet in the middle, at their wedding.

The play was initially designed for each character to be on stage alone to sing, but wanting to make it more fluid and meatier, Caravalho keeps both on stage most of the time.

The end result makes the story a bit fuller.

Morrison is a marvel, a “belter” of the first order. She begins with the haunting “Still Hurting,” which has the ability to drag the audience into the song to feel her pain.

Caravalho, starting as a young man in love, brings delight and magic to the role as he gleefully talks about his “Shiksa Goddess.”

His mood darkens as the relationship begins to sour.

The music is further aided by the richness of a five-piece orchestra, which includes two cellos (and one cellist, Eimi Taormina, also an accomplished actress, stepping into the story briefly), and adds a depth that a single piano would not give.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Little Mermaid

There were dozens of little girls in blue dresses with sparkly stuff on the bodice or on their shoes, some with wands or Ariel dolls in their hands at the Sacramento Community Center theater.  They were all there to see Disney’s “Little Mermaid, a visually stunning extravaganza of special effects that allows most of the cast to swim realistically in and out among the boulder and bubbles.

It’s your typical boy-meets-fish story.  Princess of the Sea longs to live in the sunshine, while on shore, the heir to the earthly kingdom is uninterested in ruling and would rather live by the sea.  A fortuitous accident tosses him into the briny deep and she rescues him, falling instantly in love.

Like Prince Charming searching for the girl to fit the glass slipper, Prince Eric sets out to find the girl he never saw, but whose voice set his little heart going pitter pat.

Meanwhile under the sea, Princess Ariel throws a hissy fit at daddy Triton and seeks the aid of evil aunt Ursula, the octopus.  She trades her voice for feet and is tossed out on the shores of Eric’s kingdom.  He finds her, but she can’t tell him who she is.  He is in the middle of a hunt for the girl with the beautiful voice, who will become his queen.

In due time, this being a fairy tale, all is resolved, Ursula gets her comeuppance, Daddy gives his permission for the inter-species marriage and everyone lives happily ever after, presumably not serving seafood for the wedding supper.

With music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, this sounds like every other Menken-Ashman show you’ve ever seen (in spots exactly like “Beauty and the Beast,”) but their tunes are fun, including the signature “Under the Sea,” sung by Arial’s best friend, the delightful lobster Sebastian (Melvin Abston). 

Alison Woods is a beautiful Ariel, with a winsome personality and a beautiful voice, while her Prince (Eric Kunze) is all macho ‘n’ stuff, with a great set of pipes.

Fred Inkley is a majestic King Triton, while Ursula (Jennifer Allen) is a mean and vindictive octopus with a strong voice to shatter the walls. Think Cruella de Ville with tentacles.

Comic relief (though none is needed!) is provided by Jeff Skowron as the delightful Chef Louis, preparing a royal feast for the prince’s visiting love interest.  (Skowron has also played the Pilot, Grimsby and Triton in other productions of this show).

There are a host of sea creatures from the seagull Grimsby (Time Winters), Ariel’s best friend Flounder (Adam Garst) and Ursulla’s two eel minions, Flotsam and Jetsam (Scott T. Leiendecker and Jeffrey Christohper [sic] Todd).

The thing that impressed me most was the subtle but constant undulating of all of the undersea characters, indicating that they were in a moving body of water.

All is under the direction of Glenn Casale, no stranger to any Sacramento area theater patron, as he has directed most Music Circus productions over the last many years.

As much fun as this show is, and as wonderful as the performers are, the real stars of the show are the technical effects, with scenery design by Kenneth Foy, who has designed for such entities as La Scala, Radio City Music Hall, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and lighting by Charlie Morrison.

With the assistance of equipment from Flying by Foy, characters float, twist, turn, and swim realistically, the costumes of Amy Clark and Mark Koss with their flowing fins adding to the realism.

No one will be disappointed in this formulaic Disney musical which hits all the right plot points, gives you a song to hum on the way home, and is a visual delight from start to finish.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Love and Information

Jacob Garcia and Gail Dartez perform in “Love and Information”
running through Feb. 28 at Capital Stage. Charr Crail/Courtesy photo

Imagine dumping over a bucket of marbles.  Each marble has a theatrical scene written on it.  You pick up marbles at random and perform the scene.

That’s kind of how award-winning playwright, Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” seems to be.  Some 50+ scenes over 95 minutes, some as short as only two lines before blackout, strung together in what seems to be random fashion.  In fact, so random that even the playwright gives leeway for production interpretation. As long as the scenes which comprise of each of 7 sections remain within that section, it’s OK to rearrange them.  There are no character or gender names in the script, so men and women may reverse roles from how it was done in some other production.

It may seem like this would produce a big confusing mess, but in some odd way, it works.

The message is the message.

In these post-Sesame Street days, we have all grown up with short attention spans and a need for instant gratification, and Churchill’s work plays into that.  We get a glimpse, but only a glimpse of the lives of others and then we move on to the next scene.  It’s like flipping through the channels on your television set, catching brief glimpses of the program that is on before moving onto the next.

Some are funny, some are sad, some are confusing.  Some are short, a conversation of only 5 lines. Others may present a more complete scene, e.g. a scientist explaining how he gathers chickens for experiment on how their brains work. 

Some are very funny, as two teenagers with big crushes on a famous star, comparing what they know about him.

Some are more poignant, as a discussion with an Alzheimers patient, or someone being given a bad medical diagnosis.

One of our favorites was a piece called “Linguist,” which is a discussion of what the place where you put your food when you sit down to eat is called in different languages. (table, trapezi, stol, mesa, meza, tarang, tabulka).  The message of that one sneaks up on you.

There is a cast of eleven - Rob August, Eric Baldwin, Gail Dartez, Kristine Elizabeth David, Jacob Garcia, Laura Kaya, Jouni Kirjola, Tiffanie Mack, Alexander Martnez, Matt K. Miller and Emilie Talbot - and each plays a number of characters, each trying to make sense of what they know, all impeccably. 

As important as the actors is the tech staff.  Benjamin T. Ismail is the director who makes this all work.

Brian Watson is the scenic designer who has created a stage of circuitry and boxes which move in and out to suggest settings.

Steve Decker has the task of lighting and projections design/technical director.  Without his lighting and projections and the sound effects of Ed Lee, from electronic circuitry in motion to babies crying and dogs barking, this would not have been nearly as effective a production.

There is a set crew who move the set pieces around with such speed and proficiency that, despite the number of scenes to be covered, it all went very smoothly.

At the end of the show, the temptation is to say ‘what was that all about?” but as you think about it, it just somehow all makes sense.

This is a unique theatrical experience but a memorable one which should be very satisfying.