Thursday, November 20, 2014

Playing at the Reps: A Retrospective

In addition to musicals, the county's two repertory/community theatres produce plays. Comedy and drama are rough classifications, and each includes variations.  It's become more common for plays to be a little of both, so it's a matter of emphasis.

Comedies can be laugh-out-loud funny, or more gentle romantic comedies, or Shakespeare's comedies which have some laughs and some romance, ending in at least one marriage.

 On the continuum of comedy, the far end is farce.  NCRT's Lend Me A Tenor exemplifies the classic farce form (wind it up in the first act, let it spin out of control in the second.)  Noises Off goes it one better by being a farce about a farce.  Its production at Ferndale Rep and "Tenor" at North Coast Rep were both ably directed by Renee Grinnell.  NCRT went back to the author of "Tenor" for another farce, Fox in the Fairway, that despite a classic farce set and a bravura performance by Anders Carlson, proved that the formulas don't always work when they are so, well, formulaic.

Fairly near to the farce end is the 1930s classic You Can't Take It With You, an ensemble comedy performed at NCRT that honors American eccentricity.  Maybe a Jules Feiffer play is truer to our time, when eccentricity seems mated with violence, but there is a certain hopeful model in this script, and maybe some hope in the yearnings it still expresses. In 2009 Ferndale Rep produced another show of the same era with farce written all over it: Arsenic and Old Lace.  (Renee Grinnell directed, of course.)

 Somewhere in here is another oddball, The Madwoman of Challiot at NCRT.  While it's not exactly Dr. Strangelove, it does combine farce with a political point.

Although it's also classified as a musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is classic (in several senses of the word) comedy and close to pure farce, based on tried and true Roman models (as well as early TV sketch comedy). The 2006 Ferndale Rep production was North Coast classic.  The same might be said of  NCRT's 2009 The Producers (by Mel Brooks, another Sid Caesar alum, along with Larry Gelbart of "A Funny Thing" and Neil Simon--see below.  )

About in the middle of the spectrum there are the comedies that most resemble their progeny, the motion picture or television situation comedies. They are basically about one kind of family or another.  The modern American master of this form on stage is Neil Simon, and NCRT has done a number of his plays.  The most recent was about the offbeat family of writers for a television show in Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

But in my time there was also the third in Simon's most autobiographical trilogy, Broadway Bound (2006) and Jake's Women (2007.)  (Both of these, less than coincidentally, involve comedy writers.)  In "Broadway" I singled out Gloria Montgomery for praise, for probably the first but certainly not the last time.  (Both reviews in full are now here.)  In my review of Jake's, I had this to say about Kim Hodel (later Haile):

"Kim Hodel had the plum part of Julie, Jake's perfect first wife, who he fell in love with when she was 21 and he was 24, and who died at 35. She played it with the moral beauty and physical radiance that forces us to wonder where the line is between Jake idealizing his dead wife and remembering her accurately - was she really this wonderful? Hodel is convincing as both fantasy and tragically lost reality, in a memorable performance."


Kim Haile (formerly Hodel) performed a variation on this role in what remains the romantic comedy I remember the best from playgoing at the reps: The Love List.  This was the perfect match of actor and role--the 'perfect woman' needed to be quick and fluid (adjusting to each male fantasy) and always magical, and she was.  The other actors (Edward Olson, Victor Howard) and the direction (by Carol Escobar) were also excellent. (I kind of like the review of it I wrote as well. I don't always.)

There were also comedies (alot of them in summer) that were funny at the time but are hard to even remember.  Many are set in the South and were born there, in a regional theatre or dinner theatre circuit, and they are the equivalent of a live TV sitcom, except not as memorable.  They are forgettable confections like The Red Velvet Cake War at North Coast Rep---funny at the time (at best), but leaving that hollow aftertaste.

All kinds of comedies need to evoke laughter at some point--usually early and often.  Comic energy feeds on laughter, and something that seems so simple and readily available can be very tricky to get. But a few things increase the odds (apart from, well, being funny.)

So as those tawdry Internet ads are fond of saying, here's one weird old trick: ventilation.  A well-ventilated theatre is comedy's best friend.  Keep the audience cool.  David Letterman was famous for insisting that his theatre be kept so cold that the audience could almost see their breath.

  He's not wrong.  If the house is hot and stuffy, the audience gets lethargic and loses concentration.  You might not even notice this in a drama.  But comedy needs active laughter-- that sound is part of the show.  Ventilation also happens to be the biggest problem for many North Coast theatres (along with inadequate rest room facilities.)  Apart from being unhealthy, stuffiness dampens audience energy and attention...and laughter.

Some of the same stage priorities apply to comedy as to musicals: bright lighting (you want the audience happy, right?) and when speaking, characters should be as close to the audience as possible (jokes play well that way.)  One fairly recent show that got this and the lighting right was North Coast Rep's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. 

The opposite mask to comedy is the one for tragedy, at least according to the Greeks.  But tragedy is a classical form and whether modern plays rise to tragedy is a question best left to academics, at least for the moment.  The term "drama" is used both as a general term for all plays, and a category that basically means everything that isn't comedy.  So it includes melodrama, political and historical or biographical plays as well as tragedy.  

The virtue of the dramas performed by the reps is similar to the musicals and to some extent the comedies:clarity and humanity.  Lacking staging frills and show biz pretensions, they expose the heart.  The negative side of that is a want of intensity and the kind of passion that really superior acting can reveal.  But many plays profit by performances that create characters that North Coast audiences can relate to, in a clear style.

So North Coast Rep produced an interesting and involving version of a modern classic, David Mamet's American Buffalo.  A less star-centered production as this one revealed new aspects of the play, especially its particular humor.  Ferndale Rep's Look Back In Anger is another modern classic that revealed new dimensions, partly by being staged some 60 years after the original production.  The acting was higher octane, too.

Confrontations over law and ethics create drama in a space that the stage at its best can intensify.  So we had Ferndale Rep's 12 Angry Men and NCRT's Doubt.  But especially Ferndale Rep's To Kill A Mockingbird with Brad Curtis.  It's not a great play, maybe not as good as the movie, but its differences are worth experiencing, and just seeing it live was memorable.

I'm going to save Shakespeare for another post, but it's important to acknowledge North Coast Rep's consistent commitment to staging one production each season.

Before this retrospective moves past the reps, there's a pair of interviews I did in the first year of my Stage Matters columns, with the directors of both theatres.  Marilyn McCormick was beginning her 10th year as the artistic director of Ferndale Rep.  That decade plus one year turned out to be the uncharacteristic calm in the Rep's stormy history.  The Rep reputedly sped through and shredded artistic directors before that, and certainly has since.  Most observers I've talked to about it, including insiders, say it's because of the Rep's "impossible" board of directors. (That wasn't necessarily the word used, but the polite form of its meaning.)

Here's a previous post on the last big hiring/firing.  Since then, it seems another de facto artistic director has quietly fled.  Local hopes are now pinned on Leira Satlof, to whom we can only say, good luck.

I also interviewed Michael Thomas, the managing artistic director of North Coast Rep, and he is still there.  I've come to admire his management and his philosophy of play selection which has never wavered from what he describes in this interview.  In addition to the "popular" shows and the stubbornly regular rotation of one or two musicals and one Shakespeare a season,  North Coast Rep has continued to produce "edgier" plays.  They've included not only relatively esoteric modern dramas like Albee's The Goat but, this past season,  a 19th century American melodrama and a pair of plays from classical Greece.  Considering recent trends here, those are bold selections.

It's worth noting however that, as he's pointed out to me more recently, some sure-fire popular shows turned out to be busts, and some edgier choices were hits.

So to end at the beginning so to speak, here are those two interviews.  

Ferndale Rep with Marilyn McCormick (2006)

Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, let me explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to immense disaster…
 Fennyman: So what do we do?
 Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
 Fennyman: How?
 Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
--- Shakespeare in Love by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard

 Ferndale Repertory Theatre will begin its 35th year of continuous production in the fall, and Marilyn McCormick will begin her tenth year as Artistic Director. She’s had a hard time settling on the upcoming season but so far it looks like this: The Mystery of Irma Vep (by Charles Ludlum and the Ridiculous Theatre) in late September, then a Young Actors original in November: Ghost of the Hart, which is about Bertha, the resident ghost in the Rep’s home, originally called the Hart Theatre.

 Then the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella for the holidays, plus another original for the school matinee, Cinderelder. Peter Shaffer’s Lettice & Lovage in January, a teen show called Hamlet Through the Looking Glass in March, the Rocky Horror Show musical in April, To Kill A Mockingbird in May, another try at mounting the senior citizen production, Taking My Turn, in July (it was scheduled for this year but was cancelled due when a cast member suddenly became ill), before The Sound of Music ends the season next August.

 When I visited the theatre on a recent afternoon, the stage was dominated by a painted Roman arch. Part of the Young Actor’s Workshop show this past weekend? Or maybe left over from the July 4th pageant? Could it be a bold new concept for Pajama Game, Ferndale’s next scheduled show? Imperial Retro, something like that?

 Not exactly. The director slated for that show got a job in New York, and the new director had a different play in mind. So A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opens in a few weeks, on August 3. That’s how it goes in the theatre.
“It’s a miracle it comes off,” McCormick says. “I’ve learned not to worry about it.”

 Ferndale Rep is the oldest and largest community theatre in the county, but what does that mean anyway—community theatre? “To me it’s made up of people of our community,” McCormick replied, “for our community. That’s basically how I like to run the theatre—to give opportunities to people in the community to explore this art form, as participants and audience. It’s grassroots theatre.”

 “Some people think of community theatre as amateurish,” she added, “but I don’t think of us that way. We have amateurs, but also people with lots of experience, including professional experience. There are people of all ages who want to be involved in theatre, and this is the perfect opportunity for them to find out if that’s what they really want. We introduce them to this world.”

 A funny thing happened to Marilyn McCormick on her way to the theatre. From the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University drama school (Carnegie Tech in those days), and acting at the legendary Arena Stage in Washington, DC, she came to California with husband and fellow “dramat” (as the CMU alums call themselves), Robert Foxworth. He began a career in movies and TV ( Boston Legal, various Star Treks) but she didn’t like film acting and concentrated on home and family.
 They came through Humboldt on vacation, returned to run a small café in Honeydew as a lark. Marilyn stayed, and raised her children in Petrolia and Ferndale after the divorce.

 Then the long and winding road led back to the stage when her son, Bo Foxworth, was a stage manager at Ferndale Rep, but had a basketball trip conflict with a show and asked his mom to fill in. She’s been there ever since, as an actor, director, board member and Artistic Director. (Bo is playing Hamlet in southern California this summer.)

 At the moment McCormick is especially excited about working with teenagers. “I like being able to give them the opportunity to experience this, outside of school. There are different rules and responsibilities here, with a paying audience.”  Teens are involved in all aspects of their productions, and McCormick is hoping to find financial support for extended technical training, which would help the theatre, too. “I’d love to have young technicians and designers here.”

The Ferndale Rep audience “is mostly from Eureka-Fortuna, mostly family-oriented,” she said, “and the theatre-lovers who support all the theatres in this county.”

 When we looked out at the 267-seat theatre—virtually unchanged from the 1970s—she recalled that “in the late 70s you had to have a season ticket to get into a show at the Rep. But this was the only theatre around then. NCRT and Redwood Curtain came out of here.”

Now McCormick would like to expand and redesign the stage and reduce the number of seats. She’s already made physical improvements to the green room area backstage, and Technical Director Daniel Lawrence has rebuilt much of the theatre’s façade, with lumber donated by Almquist Lumber. (The film-set façade that Warner Brothers presented as a gift to the theatre after the Outbreak shoot turned out to be built with indoor wood and paint, and has been falling apart ever since.)

 Besides ticket sales, Ferndale Rep is supported by local sponsors and grants, notably the Bertha Russ Lytel Foundation. “We have a staff of three—I’m the only full-time,” McCormick said. “It takes about 500 people to put on a season.”

 While she confesses it’s sometimes hard to figure out how to get people to come, the fascination of live theatre is still powerful. “There’s nothing else like it. It all happens right there, in front of you. Someone can make a movie and if nobody comes to see it, they still have that work of art. But we can’t do a play without an audience. They’re just too important.”

North Coast Rep with Michael Thomas (2006)


North Coast Repertory Theatre concludes its current season with Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, beginning August 10. Soon after, its 23rd season starts with Ladies of the Camellias in September, Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado in November, Jake’s Women (by Neil Simon) in January, Henry IV, Part 1 in March, Kiss Me Kate in May and Larry Shue’s The Nerd next July.

 In his office over the theatre, with windows overlooking Fifth Street in Eureka, Managing Artistic Director Michael Thomas was busy with solicitations for next year’s season tickets (you can call him at 442-NCRT and get yours) when I visited one recent afternoon.

The choice of plays for a season is “critical.” he said. NCRT has stayed alive for 23 years by essentially breaking even on season ticket sales and tickets at the door, plus selling ads in the playbill, with help from concessions, donations and grants.

 “But that doesn’t mean we don’t try things that are surprising. There are people who like edgier plays—they may not be a majority, but they’re also part of our community. We have a responsibility to offer plays the community will like, but not just what is safe and guaranteed.”

 “I never use the phrase—or like to hear the phrase—‘well, it’s just community theatre.’ We don’t operate that way,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t enter into my consciousness. We do the best we can with the people we have and the money we have, just like every theatre does.”

 “I work with people who are here because they want to be here, because they want to be part of creating a particular production, not because this is their job. I don’t say that lightly. It’s significant to the atmosphere of what goes on in this building.”

 Thanks to a California Arts Council grant (“before their funding was cut”), NCRT began a policy of paying actors and everyone else involved in a production. They’ve managed to continue it. “It’s not a lot of money—we call it a stipend. But everybody gets something.”

 There are difficulties, not only because NCRT can’t pay a living wage to theatre artists and staff, but because there is no such professional theatre anywhere near here. People tend to go where they can make a living doing what their expensive educations qualify them to do. That limits the talent pool.

 “The most challenging thing is to find competent people to work with,” Thomas says. “I’m always looking. Actors, designers, technical people—it’s difficult. There are talented people here, but not a lot, and they’re busy with other things in life, like making a living. The challenge is to find people who are available.”

 But in the end, theatre is theatre. “In professional theatres you have stronger shows and weaker shows, stronger actors and weaker actors. You have that in community theatre, too.”

 “Part of our mission as a community theatre is to maintain a ticket price that is reasonable for this community,” Thomas said, “ and that means controlling costs.” It also leads to a complex set of mutually beneficial relationships between theatre and community. “We welcome people who are new to theatre, and we’ll train them and use them, when appropriate. Of course, in auditions any director will choose the best actor, and the director defines ‘best.’"

In September Michael Thomas will begin his eighth season as managing artistic director, a self-selected title that reflects the jack-of-all trades nature of his job—everything from paying the bills to critiques of shows in rehearsal-- as the theatre’s only full-time employee.

 Thomas studied theatre at Northwestern University, near the North Shore Chicago suburb where he grew up. “My parents took me to theatre in Chicago. It was amazing. I’ve always been grateful they did that.” After studying mime and performing in Paris, he returned to make his fortune in the U.S. Postal Service. “It seemed like a lot of money to me at the time.”  From Sonoma County, he came to Humboldt with his daughter to earn his theatre MFA at HSU.

For most of its life, NCRT has been housed in this former Salvation Army store, built in the 1923, and they’ve owned it since 1996. Improvements are ongoing. “The building’s been painted this year, we’ve had some foundation work, a new ventilation system—air conditioning for the first time—all thanks to the Arkleys. We got a computerized light board with a grant from Simpson’s. We get a lot of support from local businesses. Sometimes they’ll loan us furniture and props for a show, sometimes donate materials or give us a discount.”

 The 139-seat theatre “seems to work well for us. We sell out some nights for any given play, which tells me it’s a good size.” Still, it’s cramped quarters backstage, and a relatively low ceiling above the stage limits second and third levels, and also means “we’ll never do Peter Pan.”

The stage itself is rough and uneven, which is especially hard on dancers. “We’d like to redo the stage, it’s on our wish list. But really, this space can work just fine,” Thomas said. “It’s what we do with the space that counts. This crack on the floor is not important compared with how the acting’s going. If the product is good, that’s secondary. I’ve seen enough to know that.”

Simon Says

A pair of reviews of two Neil Simon plays, performed at North Coast Rep in 2006 and 2007.  It turns out it is too difficult to assign them to their actual dates in this site's chronology, but at least now they will be here, and are searchable through the labels.

Broadway Bound (2006)

Broadway Bound is about two brothers trying to break into TV as sketch comedy writers. It’s set in 1949, just a year or so before Neil Simon began writing for Sid Caesar along with his brother, Garfunkel, (or if you prefer his real name, Danny).

 By the 1980s, playwright Neil Simon was integrating the comedy that brought him Broadway success with the character drama he admired in Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. Eugene, his young alter ego in this play, is just discovering that his repressed anger in response to family tensions is a source of his comedy.  As this play’s author, Simon goes beyond unconscious reaction to careful and eloquent examination of the individuals in the family, as they prepare to go their separate ways.

 This is the third (and, according to Simon, the most autobiographical) of the “Eugene” trilogy that began with Brighton Beach Memoirs and continued at Army boot camp towards the end of World War II in Biloxi Blues.

 Eugene and his brother are working on a sketch for CBS, hoping it will be the ticket to their own apartment in Manhattan. Their socialist grandfather, is resisting the pleas of their Aunt Blanche to join his wife in a move to Florida. Their parents are coming to the end of their marriage.

 On the writing team, Eugene is the funny one and his brother Stan is in charge of structure. Stan says that even a comedy sketch requires conflict, which begins when somebody wants something. In this play, each character becomes very clear on what they want, and their thoughts about that and about each other become the play’s structure.

 Though that shape is lopsided for a well-made play, the individual scenes and provocative moments are likely to stay in your head for a long time, rearranging themselves in new webs of meaning.

 Henry Kraemer is engaging as Eugene in the current NCRT production, making the all-important connection with the audience as the play’s eyes and ears. Eugene is still pretty callow for a 24- year old Army veteran, but Kraemer’s ease wins the audience’s confidence while his energy propels Gene Cole’s fast-paced direction.

 With his measured deadpan delivery, Ellsworth Pence is the perfect counterpoint as the grandfather, especially at the start. The second act belongs to Gloria Montgomery as Kate, Eugene’s mother, and not only for the central scene of the play—the justifiably famous recounting of the night she danced with future movie star George Raft. Montgomery creates a memorable and individual Kate with great economy, honesty and emotional power.

 Jerry Nusbaum, Dmitry Tokarsky and Adina Lawson bring lucidity and feeling to their roles and especially their most vital moments. I felt the production lacked enough variation in the rhythm to separate moods and highlight particular moments, but the most important function is presenting the moments with clarity, and it accomplishes this with conviction. It’s a thought- provoking and moving experience, and funny, too.

Jake's Women (2007)

There's a particular interest in a writer seeing a play about a writer who is too much the observer and not enough the participant in his own life, especially when one is among those reviewers who began as a participant in theatre - as a playwright, actor, director and even a song composer, and whose role now is as journalist and judge.

Well, when you get a role, play it.

 In Neil Simon's play Jake's Women, a writer in his 50s imagines scenes with the women in his life as the fate of his marriage in crisis is decided. The current production at the North Coast Rep features fine performances.

 On opening night, a slow start with shaky (presumably New York) accents got a burst of energy and definition from Suza Lambert Bowser as the psychiatrist with the heart of a chorus girl. Young Derby McLaughlin, who played Jake's daughter Molly at 12 years old, provided not only another hit of vitality but of reality: She was winsome and wonderful, inhabiting her part completely. Christen Condry Whisenhunt also created a credible and funny character (Sheila, Jake's current girlfriend during his separation) with economy and comic grace. Theresa Ireland as Molly at 21, Shelley Stewart as Jake's sister, Karen, and Jolene Hayes as Maggie, Jake's wife at the start of the play, all had their shining moments.

 Kim Hodel had the plum part of Julie, Jake's perfect first wife, who he fell in love with when she was 21 and he was 24, and who died at 35. She played it with the moral beauty and physical radiance that forces us to wonder where the line is between Jake idealizing his dead wife and remembering her accurately - was she really this wonderful? Hodel is convincing as both fantasy and tragically lost reality, in a memorable performance.

Michael Thomas as Jake had the longest and most difficult role, as he was required to hold the stage and hold the play together for the entire evening. Some of the most taxing scenes come late in the second act, when Jake's frenzy accelerates and then must be transformed into the resolution of acceptance and vulnerability. He did yeoman's work, keeping the audience involved, and laughing.

 After 30 years and almost that many plays, Neil Simon knew how to generate laughter and tug at the heartstrings by the time this play was first produced in 1992. There are lots of laughs, some provocative remarks, and scenes that play like crazy. A dead wife gets to meet her daughter at 12 and 21 - how can you fail with a scene like that? (In this production, it doesn't fail.)

 Simon's laudable efforts to go beyond his usual stage presentation with imaginary encounters often succeed individually -- he plays with how much control Jake actually has over what he imagines, and over the characters in his fantasies.

 But even given all these audience-pleasing and thought-provoking elements, this play doesn't quite hold together. I hadn't seen it before, either on stage or what I suspect is the more successful television version (which Simon rewrote completely), so I strongly suspect its weaknesses are in the writing rather than James Read's efficient direction, the fine performances he nurtured or any other element of this production.

Beyond even the sometimes mawkish lines, the unlikely and too-perfect anecdotes explaining Jake's too-pat problems, and the strained clichés that go by in the last moments like stray bullets, the play as a whole totters on our not really knowing who Jake is. Jake's life beyond his fantasies has no reality, and neither does he.

This is also important because the central tension comes from Jake being unable to stop fantasizing his life (which gives him control) long enough to trust it and live it. Certainly there are some rueful truths about writers in this play. I've been known to complain that the problem with life is that you can't revise. But Jake's fantasies aren't demonstrably related to his work, which neither he nor anyone else talks about or seems to care about, but to some generic and one-dimensional image of The Writer.

 There are credible moments, as in his second-act frenzy of rapid-fire fantasies of vacations spots and new homes, like a writer brainstorming plots. But the writer thing becomes a weak conceit, and a very wobbly basis for a play.

 Thomas and especially Hayes (in the second most difficult role) are very good in the final scenes, when the script has other significant problems. Though I found the play unconvincing, the North Coast Rep production is certainly worth seeing for wit, emotionally indelible scenes and the array of satisfying performances.

A Funny Thing

This review of the 2006 production of A Funny Thing on the Way to the Forum at Ferndale Rep was originally paired with a review of Broadway Bound at NCRT-- hence the references to Sid Caesar.  The "Eugene" mentioned is the main character of Broadway Bound, based on Neil Simon himself.  Simon wrote for Sid Caesar, and wrote about that in Laughter on the 23rd Floor.  Larry Gelbart, who wrote "Forum," had also written for Caesar.  Sid, that is.

Along with Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen, Sid Caesar was a comic innovator in exploring the particular opportunities of the television medium, but sketch comedy goes back through radio, burlesque and vaudeville to Rome, where most of the comedies were variations on the plot of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. The aforementioned Larry Gelbart wrote the book, with Bert Shevelove. Gelbart wrote for the TV M*A*S*H, and also authored the kind of political satire that Eugene’s grandfather would like, like the teleplay about media barons, Weapons of Mass Distraction.

“Forum” was Stephen Sondheim’s first Broadway show writing music and lyrics. The story is an extended Sid Caesar sketch version of Roman comedy, with increasingly frenetic farce—characters with names like Hysterium and Erronius running around in togas-- punctuated by frequent songs.

 Except for the too-few melodies sung by the extraordinary Minderella Willens and the pleasing voice of Evan Needham, and a rollicking number featuring comic stars James Read, Steve Carter, Bob Wells and Lonnie Blankenchip, the songs are largely a distraction (but then, I’m not a Sondheim fan anyway.) But most of the cast is gloriously comic and energetic (including Carol Martinez, Evan Needham and Rob Service in crucial supporting roles), and the production is well served by all its other elements—lighting, costumes, set and Dianne Zuleger’s fast-paced direction.

 Among the fetching dancing courtesans, Kim Hodel in particular uses the spacious Ferndale stage to sinuous advantage. It’s naughty, it’s nice, it’s a sprightly evening (or afternoon) of summer fun. So let us bury our troubles and praise the Alumni—and all hail Sid Caesar, the mightiest Roman of them all!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Obama Traded to Canada

The Republican majority in Congress wasted no time, not even waiting to be officially sworn in.

 GOP congressional leaders have announced that they've made a deal with the country's chief trading partner, Canada.

 They've traded President Barack Obama.

 "It was their idea," Senate Majority Leader "Tailgunner" Ted Cruz claimed, pointing to a letter to the editor published in a Canadian newspaper that went viral on the Internet.

 "Many of us Canadians are confused by the U.S. midterm elections," wrote Richard Brunt of Victoria, British Columbia. He noted that unemployment is below 6%, the stock market and corporate profits are up, there's no inflation and low interest rates, oil imports and the deficit are declining.

 "America is leading the world once again and respected internationally — in sharp contrast to the Bush years. Obama brought soldiers home from Iraq and killed Osama bin Laden. So, Americans vote for the party that got you into the mess that Obama just dug you out of? This defies reason."

 "All that leftist socialist Kenyan uppity do gooder Hitler communist big government bleeding heart Nazi stuff was pretty disgusting," Cruz spat. "But he had one good idea that he ended his letter with."

 Brunt's final sentence was this: "When you are done with Obama, could you send him our way?"

 When he saw that, Cruz could hardly control himself. So he got his GOP colleagues together, they contacted Canadians they knew (mostly in fossil fuels) and quickly made a deal.

 In a post-midnight session they traded President Obama for Doug Ford, Jr. who they described as Canada's Prime Minister, and a bagman to be named later.

 Douglas Ford is a Toronto city councillor, the brother of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and part owner of Deco Labels and Tags. He was recently defeated in his electoral bid to become mayor of Toronto.

 When a reporter informed the GOP officials that Ford is not the Prime Minister of Canada, GOP senator-elect Joni Ernst of Iowa retorted, "That's your opinion."

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Retrospective Interim Report

As my ongoing retrospective of my writings and perspectives on North Coast theatre rolls along, I've changed my tactics a bit.  I've gone back through this site, curating it, adding reviews in their proper timeframe that weren't posted before, adding some photos, adding labels to make them more searchable and so on.  So in this retrospective space, I'll more often be linking to past pieces rather than bundling them here.

I've discovered that at least digitally some past reviews are gone forever.  At least a couple of years have vanished from the Journal site,  and the Journal now makes it very difficult if not impossible to find Stage Matters reviews without already having the link.  But for a few years even the links go nowhere.  I have my drafts of most published pieces but some must have disappeared on a laptop that was so thoroughly fried that I couldn't retrieve any files.  (Too bad too because it contained my correspondence with Leonard Nimoy.)  I have some hard copies, not well organized though.

I do have a plan for the rest of this retrospective look, focusing on individual theatres and individual people.  Eventually I will post old pieces that don't appear anywhere else, so this site will be (for one thing) a record of North Coast theatre for much of the past decade, though not a complete one.  Since I often expanded on the background of plays, this aspect of the site will continue to be an Internet resource that's useful well beyond the North Coast of California.

At the same time, I'll be experimenting with expanding this site's content beyond local stages, beyond stage matters, to other matters.  So there will be those kinds of posts coming up.

 The next retrospective post will be the final one dealing with local community theatres, North Coast Rep and Ferndale Rep, and their non-musical productions.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

On Thursday (Nov. 13) North Coast Rep opens the musical comedy How To Succeed At Business Without Really Trying by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert with  music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.  Directed by Lauren Wieland, it features Chris Hamby, Anthony De Page, Haley Katz, Gene Cole and Elizabeth Erenberger. Scenic design is by Laura Rhinehart, lighting by Suzanne Ross-Kohl, and costumes by Laura Rhinehart. Thursday is the Actors Benefit with opening night champagne/cider spread. Performances continue Fridays and Saturdays through December 13, with one more Thursday show on Dec.11. 442-NCRT (6278), NCRT.net.

Also Thursday, Eureka High Players open Epic Proportions, a comedy by Larry Coen and David Crane.  476-1735.

Thursday begins the final weekend for Other Desert Cities at Redwood Curtain.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Musical Stage Matters: North Coast 2005-14

North Coast Repertory Theatre produces one or two musicals a year; Ferndale Repertory Theatre used to do at least a couple, but in recent years has increased that number to something like a majority of their theatrical productions.

Nanette Voss-Herlihy, Kyle Ryan
 In addition, Redwood Curtain has done a few (I recall the outstanding performances of Kyle Ryan and Nanette Voss-Herlihy in their 2011 The Last Five Years) and Dell’Arte has done a couple for their summer shows (which I’ll save for later.)

 HSU does a big musical every other year, and lately has sprinkled in some smaller ones on the off years. And as I’ve said already, Humboldt Light Opera Company does a big musical every summer, and often a smaller one in fall or winter. But mostly it’s been our two self-described community theatres.

 One way to categorize musicals is a simple division between the traditional “song” musicals that include dialogue and action, and the opera-style musicals (sometimes called “sing-throughs”) in which most if not all of the dialogue is sung.

Craig Benson in Sweeney Todd 
The opera-style shows, a fairly recent trend, tend to be dramatic, if not melodramatic (reminding us perhaps that melo-dramatic literally means drama with melody.) This isn’t my favorite form, but a good show is a good show, and among the best examples locally are the outstanding Ferndale Rep's 2011 production of Sweeney Todd, and NCRT’s recent and very successful production of Les Miz. (The Les Miz review is probably the most recent—hence the last—time I noted that the lack of resources for elaborate staging often works to the benefit of local productions, getting them to the essence of the play and the storytelling.)

Another example of a contemporary sing-through is Next to Normal, which had an effective if muted production at North Coast Rep.  But like a lot of these musicals, it can be considered profound mostly in comparison with other musicals rather than other writing forms, including nonfiction. As much as I appreciated it, I have no desire to see it again.

 The song musicals can be dramatic but are most often comedies. They have the longer history in American theatre, and host most of the famous songs.  I tend more towards wit and sparkle than the sentimental, more Cole Porter than Rogers & Hammerstein.  But once again, a good show is a good show.  A really good production with exciting renditions of great songs is the ideal.

Fatal Distractions

 What makes a good production of a musical? It’s easier to say what a bad production is. Great singing elevates a production, but the occasional mediocre singer (especially if they can otherwise “sell” the song) rarely sinks a whole show. I can’t recall hearing that happen here.

 For a number of reasons (many of them logistical) shows here don’t excel in dancing, but the dancing that was included was seldom embarrassing. (There have been some real clunkers in live bands, though.)

Staging, lighting and sound are the usual culprits that ruin a show. When sound and lighting don't work as they should, they distract and drain energy. Sound is obviously crucial but the element that gets overlooked (pun intended) is lighting. People are never so wise as when they agree with your own observations, so I quote the writer William Goldman again“Most musicals need to be brightly lit and played as close to the footlights as possible so that the audience can see and hear them.” Especially the songs.

But whatever the combination of factors are, the musicals that fail are those that don't serve the play, the music or in particular the performers. And therefore they don't serve the audience. Here's an egregious example of one.  Unclear storytelling is especially deadly in the newer styles of musicals, the sing-throughs and those with more dramatic than comedic intentions.

Another example of these storytelling problems would be the recent HSU production of Coraline, in which the fantasy was not grounded in the most basic ways that create an intelligible story. (Lighting, sound and staging were also deficient in what arguably is a play with music rather than a musical. Impressive costumes are not ultimately enough.)   In the case of The Last Five Years at Redwood Curtain, the structure of the script is confusing, and needs special attention in production decisions.

I quote playwright Tom Stoppard (again):"Theatre is a pragmatic art form. It's a storytelling art form, and lives or dies by its storytelling."

 Bad storytelling erodes audience confidence and takes them out of the play. Bad lighting and sound diminish the power and the joy. They disrupt the magic and undermine the performances.  They are all fatal distractions.

Happier Memories
But let’s go back to the sunny side of the street. Among the shows I recall is the 2007 NCRT production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate with two of the memorable talents we had on North Coast stages for awhile, Minderella Willens and Darcy Daughtry. Phil Zastrow and Rigel Schmitt performing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” was also a memorable delight.

 My first recollection of Mindy Willens (an HSU student at the time) was in NCRT’s 2005 production of Once Upon A Mattress, another happy memory. I wrote in part: "The music is pleasant, the actors all exude charm, and they're committed to their roles but don't try to do too much. As the aggravatingly vain Queen Aggravain, Xande Zubin-Meyer channels Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West), and Steve Carter is a taller Harpo Marx as King Sextimus. Vince Farrar strikes the right poses but also humanizes the ironic Lancelot role of Sir Studley. Jordan Matteoli is well cast as the eager but innocent Prince Dauntless, Miles Raymer's stage presence and strong tenor anchors the action as the minstrel and Laura Hathaway has an affecting presence and attractive voice as Lady Larken.

 But this show belongs to Mindy Willens as Princess Winifred, who owns the stage from the moment she enters. Known as "'Fred," this Princess has a sweetly energetic assertiveness: She storms the castle by impulsively swimming the moat, and then is modestly embarrassed about it. With bright rolling eyes and a big voice, Willens grabs the audience and brings them cheerfully into the show."

Michael Thomas, Caitlin McMurtry
Guys and Dolls at NCRT in 2009 is memorable for David Powell (another bright star that passed through here) leading “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” and particularly for the performance of Andrea Zvalesko. In addition to leads Caitlin McMurtry and Michael Thomas, My Fair Lady had the irrepressible Bob Wells singing-- and dancing-- as Eliza's father.

There were other productions that impressed me at the time, such as Ferndale's A Funny Thing On the Way to the Forum and Monty Python's Spamalot, NCRT's Marat/Sade, Fiddler on the Roof and The Producers.  But these are the ones that linger.

 There was one show however that remains for me an anomaly: a musical I don’t particularly like (I hate the movie of it) with mostly forgettable music—but it is a NCRT production I’ve never forgotten. The show was Chicago. So I’m resurrecting my review of it, plus the review of NCRT’s 2012 Anything Goes with additional items. Some of those made it onto this blog, others are here for the first time.


Chicago at NCRT (2006)

 In a few months the musical Chicago will celebrate its tenth consecutive year on Broadway. With songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb (who wrote “New York, New York” and the songs for Cabaret ), it became the Oscar’s Best Picture of 2002. It is based on a straight play about two actual 1924 Chicago murder cases written by a reporter caricatured as “Mary Sunshine” in the musical version.

 But its theme—the criminal justice system as show business—came from famed choreographer and filmmaker Bob Fosse, who wrote and staged the first musical production in 1975. I’m guessing that we’re seeing his experience with his 1975 Chicago in his brilliant 1979 film, All That Jazz. You can certainly see Fosse’s combination of trenchant observation and bombastic cynicism as well as his style of choreography very clearly in the movie of Chicago, but I was turned off by its excesses, including the mechanically speeded-up dancing, like a Bollywood film. The play is structured as a series of Vaudeville acts, but the movie transforms them into extravagant dream sequences, a technique done a lot more effectively in Pennies From Heaven (1981).

 For me, Chicago works much better on a smaller scale, such as the current North Coast Repertory Theatre production, directed by Xande Zublin-Meyer. There’s a much stronger sense of the vaudeville period that’s present in the music, and if this version and how it’s performed in Eureka lacks some of the cynical edge, it also doesn’t hit you over the head with it repeatedly. The satire is still there, and since the idea (crime as show biz) is no longer novel, the audience seemed to get it from the songs and dialogue.

 The story concerns the fall and rise of Roxie Hart, a wannabe vaudeville performer who kills her partner in an extramarital affair, and Velma Kelly, a star in a sister act who kills her other half. Kimberly Hodel is a fetching, brassy Roxie, with a 1920s flapper look. Especially in one gyrating number in a shimmering gown, she’s Betty Boop brought to life.

 Jolene Hayes brings a strong voice and a hint of vulnerability to Velma. With her vocals and acting clarity, Dianne Zuleger as prison Matron Mama Morton keeps the story moving, as does Daniel Scott Marcus as the seedy Master of Ceremonies.

 After a few establishing set pieces, the show really comes alive with the entrance of Brad Curtis as Billy Flynn, the lovable hypocrite defense attorney. Curtis has a Broadway voice and presence, and the energy of this show seems to jump into high gear whenever he’s on stage.

 But the show-stealer has to be Jamie Obeso’s song as Mary Sunshine. It’s as if Alfalfa from the “Our Gang” comedies grew up to become a female impersonator.

 All the actors bring something special to their roles, and not just the principal ones. The choreography by Rebecca Rubenstein gives us less Fosse and more vaudeville, which works for me. Dianna Thiel’s costumes are especially imaginative. There’s a live band behind the performers, there are lots of songs, and the stage is often filled with a large, hard-working and committed cast.

Additional Note 2014: This review got a letter chastising me for not mentioning Anders Carlson.  I should have--I still remember his comic stepping through the spotlights. (But the review was one of two in the limited space of that particular week's column)  He's been interesting to watch over the years--he's developed from a comic with a set of Chaplin-like moves to a disciplined actor who can still let it fly when it's right for the part (as he did in the 2014 I Hate Hamlet.)

Anything Goes at NCRT 2012

 In the Cole Porter musical comedy Anything Goes, now on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, Billy Crocker (played by Erik Standifird) is in love with young socialite Hope Harcourt (Keili Simmons Marble.) But he’s just the young assistant to a Wall Street patrician (Howard Lang), and she is engaged to a rich Brit, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Clayton Cook), because her mother (Toodie SueAnn Boll) craves financial security.

 They’re all sailing on an ocean liner to Europe except Billy, until he helps gangster Moonface Martin (David Simms) escape and  Moonface slips him the ticket meant for Snake Eyes Johnson, an even more important gangster.  So they’re all on the same boat, and it’s 1934—five years after the Wall Street crash. Maritime mayhem ensues.

 Also along for the ride is nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Molly Severdia) and her vamping companions, Virtue (Ashley Adams) and Chastity (Kelly Gordon.) From the second Molly Severdia takes the stage, the production comes alive. She has that 30s sophistication and eagerness for what comes next. She’s confident as the character and as an actor, with a lively interest in every onstage moment. It’s the star part—originally written for the 26 year old Ethel Merman—so it helps that she also has the voice to make the show’s most famous songs soar. And when they include “You’re the Top,” “I Get A Kick Out of You” and the title tune, you’ve got your money’s worth right there.

 But there’s more. Keili Simmons Marble is incandescent as Hope Hartwell, and shares that quality of being visibly alive to each stage moment. She also triumphs as the show’s choreographer. There are a few well-executed large ensemble dances --the tap-dancing “Anything Goes” would stop the show except it’s at the end of the first act, where the show stops anyway.

 But her attention to smaller movements in smaller groups (including some Busby Berkeley reminders) also helps advance the show in the best way—with pleasant surprises. She is an excellent dancer herself, and the few opportunities she has to move suggest what more might have been.

 Anything Goes has been revised and revived several times in its 78 years (so far,) with Cole Porter songs cannibalized from other shows. The NCRT show seems based on the 1987 and 2011 versions.

 The music, the wit of the lyrics and the script are obvious reasons it’s lasted, but there’s also the script’s structure and the opportunities it provides the cast. Often in such comedies, the mirth is in elaborating the stereotypical characters established at the beginning. But this show’s silly, mildly satirical and mostly logical plot is also fed by a succession of small character surprises and reversals.

So Brandy Rose as the sweetly loose gang moll Erma takes it up a notch in her big song in the second act, giving ultimate expression to her character. But Clayton Cook’s big song (also a high point) reveals a surprising side to the established Sir Evelyn that changes the story’s direction. (Brandy Rose also reveals comedic power. Anders Carlson nails his comic moments in the relatively small part of the ship’s Captain. Those two paired in a screwball comedy might be something to see.)

 Erik Standifird has the enthusiasm and strong tenor voice of the 1930s romantic lead. Veterans David Simms, Howard Lang and Toodie SueAnn Boll anchor the comedy, and Ashley Adams and Kelly Gordon dance at least as well as they vamp.

Others in this strong cast are Gino Bloomberg, Tyler Elwell, Evan Needham, Jessi Shieman, Luke Sikora, Rigel Schmitt, Eric Stiles, Candace Wase and Katie Wolter. Lauren Wieland directed with wit and efficiency, and probably more. Calder Johnson designed the engagingly bright and useful set and lighting. Jenneveve Hood’s costume designs are great to look at and they express the times, but most impressively, she designed to flatter each individual.

 Music director Molly Severdia and her assistant Tina Toomata met the challenge of the sometimes technically difficult songs. The backstage band members are Laura Welch, Molly Harvis, Jeremy Cotton, Dianne Zuleger, Gina Piazza, Val Leone and Tamaras Abrams. Within its limitations, this is a fine production of one of the best musical comedies ever. More than that, it is alive and joyous. There are many memorable moments in this show—both from Cole Porter and from this cast.

Additional Notes: It's the Top

There are few if any Broadway musicals older than Anything Goes that get produced anymore. In fact, only 3 previous shows are generally classified as modern musicals (Show Boat in 1927, The Band Wagon in 1930 and Of Thee I Sing! in 1931.)

 Songs have since been stolen from other Cole Porter shows for this version of Anything Goes, and the script is not exactly the same as the show that premiered in 1934. That script began with legendary Brits P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton but the Broadway version was quickly assembled by its director Howard Lindsay with a press agent named Russel Crouse. They were so successful at it that they themselves became a legendary Broadway writing team.

 The script was revised for the 1987 revival by John Weidman and Timothy Crouse, Russel's son and the author of one of the great books on U.S. presidential campaigns and the press, The Boys on the Bus (1972). I knew him for a few years around then.

 Anyway, the changes in the latest, the Tony-winning 2011 version that’s on tour into 2013 seem to be in musical arrangements, etc. So I don't actually know who is responsible for my favorite bit of dialogue. Asked by a ship's officer if he'd seen infamous racketeer Snakeyes Johnson somewhere on the ship, one of the characters says he saw him at the mizzenmast. “ But this ship doesn’t have a mizzenmast.” “Oh. It must have been somebody else.”

 The constant in all this is Cole Porter. His songs have not changed. His music is timeless, but his lyrics are very topical—particularly in one of this show’s most famous songs, “You’re the Top.”  The lyrics haven't been revised, so they are still a kind of mini-tour of 1934. While some of the places and the famous people named in the song are still well known, others mostly aren’t.  Quite a few clever references go right by a lot of the audience nearly 80 years later. With each generation, more references are lost—and especially the reason that this person, product, etc. is “the top.”

Some survive—even millenials know Fred Astaire—but others are so very 1934 that they’re historical markers. For example, broccoli. When Severdia and Standifird come to that line (“you’re broccoli!”) they make a face, mirroring a contemporary audience’s sense that it's an icky vegetable that doesn’t make it to "the top."  But in 1934, it did: known in Italy, it wasn’t farmed commercially in the U.S. until the 1920s and broke the Italian language barrier in the 30s. So broccoli was quite fashionable in 1934.

Severdia and Standifird relieved audience anxieties by acting out such contemporary reactions to some references (their performance was a highlight of the North Coast Rep production.)  But they appeared to simply ignore other references, like Jimmy Durante, a showman who was famous from the 1920s through the 50s, and was often parodied into the 1960s.

In fact some lyrics are now so obscure that there are several online attempts to track down their meaning. There was a long and involved theory about  what “you’re a drumstick lipstick” could mean--maybe something that involved ice cream and kissing?  Then somebody uncovered an old ad that showed that Drumstick was the brand name of a quite fashionable lipstick in 1934.  So no secret code ring needed.

 Still, it isn’t necessary to know that moisture-proof cellophane was a modern miracle in the 30s to laugh at the exuberant brilliance of “You’re the National Gallery/You’re Garbo’s salary/You’re cellophane!” The strange alchemy of the topical and the timeless in a play that lasts is one of the wonders of theatre, as it is in other arts. So it’s a vital part of our theatrical ecology.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Manic About Titanic

Any review of North Coast musicals begins and ends with Humboldt Light Opera Company productions. It’s their only business, after all. They nurture singers and help make them actors, in formal classes (Executive Director Carol Ryder has until recently taught at both HSU and CR) and especially within the company. Typically they’ve done a small musical or performance of some kind in the fall or winter, but one big musical a year, in summer. They are also very good at promoting their shows in the community—and they put on a great outdoor spreads after opening night performances.

 The productions that stand out in memory without any prompting are Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2011), Shrek (2013), and Titanic (2007). Carol Ryder directed them all. I also remember Jean Bazemore’s direction of Carol, Bill and Fiona Ryder in Light on the Piazza (with a thrilling vocal performance by James Gadd) in 2009, and Ryder’s vibrant The Pirates of Penzance the next year.

 I often include puns and jokes in reviews, just to keep myself entertained through those dour hours of writing, regardless of whether anyone else notices. This was never more obvious than in my Pirates review (although I have no evidence anyone noticed this either) when I copied the cadence of the most famous Gilbert & Sullivan song in the show:

 “HLOC is a community theatre organization, but I doubt if you could find a professional theatre version of The Pirates of Penzance with as perfect a production and as winning a cast. They highlight all the humor, eternal and historical, with skillful song and dance, romantic and euphorical. They ply us with a plot that is at best fantastical, with certitude and grace, droll and enthusiastical. With audience in tow, they sail to this attainment: more ecstatic than dramatic, this is the very model of a modern entertainment.” 

My review of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is here, elsewhere on this blog. I got a kick out of spotting something that almost no one else did—the “quote” of Groucho’s entrance in Duck Soup in the heroine’s entrance.



Here’s my review of Titanic.  I've added italic bold to part of one sentence that remains key for me in any show.

   Manic About Titanic (2007) 

 When the basic story is so familiar, and the narrative trajectory so extravagantly simple (big unsinkable ship sinks on maiden voyage), it all depends on how it’s done. The Humboldt Light Opera does the musical Titanic very, very well.

 The production excels in every aspect, to create a stylish, polished, harmonized and entertaining whole with moments of unexpected emotion. It’s a treat to be able to appreciate the skillful and artful execution of the show’s many elements, but it’s the confidence that the production creates that allows you to relax into the illusion and feel the emotion.


And it doesn’t depend on flashy, overwhelming technical achievements. You aren’t going to see a giant ship sinking. Though there’s a single, small tilting room in the second act, the most dramatic special effect is the well-timed skittering of a single tea cart.

 Yet the sets and lighting (designed by Jayson Mohatt and Justin Takata) are sumptuous in their way, as well as elegant and eloquent, etching the scenes into memory. Kevin Sharkey’s costumes are ravishing. Director Carol McWhorter Ryder focuses on sets of characters, then fills the large Van Duzer stage with movement (and Sarah Carlton’s choreography.)

 The singing (as is often the case in an HLOC production) is superior. Above all, there is the orchestra: what a delight to have a full orchestra for a musical, and this one, under the direction of Justin Sousa, impeccably plays an evocative score.

 The Titanic, the largest and most lavish passenger ship of its time, steamed out of England on its first and last voyage in April 1912. There were three classes of service for passengers: from First Class for the wealthy and renowned, such as John Jacob Astor and his young wife, to Third Class for poor immigrants bound for America.

 One of the better moves in the musical’s script (by Peter Stone) is to focus early on a couple in Second Class—a middle class, Midwestern businessman (Edgar Beane, played by Gene Lodes) and his star-struck wife (Alice, played by Elisabeth Harrington). Since Alice is so curious about the celebrities in First Class she provides easy exposition, but with an endearing comic performance and a wonderful voice, Elisabeth Harrington goes beyond this simple expediency to establish the Beanes as the audience’s representatives, as well as a couple whose fate will matter.

 We soon see the glamour of First Class for ourselves in a dinner scene that literally glitters with sequined gowns and jewels, as characters are deftly introduced. Then another large ensemble scene in Third Class that is unexpectedly affecting. The Irish émigrés could be living clichés, (the burly young fisherman, played by Tristin Roberts, the three young ladies named Kate, played by Laura Hathaway, Krissy Dodge and Essie Bertain) but first with a trio sung by the Kates, and then in a powerful ensemble, they generate real emotion. Perhaps it evokes images of immigrant ancestors (though my grandparents and mother came over from Italy on ships much less majestic than this, where there were a handful in First Class, and thousands in steerage.) But it’s the actors and their singing that really put it over, particularly the radiant Laura Hathaway.

The script probably tries to do too much—there are so many themes and so many characters (based on real passengers) that little gets developed even cursorily. Phil Zastrow as the ship’s owner (and villain of the piece), Kevin Sharkey as its designer and Bill Ryder as the Captain all perform their fairly thankless roles well, but it’s the “minor” characters who stand out: Cailan Halliday as the quartermaster, for instance, and Kevin Richards as the chief coal stoker, and particularly Jordan Matteoli as Radioman Harold Bride. Matteloli seems born to play young and usually innocent characters in musicals set between 1910 and 1950. He gets an especially poignant song near the end.

 Though there are slack stretches and foreshortened stories, the emotion built into the situation—the lives lost, the survivors, how everyone behaved—comes through, thanks to the production and these characters.

 I confess I couldn’t imagine song lyrics about the sinking of the Titanic. (The best I could come up with were: MRS. ASTOR: The ship is sinking! MR. ASTOR: Have you been drinking? It’s unthinkable! The ship’s unsinkable! CAPTAIN: Mr. Astor! It’s a disaster!) Not to mention finding a rhyme for “iceberg.”

 But this musical is more in the operetta style, with most of the dialogue sung rather than spoken. Though serviceable and even witty in context, with few exceptions neither lyrics nor songs (both by Maury Yeston) are especially memorable. Perhaps that’s partly why this Tony Award-winning Broadway hit of a decade ago is so little known. But for the length of the show, it hardly matters.

 And there are other oddities about the script, such as the Captain about to go down with the ship suddenly reflecting that in 43 years at sea, he’s never seen an accident. It sounds like an insert demanded by the cruise ship industry. But as a whole, the excellence of the Humboldt Light Opera production overwhelms these weaknesses. Maybe the ship sank, but this Titanic is buoyant.

Friday, November 7, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

"The Babes - Humboldt Light Opera Company's Women's Chorus - celebrate their 20th Anniversary at the Eureka Woman's Club (1531 J Street, Eureka) on Saturday, November 8 at 7 p.m., with a concert followed by reception. Admission to this event is free, but donations are sincerely appreciated.

The Women's Chorus first performed in 1994, with the motto "We've come a long way, but don't call us Baby!" The ensemble came to be known as The Babes, in an offbeat response to the original advertisement. Founding (and current) director Carol Ryder had envisioned an all-female vocal group that would sing across genres, from classical to classic rock. Their repertoire has grown to include a cappella and jazz selections, and new works with unexpected rhythms and challenging harmonies.

 Read more about the concert at hloc.org or by calling 822-1318."

Other Desert Cities continues at Redwood Curtain.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Musings on Musicals

Have musicals become a blight on North Coast theatre, threatening to kill off everything else? The recent wave of second-hand shows, derived from movies, TV shows and cartoons, adds to the impression. Some are done well, some badly, and most are in between. But there may just be too many of them for the health of a theatrical ecology.

 Musicals involve a lot of people, and can be costly to produce. And they aren’t always the box office hits it is assumed they would be. But it does seem that these days especially, more performers want to be in them.


One season of that wonderful Canadian TV comedy series called “Slings & Arrows” juxtaposed a Shakespeare production with a musical being developed at the same time. It was if they were being produced by two different species. They could barely communicate.

 It isn’t that bad here—many participate in musical and non-musical productions. But it has become more and more obvious that it is much easier to get a cast for a musical than for a play, especially if the play is from a different era. That’s not healthy.

 I’d only been on the job for a year or so when I wrote a column about musicals. What was true in this regard seems even truer now. In the course of this column I also wrote about my own prejudices and my approach to review. So it seems worthwhile to reproduce that column here.

 But as I noted then, North Coast theatres can do musicals well. So in coming days I’ll be posting reviews of some of the most memorable, though they weren’t always my favorites at the time.

Musings on Musicals (December 2007)


The musical is not my favorite form of theatre. Yet when I look back on the past calendar year or more on the North Coast, many of the shows I’ve most admired have been musicals. This personal paradox came into view especially in the last month or so, when I saw four of them—and had different responses to each.

 Two of these were imported shows—touring Broadway-based productions hosted by CenterArts. This is a unique species, and is a way of life for the actors and musicians involved—I’ve known a few and heard their stories. Someone here asked one of the participants in one of the touring shows where his home was. “On the bus,” he said. They tour ten months a year.

 The touring Evita and The Producers were both polished, professional shows with great sets, very good performers and production values. I hated Evita. I loved The Producers. And thereby hangs a tale.

 If you had to name crowd-pleasing forms, musicals would probably be at the top of the list, followed by physical theatre. But as it turns out, I am not a crowd. Nor am I a judge, making decisions on the basis of theatrical law and performance precedent. I am forced to confront these facts every time I write about a show, and most every time I see one.

 Tom Stoppard, who was a provincial theatre reviewer before he became an internationally acclaimed playwright, talked in several interviews about his own struggle with the reviewer’s perspective. He started out trying to review objectively, according to standards. But he learned, especially from reading the contemporaneous reviews of Kenneth Tynan, that as a reviewer, “the only thing that mattered was the effect the play had on me personally that night. That was what I was reporting on…”

 I don’t think it’s the only thing that matters, but it is vital, and even more than that, it is unavoidable. We all bring different standards, experiences and tastes to each theatrical encounter. Even though I often include objective information about the audience as well as the play, I can’t escape the sometimes inconvenient truth of being me.

 The idiosyncratic element is seldom clearer than when I see a musical. Take Evita. The production I saw at the Van Duzer was loud, flashy and, to me, empty. The music was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, also responsible for the enormously popular Starlight Phantom Jesus Cats Superstar Opera Express. I went in knowing that I basically detest Andrew Lloyd Webber and his ilk, who dominated musicals from the 70s until recently with gaudy, bombastic, pretentious, meretricious, vacuous productions, and lousy music.

 That’s the other thing—music is very important to me, and when I don’t like it, it’s hard to even sit through a show. However, it is possible for a show to show me something else, to change my mind—to show me a good time. Evita didn’t do that. It confirmed my worst preconceptions.

A Broadway-derived production of The Producers
 But two weeks later, The Producers charmed me and made me giddy. It was funny, provocative and stylish, and the music, while not memorable, was fun. Part of this show’s appeal is it’s something of a throwback, with roots in classic Broadway and vaudeville—which its principal author, Mel Brooks, knows very well.

Still, if the music is merely pleasant, and the rest of the show is entertaining, I can enjoy it. Such was the case with the Humboldt Light Opera’s Titanic, which was my favorite homegrown musical production of the year. But when you add memorable songs—as in North Coast Rep’s Fiddler on the Roof –there’s a fuller enjoyment.

 But I come back to my initial question—why did I like so many musicals done here recently? From one point of view, it would seem that community theatres with less than lavish resources should do smaller shows better, rather than elaborate musicals. But I think there are reasons—some more idiosyncratic than others.
Fiddler on the Roof at NCRT

 First, we’ve got a lot of musical talent and performing talent for the musical stage here, renewed by students coming to HSU. I was especially impressed that North Coast Rep could field 38 performers for “Fiddler,” while at the same time HSU had 30 for Urinetown.

 That’s good, and not so good. There’s probably a general cultural bias at work for musical over dramatic talent (from TV and concert music, etc.) but there’s also a local component. There’s not a lot of great acting or actor training here, which professional theatre actors would define as finding the truth of a part, or Laurence Olivier would describe as creating “goosebumps” in the audience by means of the actor’s art. There’s more training hereabouts for performance rather than acting, and audiences are more attuned to it.

 But there’s something else that works for me. I despise the nauseatingly smooth and homogenized style of singing I hear on Broadway musical albums. I prefer the authentic voices I hear on stages here.
A Funny Thing...at Ferndale Rep

 That goes for the production as well—the lack of glitz and overkill at a typical North Coast Rep musical (even their Chicago was more modest than the movie or Broadway versions) or at Ferndale Rep (their A Funny Thing Happened at the Forum being one of my favorites) focus attention on the essentials of the show: the performances, the music and the story. I like that.

 I offer these views partly as a past and future guide to my own inevitable prejudices. Also as some solace for the audience members I also think about—the ones who are trying to figure out why they aren’t getting why everybody around them likes the show, or the reverse. Sometimes it’s personal taste or experience, or lack of experience. And sometimes you aren’t the only one seeing a naked emperor.

 End note 2014: The two traveling shows have since been done by North Coast theatres: The Producers at NCRT, Evita at Ferndale Rep. These road shows were presented here by Center Arts. After this piece was published, coincidentally or not, I was never invited back to a Center Arts show.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Chekhov on Ross Street

"Modern playwrights begin their plays with angels, scoundrels, and clowns exclusively.  Well, go seek these elements in all Russia!  Yes, you may find them, but not in such extreme types as the playwrights need.  Unwillingly, you begin forging them out of the mind and the imagination, you perspire, and give the matter up.  I wanted to be original: I did not portray a single villain, not a single angel (though I could not refrain when it came to the clown), did not accuse anyone, or exculpate.  Whether all this is well done, I do not know."

Anton Chekhov 
commenting on his early play Ivanov

In 2012 I wrote about watching Chekhov plays on DVD and video, lamenting that North Coast theatres hadn't done a Chekhov in decades.  This year we came closer with Christopher Durang's delightful comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, done so well at Redwood Curtain.

Recently I've gone back to the DVD collection of Chekhov plays I mentioned.  I watched the 1981 National Theatre version of The Cherry Orchard, the Chekhov play most often produced these days, directed by Richard Eyre, with Judi Dench.  I watched the 1970 BBC production of The Three Sisters. And though I didn't look at The Seagull again, another viewing of the 1991 BBC version of Uncle Vanya confirmed my feeling that this is my favorite Chekhov play.  (I also took the very rare opportunity to see The Wood Demon, Chekhov's earlier play which contains much of Uncle Vanya verbatim, although there are significant differences between the plays.  The 1974 BBC production preserved in this collection is probably one of the few ever attempted.)

The character of the doctor (Astrov in Uncle Vanya) is present in both plays, and in both of these productions, seven years apart, he is played by Ian Holm.  My impression of Ian Holm was formed from the supporting roles he played in various Hollywood films--everything from Greystone: The Legend of Tarzan to Time Bandits to The Day After Tomorrow.  Many know him as Bilbo Baggins in various Tokien films, including the most recent Hobbit movies.  He is competent and sometimes memorable in the movies, producing a sense of confidence and ease when he appears.

 But his ease is deceptive--there are depths to his wonderful tour de force as Astrov. David Warner is an excellent and very relatable Vanya, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is fascinating in the very tricky role of the professor's young wife who everybody else is in love with.  But Ian Holm is a revelation, and it makes me want to find his King Lear.

Seeing this production again led to two firm conclusions: First, this 1991 version of Uncle Vanya is the best I've seen, and the best I ever hope to see.  The 1994 American version captured in Louis Malle's last film, Vanya on Forty-Second Street, is almost as good, but it is almost too contemporary and American.

Uncle Vanya is the only major Chekhov play I have never seen on the stage.  My second conclusion is that, with this version on DVD, I don't need to see it on stage.  A corollary of that conclusion is that no North Coast theatre appears capable of doing it well enough.  I suspect not many theatres are.  So I take back my lament that North Coast theatres don't do Chekhov.

Elsewhere:

Suzan-Lori Parks has an ambitious new play opening at New York's Public Theatre to high praise by the New York Times.  Her play Venus was produced at HSU in 2012.

Dan Kois at Slate on the pleasure of reading plays, specifically Annie Baker's The Flick.

Stephen Booth is a Shakespeare scholar I didn't know about until this article.  He's written specifically on Macbeth, the next Shakespeare on North Coast Rep's schedule for January.