As the Music Circus, Sacramento’s main claim to fame for summer musicals that are professionally produced in the round, opens its eleventh season at the Wells Fargo Pavilion, we thought we’d take a shot at selecting the ten best productions at that venue. And, as is always the case, limiting a “best” list to ten (or any number) inevitably involves arbitrary exclusions (and inclusions).
So, we’ll start our list with some honorable mentions (noting the year and director of the production):
“42nd Street” (2010; directed by Charley Repole)
“The Music Man” (2006; Leland Ball)
“The Little Mermaid” (2012; Glenn Casale)
“Man of La Mancha” (2009; Guy Stroman)
“Fiddler on the Roof” (2012; Glenn Casale)
“Gypsy” (2008; Marcia Milgrom Dodge)
“Anything Goes” (2011; Marcia Milgrom Dodge)
And now, working our way down to number one, here are the ten shows that we’ll long remember.
10. “A Little Night Music” (2006) – This gem caught us by surprise. It’s an intelligent adult musical, with a witty book (by Hugh Wheeler) and sophisticated lyrics (by composer Stephen Sondheim). Stafford Arima’s direction and a stellar ensemble cast made it all work perfectly.
9. “The Pirates of Penzance” (2004) – The Joe Papp version of this Gilbert and Sullivan classic received royal and appropriately irreverent treatment under the direction of Glenn Casale, who received excellent performances from the entire cast.
8. “Spamalot” (2010) – The Music Circus production of this Monty Python creation was a hoot, imaginatively directed by Glenn Casale to accentuate the bawdy humor without detracting from the surprisingly good music.
7. “Cats” (2003) – For the opening musical in the first summer in the Pavilion, Leland Ball directed a rousing production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s take on the poems of T.S. Eliot. The nearly story-less show still packed a wallop, as Mr. Ball’s energetic cast proved with end-to-end show-stopping numbers.
6. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (2004) – The surprise offering of the ’04 summer was a big hit, with a great ensemble of six guys supporting three excellent leads in this swashbuckling comic tale that included some of the best (and funniest) period costumes we’ve ever seen on any stage.
5. “Les Miserables” (2007) – The ’07 season got off to a rousing start with a superbly crafted production of this Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg classic. What made this offering especially noteworthy was that it marked the first time the musical had ever been presented in the round. Glenn Casale’s inspired direction made the experiment a complete success.
4. “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2008) – This production was an amazing accomplishment, both in its conception (from the mastermind of Stephen Sondheim) and its realization (with director Glenn Casale literally creating three separate stages to depict the three separate scene locations where the action takes place). The result was art at its best, highlighted by an excellent cast that made the most of Sondheim’s operatic score.
3. “My Fair Lady” (2008) – This Lerner and Loewe flip of G.B. Shaw’s “Pygmalion” into a musical was smartly directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who provided some great touches, most notably in her creation of “The Ascot Races” (complete with the sound of the horses’ hooves as they raced around the stage/track). The cast included top-notch performances from Richard B. Watson (as Higgins), Kate Baldwin (Eliza), Ron Wisniski (Pickering) and J.B. Adams (Eliza’s dad).
2. “Hairspray” (2008) – This musical in the round was the surprise delight of the ’08 summer. Directed by Gary John La Rosa, and starring Joline Mujica as the plump teen with the monster hair, it featured one of the best musical scenes of this or any other year (when Paul Vogt, as Mrs. Turnblad, and Dick Decareau, as her husband, seemingly ad-libbed their way through a hilarious rendition of “Timeless to Me”) along with probably the summer’s best cast, top to bottom, and, dare we forget, the summer’s best makeup and wigs (the latter designed by Jason Hayes).
1. “Miss Saigon” (2011) – The Tony Award-winning musical was produced with great spectacle that gave tremendous power to the story of the Vietnamese woman and her American G.I. lover at the end of the Viet Nam War. Brilliantly directed by Stafford Arima, the production included scenes that were quite literally awesome in their design and execution and acting that was so heartfelt as to be emotionally painful. In addition to star turns by Kevin Gray as the engineer, Eric Kunze as the G.I., and Ma-Anne Dionisio as the doomed Vietnamese girl, an ensemble cast sang and danced in the best tradition of great Music Circus productions.