Friday, September 29, 2017

Behind the Scenes

Stage manager Kimmie McCann, takes a peek onto the stage as actors wait backstage for her instructions during Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of "Jekyll & Hyde." Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

When an audience sits down for a local musical-theater show, they see a polished production — told by actors through words, song and dance — that allows them to escape into another time and place.
But what they may not realize is how much coordination and activity goes on during a night’s show behind the scenes: rapid costume and set changes, the orchestra playing on cue, lighting and sound technicians working with precision, actors doing last-second rehearsals in the wings, makeup touch-ups and mic adjustments.

The Enterprise spent a day at Davis Musical Theatre Company during its current production of “Jekyll and Hyde” to give audiences an inside glimpse into everything that happens before and during showtime that they don’t see.

Here is how a Sunday-afternoon performance unfolded:

The actors are called to the theater at 12:30 p.m., so I showed up at noon and found Conrad, from a professional cleaning service in Oakland, scrubbing the lobby and taking bags of trash out. The lobby smelled very clean.

Dannette Vassar, who would later appear on stage as Lady Beaconsfield, was in the ticket booth making final adjustments on ticketing for the day’s show.

I moved inside the theater itself and stage manager Kimmie McCann was smoothing out some problems with set placement the previous night. McCann, I would learn throughout the afternoon, is the real anchor for the show and seems to be everywhere at once, fixing problems along the way.
She conferred with costumer Jean Henderson about repairs she had made to a couple of costumes while Henderson was out of town.

“They aren’t your quality, of course,” she said. “It’s fun and games always,” she said to me as she went backstage.

Lights came on in the light booth and there was Vassar again. She’s also on the light crew and presumably was making last-minute adjustments there as well.

They sat me at a chair out of the way and it was fun to observe my surroundings — walls covered with writing from various people over the past years in the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center theater, each wall with a big “DO NOT PAINT” sign on it.

One wall is covered, all the way to the ceiling, with various chairs, which will hang there until they are needed. Shelving units are set aside for things like baskets of varying sizes or bottles, while a hanging shoe bag is used for smaller props.

Meanwhile, the actors started arriving backstage, and began getting out of their T-shirts and jeans and into costumes. The air-conditioning had gone out in the dressing rooms, so they could not close the doors and big fans blew air into the rooms.

“I’m not sure where we’re going to get the funds to fix it,” McCann said to me as she passed by.
To avoid crowding into the stuffy rooms, some of the actors were helping one another with costumes or makeup in the hallway.

Musicians started arriving at 1 p.m., including 88-year-old violinist Helen Mendel, who has been playing with DMTC for many years. Mendel chose not to climb all those stairs down into the orchestra pit, but took the small elevator. All the orchestra members volunteer their time and are “paid” a drink and a cookie at intermission.

The cast was called to the stage for the sound check. Some were doing individual vocalizations and then they did vocals in unison.

At the same time, a group walked in and across the stage with a leader, who was speaking to them softly. These were ushers for the show, learning what their jobs would entail. (There are different volunteer ushers for every performance — it’s a way to see the show for free.)

With the cast on stage, there also was a final check on lights and then everyone was backstage again while director and DMTC co-founder Jan Isaacson passed through each dressing room and gave final notes from the night before.

McCann announced that the house was opening, so the backstage lights were turned off and the orchestra started to warm up.

“Places, please,” McCann called, while Isaacson went out on stage to welcome the audience.

The actors paced back and forth in the wings or did stretching exercises while waiting to go on. I commented on Vassar’s costume and she confessed that she had a quick change coming up, so she had dressed in layers so she’d only need to remove her top layer when she came off stage.

The first set pieces came off stage, with the actors, and the girls of the ensemble quickly stripped McCann’s husband, Brian, of his bulky clothes and got him into the costume for the next scene. With three of them working, the change was accomplished in less than a minute.

Meanwhile, Kimmie McCann was everywhere — helping people straighten their costumes, moving set pieces and making sure props were put away immediately.

“I don’t say this just because she’s my wife,” Brian said, “but she’s the most actor-friendly stage manager I’ve ever worked with.”

There’s even time for a quick tender moment between the couple before Brian goes on for his next scene.

DMTC co-founder Steve Isaacson came backstage to tell me of a sound problem they had just solved. Tomás Eredia, working the light board, noticed a problem with the sound board, so Steve relieved him of his duties and the two worked to fix the sound.

In the meantime, Steve gave control of the light board to Jenna Karoly, a teen who has been learning how to run the system.

“She’s been with us since she was 8 years old,” Isaacson said, adding that her father helps with sets and her mother sometimes bartends for the theater.

He explained that there is a lot to running a sound board, especially when it’s a new addition to a theater. (This is only DMTC’s third show since sound augmentation was added.)

But it went off without a hitch.

“I was giving her cues,” Isaacson said. “She did the next scene without my saying anything. I didn’t have to worry. The show continued flawlessly.”

At intermission, I walked from one side of the theater to the other, backstage, surprised to find a near life-size elephant on the other side. This is a prop for the youth theater’s production of “Aladdin Jr.,” which is being presented at Saturday matinees.

Jan Isaacson explained that after the Friday evening performance of “Jekyll and Hyde,” those sets are pushed out of the way and “Aladdin” sets are moved into place. Then following the “Aladdin” performance the next afternoon, the parents of the young actors move those sets back in place and the “Jekyll and Hyde” sets are ready for Sunday’s performance.

As Act 2 began, some of the actors sat on set pieces in the wings, taking cat naps while waiting for their turn to go on stage.

In the meantime, the show continued to run like a well-oiled machine under the constant movement of Kimmie McCann.

Actors assisted in set changes, donning black-hooded capes before going on stage.

“They make the actors mildly unobtrusive,” Steve Isaacson said, explaining that there’s a light that reflects from the costumes onto the floor and this is a way of cutting down on their visibility. One actress nearly didn’t get to the stage in time to don her cloak — but McCann was there to make sure she did.

At the end of the show, there was thunderous applause. The cast stayed on stage to greet the patrons.
Meanwhile, Kimmie McCann made certain that everything was put back where it should be, and ready for the next performance.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is an American classic, first produced in 1962, winning the Tony and Drama Circle award for best play, the Pulitzer Prize for best play and Tonys for its stars.

In 1966 it was made into a movie, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and is one of only two films to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy Awards, winning five awards. It is preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

It’s heavy history for a local theater company to take on, but B Street Theatre is up to the challenge. Director Dave Pierini confided to the audience before the play began that to get permission to do an Albee play, the Albee estate has to approve the actors, the director, the stage design, costumes, etc. — so it is a real privilege to be given the rights to do this play.

The B Street production does not disappoint.

This story of George and Martha, the Bickersons of the 1960s, is an intense look at a marriage that appears to be falling apart, but what holds the couple together is their hatred of one another, and a dark secret they are holding that binds them to each other. Watching them go at each other for three hours (with two intermissions) is exhausting, but at the same time exhilarating.

Kurt Johnson and Elisabeth Nunziato are simply marvelous. Martha’s father is the president of a college and George is a professor in the history department (not the head of the department, Martha is fond of reminding him, as a way of putting him down).

It seems that everything she says has the intent of evoking some sort of a response from him that will lead into a further argument.

George is henpecked and knows it, but he can give as much as he receives in the verbal sparring with his wife. Both know how best to hurt each other and don’t hesitate to do it.

The play begins at 2 a.m. when George and Martha have just returned home after a party, obviously feeling the effects of the liquor they have consumed. Martha confesses that she has invited a new professor, 20-something Nick (Jason Kuykendall, Nunziato’s real-life husband) and his wife Honey (Dana Brooke) to drop by.

Nick and Honey aren’t quite sure what they are doing there so late at night, but the four consume massive quantities of alcohol. I was mostly impressed with Kuykendall, who got drunker and drunker very convincingly, while the others went from sober-sounding to drunk-sounding quickly.

Kuykendall’s reaction was not only in the slow slurring of his speech, but the changes in his body language, too.

The more he drinks, the more he drops the innocent young professor persona and displays his disdain for George, who has been at the college for years and still has not risen to the head of his department.
Honey, on the other hand is more childlike and in awe of George and Martha, but physically affected more and more as the arguments escalate. She also begins to realize that as much as George is a source of Nick’s contempt, so, too, is she. One wonders if in 20 years they will be the George and Martha of the campus.

Martha uses Nick to mock George by making sexual advances to the younger man, though after a tryst in the bedroom, she is not above pointing out that he is sorely lacking in his sexual prowess. George insists that they all play a game, a grotesque game that leave all four stripped bare.

The play comes to a dramatic conclusion with an agonizing monologue by Martha, performed by Nunziato with heart-rending authenticity.

Albee died in 2016. With the finicky restrictions on productions of his works, continued by his estate, one can only think that even he would be proud of this production.

The audience should be aware that herbal cigarettes are smoked throughout the evening.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Anne of Green Gables

I have a confession to make. I did something on Friday that I have never done before.

My plan had been to review the Woodland Opera House production of Noel Coward’s “Blythe Spirit” and I did indeed go to the Opera House, only to be very surprised when I sat in my seat, looked at my program and realized that I was about to see “Anne of Green Gables, The Musical,” one of the Opera House’s family series. No wonder the Opera House was so full!

Confused, I looked through the program and discovered that I was a month too early for “Blythe Spirit.”

But my error was fortuitous because while I rarely review one of the family series shows, this one was delightful.

This musical tells the story of Anne Shirley, the heroine of the Lucy Maud Montgomery books and her impact on her adopted family and the town in which she lives.

Gretchen Cryer has written the book and lyrics with music by Nancy Ford. The production is directed by Eva Sarry, with musical direction by Lori Jarvey.

Katie Halls has a monumental task carrying the show as the spunky Anne, as she is in just about every scene, as well as 12 of the 15 musical numbers. She is at her best as the young orphan longing for a permanent home after several unsuccessful placements. She is upbeat and loves everything about the countryside, her new home and the prospect of having people to love her.

This poses a problem for Matthew Cuthbert (Steve Cairns) and his sister Marilla (Nancy Agee), who had asked the orphanage for a boy to help with farm chores. But Matthew is taken by Anne’s enthusiastic and endearing attitude and really hopes to convince Marilla to keep the girl.

Agee is great as the reticent Marilla, a woman who has had her share of hurts throughout her life and does not want to give her heart to anyone, especially not a young girl. Though she finally relents and allows Anne to stay, she keeps the girl at emotional arms length while slowly growing to care for her.

Emily Jo Seminoff is Diana, who becomes Anne’s BFF. Watching Seminoff grow as an actress over the years has been part of the fun of being a critic. Her range of performances from Peter Pan to Helen Keller have all been top-notch and her Diana is no exception. Watching the two girls together is such fun, especially when they accidentally get into the wrong berry cordial and end up drunk.

Barrett Shepherd is Gilbert Blythe, the young man whose ill-advised comment on Anne’s appearance causes a rift between the two which lasts for years.

Mimi Walker is Rachel Lynde, the stereotypical town busybody, suspicious of everyone and determined to think the worst of orphans and especially girl orphans.

Maris Samsel plays several roles — everything from a school girl to Diana’s mother, all with the assistance of different wigs or hats, while Spencer Alexander — who recently won a best-actor award for his Seymour Krelborn in “Little Shop of Horrors” — is Mr. Phillips, the town teacher, who firmly believes in the adage “spare the rod and spoil the child.”

“Anne of Green Gables” is no Noel Coward, but it is a fun family show.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Jekyll and Hyde

Why should you attend the Davis Musical Theater productions?

Well, it’s not for the sets, which are often utilitarian, sometimes nonexistent. Funding is always a problem.  But when you have a cast of the caliber of the musical-horror, “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which opened this past weekend, who needs sets?

This may well be the very best cast I have seen in 33 years of DMTC productions.  Every single member is outstanding.“It’s Jan’s dream cast,” says Steve Isaacson, justifiably proud of his wife’s accomplishments as director for this show, described as a “gothic-pop musical.”

 J. Sing, as Jekyll could easily perform on any professional stage.  Apparently he performed with DMTC in two shows back in the 1990s and then left Davis.  That he has returned is Davis’ gain.  He plays the brilliant, but tortured Dr. Jekyll, determined to find a cure for his comatose father, lying in an insane asylum.  It is his belief that it was the evil in his father’s soul which caused his illness and if he can find a cure, a way to separate the good from the evil within a person, he can cure his father.

While every number is a stunner for Sing, “This is the Moment,” in which the scientist, his proposal to perform this experiment having been rejected by the Board of Governors, decides to do the experiment on himself is outstanding, as is his later “Confrontation,” a battle between his two personalities.

As good as Sing in, he is supported by a superb cast.

Rachael Sherman-Shockley is Jekyll’s virtuous and loyal fiancee, who doesn’t understand his obsession, but is willing to put up with anything because she loves and believes in him.  She has several wonderful duets, but none as beautiful as “In His Eyes,” sung with Lucy (Nicole King), a prostitute with a heart of gold and the only one who has seen both sides of Jekyll/Hyde.  King is amazing, a soaring voice giving full throat to “Someone Like You” and  “A New Life.” 

Richard Spierto is sir Danvers Carew, Emma’s father, who grows increasingly uncomfortable, to downright frightened at Emma’s resolve to marry Jekyll, despite evidence of his increasing mental derangement.

Scott Minor is Jeckyll’s attorney, John Utterson, who doesn’t understand what Jekyll is doing and resists some of his client’s requests because they make no sense to him.

Brian McCann also comports himself well as Rupert, Bishop of Basingstoke, another eventual victim of Hyde’s murderous rampage.

The show, by Leslie Bircusse with music by Frank Wildhorn had mixed reviews when it opened in 1997.  It was crticized for the discordant music, the loud rock sound, and “extreme vocal pyrotechnics,” but under the expert hands of director Jan Isaacson, it all comes together into an impressive, if frightening look at a man whose devotion to his father has driven himself to the point of madness.

Jean Henderson’s costume designs are appropriate, as always, but special kudos to whoever was in charge of wigs, which are amazing.

Isaacson also choreographed the show and has created some wonderful numbers.

This isn’t a light and frothy musical, but give this show a chance.  It’s one you aren’t likely to see on any other local stage, and it’s well worth it!