Swing Into the Jungle at Spreckels

Review of Disney’s Musical Tarzan
Book by David Henry Hwang
Music and Lyrics by Phil Collins
Directed by Gene Abravaya and David L. Yen
Music Direction by Tina Lloyd Meals
Choreography by Michella Snider

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

RUN: May 5-21, 2017
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

Spreckels - Tarzan

Photo by Eric Chazankin

(May 6, 2017)

Humid jungle creeps across the stage in tiers of hanging vines, flora and fungi with rough stone ruins leading up a steep cliff. Enter the world of Tarzan, filled with magical adventure and talking animals, romance and wild combat with ferocious leopards. Loosely based on the pulp fiction series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it aligns with the Disney version, although the stage production includes additional songs and deeper characterization. Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen’s set design of an overgrown hillside is fascinating to watch actors interact with. A child in the audience gleefully exclaimed “It looks real!” when the curtains moved back to reveal another world filled with verdant plant life.

Shawna Eiermann (Kala) and Brian Watson (Kerchak) bring an intense emotional resonance to their roles as Tarzan’s adoptive parents. Eiermann’s depiction of ferocious love and fearless devotion for a child that is not even her species transcends barriers as an example that people do not need to be alike in order to feel a strong connection. Her moment with Tarzan “You’ll Be in My Heart” is genuinely moving.

Spreckels - Tarzan

Photo by Eric Chazankin

Like The Flash television series, this play mixes drama with cartoonish elements. At times it works well, especially Jane and Tarzan’s scenes of romantic comedy moving into graver decisions when her ship is about to leave. Other transitions gave me a bit of whiplash between several different styles, moving between heart wrenching acting from Eiermann and Watson to the mustache twirling villain and sidekick or dancing mushrooms and flowers galavanting across the stage. Tarzan overall is enjoyable, it is the balance between directing styles that seems confusing.

Abbey Lee’s Jane is sophisticated while capturing the character’s boundless energy and eager exploration of a new and fascinating world. Kit Grimm as Porter is the perfect father—understanding, kind and inquisitive. Michael Lumb’s Tarzan is infused with innocent wonder, and he shifts physicality during the course of the play. His shuffling on all fours using knuckles to propel himself forward gradually changes to upright, hesitant walking as he learns from Jane. The supporting cast is well chosen, from Lily Spangler’s Young Terk who has enough attitude to fill Spreckel’s formidable stage single handed to the apes with their semi-dancing antics. Return early from intermission for a mini scene of the expedition crew attempting to set up camp in the jungle before Act II officially begins.

Pamela Enz steps up with brilliant costume designs for the apes in flowing, draped fringe and multiple changes of elegant attire for Jane. Inez Viera’s make-up design adds geometric, tribal shapes on the animals, rather than a literal approach, which was visually effective.

Spreckels - Tarzan

Photo by Eric Chazankin

Swing into Spreckels for a lively evening of adventure in Tarzan with your favorite characters from the Disney movie coming to life onstage. On May 21st after the final show, stop by the theatre for a gathering honoring Gene Abravaya as he leaves on his own journey into retirement. He will be missed in the North Bay, where he re-invigorated Spreckels into the vibrant theatre it is today and has been a joy to the local community.

‘Guys and Dolls’ at Luther Burbank Center

Review of Guys and Dolls
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by John DeGaetano
Music Direction by Les Pfutzenreuter
Choreography by Emily DeGaetano

For tickets / schedule :
Luther Burbank Center for the Arts
Santa Rosa, CA
North Bay Stage Company

RUN: April 28 – May 14, 2017
RATING: 3 of 5 stars

(May 5, 2017)

Guys and Dolls - North Bay Stage Company

Photo by John DeGaetano

Guys and Dolls is a beloved musical with lively songs and a heartwarming, absurd plot. Filled with heart-of-gold gangsters, gamblers, music hall girls and enthusiastic missionaries, it sashays through 1940s New York with glitzy show tunes and infectious rhythm. North Bay Stage Company presents it in concert, with live big band sound from local musicians.

While there is no set to speak of, Kathy Katz’s costume design adds a dash of color in the spirit of the show and helps define who the characters are, even if it is not entirely accurate to the time period. The Hot Box Girls in “Take Back Your Mink” are adorable, with sassy choreography by Emily DeGaetano. Their high strung soloist, Miss Adelaide (Cindy Brillhart-True), is comically delightful in “Adelaide’s Lament”, taking full advantage of the clever lyrics. Trotting on high heels, she weaves through the waiting actors for her scenes, gathering laughs from the audience in her wake of righteous indignation.

The young lovers, Sarah (Maureen O’Neill) and Sky (David Strock), sparkle with chemistry and have beautiful sound, although there needs to be better balance with the orchestra, which drowned them out in their signature duets. O’Neill’s tipsy ballad in Havana was euphoric with happiness, and Strock owned the stage with “Luck Be a Lady”.

Supporting characters in vintage inspired suits and fedoras are an amusing ensemble, including Gary Sciford’s antics as Benny Southstreet, Paul MacKinnon’s anxious Harry the Horse and Bill Stone’s ominous stage presence as Big Jule. The narrator is on book, but assists with explaining scene transitions for audience members who are unfamiliar with the fully staged production.

If you love Guys and Dolls for its toe-tapping music, North Bay Stage Company will be an evening with old friends. It is not a polished production, but the cast gives it their all for enjoyable entertainment filled with laughter and song.

Blood-soaked Legend Comes to Life in ‘Guards at the Taj’

Review of Guards at the Taj
By Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Jasson Minadakis

For tickets & schedule:
Marin Theatre Company
Mill Valley, CA

RUN: April 27 – May 21, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(May 3, 2017)

Marin Theatre Company - Guards at the Taj

Photo by Kevin Berne

If you see one play this year, it should be Guards at the Taj. Its gruesome theatricality parallels the Mughal Empire’s reign of staggering artistry living hand-in-hand with excessive violence. Completed in 1648, the Taj Mahal stood in regal glory, sparking the legend that Shah Jahan ordered such a thing of beauty should never be built again and required the hands chopped off of the 20,000 workers and artisans, ensuring its rival could not be created. It is highly unlikely such an event actually took place, but it is a recurring motif in folklore found around the globe, and likely the local manifestation of that theme, according to resident dramaturg Laura A. Brueckner. The story concept’s massive scale could become unwieldy, and in an early draft the play was filled with characters. Playwright Rajiv Joseph realized the centrality was represented in its least grandiose characters—the guards. The resulting two-hander play Guards at the Taj takes ordinary people and sets them in a world beyond their control, forcing them to make impossible decisions and live with the consequences.

While there are lofty moments debating the philosophy of beauty and play of power structures, at its heart the play is about friendship. Humayun (Jason Kapoor) believes that if he obeys the rules, his life will get better, despite the horror of living in between. Childhood friend Babur (Rushi Kota) is playful and emotion driven, leading him to feel the situation acutely, whether it is cheerily cracking jokes while standing guard, or wading through a blood covered set, traumatized by the experience. Their interactions are acutely humanizing moments; Humayun’s gentle kindness, silently washing his friend’s face is tragically beautiful.

Marin Theatre Company - Guards at the Taj

Photo by Kevin Berne

Both actors are magnificent in this piece, from subtle eye twitches becoming comedic gold to numb horror when faced with a set drenched in blood. This is a gory play, with around 100 gallons of stage blood in various forms used in each performance. To practice, director Jasson Minadakis used puzzle pieces dumped onto the studio floor, and the actors practiced working through the dialog while moving them around, putting puzzles together, or flipping pieces over. This is no quaint Victorian fairy tale, it embodies the raw violence of ancient mythology before Disney got hold of it, when villains and heroes alike gushed blood and body parts.

Marin Theatre Company - Guards at the Taj

Photo by Kevin Berne

Although the subject matter is extremely violent, most of the play is two men hanging out casually discussing whatever comes to mind, which happens to be quite profound. Joseph creates a conversational atmosphere, whether that is lighthearted ribbing about getting to guard the harem to desperately trying to deal with a dangerous situation by talking about something else to keep the mind occupied and not thinking about what is going on. Sound designer Chris Houston adds texture to the setting, layering recorded Indian bird songs in outdoor scenes to the point where they almost become another character, and ominous echoing and dripping blood when necessary. Annie Smart’s deceptively simplistic set design is effective and filled with concealed traps that become relevant as the story progresses.

This play has an intrinsic shock value, but also the intimacy of two friends trying to survive in a world that doesn’t care about individuals. Through creativity of spirit they manage to keep their humanity in tact until the monarch requires something so heinous that it crumbles around them. As Humayun laments, “what is caring going to get me?”

Please note that this play is not for children; it contains traumatic imagery and brief nudity. The first two rows of the theater are a splash zone, do not wear your favorite outfit if you plan to attend in that area.

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