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.