Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Totalitarians

Cassidy Brown and Kelley Ogden perform in the Capital Stage production of
“The Totalitarians,” running through July 24. Charr Crail/Courtesy photo
About 10 minutes into playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s hilarious comedy, “The Totalitarians,” I was convinced that we had found Donald Trump’s playbook. At intermission, I checked on the date of publication and learned it was first produced in 2014, while Trump was still firing people on “The Apprentice,” and his watch words were “You’re fired,” not “Make America great again.”

I spoke with director Peter Mohrmann after the show and commented on the wonderful coincidence of a Trump candidacy at the time they were doing this show (which had been booked a year and a half ago). He said he had been nervously watching the campaign hoping Trump would not “peak too soon.”

But whether written with Trump in mind or not, this play will definitely have you making comparisons constantly.

Penny Easter (the amazing Jamie Jones) is an over-the top Sarah Palin-type who is running for lieutenant governor of Nebraska. She wears camouflage pants, carries a big crossbow and her only credentials are that she is a bright-eyed, good-looking former roller derby champ with great hair. She’s not too big in the brains department and tends to go off script and say whatever she thinks. She has a rich husband and a smile that charms everyone.

She is loaded with charisma (pronounced CHA-risma), she says. She uses off-color language and malaprops and has never heard of “political correctness.” She speaks in nonsensical rhetoric in such a stirring fashion that her followers are slavishly devoted and don’t realize she is making no sense whatever.

Sound familiar? This was written as a satire but, sadly, it doesn’t feel so much satirical anymore!
Penny’s long-suffering campaign manager, Francine (Kelley Ogden), is stressed to the max, and trying to balance her own political ambitions of becoming a speech writer for a big Washington politician with the job of writing a winning speech for a woman whose “stupidity is not an act,” she admits.

Her stress level is not helped by husband Jeffrey (Cassidy Brown), who desperately wants his wife to give up politics and agree to start a family. Jeffrey is a tender-hearted physician who can’t bear to let his patient Ben (Casey Worthington) know that he has aggressive cancer and will die within the month.

Ben is a political activist, dead set against Penny winning the election and willing to go to any length to make that happen. He draws Jeffrey, who has been feeling frustratingly ineffectual in his life, into his plans (it seems to be a coalition of two), unbeknownst to Francine.

Penny’s campaign takes off when Francine comes up with the winning slogan, “Freedom from Fear.” Temporary tattoos are given to the crowds with “FFF” on them and Penny’s speeches get more and more strident.

Then comes the “Freedom from Fear” moment and everyone raises their fists in the air. At first dead silence, just fists. And then a whisper growing, the crowd beings to chant “FFF. FFF. FFF.”

After a stump speech that any actress would die for, which Jones delivers with all the fervor in her bones, the campaign becomes wildly successful and the women are overwhelmed with the joy of creating such an emotionally effective response. In the meantime, Jeffrey and Ben are lurking in the city park trying to expose a totalitarian regime (“You think it’s a coincidence that Nebraska is the state where Kool-Aid was invented?) and relating to each other in unexpected ways.

This play is viciously funny in the first act, but a little less so in the second, though discovering Ben’s secret is definitely the key to the finale.

Stephen Decker’s set design is simple but marvelously utilitarian with pieces that slide in and out, up and down, without ruining the integrity of the basic message of the stage.

“The Totalitarians” is, at its core, a story about power. Penny Easter lusts for traditional political control. Ben seeks power through the destabilization of current power structures. Jeffery, feeling lost in his marriage, is trying to find power again through becoming a father. Francine is reveling in the power of creating a character who can rise to greatness using her words, though in her lust for success for Easter, she has forgotten her own set of values.

The end result is a dark comedy that rings all too true in this day and age.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Music Man

Howard Hill (Richard Wall) charms the ladies of River City, Iowa, in the Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of "The Music Man." From left are Jen Nachmanoff as Mrs. Squires, Dannette Vassar as Alma Hix, Mary Young as Eulalie Shinn, Jean Thompson as Maud Dunlop, Jessica Arena as Zaneeta Shinn and Christina Rae as Ethel Toffelmier. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo
“The Music Man,” which closes out the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s 31st season, is a beloved musical that has been around since it opened on Broadway in 1957. It won five Tony Awards, including one for Robert Preston in the role of Harold Hill, the traveling salesman going about the country selling the promise of a boys’ band.

Preston made the role such an iconic one that when Cary Grant was offered a chance to play Harold Hill in the 1962 movie version, he is reported to have said that not only would he not play the role, but if they didn’t cast Preston, he wouldn’t even see the movie.

And so Preston has been the definitive Harold Hill for nearly 60 years; hundreds of actors have followed him, but none has the panache of Preston. Richard Wall, a middle-school principal from Elk Grove making his DMTC debut with this show, must have done a lot of channeling because his is the first performance I have personally seen, in a host of “Music Mans” through the years, that comes close to creating the magic of Preston’s performance.

According to co-producer Steve Isaacson, the last time Wall was on stage was in high school, when he played … Harold Hill.

But then most of the performers in this production, which DMTC has been presenting for years, are good. Wendy Carey, who grew up as a DMTC kid, plays Marian Paroo. Her voice is smooth as glass and she is a lovely Marian.

(A piece of local history: The dress Carey wears in the final scene was originally made by costumer Charlotte French in 1989 for Nancianne Pfister’s only on-stage appearance, in the Davis Comic Opera Company’s 10th-anniversary show. You have to love the small world of theater in Davis!)

Adam Sartain is very funny as Harold’s former partner in crime, Marcellus Washburn, who has found himself in the quiet town of River City, Iowa, and is settling down with the local piano player, Ethel Toffelmier (Christina Roe). Sartain is at his best leading the local kids in a rousing dance number, “Shipoopi.”

DMTC veteran Mary Young makes an imposing Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (wife of the mayor, Steve Mackey). Young’s opening-scene costume is a study in yellow and is one of my favorites in the show. She looks like a canary among all those feather-hatted women gossiping about Marian.

Cullen Smith is sadly saddled with a terrible wig, but it does not detract from her delightful performance as Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s mother, who is up for doing anything to help her daughter get a man.

Ten-year-old Django Nachmanoff is an adorable Winthrop, the kid whose lisp makes him shy and silent until Harold promises him a coronet and a uniform with a big red stripe down the leg. His “Gary, Indiana” brought down the house.

Eight-year-old Gillian Cubbage, who made her DMTC debut last year in “The Wizard of Oz,” has fulfilled the faith I had in her during that show. Playing the mayor’s daughter, Gracie, she’s growing in ability and is as professional as any adult on the DMTC stage. (And it doesn’t hurt that she’s cute, too).

Jackie Smith-Induni does well as Amaryllis Hix, Marian’s piano student, who joins her in singing “Goodnight, My Someone.” She plays a lovely “cross-hand piece.”

Tommy Djilas, the “bad” kid from the wrong side of the tracks, is given an earnest performance by Jonathan Kalinen, while his girlfriend Zaneeta Shinn (Jessica Arena) shrieks “yeee-gods” with the best of them.

One other performer in a minor role who deserves mention is Jean Thompson as Maud Dunlop, wife of Ewart Dunlop (Jeff Nauer), a member of the school board-turned-barbershop quartet. Thompson has a magical face that just glows and makes any scene in which she appears extra-fun.

The barbershop quartet includes, in addition to Nauer, Jeremy Carlson, Scott Scholes and Andy Hyun. They are always fun and these guys do a good job of bringing back that old barbershop sound.

Returning to the DMTC stage after a hiatus is Ben Bruening as Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman, out to expose Harold Hill for the swindler that he is. Bruening is suitably slimy and the man you want to boo.

This is an odd production in that Hill is going to form a “boys’ band” but, other than Winthrop, there are no young boys in the cast and the band to whom he says, “think, men” are all girls. But let it pass. No need to complain about such a small point in an otherwise enjoyable show.

A Revolutionary Mind

The cast of “A Revolutionary Mind,” presented by California Stage, includes Marion Jeffrey as Susan, surrounded by Michael Erwin as the Professor, Joe Monroe as Alan and Berman Obaldia as Raymundo Gleyser. Courtesy photo

 Leslie Lewinter-Suskind (“Italian Opera”) is introducing her new play, “A Revolutionary Mind,” at California Stage Theater’s R25 Arts Complex. The production is directed by Ray Tatar.

Drawing inspiration from the life and disappearance Argentinian filmmaker Raymundo Gleyzer, this play centers on Susan (Marion Jeffery), a boomer generation activist who was ready to set the world on fire and make it a better place for everyone.

But first she had to marry Alan (Joe Monroe); then the birth of a daughter, and then a son, intervene with her plans to save the world.

The show itself bounces back and forth seamlessly among three time periods — the present day, Susan’s college years and her dialogs with her professor (Michael T. Erwin) and conversations with Raymundo Gleyzer (Berman Obaldia) as she tries to make sense of her life and what she has accomplished. It also deals with the very real disappearance of her daughter, whom she has raised to be an activist and who went off to film atrocities around the world, like Gleyzer.

The success of this powerful plan rests on the performance of Jeffery as Susan. She is mesmerizing. She has the ability to transform from the modern-day subservient wife to the passionate student to the frustrated activist and back again with the mere turn of her head and slight change in her expression. It really must be seen to be appreciated.

Matching Jeffery in intensity is Obaldia as Gleyzer, a larger-than-life figure whose passion for recording the atrocities he sees around him and sharing them with the world ultimately will lead to his torture and execution. It is he who extracts the most guilt from Susan as he points out that while she has the desire, she gave it up in exchange for a husband and a suburban home where she gives dinner parties serving Swedish meatballs or fondue and attends meetings about the condition of the world.

(“How do you silence the real world so you can hear the real world?” she asks in anguish. Any frustrated activist in the audience will identify immediately!)

Erwin as the Professor is a nice, tell-it-like-it-is character who takes no excuses from Susan and always challenges her to be better than she thinks she can be.

At the same time, husband Alan (Monroe) is himself frustrated, wanting to be supportive of Susan, but tired of her leaving the family, whether physically or emotionally, to try to change the world.

As the play begins, he is dealing with the American Embassy, which has called to let the family know that their daughter is missing. The encouraging and then discouraging news of the daughter permeates the evening, and is driving Susan’s conflicted emotions, realizing that it was she who instilled in her daughter the need to change the world, which has led to this dangerous situation in which she now finds herself.

(According to his bio, “A Revolutionary Mind” is the first theater production for Monroe, and he certainly shows promise for future productions.)

While I found this play excellent and very moving, I also found it depressing. The collegiate Susan’s passionate hopes for her future are shared with her professor and sound like they came right out of a Bernie Sanders speech. (Maybe they did.)

The more that Susan, her professor and Gleyzer talk, the more one realizes that we have not come nearly as far as we hoped we had. We are still fighting the battles they fought during the civil rights era, only now we are fighting for the rights for even more categories of human beings. We still do not have universal health care or schooling available to all. Atrocities are still happening in foreign lands. The battle goes on, as it has for centuries.

I don’t know if this will be a wake-up call for all former passionate activists, but it certainly will leave you wondering how you might have done things differently when you had the opportunity. And does the life you have lived leave you satisfied with your own role in changing the world from the comfort of your air-conditioned house?

Friday, June 17, 2016

Caifornia's Everything Man

It’s likely that Ray Tatar is a familiar sight to many who visit California Stage. Tall and white-haired, the theater company’s hands-on artistic director greets every patron cheerfully.

Tatar’s theater roots go deep—although he’d initially planned a career in film. A theater gig in Southern California at Knott’s Berry Farm would eventually change that course, however. After graduation, Tatar worked in Hollywood as an intern on many TV series and films, including Funny Girl, but realized it just wasn’t his passion.

“I just couldn’t get film into my heart. Live theater always excited me,” Tatar said.

This week, Tatar finds new excitement at California Stage, directing Leslie Lewinter-Suskind’s A Revolutionary Mind, which opens June 17. The production explores the tumultuous Vietnam-era 1960s—a period that unarguably shaped Tatar’s outlook and ethos.

Back then, he attended UC Berkeley, where he worked at the Magic Theatre and received an MFA in directing. In the ’70s, Tatar ended up in the United Kingdom, where he worked at a theater for the deaf in London. Tatar also taught method drama at a junior college in the area—a job he got thanks to a connection he had with famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg.

When he returned to the states, Tatar worked as a drama critic for a TV station in Los Angeles, and in 1977 was named executive director of the LA Stage Alliance. In 1982, he went to work for the California Arts Council, serving under then-Gov. Jerry Brown and helping to raise millions for the theater community.

That same year, however, he also wanted a change and moved to Sacramento, where he founded the Sacramento Area Regional Theatre Alliance. SARTA, which bands together local organizations, actors, technicians and administrators to produce and promote work in the region, helped Tatar realize just “how powerful that kind of [organization] can be to service theater and community.”

Tatar only planned to stay in Sacramento for a few years, but after meeting and marrying his wife Susan, he decided to make it his home.

These days, Tatar is still active in the theater community, discovering new works for California Stage, including A Revolutionary Mind. The show, told in flashbacks and flash-forwards, tells the story of protesters who marched against the war in Vietnam.

“It’s a different type of play,” Tatar said of its unusual structure.

Its activism storyline and counterculture themes are also meaningful for him. “The heroine represents to me the boomer generation—we who marched against the Vietnam War, and who wanted to make the world better. We didn’t succeed.”

Tatar says the play speaks to the legacy of that generation and passes down the message to future generations.“We may not have been successful,” he said of the ’60s, “but maybe our grandchildren will be.”

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Legally Blonde

Omigod, you guys! Elle Woods is at Music Circus this week!!

“Legally Blonde” (music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Neil Benjamin and book by Heather Hatch) is as light and frothy as cotton candy — and just as pink. It has all the story of the movie with Reese Witherspoon, but without the depth.

The songs aren’t memorable (except for the opening and recurring “Omigod You Guys”), but the cast is so enthusiastic and the dancing so infectious that you find yourself enjoying it in spite of yourself.

This particular production, directed by Michael Heitzman, is extra-special for a reason that I suspect few in the audience realize. The cast includes a member of the original Broadway cast, coming out retirement for one last production.

Chico plays Elle’s Chihuahua, Bruiser, and is very professional. He’s trained by William Berloni, a 2011 Tony honoree for excellence in theater and the trainer for just about any animal appearing on Broadway, starting with the original Sandy in the first production of “Annie.”

Chico (his understudy Roxie is also a Broadway veteran) didn’t miss a cue, made all of his exits, barked on command and performed his big moment, running across the room, jumping onto a bed and into a dog carrier, flawlessly.

Co-starring with Chico is Lauren Zakrin, as Elle Woods, who looks like a Barbie doll and acts like an air-headed sorority girl, until circumstances teach her that she has more brains than she gives herself credit for and that her life does not have to center around a handsome boy to be complete.
Instead of asking her to marry him, as she expects, Elle’s boyfriend Warner (Jordan Bondurant) breaks up with her, now that he is on his way to Harvard and a successful career. He doesn’t feel she would fit into the world that he imagines for himself.

With all the casualness of someone ordering dinner from a menu, Elle decides to go to Harvard Law School, too, and win Warner back.

Not surprisingly, she finds Harvard harder than anticipated, especially when taking a class from the strict Professor Callahan (Paul Schoeffler), who dangles four internships in front of his class and makes Elle finally get serious about her studies.

Emmett Forrest (James Michael Lambert) is the class T.A. who takes Elle under his wing, helps her buckle down and actually study … and falls in love with her in the process.

Along the way, she makes friends with beauty shop attendant Paulette Bonafont√© (Ryah Nixon) and the two women become support for each other. Elle teaches Paulette the delightful “Bend and Snap” as a way to win the heart of the UPS guy Pforzheimer (Adam Lendermon). Lendermon is a man of few words, but definitely makes an impact.

Outstanding is Grace Stockdale as Brooke Wyndham, falsely accused of murdering her husband. Brooke is a famous exercise instructor and her “Whipped into Shape,” sung with an exercise class in prison, is a show-stopper.

There is a trial that takes place, during which some stereotypical gay sight gags went on far too long. I found them offensive, especially so soon after the Orlando massacre, though the audience laughed uproariously.

Eric Anthony Johnson makes the most of the small role of Carlos, whose appearance at the trial changes the course of things.

On the whole, Heitzman’s direction is fine, with such a big cast on such a small stage, but he occasionally has characters performing scenes facing in one direction so that our part of the audience saw them only from the back.

Lighting technicians, too, need to watch timing, as on more than one occasion, they brought up the lights too quickly, exposing the usually invisible set crew to the audience.

This is “Legally Blonde’s” debut performance at Music Circus and sets the stage nicely for a fun season with three more debut shows and two old chestnuts still to come.