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.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019


“Oklahoma!” is a favorite of Music Circus audiences. The current production is the 14th since 1954. This production is directed by Linda Goodrich, her third for Music Circus, the last being “Singing in the Rain.”

According to many theater historians, “Oklahoma!,” the first musical collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein, who later brought the world the likes of “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music,” changed the face of musical history when it debuted in 1943, for telling an emotional story through music, lyrics and dance like never before.

Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, “Oklahoma!” brought something akin to folk art to professional theater and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1944 and recently won the Tony for best revival.

The story is set in the Oklahoma territory — in 1906, the days just before statehood — and touches ever so lightly on the ongoing feud between farmers and cattlemen.

As an aside, pay attention to the films shown on the screens surrounding the theater before the show starts. There is a nice history of the Oklahoma territory then and today. (I’m sure lots of women nudged their husbands when they showed Pawhuska, OK, the home of the “Pioneer Woman.”)

This is mostly a story of cattleman Curly McLain (Ryan Vasquez), who is in love with Laurey Williams (Emilie Kouatchou), who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller (Jennifer Allen) and the hired man, Jud Fry (John Rapson). Jud has his eye on Laurey; she, in turn, is sweet on Curly, though won’t admit it.

Vasquez, who is making his Music Circus debut, has played the title role, among other roles, in “Hamilton” on Broadway. He is a perfect Curly — tall, charismatic and self-assured, with a powerful voice.

Kouatchou, also making her Music Circus debut, is a perky, flirty Laurey, attracted to Curly, but reluctant to give him the satisfaction of knowing it. She, too, has a beautiful, powerful voice, and the chemistry between the two of them is strong.

Rapson, as the dark hired man, has his heart set on Laurey as well, but his intentions are less honorable and he becomes a very scary character when he gets her alone.

It’s a simple story without a deep plot, but with songs like “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,’” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” and “People Will Say We’re In Love,” the songs become the thing people remember most.

Brit West is the sex-starved Ado Annie Carnes, who has “known what’s right from wrong” since she was 10, yet “can’t say no” to any man who gives her any attention. West is adorable and doesn’t quite understand that the peddler Ali Hakim (Jeff Skowron) isn’t as interested in her as she thinks.

Skowron is great as Ali Hakim; his discomfort at finding himself engaged to Annie is very funny, as he finds a way to extricate himself.

Pierce Cassedy is Will Parker, who went to Kansas City to win $50 in a rodeo so that he could ask for Annie’s hand in marriage. His “Kansas City” is a wonderful song and dance number, especially for those cowboys in their tap boots.

Ron Wisniski, a Music Circus regular in meaty minor roles, is both Annie’s father and the territory judge, which comes in handy later.

Also of note is Ashley Arcement in the role of Gertie Cummings, who sets her sights on Curly. She has the most annoying laugh and does it perfectly. Often.

The dream ballet features Taeler Cyrus as Dream Laurey, Conrad Sager as Dream Curly and Stephen Hanna as Dream Jud.

It’s best not to think too carefully about the moral of this story, which seems to be that if you kill an unlikeable guy accidentally, you don’t need to go to trial because everyone would rather see you head off on your honeymoon. Poor Jud is dead and doesn’t get the nice funeral Curly promised him.

“Oklahoma!” is a timeless piece of theater and is worth the trip to Music Circus, whether you’ve ever seen it before or not. Your toes will tap and it’s almost a sure bet that you’ll leave the theater humming at least one of those old familiar songs.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Roommate

Laura Jane Bailey, left, and Jamie Jones are excellent in the Capital Stage production of “The Roommate,” running through July 21. Charr Crail/Courtesy photo
It is unusual to find two meaty roles for over-50 women, much less one written by a 20-something playwright. Jen Silverman has created such a play, “The Roommate,” now at Capital Stage, directed by Dena Martinez.

This very funny play examines what can happen when a lonely, middle-aged woman takes in a roommate for companionship and to share expenses. Playwright Silverman feels that “Women of that age group are rendered invisible or they are played in ways that are harmless, infantalizing, and I want the audience to see potential for transformation that lies in themselves.”

For the play to work so well, it needs two excellent actresses to bring these two characters from paper to life. In Laura Jane Bailey and Jamie Jones, Capital Stage has just that.

Bailey is Sharon, who has “retired from her marriage” and who has a son, who may or may not be gay, whom she rarely sees. She fills her time with her “reading group” and a part-time job at a local shop. Though she is originally from Illinois, she is now an Iowan and may be the stereotypical view of any middle-aged woman from Iowa. I’ve been to Iowa. I have met Sharons. Bailey nails it.

Throughout the play, you realize the importance of Rebecca Redmond’s costume designs. Sharon starts out in a simple cotton dress, the kind you’d find in The Vermont Country Store catalog. As the play progresses, her dress becomes less dowdy and more current until her final costume, which is — well — amazing.

The play takes place in Sharon’s kitchen, which is perfectly depicted by scenic designer Eric Broadwater.

To help fill her big empty house, Sharon rents a room to Robyn (Jones), who says she wants to “start over” and through most of the play is hiding something that eventually comes out.

The “getting to know you” scenes are so funny, as Sharon begins to understand the kind of woman who has moved into her house. She thought that her new roommate was from upstate New York, not the Bronx (“Isn’t the Bronx dangerous … and you’re, I mean, a woman”).

Robyn starts to understand what it’s like to live in Iowa. She is amazed that Sharon never locks her door.

“It’s pretty safe here, except for the tornados,” Sharon tells her. Robyn never thought of tornados.
Robyn is vegan and a lesbian, a big adjustment for Sharon. “I don’t have any problems with homosexuals … I think, you know, gay rights! Let them marry! … Some of my son’s friends are homosexual people. Probably most of them. I think most New Yorkers are.”

Robyn also smokes pot — “medicinal herbs” she calls it. “Herbs only become drugs when a capitalist economy gets involved.”

She offers Sharon a joint, which she decides to try. “Am I gonna hallucinate?”

As the days pass, the women become more comfortable with each other. Robin’s story begins to unfold and without spoiling the reveal, suffice it to say that her move to Iowa was likely to remove herself from legal situations back east. Sharon is fascinated with Robin’s past life, and she begins to look at her own life in a different way.

The conversations between these two actresses and their rapid-fire responses make time pass very quickly. Bailey and Jones are a delight to watch, and Silverman’s dialogue is pure magic. The women are warm; they are funny; they are real people forced to overcome some of their earlier choices and learn how they want to spend their later years.

Better not to reveal how each is changed by the other since that is a surprise for all. I will admit that there are a couple of things at the end that I found confusing, but mostly it is a logical conclusion, and I’d love to see how both women are going to be in another five years.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


The cast rocks out singing “Season of Love” in Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of “Rent.”
The show runs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the
Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center, 607 Peña Drive in Davis.
The show has strong language, adult themes and drug references,
and is recommended for theater goers 13 and older. Courtesy photo

“Rent” was to the 1990s what “Hamilton” became to the early 21st century — a little-ish show that started Off-Broadway, took the theater world by storm and moved to Broadway, where it made show business history.

The show was written by Jonathan Larson, based partly on his own story (and Puccini’s “La Bohème,” with musical references throughout). Larson tragically, died of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, the night before the Off-Broadway premiere. He never got to know what a sensation his show became, how it had a 12-year run on Broadway and how it won several Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Now it has come to Davis. Steve Isaacson, the producer of Davis Music Theatre Company, proudly shared his two degrees of separation with Larson, who was apparently a friend of Isaacson’s drama teacher.

This production is directed by John Ewing, with musical direction by Kyle Jackson and choreography by Cynthia Krivicich and displays a DMTC phenomenon that I have observed over the years.

In its 34 year history, DMTC has made great strides in productions. The quality of shows has become quite good, some better than others. What I have seen, however, is that when the company produces a “new” show, especially a popular one such as “Rent,” which is rarely performed locally, all the best talent from all over the area show up to audition. Based on how many actors in this show are making their DMTC debut, this is obviously the case for “Rent,” which explains why this is such a uniformly excellent production.

It is the emotional story of young artists and wannabes in Manhattan’s East Village, looking for love, inspiration and a place to live. Critics praised it not only for its acting and musical components but for its representation of HIV-positive individuals.

Mark (Philip Graves) is a documentary filmmaker living with rock musician and recovering drug addict Roger (Jonathan Wertz), who is attracted to S&M club dancer and drug addict Mimi (Aimee Rose Santone). Their first meeting (“Light My Candle”) is right out of “La Bohème.”

Zany drag queen Angel (Ethan Mack), who has AIDS, saves Mark and Roger’s former roommate Tom Collins (Kevin Borcz) from a beating and the two fall in love, a relationship which is the most powerful of the show, showing the couple as being happy, with positive outlooks on life, rather than being resigned to their inevitable deaths. Following Angel’s death, Collins’ moving “I’ll Cover You” is the production’s most powerful moment.

That most of the characters have AIDS is subtly revealed at a dinner scene, where someone’s alarm goes off and most of the characters take out pill bottles. Today, when AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, the underlying story of “Rent” is a bit dated, but no less emotional.

Maureen (Cassie Mosher) is Mark’s former girlfriend and current girlfriend of lawyer Joanne (Chantel Aldana).

Benjamin “Benny” Coffin (Kyle Hadley) is an ex-roommate to Mark and Roger and now the landlord of the building in which they live. He has overlooked their rent for a year and is now demanding it or threatening to lock them out of the building.

The story follows the group from one Christmas Eve to another (the beautiful “Seasons of Love” opens the second act and is a highlight of the evening, a poignant acknowledgment of the passage of time and evolution of emotion).

The message of “Rent” is to live for the moment, soak up as much of “life” as you can because you never know how much longer you have to live. Instead of being an overriding sad situation, it is a salute to the love of the characters for life and for each other.

Thursday, June 13, 2019


“Shrek” is a fairytale turned on its head. The princess waiting in her tower to be rescued by a handsome prince actually has a terrible secret: The prince is a jerk — and the unlikeable hero is a scary ogre who hates everyone.

Making its Music Circus debut, “Shrek the Musical,” with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori is a fun couple of hours, filled with just about every fairytale character you’ve ever known to appeal to the kids; enough double entendres and bad jokes to appeal to the adults; and enough farting and belching jokes to appeal to everyone.

This is not an instant stage classic that we will be seeing again for decades, nor does it have memorable music (except for the closing number, Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer”). But for what it is, under the hands of director Glenn Casale, it delivers. Based on William Steig’s book “Shrek!” and the DreamWorks animated film, its ultimate message is that everyone is worthy of true love (except, maybe, the prince.)

The show delivers some really marvelous effects, particularly the spectacular dragon, created by Richard Bay (who designed 15 puppets for this production). The dragon swoops and flies and turns in circles on stage and above the stage and is amazingly lifelike, and surprisingly flirty.

Shrek (Jacob Keith Watson) is an ogre who was left by his parents in the woods on his 7th birthday (Michael Stark plays Young Shrek), with a package of supplies and good wishes that he find a life for himself.

He’s now all grown, totally anti-social and enjoying the privacy of his little swamp when he is invaded by all of the fairytale characters who have been thrown out of the town of Duloc by the evil Lord Farquaad (Steven Strafford). Farquaad is scheming to make Princess Fiona his bride so he can become king and steal her kingdom. Shrek agrees to help the characters if only to get rid of them and return to peace and quiet again.

“Donkey” (André Jordan, who played the role in the national tour which played here in 2011) makes a dramatic entrance, and begs to be Shrek’s sidekick in his search for Fiona. Donkey is annoyingly endearing and Shrek relents and lets him tag along.

There remains only to (a) find the princess’s castle, (b) make it across the treacherous moat and beat the fire-breathing dragon, (c) manage to get the princess out of a locked room many stories tall and (d) return her to Lord Farquaad.

Piece o’ cake.

Princess Fiona is actually played by three actresses: Mia Fisher as the young Fiona, Ella Bleu Bradford as the Teen Fiona and Kristen Beth Williams as the adult Fiona. This is no shrinking violet. She has waited many years for her freedom and is going to make the most of it. But she bears a terrible secret, which Donkey accidentally discovers.

Several of the lesser characters make an impact, primarily the whiney Pinocchio (Tyler Jones), whose nose grows and shrinks on stage without any visible assistance from Jones himself.

Along the way, there are some marvelous dance numbers, such as the rat dance number, a chance for Fiona to shine, and a song called “Build a Wall,” which brought out titters from the audience with lyrics like:

“I’m gonna build me a wall, I’ll make it ten feet high.
See ya later pal, bye-bye.
No one gettin’ in so don’t you even try.
A ten-foot wall.”

This is just a fun production, which teaches us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and self-acceptance is the way to happiness.

Parents should be aware that it’s rather long; so for younger kids, a matinée might be best.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Forever Question

I enjoy comedy, but I’m a tough critic. It takes a lot to make me laugh out loud. With that said, you should know that I laughed out loud throughout the entire first act of the new B Street production, “The Forever Question” by James Christy, directed by Lyndsay Burch.

The play, which won last year’s New Comedies Festival (a pool of 70 plays hoping to be chosen for a mainstage production this year), is about a couple trying to decide whether or not to have a second child.

Playwright Christy says the idea for this play came after he and his wife had their third child and he started to wonder, “How did I even get here?” Writing “The Forever Question” was his way of examining how becoming a parent changes your life forever — and why, having done it once, we ever do it again.

Actors Peter Story and Dana Brooke are stunning, playing the young couple, Mike and Carolyn, and, throughout the play, several other minor characters including her mother, his father, and his brother. They are so effective because all it takes is a small prop (like a beer bottle or a scarf) and a slight change of facial features to pop in and out of character.

This would be funny for anyone, but anyone who has a child — or more than one child — will especially enjoy it and find themselves remembering their early days of parenthood.

Through flashbacks, the couple remembers their first dating experiences and first sexual encounters. Back in today’s time, they make very, very funny observations about parents, babies, sex, childbirth and relationships between men and women.

Mike’s memories of his first sexual experience had the audience in stitches, and his attempts to prove to Carolyn that he understands menstrual cycles only get funnier and funnier.

Carolyn gives birth to their first child on stage — and you have to wonder how they did that as that basketball sized pregnant belly turns into a blanket-wrapped baby when it’s all over.

By intermission, everyone was laughing so hard that as the audience filed out to the lobby for a few minutes, even the usher was still laughing and sharing his own parenting experiences with people in his section of the theater.

I wish I could say that the second act was as good as the first. It was also very funny, but including the death of Mike’s father, the children growing into rebellious teenagers and both Mike and Carolyn facing the prospect of growing older, the laughs were further apart and not as hilarious. They were still tweaking the script on opening night, artistic director Buck Busfield explained, and I would love to return later in the run to see how it changes as it grows.

The scenic design by Samantha Reno is amazing. B Street asked for donations of toys to help decorate the stage and they received so many that Reno has built marvelous mountains of toys that rise up from the floor and hang down from the ceiling. The toys will be donated to children’s groups at the end of the run.