Tuesday, July 31, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Fiddler on the Roof" at Moonlight Stage Productions

An Incredibly Fine “Fiddler”:
Kathy Brombacher’s swan song staging is a stunning feast for the eyes and ears

 By Donnie Matsuda

David Ellenstein as Tevye (foreground) in "Fiddler on the Roof."  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Moonlight Artistic Director Kathy Brombacher understandably has a special place in her heart for the timeless and tuneful musical theatre classic, Fiddler on the Roof.  After all, it was the very first full-scale musical she ever directed as a student at the University of Redlands (many moons ago), and now, in a full-circle moment that only the mystical theatre gods can dictate, she once again returns to the venerable musical as her final show before stepping down as head honcho of the Vista-based theatre company after 32 years of outstanding leadership.  No doubt, it is a very important musical for her, and this time around, she wants to make sure it is done right, with every note, every step, and every aspect of the beautiful, intimate Russian village of Anatevka perfectly in place. 

Simply put, her careful attention to detail mostly pays off here and her current staging of Fiddler on the Roof – both visually and vocally stunning - is a “grand finale” that she can be proud of.  Working with a top-notch creative team, which includes veteran Moonlight choreographer Carlos Mendoza (who borrows judiciously from Jerome Robbins’ original dance sequences) and veteran Moonlight Musical Director Elan McMahan (who elicits a large and lush sound from her 11-piece orchestra), Brombacher does what she can to keep the three hour long musical moving along at a brisk pace while still paying due homage to the quirky characters and hummable musical numbers we all know and love.   

L-R: Aubrey Elson as Chava, Alexis Grenier as Tzeitel, and Charlene Koepf as Hodel.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
While her vision for this production is more muted than any I’ve ever seen, it appears that it is her intent to strip away the theatrical flourishes and instead focus on the real characters and the everyday situations at the heart of the piece.  Instead of playing up the acerbic Jewish wit written into the piece, her cast delivers the many punch lines with a naturalistic tendency that causes the humor in the piece to fall consistently flat.  But despite her watered-down storytelling, one thing is for sure: Brombacher knows her space well and manages to create some incredibly stunning and evocative pictures using her large 39-member cast and a number of rustic set pieces (the compact and cozy set is rented from Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre and fits well on the sprawling amphitheatre stage) handsomely lit by Jean-Yves Tessier. 

Victoria Strong as Golde and David Ellenstein as Tevye.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Based on a collection of stories by Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem, the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof combines the talents of three writers – Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock (music), and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) – and holds the distinction of being Broadway’s fifteenth longest-running show in history.  The original Broadway production was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning nine including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, and Best Direction, and spawned four Broadway revivals as well as a successful 1971 film adaptation.  It has enjoyed enduring international popularity largely thanks to its universal appeal and it has been performed in more than 15 languages, in over 30 countries.

At the heart of the story is dairyman Tevye, his wife Golde, and his five daughters who all struggle to keep their traditions alive and their sanity in check amidst the caustic winds of change that threaten to tear their family apart.  But despite the ongoing persecution by the Tsarist regime, the imminent threat of revolution, and the concern that his daughters are falling in love and falling out of their faith, Tevye manages to maintain grounded as he deals with each new twist of fate with his characteristic warmth, humor, and humanity.

The "Fiddler on the Roof" Company.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Without a doubt, it takes a whole lot of chutzpah for any actor to step into the workboots of America’s most iconic Jewish milkman and David Ellenstein (esteemed Artistic Director of the Solana Beach-based North Coast REP Theatre) is more than up to the task.  While his singing and dancing are a bit rusty here, he nonetheless manages to captivate the audience with his authentic charm and his no-nonsense, down-to-earth sensibility.  As his wife Golde, Victoria Strong simply shines.  She’s a true triple threat, boasts a magnetic presence on stage, and brings a lighter and more loveable touch to a role that’s normally played with a nagging edge.  Together, Ellenstein and Strong are unusually laid back (certainly not cut from the same cloth as most Jewish parents) and frequently at odds with their traditional roles as written in Stein’s banter-filled book and Harnick’s prickly score.  But, then again, this is a musical about breaking with tradition and forging new beginnings, right?  

Even the girls playing the couple’s eldest three daughters tend too much toward the vanilla.  They are exceptionally strong singers, however, and they are Alexis Grenier as Tzeitel, Charlene Koepf as Hodel, and Aubrey Elson as Chava.  And among their men (intended or otherwise), Timothy J. Allen is a ball of nervous energy as the mousy, timid tailor Motel, Jason Webb is charismatic as the young revolutionary Perchik, and Eric Hellmers is both gentle and graceful as the Russian suitor Fyedka.     

The "Fiddler on the Roof" Company.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
There are also some fine comic turns by Susan E. V. Boland as matchmaker Yente, Ralph Johnson as town bookseller Avram, Jamie Snyder as the butcher Lazar Wolf, and Danny Campbell as the Rabbi.  And there is even a children’s cast of eight – Noah Baird, Will Ellenstein, Hayden Kerzie, Hourie Klijian, Shea Starrs, Skylar Starrs, Sloane Starrs, and Scarlett Strasberg - who are nicely worked into many of the group scenes and musical numbers.

All in all, it’s a lot to rein in with a musical of this magnitude, but Brombacher does an admirable job of making it all come together as seamlessly as she can.  With her Fiddler, there may be a few shortcomings to kvetch about and it may not be the most robust revival you’ve ever seen, but it does boast some strong performances, a number of picture-perfect moments, and serves as an appropriate “farewell” to one of the most legendary leaders in the Moonlight Stage family.

Things to know before you go: Fiddler on the Roof plays at Moonlight Stage Production’s Amphitheatre through August 11, 2012.  Running time is 3 hours with a 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8pm.  Tickets are $15-$50.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 724-2110 or visit www.moonlightstage.com.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Zoot Suit" at San Diego REP

San Diego REP Boasts a Colorful and Vibrant “Suit”:
Professional actors team up with students at The San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts to bring “Zoot Suit” back in a splashy (if a bit scattered) revival

By Donnie Matsuda

Raul Cardona as El Pachuco.  Photo credit: Daren Scott.
There’s a lot going on in San Diego REP’s 37th Season opener, Zoot Suit.  

First, there’s the concept of the “zoot suit” as an iconic means of dress and the uniform of choice for Chicano gangs on the streets of Los Angeles in the early 1940s.  The colorful and outrageously patterned long jackets, high-waisted and tightly belted pants, and short ties - all with snazzy fedoras to match - are nicely re-created here by costume designer Mary Larson.   

L-R Alex Monge as Cub Reporter, Herbert Siguenza as The Press, Joanne Glover as Alice Bloomfield.  Photo credit: Daren Scott.
Then, there’s the specific story of the “Zoot Suiters” – a gang of twenty-one Mexican American men who were tried and wrongly accused of killing a young Chicano boy in the infamous Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial of 1942.  Here, their story is told through the play’s central character, Henry Rayna (a compelling Lakin Valdez, former artistic director of El Teatro Campesino) and three featured men in his gang: Smiley Torres (Spencer Smith), Joey Castro (Steven Lone), and Tommy Roberts (Kevin Koppman-Gue).  

There are also some overarching thematic digs at the sensationalized yet sympathetic nature of the media from a flashbulb happy reporter named Press (an engaging Herbert Siguenza) and a passionate journalist named Alice Bloomfield (a smart and savvy Jo Anne Glover) who becomes one of Henry’s most ardent supporters both during and after the trial.  And, of course, the play makes a mockery of our American justice system in a few scenes that expose the circus-like atmosphere, sleazy no-good lawyers, and ultimate injustice that are all too common in courtrooms across our country.  All of this plays out amidst the backdrop of World War II, as the war in the Pacific rages on and young people are dancing up a storm (thanks to the frantic and frenzied stylings of choreographer Javier Velasco) amid the big band beat of Latin jazz (delivered with plenty of pizzazz from music director Bill Doyle and his nine-piece onstage band).  

L-R Parnia Ayari as Bertha Villareal and Steven Lone as Joey Castro.  Photo credit: Daren Scott.
With so much going on, and so little of it grounded in any sort of narrative framework, it is a miracle that director Kirsten Brandt is able to make any sense of the madness that is Zoot Suit.  An explosion of powerful thematic arcs, a random mish-mash of roustabout characters, propulsive and electrifying fantasy sequences interwoven with dance interludes, and a bunch of slick technical wizardry (splashy sets, evocative lighting, and vibrant projections designed by Brandt’s husband, David Lee Cuthbert) all seems like it might be too much for one production to handle.  But, somehow Brandt is able to work her magic here and she does what she can to organize and stage it all so that the nearly three hour production powers through with plenty of style and plenty of sass.  

The Company of "Zoot Suit."  Photo credit: Daren Scott.
In the end, what we’re left with at the end of this scattered and somewhat schizophrenic journey (which jarringly shifts back and forth between staid book scenes and bursting-at-the-seams exuberant dance breaks that come out of nowhere) is the look and feel of that mystical figure of “El Pachuco,” personified to perfection by Raul Cardona, as he struts downstage with his head up, his lips smugly pursed, and his hands in his pockets, saying nary a word but saying so much about the suave, slick air that characterized an entire subgroup of Latinos in America. 

Things to know before you go: ZOOT SUIT presented by San Diego REP plays on the Lyceum Stage at Lyceum Theatre through August 12, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours 50 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm; performances are also scheduled on selected Saturdays at 2pm and selected Sundays, Tuesday, and Wednesdays at 7pm.  Ticket prices are $31-$57 with discounts available for groups, seniors, and military.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 544-1000 or visit www.sdrep.org.

Sunday, July 22, 2012



As janitor turned singing sensation Bobby Dupree, Will Mann gets the airwaves buzzing in the first national tour of that roof-raising, revolution-starting, rock ‘n’ roll musical MEMPHIS

By Donnie Matsuda

Will Mann
This week, the touring cast of MEMPHIS will rock the souls and touch the hearts of thousands of San Diegans, as the electrifying tale of a white DJ falling in love with a thrilling black singer amid the backdrop of the segregated 50’s returns to the city where it (almost) all began.  MEMPHIS had a workshop staging at the La Jolla Playhouse back in 2008 and went on to Broadway in 2009 (directed by La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley), where it won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical.  It is still playing on the Great White Way, with plans to close on August 5th.  Meanwhile, the first national tour has already begun and it kicked off its run in October 2011 at the Orpheum Theatre in (where else?) Memphis, TN.  Now, the tour finally makes its way back to San Diego and is being presented for a limited six-day engagement at the San Diego Civic Theatre, courtesy of Broadway San Diego.    

Featured in the touring cast is Will Mann, who reprises his Broadway role of humble janitor Bobby, who sings in the washroom until he is given his big break on Huey Calhoun’s rock ‘n’ roll variety show.  Mann is no stranger to the stage as he obtained his Bachelor of Music from Oklahoma City University (studying under Florence Birdwell) and has tackled a variety of roles on the regional circuit, such as Coalhouse in RAGTIME, Jesus in GODSPELL, and Richie in A CHORUS LINE.  Mann is also no stranger to the touring circuit, having completed first national tours of both BILLY ELLIOT (Mr. Braithwaithe & Big Davey) and WONDERFUL TOWN (Valenti).  Recently, he took a break from his rigorous touring schedule to answer my questions about how he got involved in musical theatre, how he connects to the character of Bobby, and what message he hopes audiences take away from the powerfully poignant musical, MEMPHIS.

Felicia Boswell (Felicia), Rhett George (Gator), Bryan Fenkart (Huey), Will Mann (Bobby) in the national tour of MEMPHIS.  Photo by Paul Kolnik.
DONNIE: Where did you grow up?

WILL: I grew up in Southern California, born in LA County, but was raised in Ontario, California.  During the middle of high school, my family moved to Dallas, Texas where they still reside.

DONNIE: How did you get involved in musical theatre?  Any special mentor or role models you admired?

WILL: When transferring to Duncanville High School in Texas, I was required to take an art credit and took choir because of my background in church.  My choir teacher (Maria Green) required everyone audition for the school musical.  My senior year, I played Judd Fry in OKLAHOMA! and became hooked on the stage. 

DONNIE: How did you get involved with MEMPHIS?  Were you part of the workshop cast when it was developed here at La Jolla Playhouse?

WILL: No, but I was in the final callbacks for it.  I auditioned for MEMPHIS for about 2.5 years before I actually booked it.

Julie Johnson (Mama), Rhett George (Gator), Will Mann (Bobby) & Quentin Earl Darrington (Delray) in the national tour of MEMPHIS.  Photo by Paul Kolnik.
DONNIE: How would you describe the character you play, Bobby?  Are there specific aspects of his character that you relate to?

WILL: Bobby is the mediator.  He naturally puts himself in the middle to stop conflict.  I'd say his joy is what is most infectious about his character.  He never misses an opportunity to laugh his heart out, and I think that is what I admire most and relate to the most about him.

DONNIE: Since there’s no movie or book on which MEMPHIS is based, how did you prepare for the show (historical research of the time and place, personal interviews, documentaries)?  And how was it working with director Christopher Ashley to bring this story to stage life?

WILL: My parents lived this time in the South, and I feel like growing up I learned so much from them, not only about the racial tension in the country but how music shaped a generation.  I mimicked how they talked and how they danced from a very small age.  I'm known to a lot of my friends as “the old man,” so I had a lot to draw on as far as portraying someone from that time.  Christopher Ashley is a very smart man.  I'm grateful to him because he let us be ourselves.  We brought our own energy to all of these characters and what you see on stage is the combination of our work and not a replica of what someone did before us.  It is rare that directors let this happen with a vehicle that has already proven so successful.

Felicia Boswell in between her handsome co-stars Quentin Earl Darrington, Rhett George, Bryan Fenkart, and Will Mann at the opening of the MEMPHIS national tour in Memphis on October 16, 2011.  Photo by Bruce Glikas.
DONNIE: I understand this is not your first national tour.  How does this tour compare/contrast to the last time you toured the country with the company of BILLY ELLIOT?

WILL: Well, it is very different.  The 1st national tour of BILLY ELLIOT sat down in Chicago for 11 months.  I literally lived in Chicago for almost a year and most of the cities on its contract were only 1 week long.  I was not at all prepared for the travel schedule.   My featured parts in the shows are a little more similar.  I'm the big guy with surprise talents.  Only, in BILLY ELLIOT, it wasn't just dancing - I had to jump rope, tap dance, and play the accordion on top of all the crazy dancing singing and hilarity.

DONNIE: And how does doing the tour version of MEMPHIS compare to doing the Broadway production of the same show?

WILL: I think for me the biggest difference is the comradery.  I walked into the Broadway company after they'd already been running for a year and a half and they'd already built their relationships and had homes to go to after work, with real lives.  Don't get me wrong - I was welcomed whole heartedly and they were some of the loveliest people in the world.  But, with this [tour] group, we started together and learned and grew as a unit.  Not to mention when on the road, you not only work together but you live together, too.  You don't have your spouse or your best friends here to run away with, so you become really close with your coworkers.  Family bonds begin to form.

Will Mann at the opening of the MEMPHIS national tour.  Photo by Haik Katsikian.
DONNIE: There’s a lot to take away from this powerful and moving musical.  What message do you hope audiences take away from their time in MEMPHIS?

WILL: I hope people realize that what we see as common place today, the things we assume should have always been accepted, weren't so, and not that long ago.  I hope it allows us to reflect on the things that we find unacceptable today on a national or state wide scale.  I want people to be entertained, but there is also a strong argument for equality here and it still applies today, just with different players.

Things to know before you go: MEMPHIS presented by Broadway San Diego plays at The San Diego Civic Theatre at 3rd and B Street from July 24-29, 2012.  Ticket prices vary.  For more information and to purchase tickets, visit TicketMaster.com, call (888) 937-8995, or visit www.BroadwaySD.com.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


A Tevye for Our Times:
David Ellenstein steps out of his artistic director shoes and into the work boots of America’s most iconic milkman

By Donnie Matsuda

It is perhaps no surprise that the masterful musical FIDDLER ON THE ROOF has stood the test of time.  The beloved and poignant tale of a poor Jewish milkman named Tevye who fights to maintain his family intact and his Jewish religious traditions unscathed as the winds of change swirl about him is perhaps as relevant as ever in our current times.  But what is surprising is that actor, director, and artistic director of North Coast REP, David Ellenstein, has never tackled the role of the famed “Dairyman” – a role which he seems born to play.  Now, he gets that chance, as he carries on the tradition of Tevye (a role his father has played several times) and as he makes his debut on the Moonlight stage in the company’s second show of its 32nd Summer Season.

David Ellenstein as Tevye in Moonlight Stage Production's "Fiddler on the Roof."  Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.

DONNIE:  I was surprised to see that you have not done FIDDLER (either as an actor or director) before.  Will this be your first time doing this show?  And will this be your first time working on the Moonlight stage?

DAVID:  My first FIDDLER and my first time at Moonlight.  I have known the show since childhood.  My Dad appeared in it several times and I have seen a number of productions.  I am excited to take on "the Dairyman" and to be debuting at Moonlight. 

DONNIE:  How does it feel being back on the “performing” side of things?  Is it hard to step out of your directing shoes and be back on stage?

DAVID:  I have been getting back on stage about once a year (MY NAME IS ASHER LEV and TALLEY'S FOLLY most recently at North Coast Rep.)

It is very good for me as a theatre artist to go through the actors process.  It makes me a better director, a better theatre person, and a more compassionate theatre employer.  When one takes on a large role like this you must trust your director and not try to impose on that side.  Acting requires a full commitment of being and there really isn't room for the "visionary" or the “critic” if you are fully inhabiting a role.

David Ellenstein as Tevye.  Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.
DONNIE:  What aspect of Tevye’s character do you most identify with?  

DAVID:  His big heart.  His inability to be unjust or unkind to fellow human beings.  His ability to laugh at himself and question everything.  His innate knowledge that nothing is black and white, but that we live in a world that is ever changing and ever surprising.  His ability to overcome unpleasantness and forge on.

DONNIE:  In what way are you completely unlike the character you play?

DAVID:  He is a manual laborer and works extremely hard with his hands. I am an artist and run a theatre - the physical nature of our two selves is very different.  I grew up in an upper middle class home, whereas Tevye comes from poverty.

DONNIE:  What artistic challenges do you face stepping into such an iconic role?

DAVID:  Being true to the character and the situation.  Fulfilling what an audience expects and desires from the role, but still being unique and personal in how it is delivered.  Being satisfying and surprising at the same time for both the audience and myself.  Knowing that the enduring impact of the character is in its truth and trusting that.

DONNIE:  In your opinion, what is relevant about FIDDLER today?

DAVID:  Our world is ever in flux and change.  What is true today in absolute terms may not be tomorrow.  Our ability to adapt, accept, and move on with shifting perspective and acceptance - and still have room to dream and find joy in those we love and the world we live in.  FIDDLER is filled with this universal truth which is why it is a timeless show.  Not to mention how well written and structured it is.  Great songs help, too.

Kathy Brombacher first directed "Fiddler" as a student at the University of Redlands early in her career and now it will be the last show she directs as Artistic Director of Moonlight Stage Productions, a Vista-based company which she founded 32 years ago.  Photo courtesy of North County Times.
DONNIE:  How would you describe Kathy Brombacher’s artistic vision for the show?

DAVID:  Kathy wants to be true to the script, true to the historical context, and true to the needs of her audience.  She understands her space so well, and what needs to be done to communicate this show properly in its confines.  Her approach comes from a place of knowledge of the material and a breadth of experience, but is allowing of input and ideas from her artists.  I am delighted to be working with Kathy at the helm.

DONNIE:  What are you most looking forward to about Moonlight's production of FIDDLER?

DAVID:  The joy of doing it.  Inhabiting and sharing Tevye with the audience.  Bringing a bit of my Dad onstage with me each night and knowing that my sons are taking it all in.  Tradition!

Things to know before you go: Fiddler on the Roof opens at Moonlight Stage Production’s Amphitheatre on July 25 and runs through August 11, 2012.  Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8pm.  Gates open for picnicking and dining at 6:30pm.  Tickets are $15-$50.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 724-2110 or visit www.moonlightstage.com.

Monday, July 16, 2012


For Immediate Release

Contact: Seema Sueko 858-761-3871
Lee Ann Kim 858-922-8383


(July 20, 2012 San Diego, CA) -- Hundreds of community leaders, artists, and arts supporters are expected to attend a public panel on Sunday, July 22 at 3:45PM at the La Jolla Playhouse in response to the controversial casting of The Nightingale, a musical adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story set in feudal China. The majority of the cast is non-Asian.

The creative team behind La Jolla Playhouse’s Page To Stage production of THE NIGHTINGALE, running July 10 - August 5 in the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre (L-R): Duncan Sheik (Composer), Moisés Kaufman (Director) and Steven Sater (Author and Lyricist); photo by Dana Holliday.
The casting decision, explained by the show’s director Moises Kaufman as intentional and “multi-cultural,” has drawn sharp criticism.  “This is a professional theater with a budget and access to any and every Asian American Actor in the country,” wrote Erin Quill, whose blog sparked national attention to the
issue. “There are no Chinese people in a show set in China.”

Sunday’s public panel follows a private meeting between local arts leaders and the creative team of the La Jolla Playhouse earlier this week, during which an apology from the Playhouse was requested.  Leaders of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), who will be in attendance at the Sunday panel, say, “The idea that a play that takes place in feudal China can be cast with only 2 Asian American actors out of a company of 12, with the lead role of the Chinese emperor played by a white actor, is in step with a long history of appropriation and misrepresentation of Asian people that has consistently denied Asian artists a voice in shaping how they are represented.”

According to the AAPAC, 1.5% of all new roles were given to Asian American actors in the last five seasons on Broadway.

Kimiko Glenn (center) with Steve Gunderson and Matthew Patrick Davis in La Jolla Playhouse’s Page To Stage workshop production of THE NIGHTINGALE; photo by Craig Schwartz.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Dames at Sea" at North Coast REP

“Dames” Works Hard to Entertain:
North Coast REP pulls out all the stops in its tap-happy spoof of large and lavish movie musicals of the 1930’s

By Donnie Matsuda
Late in the second act of Dames at Sea, a young and impressionable chorus girl named Peggy Sawyer (I mean “Ruby”) must take the place of the show-within-a-show’s leading lady, Dorothy Brock (here named “Mona Kent”) after she falls and breaks her ankle (or rather, back).  As Ruby is forced to learn all of the show’s scenes, songs and choreography in a matter of hours, she’s told, “You’re going out on the poop deck a chorus girl, but you’ve got to come back a star!” 

(L to R): Jeffrey Scott Parsons, Roxane Carrasco and Luke Jacobs in "Dames at Sea" at North Coast REP.  Photo courtesy of Barron Henzel.
With a line and concept ripped (nearly) verbatim from the most tap-tacular of Broadway musicals, 42nd Street, it is clear that Dames at Sea exists merely to poke fun at the big, bold, tap-heavy tuners of the 1930’s.  And while it does an adequate job of capturing, perhaps even mocking, the carefree innocence and cheery optimism of the era, it doesn’t quite convey the spirit and savvy that made those mega-musicals sing and dance in the hearts of millions of theatre-goers in Depression-era America.  Perhaps part of the problem is the mediocre music by Jim Wise and the barely there book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller.  None of the shows fifteen musical numbers are very memorable (even the title number falls a bit flat) and the characters, while endearing and syrupy sweet, are so campy and cartoonish that they’re more distracting than they are funny. 

But thankfully, North Coast REP’s sprightly production rises above the mediocre material and veteran director Rick Simas does a bang up job of packaging the show’s silly seafaring shenanigans so that they come across as fresh, fun, and fancy free as they possibly can.  His top-notch, tap-tastic revival goes off without a hitch and doesn’t miss a beat as it powers through countless showy tap numbers with the command and buoyancy of the U.S. battleship on which it takes place.  And at the heart of his production are six powerhouse performers who are not only impressive triple threats, but ace tappers as well.

Sarah Errington as Ruby.  Photo courtesy of Barron Henzel.
At the helm is Sarah Errington as the naïve yet enthusiastic Ruby (a role that launched the career of Bernadette Peters back in the 1968 Off-Broadway production).  Errington plays the bright eyed and bushy tailed ingénue to a tee and has some powerful vocal and dancing chops to boot.  As her love interest, the singing, dancing, and song-writing sailor Dick (don’t all sailors tap dance and write upbeat melodies on the turn of a dime?), Jeffrey Scott Parsons is a joy to watch.  He has an effervescent charm and clean cut good looks that often belie his incredibly impressive song and dance abilities.  

Natalie Storrs (most recently seen as Rosemary in How to Succeed at the Welk) is a hoot as Joan as she snaps her gum and taps her toes as only a Brooklyn-born moll can.  And as her love interest Lucky, Luke Jacobs is innocent and sweet and the two of them play off each other marvelously.  Broadway veteran Roxane Carrasco is outstanding as the broadly comedic and overly pompous leading lady Mona Kent and Spencer Rowe is a standout as both Mr. Hennesey and The Captain.

The company of "Dames at Sea."  Photo courtesy of Barron Henzel.
Choreographer Susan Jordan-DeLeon and Tap Choreographer Lisa Hopkins (who recently choreographed Dames at Sea at The Colony Theatre in Burbank) have done incredible work here, bringing the show’s large production numbers to life on what is probably the narrowest of sets seen in recent NCR history (fortunately, set designer Marty Burnett opens things up a bit with his splashy and spacious ship deck in Act Two).  As is to be expected, the dancing stays true to the good old fashioned Broadway style of tap - including paddle and rolls, wings, maxi fords, syncopated pullbacks, and time steps a plenty – but it is performed with such precision and panache that it is truly exciting to watch.  The sailors Dick and Lucky even get entrenched in a tap-off in the Act Two opener in which they get to show off some fancy footwork that builds nicely into a full-cast show-stopping number.

So, while Dames at Sea may be a more modest and muted version of the mega-musicals of the 1930’s, it still exists as a lovely (and at times charming) valentine to the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas of the era.  And in the hands of a game and energetic cast, a stalwart director, and of course, a couple of ace choreographers, NCR’s production sails high and mighty in an exuberant revival.  So get your boarding pass now…it’s a nautical adventure you won’t want to miss!

Things to know before you go: Dames at Sea plays at North Coast Repertory Theatre through July 29, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm and Sunday evenings at 7pm.  Tickets are $32-$52 with discounts available for students and military.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 481-1055 or visit www.northcoastrep.org.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Legally Blonde, The Musical" at Moonlight Stage Productions

“Legally Blonde” Never Goes Out of Style:
Moonlight Stage Productions kicks off its summer season with a musical that’s fun, fluffy and full of energy

By Donnie Matsuda

From its effervescently rousing opening number “Omigod You Guys” to its inspiring and feel-good full-company finale “Find My Way,” Moonlight’s summer season opener Legally Blonde, The Musical is, like, totally awesome.  

Emma Degerstedt and Anthony Carillo in "Legally Blonde, The Musical" at Moonlight Stage Productions.  Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.
Sure, there are some staid and stagnant moments, a couple of romantic relationships that are a few flames short of burning love, and a handful of “did they really just say that?” jokes, but overall, they are mostly forgettable “blonde moments” in a mostly cute and charming musical.  What audiences will probably remember most about Legally Blonde, The Musical are its never-ending string of bright and bubbly song and dance musical numbers, its solid cast of over-the-top personalities played to perfection, and its intriguing-enough storyline that bounds along over two and a half hours with plenty of sparkle and sass.     

Emma Degerstedt and Company.  Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.
Actress Emma Degerstedt (herself a former UCLA sorority girl) plays a very pert and perky Elle Woods, though she fortunately doesn’t camp up the role with too much giddy girlish charm.  Instead, her Elle remains surprisingly grounded and it is not completely far-fetched that she would respond to her boyfriend dumping her (a handsome and golden voiced Anthony Carillo) by cleverly working her way into Harvard Law School and to the top of her class, with some help from her friend and mentor Emmett (a scruffy, low-key Brandon Joel Maier).  But, it takes an entire village to try and help this modern-day golden girl make good – or at least graduate - and, fortunately for Elle, she’s got a lot of folks on her side.  Most notable are her gaggle of sorority sisters turned Greek Chorus (a spunky and well harmonized trio of Alexis Henderson, Tiana Okoye, and Stephanie Wolfe) and her hilarious, scene-stealing hairdresser, Paulette (a Jersey-licious and appropriately over-the-top Julie Cardia).

And amid a strong supporting ensemble, Jessica Bernard as Elle’s rival Vivienne, strong voiced Cris O’Bryon as Professor Callahan, Kim Zolozabal (last seen as Tracy in Moonlight’s 2011 production of “Hairspray”) as lesbian law student Enid, and Jenn Simpson as Brooke are all standouts.  Add to that two adorable and well-trained pooches – Ness as Bruiser and Ali as Rufus – making several crowd-pleasing cameo appearances, and you’ve got a cast that’s eager and energized to entertain.

Brandon Joel Maier and Company.  Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.
Director and choreographer John Vaughan provides a lot of zippy interludes to keep this girl-power glam-fest going strong and his choreography, while not technically impressive, manages to delight with its dizzying array of cheer-inspired formations and poses.  His buoyant staging is further enhanced by some spiffy and sparkly technical elements, which include many massive drops and sliding set pieces rented from Chinchilla Theatrical Scenic, some splashy wardrobe creations from Upland’s Theatre Company, and some colorful lighting designed by Christina Munich.  Music Director Dr. Terry O’Donnell leads a nine piece orchestra through the tuneful and mostly pleasant – though somewhat forgettable – score. 

So, if you’re looking for a silly but solidly entertaining musical, then get in touch with your inner valley girl, grab your nearest blinged-out bag, and get thee to the Moonlight.  Seriously, you’ll be, like, totally tickled pink.

Things to know before you go: Legally Blonde, The Musical plays at Moonlight Stage Production’s Amphitheatre through July 14, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8pm.  Tickets are $15-$50.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 724-2110 or visit www.moonlightstage.com.