Thursday, December 14, 2017

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

From left, Sarah Brazier, Brittni Barger
and Elyse Sharp perform in the
Capital Stage production of
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,”
on stage through Dec. 30.
Charr Crail/Courtesy photo
Attention, Jane Austen fans: Capital Stage has a wonderful Christmas gift for you. “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon is a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” and takes place two years after the book ends.
If you (like me) are not a Jane Austen fan, not to worry — this delightful comedy-drama featuring four of the five Bennet sisters coming together to celebrate Christmas is just as delightful. There are probably a lot of nuances and back story bits that pass you by, but you’ll never know it.

This show centers on Mary (Elyse Sharp), the middle Bennet sister who, some say, gets short shrift in the book because of her “pedantic air and conceited manner.” At 20, she’s a spinster and a bookworm. She is more interested in learning and longs for a bigger life outside the societal expectations of 18th-century women. She is uninterested in the frivolous romantic adventures of her sisters.

Sister Elizabeth Darcy (Brittni Barger), now married to hunky Mr. Darcy (J.R. Yancher, a Davis resident), is the mistress of Pemberley, the Darcy estate. The gorgeous set designed by Eric Broadwater is dominated by a real Christmas tree, which will be decorated throughout the evening. It is a novelty for all the others, as the indoor Christmas tree is just beginning to be the fashion in Germany.

The Bingleys arrive — the very-pregnant sister Jane (Andrea J. Love) and husband Charles (Kevin Gish). Jane is “the sweet one” and does her best to calm people down when things threaten to get out of hand.

The last sister, Lydia (Sarah Brazier) arrives without her husband, who was “detained in Bath,” she explains. Lydia is self-absorbed and flirtatious. Brazier gives a very energetic performance that is perhaps a tad too loud, but definitely obnoxious.

She sets her sights on Arthur de Bourgh (Aaron Kitchin), Mr. Darcy’s cousin, who recently inherited a large estate and has no idea what to do with it. He is there to celebrate the holidays, but as he is a loner who prefers books to people, he definitely feels out of place and more than a little overwhelmed with Lydia’s attentions.

Though the plot is predictable — how two shy bookworms find the courage to admit their attraction to each other, amid all the chaos around them — getting there is half the fun, and director Peter Mohrman has kept the pace swift and the dialog crisp.

Things are further complicated by the arrival of Anne deBourgh (Lyndsy Kail), who announces that she is Arthur’s fiancĂ©e (a surprise to him).

Though the actors gave uniformly excellent performances, my heart went out to Kitchin’s Arthur and his awkwardness. Similarly, Gish’s Bingley, while perhaps the smallest role in the show, had such a look on his face — like he had a fun joke that only he knows. It was quite appealing.

Sharp’s Mary was cold and controlled, but with a desire she had not dealt with before just below the surface. Watching both her and Arthur struggling with unfamiliar feelings was very sweet.
In the end, the love that the women have for each other overshadows all difficulties and it shines as brightly as the now-decorated Christmas tree.

“Miss Bennet” is a nice, unusual Christmas story, which I hope will become a staple in years to come. It’s fun to see something different for a change!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Christmas Carol

Matt K. Miller as Ebenezer Scrooge and Gregg Koski as the ghost of Jacob Marley
perform in Sacramento Theatre Company's 2017 production of “A Christmas Carol.”
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo

It is difficult to imagine a Sacramento Theatre Company production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ without Matt K. Miller as Scrooge. Performing the role for the sixth time, he is the stingiest, meanest, grinchiest Scrooge there ever was — but after his reformation, his child-like enthusiasm for having not missed Christmas after all is infectious and never fails to bring a tear every time I see it.

This musical version of the Dickens classic, directed by Michael Laun and Michael Jenkinson, is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and returns to the STC stage after a five-year absence. Sacramento Theatre Company commissioned this musical by Richard Hellesen and David de Berry in 1987. Since then, the work has been widely performed, with perennial productions in Rochester, N.Y.; Denver; Dallas; Baton Rouge, La.; and Phoenix; among other communities.

Greg Coffin modernized the music a few years ago, and re-orchestrated the soundtrack for the 25th anniversary production. (The orchestration is recorded; no live orchestra was used … but you’d never know it.)

This is a pleasant musical with tunes that might not be memorable, but are thoroughly enjoyable. There are 35 actors mentioned in the biography, but many roles are double-cast to allow more of STC’s Young Professional’s Conservatory program to appear on stage.

Miller’s real-life son, Max Miller, for example, appears as Tiny Tim, alternating with Miller Traum. Max made his stage debut in this role five years ago, at age 4, and is now a seasoned professional.
The set by Renee Degarmo and Jarrod Bodensteiner is a wonder, with large pieces that roll or rotate while actors walk across them, telling the Dickens story and morphing into the characters singing the songs about the story.

That it works without a hitch is a miracle, though there was a slight problem that stopped the show cold for several minutes the night we went. The actors left the stage and the audience went into the lobby, and when the problem was fixed, all returned and the actors continued as if nothing had happened.

Michael Jenkinson plays Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, who must endure the conditions under which he works because he has a family of six at home — his wife (Aviva Pressman) and five children, including Tiny Tim (a good performance by Traum, whose “God bless us every one” rang out clearly).

Despite the hardships of his job, Cratchit maintains a happy disposition and greets Scrooge’s ebullient nephew Fred (David Weidoff) with good wishes for the coming holiday, though Scrooge growls and sends his beloved sister’s only child away.

Dominique Lawson and Jake Mahler are the two subscription gentlemen, soliciting funds for the poor. Their reaction at the end of the show when Scrooge reveals the contribution he wants to make to atone for many years when he did not contribute is perfect.

Gregg Koski is the chain-wearing ghost of Scrooge’s old partner, Jacob Marley, returning to Earth to warn Scrooge of what is in store for him if he does not begin to mend his ways. His interpretation is perhaps more befitting a Halloween spook than a Christmas specter, but he puts his whole soul into it.
As promised, Scrooge is visited by three spirits. The first, the Ghost of Christmas Past (eighth-grader Sarah Arata in her first Main Stage production, alternating with 14-year-old Fiona Gillogly) leads Scrooge through the happy memories of his past where he sees himself as a child (Ian Kennedy, alternating with Sebastian Fernandez), and, first, apprentice and then young man (Will Block), who definitely shows the beginnings of the cold, unfeeling Scrooge that he will become in later life.
Scrooge enjoys reliving the festivities at the shop of his jolly employer Fezziweg (Jake Mahler), who shows how happy he can make his employees with not much money at all.

Scrooge then sees the sad change when money became all important to him, ruining his relationship with the love of his life, Belle (Tyler Traum). Hints of regret begin to tug at his conscience.

Jake Mahler returns as the exuberant Ghost of Christmas Present, showing Scrooge the reality of life in the present.

I have seen this show many, many times and have never been as affected as I was this time listening to this ghost talk about the children of want and ignorance: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

It has always seemed just a part of the script for me, but sadly in this day and age, with education programs and children’s welfare in danger, it seemed more prophetic.

By the time of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Zane Boyer) arrives, Scrooge is ready to atone for his past sins and lead a good, blameless life.

Sacramento Theatre Company’s “A Christmas Carol” is a long-standing holiday favorite and it is wonderful to see it back on the STC stage again. It’s the Christmas show that everyone should see, at least once.

Scrooge (Matt K. Miller) celebrates his new found outlook on life with Bob Cratachit (Michael Jenkinson) 
and Tiny Tim (Max Miller) in Sacramento Theatre Company's production of "A Christmas Carol."
Kelly Christoffersen/Courtesy photo

Friday, December 01, 2017

A Christmas Miracle

This was a feature article:

That Tom Fay is alive today is literally a Christmas miracle.

Fay was a familiar figure in the Davis music scene back in the 1980s, when his band, The Rhythm Kings, played many of the venues in town. They also played Picnic Day, and even performed for the reopening of the Varsity Theater as a concert venue.

One night in the early 1990s, Fay had a dream that eventually would save his life. He awoke at 3 a.m. with a song in his head — complete with music and lyrics — and he grabbed a pad of paper to write it down. The song was “The Santa Rhumba.”

In 1994, Dave Whitaker of Sacramento’s Studio Z wanted to raise money for AIDS. He gathered several popular local bands to produce a compilation album, “Believe: a Holiday Wish.”

Musician Tom Fay points out a poster advertising a benefit concert Tuesday, Dec. 12, at which he and other local musicians will perform. Courtesy photo

When funding became a problem, Fay made some phone calls and was able to get the necessary money to make the CD, which would feature “The Santa Rhumba.” There was a CD-release concert and the album raised $14,000. All proceeds went to the Sacramento AIDS Foundation.

Fay decided that holiday concerts to raise funds for charity were a good idea, and he continued to stage annual concerts for organizations such as CARES, the Sacramento’s Children’s Home and Boys and Girls clubs. The “Santa Rhumba” was always a popular part of the concerts.

In November of 2014, the 72-year-old Fay had a debilitating stroke, which left him with a feeding tube and a walker. The doctors believed he had reached his maximum possible recovery. “It was the bleakest Christmas I’d ever known,” Fay recalled.

But then, when he was watching “Good Day Sacramento” on Channel 31, announcer Mark S. Allen announced that he’d just heard this “really cool” song that was No. 12 on the Sirius Radio top 100 of alternative Christmas hits. Then he played “The Santa Rhumba.”

Fay called the TV station and confessed it was his band and his song. Allen was excited and said that if Fay could get himself into good enough shape by the following Christmas, he was invited to perform “The Santa Rhumba” on the show.

Fay took that as a challenge. He and his wife Cottie Johnson searched for alternatives to the liquid he had been receiving through his stomach tube and found an organic substance called “Liquid Hope,” which sounded promising. He began to feel better and eventually was able to remove the tube.
After months of physical therapy, he was able to throw away the walker and, in December 2015, he did indeed perform “The Santa Rhumba” on Sacramento television.

Now he has joined with Lawsuit’s Ned Sykes to produce the 2017 charitable concert. Craig Ashton of the law firm of Ashton and Price is the generous sponsor.

They have chosen the Front Street Animal Shelter as this year’s recipient of funds.

“We went back and forth. There are lots of benefits going on around the holidays,” Fay explained. “I thought animals really need help around Christmastime. The field gets a little crowded.”
He thought especially of the animals affected by the recent Northern California wildfires.

The concert will take place from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12, at Harlow’s, 2708 J St. in Sacramento. Bands joining Fay and The Rhythm Kings are Preoccupied Pipers, a Davis band featuring former members of the 1990s ska band Lawsuit; The Hucklebucks, Sacramento jump blues legends; Todd Morgan & The Emblems.

Jimi Morris of Mercy Me! Band will make a special guest appearance at 5:45 p.m. Doors will open at 5 p.m. for DJ music with Harley White Jr.

And Tom Fay will perform “The Santa Rhumba,” the song that saved his life and got him back on the stage.

From 5 to 6 p.m., representatives of the Front Street Animal Shelter will be out in front of Harlow’s with adoptable dogs and puppies, weather permitting.