8 Tens @ 8

By Philip Pearce

ACTORS’ THEATRE’S 8 Tens @ 8 Short Play Festival is an annual crowd-pleaser at Center Stage, Santa Cruz. Now that 8 Tens has doubled its output to 16 plays over two successive nights, labeled A and B, the festival seems, among other benefits, to be inviting some new fans to crowd in beside those of us who annually check in to watch fresh stage material from writers all over the USA.  

This year’s Night A opened the festival last Friday with an emphasis on comedies, themes ranging from the bumpy road to romantic love, to inter-generational conflict, to the joys of getting even with that guy or gal who’s done you dirt.

It started with Greg Atkins’ provocative romantic science fiction farce Tempus Fugit. Is there anyone out there who hasn’t looked regretfully back at one or more youthful blunders and thought, “If only I had known then what I know now?” So a futuristic charmer named Cynthia, living in the year 2039, time-travels back twenty years to warn an amiable bachelor named Gary against the disastrous blunder of proposing to–you guessed it–the feckless and promiscuous girl our Cynthia used to be back in 2019.  

But the future Cynthia’s warnings keep halting while she hides whenever the present day Cynthia shows up at Gary’s place. Best plotted of all the “A” scripts, Tempus Fugit takes on the frantic pace of a French farce as director Cathy Warner connives brilliantly with the three-member cast and an un-credited costume designer to work lightning-quick costume and hairdo changes as the two Cynthias (both played by the energetic and enchanting Alie Mac) narrowly avoid meeting one another. Nat Robinson is pure gold as the hopeful but beleaguered Gary and Solange Marcotte deserves a medal for briefly doubling with her face conveniently and logically covered at moments when both Cynthias are on stage at once. Sound like fun? It is. And kind of a pity that this opening number turns out to be the best item in the whole A Night program.  

Geriatric romance gets a once-over in Rod McFadden’s aptly named The Dating Game. Seventy-something widow Marge (Helene SimkinJara) offers some pretty good jokes about the tortures of granny-aged online dating and Sheryl Loomis is sprightly and helpful as an old schoolmate named Nettie who urges Marge not to give up her extended cyber search for Mister Right. The acting is fine, the outcome happy, but blandly predictable. 

Things are more romantically acid and barbed as the busy Nat Robinson returns in Act 2 as an office worker named Simon in Richard Lyons Conlon’s Jackson, so called because that’s whose image appears on the twenty-dollar bill Simon’s fellow office worker Pauline finds missing from her desk top when she returns from the ladies’ room. Jocelyn McMahon’s feisty Pauline shouts and spars with energetic skill and seems to win in her efforts to pin the theft on a guy she has dumped after a brief office romance. But closing moments suggest she may not, after all, have actually won their Tracy-Hepburn battle of the sexes. It’s a lively and well-acted romp.   

Steven Capasso’s Gossip Queens is also about getting even. Three East Coast Mafia widows study fellow mourners at a funeral, pick out some people who have done them wrong and discuss payback. Joyce Michaelson, Hannah Eckstein and Rachel Newman have a lot of fun exercising their New Joisey dialect skills as the three mature, fast talking molls.  

William J Royce’s Morning in America got the biggest opening night laugh when retiree Charley (the artful Marcus Cato) opened the play by confronting his daughter Gayle (Alie Mac again) with the anguished question, “Is he still president?” Nobody in cast, script or audience needed to ask who Charley was referring to. John Chandler’s Jello Salad is also about parent-child conflict as Gino Danna, Solange Marcotte and Sheryl Loomis work hard to inject life into a script about a black sheep uncle’s efforts to help his teen-aged niece rebel against their hidebound family. It’s a hopeful idea but the characters, as written, lack either the charm or the chutzpa that would make us care much about their struggles.

Heaps better as a tale of child-parent conflict, Frodo Lives by Elizabeth Flanagan opens with the arresting central image of a full-scale flush toilet over which Claudia (Nicolette Nasr) and son Sam (talented newcomer Tristan Ahn) cover a lot of interesting inter-generational territory as they argue the best social, religious and ecological way of flushing Sam’s late lamented goldfish Frodo down the cistern. Kind of a shame the title gives away the surprise ending!        

The evening closes with The Birthday Gift, (above photo) a diverting family comedy in which married couple W Scott Whisler and Joyce Michaelson celebrate daughter Jocelyn McMahon’s 21st birthday by presenting her with the keys to a truck big enough to pack all her stuff in and the news that an architect friend is converting the family home into a collapsible mini-house suitable for the two of them to take on extended up-market European tours, or use for yoga retreats or a newly liberated sex life carried on without inhibitions or underwear.   

The 2019 selection of A-Night plays is well acted, astutely directed, tastefully mounted and generally entertaining. But I missed the focus and realism that have marked some previous years’ selections as meaningful enough to be worth a second visit.

Photo by Jana Marcus 

David Copperfield

By Jocelyn McMahon

DAVID COPPERFIELD THE NEW MUSICAL is an original written and composed by Santa Cruz local, Jeffery Scharf, that is based on Charles Dickens’ eighth novel, published in 1850, which is known to be Dickens’ veiled autobiography. As with the novel, the musical sends us on the adventures and life story of the title character. Throughout the journey we visit the friends, family and foes of young David as he reflects on the importance of home and what it means to truly be home.

Set on the epic Colligan Stage in Santa Cruz, this new work unloads an array of impressive musical numbers. With catchy melodies, precise rhythms, witty lyrics and various styles, the incredibly gifted cast brings these tunes to life and transports us to the world of the beloved Dickens character.

We enter the story in the opening number “I am Home” where we meet the grown up David, played by the charming and immediately likable Kyle Stoner, and the entire cast.

Off the bat we see that women and maternal figures are essential to David’s story and he holds them in high regard. We meet his mother, Clara, the forever sweet ingénue played by Emily Serdahl; Peggotty, a loveable warm maid played by Sheila Townsend; and my favorite character of the night, Aunt Betsey, the comical, critical, unfiltered witty women who is quite charming despite her initial man-hating feminism. Aunt Betsey immediately strikes a laugh with her number “It’s a Boy!” in which she vents her disappointment in David since, after all, she assumed he would be a she, hence to be called Betsey Trotwood Copperfield the 2nd.

Clara wins our hearts with her charm and we get to see her through the eyes of young David, played by remarkable young star Josali Moran (also played by Carter Hulse in other performances). When the cruel and unloving Mr Murdstone arrives, played by the convincing Daniel Barrington Rubio, shudders can be heard throughout the audience. Rubio plays the villainous Murdstone so well, with a sort of Bill Sykes quality, that imminent doom colors the mood. And when his sister, Miss Jane Murdstone, arrives, the lives of the Copperfields only get worse as David is forced off to boarding school. Clara’s final words to David in the song “Darling Boy” is one of the highlights of the night. The hummable ballad is beautiful, sentimental and hopeful.

Soon we are introduced to David’s new life and his new companion, James Steerforth—young Steerforth played by Maxwell Bjork, older Steerforth played by Shane Johnson—in the number “Under My Wing” in which Steerforth promises to stick by David and look out for him, establishing a strong bond that turns into a lifelong friendship. “Mr. Creakle is a Tartar,” a fun up-tempo jazzy number sung by Steerforth and the schoolboys recounts the cruelty of the headmaster. Despite the dim subject matter of borderline child abuse, the song is fun and adds dance elements, but could have had some more concrete/solid/detailed choreography. (I hear a tap number in there).

Both Bjork and Johnson are entertaining in the younger and older versions of their character, and they smoothly sail through their songs, but the intent of the character of Steerforth is confusing; whether he is a pompous jerk, a trustworthy companion, is fooling David or is actually a good guy never quite comes clear. Considering the impact of the tender ballad that David sings in Act 2 to his friend, after discovering he has drowned, “Under My Wing,” it would be helpful to more clearly establish who this character was. While this is perhaps Stoner’s most impressive musical number of the night, with an ending note that causes goosebumps, the importance of Steerforth in the plot line remains unclear.

After David’s mother dies, the boy is sent off by his stepfather to work for his wine-bottling business, “Wash, Rinse, Scrape and Peel/Time You Learn a Living.” The song and movement portray the mundane and tedious work that these laborers are forced to do to barely make a living. Though David is initially pawned off on Mr Micawber as a form of repayment—we are introduced to both he (Micawber played by Martin Rojas Dietrich) and his devout, but equally outlandish wife Mrs Micawber (Kim Schroder Long)—in “Something Will Turn Up”.

The highly comedic couple keeps us laughing throughout their odd quirks and perpetual financial woes. Mrs Micawber chooses to stand by her husband and Long and Dietrich capture this dynamic amazingly well.

In the second act we meet two of the essential character as the classic tales of love and heartache play out: Dora Spenlow, the naïve young girl from an upper class family, played by the charming Emily Corbo, immediately catches David’s eye, but is out of his financial league, and Agnes Wickfield, a smart and sound young woman, played by Marie Putko, that has been in David’s life for a long time and fallen desperately in love with him but for whom he feels nothing more than friendship. Corbo’s swift comedic timing and elegant voice in the dynamic love duet “Dor-or-a” it is hard not to fall for her. Agnes’ dignified response to the unrequited love she is met with is heartbreaking. Aunt Betsey’s raw and rather pessimistic assessment of the situation in “Love Is Blind” is the icing on the cake in another hilarious show-stopper; Kelly Ground’s performance in the role is darkly brilliant.

Another mentionable performance is Sadie Rose as Uriah Heep, the conniving antagonist who’s cunning wit is used to deceive and destroy others in order to gain control. Rose gives great attention to detail and keeps the audience engaged with slimy sideways glances and great physical control; the number “Humble Is, Humble Was” was definitely a favorite of the night.

With many so classically trained voices and a great assortment of characters, the show has a lot going for it. As expected from Jewel Theatre productions, the technicalities are immaculate, the costumes are lavish and appropriate for the time period, the set although simple is on point and the orchestration is flawless. Music director Max Bennet Parker not only plays keys and directs orchestration, but also holds a substantial role onstage playing as Ham, the sailor.  

The show’s biggest flaw is length; it contains 30 songs, none of them “throw-aways”, but with full scenes and dialogue it lasts well over three hours and drags a bit. And though the remarkable amount of characters and sub-plots might hold true to the book, it doesn’t quite translate to stage. While the actors portray a great understanding of relationships and convey emotion clearly and accurately, with so many stories we find ourselves observing intimate moments of those we’ve only just met.

But then who said turning Dickens into a musical was going to be easy?

While the show is an enjoyable holiday piece to see, missing is what sets apart a good musical from an unforgettable one. David Copperfield is almost there; the hard work has been done. It just needs a little trimming.

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo