Friday, July 27, 2012

Is Texas Funny? The Red Velvet Cake War

The Red Velvet Cake War is the summer comic confection now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka. The Verdeen girls--Gaynelle (played by Jacqui Cain), Peaches (Denise Ryles) and Jimmie Wyvette (Gloria Montgomery)—live in the small Texas town of Sweetgum. They chafe under the domination of the family matriarch, Aunt La Merle (Toodie SueAnn Boll) whose basic attitude is “you can agree with me, or be wrong.” Family trouble, man trouble and cake trouble ensue.

 If that sounds funny to you, it is. If it doesn’t, well, it’s still pretty funny. To be sure, these are more akin to joke-transmitting caricatures than characters. They are so deeply cliched that we know Elsa Dowdall (played with panache by Janet Waddell) is a psychologist because she speaks in a German/European accent, which in the real world hasn’t been new or particularly likely for decades. And of course she’s repressed.

 But the actors bring individual touches to these stereotypes and animate them. Gloria Montgomery is particularly deft at physically embodying the tomboy cowgirl, Jimmie Wyvette. She might be the one character you want to know more about.

Arnold Waddell as the elder Verdeen delivers several of the funniest lines with a curmudgeon’s delight, and Matt Cole as the would-be hero is outstanding in a role you can pretty much see the young Tim Robbins playing. Not that the televised familiarity of these characters matters much. Because what they do—and particularly what the say—is funny.

The Red Velvet Cake War was written by the team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope (past winner of the Texas New Playwright Award) and Jamie Wooten. Not surprisingly, they’ve all written comedy for television, including for the classic Golden Girls and shows on every cable channel from USA to Fox. As a team they specialize in stage comedies about the South, especially Texas, tailored for community theatres. According to their website, this play has been widely produced, from Plant City, Florida and Brick, New Jersey to Baraboo, Wisconsin and Blind Bay, British Columbia. It’s even spawned a sequel, Rex’s Exes.

 The dramaturgy of this play is paint-by-numbers but the playwrights know their (all white) milieu, and are admirably adept at creating humorous language without being exploitive or insulting. While the wit is even subtle at times (including some of the copious vulgarity), the physical humor is time-tested farce and slapstick.

 The plot however is an increasingly incredible and wearying mashup of reality show colliding with sitcom. The verbal humor is especially sharp and frequent in the first act, before the mayhem punctuated by exposition takes over in the second act. Catastrophes mount unbelievably and with very little at stake, and it starts to feel like you’re clicking through cable TV hell--with the comfy sitcom resolution, of course.

 So in the end there’s little to say about this show except that it’s wildly funny at times and it’s basically good-hearted fun while it’s happening.  Afterwards you might feel a little sick about indulging, like eating way too much cake.

 Director Gene Cole has apparently taken care to make sure the cast members exploit the particular music of this Texas accent while still making themselves understood. Again, this is particularly impressive in the first act, before the decibel level gets wearing. He also keeps the physical comedy pot boiling.

 The universally funny cast includes Shannan Dailey, Laurence Thorpe and David Simms. Calder Johnson designed the set and lighting, Jenneveve Hood the costumes, Michael Thomas the sound. The between-scenes music—bright Texas tunes that sound like they’re synthesized for a video game-- is especially twisted. The Red Velvet Cake War continues at North Coast Rep Fridays and Saturdays evenings through August 18, with Sunday matinees on August 5 and 12.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Two 1930s Musical Portraits: Cabaret and Woody Guthrie's American Song

Fledging American small town writer Cliff Bradshaw (played by Charlie Heinberg) comes to Berlin in 1929, and falls into a relationship with British singer Sally Bowles (Elena Tessler).  He sees her in the infamous cabaret, the Kit Kat Club, where the androgynous Emcee (Kelsey MacIlvaine) presides over a carnival of decadence.

 Meanwhile, Bradshaw’s landlady (played by Rae Robison) is courted by an equally late middle-aged fruit grocer (JM Wilkerson.) Their relationships with each other and several other characters are the principal focus of the first act of the musical Cabaret, as produced at Ferndale Repertory Theatre.

 But the realities of a country moving towards Nazi rule intrude in the much shorter Act II. Elena Tessler’s vitality, her strong and supple voice, are again evident, though the role of Sally Bowles is less prominent on stage than in the Liza Minnelli movie. MacIlvaine is energetic and magnetic, Heinberg is winsome, Robison and Wilkerson are charming and convincing. Among the capable supporting cast, Caitlin McMurtry is again incandescent. The band is especially important and especially good.

 Additional cast members are Jeremy Webb, Jessie Shieman, Linnea Hill, Julia Giardino, Zoey Berman, Dante Gelormino, Qaiel Peltier, Jeffrey Ray Kieser and Jaison Chand. The orchestra is Dianne Zuleger, Justin Ross, Tamaras Abrams, Stephanie Douglass, Michael Lewis, Gina Piazza, Amber Grimes, Monica Dekat and John Petricca.

 Director Ginger Gene, musical director Dianne Zuleger and choreographer Linda Maxwell have constructed a fluid production, while lighting by Liz Uhazy and costumes by Erica Fromdahl match the moods.

The songs are by the team of Fred Ebb and John Kander, who later wrote the songs for Chicago. The sexuality it portrayed was still scandalous when Cabaret became a Broadway sensation in 1966, and there were many who remembered the actual 1930s (in fact, the original cast included Lotte Lenya, famous for singing in Brecht and Kurt Weil productions in Berlin at the time this musical is set.)

 The original production (and the 1972 film) emphasized the grotesque elements of this Berlin with theatrical techniques new to Broadway. But today in Humboldt County, nothing much of the show’s sexuality is unfamiliar, let alone shocking. The textures of those times and that place—even as then known through media filters—are mostly remote, replaced by a few symbols and images. So this show could now be considered a cautionary tale about the peril of ignoring political dangers. Or it could be seen as sentimentalizing a complexly horrible time, while approximating a style that has lost its edge. Or you can see it as both, which is pretty much my view.

 Cabaret resumes its run at Ferndale Rep Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. July 27-28, and again on August 10-11 and 24-25, with Sunday matinees on July 29, August 12 and 26.

 In roughly the same period as Cabaret takes place, the Great Depression was taking hold in the U.S. just as an ecological disaster called the Dust Bowl was driving away thousands of already poor farmers from Oklahoma and other states, principally to California. An itinerant self-taught musician named Woody Guthrie joined their journey and wrote songs about the experience. Five of those songs, collected on Guthrie’s first commercial album, are among the 19 featured in Woody Guthrie’s American Song, the show that alternates with Cabaret on weekends this summer at Ferndale Rep.

 Woody Guthrie collected folk melodies and chronicled the 1930s and 40s, from California (as his song says) to the New York island. Some of his songs (like “This Land is Your Land”) are so ubiquitous that many listeners today probably don’t know he is their author.

Those old enough to remember the folk revival of the 60s (and the smaller 90s revival) are likely to recall songs like “Bound for Glory,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “Hard Travelin’” as done by Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger or by Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, or more recently by Bruce Springsteen.

 Guthrie’s songs do reflect America but not in a generic way, and their relevance recurs in our time. Just as Cabaret may remind us that beyond the repugnant noise of politics truly dangerous forces may be on the march, Guthrie’s lyrics reveal the human costs incurred by the rich exploiting the rest, masked by the smiley face of fake patriotism.  That songs like “Union Maid” and “Deportee” (both in this show) are again topical in 2012 should be the real shock.

 Members of the ensemble performing these songs at Ferndale Rep are Devin Galdieri, Jo Kuzelka, Steve Nobles, Dianne Zuleger, Jeremy Webb, KJ Jusefczyk and Roger Vernon. Pete Zuleger, Val Leone and Larry Hudspeth are the accompanying band. Woody Guthrie’s American Song is directed by Dianne Zuleger, with lighting design and technical direction by Liz Uhazy. It plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. on July 20-21, August 3-4 and 17-18, with Sunday matinees on July 22, August 5 and 19.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

Parents who enjoy an outdoor show with the family at the Mad River Festival but had doubts about explaining Mary Jane: The Musical to their children can confidently bring the kids to Dell Arte’s The Fish in My Head this coming weekend, July 12-14 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday July 15 at 4 p.m. in the amphitheatre out back. It’s a self-created, circus-style fantasy about “the untold stories that swim around in our dreams,” complete with music, acrobatics, physical comedy, masks and stilt-walking. There are special family-friendly admission prices, too.

The Berserker Residents, an ensemble from Philadelphia, will perform their “burlesque cabaret meets three-ring circus” production of The Jersey Devil at the Arcata Playhouse on Friday and Saturday, July 13th and 14th, at 8 p.m. There’s an opening act at 7:30, too: San Francisco clown Summer Shapiro.

Speaking of cabaret, Ferndale Repertory Theatre opens the famed musical Cabaret on Friday (July 13) at 8 p.m. Though this show set in 1930s Berlin has been revived and revised several times since its 1966 Broadway debut, many probably still know it from the 1972 film version with Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. However, the stage play is different from the film to an even greater degree than usual.
This production is directed by Ginger Gene and stars Elena Tessler and Kelsey MacIlvaine.  It will run weekends in rotating repertory with Woody Guthrie's American Song.

Meanwhile, the contemporary comedy Show People continues at Redwood Curtain.  My review is in this week's NC Journal.

On Saturday (July 14), North Coast Repertory Theatre holds a fundraiser at the Wharfinger Building in Eureka. It’s the 2012 Pirate Ball, with music by the Delta Nationals and performance by the Ya Habibi Dance Company, among other swashbuckling features. Doors open at 7 p.m.

On Sunday, Jacqueline Dandenau hosts a social get-together for any women with stories about women in local history, in anticipation of a fall production called Women of the Pacific Northwest, which will open at the Arcata Playhouse and tour regionally.  The idea is to swap stories, particularly from "elder womenfolk as well as daughters and granddaughters with family stories from the 1940s and before."  Over snacks, of course.  It's happening at the Arcata Veteran's Hall from 1-4 p.m. (If you've got stories but can't make it this time, a separate time can be arranged.)   Contact Jackie at or at the Playhouse at 822-1575 for more information.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Show People: Game-Playing Comedy

 In Show People, the contemporary comedy now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, the middle aged acting couple of Marnie and Jerry (played by Bonnie Halverson and Ron Halverson) begin their latest performance. But it’s not on stage, where they haven’t worked in a decade: it’s at a posh vacation home with an ocean view.

 All they know about Tom, their employer (Nathan Emmons), is that he’s a software entrepreneur currently negotiating a huge buyout by Microsoft. They’re supposed to play his parents, for the benefit of his soon-to-be fiancĂ©, Natalie (Nanette Voss-Herlihy.)

 Any ethical questions are bypassed for the work of improvising convincing characters, as well as to the sorely needed payday. From here the plot moves quickly but in directions that it would be unfair to divulge, in deference to potential audiences. A first act revelation only complicates the possibilities, leading to a buzz of intermission wonderment. Though the second act wanders a bit, it does resolve neatly.

 Apart from clever plot twists and turns, the thinness of the play is counteracted by the characterizations and performances, with room to grow. Bonnie and Ron Halverson play the realities rather than the stereotypes of professional actors. Nanette Voss-Herlihy plays Natalie’s earnestness and vulnerability.

 But none of it would work without yet another superior performance by Nathan Emmons, who again proves he can be subtle as well as powerful. In the course of the play, we learn of Jerry and Marnie’s dappled careers as a Broadway couple who never quite achieved stardom, including an opening night Jerry believes could have taken them to the next level, but it was ruined by a backstage mishap. That night will return to haunt him one more time.

 We learn of the strong crosscurrents of their marriage, as well as Natalie’s youthful ambitions and doubts, and as the play strays into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory, shards of Tom’s family background are sent flying. But the play pulls back from any real engagement, leaving us to ponder the subtext of powerful yearnings for the conventionally perfect family and perfect life.

 Though not at the level of the theatrical in-jokes of Shakespeare in Love (for instance), there is some sardonic commentary on theatrical history and contemporary practice. There is also a version of a famous Hamlet soliloquy that is a slightly exaggerated version of an all too familiar approach.

 The credibility of the plot depends on the seductive mystique of the garage-to-riches techie billionaires, and their potential position as the wealthy eccentrics of the age, especially as combined with the quiet desperation of financially as well as emotionally vulnerable actors, dependent on capricious outside forces for their sustenance and their opportunities to perform.

 The result is a mostly clever though convention-riddled diversion, conveniently packaged in a nice two hours. It would be nothing more than this except for the humanity that these actors bring to roles that reviews suggest have been interpreted much differently elsewhere.

 Playwright Paul Weitz first attracted attention as a screenwriter and director, beginning with American Pie in 1999. He followed up his successful romantic comedy film In Good Company (2004) with three stage plays, including this one in 2006. He continues to work in film, directing Little Fockers in 2010.

 Show People is very capably directed by Clint Rebik, with an attractive and functional set by Liz Uhazy, lighting by Greta Stockwell, sound by Jon Turney and costumes by Sarah McKinney. It continues at Redwood Curtain Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. through July 28, with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee on July 22.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Mary Jane: The Next Generation (A Review)

A Sharper Focus for Dell’Arte’s Musical Extravaganja

Last summer’s Mary Jane: The Musical was a box office success that many more people wanted to see than could, so bringing it back this summer made sense—especially with recessionary blues still playing in the background. It was also an opportunity to shape a sharper evening, as well as add some new songs and more dancing. So Mary Jane, Queen of the Emerald Ball returns with most of the original cast in a show about the business and culture of cannabis in Humboldt. Mary Jane: The Musical 2012 is now onstage in the outdoor Rooney Amphitheatre at Dell’Arte in Blue Lake.

They’re back: the Humboldt Honeys, the Bollywood finale with Pratik Motwani, Tim Randles’ “Why Is Whiskey Legal and Pot Is Not” and an even sweeter, breathtaking duet by Joan Schirle and David Powell on Lila Nelson’s “Grow Inside.” There are elaborate, acrobatic new dance routines choreographed by Laura Munoz. Joan Schirle (as Mary Jane) is again a better world’s bona fide Broadway star.

But for all the energy and exuberance, the content tips towards a darker assessment. Dell’Arte’s call to the public to contribute ideas for this year’s edition resulted most specifically in a new song, “The Trimmers’ Flamenco” by Tim Randles, about the women employed to trim the outer leaves from the cannabis buds. Other comments, especially relating to Mary Jane’s song about her son, led to major new themes: the effects on children as well as legacies and responsibilities for the future.

There’s not much nostalgia this time. It was pretty much over in the pre-show song set, with Powell’s powerful singing of the John Lennon wordless vocal center of “A Day in the Life,” and its innocent ecstasy and wistful wonder as well as the pain of awe and longing, those foregone possibilities.

Mary Jane replaces reminiscence with reevaluation. While last summer she called the local situation “complicated,” she describes the year since as “one big eco disaster all around. I mean, like the price has hit the floor, the feds are pouring in, the clinics are getting squeezed...” Soon it’s all reminding her of the Gold Rush: “Folks discover something valuable that is just laying around on the ground, everybody rushes in, takes what they can, leaves a wreck behind...”  Last year she introduced old friends who bantered about their common past. This year those friends are moving on and away.

What they leave behind is the devil or the deep blue sea—the black market greed of “The Industry” or the legalized corporate greed of “This Bud’s For You” and the corporations’ intent to “corner the market/legalization’s opened up.” (both songs by Scott Menzies.) “Rasta Tea Party” by Zuzka Sabata opts for the current situation:“We need to keep the black market free/ No need to live in debt slavery.” Either way, it’s the rule of “Green Like Money” ( also by Zuzka Sabata): “I’m false like smoke/I’m empty hope.” But complete withdrawal is also disastrous, leaving nothing but a “Ghost Town”—a song by Joani Rose: “A ghost town, when the pot money stops/A ghost town, when the pot bubble pops.”

When Mary Jane’s estranged son appears and she meets her infant granddaughter, the focus moves to the effects on the next generation, as in Sabata’s new song “Officer and Child” about being taught to lie and hide. “Innocent no more”—a phrase in this song repeated in Randles’ “Nightmare”—might be this year’s subtitle.

    But the voice of experience is not hopeless, and as in many ancient and modern myths, it is the elder who guides to the future. Mary Jane rallies in an eloquent final speech: “I am tired of living in the shadows...I am tired of profit over people...My mantra is—never leave your consciousness at the door.”

The presence of Mary Jane’s son, also a grower, gives a stronger and more personal connection to “The Industry” that was simply implied last year, as the struggle of the second cannabis generation. The introduction of a son and grandchild also cries out for human interaction and emotion (especially in a musical) but I felt a lack of that in the opening night performance, as well the usual spontaneity.

  Otherwise this is a more cohesive, confident, resonant and haunting update, as well as upping the entertainment quotient. Michael Fields skillfully guided the script and staging, Daniel Spencer is scenic designer, Lydia Foreman the costume designer, Michael Foster designed lighting. Musical director Tim Randles joined by players Marla Joy, Mike LaBolle and guitarist Dan Perez comprised the ever-excellent band. Returning members of the dashing cast not yet named are Ryan Musil, Zuzka Sabata, Joyce Hough, Janessa Johnsrude and Meridith Anne Baldwin, joined by Jacob Trillo. Fred Neighbor didn’t return, and he and his character are missed.

    This is the final weekend for Mary Jane: The Musical at the Mad River Festival.