Thursday, May 29, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Members of Dell’Arte International School’s graduating class of 2014 present The Finals: an evening of ten minute plays as their final projects, Thursday through Saturday (May 29-31) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. Audience members are asked to make comments and give grades. (707) 668-5663,

The musical Les Miserables continues at North Coast Rep.  My review is in this week's North Coast Journal. 442-6278,

Friday, May 23, 2014

Baritiones on the Barricades: Les Miz at NCRT

Note: This is my review that has not previously appeared here at Stage Matters.  I've inserted it where it would have gone at the time.

Les Miserables, the musical now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, opened on Broadway with expensive grandeur. In his 1987 review New York Times critic Frank Rich noted the revolving stage and the prodigious lighting and stage effects that included tilting towers and a floor that peeled back “to create the illusion of a sprawling, multilayered Paris on the brink of upheaval.”

This is the show that dazzled audiences for more than 6,000 performances and led to the sumptuous 2012 Hollywood film version. North Coast Rep performs it on a stationary stage with a single abstract set. No props much bigger than tables and chairs get moved around to set the scenes. Yet this production is impressive and effective, as its focus rests almost entirely on performing the music and the story.

 The story is set in the early 19th century, based on the enormous novel by Victor Hugo, who was something of a French Charles Dickens. Hugo dramatized the lives of the poor and the effects of society’s injustice. He also reached a popular audience as Dickens did, with extreme and memorable characters, rich historical context, occasional horror and forthright sentimentality. These themes and qualities, if not all of the plot twists, are in the musical as well.

The NCRT production assembled a stellar cast. In a rare local stage appearance, Danny Stockwell exhibits a notable vocal range as Jean Valjean, the central character. Craig Benson is commanding as his antagonist, Inspector Javert. Greta Stockwell is a sympathetic Fantine, Nanette Voss-Herlihy a sparkling Cosette.
 As Cosette’s lover, Jordan Dobbins deftly manages his transformation from a love-struck student to a wiser and stronger young man.

 Perhaps accentuated by the lack of stage artifice, the central figures don’t dominate dramatically—the secondary characters have equally important moments. As the nefarious Thenardiers, Andrea Zvaleko and Tiggerbouncer Custudio provide darkly comic shenanigans. Luke Sikora has perhaps the most operatic singing part as the revolutionary leader Enjolras, which he performs with stirring effect. Some of the most thrilling vocal moments came from Jo Kuzelka as Eponine.

 They are only a few members of this skilled ensemble, with at least a half dozen actors and singers who’ve had principal roles in other local shows. A couple of relative newcomers exhibited precocious talent and the stage presence that can’t be taught: Sylvie Benson as young Cossette and Aiden Vergen as a confident, capering Gavroche.

 The efficiency of the production alone inspires admiration and the audience’s confidence. In three hours of almost non-stop music, the coordination between the unseen 10-piece orchestra backstage and the action and singers on stage was virtually flawless. The orchestra itself was excellent. Angela Galioto-Marquez on violin and Kira Weiss on cello in particular produced heightened moments as singular as any of the singers.  Under the direction of Elisabeth Harrington, the other players were Jonathan Webster, Levi Walls, Yuriah Lydon, Nicholas Durant, Leon Hamilton, Rebeca Ramos, Phil Sams, Melissa Gussin and Cody Forbes.

 The efficiency is also to the credit of director and stage designer Calder Johnson, and the quality of musical performance to music directors Harrington and Voss-Herlihy. With crisp diction, the singers made themselves understood.

 For the uninitiated, the music (by Claude-Michel Shonberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer) blends classical and modern influences (Bizet, Kurt Weill) with pop. I’ve heard it described as “cheesy in a good way.” Better than most 80s musicals, it has striking moments, and at worst it’s transparent and inoffensive.

 Stage limitations did have consequences. With few specific visual cues, it took awhile to figure out where some scenes were set. Relatively colorless costuming that made a meaningful point in the lavish original production contributed to making characters hard to identify from time to time in this one, especially as some actors played several roles. Without effects it lost some dramatic power, and the singing alone couldn’t always maintain the illusion—at times the battle scene seemed more like boys playing cowboys in the backyard.

 The lack of visual interest might also make the show seem longer. Serious devotees of this musical may notice that a few characters seem to have been cut or combined. But perhaps these necessities return the show to its roots. It began as a concept album and a concert presentation in France, before producer Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Phantom of the Opera) and the Royal Shakespeare Company turned it into a London-to-Broadway extravaganza.

 The NCRT production brings this Les Miserables back to its essence and its origins, to the singers and the music. North Coast audiences may well be pleased, and proud. Rae Robison designed costumes, Telfer Reynolds the lighting, Elizabeth Holverson the make-up, Laura Rhinehart the properties. Keili Simmons Marble is assistant director, and Kira Gallaway the stage manager, with Tyler Elwell backstage.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

The musical Les Miserables opens Thursday (May 22) at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Directed by Calder Johnson, with musical direction by Elisabeth Harrington and Nanette Voss-Herlihy, it features Dan Stockwell, Craig Benson, Jo Kuzelka, Greta Stockwell and Voss-Herlihy. 442-6278,

 Aria da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay is performed by 12 Northcoast Preparatory Academy students directed by Jean Bazemore at the Arcata Playhouse on Monday May 26 at 8 p.m. It is a benefit for developing a theatre exchange program with a school in Japan where these students recently performed this play, on a trip to study Japanese theater in Kyoto and Tokyo. A $10 donation is suggested but not required.

The 2014 Dell'Arte International School Thesis Festival continues for its final week, Thursday through Saturday (May 22-24) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre at Dell’Arte in Blue Lake.  My review is in this week's NC Journal.  Appropriate for ages seven and up. 668-5663,

Friday, May 16, 2014

Thesis Festival: Lucy at Dell'Arte with Rope and Soup Bowl

Towards the end of their final year, Dell’Arte International School MFA candidates are asked, “what are you compelled by?” For 10 weeks they work in groups to create the pieces that answer that question, according to the school’s director Ronlin Foreman. Then they begin the process of developing these pieces in front of audiences in the yearly Thesis Festival, which is on the Carlo Theatre stage for its second and final weekend beginning Thursday May 22 [2014].

 There are three pieces in this year’s festival, but because of this ongoing process they may be markedly different this weekend than they were in the performances I saw on opening night.

 The stage was a billowing expanse of white fabric with what looks like a much-enlarged bowl from a genteel set of dinnerware in the center. In the bowl were three figures: Declan (Andrew Eldridge), Samantha (Allie Menzimer) and Frank (Emily Newton), the characters and cast of That Sinking Sensation: A Tragicomedy.

 Frank wears a dress but sounds like a man (so he needs lipstick to match his five o’clock shadow, Samantha suggests) and he tells jokes like a cigar-chomping vaudeville comedian. He opened with a nightmare about being inundated in tomato soup. Samantha is a Southern Gothic character whose monologues concerned sickness and death. Declan, outfitted as a bellhop or a classic hotel elevator operator, was silently in charge of the sight gags.

 These three characters “in the soup” combine physical comedy/vaudeville bits with the struggle to cope with existential confinement found in Samuel Beckett plays, or the work of the absurdist playwright Samantha named but dubiously identified as postmodern: Ionesco.

 Through the Seams by Jerome Yorke, Darci Fulcher and Billy Higgins, includes Dell’Arte alums Ruxy Cantir and Grace Booth in the cast. It presented some striking imagery (characters pulling or being pulled by long ropes) in an ambience of darkness and pain, but any narrative intent escaped me completely. Mood, makeup and movement were the abiding impressions.

 Apart from demonstrating physical theatre skills, these two pieces had the virtues of the experimental, confounding expectations while combining the allusive and the elusive. That Sinking Sensation had the additional advantage of being funny, so the narrative ambiguity was less imposing. They were works-in-progress, seeking definition as well as successful moments with that indelible edge of surprise.

 But between these two pieces on the program was ‘Night Mother: A Comedy, created by and featuring Ariel Lauryn and Lucy Shelby. It had the clear unfolding narrative of a play—and a hit play at that.

 Shelby plays Blanche, an actress apparently still living in her hometown whose major triumph is starring in commercials for a car insurance company. Lauryn is Stella, her friend from grade school who is a more conventionally successful actress in New York.

 Stella believes she’s been invited to Blanche’s apartment for a catching-up drink, but arrives to find that Blanche has organized a reading of Marsha Norman’s two-character drama, ‘night, Mother as a kind of audition.  In the audience are Stella’s producer and just about everyone they know in common from school days and beyond.  Their relationship, as flavored by their past involvement with these audience members, fuels a hilarious verbal and physical romp.

 Lucy Shelby is well-named—she has the comic energy of the 1950s TV Lucy, Lucille Ball. Her blond hair flying, she is the engine that pushes events further and further into madness and revelation. But her comedy also serves to create character and drive a story. Trembling with anticipation and her need to enact a fantasy of self-fulfillment, her cheerful frenzy reveals resentments and insecurities. Her attempts to escape the truths of her tangled past only result in her becoming tangled up in a costume on the floor.

 Stella is the reactive force, but Ariel Lauryn uses the subtleties of the straight man as well as understated acting skills to create a dimensional character. Her brittle calm and facade of charmed compliance turn more acerbic and then aggressive under pressure. As the outrageous and yet believable revelations mount up, the two reveal how intertwined their lives remain. That recognition resulted in an ending that, if not entirely happy, was at least ruefully exuberant.

 The 2014 Thesis Festival is performed Thursday through Saturday (May 22-24) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre at Dell’Arte in Blue Lake. Appropriate for ages seven and up. 668-5663,

Friday, May 9, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Nothing new this weekend, but I Love You Because continues at Redwood Curtain, a co-production with Humboldt Light Opera Company.

A Happy Birthday to Michael Fields of Dell'Arte!