Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A Treasure Trovatore

Opera San Jose
Verdi's Il Trovatore
February 15, 2020

Eugene Brancoveanu as Count di Luna, Mackenzie Gotcher as Count di
Luna and Kerriann Otano as Leonora. All photos by David Allen
Trovatore is such a Gordian knot of narrative that it can prove both challenging and frustrating. The good news is that, once an operagoer knows the secret contained in the final line, they can watch subsequent performances and see beautiful little clues all over the place. It bears a certain resemblance to Hamlet; its maddening complexity is precisely what brings one back, time and time again.

The complexity also creates a challenge for the stage director. The action of the narrative is always something that happened twenty years ago, or just offstage, or on a faraway battlefield. Thankfully, we have a few swordfights and lots of smack talk between the combatants, but it's often hard to keep the stage from going still as a painting. I can't say that director Brad Dalton did much to combat this tendency, but he did create some fascinating tableaux with his players (and a few heads on pikes to add ferocity).

Daryl Freedman as Azucena
That said, the singing here is masterful. Though his stage movements as Count di Luna are oddly stilted, Eugene Brancoveanu's baritone is always a pleasure. Mezzo Daryl Freedman's performance as the haunted gypsy Azucena is mesmerizingly intense, especially in "Condotta ell'era in ceppi," the account of her mother's fiery execution that supplies the opera's primary riddle.

A similar intensity drives the first telling of this tale, "Abbietta zingara," from Ferrando, leader of the Count's guard, played by baritone Nathan Stark. The lead-singer quality of the secondary roles goes on from there, including tenor Mason Gates as Ruiz and mezzo Stephanie Sanchez as Inez. This vocal depth has become an admirable trademark of OSJ's company.

The grandest singing comes from the lovers Leonora and Manrico (the troubadour of the title). Soprano Kerrian Otano and tenor Mackenzie Gotcher share the quality of crafting their lines with the skill of master sculptors. This is especially true of Otano, whose "D'amor sulli'ali rosee" was a seminar in thoughtful phrasing. Her dynamic range is captivating. Gotcher's instrument is a perfect match for Manrico: forceful enough for the call-to-arms of "Di quella pira" but lyric enough for the tenderness of the love aria "Ah si, ben mio coll'essere."

Eugene Brancoveanu as Count di Luna, Kerriann Otano as Leonora.
Joseph Marcheso inspires a majestic sound from his orchestra, notably the rich brass of the Act I opening and the evocative woodwinds of Leonora's prison-wall vigil. Christopher James Ray leads the various choruses to some memorable moments, from expected highlights like the Anvil Chorus to little surprises like the nun's chorale.

The final killing was, alas, kind of a dud. A throat-slash might best come with the victim faced away from the audience, leaving us to our gory little imaginations.

Through March 1, California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $55-$195, operasj.org, 408/437-4450.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels. His opera novel Gabriella's Voice is available at Amazon.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Spectacular Chicago

Kander, Ebb and Fosse
San Jose Stage Company
February 8, 2020

Allison F. Rich as Velma Kelly. Photos by Dave Lepori.
It's hard to overstate the perfection that is Stage's production of Chicago. Over the past decade, the company has developed an affinity for gritty musicals, and this one, its roots going all the way back to Maurine Dallas Watkins' 1927 play, is one of the grittiest. You won't be just entertained by this show, you'll be mesmerized.

Chicago's peculiar lingua franca - a roaring twenties jazz crime musical performed largely in underwear - is established right away when Allison F. Rich makes her usual stunning entrance and leads the ensemble into "All That Jazz," featuring the tight formation/small gesture dancing that is Bob Fosse's signature. There's plenty more to come; choreographer Tracy Freeman Shaw has drilled her dancers into one captivating image after another. Perhaps the company's greatest asset is a corps of backing performers that you can track from one show to the next, and there is always some fascinating gesture of physical touch going on in the tableau of a scene. I also noticed Rich's singing in this scene, which was smooth and understated, a luxury afforded by the audio and the Stage's 200-seat confines.

Keith Pinto as Billy Fynn, dancers Matthew Kropschot and Monica Moe.
The second-tier performers, too, provide a number of delightful surprises. Non-binary performer Branden Noel Thomas gives Mama Morton a commanding, saucy presence and rich vocals. As the pushover crime reporter Mary Sunshine, Kyle Bielfield takes his countertenor to soprano heights in "A Little Bit of Good," showing a level of vocal control that any female soprano would envy. Playing the schmendrick husband, Amos, Sean Doughty draws "aws" of sympathy, but also displays a fascinating dexterity in "Mister Cellophane," transforming himself into a hobo clown as he sings.

Rich's performance as Velma Kelly brings forth an unexpected vulnerability, especially in "I Can't Do It Alone." Demonstrating the sister act created with her now sadly deceased/killed by her sibling, she seems genuinely desperate. As she should be.

Monique Hafen Adams as Roxie Hart.
Conversely, Roxie Hart is unexpectedly strong, largely because Monique Hafen Adams is just a package of onstage dynamite. It's hard to even pinpoint a particularly top moment, it's just the feeling that when she's on the stage, there will be dazzlement. The number "Me and My Baby" - in which Roxie celebrates her fictional fetus - is a particular joy.

Keith Pinto's Billy Flynn is the James Bond of the Illinois Bar. He absolutely takes over the show, and all that smooth swagger is great fun to watch. The ventriloquist act of "We Both Reached for the Gun" is its usual treat (Roxie acting the dummy as Billy supplies her testimony), and in "Razzle Dazzle" he unlooses some captivating dance moves.

Branden Noel Thomas as Mama.
Benjamin Belew's band is swingin', and it's fun to see the yard sale of instruments in front of the reed players. Costume designer Ashley Garlick provided the women with a nice variety of see-through garments, helping to give each of them a different visual personality. The ensemble strength also showed itself in a fiery performance of "The Cell Block Tango." Playing the hapless Fred Casely, Matthew Kropschot continued to provide physical humor that goes beyond the muscles. A similar case is Zoey Lytle, whose balletic, willowy physique actually adds to the sympathy for her character, Hunyak. The lighting design by Michael Palumbo is spot-on (or, in the case of "Mister Cellophane," spot-off).

Director Randall King and his troupe have crafted a phenomenal show. It wouldn't kill ya to see it.

Through March 15, The Stage, 490 S. First Street, San Jose. thestage.org, 408/283-7142.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels, including the opera novel Operaville, available at Amazon.
Zoey Lytle, Jacqueline Neeley and Monica Moe.

Sean Doughty as Amos Hart.


Monday, February 3, 2020

Sixty Years of Fantasticks

Stephen Guggenheim as El Gallo, Rick Haffner as The Man Who Dies, Stewart
Slater as The Old Actor and Isai Centeno as The Mute. By C Noto Photography.
The Fantasticks
Guggenheim Entertainment
Feb. 1, 2020

The theatrical wonder that is The Fantasticks (book by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt) is celebrating sixty years, and the folks at 3Below Theatres have jumped on the party wagon with an enchanting, well-voiced production under director Scott Evan Guggenheim.

It takes a little while to fully get on board with the show, which attaches to a certain mid-century world view where mainstream America was rediscovering fabular, elemental storymaking and folk traditions. Once you get to the second act, however, the depth of the allegory (based on Edmond Rostand's Les Romanesques) pulls you in.

Annie Hunt as Luisa
The Guggenheim cast couldn't be a better fit. Playing the idealized lovers Luisa and Matt are Annie Hunt and Jackson Glenn, both of them bright and beautiful people on their own. Hunt has a particular knack for capturing that self-fascination of the Blossoming Girl. Glenn is quite good at portraying those moments when the maturing male realizes that love is not enough.

Stephen Guggenheim lends a masterful presence to El Gallo, who is a combination of the devil, God, and an out-of-work actor. He is also the grand puppeteer, orchestrating the presentation of the story (an interesting resemblance to his Fellini character in "9"). Where the young couple both offer bright musical-theater tonalities, Guggenheim presents a voice that's been lived in, the resonance of experience. He is at his best in "I Can See It," pulling Matt's puppet strings as he prepares him for the big, bad world.

As the girl's father, Bellomy, and the boy's mother, Hucklebee, Jackson Davis and Krista Wigle are so natural it seems like they just wandered in off the street. The two of them present the closest the play has to a normal plot device, pretending a neighborly feud in order to trick their progeny into marrying each other. Their parental lament, "Plant a Radish," is a continual delight.

At the fringes of the story are a couple of goofball extras, The Old Actor (Henry) and The Man Who Dies (Mortimer). It's a pleasure to see Stewart Slater playing the former. Slater means a lot to the South Bay arts scene, having headed up American Musical Theater of San Jose, and it's fun to see him on the other side of the lights. Playing Mortimer is Rick Haffner, who worked at Sunnyvale's California Theater Center for 25 years. Haffner inspires laughter with each entrance, and displays an absolute commitment to his slapstick. (He also dies superbly.) Ironically, it's these comedians who represent the "slings and arrows" that torture poor Matt, yelling for help as the real world chews him up. On his return to Luisa, he sings the show's most touching piece, "They Were You," a realization that he really was in love with her.

The accompaniment comes from Tom Tomasello on piano and Ruthanne Martinez on harp. The combination gives the performance an intimate, enchanted feel that matches its fable-like construct.

It could be that The Fantasticks' incredible longevity comes not from its plot or its hit song, "Try to Remember," but from its riddle-like nature. One leaves the theater buzzing with questions, and awakens the next day with indelible images. You can't ask for much more.

Through Feb. 23, 3Below Theaters, 288 S. Second Street, San Jose. 3belowthaters.com, 408/404-7711.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels, including the opera novel Gabriella's Voice, currently available for free download at amazon.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Musical Around the Corner

She Loves Me
South Bay Musical Theatre
January 25, 2020

Benjamin Hatch as Georg, Marie Finch as Amalia. Photo by Steve Stubbs.

SBMT continues a run of remarkable productions with a fine-tuned rendition of this 1963 charmer, based on Miklos Laszlo's 1937 play Parfumerie. The work was later turned into three films: The Shop Around the Corner with Jimmy Stewart, The Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland, and You've Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
I first discovered this 1963 version (music by Jerry Bock, book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) on late-night TV and I couldn't stop watching. The show's construction is a thing of beauty, fostering a kind of clockwork theatricality. Certainly, that's evident in SBMT's production. An early scene, "Sounds While Selling," sets up three pairs of beauty product sales clerks and customers and collages their conversations into absurd sentences, "I think what you really need... is to clip off... your earlobes." (Not an exact quote.) I can't imagine how hard one would have to work to get that scene to come off right.

The show also cuts a perfect line between drama and music, an aspect that director Martin Rojas Dietrich promised to dig deeply into. He absolutely succeeds. There are no "Now we're gonna sing!" speedbumps; the songs proceed cleanly from the actions, exploring characters' innermost thoughts or advancing the plot. In "Perspective," Stephen Sammands propounds the philosophy of schlub salesman Sipos (self-abasement as a survival technique). His delivery is so thoroughly thought-out that even a couple of forgotten lines didn't harm it.

The show represents a sort of golden age in Broadway music, which retained its roots in jazz and Tin Pan Alley but was venturing into new worlds of '60s inventiveness, including artful off-rhythms and modern tonalities. An excellent example is the title tune delivered by main man Georg (Benjamin Hatch) as he worries over the prospect of actual romantic success. ("I'm tingling, what the hell does that mean?") The tune's snaky jaunt reminds me of "I Believe in You" from 1961's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

The vocals are solid throughout, but the bonus round comes with Jessica Whittemore as hotsie sales clerk Ilona and Marie Finch as our heroine, letter-writing clerk Amalia. Whittemore's voice exhibits a pure, unforced power; Finch's is a clean soprano capable of overdriving into operatic (as she claims that a music box she's selling came directly from God). Their duet, "I Don't Know His Name" a rapid-fire comparison of their boyfriends, is pure audio dessert.

Carlos A. Nunez Carillo plays clerk Kodaly with a good balance of sexiness and schmuckiness, making Ilona's position as misused girlfriend that much more torturous. Hatch and Finch play the leads (bitter rivals unaware that they're exchanging anonymous love letters) as figures whose attractiveness must be discovered. Michael Johnson gives the boss, Mr. Maraczek, a grouchiness that seems out-of-character, deepening his mystery. And Parker Hough plays Arpad, the delivery boy, with ceaseless gee-whiz energy.

The café scene, "A Romantic Atmosphere," is outrageous fun, centering on busboy Ethan Glasman's dangerous clutziness and the divine bitchiness of his boss, maître d' Don Nguyen. Glasman's athletic capers (e.g., leaping over a standing customer) are straight from the Donald O'Connor school, and an unusual star turn for a cameo role. Another terpsichorean treat is Ilona and Kodaly's hot tango, "Ilona." Ilona's bronze dress (designer Y. Sharan Peng) features elegant diamond-shaped patterns. At the other end of the spectrum, we have Maraczek's blue plaid suit, so cheesy it's gorgeous.

Perhaps the lasting appeal of She Loves Me is its ability to convey so many different variations on romance: the imaginative courtship of the lead letter-writers, the primal forces of Ilona and Kodaly, the heartbreak of Mr. Maraczek. A play, three films and a musical don't lie - it's a remarkable story.

Through Feb. 15, Saratoga Civic Theater, 13777 Fruitvale Ave., Saratoga. 408/266-4734 SouthBayMT.com or watch their preview video.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels, including the opera novel Gabriella's Voice, which will be available for free download at Amazon Feb. 3-7. "Michael J. Vaughn has composed a literary opera that combines love, tragedy and music into a memorable tale of talent and artistry." -- BookPage

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Cindy Lou Who (Part Two!)

Who's Holiday
Guggenheim Entertainment
December 7, 2019

Shannon Guggenheim as Cindy Lou Who

If you're low on Christmas cheer
Mixing egg nog with your beer
Don't feel the need to join a cult
Just come see something more adult

The drama folks at 3Below
Are offering quite a naughty show
That asks a question strange and new:
What became of Cindy Lou?

The cutesy tot who caught the Grinch
Stealing Whoville's every inch
Is older now, ever soused
And living in a trailer house

Just released from the county pen
She hosts a bash for all her friends
But one by one they all cop out
From Fox in Sox to ol' Doubt Trout

So instead she pours some gin
Plays some tunes and fills us in
On what befell her since that night
Her greenfaced Santa gave her fright

Our hostess, Shannon Guggenheim
Is mighty skillful with a rhyme
But much more fully makes us laugh
On all those time she makes a gaffe

She's awfully fun with dance and song
And even lets us sing along
Or stops so we can end a line
Or brings up Jason for some wine

Once to play a rhyming game
She asked us for some animal names
But stuffed a couple 'neath her pillow
When up came aardvark and armadillo

In the end what's really fine
Is to feel the show is yours and mine
To party there with Cindy Lou
The sparkliest of all the Whos

Be forewarned this ain't for kiddies
Stuffy shirts or touchy biddies
But if you're done with sappy shit
This show is sure to be a hit

So crack those Nuts and Messy Sings
Turtle doves and golden rings
Why not party Cindy's way
And learn what grew three sizes that day

Through Dec. 22, 3Below Theaters, 288 S. Second St, San Jose. 3belowtheaters.com, 408/404-7711.

Michael J. Vaughn is a widely published poet and novelist. His most recent novel, A Painting Called Sylvia, is currently #11 on Amazon's free literary fiction list.

Last year's review (for non-rhyming reference)...

Who’s Holiday
3Below Theaters
December 7, 2018

If you think the latest Grinch cartoon was entirely unnecessary, and what you’d really like to see is the whole enterprise blown up in a raunchy, comic explosion, then Who’s Holiday is your ticket. Matthew Lombardo’s script, written in perfect Seussian couplets, visits Cindy Lou Who in middle age, trying to get any of her Whoville friends to come to her holiday party but beset by a checkered past that has made her a bit of an outcast. All the better, since we get to have her to ourselves.

The Avenue Q-ness of the play is evident right away, as Cindy Lou recounts that fateful night: “…but I caught him green-handed as he was stealing our shit!” Her tale proceeds to her 18th birthday, when she discovers something else that grew three sizes that day (“If you think black guys are hung, try going jade”).

Our hostess is Shannon Guggenheim, who is 3Below’s Miss Everything (including librettist of their awesome Meshuga Nutcracker musical). She dispenses quickly with the fourth wall, and third wall, and a little of the second, throwing in regular asides and a running commentary on the challenges of stagework. Much of the fun is in the rhyming. When she rhymes “Christmas” with “isthmus,” she takes an educational timeout to provide a detailed geographical definition. Later, when she flubs a rhyme, she says, “Hey! This shit is hard.” And then she has to deal with an audience volunteer who seemed to think he was at an old-school hip-hip rhymeoff (he was good, but he was making us nervous).

To say Guggenheim is delightful doesn’t really say enough. She is an absolute natural onstage, and her Cindy Lou is sexy, funny, and ingratiating. She even makes us a little sad, singing “Blue Christmas” for her estranged green-skinned daughter (who’s off touring as Elphaba in “Wicked”). In short, she’s exactly the kind of woman you’d like to hang out with at a party. And to hell with those sanctimonious Who’s!

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Humans at Your Table

Stephen Karam's The Humans
San Jose Stage Company
November 23, 2019

The scariest thing about the Blake family is that they are likely not all that different than your family or mine. As they gather around the Thanksgiving table, you'll find the same role-players you might see at your own gathering. The one who wants everyone to behave themselves for once and keep it light. The one who wants to talk about everything and keep it heavy. The outsider who's anxious about what kind of family he's joining. The one who's desperately hiding the fact that her life is falling apart.

Brigid (Madeline Rouverol), Erik (Tim Kniffin) and Aimee (Lyndsy Kail).
Photo by Dave Lepori.
Stephen Karam's play is a cyclone of intentions and secrets, dropping hints and fears as its characters damage each other in the very act of trying to help each other. Under director Tony Kelly, the Stage's cast weaves a performance so naturalistic you feel like you could sit right down, grab a turkey leg and join in.

Brigid Blake (Madeline Rouverol) is hosting her family at her new digs, a Manhattan Chinatown apartment that she's sharing with her boyfriend Richard Saad (George Psarras). The set, by Giulio Perrone, is a marvelous two-story concoction that allows for simultaneous dialogues and actions. A memorable example is when daughter Aimee (Lyndsy Kail) takes her worsening colitis upstairs for yet another bathroom visit and follows with a painfully awkward phone conversation with her ex-girlfriend, who has already moved on.

I also enjoyed Tim Kniffin's performance as the father, Erik Blake. There are so many anxieties simmering beneath that shock of gray hair that poor Erik can barely function, his few moments of clarity ranging from heartfelt affection to creepy nightmare anxieties. He confides about the latter with Richard, a psychology student who finds his own creepy dreams terrifically entertaining.

Aimee (Lyndsy Kail) and Deirdre (Marie Shell).
Photo by Dave Lepori.
There's a similar complexity in Marie Shell's performance as the mother, Deirdre Blake. Her work with Bhutan refugees (rudely derided by her daughters) indicates a heart full of good intentions, but her constant prodding of her family's moral weaknesses (Brigid's "shacking up," her clan's general godlessness) provide a running irritation. (Naturally, the audience laughs at these gibes, but they don't have to live with her, am I right?) It's Deirdre who sets the trigger, asking her husband if he's going to tell them before dinner or after, and effectively activating the suspense.

Coincidentally, I recently re-watched Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and the bickering here provides an interesting comparison. Whereas Taylor and Burton (Martha and George) operated at a near-psychotic level, the Blakes come up with regular moments of warmth (a lovely letter written by grandmother Momo - Jessica Powell - before she lost her mind to dementia) and light-hearted quirks (a family ritual of following each declaration of thanks by whacking a peppermint pig). In other words, the Blakes may be having a bad Thanksgiving, but the fraying threads are not so much worse than the ones in your family or mine. And that's scary enough.

Through December 15 at The Stage, 490 S. First Street, San Jose. 408/283-7142, www.thestage.org.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels. His latest, A Painting Called Sylvia, was inspired by his recent success as a visual artist, and is available in both paperback and ebook forms at amazon.com.

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Hansel and Gretel Shuffle

Kerriann Otano as the Witch. Photo by Bob Shomler.
Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel
Opera San Jose
November 16 2019

Opening night at Opera San Jose was a bit of a crisis center, what with the company's original Hansel, Stephanie Sanchez, being down with an illness (I hate the idea of someone putting in all that work only to miss performances, so be well, Stephanie). The resultant shuffle - original Sandman Talin Nalbandian in for Hansel, while understudy Jamie Wodhull played the Sandman - had no obvious ill effects on the result, an enchanting production directed by Layna Chianakas and powered by Kerriann Otano's dynamite turn as the Witch.

The chemistry between the two siblings suffered not a whit. Nalbandian seemed absolutely comfortable, and did well with portraying a young boy's growth-spurt awkwardness. (Perhaps it helps that Gretel is the classic bossy sister, so Hansel has only to follow her lead.) Elena Galvan's Gretel is perfect. She possesses a certain impishness to begin with, so playing an imaginative young girl is a natural. And the energized lift of her soprano is one of my favorite brands of coffee. She excels especially the morning scene , and the two of them blend wonderfully in Humperdinck's Evening Prayer.

Elena Galvan as Gretel, Talin Nalbandian as Hansel. Photo by Pat Kirk
The Mother came off as unusually fierce, but it's a suitable reaction to finding your two brats throwing laundry all over the house. (This impression came before I realized the same singer was playing the Witch, a fairly common doubling with this work.) I really enjoyed Eugene Brancoveanu, who lent his boisterous baritone and presence to the Father. After a rare success selling brooms in the town he downs a few beers and comes home with a veritable feast of groceries. His aria "Ach, wir armen Leute!" conveys the particular joy of a provider who's finally getting a chance to provide.

Amy Goymerac as the Dew Fairy. Photo by Pat Kirk.
Ironically, Mother had just sent her two naughty children into the woods to pick berries, and Father tells her the legend of the witch who lives in those woods, who has a curious habit of baking kids into gingerbread cookies. Larry Hancock's set design, filled with the craggy limbs of oak trees, makes an easy segue from the house and its branchy furniture to the woods, which can be alternately spooky and gorgeous. Against this backdrop are displayed several enchanting visuals. Director Chianakas demonstrates the wonder that may be created simply by moving fourteen orb-carrying forest angels about a stage in interesting patterns. Woodhull has much fun skulking about in her hunterish Sandman cloaks, and Amy Goymerac's Dew Fairy is a one-woman dazzlement, thanks to Elizabeth Poindexter's silver-blue dress, Christina Martin's sky-high wig and a pair of confetti bazookas.

Which brings us to the Witch. Otano just takes over the place (which is, ideally, what a witch should do). Her high-energy stage presence is downright mesmerizing, reminiscent of Bette Midler in her prime. She handles her magic broom like a samurai sword, preps an oven that resembles the lantern fish from Finding Nemo and even rambles across the stage in a Wizard of Oz-ian bicycle, a gingerbread child filling in for Toto. Otano is also better-looking than a usual Humperdinck witch, but there's a nice twist to that, too. (I also loved Galvan's puppet-dance while she's under the witch's control, and I hope she doesn't hurt herself doing that.)

The fourteen angels. Photo by Pat Kirk.
To sum up, this production is a hell of a lot of fun. It's also very kid-friendly, sung in English with supertitles just in case the operatic singing drowns out the words, and with special $9 student tickets. There were a number of children opening night, and some of their exclamations were priceless.

I sat closer than usual to the pit and really savored watching Joseph Marcheso; his conducting possesses a fascinating intensity that certainly translates to his orchestra. The brass lent a particular richness to the angel-march. I also got a peek at percussionist Arthur Storch playing the cuckoo-pipes, which resemble two PVC spigots. Another lovely touch was having members of the children's chorus sing the echo parts from the audience.

Through Dec. 1 at the California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $29-$219, $9 students. www.operasj.org 408/437-4450. Be sure to arrive early and get holiday photos with costumed performers and gingerbread men.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels, including the award-winning opera novel Gabriella's Voice.