Saturday, November 25, 2017

It's a Wonderful Life

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has been a beloved Christmas classic since the James Stewart-Donna Reed movie appeared on the screen in 1946.  During the holiday season it’s a good bet that you can find the movie on some cable network nearly every day.  In all honesty, it was never one of my favorites, and I’m not sure that the addition of music improves it, but “It’s a Wonderful Life, the Musical” on the Woodland Opera House stage is charming.

The music by Bruce Greer is engaging, but not memorable.  The book and lyrics are sometimes confusing, as they condense familiar episodes from the movie.

But all that aside, to concentrate strictly on the production directed by Dean Shellenberger, it’s a winner.

Is there anything Erik Catalan can’t do?  He seems to get better and better with each production I see him in, and as George Bailey, the man who was going to do great things in the world but was forced to stay home in little Bedford Falls and keep his father’s savings and loan from collapse following the father’s death, he is in top form.

Jori Gonzales as Mary Bailey, George’s wife and biggest supporter, is excellent.  She has all the innocence of a young girl with a big crush evolving into a love for the man she plans to marry, and displays a big heart in her support of him in whatever he needs.

The villain of the piece, Mr. Potter, hated George’s father, hates George and wants only to get control of the savings and loan.  The always affable James Glica-Hernandez (credited with music direction) would seem an odd choice to play this curmudgeon, but he was often downright scary in his meanness, glowering convincingly.  It also helps that he has a strong singing voice when doing solos like “Go Ahead and Run.”

When George reaches the breaking point and is about to take his own life, realizing that he is “worth more dead than alive” and that his death would solve his family’s financial problems, God intervenes and sends Clarence a second-class angel trying to earn his wings, to help George through the crisis.

Sadly God gets no program credit so I don’t know who did the voice over, which may be a good thing since the opera house sound system was so muddled it was often difficult to hear what he said.  But the graphic above the stage was great.

However, Richard Lui, as Clarence is an endearing, if inept angel who finally hits upon a way to let George know that his life has not been for naught.  His “Second Class Angel” is a comic number that is almost out of place among the other numbers in this show, but fun.

Along the way there are a host of minor characters, each of whom is excellent.  Nancy Agee, for example, is Mother Bailey, the steadying influence in the family, whose beautiful voice just aids to her performance.

Steve Mackay is the lovable but bumbling Uncle Billy, who unknowingly threatens the very existence of the savings and loan.

Kyle Hadley is an over the top Sam Wainwright, life-long friend of George, big and blustery and well-meaning, if often annoying as he booms out his "hee-haw" greeting.

In the small roles of Mr. And Mrs. Martini, Josh Wheeler and Melissa Balkie-Rick are very funny doing “Bless You, George Bailey,” based on “O Solo Mio.” Balkie-Rick has a set of pipes  that will impress any theater-goer.  (Wheeler also has the small role of George's brother, Harry)

The Bailey children – Jack Collins, Kate Loscuoff, Lilac Beckser and Kaori Catalan (pleased to be on stage with her real father as George) are real pros.

An unsung (and uncredited) actor is Jon Dahlberg, who pushes Mr. Potter’s wheelchair around the stage.  Dahlberg is the epitome of stoicism.  His facial expression is frozen in the visage of the obedient servant.

Another person who should be mentioned is young Logan Balkie-Rick who has no real role in the show, but takes the first (solo) bow...and who is just too cute not to be mentioned.

Staci Arriaga has done some lovely choreography, especially for numbers like “Would You Like to Dance With Me?”

The simple set design by Don Zastoupil is pleasant, but most notable is the falling snow.  Real-looking snow falling onto the stage and then dissolving.  It is impressive.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wizard of Oz

Despite the slow pace and the interminable set changes, I had more fun at the Winters Theatre Company’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” directed by Anita Ahuja than I have had in a long time.

For starters there is perhaps the largest cast I have seen on the Winters stage (more than 30), including the Munchkin Hinojosa brothers, one of whom was a baby in a carrier, and the other a toddler, who had us all laughing when he escaped and ran off the stage.

Another favorite was Tibby Williams, as Toto, who had more on-stage time than most Totos do, and who, other than a few unexpected barks, was surprisingly good, though you could tell when the members of her real family came on stage in costume because her tail would wag furiously.

Alexis Velasquez was a perhaps too tall Dorothy, though she had that wide-eyed wonder one expects from a girl whose house has swirled through the air and landed her in a strange land. She also had a beautiful clear voice.

There must be something about putting a bizarre costume on an actor to bring out the best in them.  A case in point was Eleanor Yeatman, as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch.  Paint a girl’s face green and watch her eat the scenery.  She was absolutely marvelous.

(Yeatman is also credited as Assistant Director, set construction, costumes and props!)

Likewise, this may have been the best performance I have seen by Jim Hewlett as the Scarecrow.  He was completely comfortable in his wobbly body and became a great friend to Dorothy.

Robert Williams (from Tibby’s family) was a wonderful Cowardly Lion and even offered a pretty credible Bert Lahr during his “If I were king of the forest.”

A find for Winters was Loren Skinner, in his first ever theatrical performance, as the Tin Man.  He had the kind of voice that makes you sit up and wonder “where has this guy BEEN all these years?”  I hope we will see more of him on the Winters stage.

Elizabeth Williams was a younger than expected Glinda, the Witch of the North, but she was warm and wise in helping Dorothy when she needed help.

(Rounding out the Williams family was Jason Williams as Nikko, the Monkey Commander, who was a credible slightly evil sidekick to the witch, and also one of the mean apple trees.)

In lesser roles, Debra DeAngelo made the most of Auntie Em, a strict, no-nonsense farm woman, whose warm side shines through when she insists the farm hands have cookies so they don’t have to work on an empty stomach.  Her best, though, was her appearance inside a big glass globe while Dorothy is locked in the witch’s castle.    

[picky aside: Dorothy refers to her consistently as “Aunt Em” instead of ”Auntie Em,” which grated on my nerves until the end of the show when she finally called her Auntie.]

Jesse Akers was fine in the small role of the gruff Uncle Henry,

Tom Rost was a professorial Professor Marvel, and the Wizard.  He was wise in dealing with run-away Dorothy, and with granting the wishes of Dorothy’s three companions.

The young actors playing Munchkin, Lullaby League, and Lollipop Guild were well rehearsed, disciplined and sang well, as well as being very cute.  Josh Masem and Kenneth Matheson were notable as the Mayor and Coroner, respectively.

Ahuja decided to add back the Jitterbug, a number which had been cut from the movie and the dancers, Mikenzie Hapworth Eldridge, Elizabeth Williams, Julia Berrelleza, Christian Duran, Manny Lanzaro and Kenneth Matheson made fun work of the bugs dancing around.

The set for most of Oz (designed by Gary Schroeder) was pretty minimal, but there was a nice, solid farm house for the Gale family and a great storm cellar for protection from the approaching storm.  A nice touch was the lantern on the house porch, which swung wildly in the wind, without visible help from anyone.

It was a full house for opening night and we all had a wonderful time.  This was the first in-theater production since the death of co-founder Howard Hupe, whose presence was missed, and who was honored briefly before the start of the show.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Moving Day

From left, Tim Liu, Stephanie Altholz and
Kurt Johnson perform in B Street Theatre's
production of “A Moving Day.”
Rudy Meyers Photography/Courtesy photo
It is deliciously ironic that the very last production to be presented at the current B Street Theatre location — before the company’s move to its new digs, “The Sofia,” at 27th Street and Capitol Avenue, at the end of the year — is a play called “A Moving Day,” by Dave Pierini and Buck Busfield.
(“Dave did the writing; I fixed the commas,” Busfield joked.)

Though it’s barely past Halloween, this is another B Street original Christmas production, a 23-year old tradition. The company is going out with a bang with this funny, yet moving story, which finds its inspiration in the tradition of “moving day” in Canada, the date on which most residential leases begin. By the city’s estimate, about 115,000 of Montreal’s 1.6 million residents relocate every July.

The day before moving day, all previous leases end and occupants must be out of their homes, or face confrontation with the police. “Moving day” also became common in places like New York and Ohio.

And so the play “A Moving Day” is set in Cleveland where two movers, Frank (Kurt Johnson) and Casey (Tim Liu), are packing up a house while engaging in a spirited discussion about Casey’s unsuccessful love life. Their conversation is interrupted now and then by phone calls from Frank’s wife, who has just left Frank to live with her sister, but is willing to get together with him to discuss things, if he can make it to a certain location at a certain time.

As the movers are about to remove the second stack of boxes, they are surprised by the appearance of Patrick (Greg Alexander), who has apparently been upstairs, and announces that this used to be his house and he needs to postpone the moving for one more day until he can search the house for something special he left behind. Though he has not lived in the house for many years, it is still his family home.

While Frank and Casey attempt to remain uninvolved, Patrick’s arguments become very persuasive and they have to force themselves to continue moving boxes.

When only Casey is on stage, a young girl, who calls herself Mouse (Stephanie Altholz), wanders in. She is apparently homeless and also has been crashing in the house; she hopes they will postpone the move.

Patrick and Mouse work together to tear the house apart looking for the missing object that Patrick associates with his late sister and that has great sentimental value for him.

Jamie Jones makes a brief walk-on appearance (perhaps so the actress can appear in B Street’s last production in the old theater) as Frank’s wife.

As Patrick settles in more firmly, determined to have one last Christmas in his family home, and the movers’ resolve wavers, the audience waits to see how it’s all going to play out, perhaps not suspecting the clever twist in the plot.

With the caliber of actors in this play, most B Street regulars, it can’t help but be outstanding. Tim Liu appears to be new to B Street, but he is excellent as the anguished Casey, having been rejected (“ghosted,” as he puts it) by so many other women, trying to make his case with Mouse.

This is a comedy with warm dramatic overtones and sets the stage for the upcoming holiday season — though playing Christmas carols in the lobby before Thanksgiving is a bit unsettling.

Thursday, November 16, 2017


Jennifer Vega stars as Amy in “Gibraltar,” presented by the UC Davis department of theater and dance.
The show continues Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Nicholas Yoon/UC Davis/Courtesy photo

UCD’s historic Wyatt Pavilion is the location for a powerful play by Octavio Solis, directed by Kent Nicholson. “Gibraltar” explores the subject of grief and how we deal with it.

The first thing to notice on entering the theater is the attractive set, designed by John Iacovelli. The play is set in a San Francisco apartment — and as a San Francisco native, I appreciated the bay window with a window seat, something so ubiquitous in the city. (The design of the bay window is helped by the configuration of the pavilion stage.)

Artist Amy (Jennifer Vega) has just lost her husband, who drowned in San Francisco Bay, and her world is falling apart. She stands in her apartment with the enigmatic Palo (Benjamin Calleros), who is searching for his runaway wife.

The pair share stories about other couples’ troubled relationships that are played out in the dreamlike landscape of memory — an improbable reunion of an artist and a dock worker, the breakup of a policeman and his angry wife, a marriage irrevocably altered but not ended by Alzheimer’s disease. Each one has some connection to Amy’s past memory.

As they tell their stories, Amy and Palo struggle to confront their own losses.

But is Palo really who he claims to be? Director Nicholson, at the talk-back following the show, referred to the concept of the duende, a mythical creature from folklore, who frequently inhabits a house to either help or torment its inhabitants. Does Palo represent the duende sent to guide Amy through this rough time?

The supporting cast — Brandon Thomas, Victoria Casas, Anthony Castillon, Aubrey Schoeman, Charles Lavaroni and Heidi Masem — each gives a strong portrayal, with Thomas and Casas sadly tragic as the husband dealing with his wife’s Alzheimer’s.

“Octavio’s work represents the great cultural diversity of the Bay Area and the country,” Nicholson said. “By exploring the universality of love and death through multiple stories, and weaving them through a single narrative, ‘Gibraltar’ creates a new landscape for storytelling.”

There will be a talk-back following the Thursday performance.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Jesus Christ Superstar

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” the 1970 rock opera by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice, holds a special place in director Steve Isaacson’s heart. Isaacson’s Davis Musical Theater Company is now performing its third production, eight years after it was last performed.

The story is loosely based on the last week of Jesus’ life from just before the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and ending at the crucifixion. The story centers on the conflict between Jesus and Judas Iscariot, a story that is not told in the Bible.

You could not ask for a more authentic-looking Jesus than Nick Thompson (who played Judas in the 2009 production). You almost expected people in the audience to ask for his blessing.

But this is a stern, serious Jesus with little of the charisma that would show us why crowds were drawn to him. While he does not seem to have much of a change in mood, he’s at his best expressing his anguish at his upcoming suffering in the song “Gethsemane.”

Eddie Voyce is a marvelous Judas, tormented by “tormenters” Michele Stark-Burnett and Monica Parisi wherever he goes. Judas is increasingly upset that Jesus is starting to believe his own press and is getting too big for his toga.

Judas sees money spent unnecessarily that could go to the poor. He’s so upset that he goes to the Roman elite to turn Jesus in, but wants to be sure they know it’s for the best of all possible reasons:

“It’s taken me some time to work out what to do.
I weighed the whole thing out before I came to you.”

His anguish at being forced to sell his former friend for 30 pieces of silver is palpable.

A break-out performance in this production is Pablo Frias as Caiaphas. Though this is Frias’ first musical theater production, his booming basso voice and commanding presence make him the focus of any scene in which he appears.

Likewise, the old pro Gil Sebastian fully inhabits the character of Pontius Pilate, who tries so hard to get Jesus to talk, and who wants desperately to find a way to keep him from being put to death.

Rachael Sherman-Shockley, who made such an impression as Dr. Jekyll’s virtuous fiancĂ©e in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” goes in the other direction, playing the woman of easy virtue, Mary Magdalene, who doesn’t know what to make of her attraction to this Jesus.

“I don’t see why he moves me
He’s a man. He’s just a man
And I’ve had so many men before
In very many ways
He’s just one more”

Her “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” may be the best-known of the songs from this opera and she gives it all the intensity that it needs.

Comic relief from the more serous action is offered by Quintin Casi as King Herod, dressed as a modern-day lounge singer, with scantily clad Charleston-dancing girls as back-up. It was a favorite moment in the show.

In lesser roles, Kara Wall shines as Annas; Leah Frazier, with the Anne Burrell Hair, is a strong Simon Zealotes; while Timothy Dimal gives a credible performance as Peter and Richard Kleeberg does double duty as both a priest and a Roman soldier.

The ensemble — from their opening “What’s the Buzz,” through the Palm Sunday “Hosanna,” to the “Crucifixion” finale — are all wonderful, whether apostles, followers or sick people looking for a miracle cure. Pamela Kay Lourentzos has done a marvelous job of choreography.

There are no sets to speak of, other than a few platforms on the otherwise bare stage. In fact, the only “set” piece is the crucifix at the end. The show does not demand a set but lighting designer Isaacson has created some inventive lighting designs.

DMTC once again has done Steve Isaacson proud with this latest production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Sunday, November 05, 2017


It was the late ’50s and rock and roll was in its heyday. Nobody had heard of The Beatles yet. A perky young girl named Carole Klein, whose mother wanted her to become a teacher, was passionate about writing songs and determined to sell one of her songs to Don Kirshner, of the Aldon Music publishing company.

The song sold and the career of Carole King (as she changed her name) was born.

“Beautiful — The Carole King Musical” tells the story of King’s career and her music in a manner similar to the wildly popular “Jersey Boys.” It’s mostly music from the ’50s and ’60s, familiar to many of the gray-hairs in the audience: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” “Up on the Roof,” “One Fine Day,” etc. There’s just enough dialog to trace King’s story, but not enough to fill in the story gaps before the next song or song snippet starts.

To watch this musical and see the activity around the studio, you’d think that writing music and getting published was a piece o’cake, as the songs flow instantly and are immediately grabbed up to be recorded by one of the popular groups of the day, one even sung by King’s babysitter, Little Eva (Alexis Tidwell).

Sarah Bockel is a perky, upbeat Carole, madly in love with Gerry Goffin (Andrew Brewer), her husband and writing partner of many years. Together they produced several top hits of the 1960s, and two babies. In her heart, she really wanted the normalcy of suburbia with a husband and kids, which her husband begins to find stifling and boring.

When Goffin begins showing mental instability and infidelity and using drugs, the marriage falls apart and Carole is a single mother, on her own. But she’ll not count herself out.

“The girls deserve better,” she says, “…and so do I!” which brings a loud cheer from the audience.
Reluctantly, she agrees to do some live performances, and discovers that she’s good at it — and the performing career of Carole King is born. The show ends where it starts, at a grand piano on the stage at Carnegie Hall, with the release of King’s first album, “Tapestry.”

A parallel subplot concerns the hypochondriac but humorous Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer) and the feminist Cynthia Weil (Sarah Goeke), a competitive writing team (producing such songs as “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling”) who end up being their best friends. It takes years for Mann to convince Weil that marriage is not such a bad idea.

James Clow as Don Kirshner is always pushing both writing teams to do their best, but is understanding and supportive when problems arrive.

A fun bonus of this show are the familiar names from the ’60s: Neil Sedaka (John Michael Dias), The Drifters, The Shirelles and The Righteous Brothers — who must have studied videos of their respective groups, their look and sound is so similar to the original groups. (The Shirelles have an amazing costume change which will leave you agog.)

This show is a salute to female empowerment and how one woman can rise from the ashes of a painful relationship to the top of the charts, as she sings the powerful “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.”

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Turning Corners

There are two more opportunities to see the Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre’s 2017 fall concert, “Turning Corners.”

Eight dancers, ages 9 to 87, ask the question: “Have you ever gone walking, turned a corner, and found a whole new view before you?” It explores how looking at familiar things from a different perspective can have a profound impact on your life.

Each of the dancers has recorded memories of life-altering experiences in his or her life with dances, both solo and ensemble. Unlike previous Trokanski concerts that use a wide range of musical styles (from Pink Floyd to Mozart to Weird Al Yankovic), music for this concert by Jeff Russo and Zoe Keating all seems to have the same title, “Sleeping at Last,” so it’s difficult to differentiate between numbers.

The enjoyment of this delightful show actually starts before the music, with the tongue-in-cheek warnings about cell phones and crying babies, which is definitely different from what you will hear elsewhere.

The performers include members of the Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre, the PTDT Apprentice Company and Third Stage, a multigenerational group.

To start things, 9-year-old Asher Habicht recalls his decision to become a vegan. Habicht, who has danced with Trokanski for a few years now, is a marvel. He has a couple of solos and is in every ensemble number. His dancing is as crisp, clean and synchronized as that of the adults around him.

Allegra Silberstein, 87, the first poet laureate of Davis, has been performing with Trokanski for many years. She recounted her first “turning corners” epiphany when discussing the dangers of communism with her college professor in the 1950s and her surprise when he contrasted communism to Catholicism.

Other dancers recall such issues as adapting to summer camp, the decision to move to New York, the decision of whether to switch majors and a very funny piece about driving (fear of turning left, so spending a lot of time plotting how to get somewhere using only right turns).

The dancers invite the audience to look at their lives upside-down and see what they discover — perhaps relating day-to-day activities with frustrating news out of Washington.

The athletic choreography is both lyrical and militaristic, flowing and funny — and one must notice how much boot sound one can get out of bare feet!

The piece, one act slightly under an hour in length, is a great bit of evening entertainment.