Lieber and Stoller’s Whirlwind Trip Down Memory Lane
by Robert M. Gardner
Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that two Jewish boys from New York wrote the musical timeline of my youth. Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller are responsible for writing more than 70 songs that made the music charts and defined the music of a generation. When they were 19 years old, they penned “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton. Then, Elvis Presley made it into the 1958 blockbuster hit. Lieber and Stoller composed some of the most memorable pop hits from the 60s to the 90s, forging the soul of the Rock and Roll generation.
Under the brilliant direction of Lauren Rosi, we enjoy a parade of 39 of Lieber and Stoller’s greatest hits. Their songs provide all the message we need, so there’s no need for dialogue in “Smokey Joe’s Café” at Town Hall Theatre. The lyrics tell all the stories, as they have from the start.
The strong eight member cast sings and dances: Natalie Buster, Elizabeth Curtis, Jamail Davis, Jacqueline Dennis, Cadarious Mayberry, Katrina McGraw, Brandon Noel Thomas, and Cian Riggs. The talented singers are accompanied by an upbeat and rockin’ four member band, made up of Music Director Tania Johnson on keyboard, Elvis Ordiniza on saxophone, Scott Massoni on guitar, Matthew Porter on drums, and Peter Ruszel on bass.
They play behind the 50s style façade of Smokey Joe’s Café, emblazoned with a neon sign. The exuberant cast dances and sings their way through a dizzying number of songs with constant costume changes and re-combinations of singers. They are supported by an enthusiastic audience, some wearing argyle sweaters and Bobby Sox.
The “feel good” show testifies to Lieber and Stoller’s broad range— from the romantic “Down on the Boardwalk” and “Spanish Harlem” to novelty songs “Yakkety Yak” and “Poison Ivy.” Their songbook runs from rhythm and blues groups like The Coasters to the rock and roll hits of Elvis Presley.
I was carried back to sock hops in high school, dancing cheek to cheek with my favorite girl. The cast delights us with their fine singing and dancing, coupled with their hilarious comedic talents. The room is hopping. If you want a great time and a trip down Memory Lane, head over to Town Hall Theatre for some fun.
“Smokey Joes Café,” words and music by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, directed by Lauren Rosi, and music director Tania Johnson, at Town Hall Theatre, Lafayette, California, through Saturday, March 25, 2017. Info:townhalltheatre.com
Cast: Natalie Buster, Elizabeth Curtis, Jamail Davis, Jacqueline Dennis, Cadarious Mayberry, Katrina McGraw, Branden Thomas, and Glen Riggs.
Band: Tania Johnson, Elvis Ordiniza, Scott Massoni, Matthew Porter, and Peter Ruszel.
“Don Quichotte,” the second show of Island Opera’s 2017 season, capitvates us with its comedy and romance. The intimate venue folds the audience into the stage action. The lyrical qualities of the voices of Dulcinee (Buffy Baggott) and Sancho Panza (Igor Viera) complement the stoic nobility of Don Quichotte (William Pickersgill).
“Don Quichotte,” penned by Massenet in 1910, is not the same story as Cervantes’ 1605 novel. Massenet changes Cervantes’ Dulcinea from a coarse country woman to a beautiful, aristocratic lady called Dulcinee. The key to the twist in the storyline was revealed to those who attended Jeff Dunn’s fine pre-concert talk “From Beads to Pearls.”
As Massenet was writing the opera, he was dying of colon cancer. Dunn theorizes that Massenet’s arias are designed to showcase his star Lucy Arbell’s talent. Although he was married, Massenet was captive to her beauty. Despite his wife and public ridicule, he was devoted to her. Her arias are like pearls that soar above the beads of the rest of the score.
The show opens with the company dancing and singing onstage about Dulcinee’s beauty and charms. Two Flamenco dancers (choreographer Lisa Bush Finn and Brian Patterson) in modern Flamenco costume, an anachronistic yet pleasing element, as they perform center stage. The other actors’ costumes are a mix of Cervantes’ era with that of the Belle Epoque, the 1900s Paris of Massenet. When Don Quichotte (the seasoned William Pickersgill) appears, he expresses his devotion to Dulcinee, In another twist to the original story, Dulcinee challenges him to find the bandit (the bass-baritone Don Hoffman) who stole her pearl necklace.
Performed in five acts with two intermissions, the set design displays an innovative use of visual media on a large screen, when sunflowers onstage are augmented with a looped video of a field of sunflowers blowing in the wind. A classic 1987 movie cartoon clip of Don Quixote charging windmills recreates the famous scene.
The multi-talented Igor Vieira, not only sings Sancho Panza, but also serves as the Director and Set Designer. Sancho Panza surpasses the bumbling character of Cervantes’ famous novel with his compassion for the noble knight errant. Vieira received a standing ovation for his beautiful singing and strong acting. Buffy Baggott sparkles as the beautiful young lady who is adored by her many admirers.
Under the direction of Phillip Kuttner, the orchestra delivers a stellar performance, a perfect match to the singers. The stage hands, the stage manager and the set designers deserve special recognition and they are the hidden talent behind the success of this production.
“Don Quichotte,” performed by a highly talented cast, must be seen to be appreciated. There are only two more performances of this delightful opera.
“Don Quichotte” by Jules Massenet, libretto by Henri Cain, Music Director/Conductor: Phillip Kuttner, Stage Director: Igor Vieira, at Island City Opera, at The Elks Lodge, Alameda, California. Info: islandcityopera.org
Final Perfs: Friday, March 10, at 7:30 PM and Sunday, March 12, at 2:30 PM
What makes a complete life? This age old dilemma is the central question of this little gem of a production of Donizetti’s comic opera “Don Pasquale” at the Island City Opera.
Set in a modern San Francisco, the inspired set design by Scott Barringer overcomes the limitations of the small space and invites the audience to indulge themselves in a modern take on this classic Italian masterpiece. We first encounter 70 year old Don Pasquale (Bojan Knezevic) asleep in his easy chair in his penthouse apartment with a spectacular floor to ceiling view of the San Francisco skyline in the background.
Bass-baritone Knezevic excels in both his singing and acting as the foolish Don Pasquale, who fancies himself still a virile and desirable catch for a young wife. Knezevic, a former Merola and Adler Fellow, a member of the San Francisco Opera Chorus, is well known to Bay Area opera buffs. Knezevic returns to the role he sang in the Walnut Creek Festival Opera, bringing passion and conviction to the role.
In Act One, Don Pasquale is awakened by a uniformed maid and butler, as he welcomes the visit of his personal physician, the conniving Dr. Malatesta (the inimitable Igor Vieira). Dr. Malatesta dupes Pasquale into thinking that he has found the ideal candidate for a wife. He proposes his sister Norina (Eileen Meredith), whom he claims has recently left the convent. Knezevic both charms and dismays us with his characterization of a foolish old man pursuing a beautiful young girl in this timeworn tale of a January to May relationship.
In the opening act, the outstanding soprano Meredith, dazzles as Norina, a little minx. We are treated to Meredith’s substantial acting talents as she portrays a wide range of female personality types for her brother, Malatesta. They choose to disguise her as a timid ‘Sofronia’ as the right type for Don Pasquale. In the famous aria “Quel Guardo, Il Cavaliere” she boasts, “I too know the magical power of a look at the right time and place…” She knows well the effect that women have on men.
Norina agrees to dupe Don Pasquale, because she and Ernesto (Sergio Gonzalez) are lovers; they need the old man’s inheritance to start their married life. Don Pasquale wants to disown Ernesto for refusing an to submit to an arranged marriage. In order to create a better future for herself and Ernesto, Norina is willing to go for broke for the man she loves and the money they need.
Sergio Gonzalez, tenor, makes his Island Opera debut in the role of Ernesto and recently received his Masters under the tutelage of Cesar Ulloa at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He returns to the role of Ernesto, performed with the North Bay Opera. Gonazalez’s vocal and acting talents blend well with the Island City Opera company–a valuable prize for future operas.
The singers are supported by the dynamic conducting of music director, Phillip Kuttner and his 16-piece orchestra. Donizetti’s genius is evident not only in the beauty of the score, which he completed in only eleven days. As for the libretto, Giovanni Ruffini refused to put his name on it because Donizetti changed it so much. The Elks Lodge Ballroom offers intimacy and excellent acoustics, creating a ‘surround sound’ effect–a unique musical experience.
In the Commedia Dell’Arte tradition, “Don Pasquale” offers plot twists and comic characters that delight at every turn. As Dr. Malatesta, Igor Vieira, baritone, brings a tremendous voice and considerable acting talent. Vieira, a native Brazilian, has more than 90 operas to his credit.
Vieira complements Knezevic beautifully throughout, especially in the third Act duet in the Third Act when the two men come off the stage, using only flashlights to highlight their faces. Sung in the fast patter of the challenging Bel Canto style, their voices blend marvelously as they sing of the follies of love. Their performance caused the audience to burst into rousing, spontaneous applause. We will see another side of his talent when Vieira will be the Stage Director in the upcoming Island Opera production of “Don Quichotte.”
In the finale, Norina leads the chorus in the moral of the opera when they sing, “When you are old and you try to get remarried, fortune doesn’t usually go your way.” Don Pasquale accepts this truth and gives his blessing to the young couple. “Don Pasquale” is one opera where the female lead comes out on top.
The opera only runs for two more performances: at 7:30 PM on Friday, January 27, and a closing matinee at 2:00 PM on Sunday, January 29. Tickets are inexpensive and there are no bad seats in the Elks Lodge’s intimate venue which showcases the talents of this outstanding opera company’s talented group of musicians and singers. If you are looking for a way to introduce a younger member of the family to opera, this is it. You can easily read the English super-titles from the back row. The acting is superb and the show is hilariously funny!
Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti, libretto by Giovanni Ruffini, at Island City Opera, Alameda, California. Music Director/Conductor Phillip Kuttner, Stage Director Erin Neff, at The Elks Lodge, 2255 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda, to Sunday, January 29, 2017. Info:islandcityopera.org
Final Perfs: Friday, January 27, at 7:30 PM. Sunday, January 29, at 2:00 PM.
Cast: Bojan Knezevic, Eileen Meredith, Igor Vieira, Sergio Gonzalez, and Michael Belle.
“Tenderly, Rosemary Clooney Musical” Steals Hearts at Altarena Playhouse, Alameda
Reliving Juke Box Memories with “America’s Sweetheart”
by Robert M. Gardner
Rosemary Clooney charted four Number One hits in the 50s, including “Come On-A My House, “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake,” and “Mambo Italiano. She became “America’s Sweetheart” producing famous hit records for over five decades. But behind the scenes and one time onstage, she experienced terrible breakdowns. Now, at Altarena Playhouse, the vivacious Kim Long brings Rosemary Clooney to life, again, in the musical by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman. The play opens with her infamous incident on Harold’s Reno stage in 1968, which leads to her hospitalization. When Dr. Victor Monke asks what happened, she quips, “It wasn’t my best day.”
In “Tenderly,” the Doctor probes for the suffering behind her suffering, and Clooney recounts her life through story and song. Clooney fans will enjoy this trip through time, both musically and dramatically, as we trace the curve of her life from dizzying highs to traumatic lows. Clooney, brilliantly portrayed by Long, first appears on a nightclub stage with few props, backed by the singing and versatile acting of the talented Dan Kapler, playing Doctor Monke. Kapler plays multiple roles, male and female, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and her sister Betty.
Despite her many successes over the five decades from 1946 to 2001, Clooney had a hard life. She and her sister Betty are abandoned first by her father and then by her mother when she remarries. Rosemary and Betty are forced to move from home to home, living in extreme poverty, finding ways to survive. She is always reminded of what her mother said, when she left: “You’re the oldest, you’ll manage.” Clooney uses that mantra to sustain herself–namely, by pleasing others.
In interviews with her psychiatrist, Clooney sings her famous hits, recalling sweet memories. From Clooney’s duet with Bing Crosby in the movie White Christmas to her imitation Italian song “Mambo Italiano,” Kim Long charms us with her powerful and expressive voice. And she reveals the details of Clooney’s lifelong battle with manic depression.
Kim Long shines, singing classic Clooney–not by imitation, but by basking in her aura. Amidst a dizzying array of costume changes, Long does great justice to Clooney’s hits. Her Clooney engages the audience with bittersweet details from the life: her failed marriages to Jose Ferrer and her shock at the assassination of her good friend Bobby Kennedy. When she talks about Clooney’s life, her troubled marriage, and her mental illness, Long does an superb job of conveying the singer’s brutal honesty.
When she begins her comeback on the Merv Griffin show, Clooney brings mental illness into the public limelight, for a first time. She talks openly about her illness, offering hope to thousands similarly afflicted.
On opening night, the audience leapt to its feet, in a spontaneous standing ovation for Long and co-star Kapler. All through the show, many folks were tapping along with Clooney’s songs. Everyone joined in to sing her final song “This Old House,” swept up in the enthusiasm generated by the stars. If you want an evening of great entertainment and rare insight into the life of “America’s Sweetheart,” don’t miss “Tenderly”—an outstanding show!
“Tenderly, the Rosemary Clooney Musical” by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman, directed by Rachel Robinson, musical direction by Mark Dietrich, choreographed by Megan McGrath, at the Altarena Playhouse, in Alameda, CA, through Sunday, February 12, 2007. Info: altarena.org