On the run with Runyon, Ibsen, Guys and Dolls and Hedda Gabler!

This week’s review will probably bring back some memories as I am sure many of my readers are very familiar with the very famous authors, Damon Runyon & Henrik Ibsen.

My first review covers Guys and Dolls, the 1950’s musical, which is based on two of Runyon’s gangster-type short stories, "The Idyll Of Miss Sarah Brown" and "Blood Pressure". It is currently being produced by Contra Costa Musical Theater (CCMT) in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

Damon Runyon was best known for his short stories celebrating the wild and wacky world of Broadway in New York City that grew out of the Prohibition era. He spun tales of gamblers, petty thieves, actors and gangsters, few of whom go by "square" names, preferring instead to be known by monikers as "Nathan Detroit", "Big Jule", "Harry the Horse", "Good Time Charlie", "Dave the Dude", and so on. These stories were written in a very distinctive vernacular style: a mixture of formal speech and colorful slang, almost always in present tense, and always devoid of contractions. Gambling was a common theme of Runyon's works, and he was a notorious gambler himself. One of his well-known sayings paraphrases Ecclesiastes: "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

Probably none of his work is better known or loved than the 1950’s Broadway musical, Guys and Dolls, with book created by Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows, and score by Frank Loesser out of his short stories. It ran for 1387 performances, including its initial run and three revivals. Then, in 1955, it was made into a movie starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons and Vivian Blaine.

The current CCMT production provides Jennifer Denison Perry her directorial debut opportunity and this very talented young lady delivers an extraordinary evening of music, comedy and controlled chaos in a very delightful and entertaining production.

Based on a group of very colorful petty criminals and professional gamblers from the 1930’s, Guys and Dolls spins a tale around Nathan Detroit, a small time New York gambler and floating crap-game operator, and his 14 year engagement to nightclub singer and dancer, Miss Adelaide (played by Terry D’Emedio). Nathan (played by Joel Roster) has been badgered by Miss Adelaide to “go straight”, get married, settle down and give up his criminal lifestyle. As the story opens, Nathan is trying desperately to find a location where he can hold his floating crap game, desperate because the New York Police are putting pressure on the owners and operators of nearly all of his local haunts in a crack-down on petty crime. The Biltmore Garage is willing to provide Nathan with a fairly secure backroom to accommodate the crap shooters, but Nathan’s reputation is not exactly perfect when it comes to paying his financial obligations. The garage’s owner is demanding a $1000 deposit up front, and in cash! Mind you, in 2007 dollars, this would approximately equate to a little more than $8000, not exactly pocket change, even for petty crooks.

There are a lot of “big players” in town on this particular night, and this one little crap game could amount to a lot of money for Nathan, who collects a little percentage on each bet placed in that evening’s entertainment. Desperate, Nathan comes up with a scheme to engage a local well-heeled gambler, Sky Masterson (Noel Anthony), in a wager that has great possibilities of winning Nathan his desperately needed down payment. Sky Masterson is a handsome man who has money and charm and can usually date any woman he wants, any time he wants. Detroit tricks Masterson into agreeing to a $1000 bet, that he, Nathan, can select a woman who will not succumb to Masterson’s invitation for a “Date”.

Masterson quickly realizes that he has been had and has a real challenge cut out for him when he comprehends that Nathan Detroit has tricked him into accepting the challenge of securing a date with Miss Sarah Brown (Meghann May), a very beautiful, morally straight evangelist with a local Salvation Army Mission.

Masterson goes after his game by pretending to be a “Sinner” in need of salvation, seeking out Miss Sarah Brown and her Missionary compatriots. Will he get her to drop her guard,- - is the young lady so naïve, - - will a full moon over Havana change Masterson’s lifestyle and luck forever? Will Nathan find safe passage out of the hot water he has created by pursuing his floating crap-game to win back his beautiful Adelaide?

Whether you do or don’t know the answer, call CCMT and reserve your tickets now to this timeless musical that has been hailed by many as the “perfect comedy”.

The acting, the voices, the costumes, the music, the lyrics, the sets, the entire production is a finely tuned instrument, worthy of your high expectations and admission dollars. Both Masterson (Anthony) and Sarah Brown (May) have brilliant and exciting voices, making beautiful music together. Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit (D’Emedio and Roster) are outstanding, terrific, funny, and a pair I’m sure you will long remember. This is a very good production that I recommend highly! There are three supporting actors who at times, almost steal the show, Julian Dominic, Scott Strain and Marty Newton, known on the street as small time gamblers and henchmen, “Rusty Charlie”,” Nicely-Nicely Johnson”, and “Benny Southstreet”.

This very funny musical comedy runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on February 25th (Sunday), on March 3rd (Saturday) and 4th (Sunday), all at 2 p.m. in the Hofmann Theatre in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive, in Walnut Creek, now through March 17th. Call 925-943-7469 (SHOW) for reservations and additional information. You can also visit the Center’s online website at www.dlrca.org.

New translation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a “stunner”!

The American Conservatory Theatre is presenting a stunning new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s powerful and chilling story of a woman born before her time, a woman imbued with the tact of a politician and the military mindset of a general, a woman known as Hedda Gabler. Paul Walsh has given new power and depth to the already controversial female character.

Ibsen is held to be one of the greatest Norwegian authors and one of the most important playwrights of all time, celebrated as a national symbol by Norwegians

Hedda Gabler is one of the first fully developed neurotic heroines of literature. Hedda is neither logical on the one hand, nor, on the other, insane in the old sense of being random and unaccountable. Her aims and her motives have a personal logic of their own, a terrifying self-serving logic unmoved and unimpassioned by the needs or wants of others.

Hedda is twenty-nine years old and has married beneath her family’s economic station. While she was pursued by many men, she married a brilliant and upward moving academic (Jorge Tesman) primarily because of his potential to be awarded with a prestigious professorial position at the university, his dogged romantic pursuit of her hand in marriage, and his continuing promises to provide her with the luxuries to which she became accustomed in her father’s household before he died. Jorge even promised to buy her a very stately and prestigious mansion far beyond his economic station because it is the grand and stately home that she desires as the future venue for her fantasized future social life. All of this is quite precarious because her husband has not, as yet, been awarded the coveted position with its commensurate income!

The play opens with Hedda (René Augesen) and Jorge (Anthony Fusco) returning from their six month honeymoon abroad. She is already bored with her academic minded husband and much to her dismay, she is pregnant with an unwanted child. Before marriage, she had a romantic fling with a drunken and outrageous and popular poet, Ejlert Lovborg (who bears a similarity to the playwright Strindberg, who hated Ibsen). When Hedda learns that Lovborg (Stephen Barker Turner), has been resurrected from his impending self-destruction and restored to prominence as a writer by a married woman, Mrs. Thea Elvsted (Finnerty Steeves), her jealousy over this woman’s success overshadows and occludes goodwill or common sense. In addition, Lovborg, a new rival to her husband for his position in the university, has just completed a manuscript that when published may overshadow anything written by Hedda’s husband.

Commissioner Brack (Jack Willis), an influential politician who helped Jorge obtain the loan to acquire their new home, and pushed forward Jorge’s name before the University’s board for the professorial position, has his own personal agenda. He is enamored with the very attractive Hedda and wishes to have access to her sexually, as his reward for his influence. He privately admits to her that he wants to be the only “cock in the henhouse”.

She consequently sets in motion a series of events that snowballs out of control, events that will lead to her former lover’s total and complete destruction, as well as her own.. Hedda cries: "Oh, why does everything I touch become mean and ludicrous? It's like a curse!"

Also contributing substantially to the development of Hedda’s ominous characterization are supporting actors, Sharon Lockwood as Miss Julianne Tesman (Jorge’s Aunt) and Barbara Oliver as house keeper and servant, Berte.

Hedda Gabler is probably Ibsen's most performed play, with the title role regarded as one of the most challenging and rewarding for an actress even in the present day. René Augesen is outstanding in her delivery of Hedda’s character as interpreted and prescribed by director Richard E. T. White.

The partially transparent set, designed by Kent Dorsey, situated in front of the backdrop (with its powerful image of a great glacier above their village), when combined with the convoluted and interconnected catwalk pathways above and behind the residential set, contributes brilliantly to the cold, foreboding, and subliminal complexity of the lives within the story itself. The original music and sound by John Gromada, really sets the tone and mood perfectly. The creative lighting by Alexander V. Nichols allows the set to work to it full potential. It is now time for you to see this great play again, for the first time!

This superb production plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through March 11th. Call (415) 749-2228 or visit their web site at www.act-sf.org for more information and ticket prices. Tickets range between $17.50 and $81.50, depending on seating and day of performance. The American Conservatory Theater is located at 415 Geary Street in San Francisco.