Before summer completely fades to autumn, here’s our annual review of the Music Circus season. For the second year in a row, it consisted of only five shows, but unlike last year, when four of the five made our annual best-performances-of-the-year list, we’re not sure any of this year’s productions will so qualify. Each, as noted below, had things to rave about, but none lived up to the high standards of totally engaging entertainment most long-time Music Circus fans have come to expect.
The season opened with a very good production of “The Wizard of Oz,” which was highlighted by the performance of Jacquelyn Piro Donovan in the dual roles of Miss Gultch and the Wicked Witch. As the latter, Ms. Donovan was especially delightful as the villain of the piece, and her “liquidation” (where she appeared to be quite literally melting on the stage) was a terrific moment. Heather Lee was also strong as Aunt Em and the Good Witch Glinda, and Emily Watson was a fine Dorothy. But the production had few of the full ensemble numbers that make Music Circus productions so memorable, so that even with its excellent direction (by Glenn Casale) and many technical enhancements (flying monkeys and pyrotechnics whenever the Wicked Witch appeared), the show was less satisfying than it might have been.
“Show Boat,” the season’s second production, was well-delivered, but it showed its age. The story (of life on the Mississippi in the late 1800s and early 1900s) is dated, and the portrayal of the black workers, while perhaps accurate for the time depicted, was less significant in the overall tale that focused instead on the white female performer and her family. Still, with Phillip Boykin singing the show’s signature song, “Ol’ Man River,” (no less than three times) and with strong performances by just about everyone in the large cast, the production delivered a good night of entertainment, if nothing else.
“Sugar,” the 1972 musical based on Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” was a pleasant surprise, as it featured an excellent trio of lead performers and stuck well to the original story (complete with the two male leads in drag for much of the show). But it isn’t a great musical (with few songs that have gained traction and little in the way of major song-and-dance ensemble numbers), which is probably why it hasn’t been produced very often over the last forty years. But Elizabeth Stanley was excellent in the title role (and looked the Marilyn Monroe part as well), and Brent Barrett (in the Tony Curtis role) and especially Jason Graae (in the Jack Lemmon part) were outstanding. The production was also enlivened by the seriously great tap dancing of Brad Bradley (even to the point of his death scene, which was a hoot).
Under the direction of Stafford Arima, “The King and I” was offered as the fourth show for the season. It was the thirteenth time the Rodgers and Hammerstein creation has been produced at the Music Circus (and the second in the Wells Fargo Pavilion).
The production was fine, with the highlight probably being the long ballet scene in the second act. It featured some fantastic costumes (the work of Marcy Froehlich), wigs and makeup (by Christine Conklin), an impressive scenic design (Stephen Gifford), and the fine choreography by Bob Richard that tells the tale of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” But the story is old and slightly xenophobic, and aren’t there other shows that deserve the attention of this great organization?
“Chicago,” the Bob Fosse hit from the mid-1970s, would qualify as one such show, but while we hoped it would be the highlight of the season, the first attempt to stage this inventive musical in the round was less rewarding than were either the 2003 film version or the touring Broadway production that played in Sacramento several years ago. Still, the cast, headed by Brenda Braxton and Lindsay Roginski, as the female convicts who are both charged with murder, and Tom Hewitt, as their not-all-that-ethical attorney, was excellent. And the ensemble cast members danced and pranced well in their skimpy outfits, thereby capturing some, if not all, of Fosse’s intended irreverence and iconoclasm.
And so, in sum, it was a good Music Circus season. While it lacked a truly great production, it provided its audiences with five solid performances, each of which made for an evening of first-class entertainment.