8 Track, the Sounds of the 70's celebrates some really great sounds and the funky beat that set the 70's apart as something unique! Oklahoma casts a magical spell making it very difficult to "just say no!"

The Willows Theater has brought us a delightful opportunity for a musical memory voyage back to the 1970’s with their current production of “8-Track, the Sounds of the 70’s”, in the Campbell Theatre in Martinez.” This show was originally conceived by Rick Seeber.

History books tell us that 8-track tapes stayed around for about 20 years, between the early 60’s to the mid 80’s. I think the last time I saw an 8 track tape player was probably 2 years ago in a thrift shop in Taos, New Mexico. There was even a small collection of the big boxy 8 track tapes that came with it. With LP record albums, 8 track cassettes and 45’s no longer playable on conventional record and tape players and with cassette tape players barely hanging on as viable media, the entire recorded music experience has changed for all of us. We certainly do not think about the phenomenon that we knew as 8 track players very often. Certainly, a lot of great music came cased in that large musical cassette that we had to pack into a small suitcase if we wanted to take very many along on the road.

When I think of music from the 70’s, I automatically think of tie-dye clothing, outrageous color combinations, polyester suits and disco music! When it comes to entertainment, the first thought that comes into my head, is about a young entertainer by the name of John Travolta and his first big movie, “Saturday Night Fever”, primarily because of the exciting musical sounds of the group called the Bee Gees (Maurice, Robin & Barry Gibbs). In that one movie, they, the Bee Gees, introduced or made huge inroads in the disco music scene with at least four major hit numbers. In addition to disco, the Motown and Soul Funk Sound (Detroit Rhythm and Blues) took a big up-swing in popularity.

The 70’s was a liberating time in our history and it provided the catalyst for many changes in society and a much broader pallet of musical interests. 8-Track, the Sounds of the 70’s, brings a diverse selection of upbeat music to the Campbell stage, by four really delightful young entertainers that make that music come alive again. 8-Track, the Sounds of the 70’s includes the songs of a very diverse group of entertainers, among them, Barry Manilow (I Write the Songs), Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On), The Doobie Brothers (Taking It To the Streets), Pattie LaBelle (Lady Marmalade), Barry White ( I Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Baby), The Starland Vocal Band (Afternoon Delight), Debbie Boone (You Light Up My Life), Van McCoy (The Hustle), Gloria Gaynor (I Will Survive), Sister Sledge (We Are Family), Roberta Flack (The First time Ever I Saw Your Face), The Village People (YMCA) and a whole lot more.

The musical is basically a review of the great music and of the great memories associated with that period of our lives. I moved to the Bay Area in 1972 and lived the unique life that the Bay Area had to offer at that time. There is no plot or story in this musical, just song after song delivered by four really greatly talented entertainers, two of whom are only 19 years old but far beyond that in their years of mature talent.

Nicole Helfer, who plays “woman # 2”, has appeared on the Willows stage previously several times and you may remember my comments about her terrific voice and depth of acting skill from when she appeared as Miraid in the recent production of “Brimstone”. Not only is she a talented actress and singer, but she is a professional level dance choreographer who originally came into this show just to be the choreographer. When problems arose with another performer at the last minute, literally, on the eve of the final dress rehearsal, she stepped into to the show as one of the four singers and into a full blown performance with only one rehearsal behind her. That takes guts, an incredible memory and a terrific talent, more so than to simply be “familiar with a show” as garnered by directing the dance choreography. Wow! Not only does she make it work, but her contribution is absolutely sterling and her performance provides a major contribution to the show’s success. Nicole, who has trained specifically for a career in opera, brings her absolutely beautiful voice and extensive stage training to this production and you will not forget this lady any time soon!

Add to this a young man by the name of Isaiah Boyd (as man #2) , a high school student from Benecia, whose experience is primarily gathered from high school musicals accompanied by some great personal training and lots of perseverance. Isaiah is bound for greater things and I'm sure he will be someone you will fondly remember as "that young man I first saw at the Campbell Theater". What a voice!

Next, Giuliana Harris (Woman #1), a lovely young lady (19) originally from the Monterey Peninsula but is now making her home in the East Bay as her second home. Giuliana has a resume than encompasses everything “dance”, sung the National Anthem for the S. F. Giants and the Sports Car Club of America (all in 2009), many, many musical roles and has even recorded her first pop singing album, in addition to performing at Greek Festivals all over Northern California. Giulian delivers the sound of the 70’s with a voice that resonates with the “pop star ” sound of the 70’s.

Finally, Jon Pitman plays the part of “Man #1”, and delivers some quite memorable moments, especially in his duets with Nicole Helfer. Jon is a student at Los Positas College as a theater major. This show is at times very funny in part due to the interplay between the actor singers as they act out their roles in making the music come to life, dramatizing the lyrics. The upbeat and fun-filled lyrics are mellowed at times by some very romantic and thought-provoking lyrics. The music really corresponds with the complexities of life during this time period in America. Artistic director Richard Elliott and musical director Timothy Hanson have brought together a fine group of entertainers who create a most enjoyable evening of upbeat, hand-clapping fun, good for whatever ails ya, even if nothing ails you at all!

8-Track, the Sounds of the 70’s continues on Wednesdays at 3:30 and 7:30, Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and on Sundays at 3 p.m., and closing on April 18th. The Campbell Theatre is located at 636 Ward Street in Martinez. Call the box office for ticket reservations and any additional information at (925) 672-8717 or visit their website at www.willowstheatre.org . Tickets range in price between $22 and $32 each. The Theatre also provides an opportunity for you to purchase food, snacks and drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) prepared in their own little refreshment restaurant, which will be served to you at your cabaret style table during the show. Martinez is also a great little town to come early and browse the many nearby antique stores, restaurants and shops, and who know, you might even spot the famous Martinez beavers at their dam in the stream just across the street! Don't miss this great experience!

"Oklahoma" stars Jessica Knudsen as Laurey and Zachary Franczak as Curley (photos courtesy of CCMT)

I eagerly anticipated the opening this week of “Oklahoma!”, one of my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals, especially the movie version in 1955, starring Gordon MacRae as cowboy Curley and Shirly Jones as farm girl Laurie Williams, Rod Steiger as the evil Jud Fry and Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie, the oversexed farm girl who simply “Cain’t Say No!”

The original Broadway version opened in 1943 and was a smash hit running for an unprecedented 2,212 consecutive performances and was the first collaboration between Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers. The musical version was based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play entitled “Green Grow the Lilacs” about settlers in the Oklahoma Territory, which was not overly successful. Then, ten years later, Theresa Helborn, a member of the Theatre Guild, saw a summer-stock version that had been enhanced with traditional folk-songs and square dances. She thought the play now had potential as a musical and she contacted Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, whose first successful collaboration, The Garrick Gaieties, had been produced by the Guild. Rogers liked the concept but Lorenz Hart was not interested. Rodgers subsequently contacted Hammerstein II and one of the greatest musical creation teams was born.

Then in 1955, after becoming a highly popular theatrical production with national tours, foreign productions and many revivals, the musical branched into the theatrical media and the movie version was born. What was unique about the movie version was that the producers took a big risk by changing the trend at that time of engaging well known actors who were capable of singing and this time employing largely unknown singers, who could also act, to populate the cast in the movie version.

This marvelous musical has once again returned to excite and invigorate local audiences with an outstanding production crafted by the Contra Costa Musical Theatre Company in partnership with the Center Repertory Company. This same musical was the inaugural production of the CCMT in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in 1990, when CCMT first began to use the new Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

Director Jennifer Perry has captained this highly successful production effort in concert with Choreographer Renee DeWeese, Musical Director and Conductor Karl Pister, Costumer Melissa Davis and Scenic Consultant Kelly Tighe, to bring to the theatrical table, a superbly cast and perfectly executed musical. There are plenty of familiar faces on this stage, including the frequently engaged Keri Shawn (as the effervescent Aunt Eller, on whose farm the lovely Lauri Williams lives), Jeffrey Draper (as Jud Fry, the ranch hand with a dark past and an even darker present), and Joel Roster (as the scene stealing traveling huckster and Persian peddler, Ali Hakim), in principal roles. In addition, you will be introduced to some really stellar new faces as this musical story embraces Jessica Knudsen (as Laurey), Zachary Franczak (as Curley), Steve Rhyne (as cowboy Will Parker), and Elise Youseff (as the outrageously naïve, sexy and outgoing girl who just “cain’t say no!”, Ado Annie Carnes).

Set in the Oklahoma Territory, outside the town of Claremore (the birthplace of Will Rogers) in 1906, the story tells of a cowboy named Curley McLain and his romance with Laurey Williams. There is a second sub-romance involving the flirtatious Ado Annie and her long-suffering boyfriend, cowboy Will Parker. The community is preparing for a box lunch fund raising social effort which will be the highlight of an evening of dancing and bidding for a box lunch prepared by every single lady in the community. The winning box lunch bidders win not only the highly desired gastronomical goodies in the box lunches, but then also get to enjoy the full attention and companionship of the food preparers as well.
Curley stops by Aunt Eller’s farm to ask Laurie to go to the box social with him, but Laurie, put off by Curley’s somewhat arrogant assumption that Laurie will jump at the chance to attend the dance with him, surprisingly accepts an offer by her admiring and brooding ranch hand, Jud Fry, to spite Curley and to go to the social with Jud, instead. Curley attempts to entice Laurie by telling her (musically) that he will take her in a grand and glorious “Surrey with a Fringe on Top”. She assumes the promise of a grand arrival in a grand carriage to be simply Curley spinning a fanciful yarn, not believing that he has actually hired such a fine carriage after all.

At the same time, cowboy Will Parker has returned from a rodeo in Kansan City where he has won the first prize for steer roping ($50) and excitedly searches out his long time love interest, Addo Annie Carnes, whom he has wanted to marry for a long time. Addo’s daddy, Andrew Carnes (played superbly by Michael Berg) has told Will that until he has been able to accumulate a few bucks to demonstrate his financial stability, he cannot wed his daughter. Apparently he has told Will that when he can show him $50 in his possession at one time, he can marry Addo Annie. Well, Will won the money, but quickly spent it on gifts for his girlfriend, believing that money in the form of gifts was just as good as money in hand, but daddy doesn’t quite see it that way!

While Will has been off discovering that everything is up-to-date in Kansas City, Addo Addie (Elise Yoseff) has fallen under the charms of a traveling wares peddler of Persian descent, Ali Hakim (played in delightful fashion by Joel Roster, who actually received applause for one of his scenes while still in the middle of the show). Addo Annie is now very confused with the return of an amorous Will Parker and the attention paid her by the traveling peddler, Ali Hakim. What’s a girl supposed to do, she asks the audience, continuing with the memorable words “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no!” Elise is absolutely delightful and delivers a performance that will be long remembered as a true gem of a performance! The story takes an ugly turn as the dark side of Jud Fry (Jeffrey Draper) becomes frighteningly apparent. Jeff is an excellent actor and he is truly outstanding in this characterization.

I am sure that most of my readers will remember the movie version, probably with great fondness, but if you have never seen the musical, “live”, then the experience cannot quite be complete. You now have that opportunity to relive the experience as this great musical continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with performances at 8 p.m., and with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. If you haven’t purchased your tickets yet, call (925) 943 – SHOW (7469), or visit their website at http://www.lesherartscenter.org/ and make your reservations now. Tickets range between $40 and $45 each. Senior tickets are $3 less per ticket ($37) and students ($34). I will report more next week after seeing the show myself.

Wicked still wow's everyone and casts its magical spell at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco!

If you have not seen the brilliant musical, “Wicked”, a fanciful deconstruction of the famous “Wizard of Oz” story by L. Frank Baum, then you simply must find the time to see this show before it leaves town. Before the show went to Broadway, where it became one of the highest gross income productions, it opened originally in San Francisco. Then in August of 2005, it returned again to play an extended run, a run so successful that it seems to have taken root here in the Bay Area and is still selling out to full houses night after night.

Karen I and missed the show the first time around as we were out of town when it opened, so we opened our pocket book and purchased the premier orchestra seats to take in the wonderful spectacle. It is all that it is advertised to be, a perfectly marvelous and spectacular musical with catchy music and lyrics created by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell and Pippen) that are still driving us nuts! We loved it!

Before Dorothy dropped in on Munchkin Land with her Kansan farmhouse, a lot was going on in Oz reminiscent of our own corrupt societies around the world today; greed, manipulation, petty jealousies, taking advantage of ethnic groups and wealth control by the wealthy! What we learn is that the Wicked Witch of the East (Elphaba) was really (according to author Gregory Maquire) a creature and victim of “Bad Press”, in part promoted by a not-so-good, Glinda-The-Good Witch.

The principal lead roles of Elphaba and Glinda are still being played by Eden Espinosa and Kendra Kassebaum who really own the roles! I personally cannot imagine anyone else being able to deliver these characters with the charm and depth that these two actresses are capable of. They have terrific voices, stage presence and skill that simply takes your breath away!

Basically, Wicked tells of two girls who meet in a girls’ school in the Land of Oz. Elphaba is tall, dark haired and has skin of a different color (green). The other girl, Glinda, is blond, petite, cute, self-absorbed, spoiled almost beyond belief, comes from a wealthy family and is very “pop-u-a-lar!” The two total opposites eventually become friends and when one, Elphaba (who is a hard working student), is invited to become an apprentice to the Wizard of Oz, she insists on taking her friend, Glinda, along with her. While with the Wizard, it is discovered that Elphaba, in addition to her special powers, has the unique ability to interpret an ancient book of spells, which not even the Wizard himself can interpret. When Elphaba discovers that her talents are to be exploited by evil interests, she rebels and disappears. Her knowledge of the inner-workings of the Wizard’s inner-circle are deemed dangerous and a threat to those in power, who then spread rumors of her “evilness” to assist in their capture of her. This delightful new take on the “not-always-so-wonderful” Land of Oz is a fun-filled adventure with an intriguing story, great music, special effects, lighting, great costumes, great staging, in fact, every aspect of the production is pure perfection! You will not come away disappointed!
Tickets, which range between $30 and $99, can be obtained by contacting the Orpheum Box office at 1192 Market Street or by calling Ticketmaster at (415) 512-7770 or by going to http://www.shnsf.com/ and purchasing tickets on line. No closing date has yet been announced.