Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: giddy, rude & ridiculous “Spamalot” is at 6th Street Playhouse through September 22, 2013

Spamalot 2It’s summer and if you’re in the mood for silly…the trotting coconuts, the killer rabbit and the knights who say “Ni” are all back in 6th Street Playhouse’s irreverent Spamalot which plays in its GK Hardt Theatre through September 22,2013.

The 2005 Tony Award-winning musical comedy by Python super-star Eric Idle, with musical score by Idle and composer John Du Prez, is a loving rip-off of the 1975 classic film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Through a medley of song, slapstick, pun, and abandonment of political correctness, Spamalot tells the tale of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail and his knights’ entanglement in a Broadway production.  Along the way, it cleverly and unabashedly exploits all the cannons of musical theater while poking itself for being a musical.

In the capable hands of Craig Miller, 6th Street’s Artistic Director, the mash-up more or less succeeds. Miller, who brought us The Great American Trailer Park Musical (2012) and The Marvelous Wonderettes (2012) and who just picked up an astounding six awards in the 2013 SFBATCC (San Francisco/Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle), once again combines strong local talent with an excellent production team.

I saw the show last Saturday evening (8/24), opening weekend.  It delivered some good laughs and some catchy tunes, against the backdrop of great sets and unexpected projections, all adding up to an appealing musical.  I can only imagine that the comedy component will get stronger over time as the actors work together more and find that relaxed sweet spot where they can really deliver up the hysterically funny and shameless gags we associate with Python brilliance.

Arthur and company’s musical journey begins in Finland, with the “Fisch Schlapping Song,” grown men being silly and whacking each other with huge fish.  The narrator soon gets the story back on track, back to a dense forest and the time of the plague, where it’s time to cart-away the bodies.  From there, it’s a romp through history as Arthur and his motley crew proceed to Camelot and become Knights of the Round Table. Their zany escapades include battling French Can-Can Girls, warring with a French fort and hurling a huge wooden Trojan rabbit as a weapon, and trying to outwit a vicious biting bunny who protects the Holy Grail.  The characters also take on the assignment of performing a Broadway musical.  One of the funniest moments comes when Robin belt outs a lament to Arthur that their production will never make it to Broadway “if it doesn’t have any Jews!”

M.P. fans will recognize familiar tunes as “Finland,” “Knights of the Round Table” and “Always Look on the Brightside of Life,” a classic from Life of Brian.  Idle and Du Prez co-created catchy tunes like “I Am Not Dead Yet” and “The Song that Goes Like This”  and many of these are reminiscent of Lloyd Webber, Rogers & Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim, however the silly lyrics are all Idle’s.  “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” is one of the most memorable songs and, of course, is a credo that we should all live by.

“Spamalot” at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through September 22, 2013 is a medley of song, slapstick and silly fun that lovingly recounts the exploits of King Arthur and features a large cast of mainly local performers.  The original 2005 Broadway show received 3 Tony Awards and was seen by over two million people.  Photo: Eric Chazankin.

“Spamalot” at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through September 22, 2013 is a medley of song, slapstick and silly fun that lovingly recounts the exploits of King Arthur and features a large cast of mainly local performers. The original 2005 Broadway show received 3 Tony Awards and was seen by over two million people. Photo: Eric Chazankin.

Barry Martin’s King Arthur is the heart of Spamalot.  The Napa-based actor, director and co-founder of Lucky Penny Productions has natural comedic timing, a fantastic and robust singing voice, and he delivers an alternately noble and kind of daffy King Arthur whose generosity of spirit rings through all the antics surrounding him.

Arthur’s coconut-clapping page/sidekick and imaginary steed, Patsy, is played to the hilt by Erik Weiss, also a delight to behold. He’s quite young, just starting his senior year at Montgomery High School, but has a natural affinity for comedy, evident as he trots and schleps around stage beside Arthur.

Taylor Bartolucci Deguilio’s Lady of the Lake, is a spoof of all leading ladies and Broadway conventions.  Beaming Deguilio was quite sultry in an array of beautifully colorful form-fitting costumes by Pamela Johnson, but her singing voice, while energetic, was not in its usually radiant top form.  Natalie Herman (Not Dead Fred/Prince Herbert/Ensemble) had small roles but the combination of a marvelous voice and that magical “it” factor, made it her night.  After she sang just a few lines of “I am not dead yet” in Act I, I was fixed on her all night long and she got more delightful as the show progressed.

As Sir Robin, Trevor Hoffman pulled off some great dancing and singing. His Act II song “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” was one of the highlights of the evening—hysterically bemoaning the lack of Jewish entertainers in Arthur’s motley crew.

There’s not a bad seat in the GJ Hardt Theatre and the stage pops with Theo Bridant’s gorgeous lighting and Jess Driekson’s scenic design.  Alise Girard’s choreography is polished and delivers, among many feats, a chorus line of dancing divas and knights and other sundry characters.  Hats off to musical directors, Jason Sherbody and assistant David Brown for their tight coordination of 22 songs.  Backing up the singing and zany action on stage is the talented eight member orchestra that keeps the rich music flowing all evening long.  Jason Sherbody (Conductor/keyboards), Steve Parker (Reed 1), Brendan Buss (Reed 2), Toom Woodville (Trumphet), Marc Rudlin (Trombone), Lisa Doyle (violin), Ab Menon (guitar/banjo), Joel Renteria (bass), Ricardo Lomeli (drums).

Overall, ARThound goes with a line from the knights who no longer say Ni! …. ekki-ekki-ekki-pitang-zoom-boing!

Up next at 6th Street Playouse:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Oct 25-Nov 10, 2013) Based on Ken Kesey’s novel and made famous by the 1975 movie starring Jack Nicholson, Dale Wasserman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of a charming rogue who chooses to serve a short sentence in an airy mental institution rather than in prison. He realizes this was a mistake as soon as he clashes with Nurse Ratched who controls the psych ward and is a formidable opponent of his notions of nonconformity.   He quickly wins over his fellow “loonies” and accomplishes what the medical profession has been unable to do for twelve years; he makes a presumed deaf and dumb Indian talk, leads others out of introversion, stages a revolt so that the entire ward can watch the World Series on television, and arranges a rollicking midnight party with liquor and chippies.  The famous show down between nurse and patient is one of the riveting evenings of theatre. Stage Direction by Lennie Dean

Details: Spamalot ends September 22, 2013 at 6th Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theatre, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa, CA.  Performances: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays 2 p.m. Tickets: $15 to $35.  For more information: or phone 707.523.4185.

August 30, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Rita Moreno shows us who she is at 79 and she’s a force to be reckoned with in the world premiere of “Life Without Make-up,” at Berkeley Rep through October 30, 2011

Legendary performer Rita Moreno returns to Berkeley Rep for the world premiere of "Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup," written by Artistic Director Tony Taccone, through October 30, 2011. Photographer: Michael LaMonica

At 79, Rita Moreno, the legendary star of stage and screen, has led quite a life and most of it has been an uphill battle.  Her autobiographical new play Rita Moreno: Life Without Make-up, which opens Berkeley Rep’s new season, explores what that climb to the top has entailed.  Moreno is just one of an elite handful of persons who have won an Oscar (supporting actress for “West Side Story”), Emmy (“The Rockford Files”), Grammy (soundtrack for “The Electric Company”), and Tony (“The Ritz”).  And she is the only Latino on that list which also includes Barbra Streisand and Audrey Hepburn.  In her new show, which she co-created with Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director Tony Taccone, the Puerto-Rican born star tells the story of her struggle against poverty, racism, and the sexual politics of show business in Hollywood’s Golden Age.  She also offers a wealth of inside dirt about the leading men and women she interacted with―all against a stunning multimedia montage of memorable moments from her extraordinary life.  She is accompanied by two expert dancers, Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, who join her to perform choreography by Lee Martino.  Seeing her in person is worth the price of admission–watching her on stage, dancing and gamming it up, you wonder why she at 79 looks better than most of us do at 50.   

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to walk in the footsteps of such a powerhouse, you’ll come away satisfied.  Moreno starts her story at age 5 as Rosita Dolores Alverio (her given name) in her native Puerto Rico with her willful mother, who is escaping poverty and an abusive marriage by hopping a boat to New York City.  Tragically, her infant brother is left behind.  Once in New York, she and her mother assimilate in poor neighborhoods packed with immigrants, barely scraping by.   When young Moreno’s talent is discovered, it is nurtured, first and foremost by her mother who sees her young daughter as the ticket out of the barrios. When she starts Spanish dancing lessons with Rita Hayworth’s uncle, Paco Cansino, a knowledgeable instructor, Rita realizes that performing is her destiny.  Through a magic combination of luck and chutzpah, she is soon off and running and begins auditioning and performing.  She slowly cobbles together an identity around entertaining and by the time she is a teenager, she is acting on Broadway.  

Her lucky break comes a few years later when she is discovered by a Hollywood casting agent while performing at a dance recital and is whisked off to Hollywood with a coveted MGM contract.  She gushes as she recalls that the first person she met on the MGM lot was Clark Gable and then, shortly thereafter, Elizabeth Taylor whom Moreno idolized.  There’s a huge “but wait” though―the film industry didn’t really know what to do with talented non-white performers in the 1940’s and Moreno was relegated to playing stereotypical Latina spitfires and Indian maidens in a spate of B-movies.  One of the things Life Without Make-up does most effectively is paint a picture of what it was like to work in a Hollywood that was both racist and sexist and the constant pressures Moreno faced to fit the mold of the “ethnic utility player.”  Moreno speaks directly to the audience with candor and humor about some very painful experiences.  She constantly struggled to maintain a healthy sense of self as a woman and as a Latina while straightening her hair and trying to lighten her complexion to look like someone she wasn’t.  One of her sadist stories recounts being mauled by movie industry bigwigs at a fancy party who claimed that she was coming on to them and then being rescued by humble Latino gardeners who respected women.  Moreno had true grit though and somehow, she persevered. 

Legendary actress Rita Moreno performs with Salvatore Vassallo (left) and Ray Garcia during dress rehearsal for the world premiere of "Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup," at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of

 A rare opportunity came when she was chosen to tango with Gene Kelly in the now classic Singin’ in the Rain (1952).  Her first major break though came when she landed the role of Tuptim, the rebellious concubine, in The King and I (1956) over the Asian actress France Nguyen.  In recounting this story, Moreno confesses deep regret over something that occurred but never gets into specifics. You get the idea that she may have actively campaigned for the role and there is more that she is not telling.  If you’re interested in personal confessionals, that’s where Life Without Make-up falls short.  If you listen carefully throughout, you’ll find Moreno’s collection of stories entertaining and poignant, and there’s also a good mix of small observations and big picture questions, but Moreno’s clever wit and sharp insights are mainly turned on those around her and on experiences that were thrust upon her.  This is an expose of the entertainment industry and doesn’t really delve into Moreno’s regrets about her own actions.   This seems intentional as Tony Taccone, Life Without Make-up’s writer, knows the power of brutal honesty, and owning one’s dark side.  It was Taccone who collaborated with actress Carrie Fisher (of Starwars’ fame) to create her 2009 brut tour-de-force “Wishful Drinking.” 

Near the end of the first act, Moreno talks about her famous love affair with Marlon Brando, whom she met on the MGM lot.  She recounts quite humorously how she was totally smitten with Brando but how he was completely smitten with himself and how she started “seeing” Elvis to make him jealous.  She skips her sleeping pill-swallowing suicide attempt.  In another sequence, she talks about being thrust in bed with Jack Nicholson to do numerous love-making takes for the film Carnal Knowledge (1971) and how it was a source of conflict in her marriage to Leonard Gordon.  There’s a lot she is not telling but that’s Hollywood!

All of her sacrifice and hard work ultimately paid off with 1961’s film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical West Side Story.  As the fiery Anita, who sings and dances the show-stopping “America,” Moreno lit up the screen and earned that year’s Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.  As she tells her stories, Moreno powerfully and colorfully recants the “characters” in her life–using a number of hilarious accents to complete the portraits.  She outdoes herself as she tells about working with Natasha Lytess, Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach, who taught her the nuances of gesture, movement, elocution and getting in touch with her vagina.  And then there’s the music and dance.  Highlights include her tapping “Broadway Rhythm” from Singing in the Rain (1952) and performing “The Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story with Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo to lee Martino’s choreography.  Through it all Moreno emerges as a powerhouse, lady-like but razor-sharp and never forgetting her humble past.  This is a two-hour performance to be savored.

And if this review has you aching to see more of Moreno, if you have satellite or cable tv, you can always catch her on re-runs of Law and Order: Criminal Intent as the fabulously crazy dying mother of Detective Goren.  And she plays Fran Drescher’s mom on TV Land’s new sitcom Happily Divorced which aired in June 2011.  With a one-woman show and a new TV role, 79 never looked so good.

Production Team:

Written by Tony Taccone

Developed by Rita Moreno and Tony Taccone

Staged and directed by David Galligan

Choreography by Lee Martino

Set design by Anna Louizos

Costumes by Annie Smart

Video and lights by Alexander V. Nichols

Sound by Phil Allen


Rita Moreno

Ray Garcia

Salvatore Vassallo

Featuring a four-piece band with Cesar Cancino (music director), Sascha Jacobsen (bass), Alex Murzyn (reeds), and David Rokeach (percussion)

Details: Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup runs through October 30, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances Tuesday-Sunday with several matinee performances.  Pre-show docent talks: Tuesdays 9/27, 10/4, 10/11, 10/18 & 10/25 and Thursdays 9/22, 9/29, 10/6 & 10/20 @ 7:00 PM.  Post-play discussions: Thursday 9/22, Tuesday 9/27, and Friday 10/7 @ 8:00 PM

Tickets: $73 to $34.  Box office:  (510) 647-2949 or  

Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre.  The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

September 18, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment