Terrific tribute to 60's music in The Taffetas, Brighton Beach Menoirs delightful in Concord and Tragedy: a Tragedy, not Quite, in Berkeley!

The Taffetas are terrific!

Just sit back and the memories will come rushing in as you watch the Diablo Actor’s Ensemble Theatrical Company’s current production of The Taffetas, in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. This show it takes you on a fun-filled, heartwarming and nostalgic walk down melody lane with their delightful review of 1950’s and 60’s pop music, playing now through April 12th.

In 1988, Rick Lewis created a musical revue as a tribute to the female singers of this time when rock and roll, rock-a-billy, rhythm and blues and Motown music began to blossom and emerge as a cohesive money making force in the entertainment business. Rick Lewis’s show entitled, “The Taffetas”, was actually based on a popular African American singing group of the 1960s, known as the Chiffons. The group of songs brought together in this musical juggernaut, encompasses many songs made popular by many female groups, not just the Chiffons. In fact, these groups were both black and white and brown. These broad based singing sensations included groups that ranged from the highly successful few to a number of one number wonders, groups that included the likes of the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, the Supremes, the Shirelles, the Marvelettes, the Delicates, the Dixi-Cups, the Pixie Three, the Toys, the Crystals, the Rag Dolls and many more.

More importantly, this exciting musical journey brings to the show’s audience a broad range of music that was popular in this time period, music that was recorded by male and female vocalists and close harmony groups. I can practically guarantee that if you were in high school in the 50’s or 60’s, there will be a lot of music in this show that will haunt your memories for days.

The character singers in this show are making their debut on national television after traveling 39 hours by bus to New York City from Muncie, Ind., their hometown. This is their first chance to shine on their first television appearance in a broadcast television program called "Spotlight on Music." The date is June 10, 1956. The goal is to get on Mr. Ed Sullivan's show. Their hope is that Mr. Sullivan or one of his talent scouts will be watching their 90 minute show with an eye for finding those great new talents, for which Mr. Sullivan has become so famous, so that they can become famous as well.

The girls come out dressed perfectly in costume and in character for the 60’s. They deliver a terrific evening of songs that range from the mundane and not so memorable, such as “Achoo - Cha Cha” to the highly reminiscent, such as “Sh-Boom”; “Mr. Sandman”; “Tonight, You Belong To Me”; “Allegheny Moon” and “Fly Me To the Moon”, “Love Letters (in the Sand)”; ‘Johnny Angel”; “Mr. Lee”; and “Rag Mop” , just to name but a few.

The ladies are all truly beautiful with really great voices. Their harmony is outstanding, bringing the audience to a standing applause at the end of the show. They appear as four sisters Kaye (Jessica Fisher), Peggy (Lauren Ryerson Kalan), Donna (Brandy Colazzo) and Cheryl (Amy Franklin Leonards) who have sung in their hometown for some time and are hoping with this show, to make it to the big time. Each lady is unique in her vocal style, power and control. I found it impossible to find a favorite; I will just have to bring them all home with me and hear them again and again, before I can decide! After hearing this terrific evening of “real music, with real melodies, and real words you can actually understand”, you will probably want to take them home with you as well.

Director Scott Fryer has done a terrific job in casting and directing. The accompanist (in the show, their aunt) is played by Kim Vetterli, who is a very well known and loved accompanist and musical director of great standing. The choreography by Amy Nielson is absolutely perfect and the costumes by Hope Birdwell, are very good, as well.

The Taffetas will perform downstairs in the Knight’s Stage III Theatre, on the ground floor of the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. This nostalgic fun-filled production will continue Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, now through April 12, with a Thursday evening performance on April 10th. Show times are 8:15 for evening performances with matinees (at 2:15 pm) on 3/22; 3/23; 3/30; and 4/6. Tickets are a very reasonable $25 for General Admission and Seniors at $20 each. Call 945-7469 (SHOW) for tickets. Great music, great fun, don’t miss it!

Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon, is probably one of the most delightful and well received autobiographical plays this prodigious award winning author has ever written. It provides another total theatrical experience, touching on the sanctity and importance of solid family values in the late 30’s, and an insightful heartwarming comedy about young men and women coming of age. The current production is in full swing at the Willows Theatre in Walnut Creek and is one of the most rewarding and entertaining productions you will find anywhere.

Director Richard Elliott has pulled together a sterling cast, a cast that makes you laugh, cry vicariously by sharing two familys’ personal combined struggles mixed amid a few richly deserved rewards in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York, in September, 1937.

These two families are sharing one home following the death of one sister’s husband, an untimely event that left Blanche financially unprepared to raise her two daughters, Laurie and Nora, on her own. Blanche (Cindy Goldfield) and Kate (Cristina Anselmo) are loving sisters, but the stress of two families being provided for by one head of household, Kate’s husband Jack, is a daunting situation. Jack (Val Hendrickson) is working long and hard hours, trying to maintain two jobs to provide for his expanded family, when his health suffers a setback. At the same time, the teenaged children in the family are struggling with their own needs and identity crises. Nora (Shushig Derstepanian), at age 16, is a very attractive and vivacious girl who has worked hard and long hours studying dance for several years, when a potential career in theatre beckons to her. But, at the youthful age of 16, there are serious questions by her family as to the wisdom, validity and permanency of the pending offer. Nora’s younger sister, Laurie (Olivia Hytha), has heart palpitations and is babied and protected by her mother from practically any work or household task. At the same time, the older son, Stanley (Aaron Wilton), is working full time to bring in much needed supplementary income to help sustain the family, when he makes a positive ethical decision that could cost him his job! Eugene (David Beal) is a fifteen year old, dangling on the intellectual and psychological precipice of puberty. While all of the acting is outstanding, the focus is on Eugene, the narrator, who in real life is destined to become the great playwright himself, Neil Simon. Beal practically steals the show portraying the young Neil Simon
The stress between family members becomes so thick you can almost cut it with a knife. In the darkest of times, it often seems that as one door closes, another one opens, and the true character of a loving family will struggle towards the new opportunity, and overcome, at least temporarily, the adversity at hand.

The set design by Tom Benson is absolutely stunning! The Lighting Design by Robert Anderson is equally marvelous. Costumes by Robin Speer are quite charming and apropos.

This is a great play, told with heartfelt passion. It is delightfully funny, reminiscent of the brilliant humor with which Neil Simon is so abundantly blessed. DO NOT MISS THIS PLAY! It is well worth the little drive to the Willows Theatre in the Willows Shopping Center in Concord, at 1975 Diamond Boulevard, next door to REI Sporting Goods. The performance times are Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., now through April 20th. Call the box office at 798-1300 or visit their website at http://www.willowstheatre.org/ for more information.

Tragedy: a Tragedy!

Berkeley Repertory Theatre in downtown Berkeley is currently presenting a very challenging play, both for the audience, the author and the actors. Will Eno’s play, Tragedy: a tragedy, is an understated comedy of droll observation on the world of news reporting that is at times very funny and very thought provoking, but not yet fully satisfying, languishing in its own unwieldy proportions.

Eno has been compared to a modern day Beckett. Samuel Beckett, an Irishman who adopted France as his country of residence is accredited as one of the foremost authors of a type of playwriting called Theatre of the Absurd. Devoid of traditional plot and recognizable characters, Beckett’s works attacked systems of communication, including language itself. Rather than representing the observable structures of life, Beckett seemed fixed on demonstrating its inconsistencies and absurdities.

In similar fashion, Eno has taken the every day event of “nightfall” and presented it as a newsworthy event, much as a train wreck or typical disaster would be treated by today’s high profile national news services.

In the news studio, anchorman Frank, breaks away from his dire announcement that the world is in a state of confusion, perplexed by what seems to be an unexplainable darkness, a void of light, a nightfall that for some unexplained reason is raising the concern that we may never again see the light of day. Much as though this is the first time this has ever happened, the station has sent news teams out “on location” to garner public opinion, to query the police as to the cause and seek solace from the principal government spokesman, the governor, on this “turn of events”. Nothing is ever resolved, but the reporters exchange psychobabble with their listeners (we the audience) about their non-experiences, through the repetitive ping-pong like shuttling between news station anchor and news men and legal analysts in the field. Quirky and irrational, the entire evening is spent watching nothing happen, sometimes quickly with an air of urgency, at other times, placidly, plodding along in gripping boredom. This is a remarkable play on the theatre of news reporting played in some ways perfectly, making us look at the dementia in which we have allowed ourselves to become associated and upon which we have become dependent.

The Actors are without a question, superlative in their characterizations. Frank in the Studio is played by David Cromwell; Michael the Legal Advisor (Dax Gordon Moore); John in the field ( Thomas Jay Ryan); Constance at the home (Marguerite Stimpson), and the sole witness is played by Danny Wolohan.

Eno is right on track in his first 50 minutes of the 80 minute performance, and then (in following the verbal embellishment style of the author, Eno) his discourse ran off course, derailed, ran out of steam, out of gas, died, fell flat, collapsed of its own wait, expired, perhaps, dare I say it, sank into darkness! Tragedy: a tragedy, is, but it isn’t, a near perfect absurdity.

Tragedy: a tragedy continues Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Sunday performances at 7p.m.. There will be matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through April 13th. Call (510) 647-2949 or 888 -4-BRT –Tix (toll free) for reservations or visit their website at berkeleyrep.org. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is located in the Thrust Stage at 2025 Addison Street in Berkeley.