Wednesday, November 27, 2013

This North Coast Holiday Season

 Apart from the deeper meanings, it comes down to: Christmas R toys, right? And not just for children (or do I have to give back my Enterprise com badge and Doctor Who sonic screwdriver?) And what’s better than toys that come alive?

 Among the many shows that play with this idea was Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta Babes in Toyland. It’s been reworked many times for stage, film and TV, and even though the original script in the Library of Congress reads like one of their own shows, Dell’Arte has reworked it again for their 2013 holiday production.

 “We’re guided by the essentials of the Victor Herbert story,” said director Michael Fields. In the Dell’Arte version, the villainous Barnaby has taken over Toyland and is mass-producing terrible toys. The original Toymaster has disappeared. The various characters (including the Toymaster and a few Mother Goose figures) wind up in the Forgotten Forest, where people don’t remember who they are and have to figure it out. “It’s very funny, it has a happy ending,” Fields said, “ and there’s square-dancing.”

 As always the Dell’Arte holiday show is made to travel, from its compact playing time to the set. “We have to create a visual world that supports the show, but with sets and lights that can be loaded in and out of a truck 17 or 18 times,” Fields noted. This year’s set, which transforms from various structures into the Forgotten Forest, is designed by Lynnie Horrigan, with lighting by Michael Foster and costumes by Lydia Foreman. Tim Gray composed the music and designed sound.

 Cast members are Andrew Eldrege, Darci Fulcher, Billy Higgins, Ariel Lauryn, Allie Menzimer, Lucy Shelby, Jerome Yorke and Emily Newton. “Some years we gone a little dark with our holiday shows,” Fields said. “But this year it’s very upbeat, energetic and bright to look at, with vivid costumes and a vibrant world. It’s in the genre of family theatre, which for me is a kind of European concept of theatre that isn’t just for children but is certainly family-friendly.”

 Or as Fields summed up: “It’s fun. It’s free.” And yes, “certain toys come alive.”

 Babes in Toyland opens at Dell’Arte’s Carlo Theatre on Friday and Saturday, November 29 and 30 at 7:30 p.m., then tours up and down the North Coast before returning to the Carlo for the weekend of Dec. 19. All shows until final weekend are free. You can find the full schedule online at, where there’s also ticket information for the various venues.

 More on other versions...The script of the Victor Herbert original Babes in Toyland at the Library of Congress (and online here) satirizes consumer culture to a remarkable degree, including that new phenomenon, the department store. If this is really the 1903 script (which it may not be—it apparently changed several times), it seems  consumerism (along with advertising, etc.) was already going strong at the turn of the 20th century. The earliest indictment of the consumer economy I’ve read is H.G. Wells trenchant novel Tono-Bungay, first published in 1908.

 As an ordinary part of their creative process, the Dell’Arte troupe researched available movie and TV versions, beginning with the 1934 Laurel & Hardy film. This is the only version I recall, renamed March of the Wooden Soldiers, which I saw on TV a couple of times as a child. Although I was impatient with the singing, I was fascinated and excited by the life-size toy soldiers coming alive to defend the good guys.

 “That movie was directly influenced by the film version of The Wizard of Oz,” Michael Fields pointed out. It's not the first time. Apparently a lot was shared by the stage version of The Wizard of Oz and Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, which premiered the same year.  Which show took from the other is an open question.

 There was a 1961 Disney movie, and TV versions in 1986 and 1997, but before all of these there was a one hour version that was part of a series of dramatized fairy tales hosted by Shirley Temple. She had a series of specials in 1958-59 called Shirley Temple’s Storybook that became a weekly series in 1960, The Shirley Temple Show. It’s unclear whether this was broadcast earlier, but officially Babes in Toyland was seen on December 25, 1960, on a Sunday evening opposite Disneyland. It’s notable for being in color (a year before Disneyland.)

 Shirley Temple hosts it, surrounded by three of her own children, and talking slowly in that goody-goody voice that weirdly reflects her childhood persona. But she also acts and sings in the piece, as a heavily made-up ugly, evil witch. And she’s excellent.

 It also stars Jonathan Winters as the evil Barnaby, comedians Jerry Colonna and Joe Besser (of late Three Stooges) and the young Danny Thomas-era Angela Cartwright. Like most versions after the first, the Toymaster is no longer a villain, but it does preserve some of the baddies with names straight out of Othello, for some reason.  There's one or two jokes about advertising but greed is mostly expressed in other ways. (The DVD suggests where the TV commercial breaks were.)

 Of this version Fields said “It’s really fun and quite a good inspiration for us. You got the tail end of vaudeville with those comedians.”

 Another annual family-friendly holiday show happens at the Arcata Playhouse with a comedy at the center and different guest musicians for each performance. This year it’s Bigfoot Lodge Holiday Jamboree, directed by Jackie Dandeneau. It features Amy Tetzlaff and Ryan Musil as refugees from Wisconsin who come to the North Coast with their strange ways to take over the Bigfoot Lodge, and Bob Wells as the resident Bigfoot expert. Meredith Anne Baldwin and real Wisconsinite David Ferney also perform, with live music by Tim Randles.

 Set and lobby design is by local artists Lush Newton and Malia Penhall, with recycled holiday pieces from Scrap Humboldt. A shadow play by James Hildebrandt is also featured. This year’s guest performances include the Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir, Art Jones, Steven Weven, Trish Riel and pooch, Damiian Lange, Julie and Curtis Thompson, Shoshanna, and Pacific Union School Choir.

 Beginning Dec. 5, Bigfoot Lodge Holiday Jamboree runs for two weekends at the Arcata Playhouse, Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday Dec. 8. Tickets are available at Wildberries Marketplace or call (707) 822-1575. You can find more information including a schedule of guest appearances at

 The Music Man by Meredith Wilson (script and songs) is the Ferndale Repertory Theatre’s holiday show, though probably not because Wilson also wrote “It’s Beginning To Look A lot Like Christmas.” It’s a big, bright musical from Broadway’s Golden Age, with a love story, children, marching bands, a happy ending, and songs you sing on your way home.

 It’s about a con man, and there’s nothing more American than that. Take the tricksters of folk tales around the world, add capitalism and the con man appears. “Con” stands for “confidence,” which is what the con man has to inspire to be successful. In this story as in many others, the con man is the city slicker who fools the country bumpkins (“clowns” were originally countryfied figures of ridicule.) This theme was clearer when there was a sharper distinction between urban and rural.

 Directed by Dianne Zuleger, the cast of 30 is led by Jaison Chand as the con man Professor Harold Hill who comes to River City, and Caitlin McMurtry as his love interest, Marian the Librarian, and includes Gino Bloomberg, Greta Stockwell, Anders Carlson, Laura Rose and Tyler Egerer. Linda Maxwell is choreographer, Elisabeth Harrington and Nanette Voss are vocal directors, Karen Kenfeld Fuller is costume coordinator, Bruce Keller scenic artist, with sound by Ian Schatz and lighting by Telfer Reynolds.

 The Music Man opens at Ferndale Rep on Friday November 29, and plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2 through December 22, with Thursday night performances on Dec. 12 (benefit for cast and crew) and Dec. 19. For tickets call 707-786-5483 or on line at

The original production of The Music Man took forever to develop but once on Broadway in 1957 it ran forever. It became a national legacy with the 1962 technicolor movie. It was Robert Preston’s defining role, on stage and on screen.

 On Broadway it was one of the last of the classic Golden Age musicals. The writing was on the wall with the show that was its greatest rival for the Tony that year: West Side Story. The notoriously conservative award went to The Music Man, but that’s not the judgment of history.  It might even be said that one of the last and best of the classic musicals came up against one of the first and best modern musicals.

 While “(Ya Got) Trouble” (“right here in River City”) and “Seventy-six Trombones” are probably the songs most associated with the show, the tuneful score also includes “Till There Was You,” most famously recorded by the Beatles in the early 60s. They didn’t know it came from The Music Man, but Paul McCartney (who sang it solo) found out—and eventually bought the rights to all of Meredith Wilson’s songs. So it seems that some royalties will go from Ferndale right on over to Sir Paul. Merry Christmas to him, and to all, and good night.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


"To one side of society lies the academy, the university, with all the attendant dangers of aridity and isolation.  To the other lies what is now called the media, with all its potential for stupidity.  In the middle you find the theatre, the place where, traditionally, through a distinctive mixture of practicality and highmindedness, people (again, like Shakespeare) have been able to develop their own education.  The theatre is what the British have always been good at.  It's worth fighting for, precisely because it's auto-didactic.  It puts things under the microscope and people can learn for themselves.  Art teaches in a way instruction never can."

David Hare
Acting Up

Monday, November 18, 2013

Is Theatre A Luxury?

News from the LA Times:

 "Bloomberg, the New York-based financial news giant, is shutting down its Muse brand of cultural journalism and has laid off its theater critic. The shake-up was part of a company-wide reorganization that came down on Monday and resulted in layoffs around the newsroom. Bloomberg plans to continue to cover the arts, but with an emphasis on luxury. In an email sent to employees on Monday, Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matt Winkler said that the company has decided "to scale back arts coverage and no longer use the Muse brand." He said Bloomberg will align its leisure reporting with its luxury channel on its website, and with Pursuits, its magazine for wealthy readers."

Decreasing arts coverage and dumping the theatre critic has been going on for a decade or more in major magazines (some of which no longer exist) and newspapers. Perhaps not cheerful news (unless your show has been recently panned.)  But also not much new in it either.

But here's what caught my eye:  "Bloomberg plans to continue to cover the arts, but with an emphasis on luxury...  He said Bloomberg will align its leisure reporting with its luxury channel on its website, and with Pursuits, its magazine for wealthy readers."

This is first of all a clear acknowledgement that New York City has become an enclave for the rich, the only ones apart from tourists who can afford theatre tickets.  But Bloomberg's reach is far beyond New York City or even Washington,.D.C., another city that is pushing out its middle class. (In New York as in San Francisco, tech money has filled the space vacated by financial sector downsizing after the unpleasantness of 2008, while in Washington it's big money politics.)

Apart then from the national trend of the disappearing middle class, there's the reality living up to the cliche of the arts as only for the wealthy.  It is not generally true, especially when your definition moves away from arts events that are more glitz than substance much of the time anyway.

But it's a stubborn cliche, even here on the North Coast.  A North Coast Journal music column used the dubious mechanism of noting different kinds of music events by the footwear that characterizes their supposed audiences. For an event sponsored by the HSU Music Department, the footwear described were expensive loafers.

I'm not sure the writer ever attended an HSU Music event, where the audience is usually students, faculty, other musicians and a scattering of others, none of them wearing expensive loafers. This may be the audience that used to go to the Arkley Center (though not often enough apparently), I wouldn't know, I've never been there.  But anyone who has been to any theatre event on the North Coast must know that you are far more likely to see some pricey footwear in Wildberries than anywhere plays are produced.

Money and the arts don't go together like a horse and carriage.  They are more naturally enemies than allies, as a lot of bad art suggests.  While having a rich family helps young people survive long enough to establish a career in the arts, the arts themselves attract audiences and passionate devotees from all income classes.  They fascinate and inspire a self-selected audience and set of practitioners.

But it's also a product of our cultural insistence that theatre is nothing but entertainment, and entertainment is a luxury.  Theatre can be and should be a lot more central and important in people's lives and to the community.        

Saturday, November 16, 2013

You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown

After Nancy and Sluggo and before there was Doonesbury, the bright spot on the comics page was Peanuts. Named after the “peanut gallery” on Howdy Doody in the 1950s, the increasingly popular daily and Sunday strips broke out of newsprint to become best-selling books (Happiness Is A Warm Puppy), animated films and a couple of stage musicals, which along with much merchanise made creator Charles Schulz a billionaire.

 You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, was the first of the stage musicals. A modest Off-Broadway production had a good run in 1967 but neither the 1971 or 1999 version was a Broadway hit (though actors won awards.) It prospered instead in national tours and many amateur productions over the years. Lately it’s also been revived by financially pressed professional theatres (including Canada’s Stratford Festival) in their efforts to produce more remunerative musicals.

 The script, music and lyrics were all written by Clark Gesner (with additional music in the 1999 version by Andrew Lippa) but it quotes liberally from the original Schulz comic strips. The show attempts to transfer the strips to the stage, resulting in a few sustained scenes and a lot of short bits, like a vaudeville show or Laugh-In about kids.

 Danielle Cichon’s bright choreography adds to this vaudeville quality. As musical director, Molly Severdia gave the cast some fetching harmonies. Calder Johnson’s set and lighting and Jenneveve Hood’s costumes favor bright primary colors, with Schulz’s very characteristic white clouds painted on the backdrop. The stage is often as empty as a backyard, with Snoopy’s red doghouse ever-present.

 Though some productions try to make this world more contemporary with video games and so on, director David Moore wisely chooses to stick with the vague 20th century timeframe of the comics. Evan Needham is Charlie Brown, Jessi Shieman is his younger sister Sally. Amy Chalfant plays Lucy, and Tyler Elwell is her little brother Linus. Jordan Dobbs is the Beethoven-obsessed Schroeder, and Megan Johnson is Snoopy.

 The actors all embody their characters nicely—there’s no problem believing in them as their cartoon counterparts. On opening night their songs and dances were enthusiastic, and their dialogue in the major scenes was engaging. There seemed less energy and focus in the comic bits. With better timing and vocal emphasis, some of the bits could be funnier.

 Staging some of the comic strip’s greatest hits may be a pleasant reminder of its original effects, and seeing how these iconic characters are realized on stage is part of the fun. But the presence of live actors seems to cry out for more of a story—that is, more of a play. The framework of a day in their lives seems wobbly and unsatisfying.

 Actually replicating the effects of the comic strips is a different question. There seems some cognitive dissonance in seeing live adult people pretending to be children, who enact the classic Schulz maneuver of children who talk like adults.

 Though there are moments of feeling that reach back to childhood, some of the angst expressed on stage seems more appropriate for adolescents rather than young children, at least before the age of the hyper-scheduled, media-saturated grade schooler. Somehow this isn’t a problem in the self-contained yet richer world of the comics.

 For ardent fans of the Peanuts characters and other audience members, none of this may matter. In his program notes, director Moore makes the case that Schulz’s stories “showed us ourselves, with all our flaws, and made it funny. He helped us see the poetic beauty in our sadness and misery. The Good Grief.”

 The show should provide the holiday season entertainment this scheduling proclaims it to be. Thanks in part to television reruns at this time of year, the Peanuts gang is already associated with the Christmas season.

 The backstage orchestra consists of Laura Welch, Matt Craghead, Chelsea Rothchild, Ken Burton and Molly Severdia. This family-friendly show is a brisk two hours in length. You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown plays weekends at NCRT through December 14.

 Coming Up: When Black Friday comes (Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving), Ferndale Repertory Theatre will open the Meredith Wilson musical The Music Man. It’s directed by Dianne Zuleger, with music direction by Elisabeth Harrington, Nan Voss and Bill Edmondson, and choreography by Linda Maxwell.

 Also on Nov. 29, Dell’Arte opens its annual holiday show, which this year is a re-invented version of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland. It’s directed by Michael Fields with music by Tim Gray, including his hits from past Dell’Arte shows such as Blue Lake: The Opera and The Comedy of Errors. It starts in Dell’Arte’s Carlo Theatre for the first weekend and then travels up and down the North Coast with free shows until it returns for a final weekend in Blue Lake.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

Humboldt County and HSU are named after him, but almost nobody knows who he was. Yet the 100th anniversary of his birth was celebrated with public ceremonies from New York to San Francisco. Alexander von Humboldt—explorer, best-selling author, visionary of ecology and human rights—was one of the most famous and influential figures of the 19th century.

 Now during the 100th anniversary year of its birth, HSU is presenting Humboldt Unbound  for two weekends, starting Thursday November 7.

 After a calendar year of collaboration involving faculty and students in several disciplines, Dell’Arte’s Michael Fields worked with a student ensemble to create what he says is not a standard biography but a quick and highly theatrical blend of live action, music and dance that explores the spirit of Humboldt’s life.

 Fields is assisted by key Dell’Arte colleagues: scenic designer Giulio Cesare Perrone, lighting by Michael Foster, and songs and other music by Tim Gray. HSU’s Catherine Brown designed costumes. HSU student Mark Teeter plays Humboldt as the young explorer, and Geography professor Stephen Cunha plays him in his later years. Luke Tooker portrays Siefert, his last companion. The ensemble cast includes Giovanni Alva, Ina Loaiza, Samantha Herbert, Kate Haley, Charlie Heinberg, Johani Guerrero, Gaelen Poultan, Chris Joe and Rilo Wage. They play multiple roles, not all of them human.

 Humboldt Unbound is performed in the Van Duzer Theatre Thursdays through Saturdays, November 7-9 and 14-16 at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday Nov. 17. Tickets:  826-3928.  Lots more information on the play and on von Humboldt:  HSU Stage and Screen.

Continuing: Far East at Redwood Curtain, reviewed below.

Far East: People in Changing Times

The immense and brutal warfare between the United States and Japan raged from the surprise attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. American forces occupied Japan after its surrender.

The Occupation brought close to a million Americans to Japan at its height, and even after it was officially over in 1951, a sizeable U.S. military presence remained. By 1954 new U.S. military officers were too young to have served in World War II, and perhaps even the Korean conflict, which ended the year before. Wallace W. “Sparky” Watts is one of them, in A.R. Gurney’s 1998 play Far East, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka.

 His arrival for duty in Japan begins the story but not the play. Playwright Gurney (who served in Japan at about this time) provides the framing device of a Japanese drama. It’s a combination of Kabuki (stylized dance and music to depict historical events involving codes of morality) and Bunraku (puppet theatre, with a single Reader off to the side saying the lines.)

 At Redwood Curtain, director Craig Benson modifies some elements and expands on others. In particular, he and scenic designer Daniel C. Nyiri create a stunning entrance for the Americans with the best physically realized metaphor I’ve seen on a local stage.

 I won’t spoil the surprise of it. But even with no prior knowledge of Japanese drama, it’s pretty clear what happens: the drama is now about Americans, with the Japanese in decidedly supporting roles.

 The basic story of a young officer who falls in love with a Japanese woman in an era of comprehensive racial prejudice, and a parallel story of another young officer dealing with another kind of prejudice, suggest it will be much like some familiar and turgid predecessors. It’s tempting then to assume that the Japanese elements are there as arty distraction.

 But neither is true.  The well known stories of Americans in Japan were told closer to the period--Gurney has the advantage of time gone by to reconsider the common situation with a contemporary perspective.   As for the Japanese elements, the entire play can be seen as the Japanese drama as taken over (for awhile) by Americans and their problems.  That adds an intriguing layer to the evening, but it still works most obviously as a framework for the central story: the young officers avid for their unfolding lives in a world remade and still changing, the Captain dealing with the weight of the past, and the Captain's wife, dealing with the effects of both on her attitudes, behaviors and ultimately her own life.

  Director Benson’s deft moments of humor and the subtle physical commentary of the Japanese characters aside, this is most overtly an absorbing character drama with elements of comedy, and strong cultural and historical undertones. It reveals the living weight of the past and the first signs of the future, but through the lives of these characters in their changing present.

 What makes the play most admirable —and in a way very American—is that without histrionics the characters exhibit and act on self-examination and self-knowledge as well as particular drives and traits. None of the Americans are the same at the end of the play as they were at the beginning, and their decisions about themselves are involved in the changes. Nor are their fates yet decided.

 Potential theatregoers shouldn’t fear heavy weather onstage. There is a kind of buoyancy to this production. It’s a skillful and substantial play with various shades of comic wit by a veteran American playwright that is likely to keep an audience musing about it long after its end.

Thanks to the Japanese drama framework, the small touches added by the production or in the script (the American siren song of "You Belong To Me" linked to the acknowledged appropriateness of Julie Anderson having worked for the Voice of America, for example), all suggest that this play rewards repeated viewings.

 Apart from Benson’s directorial touches, Nyiri’s set and Karen Kenfield’s cinematically vivid costumes, what makes it riveting and real is the cast. Josh Kelly as Watts, Valerie Buxbaum as Julie Anderson, Cody Miranda as Ensign Bob Munger and Lincoln Mitchell as Captain James Anderson are both emblematic and completely convincing as their individual characters.  They look their parts, which works so well because they act so well.

 Theirs are the naturalistic roles. Denise Truong, Craig Kuramada and Jeremy Webb must negotiate roles as both traditional Japanese actors and everybody else, which they do with grace and nuance. This is a play and a production that is a highlight of Redwood Curtain’s season, and of the North Coast season so far.

 Michael Burkhart designed the lighting and Ian Schatz the sound. Far East plays weekends (Thurs.-Sat. evenings at 8, with a Sunday matinee at 2p.m. on Nov. 17) through November 23.

A.R. Gurney is in some ways the American equivalent of the British playwrights like Alan Ayckborne or Michael Frayn among others, who regularly turn out plays--often comedies-- of theatrical inventiveness and social moment. Born in 1930, his plays seemed to be everywhere especially in the 1980s.  Gurney's best known plays are  Love Letters, The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour but there are so many more, like Sylvia, in which the title character is a dog (played originally by Sarah Jessica Parker.)  He's literate, witty and theatrical.  Though his characters tend to be upper middle class whites, there's enough cultural universality for recognition and laughter beyond that demographic.  I'm frankly surprised his work isn't done more on the North Coast.  Here's an interesting interview with him, by another playwright, Romulus Linney.

Friday, November 1, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

Redwood Curtain in Eureka opens Far East by A.R. Gurney this weekend, with previews Thursday and Friday and official opening on Saturday Nov. 2.  It concerns Americans in postwar Japan in the 1950s, with what is described as a part Kabuki theatre approach.  Craig Benson directs a cast that includes Josh Kelly, Lincoln Mitchell, Valerie Buxbaum, Denise Truong, Cody Miranda, Craig Kuramada and Jeremy Webb.  Daniel C. Nyiri designed the set, Michael Burkhart the lighting, Ian Schatz the sound and Karen Kenfield the costumes.