The recently concluded 61st season of the Music Circus, Sacramento’s premier organization that produces seven musicals in the round every summer, was something of a mixed bag, with two less disappointing productions detracting from the otherwise solid offerings that even included a pair that were nothing less than great.
We’ll take it from the top, in terms of quality, in summarizing our impression of all seven productions, and we’ll offer grades for each and an overall grade for the entire season.
“Miss Saigon” – A+. The season’s last show was the best the organization has staged in years. In telling the story of the last days of America’s involvement in the Viet Nam War, director Stafford Arima and his superb cast, led by Kevin Gray, Ma-Anne Dionisio, and Eric Kunze, created an experience that was emotionally stirring and intellectually stimulating while still being highly entertaining.
“Anything Goes” – A. Cole Porter’s musical about the search for love on a cruise ship was the perfect vehicle for what the Music Circus does best: big song and dance numbers. A great ensemble cast added to the scene stealing performances of Vicki Lewis and James Graae (playing Public Enemy #13), and the direction and choreography by Marcia Milgrom Dodge brought it all together delightfully.
“Annie Get Your Gun” – B+. Feminism got a lift with this Irving Berlin chestnut, as Beth Malone was a great Annie and Edward Watts was almost as great as her paramour/foil. A strong supporting cast (including Music Circus stalwarts Dick Decareau and Ron Wisniski) made the silliness of the story easy to take, as did great tunes like “There’s No Business Like Show Business” that gave everyone ample opportunity to sing and dance.
“The Producers” – B. The Mel Brooks laughfest was only slightly less funny as performed in the round, with some of the gay humor falling flat, despite the efforts of a strong cast and the direction by Glenn Casale. Still, it’s hard not to laugh at songs like “Keep it Gay” and “Springtime for Hitler” or to chuckle at the sight of Roger Debris (the in-play director) in drag or of Franz Liebkind (the in-play playwright) in a Nazi uniform.
“Camelot” – B-. The Lerner and Loewe classic still wears well, especially when the three leads are solid. For this production, they were, with Davis Gaines giving perhaps the strongest overall performance of the season as Arthur. Unfortunately, for this show, Glenn Casale’s direction failed to deliver key scenes as effectively as they should be, thereby reducing the amount of emotional intensity the script merits.
“Oliver!” – C. Bringing Dickens’ classic tale to the stage in the form of a musical with comic segments was never an easy task, and while the music in Lionel Bart’s creation still resonates, this production lacked focus, as the sympathy intended for Fagin (well-played by Ron Wisniski, back again) fell flat. A definite plus, however, was the performance of Roland Rusinek as Mr. Bumble. His was the best supporting actor performance of the season.
“I Do! I Do!” – D+. Matthew Ashford and Christina Saffran Ashford, real life husband and wife, did their best to bring life to this two-person show about the 50-year marriage of the fictional couple. They succeeded about as well as the material would allow. But if the Music Circus decision-makers insist on going small once a year, as they most definitely did with this lightweight and lighthearted study of the perils of married life, they need to choose better vehicles.
Overall grade – B. Any season that includes the wonder of a “Miss Saigon” is a clear success, especially when it is backed up by a near-perfect performance of the kind of musical this organization is best at producing, as was the case with “Anything Goes.” But better care needs to be shown in the selection and staging of other offerings. Thus, we must reluctantly give the 2011 Music Circus season an overall grade that is in no way intended to diminish the greatness of those two shows or the overall quality of most of the others.
Here’s hoping for more performances of the straight-A variety in the 2012 season.