"The Unstoppable Rain" opens at Zio Fraedo's and "Little Shop of Horrors" opens at the Dean Lesher Regional Center in Walnut Creek.

Emily (Siobhan O'Brien) and Cee-Cee (Alexis Crawford)
share hopes and dreams in a Route 66 Diner!

Doc (Bill Clemente) is tormented by his personal deamons and the presence of the Mysterious Man (David J. Suhl)
Photos by Charles Jarrett

The Contra Costa Musical Theater Company has just opened a terrific musical in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, a musical that is now the third longest running musical in off-Broadway history, “Little Shop of Horrors”. Then in Pleasant Hill, a new theater company, by the name of WTM Productions, is delivering a thought-provoking murder mystery that is written by local writer Christopher Bee, entitled “The Unstoppable Rain”. This new work in progress is being staged in Zio Fraedo’s beautiful Italian restaurant on Gregory Lane. This week you have two totally different options; both are rewarding.

John Steinbeck once wrote about the great “Mother road, the road of flight”, that provided hope to over 250,000 dust storm and drought refugees in the mid 1930’s, searching for new life “way out west” in California. U. S. Route 66 is the highway that wouldn’t die. The last stretch of Route 66 was decommissioned by the Federal government in 1985, and the historic road was officially replaced by Interstate 40. Almost twenty years later, Route 66 lives on in books, songs and in the American imagination. Today, “Historic Route 66” signs have sprung up along the route, historic buildings and even their neon signs are being restored and preserved. I pulled off Interstate 40 in Seligman, Arizona a couple of years ago and stepped back into time, walking down the main street of Seligman, a delightful little tourist stop on Route 66, a tourist centered locale that still resonates with the sights and sounds of old fashioned motels. Seligman provides a home for “fine” eating establishments with romantic names such as Road Kill Steak House and soft ice cream parlors such as the Snow Cap Drive Inn, as well as a number of little gift shops that overflow with both memories and memorabilia.

The Unstoppable Rain is a story about one of the those initially profitable little roadside towns constructed to provide stopping off places for those many travelers who needed a place to sleep, a place to eat and even a place to start a new life. It is a story about Doc (Bill Clemente) and Emily (Siobhan O’Brien) who found each other in another part of the country and set off on that famous highway of dreams seeking their future. They pulled off the road in Providence, discovered a little restaurant for sale, bought it and settled down. For the first few years of their new life in Providence, their business did well, very well, that is, until in the mid- 70’s. It was about this time when Route 66 towns were gradually being bypassed by a newer national freeway system, a system with more limited access, fewer places to stop, all in an effort to make interstate travel more rapid and profitable for the automobile transportation businesses and to augment the National Interstate and Defense Highways act of 1956. The more efficient freeway system meant less gas usage, faster travel and fewer stops for travelers looking to get to their destinations as quickly as possible. As travelers began to bypass their little towns, businesses began to fail all along Route 66, and the town of Providence, which was built on the same financial model, was suffering the same fate. Now with only a few businesses left operating in this town, tensions are high at the time of this story. But Doc and Emily and their little restaurant are still hanging in, refusing to give up.

As the show opens, Emily is reading a discouraging letter from their dairy product delivery service provider, which has just put them on notice that it just isn’t profitable for them to continue delivery to this little town any more. The letter continues, telling Doc and Emily that they can still have their normal products delivered, but the cost will effectively double. Just another very difficult little bump in their financial road, and even though Emily is extremely upset by this terrible news, her partner, Doc, suggests that she not get too upset, telling her, we will figure a way to work it out, we always have, we always will! On the surface, Doc still exudes a positive mental attitude, but there are dark clouds gathering over the horizon.

A mysterious stranger comes into the restaurant out of a gathering rain storm. He doesn’t say much, but engages them in conversation, telling them that he is having a problem with his vehicle. Doc, who is very knowledgeable about cars, checks out the problem and tells him that parts will have to be ordered and the stranger (who has little money) can stay in their back room for a few days.

Shortly thereafter, a very attractive young lady by the name of Cee-Cee (Alexis Crawford) enters the restaurant and orders a hamburger. This lovely black girl is traveling west and is discovering new opportunities and freedoms every day as she continues to move further and further away from her home state of “whites only” Alabama. Perhaps not so fortunate, is the fact she is very naive, and is now on her way to Hollywood, after being told by a talent scout in Alabama, that he can get her a role in the moving picture business, if she will just meet him in California.

Other locals drop in for their daily coffee or lunch, including a local mine owner, Baxter Wills (played by Rob Brown), who is seeking new investors for his mine, an enterprise which has not operated profitably for some time. Joining him in the restaurant is a prospective mine investor, Bob (David Suhl), a retired Texas Ranger, who is thinking of investing in the mine, if a promising new mining process can re-vitalize the ore removal. The one and only local motel still in operation in this town is owned and run by George (Greg Souza), who, like the others, has made his regular stop at the restaurant.

That same afternoon ends with both a tragedy and a mystery, when the young movie starlet wanna-be, Cee-Cee, is found violated and dead in the restaurant’s bathroom. The citizens of the town are extremely upset over her murder, not only for her loss, but also fearing what potential damage such a socially reprehensible story (in the early 70”s) about a young black girl being raped and murdered in their dying town, could do to their already desperate financial picture. More importantly, because they no longer have a police presence in their town, they decide to take matters into their own hands. It is out of these self-serving acts that the town folk are led down a pathway shrouded in fear, and they rediscover how fear, guilt and prejudice can lead anyone and everyone over a deep dark precipice, to total corruption and eventual destruction!

The acting of the lead actors is very good, with Siobhan O’Brien (as Emily) and Bill Clemente (as Doc) basically leading and at the same time, stealing the show. There is a huge disparity in acting skill between some of the more novice actors in the company and the lead actors, but never the less, the overall story is captivating and the overall performance is worthwhile.

While the story is definitely intriguing, this pilot production will lead to more analysis of their story line and undoubtedly prescribe more rewrites. How often do you actually get to meet a play’s author, and perhaps even contribute to the process. It is a very promising play, certainly worth the reasonable price of admission of $25 each. If you purchase your tickets on line at Brown Paper Tickets (listed on their web-site) at http://www.theunstoppablerain.com/ you will get an attractive discount. This very engaging play continues Fridays and Saturdays, October 21st, 22nd , November 4th and 5th, at 7 p.m., with Sunday matinees on October 23rd at 3 p.m., and on November 6th, at 7 p.m., closing on that date.

Also, by all means, while you are going to be in one of the best Italian restaurants in the area to see this show, you must attend the dining room and enjoy the most excellent cuisine. Tony’s Chicken Parmigiana and Filet Marsala are legendary! I’m the kind of guy who loves Calimari and there is no better Calamari Steak in Contra Costa. Everything is superb on their menu, especially their desserts, according to another theater critic friend of mine, Sally Hogarty. Sally told me today that Tony’s cheese cake, which she enjoyed last night when she saw this show, is simply to die for! Zio Fraedo’s owner and host, Anthony F. Lo Forte, Sr. demands the epitome of cordial customer service from each of his employees, and he often stops by your table to make sure his promise to you for great service and terrific food is carried out to perfection. Call the restaurant at (925) 933-9091 for reservations or for any other information you might need. The restaurant and theater is located at 611 Gregory Lane in Pleasant Hill. Their website can be found at http://www.ziofraedos.com/.

The second show, “Little Shop of Horrors”, a Contra Costa Musical Theater production, which just opened in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, should hardly need any introduction as it has played in so many theaters so many times, all over the world, that if you are someone interested in live theater, it would seem nearly impossible to me that you would not be familiar with this marvelous and at the same time, outrageous musical.

The original story came from a 1960’s low budget, comedy horror film by Roger Corman. It was re-envisioned by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman as a musical and stormed onto the Off-Broadway stage scene in 1982 and became an instant success. My first introduction to the musical was through the 1986 film version by the same name, directed by Frank Oz (of Muppets fame), a film that cost a hefty 30 million to produce, at least when you compare that to Corman’s original film cost, which he says only cost $30,000.

"On the twenty-third day of the month of September,
in an early year of a decade not too long before our own,
the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence.
And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places..."

Would you believe, in a New York florist shop on skid row, where an unlikely hero, a nerdy young floral assistant, Seymour (played by Robert Brewer), has discovered an unusual looking plant (which slightly resembles a Venus Flytrap). He actually discovered it in a Chinese floral merchant’s street side display during a total eclipse of the sun. Infatuated with it, he buys it, brings it back to the basement of Mushnik’s floral shop where he works, and tries to figure out what it is and what food and nourishment it needs. The floral shop is barely surviving and Seymour suggests to his boss that putting this unusual plant in the widow might draw attention to their shop and help their business. His co-worker, Audrey (Nicle Helfer), agrees.

It isn’t until Seymour accidentally discovers after pricking his finger on a thorny rose stem that the plant, now named “Audrey II”, really needs human blood to thrive! The rapidly growing, healthy looking plant in the window display, does gather attention, including television and radio. The shop begins to thrive, but poor Seymour is looking a bit more peaked and he has bandages on every finger. He simply tells Audrey, the girl he secretly wants to date, that he just keeps having accidents with the pruning shears.

Audrey is at this time dating a dentist by the name of Orin (Matthew Davis), who love to inflict pain and Audrey is obviously his main target for his love of Sadism. The comedy surrounding this character (and Davis’s terrific portrayal) is uproariously funny, worth a ticket to the show by itself!

The real magic of this musical is in the incorporation of the exciting Motown “DooWop” music, composed by Menken in the style of early 1960s rock and roll, including the title song “Little Shop of Horrors”, "Skid Row (Downtown)", "Somewhere That's Green", and "Suddenly, Seymour". In this production three fantastic and dynamic ladies with absolutely beautiful voices deliver the music with an energy and choreography seldom seen on community theater stages. The ladies, Christina Eskridge, Taylor Jones and Elizabeth Jones really wow the audience. The entire cast including Mr. Mushnik (Derek Travis Collard), is sterling silver!

"Little Shop of Horrors" is brilliantly directed by Jason Jeffrey, with music under the direction of Joan Cifarelli, and with outstanding choreography by Suzanne Brandt. At intermission, a group of people standing behind my wife and I were praising this production, extoling it as “far beyond community theater”, absolutely on a “professional level with anything they had seen in New York”, which, from their conversation, they apparently visited quite often. I agree wholeheartedly as to this show’s magnetism and praiseworthy attributes. It is absolutely “Wow” from the word “Go”. Do not miss this one, it is pure gold! Gold and silver, what more could you ask for!

This production continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, with Sunday performances at 2 pm, closing on November 13th.. Call 943-SHOW (7469) for tickets or reservations or check out the website for the Lesher Center for the Arts at http://www.lesherartscenter.org/ . The CCMT production is in the Hoffmann Theater in the Lesher Center for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Tickets range in price between $40 to $45 each.