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A compendium of politically incorrect polemics and other writings

Theatre Reviews

* Altarena offers "Merrily We Roll Along"
* ACLO Reprises "J. C. Superstar"
* Altarena Playhouse Debuts Shakespeare

(Note: Many of these reviews first appeared in The Alameda Journal for which Tom Billings has served as Theater Critic since 1998.)


"Merrily We Roll Along" at Altarena Theater is a first-rate production of a not-so-first-rate musical. The title is misleading: to be sure, there's a fair amount of rolling along, but not much merrily. The show is technically complex, but director Phil Lowery has assembled a talented cast and created an acting and singing tour de force.

The book by George Furth is based on a 1930's play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. But just as Thornton Wilder's delightful play "The Matchmaker" lost most of its charm when translated into the musical "Hello, Dolly!" so "Merrily" lost most of its comedy when translated from play to musical.

Despite having been re-written several times, "Merrily" continues to struggle with fundamental problems, not least of which is that none of the characters is truly sympathetic. We don't really care about any of them because even the nicest isn't someone we'd like as a friend. But that's only the beginning.

The show is backwards. It begins at the end and ends at the beginning, and that innovation really doesn't work because it makes suspense impossible. Everyone knows from the get-go that the other shoe will inevitably drop, so rather than building to a climax, the show starts with its climax, and its all down hill from there.

The difficulties are compounded by Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics. Whereas Kaufman and Hart created pure comedic entertainment, Sondheim wasn't content to leave well enough alone, and his version incorporates "message" which purports to be eternal verity but is really merely slice-of life.

Extremely wordy and jumbled, Sondheim's lyrics are frequently unintelligible. And albeit loudly energetic, Sondheim's music isn't tuneful. Indeed, in the whole score there aren't eight consecutive hummable bars.

Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II and, like a modern artist, Sondheim evidently strove to transcend the genius of the "old master" and do something entirely different. Whether Sondheim's innovations represent progress or not depends on the tastes of the individual members of the audience. Some people are blown away by Sondheim's work. Others are unmoved by it, at least in a positive sense.

The story traces the unfulfilled life of successful and affluent movie producer Franklin Shepard and his friends Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn back to their humbler beginnings as aspiring, idealistic composer, lyricist, and author respectively. Along the way, Shepard dumps his wife Beth for the oft-married seductress Gussie, and that gives rise to the kind of bathos common in literature but not necessarily in real life.

The entire cast features fine acting talents and excellent singing voices. Dann Howard is Franklin the producer/composer. Chris Uzelac is his lyricist/collaborator Charley Kringas. And Robin Steeves is their friend through thick and thin Mary Flynn.

Lisa-Marie Newton, the temptress, is Franklin's second wife Gussie. Charles Evans is her previous, deep-pocket husband Joe. Olivia Stoddard is Franklin's first wife Beth, and Caleb Alexander is their son Frank Jr. Douglas Kadlecek and Sadie Sabrina Shaw are Beth's parents Mr. and Mrs. Spencer.

Others in the cast include Heather Morrison, Jonathan Reisfeld, Kelcey Jay Poe, Kelly Ann Nelson, Daniel Black, Eric Sande, David L. Hobbs, and Ron Tanon.

The orchestra comprises musical director and conductor Armando Fox and David Anderson on keyboards, Mark DeWeese on bass, Roberta Drake on percussion, Mike Wilson and Michael L. Wirgler on assorted woodwinds, and Adrienne Chambers on brass.

As usual in Arena productions, sets and props are minimal, but Technical Director Garrett Westfall has created some intriguing innovations for this production including a convertible, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't grand piano that actually works. Some non-trivial lighting problems persist. Despite a forest of lamps, areas of the stage that should be bright remain in shadow.

Bottom line: if you're a Stephen Sondheim fan, you're likely to love "Merrily." Otherwise, it may be hard to figure out why, from all the shows to chose from in the whole wide world, Altarena chose to do this one.

SEE IT - "Merrily We Roll Along" at Altarena Playhouse runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through November 18. Tickets are $18 ($15 for seniors, students, and Altarena subscribers). For information and reservations, call 510-523-1553 or go to Altarena Playhouse is located at 1409 High Street in Alameda.

(Cutline for “Merrily We Roll Along" Photo) - Contributed photo by Patrick Tracy
Principals in "Merrily We Roll Along" at Altarena Playhouse through November 18 are Dann Howard as Franklin Shepard, Christopher Uzelac as Charlie Kringas, Olivia Stoddard as Beth Spencer, and Robin Steeves as Mary Flynn.

ACLO REPRISES "J. C. SUPERSTAR" Alameda Civic Light Opera’s current “Jesus Christ Superstar” is big in every way beginning with big musical numbers by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and continuing with big singing, acting, and dancing by a big cast with big, big talent. As in ACLO's 2000 production, the show reflects the legerdemain of Jeff Teague as both director and choreographer. The 1980 show is Webber and Rice’s take on the final week in the life of Christ whom they present as an extraordinary mortal, leaving the issue of divinity unresolved. Intriguingly, the show foreshadows recent scholarship suggesting Judas didn't betray Christ but, rather, abetted Christ's master plan essential to crucifixion, resurrection, and Christianity. Contrary to one probably valid assertion of "The DaVinci Code" among many dubious ones, the show perpetuates the calumny, for which there is no scriptural support, that Mary Magdalene was a recanted prostitute. Memorable songs include “Heaven on Their Minds,” “Everything’s All Right,” “This Jesus Must Die,” “ Hosanna,” "I Don't Know How To Love Him," “Blood Money,” “Come On, King of the Jews,” and “Superstar.” Although incorporating the marvelous tableaux and powerful movements of massed bodies which are Teague hallmarks, staging of the current production reflects a new interpretation. Where the 2000 version was an opulent spectacle, bright and colorful, the current version seems spare, dark, and largely monochromatic in shades of gray. Jesus is played by counter-tenor Robert Lopez whose generally mild demeanor is punctuated by flashes of energetic anger and amazing vocal pyrotechnics. Derrick J. Silva provides the perfect counterpoint as a dramatically intense Judas. Liz Caffrey does a fine, lyrical job with the role of Mary Magdalene. Andrew R. Shaw's growling bass voice gives literal depth to his portrayal of arch-villain Caiaphas with shrill counterpoint provided by Mia Sagan as Annas, his side-kick. Joshua Camp is fine in the straight role of Pontius Pilate while Dave Little provides comic relief with a super-camp send up in the cameo role of Herod Antipas. Other principal roles are ably played by Sean Fenton as the Disciple Peter and Alex Rodriguez as Simon Zealot. The remaining Apostles are played by Timothy Allen, Allen Brandt, Bobby Bryce, Justin Clemente, Nick Hodges, Chris LaCour, John Rivard, Michael Thomas, and Jerry Wehry accompanied by Sarah Cozzi, Kelsey Lappa, Maureen Majewski, Sharnee Nichols, Jennifer Schwarz, and Hilary Smith. Christ's Tormentors are played by Alyssa Bottkol, Jackie Cage, Amanda Gerson Caniglia, Lara Duncan, Erin Little, and Lisa Otterstetter. Featured dancers include: Brandon Bond, Kelsey Canalin, Sean Fenton, Sarah Frankel, Brittany Price Alex Rodriguez, and Maggie Tenenbaum. Other members of the cast include: Phillip Davis, Nick Johnson Jess Martinez, Kate Anders, Agatha de la Cruz, Vadette Goulet, Shannon Wicker-Mitchell, Jill Onyett, Martha Paquin, Jaye Yaksic, Jackie Cage, Mia Saga, Tom Farris, Zane Little, David Weiner, and Derek Cochran. The Pit orchestra under the able baton of musical director Dean Starnes comprises Randy Hood on Percussion, Tania Johnson on Piano, Josh Cohen and Esteban Zapaian on Violins, Judy Beck on Viola, Josh Mikus-Mahoney on Cello, Michael Adam on Bass, Jim Benson on Guitar, Genevieve Pastor-Cohen on Flute and Piccolo, Kathy Boster on Flute and Clarinet, Eva Langfeldt on Oboe, Gary Crandell on Horn, John Escalera and Travis Nasatir on Trumpets, and Jeff Smurthwaite on Trombone. A novel element in the production is slide-show-type montages which, on balance, seem to distract. First night technical glitches which are unlikely to recur included erratic sound which was sometimes painfully loud and erratic operation of follower spotlights that sometimes left the action virtually in the dark. Overall, the presentation could have benefited from less intensity of amplified sound, substantially brighter general lighting, and elimination of the ubiquitous, unmotivated, artificial fog which detracted and annoyed throughout the show. All-in-all, ACLO's "Jesus Christ Superstar" is a powerful, essentially professional offering. Whether or not you've seen the show previously, this is a production not to be missed. SEE IT - ACLO's production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" at Kofman Auditorium runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through July 22 with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on July 23. Tickets are $31 generally and $27 for seniors and juniors. For information and reservations, call 510-864-2256, go to, or visit ACLO's at 1415 Park Street. Kofman Auditorium is located at 2200 Central Avenue in Alameda. Cutline for “Jesus Christ Superstar" Photo Contributed photo by John Faris ACLO's current production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" features Robert Lopez in the eponymous role, Derrick J. Silva as Judas Iscariot, and Liz Caffrey as Mary Magdalene. ------------------------------------- ALTARENA PLAYHOUSE DEBUTS SHAKESPEARE For the first time in it's nearly 70 year history, Altarena Playhouse is presenting a play by William Shakespeare, a/k/a The Bard of Avon. The production is a joint venture between Altarena and the newly formed ARClight Repertory Theatre company, a quasi-professional non-profit performing company based in Alameda. The play is Shakespeare's classic comedy, "As You Like It," and it's ARClight's initial effort. The play comprises myriad intricately intertwined plots and subplots having to do with villainous siblings and a bevy of besotted lovers. Most of the actors play multiple roles, and some of the language is difficult to grasp, but the story is relatively easy to follow. Favorite Shakespearean devices, mistaken identity and cross-dressing, figure largely in the confusion which, in the end, is marvelously and happily - or at least acceptably - resolved except for Jaques, who serves from time to time as Shakespeare's philosophical mouthpiece. Presented in Altarena's thrust stage rather than arena configuration, re-set in late 18th century France, and costumed appropriately, "As You Like It" is a likeable offering and a pleasant evening's entertainment. The versatile cast is uniformly excellent. Some phrases such as "bag and baggage" may seem trite to modern ears, but Shakespeare didn't parrot them. He invented them in the first place - along with some 400 words we still use today. Like Charles Dickens who wrote verbosely because he was paid by the word, Shakespeare is nothing if not hugely loquacious, often making a single, simple point with multiple elaborately embroidered linguistic variations. So, like all of Shakespeare's plays, "As You Like It" runs longer than contemporary audiences tend to prefer, in this case, despite generally tight pacing, almost three hours. A skillfully wielded editorial scalpel could have happily pruned away 30 minutes of extraneous prose. And like all of Shakespeare's plays, "As You Like It" is long on conversation and short on action. Director David Koppel's staging is somewhat uneven, sometimes riotously exuberant and sometimes, where it could have been dynamic, static - as in grand opera. Shannon Nicholson is both the gorgeous Rosalind, the object of Jeremy Forbing's affection as Orlando and also, in male mufti, Ganymede, his mentor in matters of the heart. Amy Wares is Rosalind's sidekick and co-conspirator, Celia cum Aliena. James Hiser is Jaques, alternately outrageously funny or drowning in pathos. Mike Nebeker is Touchstone, the Court Jester who is much taken by Sarah Coykendall as Audrey. David C. McGaffey is both the viciously paranoid Duke Frederick and also the benign Duke Senior. Ted Barker is Oliver, Orlando's hateful older brother. Leon Goertzen is the fabulously fey Le Beau and also Silvius the indomitable swain while Tiffany Harrison, as the shepherdess Phebe, is his reluctant mistress. Among several roles, Jorge Orozco plays Charles the mighty wrestler. Ann Marie Donahue plays Corin and Adam. Maureen Quintana is vocalist Amiennes, and Trisha Lane is alternately a Courtier, Forester, and Shepherdess. Incidental music is by musical director Adrian Wilson on horn, Lisa Hickox on guitar, Joanne Lee on keyboard, Michael Nicholson on violin, and Michael Wilson on flute. Choreography is by Brennan Kreller, set design by Hilma Kargoll, lighting by Robert Anderson, props by Noah DePietro, and costumes by Noor Manteghi and Maya Attai. SEE IT - William Shakespeare's "As You Like It" at Altarena Playhouse runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through July 23. Tickets are $15 generally, $12 for seniors and students. For information and reservations, call 800-838-3006 or go to Altarena Playhouse is located at 1409 High Street in Alameda. Cutline for “As You Like It"” Photo Contributed Photo by Patrick Tracy Featured players in Shakespeare's "As You Like It" presented by ARClight Repertory Theatre at Altarena Playhouse are (left to right) Shannon Nicholson as Rosalind, Mike Nebeker as Touchstone, Amy Wares as Celia, and Leon Goertzen as Le Beau. --------------------------------