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.