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.”