Monday, December 16, 2019

The Wizard of Oz

The land of Oz has gone high tech, in the B Street production of “The Wizard of Oz,” adapted by Lyndsay Burch.   

Gone is the drab Kansas farmhouse and the evil bicycle-riding Miss Gulch.  In this adaptation, Dorothy (Tiffanie Mack) is a video game designer, building a virtual reality Oz game for a holiday release date.  But they have discovered a few glitches and Dorothy must enter the game to find and fix them.  The performance itself, when I saw it, had a few technical glitches of its own that the cast handled smoothly.

Thanks to the Los Angeles-based guest scenic and video designer Kamyi Lee, an exciting digital world has been created, complete with a digital Toto.       

Scary Dave Pierini eats up the scenery as the Wicked Witch of the West, Amy Kelly was the logical choice for the Cowardly Lion, the kind of role that she does so well.  Sam Kebede is the boneless Scarecrow, Greg Alexander is the Tin Man and John Lamb is the Wizard.  Each actor, except for Mack,  has at least one other role which must be most difficult for Elisabeth Nunziato, having to switch from Glinda to Aunt Em in an eyeblink at the end of the show.

But there’s no place like home, and Dorothy is able to fix the video game and return to her office in time for Christmas.

The show is geared for all ages from 5 up and is great fun for adults too. The kids like being included in several spots and love the chase scenes throughout the theater.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley

When friends Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon decided to take a six-hour drive from San Francisco to Ashland, the two Jane Austen fans began to conceive a post “Pride and Prejudice” plot that resulted in two delightful Christmas-themed plays. For the last two years, Capital Stage has presented “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Now comes its sequel, “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.”

For “Downton Abbey” fans, “The Wickhams” may at first take a little getting used to. For one thing, it’s the Jane Austen version of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” though this sequel takes place downstairs and features a housekeeper who has all the stern authority of Mr. Carson from Downton, while actress Stephanie McVay’s “Mrs Reynolds” looks more like Mrs. Patmore, the Downton head cook.

Those who saw last year’s “Miss Bennet” will recognize that we are seeing what happened downstairs before action appears on stage “upstairs.” For example, footman Brian (Noah Thompson) carries a big fir tree into the servants’ quarters, to put in the upstairs library as a surprise for Mr. Darcy (Rob Salas). The decorated tree in the library, a new German fad, was a big part of “Miss Bennet.”

Directed by Peter Mohrmann, this show moves at a fast pace, sometimes dizzyingly fast, with so many characters entering and exiting. But there is never a dull moment.

Brittini Barger is returning for the third time to play Lizzy Darcy, who has settled into her role as the lady of Pemberley, and knows how to keep things as calm as possible even when a crisis arises.
Melissa Brausch plays sister Lydia, a flighty, flirty airhead, there without her husband George (Colin Sphar), about whom she raves, but obviously things are not right. Plus Mr. Darcy has given strict orders that George is not to enter the house, though he crashes the party anyway.

Both Brausch and Sphar are making their Capital Stage debuts. While both are excellent and a wonderful addition to the company, Sphar stood out from most of the cast and was outstanding. He has a scene with Salas as Darcy, which may be the most powerful of the evening.

This being a Christmas play, there has to be a romance in there somewhere and, in this case, it’s footman and would-be inventor Brian with newly hired maid Cassie (Kate Morton), friends since childhood, who are beginning to feel those stirrings and will they? Won’t they? Cassie has a more 21st-century idea of love, however, and trains Brian how to treat a woman he likes, which includes really listening to her. “Love is about seeing someone and allowing them to be exactly as they are.”

While this is a thoroughly enjoyable pastiche, there is just something “missing.” Perhaps the plot goes by too quickly to really get emotionally involved in some of the major issues, perhaps the comings and goings are too many and too quick. I don’t know. I didn’t feel as fulfilled as I did after “Miss Bennet,” though I certainly enjoyed myself and I really wanted to steal some of those cookies they ate all through the show and left on the table at its conclusion.

Monday, December 09, 2019

A Christmas Carol

As important as Bing Crosby Christmas carols are to my enjoyment of the holiday season is the Sacramento Theatre Company’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” particularly with Matt K. Miller, playing the role of Scrooge this year for the eighth time.

This musical was commissioned by STC 32 years ago, written by Richard Hellesen with music by David de Berry, and has been an audience favorite ever since. This year’s production is directed by Michael Laun and Miranda D. Lawson (who also plays Mrs. Cratchit and Mrs. Fezziwig).
There are 35 named characters in the show and 39 actors, many of whom do more than one role and alternate with other actors throughout the run of the show.

The success of any production of “A Christmas Carol” is Ebenezer Scrooge himself, the miserly grump who finds holidays a “humbug” and just an excuse to steal money from employers by employees who take the day off to celebrate with their families, yet still expect a salary.

I have reviewed four of Miller’s eight performances. He just gets better and better. He has perfected the moments when the curmudgeon has a positive thought because of something he is shown. His absolute childish glee at the end, realizing that he has not missed Christmas after all is infectious, and his affection for Tiny Tim (Leo Bettinger, sharing the role with Kit Bettinger and David Ngirmidol) brings tears to the eyes.

In several reviews from previous years, I have complained about the reverberation used for the ghosts and I will complain again this year. Jacob Marley (Eric Wheeler) and the ghost of Christmas Past (Olivia Stevenson) were so reverberated as to make most of their dialog unintelligible, particularly bad for Wheeler, who gave an over the top dramatic performance that was lost due to reverb distortion. There was only minor reverb for the Ghost of Christmas Present (the effusive Ryan Blanning), and it was lovely to be able to hear him so clearly.

Blanning also plays an enthusiastic Fezziwig, Scrooge’s first employer, who makes working so enjoyable by the way he treats his employees. It makes the Scrooge of today have passing thoughts of how he treats his own clerk, Bob Cratchit (Mike DiSalvo).

Lexie Allison is a warm and loving Fan (Scrooge’s sister). She shares the role with Isabella Hernandez. The role of Ebenezer the child is shared by Lorenzo Lopez and Miller Traum. Sadly, I missed which actor played it on opening night, but he was quite good.

Griffith Munn plays Scrooge as a young man, in love with Belle (Maddy Grace Wood, who alternates with Elysia Martinez).

Devin Weiser is a street singer, who fills in many “change the scenery” spots. What a beautiful, clear voice she has. Lucy Lederer and Cara McIntyre share the role of the beggar child whom Scrooge attacks in his curmudgeon days.

The set by Renee Degarmo and Jarrod Bodensteiner is a wonder, with large pieces that roll or rotate while actors walk them telling the Dickens story, morphing into the characters singing the songs about the story. The smoothness of the transitions is due in large part to the lighting design of Jordan Burkholder, who directs the audience to one side of the stage while the technicians are quietly changing the scenery on the other side.

Costumes by Jessica Minnihan are lush, especially in party scenes, though I did wonder why so many of the guests at Fezziwig’s party were wearing glasses when there did not seem to be any other scene where glasses were so prevalent.

Charles Dickens described the holidays as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

As we move forward through this holiday season may we, like Scrooge, take those words to heart and be a little more kind, a little more forgiving, and a little more loving toward those around us.

Sacramento Theater Company’s “A Christmas Carol” is a 32-year-old Sacramento tradition and should be on everyone’s list of things to do to enhance their holiday spirit.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Coney Island Christmas

The theatrical Christmas season is already in full swing and now comes “Coney Island Christmas” by Pulitzer-prize winner Donald Margulies, presented by the Winters Theatre Company, directed by Anita Ahuja. The play, written in 2012, is based on a short story (“The Loudest Voice”) by Grace Paley.

This is a cast of nine adults and 14 children, who play 47 different parts, including, Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, Santa Claus, Ebenezer Scrooge, the ghost of Christmas past, Miles Standish, King Herod, a tribe of Indians, the Statue of Liberty and a bearded lady. It’s lots of fun and not nearly as chaotic as it sounds.

Great grandmother Shirley (Gail Finney), trying to convince her great-granddaughter Clara (Amelia Doran) to put down her cell phone, tells her the story of the first school play she was in, in depression-era Brooklyn. The bulk of this production is the story of that play, with Shirley continuing to narrate. She paints a vivid picture of the time, with the smells and sounds she remembers fondly.
Isadora Harris, who receives deserved applause for her solo bow at the end of the show (she is wonderful) plays the young Shirley, a Jewish girl who loves theater and is cast as Jesus in the school Christmas play. She is cast for her loudmouth voice, which she is unafraid to use.

While her father, Mr. Abramowitz (Trent Beeby), a shopkeeper, is proud and supportive of his daughter, her mother (Alexis Velasquez) is appalled that Shirley has been cast to play Jesus in a Christian pageant.

“We let our Shirley play Jesus, then what?” she asks. “She becomes a nun?” (I was waiting for someone to point out to the mother that Jesus was Jewish, but nobody ever does).
The Harris family is well-represented in this cast as, in addition to Isadora, brothers Arlo and Abner are also in the cast. Five-year-old Abner, with a feather in his hair as an Indian, is easily the cutest kid on stage.

The school play is directed by Mr. Hilton (Scott Schwerdtfeger) and Miss GlacĂ© (Cameron Toney) and the play itself is as endearingly inept as you’d expect a grammar school play to be.

Bridget O’Flaherty plays grouchy Mrs. Kornblum, a customer of Mr. Abramowitz’ store. She also joins with Robert Payawal and Jennifer Rutherford as a Christmas caroler.

Rachel Rominger is a proud Statue of Liberty, reciting the Emma Lazarus poem, sadly appropriate at the moment.

Set design and construction by a dozen company members is an ingeniously simple way to create a home, a school, a store and the school interior, with simple fold-out walls. The timeline is set by sale signs for things like chicken at 25 cents a pound or potatoes 20 pounds for 25 cents.

Costumes by Germaine Hupe and other regulars are fine, though I do think Shirley’s bushy beard was too big for her face. It made her unrecognizable and masked even her loud voice.

This is a truly delightful production, like going to your kid’s Christmas play, with the chance to enjoy watching how it comes together.