Thursday, December 29, 2016

White Christmas

Comparisons are odious. But when there is a movie as beloved and iconic as “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” and it has been adapted for the stage by David Ives and Paul Blake, comparisons are inevitable. It’s obviously impossible to duplicate the familiar Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen combination.

Now at the Community Center Theater, this Broadway Sacramento production is flashy, colorful and a lot of fun. It’s also nowhere near on a par with the movie, so if you don’t expect that, you won’t be disappointed.

The story is familiar: The famous song-and-dance team of Wallace (Sean Montgomery in the Bing Crosby role), and Davis (Jeremy Benton) meet the aspiring sister act of Betty Haynes (Kerry Conte in the Rosemary Clooney role), and Judy Haynes (Kelly Sheehan), and head to a ski resort that turns out to be run by Wallace and Davis’ old World War II commanding general (Conrad John Shuck, a familiar face from countless Broadway and television roles), who has fallen on hard times and is looking at a bleak ski season, as Vermont is experiencing unseasonable warm temperatures.

The story turns into “find a barn and put on a show to save the general,” and it all ends predictably with beautiful snow on stage and in the audience.

However, there are plot differences from the movie, new characters and character twists, and additional Irving Berlin songs not found in the movie, such as the show-stopping tap number, “I Love a Piano” (which film buffs will recognize from “Easter Parade,” not “White Christmas”) and “Blue Skies,” to name but two.

One problem with the transition to the stage is that with the addition of songs, there is no time to develop characters or deepen relationships, so, for example, the “loathe him — love him” relationship between Betty and Bob requires a lot of suspension of disbelief.

My biggest disappointment, however, is that the finale of the movie, with Gen. Waverly being honored by his old platoon, packs a huge emotional wallop that cannot be achieved on stage without doubling the size of the cast. This production tries, and it kinda, sorta works, but it lacks a lot.

As for the performers, Montgomery is a pleasant Bob, but with a sharp edge to his voice that makes me long for a real crooner in the role. Benton, however, is a perfect Phil and pairs nicely with Sheehan as Judy, especially in the dance numbers.

Conte, whose bio says she has been playing Betty for 11 years, has certainly perfected the role by now. She’s a great chanteuse who gets a chance to display her vocal chops especially in the torch song “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”

The role of Martha Watson, the crusty but lovable dame who runs the general’s inn, is played by Lorna Luft. Martha was at one time known as “Motormouth Martha” in her old performing days. Luft belts out her songs and does credit to mama Judy Garland, especially with her “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”

The general’s granddaughter is played by twins Clancy and Samantha Penny. Clancy played opening night and was an audience favorite at the curtain call.

Making the most of a the tiny role of Ezekiel, the laconic stage hand, Frank Ridley was perfect.
The set design by Anna Louizos was spectacular with several very large set pieces to bring on or off throughout the show, though the pieces were so heavy it was impossible to keep the rumbling of the set change quiet during the filler scenes in front of the curtain.

Carrie Robbins’ costume designs were lush and wonderful, and worth the price of admission by themselves.

This is an enjoyable show that is a great break after all the busyness of the holidays.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Sacramento Theatre Company is bringing back its wildly popular “Cinderella” as a Christmas gift to audiences. Based on the British pantomime format, combining music, slapstick, cross-dressing and buffoonery, this version is written by Kate Hawley with music by local composer Gregg Coffin and direction by Michael Laun.

This particular production includes three students from Davis High School. In the title role is Emily O’Flaherty, who shares the role with Madeline Perez. Both are products of STC’s Young People’s program. O’Flaherty is lovely and everyone’s mental image of a Cinderella. Her transformation from scullery maid to princess is magical.

Another Davis High student is 10th-grader Jimin Moon, playing Knickers, best friend to Cinderella (with a big crush on her). Moon alternates in the role with Luke Crabbe.

Rounding out the DHS presence is James Hayakawa, a member of the show’s ensemble.

The cast is headed by the wonderful Michael RJ Campbell as the formidable stepmother Mrs. Baden-Rotten. In the days when STC also filled the roles of the evil stepsisters with cross-dressers,
Campbell was the whiny, pouty zaftig sister Goneril. He now fills his mother’s big shoes and is even more fearsome — the character you love to boo.

As Baden-Rotten’s daughters, Emily Serdahl as Goneril and Brandi Lacy as Regan are ugly, spiteful and utterly hilarious, especially the contortions they go through to try to convince the prince that theirs is the foot to fit that famous glass slipper.

Making his STC debut, Sam C. Jones is positively charming as the prince who would rather hunt than think about girls. He and O’Flaherty have a nice chemistry together, even if he can’t recognize her when she’s all dressed up at the ball.

His best friend is Brian Bohlender as Dandini, who enjoys a few hours wearing the princely crown so Charming can be just one of the guys.

Others in the cast are equally endearing, including Michael Coleman and Andrea St. Clair as the King and Queen, eager to find Charming a wife. St. Clair can be seen dusting the castle so well she forgets to take off her apron, and then is aghast that her guests might have seen her. Coleman is a laid-back king, with his crown sitting at a rakish angle on his head, more intent on letting Charming do his own thing.

Abigail Lambert (alternating with Jordan Taylor) was wonderful as the politically active anti-monarchy Little Bo Peep who wins the heart of Dandini. Her flock of sheep look more like Rockettes, as they sashay around the stage. They are a sight to behold, especially the black sheep, Leah Hassett.

Everyone’s favorite, though, may have been Jerald Bolden as the very-tall tap-dancing, picnic basket-stealing bear.

This show is certain to appeal to everyone. There is audience participation in the form of yelling out at certain times and waving hands in the air, and everyone loves the Prince’s search for the girl who will fit the glass slipper, as he goes through the audience trying it on several women and young girls.

With the opportunity to buy crowns in the lobby, everyone can feel part of the court, and after the show, the cast members line up for photos with people in the audience, particularly star-struck young children.

This is a fun way to share theater with children or grandchildren, with a show that has enough in-jokes and innuendo that adults enjoy it, too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Santaland Diaries

Crumpet would be the perfect elf for “Bad Santa.”
Crumpet is the name given to David Sedaris in his very funny “The Santaland Diaries,” now at Capital Stage, directed by Shannon Mahoney and starring Benjamin T. Ismail, who brings the proper blend of sardonic humor and outright sarcasm to the story.

Based on Sedaris’ experience working as an elf one Christmas at Macy’s Herald Square Santaland display, when he expected to be working on “One Life to Live” instead, Sedaris takes the audience through his interview process, “Elf Training” (using the very thick Elfin manual), and a tour of Santaland (“a real wonderland with ten thousand sparkling lights, false snow, train sets bridges, decorated trees, mechanical penguins and bears and really tall candy canes”).

He also learns about the “special areas” like the “Oh My God” corner, where parents can finally see Santa and realize how long it was going to take them to get to him, and the “Vomit Corner” where many kids throw up.

Next he is given his costume (designed by Mari Carson).

“My costume is green. I wear red-and-white striped tights, a yellow turtleneck, forest green velvet smock, and a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform,” he says wryly.
David realizes he’s not going to provide the bubbly enthusiasm of most other elves and that he probably will be a “low-key sort of elf.”

As Ismail progresses through this one-hour comedy, you appreciate his ability to make a special connection with the audience, his perfect comic timing and the agility that allows him to leap through the air with the grace of a ballet dancer.

Ismail may be better known as a director (most recently Capital Stage’s “August, Osage County”) but he also has an extensive acting résumé, everything from “Peter Pan” to “Tartuffe,” and is truly a jack of all trades.

This is not a show for children. Language and subject matter are inappropriate, to say nothing of revealing the whole Santa thing.

The show, written in 1992, was first read by Sedaris on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and nearly 25 years later parts of it seem as fresh as ever while, in these more politically correct days, description of disabled children and some minorities, while brief, will be offensive to some.

The set design by Justin D. Muñoz is indeed a real wonderland, which will cause gasps when revealed. It is complete with any toy a little one would want. (I watched Crumpet hugging a big floppy polar bear and wished for a cuddly Christmas bear myself!)

This is the third production of “The Santaland Diaries” I have seen in the past six years and I wondered how it would be on a third visit, but Ismail has made it as fresh and new was it was when I first saw it in 2009.

It’s a wonderful choice for anyone who wants to briefly get away from the militantly cheerful holiday shows to be found elsewhere.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A Christmas Story

There’s nothing better than a good story, beautifully written, except maybe that good story, beautifully written and perfectly narrated by the likes of the Woodland Opera House’s Rodger McDonald.

McDonald is the adult Ralph in Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story,” written with Leigh Brown and Bob Clark. It is a series of delightful Christmas vignettes from the life of Ralph Parker, looking back on the year when all he wanted was a “Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.”

The play itself was written by Philip Grecian and directed, in Woodland, by Steve Mackay. It is usually in everyone’s top five Christmas shows.

It takes us back to Hohman, Ind., in 1948, when life was simple, when kids didn’t have electronic gadgets to keep them occupied and actually played on the street (snow or no snow), when they still believed in Santa Claus, when Mom made meat loaf every night except for special occasions, and Dad was kind of inept, but loved his kids deeply. Ahh for the good old days!

Ralphie Parker (Jihan Moon) desperately wants his rifle and spends the entire play trying to give subtle and not-so-subtle hints that it’s the only thing he wants. Of course, everyone tells him he will shoot his eye out. Moon is great as that 10-year-old who lives in his own world, has his own gang of friends and a bully they finally manage to best.

(One of the most fun things about this play, I noticed this time and every time I have seen it, is how much fun the men in the audience have, obviously thinking back on their own childhoods and relating to Ralphie’s experiences.)

As Ralphie’s little brother Randy, Colton McClintock is cute as a button, with few lines to say, but says them repetitively. Randy spends most of his time hiding — in cupboards, behind clothes racks, etc. People just take it for granted that Randy is hiding somewhere and nobody thinks there is anything unusual about that.

Steve Cairns is “the Old Man,” Ralphie’s dad, who is nominally the head of the household, who never says anything profound and is a bumbling fixer of things, but obviously loves and is proud of his sons.

It really is Mother (Patricia Glass) who holds things together. She’s Beaver’s mother, Jim Anderson’s wife and Donna Reed all rolled into one. She runs the house quietly and efficiently, while all the time letting her husband think he’s in charge. She even supplies most of the answers to the quizzes the old man is forever entering, while letting him know how smart he is to have thought of the answer himself.

Ralphie’s friends are Flick (DJ Michel) and Schwartz (Brady Stephens) who act so natural you would think they didn’t realize they were on stage. Iris Harshaw made a big impact as Esther Jane Alberry, who has a crush on the embarrassed Ralphie.

Ryan Cristo has the unfortunate role of Scut Farkas, the town bully. Bigger than everyone, and not terribly bright, Scut lies in wait for Ralphie and his friends as they go to school. He finally gets his comeuppance at the hands of Esther Jane, cheered on by her friend Helen (Zoe Rosendale).

Nancy Farley plays the teacher Miss Shields who obviously can’t wait for Christmas vacation to start.

Set design is by Jason Hammond and is perfect for the Parker family home. The best effect of the evening is the “scene change” from inside the house to outside. It brought giggles every time.

The lighting design of John Bowles is key in this production and it is handled perfectly, along with the sound effects of barking dogs and other off-stage sounds.

But it is McDonald who holds it all together, his relaxed, homey style welcoming the audience into the story immediately, with the ease of Garrison Keillor taking us to Lake Wobegon.

This is a perfect family Christmas play and, based on how full the Opera House was on opening night, I suspect tickets will go quickly, so order yours as soon as possible.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Robin Hood

It was like walking into the real Sherwood forest to enter the small B Street Theatre. Not only was there a realistic forest on the stage, along with a quaint ivy-covered castle, but mylar leaves floated gently from the ceiling all over the theater. It was magical even before “Robin Hood” began.

The tales of Robin Hood have been with us since the 14th century, but they were oral tales, spoken or sung as ballads, played as games, or presented as plays to groups throughout the centuries. So we have no idea who originated the tales, or when they began.

In the 18th century, Joseph Ritson collected five centuries of stories and published them, putting them in some sequential order.

“The Tales of Robin Hood,” now part of B Street’s Family Series, was adapted by playwright Greg Banks from the 1956 book, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” by British author Roger Lancelyn Green. “Robin Hood” received its world premiere at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis in its 2010-2011 season and subsequent productions in other children’s theaters around the country have been sell-out hits.

The B Street play covers five of Green’s stories, woven together into one 45-minute act, directed by Jerry Montoya. It is performed by five talented actors, each of whom plays more than one role, except Darek Riley, who is Robin throughout, and a handsome hero he is.

Fiona Robberson is a winsome Maid Marian (and also, early in the play, her father Much). No shrinking violet, this Marian is a worthy consort of Robin.

Stephanie Althoz is a member of the ensemble, and also plays Friar Tuck. This Friar is not the roly poly Disney-esque Tuck, but more an active member of the merry men.

Winston Koone is the man you love to hate as the Sheriff of Nottingham. He didn’t get booed, but he should have been!

Sean Patrick Nill does quadruple duty as Prince John, Will Scarlet, a soldier, and Little John. He’s probably the smallest “Little John” I’ve seen, though he is not by any stretch of the imagination “little.”

This show is captivating for children of all ages, and fun for the adults too. There is lots of action, with men swinging from trees, big bows and arrows, great sword fights and a little bit of interaction with the children in the audience, who beamed when chosen to shoot one of the invisible arrows from a bow.