Did the Diablo Devil make us do it? New Music in Lafayette & Romeo and Juliet visit Orinda

The Devil made me do it, or do it with “Diablo”, seems to be the key word this week. Two theatrical companies, whose namesake is closely associated with the Devil, are offering you some terrific entertainment opportunities, Both the Diablo Actors Ensemble and the Diablo Theatre Company (formerly known as Diablo Light Opera) are bidding you to attend their current productions.

Diablo Actor’s Ensemble, under the astute direction of Marilyn Langbehn, is offering a “serious side of Simon” with their outstanding production of Neil Simon’s dark comedy, “The Prisoner of 2nd Avenue”. Neil Simon’s comedy played to sold-out houses on Broadway from 1971 to 1973 and was made into a movie in 1975, starring Anne Bancroft and Jack Lemmon. It was nominated for a 1972 Tony in the “Best Play” category.

Diablo Actor’s Ensemble, founded and operated by the well known and highly respected director, Scott Fryer, has delivered many memorable moments in live theatrical entertainment for more than 20 years, here in the Contra Costa County area. I remember their theatrical productions in the Baldwin Park in Concord as far back as the mid 80’s.

Director Langbehn has pulled together a superb cast to recount the story of Mel Edison, a middle-aged New Yorker, brought to his knees psychologically by his financial concerns. He fear is greatly magnified by the embarrassment and economic pressure encountered when he loses his job in tough economic times and his wife has to go to work. While the play takes place in the mid 70’s, it is starkly reminiscent of our current national financial crisis and the pressures felt by thousands of families across the country today.

Mel (Rich Aiello) becomes more depressed and morose as week after week of financial frustrations mount his bastion of defense. His apartment house neighbors irritate him on all sides. The garbage strike and resulting odors from the stagnant piles of garbage left on the streets of New York City, pervade his apartment. Add to this, the summer heat seems magnified by the fact that his air-conditioning doesn’t work properly. Mel is 47 years old and has only worked in one profession, as an advertising executive for his entire working career. He doesn’t know what to do with himself and he feels lost in his anguish. As the anxiety mounts, the outbursts of anger begin to seriously affect his relationship with his wife, Edna (Trish Tillman). She derides him for his failure to continue his search for a job and he tells her that he is too old, that no one is going to give him job at his age, “When Moses saw the burning bush, he was 23, not 47”!

His tantrums and repeated retaliations against his neighbors escalate until Edna finally resolves that Mel has got to seek some professional help, before they both go mad! Mel responds to his wife’s urgings by crying out, “Edna, I’m disappearing - - - I don’t need an analyst - - I need lost and found! On top of everything else, the final blow comes after Mel and Edna return home to find their apartment has been burglarized. Mel then suffers a complete breakdown.

In the second act, Mel and his wife are visited by Mel’s three concerned sisters (played by Sally Hogarty, Loretta Janca and Barbara Halperin-Jacobs), and his brother, Harry (played by Bill Clemente). Edna (Trish Tillman) delivers a sterling performance demonstrating great balance in character as the loving, frustrated and yet supportive wife. Rich Aiello is very realistic and believable as Mel, the husband in search of a new working life, yet totally out of control and desperately in need of a good kick in the derriere. When the tables turn and the wife loses her job, the loving husband (helped by medication) returns and the importance of having a strong life’s partner sets the proper tone for a positive ending. The acting by the entire cast is very good, with only a couple of minor discrepancies, nothing worth mentioning.

Typical of Neil Simon, even the tragedies of life brings a barrage of sardonic and comic lines. He invites us to look for the lighter side of life’s personal trials and tragedies and reminds us that we have all gone through tough times before, and for the most part, survived. While this play doesn’t tell us how to resolve the financial fright sweeping the country today, it definitely shows us how a dose of humor can help relieve some of the frustrations and shows us that we are not alone.

“The Prisoner of 2nd Avenue” continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Sunday at 2 p.m., now through June 27th. The Diablo Actor’s Ensemble Theatre is located at 1345 Locust Street in Walnut Creek, next door to Peet’s Coffee house. There is a large public parking garage across the street. Tickets range between a more than reasonable $10 for Thursday performances, and a generously reasonable general admission of $25, with the remainder of tickets ranging between $22 (for seniors and students). Call (866) 811-4111 for ticket reservations or visit their website at www.diabloactors.com for tickets or additional information. Great acting, great entertainment and a great time to revisit Neil Simon’s brilliant, albeit somewhat sarcastic comedy, again!

"Hello Dolly, were so glad to have you here, where you belong!"

Happiness lives in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts as the newly named Diablo Theatre Company opens a stunning and uplifting musical miracle with their vibrant and colorful, “Hello Dolly”. Artistic Director, Daren Carollo and his dedicated contributors, re-examine and re-imagine the artistic elements of classic musicals as their basic and most important purpose, that of delivering an absolutely stunning evening of music, dancing and song for every ticket purchaser. It just happens that when the company polled its season ticket holders, “Hello Dolly” was their most requested musical for this season. DTC created this show to fulfill their subscribers’ wishes and at the same time to provide the remainder of the community a “feel-good” musical, that they will certainly enjoy and long remember.

“Hello Dolly” is the fun-filled story of an outrageously outspoken and highly confident widower, matchmaker and meddler, Mrs. Dolly Levi, who merchandises matrimony. Dolly (played to absolute perfection by Terry Darcy D’Emedio) spreads her wit and wisdom throughout Yonkers, New York, and at the same time, provides a plethora of personal services that add to her worth as a matchmaker. Dolly carries with her business cards for every occasion, including everything and anything, any service one might need, even barrister services, dance and mandolin instruction just to name just a few.

Dolly is enlisted by a young artist, Ambrose Kemper (Caleb Haven Draper) , to intercede on his behalf in helping him to secure a favorable response to his desire to marry Ermengard (Jessica Knudsen), the weepy eyed daughter of a “half-millionaire”. She is the daughter of a grouchy hay and grain merchant, Horace Vandergelder (Curt Denham). Ambrose has not found favor with Ermengard’s father, due to his less than favorable income generating employment, as an artist.
Dolly is also engaged by Horace Vandergelder to help him find a suitable wife, which she fully intends to do. Horace departs on a journey to downtown New York to meet a prospective wife, arranged by Dolly. That very attractive lady, a ladies’ hat merchant by trade, Miss Irene Malloy (Rena Wilson),wouldn’t mind getting married, but hasn’t found the right man, and concedes that maybe the matchmaking process could provide her the security she is really looking for. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that Dolly has come to the realization that remaining a widow and having to hustle constantly for a living might be better served if she, Dolly, weds the wealthy Vandergelder, herself!

Horace informs his two clerks, Cornelius Hackl (Wiliam Giammona) and Barnaby Tucker (Andrew Willis-Woodward), that he is off to New York City and that they will have to mind the store in his absence. After Horace leaves for his rendezvous in New York, Cornelius and Barnaby decide tht they need a break, and they close the shop and head for New York as well. Dolly, wanting to waylay Horace and disrupt his meeting with Miss Malloy, tells the boys that they should visit a certain hat shop in the big city. They do and they meet Miss Malloy and her assistant, Minnie Fay. The young men lie about their financial worth, pretending to be rich, hoping to get a date with the two very lovely young ladies.

A marvelous comic scene occurs when Vangergelder arrives at the hat shop intent on meeting Miss Malloy, himself. Once again, the delightfully deceitful and self-serving Dolly, steers Vandergelder elsewhere towards another prospective mate, a wealthy widow, whom he meets at the Harmonia Gardens, an exclusive and very expensive restaurant and dancing pavilion. The young men, still pretending to be rich, also end up at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, with the young ladies. While they are reveling in the company of Miss Malloy and Miss Fay, they are at the same time, worried sick as to how they are going to pay for the evening’s dining dalliance.
The restaurant provides a marvelous backdrop for the wonderful music and lyrics of famed composer, Jerry Herman and the brilliant choreography of Lawrence Pech. Director Dennis Lickteig has brought all of the elements (cast, orchestra, choreography, costumes, sets, lighting and sound) together for a wonderful evening of outstanding, vibrant and uplifting musical and dancing entertainment. The set design by Mark Mendelson is truly outstanding. Mark is a local product, a great young designer that grew up on local stages and a talented young man that I remember as participating in Stars 2000, before going off to college. Musical Director Cheryl Yee Glass once again delivers an excellent orchestration experience. Chris Guptill does his usual magic with the lighting, and Marianna Ford excels with her marvelous costumes. Sound design by Mike Sweeny provides the final crown of overall excellence that brings this outstanding production to your full enjoyment.

The vocal talents are exceptional and deliver an exciting and thrilling evening. Terry Darcy D’Emidio and Rena Wilson are absolutely stunning with their rich vocal gifts, bringing to all in attendance, a very rewarding vocal experience. William Giammona adds immeasurably to the vocal vibrancy and Andrew Willis-Woodward (Barnaby Tucker) delivers dancing routines and comic talents that likewise add measurably to this production.

If you have ever enjoyed “Hello Dolly” before, this is one production that definitely deserves your attendance. For a community production that is very high in many professional level attributes, this is well worth the price of admission and much easier to see and enjoy and you don’t have to drive into San Francisco or San Jose to have a terrific time. Tickets range between $29 and $41 each and are for sale at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive. Call (925) 943-7469 (SHOW) or you may visit the website at www.lesherartscenter.org. You may also visit Diablo Theatre Company’s website at www.dloc.org for more information. Besides, as Horace Vandergelder once said, “Money is like manure, it’s not worth anything, unless you spread it around!”

“Hello Dolly” plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (beginning June 12th) at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., now through Sunday, June 28th. In the Hofmann Theatre in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek.
By the way, the “Diablo Theatre Company” recently changed their name from the long time, well known “Diablo Light Opera Company”, so that they could also explore dramatic theatrical avenues for their audiences as well as musicals.

Go and see a show this week and you can say, “The Diablo Devil made me do it!”
This week’s reviews explore a promising neophyte musical in Lafayette, with some slightly rough hewn edges but an overall highly enjoyable theme as well as a brilliant Shakespearean drama in the Orinda hills.

The Town Hall theatre in Lafayette is providing an extremely talented musician, actor, playwright and director, Joel Roster, with an opportunity to develop his dream of writing and producing a musical that he has been working on and nurturing for the past 4 years, a musical entitled One Night at the Hotel Grand!

This is not your typical Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland “let’s find a vacant barn in Vermont and put on a show” musical. It has a lot more depth than that, as Mr. Roster takes us down that road of theatrical life, where friends and theatrical family come together to support and reinforce one another when the difficult task of creating musical magic falters. As anyone who truly loves musical theatre knows, the rocky road to “Tony” blessed stardom is truly a very rocky road heaped with hapless wannabes. Creative minds conjure up or reiterate stories near and dear to their hearts in musical form, subject matter that may have the most remote potential of inspiration generally conceivable. Yet every year, many, many new ideas are carved, crafted, and cajoled into musical promise, only to fail for want of a single element. Such is the case with author Steven Schwartz (played by Kevin Cline) as the labor of his life languishes on the brink of success or failure, poised for its premier, when the company’s financial backers get cold feet. The additional funding necessary to actually put the show on the boards falls prematurely and perilously short.

Schwartz realizes that no matter how great his message, no matter how great his story, no matter how great his cast, directors or the creative collaborative chemistry flowing through their brain trust, without that one elusive magical musical “show-stopper tune”, it will never fly, never soar to theatrical greatness. Like “Cats” without “Memories”, he knows the odds for launching his miracle musical, without that one “anchoring, touching, memorable song”, is miniscule.

His musical revolves around this small group of creative hopefuls, cast members, director and assistants as they gather in the lobby of the Grand Hotel, searching for that last minute burst of brilliance that will pull them all together, now that they have received the news that their financial backers have backed out. What is so heart-wrenching to them is the fact that they have invested months of work in this project and now, just hours before they thought they were ready to sign the deal and launch their show, everything appears to be falling apart.

The hotel is grand enough that it just happens to have a lobby-playing pianist who tinkers on the keys providing background music and accompaniment as memorable and heartfelt emotions bring forth songs in the process of sharing feelings. Pianist Joel Roster (this play’s creator and accompanist), dead pans interest in the group as Schwartz tries to wrest control of the piano from the piano player’s control, hoping to continue working on that elusive melody that is so close, so close and yet, just out or reach.

The cast of actors brought together by director Scott Fryer are quite excellent with Randy Anger as the frustrated director, Blake, and John Blytt as Tim, Blake’s long time partner and cast member. Kevin Cline plays very well the creative lyricist and book creator, Steven Schwartz. The two lead actors in the show, Robert (Dennis Markham) and Sydney (Emily Garcia), have an ongoing, but now downward spiraling love interest. The very attractive Megan Briggs plays cast member Hannah, a lady with a very personal investment in what appears to be more than one member of the cast. In addition, an equally attractive Xanadu Bruggers, quietly mimes her character as director Blake’s chief assistant, Louise, making sure everything he needs is there, when he needs it, right on cue. Financial backer, Andy, is portrayed by either Sally Hogarty or Ann Kendrick, depending on the production evening.

As is generally the case with any newly created production, this one has its problems as well as its very positive side. The story line develops slowly but the second act really comes together. This fun production has a happy ending and provides a great evening of entertainment. Joel has written one song in particular that I really enjoyed, “Don’t Ask Me Tonight”, sweet, heartfelt, memorable. John Blytt delivers a very funny scene when he digs up an accordion number that adds a lot of laughs. Dennis Markham plays the bad guy very well. There are some funny lines and funny moments shared with some perfectly poignant touches. Try it, I think you will like it.
The set, which is terrific, was a design collaboration between Eileen Fitz-Faulkner, Scott Fryer and Henry Perkins. I have raved about Joel Roster, the actor, in the past, and this endeavor provides another insight into this every talented and caring guy! One Night at the Hotel Grand has some great elements and has prospects for a successful future.
Ticket prices range between $25 and $32 each and the show plays Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., and a Sunday evening performance at 7 p.m., on June 21st.

Call the Town Hall Theatre at (925) 283-1557 or visit their website at www.townhalltheatre.com for tickets, reservations or additional information. The theater , which is located at 3535 School Street at the corner of Moraga Road in Lafayette, suffered a horrific, extensive water damage incident on April 1st when a sprinkler valve malfunctioned , damage which is now being repaired. The theatre seating area is quite comfortable and the downstairs lobby area which suffered massive water damage is cleaned up and can quite nicely accommodate patrons at intermission. Those fantastic Chow’s Lafayette Ginger cakes are almost worth the trip to the town hall all by themselves. With your help, the income to this theatre from this show and any little donations is greatly appreciated, especially when this historic centerpiece in Lafayette, the Lafayette Town Hall (built in 1914) is heroically fighting to survive.

Romeo and Juliet romancing the boards in the Orinda Hills

Meanwhile, up the road, off Highway 24 near Orinda, the California Shakespeare Theatre is currently presenting one of the most exciting and brilliant productions of Romeo and Juliet that I have ever seen!

The prologue to the play declares”
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents strife - - -“

Director Jonathan Moscone has once again demonstrated his acute artistic and creative eye in this modern incarnation of one of the Bard’s most tragic and memorable masterpieces.
I cannot imagine that there is anyone in my reading audience who is not aware of this great poetic story, of youthful blind passion, romantic vicissitudes and first love, torn asunder by family animosity and culturally spawned violence. Moscone has employed the key creative eye of set designer, Neil Patel, to update this romantic tragedy into a modern, urban Italian setting. The set design is truly striking, brilliantly conceived and executed to perfection. The set is a major contributor in the overall vitality of this production.

Jonathan has selected a young man, Alex Morf, whom we have enjoyed in many previous theatrical productions, to play the part of Romeo. When I read that he was playing this part, I was surprised, as I just plain could not see him in this role! I don’t know why, he just didn’t seem to embody the youthful and handsome figure that I imagine Romeo should be. I could imagine others in the cast, such as Craig Marker (who plays Tybalt, a cousin to Juliet) in the part, but Alex would not have been my first choice. Boy was I mistaken! Alex, within minutes, became the embodiment of William Shakespeare’s youthful lover and I fell “in love” with his portrayal. The very upbeat, effervescent, attractive Sarah Nealis, is the embodiment of Shakespeare’s youthfully gregarious and occasionally ill-tempered and manner-spoiled Juliet.

From there, the cast is like a check list of some of my most favorite actors, starring L. Peter Callender and Catherine Castellanos as Lord and Lady Montigue, James Carpenter and Julie Eccles as Lord and Lady Capulet, Jud Williford as the petulant prince, Mercutio, Dan Hiatt as the humanistic Friar Lawrence (who secretly aids and abets the young lovers), and of course, the brilliant Julian Lopez-Morillas, who plays the Prince of Verona.

This plays is electrifying, engaging and magnetic. From the opening scene to the final moments I was absolutely glued to my seat. It was difficult for me to even take notes as my eyes hardly ever left the set. This has simply got to be one of Moscone’s absolute best! When I really like something I am constantly repeating out loud, Wow, Wow, Wow! My wife gets tired of the Wow’s, but you will not tire of this rapidly paced, highly emotional, rocking, socking, mesmerizing production of Romeo and Juliet!

This remarkable production plays Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Saturday matinee on June 20th at 2 p.m., and Sunday performances a 4 p.m., closing on Sunday, June 21st . The Cal Shakes Theater is located in the Brun’s Amphitheater at 100 Gateway Blvd. in Orinda, located by exiting the freeway westbound at the last exit on the east side of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets start at $20 and generally range between $35 and $63 each (except for previews). Call (510) 548-9666 or visit their website at www.calshakes.org or you can email the boxoffice@calshakes.org for more information. Be sure and dress in layers as it can get downright cold when the fog comes over the Oakland hills and drop down into the amphitheatre area. Last Saturday evening it turned out to be colder than a well-diggers heart. You may want to come early and enjoy a picnic in the wonderful park setting that surrounds the theatre as he grounds open two hours before the show. There is a food booth adjacent to the theatre seating area where you can purchase food and drinks prior to the show as well. There is a lot of very nice art sculptures on the grounds to investigate as well.