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.

Evocative Historical Satire in ‘Thomas and Sally’

Review of Thomas and Sally
By Thomas Bradshaw
Directed by Jasson Minadakis

For tickets & schedule:
Marin Theatre Company
Mill Valley, CA
Tickets: $10-49

RUN: September 28 – October 22, 2017
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(October 4, 2017)

Marin Theatre Company - Thomas and Sally

Betty Hemings (Charlette Speigner), Martha Hemings (Ella Dershowitz), and Karen (Rosie Hallett). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Thomas and Sally shakes the dust off history with a controversial new play by Thomas Bradshaw. He takes delight in arousing a heightened level of discomfort in the audience, eliciting shock from the humiliation of Robert Hemings, revulsion at the level of hypocrisy characters are capable of, and anger that manipulation can be such a powerful tool in the wrong hands.

Framed through the eyes of two college girls, who are refreshingly open about sexual needs, their perspective threads through the play, with musings on topics from how to safely masturbate when pregnant to whether the Electoral College is useful or eliminates the democratic process. Their imagination drives the story, leading to a confrontation between the students over whether Sally’s relationship with Jefferson was a lustful older man taking advantage of his teenage slave or a position of mutual understanding that Sally used to her benefit. The play does not attempt to answer the question; it presents a possible interpretation, leaving the audience to decide.

Marin Theatre Company - Thomas and Sally

Simone (Ella Dershowitz) and Karen (Rosie Hallett) watch the story unfold. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The knotwork family trees are explained in a detailed lobby display; the crucial connection is between Jefferson’s wife and her half-sister, Sally’s mother. Because the Hemings were therefore family, they resided in the house and did not participate in menial field labor. In Bradshaw’s vision, this made it difficult for Jefferson to see them as ordinary slaves; they had a certain level of standing, and he is flummoxed by their fiercely held dreams of becoming free.

The casual racism from white characters is alarming: a reminder of what this country was and still is in many ways. Jefferson’s quietly run estate is far from violent depictions of slavery, instead the institution runs silently in the background, ever present, erasing the humanity of its victims. He refers to them as servants, commenting that it is a lofty ideal to free them, but viewing his slaves as inferior children who need guidance and protection from a loving, intelligent master. I found myself nauseous from his horrifying statements that are introduced as normal observations in polite society. Director Jasson Minadakis subtly shifted focus between characters during such scenes, augmenting their effect.

From dorm room pajamas to a parade of extravagant 18th century gowns, Ashley Holvick’s costumes are remarkable. Sean Fanning’s classical set design is modular, expanding with the story, mingling modern pieces, like the mini fridge, with vaulting Ionic columns.

Marin Theatre Company - Thomas and Sally

Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) contemplates architecture with Robert Hemings (Cameron Matthews). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Marin Theatre Company has assembled a forceful group of actors. Tara Pacheco as Sally Hemings captures an astute young woman who is aware of her difficult position, and is willing to fight for something more. William Hodgson is her brother, James Hemings, a talented man whose resourcefulness becomes a source of depression. Deeply troubled, he dutifully presses on; Hodgson carries the transformation from eager youth to jaded submission with painful accuracy. Portraying Thomas Jefferson as a flawed dreamer, Mark Anderson Phillips carefully steps between a sympathetic view and naively bigoted Jefferson who is used to getting his own way. Charlette Speigner’s fiery Betty Hemings manages to combine humor with tragedy in a memorable performance as Sally’s mother.

Marin Theatre Company’s commissioned Thomas and Sally is a challenging story for our time, laying bare preconceived impressions of American History through the energetic imagination of college students wrestling with current issues of race and the motivation that sex has on our culture. It may not be comfortable, but it is a brutal and entertaining reflection that needs to be considered if we are to move forward as a society.

Parental advisory: this play contains adult themes and full nudity.

Followup: Please consider reading the open letter to Marin Theatre Company from Truth Telling which discusses the social justice implications of this play and its impact on the African American  community. They have a perspective that needs to be heard for full context of this play.

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.

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