(Ed. note: E. Haig, a Sacramento writer who specializes in reviews of artistic performances, offers this annual summary of the top performances he reviewed during 2008.)
The Sacramento performing arts scene was elevated immensely this past year by stage productions. And in at least four instances, those productions were the result of the efforts of Scott Ekhern, the since-deposed artistic director of the Music Circus. While not intending to make a political statement, we can’t help but think that our annual list of the ten best performances of the year should be dedicated to him.
Here, in order, are our choices.
1 – “The Drowsy Chaperone.” The absolute surprise hit of the year, this touring production of the Tony Award-winning Broadway show was pure entertainment. It featured a superb ensemble cast, led by Jonathan Crombie as “the man in the chair,” and great showstoppers like the dueling tap dance duet (with Mark Ledbetter and Richard Vida clicking their toes and heels). The story doesn’t matter, because it is only the vehicle for the hilarity and music. Add a terrific orchestra that travels with the show and great sets and costumes, and for ten days in October, Sacramento had Broadway-level entertainment at the Community Center Theater.
2 – “Hairspray.” This musical in the round at the Music Circus was the surprise delight of the 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).
3 – Pinchas Zukerman and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. January featured this superb concert at the Mondavi Center, with Zukerman conducting and soloing on Bruch’s violin concerto and conducting Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. Mr. Zukerman’s conducting (with his violin bow during the concerto) was almost as impressive as his playing. And the Tchaikovsky symphony, as played by the great musicians who comprise the orchestra, was about as good as it gets for symphonic masterpieces.
4 – “My Fair Lady.” The second of the Music Circus entries on our list, 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).
5 – “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” This second Broadway touring production to make our list was another near-perfect show, even to the point of including four members of the audience, chosen randomly, in the “Bee.” The ensemble cast brought out the humor and the pathos that the story provides, and the singing and dancing (to a hip five-piece band) was first rate.
6 – “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” This Music Circus 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.
7 – The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. This superb orchestra, led by substitute conductor Leos Svarovsky, put the works of Antonin Dvorak on display with a near-perfect performance (in February at the Mondavi Center) that featured three of the composer’s most popular works – the Carnival Overture, the Czech Suite, and the “New World” (9th) symphony. All three sounded as if the musicians had been playing them from birth, which, in many instances, may not be too much of an exaggeration.
8 – “Gypsy.” The bravura performance by Vicki Lewis made this good show great, as she combined Mermanesque exuberance with her character’s human frailties and the fear of emptiness that gives the story its gravitas. The production also included the best single-scene transition (plaudits again for director Marcia Milgrom Dodge) when the young children in the “act” were replaced by their teen-age counterparts via a most effective use of strobe lights. It was, quite literally, a dazzling sequence.
9 – Billy Joel. The “piano man” played to a packed house at Arco Arena in March, and he brought a bundle of his great compositions, including, happily, a few of the underappreciated ones that only fans of his complete albums would know. Together with his tight seven-piece back-up band, Joel proved that even as he approaches “senior” status, he still knows how to play to an audience.
10 – The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. The Mondavi Center featured this fine orchestra as October came to a close. With long-time musical director Leon Botstein conducting, the orchestra shined on Aaron Copland’s 3rd symphony and ably supported an excellent solo effort by Robert McDuffie (violin) on Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion.”
And, because ten is never enough, honorable mention goes to the Capital Stage production of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” the Master Singers’ “Christmas to Remember” concert, the Sacramento Philharmonic’s flawless performance of the Eroica during its all-Beethoven concert, and the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe’s return performance at Mondavi.
May ‘09 offer as many gems!