Monday, December 16, 2019

The Wizard of Oz

The land of Oz has gone high tech, in the B Street production of “The Wizard of Oz,” adapted by Lyndsay Burch.   

Gone is the drab Kansas farmhouse and the evil bicycle-riding Miss Gulch.  In this adaptation, Dorothy (Tiffanie Mack) is a video game designer, building a virtual reality Oz game for a holiday release date.  But they have discovered a few glitches and Dorothy must enter the game to find and fix them.  The performance itself, when I saw it, had a few technical glitches of its own that the cast handled smoothly.

Thanks to the Los Angeles-based guest scenic and video designer Kamyi Lee, an exciting digital world has been created, complete with a digital Toto.       

Scary Dave Pierini eats up the scenery as the Wicked Witch of the West, Amy Kelly was the logical choice for the Cowardly Lion, the kind of role that she does so well.  Sam Kebede is the boneless Scarecrow, Greg Alexander is the Tin Man and John Lamb is the Wizard.  Each actor, except for Mack,  has at least one other role which must be most difficult for Elisabeth Nunziato, having to switch from Glinda to Aunt Em in an eyeblink at the end of the show.

But there’s no place like home, and Dorothy is able to fix the video game and return to her office in time for Christmas.

The show is geared for all ages from 5 up and is great fun for adults too. The kids like being included in several spots and love the chase scenes throughout the theater.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley

When friends Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon decided to take a six-hour drive from San Francisco to Ashland, the two Jane Austen fans began to conceive a post “Pride and Prejudice” plot that resulted in two delightful Christmas-themed plays. For the last two years, Capital Stage has presented “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Now comes its sequel, “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.”

For “Downton Abbey” fans, “The Wickhams” may at first take a little getting used to. For one thing, it’s the Jane Austen version of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” though this sequel takes place downstairs and features a housekeeper who has all the stern authority of Mr. Carson from Downton, while actress Stephanie McVay’s “Mrs Reynolds” looks more like Mrs. Patmore, the Downton head cook.

Those who saw last year’s “Miss Bennet” will recognize that we are seeing what happened downstairs before action appears on stage “upstairs.” For example, footman Brian (Noah Thompson) carries a big fir tree into the servants’ quarters, to put in the upstairs library as a surprise for Mr. Darcy (Rob Salas). The decorated tree in the library, a new German fad, was a big part of “Miss Bennet.”

Directed by Peter Mohrmann, this show moves at a fast pace, sometimes dizzyingly fast, with so many characters entering and exiting. But there is never a dull moment.

Brittini Barger is returning for the third time to play Lizzy Darcy, who has settled into her role as the lady of Pemberley, and knows how to keep things as calm as possible even when a crisis arises.
Melissa Brausch plays sister Lydia, a flighty, flirty airhead, there without her husband George (Colin Sphar), about whom she raves, but obviously things are not right. Plus Mr. Darcy has given strict orders that George is not to enter the house, though he crashes the party anyway.

Both Brausch and Sphar are making their Capital Stage debuts. While both are excellent and a wonderful addition to the company, Sphar stood out from most of the cast and was outstanding. He has a scene with Salas as Darcy, which may be the most powerful of the evening.

This being a Christmas play, there has to be a romance in there somewhere and, in this case, it’s footman and would-be inventor Brian with newly hired maid Cassie (Kate Morton), friends since childhood, who are beginning to feel those stirrings and will they? Won’t they? Cassie has a more 21st-century idea of love, however, and trains Brian how to treat a woman he likes, which includes really listening to her. “Love is about seeing someone and allowing them to be exactly as they are.”

While this is a thoroughly enjoyable pastiche, there is just something “missing.” Perhaps the plot goes by too quickly to really get emotionally involved in some of the major issues, perhaps the comings and goings are too many and too quick. I don’t know. I didn’t feel as fulfilled as I did after “Miss Bennet,” though I certainly enjoyed myself and I really wanted to steal some of those cookies they ate all through the show and left on the table at its conclusion.

Monday, December 09, 2019

A Christmas Carol

As important as Bing Crosby Christmas carols are to my enjoyment of the holiday season is the Sacramento Theatre Company’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” particularly with Matt K. Miller, playing the role of Scrooge this year for the eighth time.

This musical was commissioned by STC 32 years ago, written by Richard Hellesen with music by David de Berry, and has been an audience favorite ever since. This year’s production is directed by Michael Laun and Miranda D. Lawson (who also plays Mrs. Cratchit and Mrs. Fezziwig).
There are 35 named characters in the show and 39 actors, many of whom do more than one role and alternate with other actors throughout the run of the show.

The success of any production of “A Christmas Carol” is Ebenezer Scrooge himself, the miserly grump who finds holidays a “humbug” and just an excuse to steal money from employers by employees who take the day off to celebrate with their families, yet still expect a salary.

I have reviewed four of Miller’s eight performances. He just gets better and better. He has perfected the moments when the curmudgeon has a positive thought because of something he is shown. His absolute childish glee at the end, realizing that he has not missed Christmas after all is infectious, and his affection for Tiny Tim (Leo Bettinger, sharing the role with Kit Bettinger and David Ngirmidol) brings tears to the eyes.

In several reviews from previous years, I have complained about the reverberation used for the ghosts and I will complain again this year. Jacob Marley (Eric Wheeler) and the ghost of Christmas Past (Olivia Stevenson) were so reverberated as to make most of their dialog unintelligible, particularly bad for Wheeler, who gave an over the top dramatic performance that was lost due to reverb distortion. There was only minor reverb for the Ghost of Christmas Present (the effusive Ryan Blanning), and it was lovely to be able to hear him so clearly.

Blanning also plays an enthusiastic Fezziwig, Scrooge’s first employer, who makes working so enjoyable by the way he treats his employees. It makes the Scrooge of today have passing thoughts of how he treats his own clerk, Bob Cratchit (Mike DiSalvo).

Lexie Allison is a warm and loving Fan (Scrooge’s sister). She shares the role with Isabella Hernandez. The role of Ebenezer the child is shared by Lorenzo Lopez and Miller Traum. Sadly, I missed which actor played it on opening night, but he was quite good.

Griffith Munn plays Scrooge as a young man, in love with Belle (Maddy Grace Wood, who alternates with Elysia Martinez).

Devin Weiser is a street singer, who fills in many “change the scenery” spots. What a beautiful, clear voice she has. Lucy Lederer and Cara McIntyre share the role of the beggar child whom Scrooge attacks in his curmudgeon days.

The set by Renee Degarmo and Jarrod Bodensteiner is a wonder, with large pieces that roll or rotate while actors walk them telling the Dickens story, morphing into the characters singing the songs about the story. The smoothness of the transitions is due in large part to the lighting design of Jordan Burkholder, who directs the audience to one side of the stage while the technicians are quietly changing the scenery on the other side.

Costumes by Jessica Minnihan are lush, especially in party scenes, though I did wonder why so many of the guests at Fezziwig’s party were wearing glasses when there did not seem to be any other scene where glasses were so prevalent.

Charles Dickens described the holidays as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

As we move forward through this holiday season may we, like Scrooge, take those words to heart and be a little more kind, a little more forgiving, and a little more loving toward those around us.

Sacramento Theater Company’s “A Christmas Carol” is a 32-year-old Sacramento tradition and should be on everyone’s list of things to do to enhance their holiday spirit.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Coney Island Christmas

The theatrical Christmas season is already in full swing and now comes “Coney Island Christmas” by Pulitzer-prize winner Donald Margulies, presented by the Winters Theatre Company, directed by Anita Ahuja. The play, written in 2012, is based on a short story (“The Loudest Voice”) by Grace Paley.

This is a cast of nine adults and 14 children, who play 47 different parts, including, Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, Santa Claus, Ebenezer Scrooge, the ghost of Christmas past, Miles Standish, King Herod, a tribe of Indians, the Statue of Liberty and a bearded lady. It’s lots of fun and not nearly as chaotic as it sounds.

Great grandmother Shirley (Gail Finney), trying to convince her great-granddaughter Clara (Amelia Doran) to put down her cell phone, tells her the story of the first school play she was in, in depression-era Brooklyn. The bulk of this production is the story of that play, with Shirley continuing to narrate. She paints a vivid picture of the time, with the smells and sounds she remembers fondly.
Isadora Harris, who receives deserved applause for her solo bow at the end of the show (she is wonderful) plays the young Shirley, a Jewish girl who loves theater and is cast as Jesus in the school Christmas play. She is cast for her loudmouth voice, which she is unafraid to use.

While her father, Mr. Abramowitz (Trent Beeby), a shopkeeper, is proud and supportive of his daughter, her mother (Alexis Velasquez) is appalled that Shirley has been cast to play Jesus in a Christian pageant.

“We let our Shirley play Jesus, then what?” she asks. “She becomes a nun?” (I was waiting for someone to point out to the mother that Jesus was Jewish, but nobody ever does).
The Harris family is well-represented in this cast as, in addition to Isadora, brothers Arlo and Abner are also in the cast. Five-year-old Abner, with a feather in his hair as an Indian, is easily the cutest kid on stage.

The school play is directed by Mr. Hilton (Scott Schwerdtfeger) and Miss Glacé (Cameron Toney) and the play itself is as endearingly inept as you’d expect a grammar school play to be.

Bridget O’Flaherty plays grouchy Mrs. Kornblum, a customer of Mr. Abramowitz’ store. She also joins with Robert Payawal and Jennifer Rutherford as a Christmas caroler.

Rachel Rominger is a proud Statue of Liberty, reciting the Emma Lazarus poem, sadly appropriate at the moment.

Set design and construction by a dozen company members is an ingeniously simple way to create a home, a school, a store and the school interior, with simple fold-out walls. The timeline is set by sale signs for things like chicken at 25 cents a pound or potatoes 20 pounds for 25 cents.

Costumes by Germaine Hupe and other regulars are fine, though I do think Shirley’s bushy beard was too big for her face. It made her unrecognizable and masked even her loud voice.

This is a truly delightful production, like going to your kid’s Christmas play, with the chance to enjoy watching how it comes together.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Threepenny Opera

“The Threepenny Opera” was written in 1923 by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and based on John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” (1728). First performed in Germany in 1928, it had poor reception, though it eventually became a success.

In this country, it was introduced as a film in 1931, and then a Broadway production, which opened in 1933 but closed after only 12 performances, though it had been translated into 18 different languages and performed more than 10,000 times on European stages. At least five Broadway and off-Broadway productions have been mounted, including a 2006 production starring Alan Cumming as Macheath, Cyndi Lauper as Jenny and a cast of drag performers.

Now, it is being produced on the main stage at UC Davis, directed by Peter Lichtenfels and Regina Maria Gutierrez Bermudez. Even though “opera” is in the title, it is perhaps mostly musical theater, with bits of opera included.

While most musical numbers are unknown, the song “Mack the Knife” became a popular standard and a No. 1 hit for Bobby Darin.

The directors and scenic designer Ian Wallace have chosen to present the full stage, the middle of which is the actual play while the two sides are for set pieces, costumes and relaxing for actors waiting to go on — all visible to the audience.

Behind the stage are two huge screens onto which are projected the action on each of the side portions of the stage. Director Lichtenfels explains, “We are interested in looking at how the actors don’t enter the stage as characters but transform onstage into characters.”

The storyline is a study of criminality at all levels and while characters unapologetically sing songs about the fact that the misery human beings inflict on each other is the foundation of our society, they continue to participate wholeheartedly in that corruption.

Diego Martinez-Campos is Macheath, London’s most notorious criminal. He has a booming voice that could use a little modulation as his opening notes fill the theater, to be followed by notes so soft you can barely hear them.

Toward the beginning, he marries Polly Peachum (Chloe Wasil) the daughter of Celia Peachum (Sophie Brubaker) and J.J. Peachum (Tiffany Nwogu), controller of all the beggars in London. Furious that his daughter would run off with a criminal, Peachum initiates a manhunt for him and vows to see that he is hanged.

Wasil has a beautiful voice and is so innocent throughout, while Brubaker easily steals any scene she is in, if only by her facial expressions. Nwogu’s Peachum is the most powerful character in the play.
Peachum’s plans for Macheath are frustrated by Tiger Brown (William Jiang), the London chief of police and long-time friend of the criminal. Jiang has a wonderful voice for a biomedical engineer.
Others in the cast include Brown’s daughter Lucy (Katie Halls) who claims to be Macheath’s real wife, with irrefutable proof of that fact, Olivia Coca as Jenny Diver, the prostitute who helps in Macheath’s capture and Angelita Sanchez, as Filch, a beggar-in-training.

The story describes the injustice of the capitalist system, where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and where everything and everyone has a price. How does our society treat people not in our social level? Do we have empathy for beggars, whores and prostitutes? Though nearly 100 years old, the questions are still appropriate today.

Sunday, November 10, 2019


Editor’s note: After this review was written, DMTC announced it was allowed to return to its building and, starting Friday, Nov. 15, all remaining performances of ‘Gypsy,’ will be at its home theater, the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center, 607 Peña Drive, Suite 10, in Davis, and will still be free of charge.

“The show must go on” — and go on it did for Davis Musical Theatre Company, shut out of its theater by a structural problem during rehearsal for the upcoming production of “Gypsy,” directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson.

Rehearsing first at Christ Church of Davis, and then performing at the University Covenant Church, the group had only an hour to grab costumes — so some of the costumes for the show came from the actors’ own wardrobes (though thankfully the most important costumes were collected). Likewise, there were no sets built at the time, but set pieces like tables and chairs created the proper look. John Stover is credited with the design of a car.

The show is being performed for free because it’s not the way it should be and this has got to be the best bargain in town. There’s nothing that feels “stripped down” in this production and it proves that when you have excellent actors, the audience can easily adapt to no sets and imperfect costumes.

This is the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, written by Arthur Laurents with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. But the principal character is Mama Rose, a militant stage mother who runs the lives of her children.

The show, which opened on Broadway in 1959, featured Ethel Merman in the role of Rose. It’s a huge role, with nine songs, most of which are real “belters.” There are echoes of Merman in the performance of Rachel Hoover, a terrific belter herself. She owns the role; each of her numbers is a standout.

Gillian Cubbage and Sage Greenwood are the young “Baby June,” and “Baby Louise,” two girls who don’t really want to be in show business, but who can’t say no to their overbearing mother.

Arianna Manabat is the adult Louise, ignored by her mother in favor of her more talented sister June (Maeve Kelly) until June secretly marries Tulsa (Eli Martinez), one of the chorus boys, and runs off with him.

Rose, whose dream is to make her daughter a star, concentrates on the untalented Louise, who finds her talent when forced to do a strip number in burlesque because they need the money. It’s a beautiful moment when Louise first sees herself in the mirror and realizes that she’s pretty. The rest is history. Gypsy Rose Lee became the most popular stripper in burlesque.

Nathan Lacy gives a good performance as the eternally faithful Herbie, who gives up a career in sales to help manage June. He is deeply in love with Rose and puts up with a lot for many years, but finally gives up when Rose postpones their wedding to encourage the reluctant Louise to strip.

A highlight of the show is “Ya Gotta Get a Gimmick” where three strippers, Tessie Tura (Barbara Silver), Electra (Heidi Masem) and Rene (Dannette Vassar) give Louise tips on what it takes to be successful. (Monina Reeves is credited with the costumes for this number.) Fans of Vassar have never seen her like this and even if the rest of the show weren’t so good, this alone is worth seeing.

Though it probably should not be, this is an excellent production and proves what dedication to putting on a show can create. (When you enter that huge room, remember that every single one of those chairs have to be put up and taken down by members of the company — so their work does not end with the curtain call!)

If you’ve never been to DMTC, this is your chance to see what it’s like — for free. It’s the best deal you’ll get all year.

Saturday, November 09, 2019


There are some serious problems with trying to review the play “Deathtrap” by Ira Levin (who gave us “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Stepford Wives,” among others). The play holds the record for the longest-running comedy-thriller on Broadway. First produced in 1978, it was nominated for that year’s Tony Award for Best Play. In 1982, the play was adapted into a movie starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon. While a few of the jokes seem dated, overall the script holds up well.

There’s nothing wrong with Sacramento Theatre Company’s production, directed by Michael Laun, which is excellent, and the five-character cast is a strong ensemble. The problem is that the show is so full of twists and turns that to talk about any of them would be to spoil the fun for someone new to the play.

Billed as a “comedy thriller,” it is more thriller than comedy and has surprises, plot twists and shocking moments that make the audience gasp — all combined to make for a great evening’s entertainment.

The story begins as writer Sidney Bruhl (Casey McClellan), who is in the middle of a slump — his last four plays have flopped and he is living off his wealthy wife Myra (Natasha Hause) — receives a script of a new play written by one of his students, his first play.

The script is perfect. It has everything to make it a Broadway success and Sidney begins to speculate about how he could convince the student, Clifford Anderson (Dan Fagan) to let him “polish” it, with the thought that he could share in the proceeds — or, better, steal the script entirely and publish it as his own.

As he plots and plans, Myra becomes worried that he will actually kill his student and isn’t quite sure if she’s happy or upset about it. She spends a lot of time pacing and wringing her hands, growing more and more upset. Hause gives a convincing performance, but the more nervous her character gets, the faster she speaks and it is sometimes difficult to understand what she is saying.

McClellan, on the other hand, is powerful and sometimes downright frightening, especially when he paces angrily inches from the front row of the audience. His performance is memorable.
The comic element is provided by neighbor Helga Ten Dorp (Gail Dartez), a madcap psychic, who visits because she senses something painful is about to happen (“tonight, not in many years have I had such a feeling”).

Fagan as Clifford also gives an excellent performance as this complicated character. Clifford is not quite as innocent as we originally think.

Greg Parker is fine as the lawyer Porter Milgrim, who has his own embarrassing secrets, revealed at the end.

Scenic designer Tim McNamara has built a beautiful set filled with hints of what is to come. The thunder and lightning by lighting designer Sarah Winter sync perfectly with the action on stage and add a few more cringe-worthy moments for the audience.

This is a fun night of theater. Go and bring a friend so you have someone to discuss the plot with — but don’t tell anybody else and spoil it for them.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

A Christmas Story

How do you make a favorite Christmas movie even better? Add music to it. It doesn’t always work, but it does for the current production of Broadway on Tour.

From the moment the colorful title curtain rises, revealing the home of the Parker family, the musical version of the 1983 film, “A Christmas Story,” adapted from the writings of the radio personality Jean Shepherd (Chris Carsten), is a delight. The story now comes with an often catchy score by the young songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Broadway on Tour usually performs at the Sacramento Community Theater, but the theater is undergoing an extensive renovation and so this season is being performed at the nearby Memorial Auditorium.

“A Christmas Story” is a fast-paced, lively story that sticks pretty close to the movie. There are 11 grammar-school-aged children in the cast and all are excellent actors, singers and dancers.
Ian Shaw has the role of Ralphie, alternating with Tommy Druhan. He is amazing and his solos bring thunderous applause.

William Colin is brother Randy, who doesn’t have much to say but when he gets out of his snowsuit, we find out that he is a talented tap dancer who brings down the house.

Briana Gantsweg is Ralphie’s mother, a somewhat Stepford-like stereotypical mom of the 1940s, but her poignant song about “What a Mother Does” was beautiful and will hit the heart of any mother in the audience.

Christopher Swan is “The Old Man,” pretty inept at handyman work, but diligent at entering crossword puzzle contests and thrilled when he actually wins “a major award” (unaware that his wife supplied most of the answers for him). It doesn’t matter how weird the award is — it proves he is now a “winner.”

The famous “leg lamp” prize is even funnier when it becomes the subject of a great dance number.
Special mention goes to Hoss and Stella, who play the “Bumpus Hounds” who chase The Old Man across the stage a few times.

Jay Hendrix, as Flick, does a great job keeping his tongue stuck on a flagpole outside the school for an entire scene.

Lauren Kent is Ralphie’s teacher, Miss Shields, who sheds her schoolmarm clothes and dons a hot red dress in a great dance number with Randy as part of Ralphie’s fantasy.

Having been written in 1983, bits of the story are somewhat dated. It is kind of cringe-worthy, for example, to hear Ralphie sing about all the reasons he wants a BB gun, one of which is to protect his teacher in case someone with a gun comes into the school. Oh, the innocent days when this was funny, and not a real concern.

Directed efficiently by Matt Lenz, with choreography by Warren Carlyle, this is a collage of childhood snapshots taken from the exciting month before Christmas, when children dream of a big haul from Santa Claus, even if their desires might “shoot their eye out.”

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Show Must Go On

Arianna Manabat (Louise), Rachel Hoover (Rose) and Nate Lacy (Herbie) rehearse “Together, Wherever We Go” for the Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of “Gypsy,” which now will be held at University Covenant Church. Courtesy photo

In the truest example of the show biz motto of “the show must go on,” the Davis Musical Theatre Company is dealing with a nearly impossible situation that threatened to shut down the impending production of “Gypsy,” which had been scheduled to start at the Jean Henderson Theater on November 1.

“It’s been so stressful,” producers Jan and Steve Isaacson sighed.

The Jean Henderson theater is the front half of a building that contains three other offices, one of which is used by the UCD Anthropology Department. On Oct. 10 at 4:42 p.m., Steve Isaacson was told that they must vacate the building immediately. Apparently a truss in the very back of the UCD Anthropology office slipped, causing the drop ceiling to collapse. It was a safety and liability issue and the landlords could not risk damage to any of the other tenants, Isaacson explained.

“Nobody can be faulted,” Isaacson said, adding that he was very happy with how the landlords have handled the situation. “They did a great job and I’m very happy with them.” Still, DMTC will not be able to return to the building until at least late November — and there was a show to put on. What to do?

Several options were investigated and for one reason or another they proved to be unworkable. They even worked with UCD’s Mindy Cooper to see about using the Wyatt Pavilion.

First, they needed rehearsal space. Rebecca Detrick (whose daughter played Annie in a recent production) suggested they check with her church, Christ Church of Davis on Oak Ave. Isaacson met with pastor Eric Dirksen and they started rehearsing there. But the church has its own remodel coming up in a week, so performing there was out of the question.

They finally found a home at the University Covenant Church on Mace Boulevard and Second Street. (by the Arco station).

“Those people are so nice,” Isaacson said, adding that he has met with more pastors in the past week than in a very long time!

So the show will go on.

“Gypsy” will open, as scheduled, at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1, but there will be no charge throughout the run (though donations will be happily accepted). It will be performed with an orchestra but without costumes, and with the only two set pieces that were finished at the time they had to evacuate the building. The company is trying to contact every ticket holder — more than 1,000 people — by telephone to let them know of the change in location.

The show will run at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 24. For more information, visit

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Humans

My favorite moment of “The Humans,” now at Capital Stage, is a moment when there is a scene going on in the upper part of the stage, while Erik (Matt K. Miller) stands just looking down at his mother. Momo (Janet L. Motenko), who has advanced dementia, and is napping on the couch. The feeling of love, concern, and frustration in Miller’s eyes is so powerful that I couldn’t stop watching him. It’s exactly how I feel looking at my 100-year-old mother.

“The Humans” is a very funny, yet often sad play by Stephen Karam, which will feel familiar to anyone who has family Thanksgiving dinners. In fact, it is so believable, you feel like you might be watching reality TV instead of a scripted play.

The Blake family are invited to the home of daughter Brigid (Karen Vance), who has just moved into a new run-down apartment with her boyfriend Richard (Damien Seperi). It’s an unusual two-level apartment with only stairs to get from one floor to the next, so grandma Momo has to be taken down the elevator to get to the bottom floor.

The noise of a New York building, with stomping from the folks upstairs and crashing noises from the garbage compactor, interrupt frequently and make everyone uneasy (including the audience, from time to time).

With action taking place downstairs in the kitchen, dining area and living room and upstairs, there is often overlapping dialogue, but it’s easy to follow. Everyone in the family has his or her problem, which all begin to be revealed as everyone drinks a bit too much before dinner.

Erik, a school custodian, has a secret he is hiding. Wife Deirdre (Jamie Jones) is struggling to stick with her Weight Watchers diet and not having an easy time of it with all the Thanksgiving temptations. Both parents are concerned that Brigid and Richard seem to have no desire to marry and thus will not be producing any grandchildren.

Daughter Aimee (Kristine David) is an attorney who has been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and has been taken off the partner track and knows that she will be let go soon. She has also just been dumped by her longtime girlfriend and is devastated. The pain she experiences from her physical condition is intensified by the pain she feels at having lost the love of her life.

Momo speaks mostly gibberish, though manages to perfectly join with the family in saying grace before dinner, then lapses back into gibberish again. It is so like someone who can’t remember her name but can sing familiar songs or recite familiar prayers from long ago. Motenko so nails the role of someone with dementia that it seemed strange to see the actor, looking perfectly normal, taking a bow at the end of the show.

“The Humans” won the 2016 Tony for new play and was a finalist in for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

This is a deceptively simple play, with no hysterics and no name-calling — just a family revealing its weaknesses and struggling with how to carry on. It is both entertaining, yet honest, with a surprising and disturbing conclusion, which I’m not sure I understood. But all in all, it’s an excellent play.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Stepping Out

The Woodland Opera House, which now has its own dance program, has shown off its dancing skills in several recent shows and now it has decided to feature them.

“Stepping Out,” by Richard Harris, takes place in a church basement, with a group of women and one man learning how to tapdance. The class has been invited to take part in a big charity show and they must learn a choreographed routine or be made a laughing stock.

Sadly, it was very difficult to hear most of the dialogue. I thought it might be that I was sitting in the back row (though that should not have been a problem), but when I checked with friends sitting in row five, they said the same thing and overheard people at intermission talking about the show being unintelligible: “I had an acute feeling of being cheated when it seemed as if half the audience could hear and respond to the dialogue, while the rest of us had no idea what was so funny. Such a loss.”
However, intelligible or not, this is a fun play and the finale is well worth it.

Harris was encouraged to write “Stepping Out” after his wife returned from a dance class and pitched the idea as a possible play.

He went to his local village hall and saw a bunch of misfits attempting to make sense of a tap class — and “Stepping Out” was born. The play was a hit in London and a musical version, based on the play, was made in 1991, starring Liza Minnelli and Shelley Winters. The Woodland production is not the musical.

Director Bob Cooner has chosen a wonderful assortment of types for his cast, and they are a perfect look for the group of “misfits” Harris was attempting to describe.

Instructor Mavis (played by Jenny Plasse), a down-on-her-luck former professional dancer, has her hands full managing the range of personalities and skill levels of her motley crew while at the same time dealing with her gruff, outspoken accompanist Mrs. Fraser (played by Nancy Agee). Mavis is doing her best to remain upbeat despite the lifestyle change and unexpected shock news.

The dancers reveal their strengths and insecurities as they step out of their comfort zones to make meaningful connections with each other, but we don’t really learn a lot about any of the characters, just the briefest bits of information that make one long to know more about their backstory.

Andy (Analise Langford-Clark), for example, insists on a long-sleeved leotard and always clutches something to her body when not dancing. We never hear definite evidence of an abusive husband, but it seems clear that she is hiding bruises.

It would be nice to know more about the quiet nurse Lynne (Nicolina Akraboff) who says she comes to class because it’s the only thing she does for herself. She obviously cares a lot about her job, since the death of one of her patients is so upsetting for her.

Also having difficulty with grief is Geoffrey (Darryl Strohl-DeHerrera), the only man in the group, who is trying to deal with his wife’s death and is uncomfortably embarrassed at the thought of appearing in public.

Charlotte French is Dorothy, the most awkward and uncoordinated of the group (other than Geoffrey) but desperately trying to learn the steps. It’s a great role for French, who is actually quite a good dancer (you have to be a fine dancer to make your dancing look so bad). In the role of the older woman in the group, she is very funny.

Deborah Hammond is a joy to watch as Rose, very positive and full of fun, and Ania Mieszkowska is Maxine, whose size is never an excuse to give less than her best and who can dance as well as the rest of them.

As the play begins, it is Sylvia (Emily Delk) who is the most proficient. She stands model-thin and tall and knows all the steps the others are struggling with. She chews gum constantly and puts chewed gum everywhere.

This is a huge deal for Vera (Patricia Glass), a neatnik who is forever picking up the gum and also cleaning the bathroom during tap drills. Vera, who may match Sylvia in talent, has the most amazing costumes (credit to costumer Denise Miles!).

By the end, of course, the group have all learned how to tap dance and perform two outstanding numbers, which makes this show, whether you can understand what is being said throughout or not, definitely spec-tap-ular.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Viewing Room

“The Viewing Room,” a comedy-drama by Mark Smith, was performed at the Howe Avenue Theater in Sacramento last year. Director Jesse Akers saw it there, enjoyed it, and decided to bring it to the Winters Theatre Company. In conjunction with the playwright, Akers added some running gags and other effects, while Smith made edits to the script.

I am assuming this play has not been performed elsewhere. The playwright attended the opening night performance.

This is the story of Chester Dumbrosky, who has died and is lying in his coffin when son Matthew arrives, awaiting for the wake to begin. Imagine Matthew’s shock when his deceased father sits up in his coffin and begins to talk with him.

As it turns out, Chester was an emotionally distant father and was allowed to return on the day of his wake to interact with his “grieving” family, make amends and say the things he had left unsaid.
This production has a talented cast of eight, including Brad Haney as the corpse and Cody Svozil as son Matthew.

Dona Marie Akers is Chester’s wife Florence, who sold their house on his demise, bought a condo in Florida and a new Mercedes and isn’t all that happy to discover that he is quasi-alive and will probably disapprove.

Daughters Patty and Debbie are played by Cameron Toney and Janene Whitesell and son Steven is Scott Schwerdtfeger. Chet, Jr., who left home at 18 and has not been heard from in 30 years, is played by Robert Payawal.

The cast is rounded out by Chris Thaiss as Jay, the Undertaker, who is not able to see the “alive” deceased.

There are a lot of funny things in this show, both jokes and physical humor and enough drama to show the extent of the dysfunction of this family. Each person explains how Dad’s attitude throughout their life has affected the adult they have all become and Mom, who took charge of her life on her husband’s death, seems to retreat back into the dominated woman she was during his life.
My feeling watching this play was that this excellent, talented cast is better than the material with which they are working.

While this is an enjoyable evening, there are problems. (For starters, it’s amazing that Mom has sold the house, bought a condo in Florida and a new car — all before her husband’s wake!)

While each of the adult children experiences serious effects of living in this dysfunctional family, each’s interaction with Dad is quite unsatisfactory and Dad’s excuse is that was just the way he was because of growing up during the Depression and working hard to pay the bills. I’m not sure any of them, except maybe Chet Jr., felt any better when he climbs back in his coffin, though his brief return to life at least gives him a chance to tell them all that he loves them, and may give the audience something to think about.

His dance with his wife is very sweet.

If I were still giving stars for reviews, this one would be five for actors and three for the play itself.

I found some humor that the program gives special thanks to the Dixon Florist, Milton Carpenter Funeral Homes and St. Peter’s Catholic Church!

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Northanger Abbey

There are many reasons to see Sacramento Theatre Company’s world premiere production of “Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey,” adapted by local playwright, Carissa Meagher, but foremost among them is Olivia Stevenson, an alum of STC’s Young Professionals Conservatory, who plays both Austen herself and Catherine Morland, the heroine of the novel.

Stevenson has the herculean task of being on stage almost the entire show and she is magnificent.
“Northanger Abbey” was Jane Austen’s very first novel, but it was not published until it was discovered by her brother after her death. It was Austen’s satirical contribution to the gothic novels of the time, which she so enjoyed.

It was that satire that appealed to playwright Meagher. “I found myself absorbed in the budding romance of the book’s protagonist, Catherine Morland and her new suitor Henry Tilney, while also curious about the darkness to be found at Northanger Abbey — only to find myself suddenly cracking up at Austen’s commentary on it all.

STC decided that its 75th anniversary was the perfect time to introduce this 20-something playwright’s work to the world. And what a delight it is.

Feeling that the story needed a narrator, Meagher introduced Austen herself, along with her brother Henry (Corydon Melgoza). The story begins with the pair discovering Jane’s forgotten novel. They begin to read from the book and tell the story of the unlikely heroine who goes from a wild and free-spirited kid, who much prefers rolling down hills and playing cricket to learning the piano, to an intelligent young lady, ready for a life in society.

Catherine is invited by her neighbors, the Allens (Marie Bain and Michael Jenkinson, who also play Catherine’s parents at the start of the show) to come with them to Bath so that she can be part of the social season. Uncomfortable and shy, Jane makes friends with Isabella (Rebecca Mason, in an engaging performance) whose brother John (Mike DiSalvo) finds her appealing, though she is put off by his boorish attitude and has no interest in him. She is, however, interested in the dashing Henry Tilney (James Edwards) and becomes friends with his beautiful sister, Eleanor (Devin Wiesner).
Henry’s father, the stern, tyrannical General Tilney, is played by Capital Stage co-founder Jonathan Rhys Williams, who has not been on the STC stage since 2008. In those days he played the handsome young suitor roles, but he has grown into middle age roles elegantly.

Invited to Henry’s home, Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s gothic suspicions kick in and she becomes convinced that Henry’s mother was killed by his father and she searches the house trying to find clues. When the general discovers that Catherine is not rich, he denies Henry’s desire to propose to her, until the truth of her history is revealed.

Jarrod Bodensteiner has done a wonderful job of creating a gothic-looking castle using only a few doors, moved easily from place to place. It’s how to make a set without actually making a set — and it works

Isaiah Leeper’s lighting design is also integral to the story, going from present to past to gothic.
Teresa Stirling-Forsyth and Michael Jenkinson have directed a tight production that is certain to please any Austen lover, and a few new to the author themselves.

Sacramento Theatre Company’s 75th season is off to a good start.

Monday, September 30, 2019

2019 Ellys

Members of local and regional community theater were honored at the 37th annual Elly Awards, sponsored by the Sacramento Area Regional Theatre Alliance (SARTA), Sacramento’s answer to Broadway’s Tonys. Because of the number of awards, there were two ceremonies: the Youth Awards on Sept. 8 at Cosumnes Oaks High School Performing Arts Center in Elk Grove and the Adult Awards on Sept. 22 at The Center in Sacramento.

Nominated for 42 awards, the Woodland Opera House picked up 10, including two Adult Awards.
Lenore Sebastian received the award for best Supporting Female in the Musicals category, for her role as Maggie Jones in Woodland’s highly acclaimed “42nd Street.”

“It was pretty shocking,” Sebastian said. “I seriously had no expectations. The last Elly I won was for “Candide” in 1990!” She added, “I was thrilled for Opera House because sometimes the Ellys seem to ignore Yolo County. Half of the people I talked with at the ceremony had no idea the Woodland Opera House even existed.”

Choreographer Staci Arriaga also received an award for her work in that show. Arriaga had also been nominated for her choreography in the Children’s Theatre Production of “Annabelle Broom.”

Woodland’s also received six Youth Awards, mostly in the Children’s Theatre Productions category (theater performed by all ages for children).

“Rumpelstiltskin, the Game of the Name” took home five awards, including Ania Mieszkowski for Choreography, Marcia Gollober as Leading Female (adult), Barrett Shepherd as Supporting Male (adult) and James Glica-Hernandez for Musical Direction for this world premiere. Craig Vincent tied for best Lighting Design,

Glica-Hernandez said, “As satisfied as we are at Woodland Opera House to be recognized with SARTA’S Elly Awards, our cast, designers and directors were delighted to work on the original script for ‘Rumpelstiltskin, the Game of the Name.’ Creating a world premiere is an unforgettable experience for all of us. Playwright Catherine Hurd and composer Vatrena King gave us a marvelous piece upon which we could build.”

“Annabelle Broom, the Unhappy Witch” received two awards, one to Veronica Gersalia for Makeup Design and one to Denise Miles for Costume Design.

Joey Vincent picked up an award for Set Design for “The Cat in the Hat.”

Davis Musical Theatre Company’s Amaralyn Ewey won the award for Supporting Female in the Youth Theatre Productions category (theater performed by youth actors) for her role as Ursula, in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid Jr.”

“I never thought I’d actually win an Elly!” she exclaimed. “Ursula was such a horrifically fun role!”

Amaralyn actually had a mega dose of “The Little Mermaid.” When her father, cast as Sebastian in the main stage version of the show, suffered an injury, she stepped in and after only three rehearsals did that role for 12 performances, before starting the Young Performers’ Theatre version of it as Ursula.

Named for Eleanor McClatchy, a devoted patron of the arts, the Elly Awards celebrates excellence in Sacramento regional theater.

SARTA’s mission is to promote high-quality theater in the Sacramento area and neighboring regions. When combined with the opportunity to provide quality entertainment and formal recognition of those in the performing arts, SARTA and the Sacramento community benefit.

Currently, SARTA membership includes approximately 100 theaters, more than 400 individual members and 30 media agencies. In addition to the Elly Awards program, SARTA sponsors headshot days, fall and spring general auditions, a weekly electronic update for those last-minute auditions and casting calls and a monthly electronic TheatreLetter featuring auditions, classified ads, workshops and performance information for theaters and individual artists in the greater Sacramento region.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

A Stand-Up Guy

Any would-be stand up comedian would do well to get to the B Street Theater and watch Jack Gallagher’s “A Stand Up Guy.”

Gallagher, the three-time Emmy award winner, host of various TV shows, and Tonight Show with Johnny Carson comic (his favorite gig) has appeared in several movies and has lived his life’s dream since he was 10 years of age, for the past 41 years.

Now in a show written by Gallagher and son playwright/actor Declan Gallagher (who appears briefly in an hilarious piece about the grammatical uses of the f-word) the stand up comedian and story teller explains how he did it...and how this Fall River, Massachusetts native ended up making Sacramento his home and becoming one of its biggest entertainment assets.

Put very briefly, it’s by always doing the very best he could no matter what the job.  It also helps if you have the kind of supportive wife Gallagher has in Jean Ellen, to whom he has been married since 1980.

But the path to B Street (for which he has now written 8 different shows) was a rocky one, to put it mildly.  While Gallagher is a comedian, he is more a story teller than a joke teller.  He can tell a story that will keep you mesmerized (check his You Tube video “Letters to Declan,” the first of his one-man shows), but as popular as he may have been, the fact that he didn’t tell zippy jokes that brought audience applause every minute kept him off Carson’s “Tonight Show” through four auditions, for example.

His career has been a series of ups and downs, sometimes leaving him without an income entirely.  But he never gave up, and Jean Ellen never gave up believing in him.  Soon the ups were higher and the lows not quite as low.

The script of this show was shaped by the calendars he kept throughout his career (“in case I’m ever nominated to the Supreme Court,” he quips – his one political joke).  There were times when he was performing a show in the early afternoon in one state, and another at night in a different one...for weeks at a time.

But the work paid off and the gigs started to get more serious.  He nearly had his own sitcom, until the network pulled it for reasons which had nothing to do with Gallagher, but merely left him without work again.

In 1983, he was offered a job in Sacramento.  He was promised that he was going to be a Big Star on KCRA.  He and Jean weren’t sure they wanted to move to Sacramento, but at the time they were living in Los Angeles and hated it.  Sacramento, with its trees and older houses, reminded them of Massachusetts, so they gave it a try.

The show only lasted 9 months before it was canceled, but by this time, Gallagher was less frantic about his career and happy in Sacramento. He had appeared in concert with Dolly Parton, The Four Tops and Tony Bennett, had a recurring role on the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and appeared in a couple of movies, including “Heartbreak Ridge,” with Clint Eastwood.  He began writing shows for B Street.

Now he’s decided it is time to tell his story, from his first joke (on the golf course with his father when he was 10) through his 15 years of averaging 35 weeks a year on the road, to moving to television, to Sacramento, where he is now, happily living with his family and trying to figure out ways to stay off the road.

I’ve been a fan of Jack Gallagher ever since I saw him do Crystal ice cream commercials a long time ago.  I’ve seen several of his one-man shows.  Each one is quite different from the last, but I’ve never left the theater without smiling and raving about how wonderful it was.

“A Stand Up Guy” joins the list of other exceptional Jack Gallagher performances I have seen.  And his brief salute to the old B Street theater brought laughter and applause.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


There is something exciting happening to local community theater. It seems that the line between “community theater” and “professional theater” is much thinner these days than it has been.

First, there was the spectacular “Mamma Mia” at Davis Musical Theater Company and now we have “Newsies” at the Woodland Opera House. Community theaters may not have the budget for flashy sets and costumes, but when it comes to direction, musical direction, choreography and acting, what our community theaters offer is on a real par with the big boys.

“Newsies,” directed by Crissi Cairns, with musical direction by Jia-Min Rosendale, vocal direction by James Glica-Hernandez and choreography by Jacob Gutierrez Montoya is the Disneyfied version of the true story of the 1899 newsboy strike in New York, and shows how the passion of one person can make a difference in the world.

At the turn of the 20th century, some 10,000 boys sold newspapers on the streets of New York, many of them orphaned and homeless. The boys paid to get the newspapers, and if they did not sell, the publishers would not buy them back.

During the Spanish-American war, when the desire for news was high, the publishers raised the price charged to the boys from 50 cents per hundred to 60 cents per hundred. But at the end of the war, when the interest dropped, publishers Pulitzer and Hearst did not reduce the price the boys paid, even though other publishers did. The boys demanded a return to the price that their peers at other papers were paying.

Under the leadership of a 15-year-old boy named Kid Blink, the “newsies” organized, held massive outdoor meetings and after two weeks, the publishers and the newsies compromised — they would keep the higher price, but would buy back any unsold papers. The stand-off was considered a major step in the child-labor movement.

It is often difficult to fill male roles in community theater, but the 35 member cast is definitely male-heavy and those men are incredibly talented. Each of their five high-energy dances was a show stopper and the audience is treated to everything from tap to acrobatics.

The character of Kid Blink is now named Jack Kelly (Casey Camacho). He’s also an older teen now, so a love interest can be written into the story.

It’s a physically exhausting role, which the talented singer and dancer takes in stride. Kelly struggles with the rights of his fellow newsies and the possible repercussions by the newspaper magnates. He wants to have enough money to move to Santa Fe and is tempted by bribes to give up the fight for fairness.

As Joseph Pulitzer, Rodger McDonald is wonderful as the cold, heartless publisher who cares only about money and has no empathy for the kids.

Jack’s best friend is Crutchie (Collin Robinson-Burmester), the disabled newsie with a positive attitude who becomes the heart of the show. (Collin’s brother Bailey appears as one of the newsies and his father, Stephen, making his theatrical debut, has two smaller roles). He becomes perfect victim for the goons of the publishers trying to squelch the boys.

Making her opera house debut is Grace Leekley as Katherine Plumber, an inexperienced reporter who becomes interested in the David vs. Goliath struggle of the newsies and manages to give them the publicity they need to make their voices heard. She has a lovely soprano voice and has a great solo in “Watch What Happens,” and a beautiful duet (“Something to Believe in”) with Jack. This is Leekley’s first musical in six years and one hopes her success in this role will encourage her to step back on stage regularly again.

Elio Gutierrez is Davey and DJ Michel is his younger brother Les. They are new to the newspaper delivery business and are amazed to learn that many of their colleagues have no mothers or fathers. Crutchie is amazed to learn that Davey and Les go home to a mother who is a “good cook.”

“Newsies” focuses on the atrocities of child labor and poverty, but also shows the power of those who stand together for what is right. The Woodland Opera House production is outstanding.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Mamma Mia

“Mamma Mia,” now in its 21st year, was groundbreaking. The popularity of this “jukebox musical” based on the music of ABBA sparked a raft of similar musicals featuring the music of other musicians — like “Jerseys Boys” (music of The Four Seasons), “Beautiful” (Carol King), “Ain’t Too Proud” (The Temptations) and dozens of others. The stories are sometimes contrived in order to fit in as many songs by the featured musicians as possible.

“Mamma Mia” appears to be having renewed popularity. There have been several productions of it in the Bay Area and at least three in the Sacramento area in the last couple of months. And now a joyous production has opened on the Davis Musical Theatre Company stage.

Directed by Steve Isaacson, with choreography by Kyle Jackson and a cast of 40, this production is spectacular. (Never let it be said one cannot dance in swim fins!)

In 1999, Catherine Johnson decided to take 22 of the best-known ABBA songs (written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) and weave a story around the lyrics. Even if you think you don’t really know ABBA music, you’ll be surprised at how many tunes you’ll recognize — and if you are an ABBA fan this is a must-see show.

The story centers around single mother Donna Sheridan (Andrea Eve Thorpe) raising her daughter Sophie (Abby Lambert) on the Greek island where Sophie was conceived, the product of a liaison with one of three men. Donna has built herself a successful taverna and has no need of a man in her life.

But Sophie is about to be married to Sky (Kyle Jackson) and she wants her real father to give her away. Having snooped through Donna’s diary, she invites three men — Harry Bright (AJ Rooney), Bill Austin (David Muerle) and Sam Carmichael (Tate Pollock), all of whom had relations with Donna around the time of Sophie’s conception — to her wedding, unbeknownst to Donna. The men all arrive, thinking Donna has invited them. Sophie wants her real father to walk her down the aisle.
Also attending the wedding are Donna’s two friends, her back-up singers when the three were Donna and the Dynamos. Tanya (Laura M. Smith) and Rosie (Kasper Cummins) are delightful comediennes, and those costumes were great fun.

(The program gives an ABBA fun fact about those marvelous costumes. They were an easy way to save on the group’s tax bill. ABBA exploited a Swedish law which meant clothes were tax deductible if their owners could prove they were not used for daily wear.)

Andrea Thorpe gives a powerful performance as Donna and gets cheers for her very emotional “The Winner Takes it All.”

As Sophie, Abby Lambert is winsome and engaging, as is her fiancé Sky (Kyle Jackson), whose short shorts make him look leggy and somehow younger than he really is.

The three possible fathers are fun. Harry’s (Rooney) secret is suggested in his various costume changes. Bill (Muerle) is the adventurer, the first to accept Sophie as his daughter, while his duet with Rosie (Cummins) is great. Sam (Pollock) is the love of Donna’s life and, despite a marriage and children of his own, is obviously still in love with her.

Everyone in the show learns something about themselves and the wedding itself, though not quite as planned, is worth the two-act wait.

The three “bows” numbers — tacked on at the end because there was no place in the plot to put them — are great fun and have the audience standing and waving their arms along with the cast.

Do I recommend this production? Of course I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Yeomen of the Guard

“Yeomen of the Guard,” the 10th Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration is, strictly speaking, not a comic opera – it is a tragedy.  In fact, Gilbert & Sullivan themselves never called it a “comic opera” but rather “an entirely new and original opera.”

That’s not to say it’s not funny.  It’s very funny, but mostly gallows humor, since the entire story is about death.  It deals with beheadings, traveling performers,, mistaken identity, overlapping romances,...and not everybody lives happily ever after.

“Yeomen” has some of the most magnificent Sullivan music, and Light Opera Theater of Sacramento performs it magnificently.  With a 30 piece orchestra, under the direction of Anne-Marie Endres, which knows when to let the music soar (when no one is singing) and when to keep it low so the voices can be heard over the instruments, the orchestra alone is worth the price of admission.

And trust me, you want to hear those voices!  Robert Vann (double cast with Anthony Tavianni) is Colonel Fairfax, a man, wrongly accused, who marries a randomly chosen, blindfolded woman to divert his fortune away from the cousin who wrongly accused him.  He is one of those performers whose first appearance on stage makes you sit up wondering where he’s been all his life.  One place he’s been is performing with San Francisco’s Lamplighters, with whom he performed the role of Fairfax several years ago.  His performance is outstanding.

Timothy Power is quite good as Sir Richard Chomondeley, tasked by Fairfax to find him a bride before his beheading.

Carley Neill (double cast with Jadi Galloway) is Elsie Maynard, who comes to the Tower of London with jester Jack Point (Charlie Baad) to earn some money by entertaining the people.  Her mother is ill so when she is offered 100 crowns to marry the condemned Fairfax, she agrees, knowing that within an hour she will be a widow.  Neill’s voice is as outstanding as Vann’s and the two make the perfect pair.

The focus of the story, however, is Jack Point himself.  Baad gives a good performance, one of his most poignant moments being “A private buffoon,” wherein he describes the life of a funny man who must entertain no matter what tragedies are going on in his life.  “They’re exceedingly kind...they don’t blame you as long as you’re funny,” he sings, dripping irony.  The end of the story for Point has been the subject of debate among Gilbert & Sullivan fans ever since it was first written in 1888.

Sergeant Meryll, of the Yeomen of the Guard, is played by Mike Baad.  He succeeds in helping Fairfax escape, with the assistance of daughter Phoebe (Rikki Pratt, alternating with Paige Kelly).

Wilfred Shadbolt (Eric Piotrowski), the head jailer and assistant tormenter) has his eye on Phoebe, who uses that knowledge to find a way to help her father free Fairfax.  Wilfred is convinced that if Point can be a jester, he can too and their “Cock and Bull” is very funny.

Lenore Sebastian, familiar to Davis audiences, is Dame Carruthers, born and raised in the Tower and now its housekeeper, fiercely proud of its workings (“When our gallant Norman foes”), She is furious that a prisoner has escaped and nobody can find him. 

Rebecca Cox is her niece Kate.  The character exists mostly to add a fourth voice to the lovely madrigal “Strange Adventures.”

Scenic Designer Dwayne Slavin has made the most of the small stage with a lovely Tower of London, and Theresa Vann Stribling has credit for the lovely costumes, though the striking yeomen’s uniforms are from Valley Light Opera.

This rarely performed production, directed by Mike and Debbie Baad, is one of the best I’ve seen from Light Opera Theatre of Sacramento.  From the wonderful orchestra to the strong chorus to the beautiful visuals to the perfectly cast principals.

If you’ve been missing Gilbert & Sullivan, this is definitely one you’ll want to see.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Wiz

“The Wiz,” now at Music Circus, is a joyous, energetic, audience-pleasing musical with a cast that is mostly Equity members. The result is spectacular.

The history of this musical is older than one would think. Author L. Frank Baum always thought his “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” would make a good musical and, in fact, a musical was first presented in Chicago in 1902 and played for 12 sold-out weeks. It opened on Broadway in 1903 and ran for 18 months, and productions were held around the country.

However, it was not until 1939, when MGM created the iconic movie that we all know so well, that we formed our visions of what the story should look like. We all know what Munchkins are, that Dorothy follows a yellow brick road with her dog Toto, and that she wears the ruby slippers of the wicked witch whom she accidentally kills.

In the 1970s, disc jockey Ken Harper imagined what the story would be like if the cast were all African-American. With financial backing from 20th Century Fox, he selected playwright William F. Brown and songwriter Charlie Smalls to create a new script using the urban vernacular and music that was a mixture of R&B, soul and gospel.

After a 1974 opening in Baltimore and lots of tweaking, it opened on Broadway in 1975 and received mixed reviews, negative from the traditionalists and more positive from other critics. It went on to receive seven Tony awards, including Best Musical. This is the show that is now gracing the Music Circus stage and leading to a standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience.

There are great special effects, including a marvelous tornado. Music Circus also makes the best use (so far) of its new projection screens that surround the stage.

There is no “Over the Rainbow,” but Auntie Em (Christine Acosta Robinson) opens the show with a warm, wonderful “The Feeling We Once Had.” (Robinson briefly appears later in the show as the wonderful Glinda the Good Witch in a gorgeous costume.)

Toto appears very briefly, but Dorothy (Adrianna Hicks) makes the trip to Oz alone.

There is no gathering of little people to play Munchkins, but the costumes for the chorus are unique and they are led by Addaperle (Terry Burrell), the Good Witch of the North. Burrell, like Robinson, displays a magnificent voice and is dressed in another gorgeous costume (kudos to costume coordinator, based on the designs of Paul Tazewell).

As Dorothy “eases on down the road,” she meets the Scarecrow (Kevin Smith Kirkwood, returning to Music Circus after his starring role in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway), the Tin Man (James T. Lane) and the Lion (Phillip Boykin). Boykin has a magnificent voice which could easily shine in the opera world.

It is the Lion alone who gets hypnotized by the Poppy Girls.

Arriving in Oz, they must fight the royal gatekeeper (Jeff Gorti), determined to keep the quartet away from the Wizard until he sees that Dorothy is wearing the silver slippers from the Witch of the East (MGM changed the color of the slippers to “ruby” because they photographed better).

Alan Mingo Jr. is The Wiz and promises to grant their wishes if they will do one simple thing for him — kill Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. The encounter with the witch is surprisingly short, but Zonya Love makes the most of it.

The unmasking of the Wizard isn’t done by Toto but by a uniquely Music Circus effect, which is very clever.

Glinda encourages Dorothy to “Believe in Yourself,” and with clicks of her silver slippers, she is once again back in Kansas in the arms of Auntie Em, who must have had a very quick costume change.

This whole production, directed by Glenn Casale, with musical direction by Darryl Archibald, making his Music Circus debut, is simply a delight and a good choice for all ages. The theater was nearly filled on opening night, so tickets are selling well.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Peter and the Starcatcher

Acme Theatre Company traditionally does three shows a year: an intimate drama in January, a free comedy in the park in May and a large show where everyone gets cast in the summer. Acme members are in the ninth to 12th grade, so their time in the company is only three to four years and every few years, there is a new crop of actors. In the past, the years where the bulk of the cast are new to the company, the shows are less polished than they will be two to three years later.

Happily, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” directed by Emily Henderson, is the exception to that rule. With more “new” people in the cast than “old,” this “Peter” is outstanding. The show is double-cast, and I saw the performance on opening night. You would have thought it was a cast of veteran Acme actors.

Adapted by Rick Elice from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s 2004 children’s novel, this play tells the story of how a nameless, angst-ridden orphan became the immortal Peter Pan. The (air-conditioned) Wyatt Pavilion became a magical place, without the use of many fancy technical tricks. Sets were created using ordinary rope, a couple of ladders, a few household appliances, a couple of boxes, and, most important, the actors themselves.

In “Peter and the Starcatcher,” the young orphan and his mates are sent on a ship from Victorian England to a distant kingdom ruled by an evil king. There are some marauding pirates, a jungle tyrant, less-than-willing comrades and unlikely heroes. Best of all, there is a mysterious trunk in the captain’s cabin, which contains precious, otherworldly cargo. At sea, the boys are discovered by a precocious young girl named Molly, a starcatcher-in-training who realizes that the trunk’s precious cargo is star stuff, a celestial substance so powerful that it must never fall into the wrong hands.

Jordan Hayakawa is excellent as “boy,” who would later acquire the name Peter (Hayakawa alternates with Garnet Phinney in the role). We first meet him and his two friends Prentiss (Odie Lopez/Antonia Zaragoza-Smith) and the food-obsessed Ted (Sara Su/Gavin Pinnow) on a ship named The Neverland.

Molly (Megan Abbanat/Fiona Ross) is the daughter of an English Lord (Julie Knoepfler/Lee Libbet), and herself an apprentice starcatcher, a group of people dedicated to stopping the power of the star stuff from being used for evil. The two overcome bands of pirates and thieves in their quest to keep a magical secret safe and save the world from evil.

Molly’s father, on the ship The Wasp is a starcatcher and is guarding a trunk filled with magical star stuff to prevent pirates from stealing its treasure. Grey Turner is outstanding as the pirate Black Stache (alternating with James Hayakawa) and has one of the best moustaches ever, a trademark of his family.

Black Stache’s faithful first mate is Smee (Jemima Aldas/Wren Arellano)

Peter and Molly manage to dump the trunk into the ocean and jump overboard during the confusion of a storm. After the storm, everyone and the trunk wash ashore on an island inhabited with hostile natives and a giant crocodile (one of the most clever crocodiles you’ll ever see on stage, created using the plainest of materials).

The island natives are Cypher McIlraith/Rylan Valdepena as Fighting Prawn, Allie Gunther/Anja Nittner as Hawking Clam and Kira Cubbage as Teacher in both productions.

While not strictly a musical, there is a three-piece band, directed by music director Oliver Steissberg, for a couple of musical numbers.

Sophia Nachmanoff and Emma Larson are credited with costumes, and what a delightful assortment of colorful costumes they are!

Henderson’s direction results in a tight cast with no lapses in the action. The two hours pass quickly. This is a show that will delight adults and children alike.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Guys and Dolls

There are people who love Shakespeare and people who love Jane Austen. I love musical theater. I’ve loved musical theater all of my life. There are some shows I like better than others.

“Guys and Dolls,” currently at Music Circus, was never one of my favorites. It’s OK. I’ve seen the movie several times and have reviewed the stage show five times and was never blown away — until I saw this Music Circus production.

My word, is it wonderful!! I may have to move the show into my “favorites” category.
This musical by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows — based on short stories by Damon Runyon, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser — is set on the streets of New York in the 1940s, and the characters are so stereotypically delicious that we can’t help falling in love with them.

These are the lowlifes, gamblers, showgirls and gangsters, and the Salvation Army-like missionaries who try to save their souls.

While everyone in the show is terrific, the real “star” of the show is choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, who has created fabulous dance numbers that blend seamlessly with the storyline. Particularly wonderful was the dance during the overture.

Kudos also to costume designer Marcy Froelich for all those terrific 1940s “gangsta” costumes, especially the wonderful striped suit of Nathan Detroit (Jeff Skowron), desperately trying to find a place to hold his “oldest established floating crap game” in New York, now that Lieutenant Brannigan (Ron Wisniski) is hot on his tail and has managed to seal up all the “usual” places.

It is particularly necessary to find a place to accommodate “Big Jule,” in from Chicago and ready to play. Jerry Gallagher is a wonder. Head and shoulders above everyone else, he is a talented hulk who personifies someone named “Big Jule” and the actor’s bio says he has played this role all over North America and Europe and even on a cruise ship.

Into the world of the dedicated gamblers come the Salvation Army-type missionaries, trying to win souls for God, especially naive, idealistic Sarah Brown (Ali Ewoldt), under the guidance of paternal Arvide Abernathy (Lenny Wolpe), whose love for Sarah is expressed beautifully in “More I cannot wish you.”

Charming gambler Sky Masterson (Edward Watts), who has a girl in every port, sets his sights on Sarah.

From the first moment of their meeting, sparks fly between the two actors and the chemistry is magic.

Detroit has been engaged for 14 years to the long-suffering Miss Adelaide (Lesli Margherita), a singer and dancer at The Hot Box; she’s beginning to worry that they’ll never get married. Adelaide only dreams of settling down in a real home with Nathan.

Their duet, “Sue Me,” is a true crowd-pleaser.

There is a whole stable of wonderful cast members, led by Michael Paternostro as Benny Southstreet, Carlos Lopez as Harry the Horse, and Evan Harrington as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, who delivers the show-stopping “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

The popularity of, and enduring affection for, Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls” is easily seen in its award history. It swept the Tonys in 1951, the year it opened on Broadway (where it ran for 1,200 performances), winning not only “Best Musical,” but also awards for Best Actor, Actress, Director and Choreographer.

It had nominations again for Best Actor (Jerry Orbach) in 1965 and was nominated in 1977 for Best Revival of a Musical.

In 1992, it again won an award for Best Revival of a Musical, as well as awards for Director, Choreographer and Actress, with four additional nominations for the revival. In 2009, it was again nominated for Best Revival.

Various productions also hold Drama Desk awards, Olivier awards and Helpmann awards. It was picked to receive the 1951 Pulitzer Prize but because Burrows had been investigated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, the trustees of Columbia University chose to withhold the award, so no Pulitzer for drama was awarded that year.

Guys and Dolls has a number of familiar tunes (“I’ll Know,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “If I Were A Bell,” “Luck Be A Lady”). It would be surprising if the audience did not emerge humming one of them at the end of the evening.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Kyle Stoner gives a great performance in Davis Shakespeare company’s production of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” In fact, he gives eight wacky performances of members of a noble family, all of whom are doomed to die.

If the musical, by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, directed by Gia Battista, sounds familiar, you may remember seeing the Alec Guinness movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” also based on the 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” by Roy Horniman.

Daniel Sugimoto is Monty Navarro, writing his memoirs from prison. He recently learned that his mother was disinherited by her aristocratic family when she married the wrong man. She was forced to spend the rest of her days earning a meager living as a washerwoman.

Monty is actually the ninth heir to the D’Ysquith (pronounced DIE-skwith) family. To avenge his mother, Monty decides to kill each of the other heirs, leaving himself as the Earl of Highhurst. Stoner plays each of the heirs, which include the pompous Lord Adalbert (with the fabulously expressive mustache), the Reverend Lord Ezekiel, the dramatic Lady Salome, the charitable matron Lady Hyacinth, the fitness-obsessed Major Lord Bartholomew and an effeminate beekeeper named Henry.
Though Monty is a cold-blooded killer, Sugimoto’s performance somehow makes him a charming, likable character. An enterprising, ambitious and resourceful fellow, Monty sets out to eliminate his family members while at the same time juggling relationships with the two ladies in his life: his mistress and his fiancée.

Sibella (Kyra Kozlenko) is his oversexed mistress who admits to loving him, but who is more in love with the idea of marrying a wealthy man. “Has it ever occurred to marry for love,” Monty asks her. “Now you’re being cruel,” she replies.

Cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith (Alyssa Giannetti) is perhaps the only truly virtuous person in the show. She is determined to prove Monty innocent following his arrest for the murder of the only person he actually did not kill.

Both women give amazing performances with gorgeous lyric voices. Like Monty, Sibella has no moral compass or sense of fidelity. Though she married for money, the closer Monty gets to becoming the heir, the more attracted to him she becomes, and to heck with her husband.

Though there are no real familiar tunes in the show, perhaps the most famous scene from the musical is “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” performed at the 2013 Tonys, where the show won four awards. Sibella is in one room and Phoebe in the other, while Monty tries to keep both from checking out what is on the other side of the door.

The scenic design by Liz Hadden-McGuire is functional, with lots of moving set pieces, allowing the set to be used by both this show and “The Tenth Muse,” running in repertory. But the most clever scene for this show has to be the portrait gallery.

“Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying,” which opens Act 2, is wonderfully choreographed, and too bad it was not used as a publicity photo since it is so photogenic. “I’m utterly exhausted keeping track / And most of all, I’m sick of wearing black.”

Music is provided by the nine-piece onstage orchestra, under the direction of Tom Abruzzo.

From the leads down through the multitasking chorus, this is a superb ensemble, vocally and in their facility for verbal and physical comedy. And while Stoner has the most amazing role, there is a reason why he and Sugimoto take their bows together because Sugimoto’s performance is invaluable as the narrator of every scene.

Davis Shakespeare Festival has chosen two blockbuster shows for their 10th summer season, and if you like one, you are certain to like the other.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Tenth Muse

Davis Shakespeare Festival director Rob Salas explained to the audience that he had seen Tanya Saracho’s “The Tenth Muse” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a few years ago and had been waiting for the right moment to bring it to Davis. This is the right moment.

Set in 18th century Mexico during the Spanish Inquisition, three young women are admitted to a convent for their protection. Jesusa (Gabby Battista) is a “Mestiza,” a woman in danger because she is of mixed race. She has been living in a Carmelite convent, but is sent to help Sor Rufina (Susanna Florence) take care of Sister Isabel (Kelley Ogden), who is going blind.

Tomasita (Leah Sanginiti), a servant, is brought by her mother to be a slave for the nuns, who will protect her from the Inquisition.

Manuela (Talia Friedenberg) is a noblewoman with her own secret who is also seeking protection for reasons that will become obvious far too soon.

The nuns, particularly Sor Filomena (Laurie Strawn), are none too happy with the new residents and, with room scarce, put them in a basement, where they are told they can sleep but not to touch a large locked cabinet. Naturally, they do and in it they find the writings of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a famous protofeminist and intellectual who died 20 years before.

The convent was once a center of culture, and Sor Juana was one of the first advocates for women to have the right to an education and her library was one of the largest in the New World. But under the pressure of the Inquisition, Juana was forced to take a vow of silence and burn her books. She died aiding her sisters during the plague.

The women aren’t sure what to do about their find. At first, they are afraid to even touch the writings because it is forbidden for women to be educated (and only one of them can read well). But they eventually revel in the contents of the papers and even begin singing Sor Juana’s songs (to the accompaniment of a guitar hidden in the cabinet) and performing plays, an act which creates a bond of sisterhood among the three.

In a funny scene, the young women are trying on men’s clothes, costumes for one of Juana’s plays. It is such an unimaginable thing for women to wear men’s pants that they all feel very naughty.

By the end of Act 1, I was thinking this was a pleasant play and watching the growing friendship among the women was nice — but I wasn’t sure where it was going or what the point of it all was. The longer Act 2 answered all my questions.

The all-female ensemble was fantastic, each player highlighting the quirks of her character superbly. Battista lit up the stage with her effervescent Jesusa. (She is so chatty, it’s difficult to imagine her in the silent monastery!)

Ogden was a joy to watch as Sor Isabelle, who, unlike her fellow sisters who are terrified of the Inquisition, is clinging onto her last glimpses of music and art left by her beloved Juana.

Lisa Quoresimo plays a powerful and frightening Mother Superior (sadly a vision that many still have of women in her position). She is at her worst at the climax, which is a beautiful scene but a cruel decision on her part, which she truly believes would protect the sisters.

The many scene changes are hardly noticed because of the lovely quartet singing Gregorian chant: Margie Curler, Lisas Halko, Monica Vejar and a fourth nun (split between Strawn and Quoresimo). They are a highlight of the production.

This play resonates on many levels and makes us wonder what life would be like if we were deprived of everything that makes life worth living.