Escape Into a World of Laughter With ‘Spamalot’

Review of Monty Python’s Spamalot
Book & Lyrics by Eric Idle
Music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle
Directed by David L. Yen
Music Direction by Lucas Sherman
Choreography by Michella Snider

For tickets / schedule :
Spreckels Performing Arts Center
Rohnert Park, CA
Spreckels Theatre Company
Tickets: $28

RUN: October 13-29, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(October 14, 2017)

King Arthur (Robert Nelson) and Patsy (Ted Smith) celebrate with the knights of Camelot. Photo by Jennifer Griego.

Sonoma County continues to struggle with heavy smoke, wildfires and devastation. Cast member Riz Gross was taken to the hospital with burns and others have been evacuated from their homes during the initial outbreak on Monday. Despite the situation, director David L. Yen received enthusiastic notes that the cast and crew were determined to perform and bring this lighthearted, fun play to a grieving community. The lobby atmosphere was appreciative of the effort; it was the first time I had properly smiled in days. Sometimes we need a dose of silliness in our lives, and Spreckels Theatre Company’s courageous decision to move forward with the production gives just that.

Spamalot is a musical version of the popular film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, combined with additional material. King Arthur and his faithful servant, Patsy, scour the eccentric countryside for worthy knights to join him at Camelot, which is a glittering Las Vegas lounge, complete with feather clad showgirls and a disco ball. They receive a quest from God to discover the Holy Grail, although some knights are confused by how an all-knowing being managed to lose a cup—couldn’t he just buy another one? They set off around the world, rescuing a gay prince from his tower, where an evil father prevents him from singing, and looking for a shrubbery demanded by the Knights of Ni. The quest becomes so zany and ridiculous that The Lady of the Lake appears angrily to demand “Whatever Happened to My Part” during a scene change. The laugh-a-minute show can be juvenile in its humor, but there is an underlying sense of hope. In an appropriate addition, Spreckels projected the lyrics to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” for an audience sing-along after the performance.

The Lady of the Lake (Shannon Rider) and ensemble. Photo by Jennifer Griego.

Shannon Rider has magnificent stage presence as The Lady of the Lake. She sweeps in with dazzling gowns to belt out a wide range of songs, including the gospel parody “Find Your Grail” where she deliberately upstages poor King Arthur, who slumps off to the back row chorus, unable to compete. Robert Nelson keeps a straight face through the mayhem as a glum, pompous King Arthur, and has quite the dance moves during the glittering Camelot routine. Choreographer Michella Snider creates movement in keeping with the theme, going for jokes and exaggerated parodies of classic dance styles. Ted Smith’s Patsy wanders behind his king, armed with snarky remarks and a massive backpack.

Gathering a veteran group of local comedic actors as the knights, Zane Walters, Craig Bainbridge, Peter Rogers, and David Gonzalez are brilliant. Walter’s rants about the working class are perfectly timed, and Gonzalez as his mother minces and flirts shamelessly with King Arthur. The French Taunter, Thomas Yen, spouts gibberish insults with spitting accuracy, gathering enthusiastic applause from the audience after delivering the famous line “your father smelt of elderberries!”

The ensemble swaps roles and costumes with astounding speed, often for one liner jokes, like the monks passing through chanting “Pie Iesu domine. Dona eis requiem” while hitting themselves with prayer books. A colorful group of dancers arrives from Finland, after the Historian mumbles the word “England” during his introduction, causing the mistake. A quaint set design by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen includes mobile platforms and trees, with enjoyably appropriate costume designs by Sonja Roberts and lighting with a mind of its own, created by Hansen.

Patsy (Ted Smith), King Arthur (Robert Nelson), and The Lady of the Lake (Shannon Rider) realize that the show must end with a wedding. Photo by Jennifer Griego.

Set aside the fear and uncertainty surrounding our county with this nonsensical Monty Python play where the most terrifying creature is a tiny white rabbit puppet, and everything works out in the end for the gallant knights—even Sir Robin who ran, ran away. As artistic director Sheri Lee Miller wrote in the playbill, “in this complex world of ours, we also need to laugh.” With what the community is facing, those words have become especially true. The enthusiastic number “I’m Not Dead Yet” captures the spirit of Sonoma County. We will stand strong, and deserve to have a few hours to laugh with each other. Spreckels Theatre Company has provided an opportunity to gather for an exciting evening with the silly knights of Spamalot.

Spunky ‘Cabaret’ from Ross Valley Players

Review of Cabaret
By Joe Masteroff
Music & Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb

Directed by James Dunn
Musical Direction by Debra Chambliss
Choreography by Sandra Tanner

For tickets / schedule :
Marin Art & Garden Center Barn Theatre
Ross, CA
Ross Valley Players
Tickets: $27, $16 under 24

RUN: September 21 – October 15, 2017
Extended through October 22

RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(September 22, 2017)

Cabaret by Ross Valley Players

Lulu (Jannely Calmell), Texas (Mia Camera), Sally Bowles (Emily Radosevich), Frenchie (Cindy Head) and Rosie (Alexa Sakellariou) warn not to tell mama! Photo by Robin Jackson.

I find revival productions exciting when the audience is abuzz with discussion about its connection to current news, and although Cabaret has a lighthearted, sexy side to it, the prevailing topic that resulted was rather heavy. The story takes place in Berlin from 1929-1930; its festive atmosphere evaporates under the Nazi Party, and otherwise ordinary German citizens are drawn toward anti-Semitic values. It starts with small choices—blaming them for having too much wealth, of not being properly German, and tossing bricks through their windows. In the resulting fervor, relationships are ripped apart, and characters find themselves forced to take a stand, even if that decision is to ignore what is going on. When Nazi sympathizers join together in a rousing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” the audience is left stunned, unable to applaud the blatant swastika.

Cabaret unfolds in a blind lashing out against those of Jewish descent. Sweet, kind-hearted neighbors like Herr Schultz are treated as enemies, and women are taunted in song. “She’s clever; she’s smart; she reads music. If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” The line is controversial enough to have been removed in some productions, but the shock value resonates with our treatment of today’s immigrants and the beautiful tapestry of backgrounds that form modern America. Fräulein Schneider (Maxine Sattizahn), a spinster who discovers love with Herr Schulz (Ian Swift) feels the struggle acutely, and she explains her plight in a heart-wrenching “What Would You Do?”

Cabaret - Ross Valley Players

Rosie (Alexa Sakellariou), Texas (Mia Camera), Emcee (Erik Batz), Frenchie (Cindy Head), and Lulu (Jannely Calmell) enjoying their moment in the spotlight. Photo by Robin Jackson.

Caught up in the glittering stage of a local cabaret, Sally Bowles avoids the entire situation, preferring to keep the harsh reality at bay with flirtatious songs. Emily Radosevich may not be a dancer, but she is able to infuse emotion into her singing without loss of voice quality. Nearly in tears, she forces a smile for the title song in a bitter-sweet farewell. The sparks do not fly with her partner, Izaak Heath as Cliff Bradshaw. While they are excellent individually, it is difficult to imagine them as lovers, and their interactions appear to be based on convenience, rather than attraction. This may have been intentional, since the production accentuated Bradshaw’s homosexual tendencies and the pressure to avoid giving into them. If so, it is a fascinating twist.

The floor show snippets from Kit Kat Klub’s ensemble are adorable, although slightly stiff, which could have been due to the deliciously sensual, but restricting corset costumes by Michael Berg. Exuberant Emcee Erik Batz gives an entertaining performance with a powerful conclusion and was received with well-deserved enthusiasm. Musical director and pianist Debra Chambliss, Mike Evans (drums), and Jonathan Bretan (bass) balanced with the singers, rather than overwhelming them, and kept the pacing energetic.

This opportune staging of Cabaret is compelling in its depiction of Germany on the brink of World War II, with diverting interludes from the Kit Kat Klub and an excellent cast. Director James Dunn keeps it teetering on the edge between a comedy and thoughtful drama, allowing the audience to consider serious questions while having an enjoyable evening.

Rhythm Transcendence on a Summer Night

Review of Fascinating Rhythm
By Gary Gonser, SFBATCC

Directed by Eric Jackson
Music Direction by Matt Smart
Choreography by Nick Kepley

For tickets / schedule :
Jack London State Historic Park
Glen Ellen, CA
Transcendence Theatre Company

RUN: August 4-20, 2017
RATING: 4.5 of 5 stars

(August 4, 2017)

Transcendence Theatre - Fascinating Rhythm

Photo by Rebecca Call

The grounds of Jack London State Park reserved for the Transcendence Theatre always inspires me. A short trek up to the check-in tables and we are greeted by both volunteers and performers who really show they are glad we have come this evening. A little further and we see the valley open up in front of us with tables, booths, food trucks and live music. This is not just another venue space, but a commitment to making the stay here as relaxing and exciting as possible.

This is opening night under a variable sky. The rain has passed and the clouds are making way for stars and a full moon. The local patrons from Sonoma and Santa Rosa told me they would not miss these summer evenings. Many have been coming here for 4 years or more and are quite content to relax into the show with a picnic and some wine.

Slowly, we all make our way into the old winery walls that define the “theatre” and find our seats facing the large stage and vineyard hill behind. Stephan, Brad and Amy greet us with a high energy welcome. The band is onstage for this production, spread across the backstage and ready to start the show. What do they have for us this evening?

Transcendence Theatre - Fascinating Rhythm

Photo from Transcendence Theatre

The rhythms in this production are varied from the bright “Everything Old is New Again” with Gavin Waters and Rachel Louise Thomas to the tap dancing energy of “Happy Feet.”  The orchestra has a particularly rich brass section that comes out in “Happy Feet” for our enjoyment. Janis Snyder assembles some excellent costumes to show off the dancers.

The progression of a song from singer to ensemble comes naturally to Transcendence. Erika Conaway starts the “Song of Purple Summer” and draws her ensemble group onto the stage to fill the early evening with choral music and modern dance. This is the type of music that fills the valley and sky with shimmering song, floating up to the moon above. A little heaven, please.

Transcendence Theatre - Fascinating Rhythm

Photo by Chris Hardy

With the 50th anniversary of the summer of love upon us, Transcendence presents the dueling guitars of AJ Ackleson and Colin Campbell McAdoo with “Summer of 69.” This early rock is mesmerizing and reminds us of the better parts of the 1960s.  We can always romanticize about what it would have been like with this music on our minds.

Add “Arthur in the Afternoon,” “Dancing with Myself,” and “Rise Up” for rhythms that are not your Broadway standards and lyrics! The point is to use the talent, music, variety and dance to create fantastic music with a flair for the stage. The little vignettes that spotlight the unusual routines and music build up to the entire company taking over the stage with “Fascinating Rhythm” and act 1 is complete.

The sun has gone down by the intermission, just on schedule for this show. The full moon moves out to help light the entertainment and our hearts.  Shaleah Adkisson belts out a mean “Play That Song” with full company backup moving and singing to fill the large stage.

“Baby That is Rock and Roll” pulls out the stops for the band and company. Suddenly the tempo changes to “I Got Plenty of Nothing” with Mike Kirsch. This flow of energy from large to intimate keeps the music and dance fresh for the audience while giving the dancers time to change. The second act continues this segue from large to small to large to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Matt Smart plays a mean piano with “Piano Man” as his baby grand piano moves center stage. The company is drawn out onstage to catch the mood with the audience. Now the sky is dark and the stage takes on a nightclub atmosphere for dance and song. This is perfect for the ebb and flow of the late night rhythms.

“A Sky Full of Stars” and “The World Goes Round” finish up the evening with hope and caring. Transcendence Theatre goes a full circle from the rhythms of 1960s rock to the peaceful rhythms of a thoughtful evening out with friends. It could not be better.

For large vision music and dancing, the Transcendence Theatre Company is making its presence known in the North Bay. Fascinating Rhythm runs through August 20 at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen.

$39, $59, $65, $85
Available online at

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