Thursday, September 24, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

In its second weekend, the classic musical Guys and Dolls is at North Coast Rep in Eureka. My review is in the Journal this week. The dolls above are two of the standout performers: Andrea Zvalesko as Miss Adelaide and Melissa Smith as the Mission Lady, Sarah Brown.
On Saturday night only, Jeff DeMark performs his baseball show, Hard as Diamond, Soft as the Dirt with the Delta Nationals at 8 in the Arcata Theatre Lounge Theater, followed by the band playing several sets of dance music. Take note: this is the Arcata Theatre (the old moviehouse) on G, not the Arcata Playhouse at the Old Creamery. Besides, where else can you go to the theater in the theatre?

Guys and Dolls House

I'm posting my Journal review of Guys and Dolls because half a sentence was edited out, and since it was an appreciation of an actor's performance, I wanted to restore it, in context.

I also neglected to mention the backstage band that for the most part did solid accompaniment without drawing attention to themselves: Laura Welch, Bobby Amirkhan, Ross Welch, Hilson Parker, Nanette Voss, Dianne Zuleger, Stephanie Douglass and Fred Belanger...

Guys and Dolls is a classic American musical, derived from Damon Runyon’s stories about gamblers, hustlers and show biz characters of 1930s New York, with outstanding songs by Frank Loesser. Its Broadway premiere lasted from 1950 to 1953, and it’s been revived there five times since-- the most recent Broadway run ended this June. The 1955 film is also a classic.

In fact, it’s so classically theatrical that it is also a perennial production of high schools and junior highs. But for theatres especially, that should be as much a warning as a promise. In other words, thinking it’s a sure thing is the type of thought that a sucker may live to regret that he ever had.

Guys and Dolls follows two interrelating stories: Nathan Detroit, trying to find a location for his permanent floating crap game while fending off the matrimonial expectations of his showgirl fiancé, Miss Adelaide, while high roller Sky Masterson works on winning his bet that he can entice the strait-laced young lady from the Mission, Sarah Brown, to accompany him to Havana.

So this particular play is now on stage at North Coast Repertory in Eureka, directed by James Read, with scenic design by Lonnie Blankenchip, choreography by Heather Sorter, costumes by Marcia Hutson and musical direction by David Powell and Dianne Zuleger.

This production has many virtues: Melissa Smith’s transcendent voice as Mission lady Sarah Brown, and her winsome, wonderfully performed Havana night club high. The strong, goosebump-raising ensemble singing, particularly of Evan Needham (as Benny Southwest), Ethan Vaughan (Rusty Charlie) and David Powell (Nicely Nicely Johnson), as well as everything Powell did, especially leading the gangster revival song, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.”

Last and most consistently the best is the acting and singing of Andrea Zvalesko as Miss Adelaide. On opening night, she was funny, musical and created an appealingly real character. Daniel Kennedy had his virtues as Nathan Detroit, and Trevor Mather, evidently a late addition as Sky Masterson, played the role with a presence and a heart that conquers all, even the sometimes-elusive musical key. But it’s Zvalesko’s performance that kept the evening on track.

Aspects of the opening night performance seemed under-rehearsed, so by now the show could already be better. But some problems suggest that tapping the full magic of Guys and Dolls can be tricky. For all its high points, this production isn’t helped by some clunky and confusing staging, ragged acting, questionable choreography, unfortunate costumes and uninspiring set. Mostly missing for me was a consistent sense of time and place: what makes the New York of this era different from any Chicago or Paris (both sites of recent plays at NCRT.) The major exception was Andrea Zvalesko, who managed to keep her Betty Boopish accent even while sneezing.

North Coast Rep usually excels at these classic musicals. Though this may not be among its best, there’s potential fun and some special moments in Guys and Dolls.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


"The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it...All the argument and all the wisdom is not in the encyclopaedia, or the treatise on metaphysics, or the Body of Divinity, but in the sonnet or the play."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson. Photo: Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot in London last season.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Light Opera Light on the Piazza

Just for the record, here's my review of the Humboldt Light Opera's recent production of The Light on the Piazza." I didn't want to burden the review with a particularly idiosyncratic point of view, but having grown up in the kind of Italian American atmosphere (my mother's family, relatives and friends) that probably doesn't exist many places anymore, I cast a skeptical and sometimes wary eye on the portrayal of Italians and Italian Americans on stage and TV and the movies. It amazes me that while other ethnic group cliches cause controversy or are just avoided, Italians are still portrayed as organized criminals if they are portrayed at all. I am not amused. That's not the case with this play, of course, but I'm always attentive to how the cultural nuances are handled. In this production, most of the actors were pretty successful with accents and general body language, though only a few could "talk with their hands" convincingly in the Italian manner. And the Italian priest who presides at the marriage looked the part to a scary degree, especially for a guy named Ellsworth Pence.

The first line of the review refers to an earlier part of the column, when I discuss how Robert Louis Stevenson's novel about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was changed for the stage almost immediately after the novel was published, and how those changes were amplified in the bombastic 1990s musical version. So we now join the review which is already in progress.

Though the story is of more recent vintage, “The Light on the Piazza” is another novel that received differing interpretations, first on screen and then as the musical currently presented at HSU’s Van Duzer Theatre by the Humboldt Light Opera Company, in association with College of the Redwoods.

An American mother and her beautiful daughter are traveling in Italy when the daughter sparks a romance with a young Florentine named Fabrizio. But the daughter’s charming innocence may be the product of a childhood brain injury. Originally set in the 1950s, the 2005 musical takes a different view on the ambiguity of medical labels and the cultural shame associated with those officially pronounced as not normal.

But that’s subtext to what is otherwise a musical spectacle. Though the script by Craig Lucas and the music and lyrics by Adam Guettel delve into other complications, basically it’s a stage love story, set within a gentle contrast of cultures.

The HLO production appears to be the hot ticket of the summer. Scenic designer Gerald Beck provides a dazzling set of moving platforms and screens, and director Jean Bazemore keeps the stage filled with color and movement, assisted by costumes designed by Kevin Sharkey and Virginia Ryder, and lighting by Jayson Mohatt.

The music is somewhat unusual for a Broadway show, tending towards more modern complexity and the operetta style which plays to HLO’s strength, with music direction by Carol Ryder and John Chernoff. The live orchestra conducted by Justin Sousa provides both supple accents to the singing and memorable instrumental moments.

Carol Ryder as the mother and Bill Ryder as Fabrizio’s father are familiarly brilliant. Fiona Ryder brings charm and fine vocals to the role of the daughter, Clara. From the moment he appeared, anxious and smitten, the emotional center for me was James Gadd as Fabrizio. At first he sings mostly in Italian, in a style that reminded me of old popular recordings made by Italian opera singers. Then in the second act, when his character is more comfortable with English, his performance of the climactic love song is simple, direct and yet extraordinary: the highlight of the love story.

But this show also dramatizes the pitfalls and tragedies of relationships, especially in songs sung by Carol and Bill Ryder, but also in the songs and actions of other characters, as they view their own relationships through the romance they see unfolding in front of them. Ably presenting these characters are Kevin Richards, Molly Severdia and Paula Proctor, with briefer roles made quickly credible by Phil Zastrow and Ellsworth Pence.