Wednesday, March 27, 2019

42nd Street

Someone who saw the opening night production of Woodland Opera House’s “42nd Street” (directed by Robert Cooner) told me that it was spectacular and that I would love it. I am happy to report that it is — and I did.

This formulaic Depression-era story of a girl from the midwest arriving in New York, determined to become a star, was first a Busby Berkeley movie vehicle for hoofer Ruby Keeler in 1933, with book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, lyrics by Al Dubin and music by Harry Warren.

In 1980, David Merrick decided to bring the story to Broadway, under the direction of Gower Champion. The stage version used only four of the songs from the original movie version and added songs from other musicals of the 1930s (including one by Hoagy Carmichael, uncredited in the current printed program). The end result was nominated for several awards in 1981 and won a Tony for best revival in 2001.

The cast of 22 fill the Opera House stage and most of them tap dance through several impressive numbers, each of which brings down the house. The best part was that there was nobody out of line — they were as in unison as a murmuration of starlings. Choreographer Staci Arriaga may be the real star of the show!

The central figure of the story of Peggy Sawyer, played by Ernestine Balisi (who played this same role with Davis Musical Theatre Company in 2017). She arrives in New York, wide-eyed and fresh-faced and certain she’ll immediately get cast in a big Broadway musical. She can dance up a storm but has never been on stage before.

Michael David Smith plays Billy Lawlor, the tenor of the show-within-a-show. Smith is a huge bundle of talent in a less-than-huge body. He’s a triple threat — he sings, he acts and he dances up a storm. He and Peggy have an instant rapport and there is hint of a budding romance, though that is not the focus of the story.

Scott Martin is terrific as Julian Marsh, the producer who believes the show, “Pretty Lady,” is going to get him back on top again, after a series of less-than-successful shows. When counting heads, he realizes that he is short one chorus girl and so Peggy, who just happens to be on the street in front of the theater, is chosen, seeming to learn all the dance routines instantly.

Patricia Glass plays Dorothy Brock, an aging, fading Big Name whose sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (David Cross), has backed the production so that his girl can have another hit. While she has a great voice, she has two left feet and so choreography has to be revised so that others can dance around her to hide the fact that she can’t dance.

Lenore Sebastian and Gil Sebastian are Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, the songwriters for the show, offering comic relief throughout. These local favorites do not disappoint and, in fact, Lenore gets some of the biggest applause at the curtain call.
When an accident takes Dorothy Brock out of the cast, Peggy is chosen to be her replacement, in two days, under Marsh’s direction. Marsh is a harsh taskmaster and when Peggy gets the jitters before the curtain goes up, he utters those immortal lines: “Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you. You’ve got to go on, and you’ve got to give and give and give….You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.”

Nothing like a little pressure!

I won’t spoil the show by revealing how it ends, but let’s just say lots of tapping and arm waving are involved.

It’s all very silly, and involves a lot of suspension of disbelief from anyone with even the vaguest inkling of what goes into producing a Broadway show, but what the heck: The important thing is getting from one musical number to the next – and everybody does this exceptionally well.

Woodland offers consistently fine productions and this one exceeds even their own normal standards. Try not to miss it!

Thursday, March 21, 2019


Some time ago, I was chastised by a reader for not warning of “adult language” in a production. So let me say at the outset that if you are upset by adult language, you want to skip “Vietgone,” now at Capital Stage. But if you do, you will be cheating yourself out of a very special theatrical experience.

Is this the new look of American theater? It’s a hilarious comedy that can move you to tears in emotional moments. It’s not a musical, yet entertains with “Hamilton”-esque rap numbers. In place of actual sets, there are projections that enable the story to flip back and forth in time and place and include video news footage from the war era. It even includes a fantasy ninja warrior battle.

While it is contemporary in its examination of stereotypes (both Americans and Asians), and the treatment of immigrants following the Vietnam war, it certainly echoes life today.

As Producing Artistic Director Michael Stevenson completes his welcoming message, he announces that a “special guest” will also speak. Actor David Crane introduces himself as the playwright Qui Nguyen and begins to give an explanation of what might seem confusing about the play, which he describes as an “action sex comedy.”

He explains that though we hear the characters speaking English, they are really speaking Vietnamese and when an American character appears, you’ll know he is American because he will spout American nonsense like “Yee Haw! Get’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle, fries, cholesterol, NASCAR, botox, frickles,” the translation of which will be obvious by the response from the Vietnamese. It is an interesting switch of life and history from the Vietnam perspective, which we rarely, if ever, see.

The story centers on two characters, Quang (Jomar Tagatac), a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, who was unable to bring his wife and two young children out of Vietnam and longs to return, and Tong (Rinabeth Apostol), a Vietnamese refugee, whose fiancée was left behind in Vietnam and she whom knows she will never see again.

Tong came to America with her sharp-tongued mother, Huong (Michelle Talgarow), with strong feelings about America, American food, how Tong should act and the men she should date. Talgarow also plays several other characters, as do Anthony Chan and the aforementioned David Crane.
Quang finds a dilapidated motorcycle, which he repairs and, with this friend Nhan, heads for California. Along the road, the two have one of the funnier sequences, when they taste burritos for the first time and decide that maybe not all American food is terrible.

Kudos to, I assume, Christa Kinch, who gets credit for Properties Design, for the great motorcycle which is ridden all over the stage throughout the play.

For Quang and Tong, it is lust at first sight and their relationship is strictly a physical one until they begin having feelings for each other, something both of them fight.

Director Jeffrey Lo has a deft hand at letting the relationship between the two grow until we see the inevitable — Quang’s conversation with their son some 20 years later.

The play gives the audience a chance to witness American culture as seen through the eyes of immigrants, to hear that for the immigrants the war is over and done with and they are moving on, while Americans hunger for more and more details about what happened in the past.

“My life is more than the eight years I fight,” Quang tells his son. “All I hear is politicians using Vietnam as a symbol for a mistake. ‘If the president not careful, this will be another Vietnam.’ This is not how any Vietnamese wants Vietnam to be remembered….let me tell you about the people. But if you only wanting to know about war, then go rent a movie.”

This is a unique production that is well worth seeing.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Inherit the Wind

Henry Drummond (J. Toney) interrogates a potential juror (Tyler Tufts)
as the judge (Greg Lanzaro) watches. Courtesy photo
Though they have done a few dramas in the many years I have been reviewing productions of the Winters Community Theatre Company, I think of them as doing mostly comedies, with the occasional musical. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I learned the next production was going to be Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s “Inherit the Wind.”

Coming off the stage and into the director’s chair for the first time, Rodney Orosco promised the audience “a good show…maybe a great show.” In all honesty, it was not a great show, but it was a very good show.

Most people know that this is the story of the trial of Thomas Scopes (called Bertram Cates in this script), the teacher who had the audacity to teach his students about evolution instead of creationism in 1925. It is sad to realize that many of the things shouted by conservatives in 1925 ring true in 2019, nearly 100 years later. At the time this was known as “Godless science versus fairy-tale notions.” I’m sure somewhere someone is preaching the same sentiment today. We have not evolved as quickly as expected.

The Scopes trial pitted two of the legal giants of the age against each other — three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (called Matthew Harrison Brady in the play) and Clarence Darrow (known as Henry Drummond).

The impact of the play rests on the performance of these two characters. If they are not strong, the play can fall apart. How fortunate Winters is to have two impressive newcomers in the roles. Will Oberholtzer gives a towering performance as Brady, the self-professed Biblical scholar who defiantly defends fundamentalism. Brady is the more bombastic of the two and Oberholtzer is captivating.

J. Toney’s Drummond is more laconic and sarcastic, but no less effective. He gave a spellbinding interrogation of Brady, whose slow but continuous wilting under the questions was perfect. Brady’s physical condition was hinted at by the attention of his wife (Ana Kormos) throughout the first act and his reaction to the courtroom heat was so realistic, we almost wanted the theater to turn on the air conditioner.

(Toney’s daughter Cameron — last seen in last year’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” — plays the town’s mayor.)

Winters regular Philip Pittman was E.K. Hornbeck, the reporter who covers the trial and arranges for Drummond to represent Cates at the trial. This was another strong performance. Hornbeck knows he is a controversial figure (“I am admired for my detestability”) and uses his reputation to his advantage.

Defendant Cates hasn’t much to say or do, but Spencer Alexander did it well, projecting his concern about his future as well as his feelings for Rachel Brown (Elizabeth Williams, alternating with Sierra Winter), daughter of the town minister, Jeremiah Brown (Tom Rost). Rost is always outstanding and makes a convincing minister, denouncing his daughter as a creature of the devil for her feelings for Cates.

There is a large cast, and Tyler Tufts outdoes himself by playing two characters being interviewed for the jury, one distinguishable by his impressive mustache.

(Also doing double duty is the suitcase, which a reporter (Laurel Brittan) carries in, and off stage, brought back on again minutes later by Rachel, bringing clothes to the jailed Cates.)
Among the many town characters, Germaine Hupe adds comic relief by her many shouted epithets at both Cates and Drummond.

There is a simple set dominated by a stage-wide backdrop by Jeff Hesemeyer. It’s an impressive piece, a vision of the town of Hillsboro, Tenn., strangely reminiscent of the town of Winters itself, both the Putah Creek Café and the Buckhorn easily identifiable.

The debate of creationism vs. evolution continues today and one wonders how many more decades this play is going to remain contemporary.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Flora the Red Menace

If you know the musicals “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” you know the music of the songwriting duo John Kander and Fred Ebb. But you may not be familiar with “Flora the Red Menace,” their first collaboration.

Now is your chance to see this seldom performed show in a sparkling production at Wyatt Pavilion, under the direction of Mindy Cooper, professor of theater, and Granada Artist-in-Residence Judy Blazer, an acclaimed veteran of Broadway and regional theater. Graduate student Diego Martinez-Campos collaborates with Cooper on the choreography (he also performs in the show). Graham Sobelman provides music direction.

At a talkback after one of the performances, Cooper explained the choice of this musical was precisely because there is so little available about the show on the internet and she felt it was the perfect opportunity for the actors to create their own characters without trying to copy something that had been done before.

The show originally appeared on Broadway and won a Tony for Liza Minnelli, making her Broadway debut. It only ran for 87 performances but was revived off-Broadway, with a new book, in 1987, and it had better success.

Though set in 1935 in the midst of the Depression, the story resonates with today’s young people, struggling with many problems, yet with a renewed desire to work to make the world better.

Flora Meszaros (Talia Friedenberg) plans to be a fashion designer and applies at Gimbel’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Altman’s before finally applying at Garret and Mellick’s where she meets Harry Toukarian (Nathaniel Challis), a fellow artist, who stutters when he gets nervous.

Friedenberg’s Flora is a positive thinker, knowing she is somehow going to “make it” (“The Kid Herself”), though not quite satisfied when its seems that she does.

“When it all comes true
Just the way you’d planned
It’s funny but the bells don’t ring”

(It should be noted that none of the songs in this show ever made it into the popular repertoire, though they are fun to hear and in places show where Kander and Ebb will go in the future.)

Harry confesses that he is a communist and may be one of the most likable communists you’ll meet outside of “The Americans.” He is earnest, sincere and knows that he will help change the world, as he urges Flora to “Sign Here” and join the party.

Flora invites Harry to come to her artists’ cooperative loft, which is shared by several other struggling artists, including Kenny (Martinez-Campos) and Maggie (Aubrey Schoeman), dancers who are looking for a big break. They have several fun dance numbers, like “Keeping it Hot.”

Sophie Brubaker adds great passion and comic genius to the role of the uber Communist, Charlotte, especially impressing the others with her acts of the week (“Just Tuesday in the subway I threw a rotten egg/I called a man a fascist and I bit his daughter’s leg.”)

Things become more contemporary in lines like ”Don’t worry, there’ll never be another crash” and the chorus:

“There are people out there with no shoes on their feet 
Who shelter in doorways in snow and in sleet. 
And they search through the garbage 
to find something to eat.”

Flora’s dedication to the party is tested when she must make the choice of whether or not to cross a picket line to correct an error she made that will cost 33 people their jobs. Her decision will affect both her dedication to the party and her relationship with Harry.

Special notice must be made of understudy Katie Halls, who learned everyone’s part and then one day before the opening, filled in on some scenes for one of the actors who had some physical problems. You’d never know that Halls had not been cast in the role from the beginning.

This may not have the pizzazz of Chicago or Cabaret, but it is nonetheless fun to see how Kander and Ebb got their start, and the production is excellent, so this is the way to see it!

Sunday, March 03, 2019


Continuing the celebration of its 34th season of musicals in Davis, the Davis Musical Theatre Company opened an excellent production of “Oliver!”, the musical version of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson with musical direction by David Williams.

The production is blessed with several superb performances.  Recent health problems have prevented Steve Isaacson from taking meaty lead roles lately and I’d forgotten what a truly good actor he is.  He dissolves into the character of the criminal Fagin so fully that you imagine that this is what the role was always meant to be.

His gang of youthful pickpockets – Katherine Berdovskly, Katarina Deltrick, Ailani Gentles, Sage Greenwood, Lexy Hutcheon, Audrey Rycerz and Ruby Schwerin (also orphans in the opening scene) are well rehearsed and wonderfully choreographed.  Audrey Rycerz is the youngest in the cast (her mother Rachel is the housekeeper Mrs Bedwin).  For one so tiny, she was amazingly consistent, knew every word and didn’t miss a beat in any of the dance numbers.

Brian McCann is always a winner and his Mr. Bumble, the beadle of the workhouse where Oliver Twist is raised, is outstanding.  His pairing with Dannette Vassar as the widow Corney, matron of the workhouse, is inspired.  The imposing stature of McCann and the diminutive stature of Vassar make for bits of humor not possible in other productions.  Their “I Shall Scream” is particularly funny.

Also outstanding is Elliot DeJong as the Artful Dodger. A member of the Young People’s program, DeJong is moving into main stage productions and it’s easy to see why.  He dominates in most of his scenes and takes the stage confidently.

Gabriel Mark plays Oliver and while he has a beautiful clear voice (that can hit all those high notes in “Where is Love”) and is a winsome actor, he is having too much fun on stage and needs to learn that starving orphans don’t have smiles on their faces when being chased by the beadle, or when being threatened by the evil Bill Sikes (Jesus J. Madrigal).  If he learns how to compose his facial expressions, he will be an outstanding Oliver.

Hanna Van Noland, is Nancy, the girlfriend of the villainous Bill Sikes (not Sykes, a common spelling error) who ultimately becomes Oliver’s protector, at her own peril.   She has a strong voice and is appropriately emotionally torn in the lovely “As long as he needs me,” where she describes why she remains with an abusive partner.

Deborah Bromley is Mrs. Sowerberry, who with her husband (David Muerle) owns the funeral establishment where young Oliver is sold.  Bromley has an ear piercing shriek.

(Bromley is also a member of the ensemble while Muerle later pays Mr. Brownlow, the man who rescues Oliver after he is arrested for stealing.)

Steve Isaacson and Kimmie McCann are the set designers for this production.  There are many sets, the set for Brownlow’s home the most beautiful of them all.  The cast is mesmerizing as they move the huge pieces around in the dark, as coordinated as a choreographed dance number.  The size of the pieces does somewhat slow the pace of the total production, but it’s worth it.

At the conclusion of opening night Steve and Jan Isaacson were presented with 35 red roses, in honor of the 35th anniversary of the decision to start a theater company.  Both Isaacsons pointed out the importance of the “family” this all-volunteer company has become.  The capacity audience gave them thunderous applause.