Lois Grandi delivers a super "Chicago" in the Pleasanton Firehouse Theater!

Roxie Hart (Joy Sherratt), Billy Flynn (David Judson) and Velma (Nicole Frydman) appear to have their act together, but the photo doesn't begin to tell the story, at least not the truth, - - the whole truth and nothing but the truth!!
Photo by Wally Allert

As if you didn’t have enough theaters to provide you with entertainment opportunities, this week I am introducing you to a relatively new, reasonably comfortable and beautiful theater facility and a new theater company in nearby Pleasanton with my review of Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre’s truly exhilarating production of Kander, Fosse and Ebb’s brazenly upbeat and delightfully funny, “Chicago”.

For all of you Lois Grandi fans, you now have something to cheer about. Lois Grandi is back, back in her best element, musical theater, and once again demonstrating her highly acclaimed directing skills as she directs this stellar production. After Lois Grandi closed down her Walnut Creek 49 seat “pocket” theater on Locust Street, Playhouse West, I have had many enquires as to what Lois would be doing next, and now the wraps are off and I can tell you.

The city of “Chicago” in the 1920’s was considered one of the nation’s most notorious crime gang syndicate centers, with the likes of celebrity murderers Al Capone, Frank “Tight Lips” Gusenberg, Hymie Weiss, Dan O’Banion, George “Bugs” Moran and many others engaged in all out war for mob control of liquor, drugs, loan sharking and prostitution. The 20’s came to a close with the violent St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It was a terribly corrupt and violent time in American history, the fodder for many movies, books, stories, plays and even musicals. As we look back now, we can inject humor into our memories of that sordid time in our history, a time when political and police corruption and gangland control of society was rampant.

This musical is a satire focusing on the concept of the “celebrity criminal” and the corruption rampant in the political and criminal justice system of the day. “Chicago” is based on a 1926 play of the same name, written by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Watkins about actual criminals and events of that time period, characters she knew and reported on. If you do a Google search, the Wikipedia reference to the musical reveals a detailed and very interesting story behind the story on how the original play finally evolved through two different movie versions and into a musical through the hands of famed dancer Gwen Verdon and her husband Bob Fosse. Chicago became the fifth longest running musical in Broadway history with more than 5,900 performances.

The story has two principal criminal characters, one woman by the name of Roxie Hart (played by Joy Sherratt) and Velma (Nicole Frydman). Both women are in jail, accused of murder. The story chronicles their relationship with celebrity attorney, Billy Flynn (David Judson) , the jail matron, Mama “I can get you anything” Morton (Karon Strempke), and Amos (Sebastian Romeo), Roxie’s “milk toast” adoring and subservient husband. A young man by the name of Robert Coverdell, plays the Mary Sunshine, “celebrity reporter”, again spoofing a character in real life, the original charismatic reporter Maurine Watkins. Cloverdale is outrageously funny and excellent in his portrayal. Nicole Frydman (Velma) has a powerful, beautiful voice, is a superb dancer, and one heck of an actress. While Joy Sherratt is superb in her role as Roxie, equally attractive and talented, it is Frydman who really steals the show. Karol Strempke is a powerhouse as the prison matron and David Judson, the attorney, is absolutely brilliant, professional in every respect as the flamboyant, headline seeking attorney. The courtroom marionette/ ventriloquist scene between Billy Flynn and Roxie Hart is brilliant!

Songs and music are so clever and melodious that you will find them rumbling around in your head for days after seeing the show. With lyrics such as “he had it coming - -“ from the Cell Block Tango, and “whatever happened to class” from “Class”, a duet by Velma and Roxie are bringing back effervescent memories to me now. Granted, had the theater had the kind of lighting of a major theater facility, where more spot lighting and separations were possible, it could have been even more powerful. In addition, a major part of the stage is a mass mountain of stairs and risers, a performance pyramid that had to make performing both difficult and precarious. It is really quite amazing what the company was able to do with the “community theater level stage” they had to work with. I loved this show and the audience seemed much of the same mind.

The cast selected for this musical is certainly on a professional level (Actor’s Equity Assn.) and/or long time experienced actors and dancers. Lois Grandi is known for her demand for acting perfection and attention to detail and the results definitely pay off in what has to be one of the best productions of this musical my wife and I have seen locally. Wow! Don’t miss this one!

“Chicago” will continue with Thursday and Saturday evening performances at 8 p.m., but the Friday shows on August 26th and September 2nd, will not perform until late in the evening at 9 p.m., for the “after-dinner crowd”, due to the playhouse facilities pre-commitment on those dates to another program. Evening performances on Sundays are at 7:30 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m., on August 28th and September 4th. Tickets range in price between $18 and $33 each and may be purchased online at http://www.firehousearts.org/ or by phone (925) 931-4848, or in person at the Firehouse box office, located in the theater which is situated at 4444 Railroad Avenue (at the corner of Division Street) in downtown Pleasanton. There is plenty of free city provided parking adjacent to the theater. This show closes on September 4th.
The Willows Theatre is in the second week of their production of “The Fantasticks”, another historically popular musical that ran for 42 years and a total of 17,162 performances off-Broadway. This is a musical that I personally never ever cared for, not until I saw this production in the Willows Main Stage Theater in Concord.

The New Willows Mainstage Theater brings back "The Fantasticks", the first musical production this theater ever produced, many years ago, when it was origianlly known as City Arts Theater.

The Fantasticks is an allegorical story of two manipulative neighbors, fathers who have become close friends who fantasize that the world would be perfect if only their two children, a son and daughter, were to fall in love, marry and meld their families together, forever. The fathers have learned that whatever you tell your children not to do, is what they always seem to want to do most. Consequentially, they devise a plan where they will appear to become feuding neighbors, so much so that they will build a fence between their properties to separate themselves and their children, making communication more difficult between all parties. Their attempt to keep their children apart of course appears to backfire but it actually facilitates their plan to get their children together, as their alienated children find ways to communicate and relate secretly. The young couple do fall in love but now the fathers have the problem of how do they reconcile our “make-believe differences” in such a fashion that they can become “friends” again in order to support the children’s plans to wed. A plan is conceived by which the fathers hire a traveling troupe of actors to stage a mock abduction, so that the son, Matt (Zach Piser), can heroically save Luisa (Ginny Wehrmeister), thereby bringing the feuding fathers back together.

The Boy’s Father/ Hucklebee (Stu Klitsner) and the Girl’s Father/Bellomy (Tom Farris), are very well known to local audiences, drawing positive reviews for many years. The mock abduction orchestrator, known as the Narrator and El Gallo, is played to perfection by the ruby throated Ryan Drummond. Drummond is a popular actor and singer appearing in many productions by the Willows Theater. The actors, identified as The Old Actor and The Man Who Dies are played by father and son acting team, Pat and Sam Craig. Yes, this is the same Pat Craig that we have known and loved and read as the theater reviewer for the Contra Costa Times for many years. Ginny Wehrmeister is a beautiful woman with a lovely voice and an amazing vibrancy mixed with superb talent. I always look forward to her performances. This is the first time I have had the pleasure of getting to know Zach Piser, another very talented young actor. I look forward to getting to know him better as an actor, as well. The Mute who plays many supportive roles (including the “Wall”) is performed well by Meryn Macdougall.

The story takes many allegorical twists and turns and very nearly turns disastrous, with bruised egos, and young people taking several wrong turns before its happy conclusion. It is a parable type story about people messing around with fate and human nature, somewhat humorous, with an unexciting storyline, made very entertaining in this production and even palatable by some truly excellent acting and beautiful voices. There are a number of songs with good messages, but only one that I can ever remember, only one that stays with me and you probably will remember it when I mention its absolutely apropos title, “Try to Remember”!

The Fantasticks plays Wednesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., with other performances Fridays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinee performances on Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and o The Fantasticks Sundays at 3 p.m., closing on September 4th. Tickets range in price between $22 and $32. With discounts for seniors (65+) and students (6-18) and can be obtained by calling 798-1300 or by contacting the Willows Theater on line at http://www.willowstheatre.com/ . This production is in their main stage theater located in the Willows Shopping Center (next door to REI Sporting goods) at 1975 Diamond Boulevard Avenue in Concord.