The musical play Waitress, a show based on the quietly successful 2007 film by Adrienne Shelly and which starred Keri Russell, is now playing at the Community Center Theater, as part of Broadway Sacramento’s Broadway on Tour series for 2018–19. The production, with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles and book by Jessie Nelson, is fairly new to the musical world, having debuted in 2015 and making it to Broadway in 2016, and is now premiering in Sacramento. Bareilles is a successful singer, songwriter, and actress from Northern California who has been nominated for multiple Grammy, Tony, and Emmy awards for her song “Love Song,” album “The Blessed Unrest,” and many other performances, and she starred as Mary Magdalene in the television production of Jesus Chris Superstar earlier this year, and hosted the Tony Awards show with Josh Groban. She began working on the adaptation of Waitress into a musical in 2103.
Waitress tells the story of Jenna, a waitress at Joe’s Diner, who also happens to be an expert pie maker. But she feels trapped in the small southern town, and in a loveless marriage, and dreams of a way out. On opening night, filling in for Christine Dwyer, understudy Emily Koch played the role of Jenna, who views her life through innovative pie recipes, an effect creatively staged by isolating her while members of the ensemble add the ingredients she imagines into her mixing bowl. Supporting Jenna are her two fellow waitresses, Becky, played by Maiesha McQueen, and Dawn, played by Jessie Shelton, who both have their own issues with a lack of romance in their lives.
The show opens with Jenna singing “What’s Inside.” With the haunting chants of “Sugar, butter, flour” the song introduces the idea that what is inside each pie is not only Jenna’s heart and soul, but her life, and hints that there is more inside of her, as it is soon revealed that she is pregnant—a trap that will only make things worse with her domineering husband. Emily Koch did a wonderful job portraying Jenna’s musings, with an alternately sweet and powerful voice. Becky and Dawn join her in “Opening Up” and then, realizing she is suspiciously ill, take her to the restroom to take a pregnancy test, in the clever song “The Negative.” The three blend their voices well, especially as shown in “A Soft Place to Land,” a gorgeous song in three-part harmony about keeping your dreams alive as the only soft place to land in a hard life.
Though the show is often quite serious, with Jenna dealing with her abusive and manipulative husband, Earl, played by the menacing Matt DeAngelis, it can also be uproariously funny. Dawn, who is insecure about her appearance and personality, as she sings in her song “When He Sees Me,” reaches out to find someone, and makes her perfect match with the nerdy Ogie, who likes magic tricks and Revolutionary War reenactments. Jeremy Morse, as Ogie, brings the house to hysterics with his song “Never Getting Rid of Me,” as he compares his childhood determination to become friends with a stray cat with his enduring love for Dawn.
Meanwhile, Jenna finds solace in her new gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter, played by Steven Good, who loves her pies and shows her the kind of affection she is severely lacking in her marriage. Their flirtation begins in the jazzy duet “It Only Takes a Taste,” which leads to the song “Bad Idea,” where they find it hard to resist each other, despite all the reasons to stay away. Steven Good plays the kind but awkward doctor with a mix of tenderness and physical humor that also helps lighten the serious subject matter.
Highlights from Act II include Maiesha McQueen showing off her powerful voice in the song “I Didn’t Plan It” about her new romance with diner manager Cal, played by Ryan G. Dunkin, who has spent most of the show bossing the waitresses around, but has found a soft spot in his heart for the most sassy of his crew. Ogie sings another of his special love songs in “I Love You Like a Table,” and elderly regular customer Joe, played by Richard Kline, sings the tender “Take it From an Old Man,” reassuring Jenna to find the strength to follow her heart, with the nice line “If you lack the strength of your own, honey, take it from an old man.”
Sara Bareilles’s music from Waitress is engaging and enjoyable throughout, whether dealing with serious issues like Jenna’s and her mother’s suffering from abusive marriages and their efforts to find a way out, or the lighthearted romantic and comedic numbers. The five-piece band is cleverly staged as if they are customers in Joe’s Diner, who just happen to be playing drums, piano, bass, guitar, or cello. Parents should be warned, however, the material does get very overt in dealing with infidelity and relationships both romantic and sexual, so it is appropriate for older teens only.
The opening night audience greeted the cast with a standing ovation, especially for Emily Koch, who stepped into the spotlight without a hitch. Waitress is directed by Diane Paulus, who directed the original production and the Broadway show; and choreographed by Lorin Latarro, who also choreographed the Broadway show. The show is dedicated to the memory of the original film director Adrienne Shelly, who died in 2006, the victim of a violent attack. Waitress is playing through Sunday, January 5th at the Community Center Theater in downtown Sacramento. For more information and tickets, see www.BroadwaySacramento.com. The 2018–19 Broadway on Tour season will continue with STOMP running from February 1 through 10, 2019.
Ken Kiunke, 12/28/18
Originally published in GoldCountryMarketing.com. Reprintable with attribution to Gold Country Marketing and Ken Kiunke
Jessie Shelton, Christine Dwyer, and Maiesha McQueen as small town waitresses
The music of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, and Gloria’s husband, producer, and sometime songwriting partner Emilio, are featured in the musical On Your Feet—The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical, now playing at the Community Center Theater, opening the new season for Broadway Sacramento’s Broadway on Tour series for 2018–19. Besides the music, the show tells the story of Gloria and Emilio meeting and creating the sound that won them dozens of number 1 hit records and awards, and brought Cuban music to the forefront of the scene in the U.S and the world. The musical premiered in 2015 in Chicago and on Broadway, and is now on its first national tour.
Christie Prades stars as Gloria, a girl born in Cuba, who moved to Miami with her family when she was two years old. Part of a musical family, young Gloria shone early on as a singer, but also wanted to study and get a college education. As a teenager, her Abuela (grandmother) Consuelo encourages her to sing for Emilio Estefan, the leader of a local group the Miami Latin Boys. He is enchanted by her and the song she wrote, “Anything For You,” and wants her to join the act as a singer and dancer. Gloria’s mother, a frustrated singer herself, is skeptical of Emilio and his plans, thus setting up the tension in the story. Meanwhile, Gloria’s father, José, a veteran of the Army in his new country, and who served in Vietnam, is suffering from multiple sclerosis and needs care, and cannot enjoy Gloria’s success the way he used to.
Christine Prades has a lovely voice, and ably handles Gloria Estefan’s songs, both the tender ballads, like “Here We Are,” and the dance numbers like “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and their first big hit “Conga.” She and Emilio, played by Ektor Rivera, form a dynamic duo in pushing their music to producers, disc jockeys, clubs, and anywhere they can get their records played or the band to perform. Rivera has an engaging personality and a good voice as well, as in his romantic duet with Gloria, “Here We Are,” and “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” after Gloria’s near-fatal accident on the tour bus. The couple are shown, early in their recording career, trying to get their song “Conga” released, but the record executives have decided they are a Latin musical act, and won’t release a song in English because it won’t appeal to their established audience. Emilio, however, wants his group to be a crossover success.
For those of us in California, especially if you were in Southern California, Latin music was Mexican music—the sound of mariachi bands, norteño, and tejana music dominated the Mexican-American culture. The sound grew from a combination of Spanish and native cultures, and focused on guitars, violins, and horns; percussion took a back seat if used at all. Meanwhile, the music of Cuba grew from the blending of Spanish with West African influence, originally from the large enslaved populations brought to the Caribbean islands. (In the U.S., of course, the African influence would lead to blues and jazz, and ultimately R & B, soul, and rock and roll.) Though the Spanish language is the same, the Cuban sound is so dominated by drums and other percussion that it sounds completely different. It was this music that Cubans brought to Florida, especially Miami, and that Emilio and Gloria were trying to bring to the rest of the world, and broke through big in the 80s, and especially the 90s.
The great songs like “Conga,” “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” and “1, 2, 3,” written by Gloria and original Miami Sound Machine drummer Enrique “Kiki” Garcia, sound great as performed by Prades, the back-up singers, and the great on-stage band, which features five of the musicians from the actual Miami Sound Machine, along with five others. And the numbers all feature great colorful Latin dancing, with gyrating hips and swooping skirts.
There are some great, stand-out supporting performances as well, most notably Gloria’s mother, Gloria Fajardo, played by Nancy Ticotin. Though she’s mostly upset and feeling left behind by her family, she has some great songs, like “Mi Tierra,” in a flashback to her younger days when she was a popular singer in Cuba, and “If I Never Got to Tell You,” which was written for the show by Gloria Estefan and her daughter Emily. And Gloria’s father, José, played by Eddie Noel, while stricken with MS, has such a profound influence on her that he shows up repeatedly in flashbacks, guiding his daughter in the song “When Someone Comes Into Your Life” and giving her hope. Alma Cuevo plays the nurturing Abuela Consuelo, who has a few surprises of her own. And youngster Jordan Vergara played three roles—Nayib, Gloria and Emilio’s son; Jeremy, a boy lucky enough to have the Miami Sound Machine play at his bar mitzvah; and Emilio as a boy. Whatever part he’s playing, Jordan danced like a mad-man, and brought big cheers from the audience. (Jeanpaul Medina Solano plays those roles in alternate performances.)
The show is a great celebration of the music of the Estefans and Miami Sound Machine, never more so than in the big closing medley, which gives all the performers another chance to show off, even Abuela, and gets the audience (fittingly) on their feet. On Your Feet—The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical, directed by Jerry Mitchell, with choreography by Sergio Trujillo, is playing through Sunday, November 4th at the Community Center Theater in downtown Sacramento. Greeted with a dancing and standing ovation on opening night, the show is suitable for all ages. For more information and tickets, see www.BroadwaySacramento.com. The 2018–19 Broadway on Tour season will continue with Waitress, featuring music by Sara Bareilles, beginning December 27.
Ken Kiunke, 10/31/18
Originally published in GoldCountryMarketing.com. Reprintable with attribution to Gold Country Marketing and Ken Kiunke
Ektor Rivera and Christie Prades celebrate the music of Emilio and Gloria Estefan
The music of George and Ira Gershwin was brought to life in the musical An American in Paris, which tailored their existing songs into a love story based in Paris after the Second World War, when an American soldier decides to stay in France instead of coming home because he is intrigued by a French girl he sees on the streets. It was originally a film in 1951 starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, which was itself built around a jazz-influenced orchestral piece by George Gershwin, written in 1928 and also titled “An American in Paris.” While the film used several Gershwin songs, it daringly included a 17-minute ballet sequence to the title music. Sixty-four years later, in 2014, director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon adapted it to a new musical production, with a new book by Craig Lucas. The show is now playing as the final production of Broadway Sacramento’s 2017–18 season.
The show is a departure from the usual musical theatre production, in that it is often more of a ballet than a play, the story often carried by music and dance rather than dialog. The opening number is a stunningly choreographed scene on the street of Paris, with the performers swirling about to the tune of “Concerto in F,” even interacting with moving set pieces and projected animations, showing the struggles of the Parisians in the aftermath of the war. It is here that soldier Jerry Mulligan, played by McGee Maddox, first sees Lise Dassin, played by Allison Walsh, and tears up his ticket home. He will pursue his dream of becoming an artist and finding that girl. Both Maddox and Walsh are excellent dancers, and, along with the rest of the dancing company, handle the ballet and modern dance sequences beautifully. It should be noted that on matinee-day performances other actors fill those roles, as doing two shows in a day would be too demanding.
Filling the role of narrator is another American in Paris, Adam Hochberg, a wounded veteran, New Yorker, Jewish piano player and composer—sort of playing George Gershwin himself—who sets up the story with his deadpan humor. Played by Matthew Scott, Adam meets Jerry and, seeing a kindred spirit, invites him to meet his Parisian friend and unpaid landlord, Henri Baurel, played by Ben Michael. These three men, along with Lise and wealthy American heiress Milo Davenport, played by Kirsten Scott, form a kind of “love pentagon” that is the basis for the story. Jerry, Adam, and Henri sing the song “’S Wonderful” about the girl they’ve fallen for, not knowing they are all referring to Lise.
The five leading performers all have great voices, but the appeal of the show is the dance numbers, which range from classical ballet to modern and jazz dance. When Jerry finally finds Lise, and follows her to her job at a department store perfume counter, he sings and dances the song “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” making full use of the display cases, umbrellas, and people in the store. Another highlight of the first act is the “Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture” during a colorful masquerade party, when secrets of the characters’ relationships are revealed. The second act opens with a slow dance recital, with echoes of the comedic “Ode on a Grecian Urn” from The Music Man, but which soon turns into Jerry leading the company in “Fidgety Feet,” an energetic, wild, and complex dance that cuts the serious mood. And the number “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” allows stumbling Henri to imagine himself as a real Broadway song and dance man, introducing the idea of a dream song and dance sequence.
That leads to the climax of the story, the grand ballet sequence around the title piece, “An American in Paris.” Like the extended “Dream Ballet” sequence in the Rogers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, which was choreographed by Agnes de Mille, the extended number takes the characters out of reality into a fantasy world where their true feelings can be revealed. The set and costumes are built around Jerry’s design for the program of the premier of Adam’s ballet, which Lise is starring in, and features bright colors and simple shapes, reminiscent of the Bauhaus design school of the 1930s. The complex and visually compelling dance sequence is a fitting interpretation of Gershwin’s music, and a chance for the performers to show off their serious ballet skills, all under a stunning and changing set that, through the use of projections, changes from moment to moment and brings the characters to another world. It seamlessly morphs back into reality, and is a fitting bookend to the opening dance sequence, where the narrative is taken over entirely by the meaning expressed by the dance and music.
An American in Paris, directed by the original Broadway Director Christopher Wheeldon, is playing through Sunday, May 27th at the Community Center Theater in downtown Sacramento. Greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation on opening night, the show is suitable for ages, but more appropriate for an audience that appreciates sophisticated dance. For more information and tickets, see www.BroadwaySacramento.com. This summer’s Broadway at Music Circus kicks off with Singin’ in the Rain on June 12.
Ken Kiunke 5/19/2018
Originally published in GoldCountryMarketing.com. Reprintable with attribution to Gold Country Marketing and Ken Kiunke
McGee Maddox and Allison Walsh dancing to the music of Gershwin
Finding Neverland, the musical story of J.M. Barrie’s rejection of his old form of playwriting and embracing the child inside everyone, creating the story of Peter Pan, opened to a cheering crowd in Sacramento’s Community Center Theater Tuesday night. Peter Pan is one of the most enduring children’s stories ever created, and has become beloved from its start as a play by Barrie, Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904, his 1911 novel of the story, Peter and Wendy, and the many adaptations for stage and film, most notably Walt Disney’s Peter Pan in 1953, and the Broadway musical staring Mary Martin in 1954, each of which featured the many songs we know so well.
The story illustrating how Barrie came up with his idea of the boy who refused to grow up and live forever on an island full of adventures with a crew of other lost boys, started with an Allan Knee play, which became the movie Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp as James Barrie. It’s the tale of a London playwright who grows tired of his usual work, but meets a group of boys playing in the park. One of them, Peter, doesn’t like to play anymore because he is growing older, and no longer finds joy in pretending. As Barrie gets to know the boys and their widowed mother, Sylvia, he is inspired to create Peter Pan, Captain Hook, Tinker Bell, and the story of Neverland. That play and movie in turn inspired a musical production, which eventually brought together James Graham to create the book, and Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy to create the music and lyrics.
The show opens with a stage full of the familiar Peter Pan characters in action, until they are interrupted by Barrie, played by Will Ray, who tells us they don’t yet exist, but he’ll fill us in on where they came from, which leads to a London park and the song “Welcome to London,” and we learn that Barrie is a playwright who is nearly done with his next show, and just in time because his current production is running out of steam. Once he meets Peter and his family, Barrie realizes he is just writing the same old stuff again, and tears it all up. His solo song, “My Imagination,” is his lament that he has lost something, but needs to find a new path within his mind. Then he tries to show Peter how to look beyond reality and find the fun of imagination in the song “Believe.” Ray has a strong voice and a warm, engaging stage presence that helps you believe he really does enjoy playing with the boys in the park. Barrie also meets the boys’ mother, played by Lael Van Keuren, and you can also buy that he really enjoys a platonic friendship with her as well.
His encouragement of Peter and his brothers inspires Barrie himself, and the seeds of his new idea begin to grow, which he then has to sell to his theatrical producer, Charles Frohman, an American in London who is all about results and going with whatever works. As I admired the performance of the larger-than-life character, I looked in the playbill to see who is playing this older man’s part, and the actor is named John Davidson. As I looked over his lengthy credits, I realized that yes, he is that John Davidson—if you were around in the 1970s, you knew this likable, handsome celebrity with the “dry look” swept hair and dimples; the guy from “That’s Incredible” and hundreds of other television shows. He’s still handsome, but with his white hair now in a ponytail, and his now rugged features, he’s like a whole other person, and he was just great, in command of the stage, with perfect comic timing.
And in case stealing the show as Frohman wasn’t enough, Davidson also appears as Barrie’s alter ego, Captain James Hook, a bombastic visualization of the character, who prods Barrie on to follow his dream and create his masterpiece, in the songs “Hook” and “Stronger,” which closes the first act in a powerful, stunning scene with some amazing stage effects.
As Sylvia, Lael Van Keuren has some very nice, touching moments, as in the songs “All That Matters” and “Sylvia’s Lullaby,” and later when she and Ray sing “What You Mean To Me.” Her strong, sweet voice blends well with Ray’s easy tenor. And the rest of the supporting cast are very good as well, especially the acting company who performs Barrie’s plays. Led by Dwelvan David and Matt Wolpe, these over-acting thespians are first appalled at being told they have to play roles like children, pirates, and worst of all, a great big sheepdog. But Davidson, as Frohman, gets them agreeable with a little drink and the song “Play”—after all, if they like to act in a play, why not just play?
I’d like to mention the four boys in the show, but they are acted by any of six young men who each could play any of two or three parts on any given night, so I don’t know who played whom; suffice it to say they all did a great job, and got to really have fun in their song “We’re All Made of Stars,” when the boy playing George led them while playing a pretty mean ukulele. And another popular performer in the show was Sammy, who played Porthos, the big sheepdog, who did a great job following all his cues, and received both applause and “awwwwes” from the audience.
The staging and sets are very well designed, making effective use of set pieces combined with projections, which can be over-done, but here is subtle, and sometimes magical, as when clouds pass before the moon in the background. And there is a special effects scene done at the end with Peter Pan and Sylvia that is quite magical, and touching as well.
Being a show revolving around four kids and the story of Peter Pan might lead you to think of this as a family, or even kids show, but it really isn’t. While some of it may appeal to a younger audience, the themes revolve around adult ideas and humor, and trying to find the kid inside the grown-up. It did remind me of the story, recreated in this show, of the initial reception of Peter Pan. The high-class, snooty theatre audience, watching the play for the first time, was told that Tinker Bell was dying, but if they believed in fairies and clapped their hands, she could be saved. The teary-eyed men and women in tuxedos and evening gowns applauded loudly and saved her, perhaps transporting themselves to Neverland for a while, which is really what this show is about.
Finding Neverland, directed by the original Broadway Director Diane Paulus, is playing through Sunday, April 15th at the Community Center Theater in downtown Sacramento. Greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation on opening night, the show is suitable for adults and older teens; younger kids maybe, if they are used to full length musical productions. For more information and tickets, see www.BroadwaySacramento.com. The current season will conclude with An American in Paris, running from May 16-27, before summer’s Music Circus kicks off with Singin’ in the Rain on June 12.
Ken Kiunke 4/11/2018
Will Ray as J.M. Barrie is inspired to create Peter Pan