Boisterous Fun in ‘Emma! A Pop Musical’

Review of Emma! A Pop Musical
Written by Eric Price
Music by various artists
Directed by Libby Oberlin
Vocal Direction by Sherrill Peterson
Choreography by LC Arisman
Sonoma Arts Live
For tickets / schedule :
Sonoma Community Center, Sonoma

RUN: March 9-19, 2017
RATING: 3 of 5 stars

(March 18, 2017)

Emma! A Pop Musical Sonoma Arts Live teens

Photo from Sonoma Arts Live

Shakespeare plays are regularly staged in contemporary settings, and it was a matter of time before classics such as Jane Austen’s Emma received similar treatment, inspired by the success of Clueless in re-imagining her world for a modern audience. Gathered from students of Sonoma Arts Live’s education director, Libby Oberlin, these teens in training have become Highbury Prep—an elite boarding school housing the timeless characters from Jane Austen’s novel.

Emma! is not so much a musical as a chain of songs chosen to illustrate themes and emotions surfacing in the story, given voice through popular music. They are used to comedic effect, such as a rendition of “Be My Baby” that cooes across the stage whenever Harriet finds a new crush, leading to hysterical laughter when it wafts toward yet another potential beau. The result is infectious frivolity that parallels the plot’s zany matchmaking humor, with additional impact infused by the unpolished but talented young cast.

Emma’s naïveté and enthusiasm are the perfect fit for a high school student; Veronica Love captures her genuine excitement to find Harriet a boyfriend, with wide-eyed enthusiasm and an authoritative voice that speaks to leadership qualities that attract men like Elton and Knightley. Kamryn Conway as Harriet Smith is a strong singer, dominating the stage with “How Will I Know?”. The two women form a compelling duo that brings out their friendship in a way most adaptations avoid in favor of placing Harriet in a simpering, subservient role.

Alex Garber’s Miss Bates is a delightfully awkward old maid stumbling through the school balancing a martini glass and dropping one liners with precise comedic timing. A fellow scene stealer is Cooper Bingham as Jason, the ever present minion of Philip Elton, who’s reactions to the unfolding drama are perennially amusing. Preening himself for a future political career, Philip Elton (Graham Durfee) oils his way through the school with despicable ease; Durfee gives the character realistic adolescent cruelty in his dismissal of Harriet. Jeff Knightley is a difficult role to take on; Knightley balances closely guarded affection for Emma with outward criticism and an innate maturity that sets him apart from her. Max Szanyi maintains a gentleness in his lectures, reaching for her and pulling away, casting glances across the room, and avoids the trap of what Mrs. Elton would call “puppy” responses to his harbored crush.

While the dialog leaves something to be desired, Emma! A Pop Musical is creative fun that will keep your toes tapping with a cast of young actors honing their craft and enjoying the moment as students of Highbury Prep.

Cheeky Homage to the Founding Fathers

Review of 1776
Book by Peter Stone
Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Directed by Larry Williams
Music Direction by Lucas Sherman
Choreography by Michella Snider

For tickets / schedule :
Spreckels Performing Arts Center
Rohnert Park, CA
Spreckels Theatre Company

RUN: February 10-26, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(February 11, 2017)

1776 Spreckels Theatre Company

Photo © Eric Chazankin

America’s earliest years were passionately contested, with hot-blooded colonials seeking independence, Tories who enjoyed the comfort of life as a British citizen, and those who preferred being left alone and hoped the conflict would pass. The debate came to a focal point when the Second Continental Congress met in the heat of Philadelphia to address the matter. A room filled with sweating politicians sniping at each other does not seem like fodder for a musical, or even a lively documentary; fortunately the combination of a solidly crafted book by Peter Stone and clever lyrics from Sherman Edwards transforms the representatives into larger-than-life characters filled with enthusiasm for their point of view.

Spreckels Theatre Company has pulled together an all-star cast of North Bay musical talent, filling the stage with favorites, from Jacob Bronson’s Courier in the piercingly mournful ballad “Momma, Look Sharp” to Gene Abravaya’s impeccable comedic timing as ladies’ man and genius extraordinaire Benjamin Franklin. Poetic license has been taken with the historical figures, leading to amusing songs such as “The Lees of Old Virginia” which is drenched in puns that leave you smiling and groaning simultaneously. From opening curtain to bows, the play skips along at a lively pace, spotlighting representatives for insight into the buildup of the Declaration of Independence. The 1969 musical holds up marvelously well, but shows its age when depicting women, who are largely objectified or thrust into the backdrop of domesticity.

1776 at Spreckels Theatre Company

Photo © Eric Chazankin

Conflict in 1776 ranges between arguments over whether to keep the windows open to relieve the heat, or closed to keep out flies, to a tragic debate about slavery as the horrified John Adams (Jeff Cote) confronts the smug Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Anthony Martinez). Each character pulls their weight in the story, crafting a unique individual. It is not a cardboard cutout chorus line—this musical is a gathering of giants, whether they are half asleep and drinking rum, perpetually nose in a book like Thomas Jefferson (David Strock), or striding the boards ranting at the assembly. There are no background roles, which provides a rich canvas to enjoy as an audience member.

If history classes were this exciting, it would be everyone’s favorite subject. 1776 at Spreckels turns dull congress meetings into an inventive masterpiece of comedy, laden with innuendos and fun mingling with deeper questions of what we might be willing to give up as the cost of freedom.

Power and Artifice Thrive in ‘Evita’

Review of Evita
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice

Directed by Lauren Miller
Music Direction by John Partridge
Sonoma Arts Live
For tickets / schedule :
Sonoma Community Center, Sonoma

RUN: January 20 – February 5, 2017
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(January 28, 2017)

Evita Sonoma Arts Live

Photo by Miller Oberlin

Was Eva Peron a saint of philanthropy who gave hope to a nation, or a corrupt social climber? Both views are explored through memorable music that will keep you humming for days with beloved songs such as “On This Night of A Thousand Stars” and “On The Balcony of The Casa Rosada”. A story that constantly questions itself, as examinations of history should, it does not shy away from the power of a well crafted public image that is designed to manipulate those struggling in poverty—a technique that has been used throughout the world to take control of a country. Hung in the lobby and as a dramatic backdrop, graffiti of Evita and Peronism remind the audience that the president and his wife were admired and despised in Argentina.

Set designer Bruce Lackovic creates a harsh urban environment of primitive scaffolding, keeping the projections as secondary texture, rather than dominating the stage. Occasional use of the levels adds interest, but clambering in and out, ducking under low railings is visually awkward. Music Director John Partridge discovered the synth keyboard languishing in a closet, and brilliantly arranged the score to work with a much smaller core group of musicians. The chorus also faced challenges as the harmony moved from an extensive supporting cast to only four, one of whom was replaced during rehearsals. The energy and concentration that is expended to compensate for the lack of usual chorus adds a touch of unnatural enthusiasm to the diminished cast, who do their best to fill in the gaps.

Evita at Sonoma Arts Live

Photo by Miller Oberlin

Ellen Toscano’s Evita glows with passionate stage presence. Elegantly seductive, she wins the hearts of lovers and audience alike, with explosions of righteous indignation and melting tenderness mingling into the singular woman that was Eva Peron. Robert Dornuss III (Che) is a compelling critical narrator, who shapes the lyrics with clear enunciation and a soothing voice. Michael Conte as Juan Peron and Tod Mostero’s Agustin Magaldi give her strong support with rich tones and poise on stage. The dynamic choreography of Evita is missing in this production, partly due to space considerations, and its lack of presence is felt acutely with the rather stagnant blocking. It is the story and music that form the primary emphasis of this smaller scale adaptation, and they are still a joy to experience on their own. Lauren Miller and Ruth Dunn’s costume designs are an array of glamorous luxury and work attire, standing out in the industrial background for a dramatic effect.

The bewitching magnetism of Evita infuses Sonoma Arts Live through Ellen Toscano’s enticing performance as Eva Peron, and a unique adaptation of the sprawling Broadway favorite to an intimate venue.

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