For Into the Woods, musical director Don Dally takes on the exciting / confounding adventure of Sondheim music

[image: Musical director Don Dally]

Don Dally.

Don Dally is a seasoned orchestra musician with classical training. So being the musical director for Into the Woods at The Western Stage is kind of a perfect gig. After all, it means embarking on that sometimes frightening, always alive adventure that is Stephen Sondheim music.

“He’s definitely one of the most sophisticated composers. You can really study his music like a classical composer,” Don said. “There are very few places where the music is exactly what it is on the surface.”

Into the Woods, with its familiar characters, might appear to be a straightforward, happy-ending story. Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood and others head off into the forest on specific quests, like selling a cow or visiting Granny. But the woods can get mighty dark mighty fast—like life. Before the characters know it, they’re clashing, encountering villainy, and glimpsing their own dark sides. Sondheim’s music and lyrics only make the turmoil more vivid.

Don admires the depth of the score. A character might seem to be heading for a happy ending, but subtle dissonant chords warn the audience. “Characters might be saying something and the music is saying something else,” he said. “There could be something that the music’s telling the audience—or something in the character’s mind.”

Sondheim often uses repeating motifs, as an opera composer would, Don added. The main musical theme that we hear at the start (“Into the woods / It’s time to go / It may be all / In vain, you know”) returns throughout the show, with different words and at various paces. Sometimes it’s hesitant and fearful; sometimes it’s upbeat. “The music’s constantly changing. You never just settle into the accompaniment,” Don said.

[image: Stephen Sondheim]

Stephen Sondheim around 1976. Photo: Wikipedia.

Don is a veteran of Sondheim shows at The Western Stage, having worked on productions including Follies, Sweeney Todd and the junior version of Into the Woods. He’s been a regular here since 1985. Over the years, he’s played in the orchestra pit and onstage, working his way up to musical director.

Don originally started out playing the violin as his first instrument, and then guitar. Viola, mandolin and a bit of piano got added to the mix. He played in rock bands and studied music classically, earning a degree from U.C. Berkeley.

Then he came to The Western Stage and caught the theater bug, and has worked at many companies in Monterey County and the Bay Area. Besides working as a musical director, sometimes he composes music for productions or works as the sound designer. He also does some teaching.

He keeps coming back here in part because of its respect for musicians. “This theater puts more money into their orchestras than any in the area,” he said, nodding approvingly. For Into the Woods, he’ll have a 14-piece orchestra of experienced players.

Don also has praise for the actors, who are equally savvy in the ways of musical theater. They have to be. This is not a show where an actor can just relax and sing, thanks to the masterful Mr. Sondheim. “You have to be a good musician. You have to count or follow a conductor,” Don said. “Some musicals are light … this one gives you a lot to think about. It’s more about: This is how life is. It’s difficult and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

When a musical like this really clicks, it’s that much more rewarding, Don added. “More than any show I’ve done, the people (in it) have said it’s their favorite show.”

Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, runs July 11-August 1 in the Mainstage Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to westernstage.com/tickets.

Fairytale pair brings a wide world of experiences to the summertime stage in Into the Woods

The cast of Into the Woods features many veterans, but one fairytale pair brings a particularly wide world of experiences to the stage. Think singing with Dolly Parton. Performing on a cruise ship on six continents. Oh, and tap-dancing on a table at six months pregnant.

That’s just part of the combined resumes of Cinderella and Cinderella’s Prince, also known as Lara Fern and Rhett Wheeler. Performing has a been a part of their lives for as long as they can remember.

Lara has been doing musical theatre since childhood, working at Ariel Theatrical and then playing roles at nearly every theatre on the Monterey Peninsula. She lived in New York for six years, where she studied musical theatre and danced. Along the way, she’s played at least half a dozen princesses, including Snow White, Belle and Fiona.

[image: Lara Fern]

Lara Fern.

Though Lara and her husband have a young daughter and busy lives—Lara is chair of theater arts at Santa Catalina School—she had to make time for Into the Woods. Cinderella has been a dream role for years. And this is not the first time she has juggled theatre and life. The Western Stage regulars may remember her as Betty Haynes in White Christmas in 2012. Then there was 2013’s Crazy for You, where Lara played Polly Baker at six months pregnant.

“The costumers were miracle workers. They put pleats in my costumes and let them out every weekend,” Lara said, laughing.

Both Lara and Rhett are thrilled to be back at The Western Stage—and Rhett has an ulterior motive. In 2004 he played Cinderella’s Prince here, but he was in the junior version of Into the Woods, which is shortened to show only what leads up to happily ever after, not what comes after that. Now he finally gets to do Act 2.

Rhett began singing professionally at 8, recording with a program called Phonics and Friends that made English-learning materials. “The kids would learn to speak English by singing along with me,” he said. In 1997 he was in a Super Bowl for Tropicana. He was also a model for the Gant clothing company.

[image: Rhett Wheeler]

Rhett Wheeler.

These days, Rhett often sings at sea, as the production headline vocalist for luxury cruise lines. That includes starring in Now and Forever: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and doing his own show backed by an eight-piece band. He’s sailed to six continents, including locations as diverse as Machu Picchu and Istanbul. By night, he performs. By day, when the ship is docked, he gets to go out and explore the town. Other gigs have included singing with Dolly Parton while he was one of the principal singers in the Irish step-dance show Spirit of the Dance.

Since much of Rhett’s work lately has been concerts, he’s looking forward to being part of a musical again. Especially at The Western Stage. “They do a spectacular job of embodying the essence of the show and telling the story,” he said.

Both he and Lara are devotees of Stephen Sondheim’s music as well. “I’m a big fan of the splashy tap-dancing musical, but for me no one really advances the plot through music like Sondheim does,” Lara said. “Even in the underscoring there’s information about the characters. You’re not just breaking into song. You’re furthering the story.”

The two also agree that James Lapine’s book in Into the Woods is brilliant. “It’s funny and fluid and just allows the actor to really delve into the character,” Rhett said.

[image: Lara Fern and R.J. Livingston]

Lara Fern as Polly Baker with R.J. Livingston as Bobby Child in “Crazy for You” at The Western Stage in 2013.

And Lara can’t get enough of the show—she’s directing it this fall at Santa Catalina. “It’s especially poignant since I just had a baby. Cinderella is troubled by her relationships with her stepmother, and her mother, who she speaks to as a ghost,” she said. “I’m thinking about my daughter and what our relationship will be.”

As for the Disney movie version of Into the Woods, both Lara and Rhett had a few quibbles (mainly that Bernadette Peters didn’t play the Witch), but they both liked it and agreed that it was great to have a big-budget film bringing musical theatre to the whole country.

Rhett noted that the movie made changes to the musical, such as lightening some storylines and even leaving out some songs and characters. So why not think of it as a preview to The Western Stage’s production of Into the Woods? “If you want to see the whole story, you’ve got to come!” he said.

Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, runs July 11-August 1 in the Mainstage Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to westernstage.com/tickets.

Cristal Clark of You Can’t Take It With You chats about candy, dancing and Seinfeld

[image: Cristal Clark]

Cristal Clark.

Questions by Daniel Tarker.

What role are you playing, and what’s her favorite thing to do to pass the time?

I play the role of Essie Carmichael, the daughter of Paul and Penny Sycamore. Essie is a charming and generous young woman. She loves to dream up new candies that she can share with family and friends.

And of course, there’s her infamous love of dance! When Essie wakes up in the morning she pirouettes out of bed. Her stage may be just the Vanderhof living room, but in her mind it’s like opening night at the Bolshoi Ballet, every single time.

What is your favorite part about playing this role and why?

The Sycamore family is definitely on to something. As Essie’s dancing teacher, Boris Kolenkhov, says, “A hobby should improve the body as well as the mind.” Yes! I think it’s important to have a hobby that brings you joy. For Essie, it’s dancing like the world is watching. For me, it’s playing on a stage and trying new things to get a laugh. I love that I can relate to Essie and her flair for the dramatic. Art is truly imitating life. By the way, no, I’m not an elite dancer, by any means of the imagination, but I love to do it and I’ll commit, much like our sweet idealist Essie!

While it’s obviously true you can’t take material possessions with you after you die, do you have one thing you would like to take with you to the other side if you could?

No, I really don’t. Seriously, you can’t take it with you. Sure, we all want the newest iPhone, but, my God, please don’t send me into the afterlife with any sort of technology! Just a beach blanket will do. Life is about adventures and experiences. The only thing I would want to keep with me in an afterlife is the memory of it all. If I absolutely had to take something, well, maybe a bound photo album filled with all the epic journeys I took in my life.

[image: Victor Velasquez and Cristal Clark]

Cristal Clark as Essie in “You Can’t Take It With You,” with Victor Velasquez as her husband, Ed. Photo by Richard Green.

You Can’t Take It With You was written during the height of the Great Depression. What do you think audiences just coming out of the Great Recession can learn from this play?

Even when you feel all light is gone, it will be okay—you can make it okay. To quote one of my favorite comics, Jerry Seinfeld, “To live is to keep moving.” I hope audience members come away from this show with a spark of enthusiasm to explore what makes them happiest. Take it and run with it. You might surprise yourself with a new passion and lease on life. As long as you have a pulse it is never too late.

As a Western Stage alumni member, Cristal Clark is delighted to return to the 41st season for two comedies, Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You and Mel Brooks’ The Producers. She first started at TWS in the 1998 production of Children of Eden under the direction of the late, great Tom Humphrey. After playing at TWS for 6 more seasons, she moved to Los Angeles to study comedy at Groundlings Improv. She has performed in over 20 local productions in Monterey County. Favorite roles include Rosali in Real Women Have Curves (TWS), The Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland (Forest Theater), and Evelyn in The Shape of Things (TWS). For the daily grind, Cristal provides content marketing to local businesses while working towards receiving her Bachelor of Arts in Communication from California State University Monterey Bay.

You Can’t Take It With You, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, runs May 29-June 21 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to westernstage.com/tickets.

You Can’t Take It With You‘s Gracie Navaille tells us about her role — and her own favorite real-life eccentric

[image: Actor Gracie Navaille]

Gracie Navaille.

Questions by Daniel Tarker.

What role are you playing, and what’s her favorite thing to do to pass the time?

I’m playing Alice, the youngest member of the Sycamore family. She’s the only one who has a daily contact with the outside world, and therefore kind of maintains a “normal” perspective on life. This is because of her office job, which I think she actually really enjoys!

While her family likes to spend their time writing plays, making masks, doing ballet and making fireworks, Alice actually has quite the head for business! I like to imagine her as a 1950s business executive a few years after the play ends, defying the expected gender roles of the time.

You Can’t Take It With You is about a family of eccentrics. Who is your favorite eccentric in your own family? Why?

My whole family is full of quirks! And some of the time I think I might actually be the most eccentric one. Kind of like the Sycamores, my family has always looked up to my Grandpa. He was funny, charming, smart and self-educated and never paid any mind to what other people thought of him.  And he could send us into bales of laughter with one line – once he announced to a room full of people, “Sometimes I have the overwhelming urge to tweet.” He passed away this past month, but I’ll leave you with a toast he liked to give occasionally: “Before we eat, I’d like to say something warm and gracious.  Good gracious it’s warm in here!”

While it’s obviously true you can’t take material possessions with you after you die, do you have one thing you would like to take with you to the other side if you could?

Food.  Whatever the afterlife may hold, I hope it involves eating.

[image: Gracie Navaille and Roland Shorter]

Alice (Gracie Navaille) and Tony (Roland Shorter) waltz through life (or at least until his parents arrive) in “You Can’t Take It With You.” Photo by Richard Green.

You Can’t Take It With You was written during the height of the Great Depression. What do you think audiences just coming out of the Great Recession can learn from this play?

It’s easy for us to get caught up in running our lives around money. I belong to a generation of recent college graduates who really, truly don’t know how they’ll pay off student loan debt in an economy where the cost of education is steadily rising but the job market is at a standstill. And when you’re dirt-poor, you don’t have as much agency as the Sycamores might have to sacrifice making money for doing what they love.

But I don’t want my generation to be made solely of people who gave up on our dreams or passed up opportunities because of the fear that we might never be comfortably well-off. This play can help us remember that it is possible to live humbly but happily – as long as we surround ourselves with those we love, it doesn’t matter if we’re eating cornflakes for every meal. We can still be rich in love and in experiences.

Gracie Navaille is thrilled to be making her debut at The Western Stage. A native of the Monterey Peninsula, she recently received her Bachelor of Music in voice and opera at UC Santa Cruz, and is now completing her Master of Arts in Theater Arts at UCSC with an emphasis in acting. She is currently playing the Dukes in Shakespeare-To-Go’s As You Like It, touring around junior high and high schools throughout the Central Coast and Bay Area. Other recent roles include Dorine in Tartuffe, Nora in Anag[NORA]isis: A Deconstruction of A Doll’s House, Despina in Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, and Nancy Reagan in an adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Congressladies directed by Danny Scheie.

You Can’t Take It With You, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, runs May 29-June 21 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to westernstage.com/tickets.

Ten things you never knew about the comedy-writing team of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman

by Daniel Tarker

When the names George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart come up, most people think of a dynamic pair of comedy writers who collaborated on such memorable plays as You Can’t Take It With You, Once in a Lifetime, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. However, few may know the following 10 facts about their storied careers and even more colorful personal lives.

  1. When he was in the 7th grade, Moss Hart dropped out of school to help support his family after his father lost his job as a cigar roller when the mechanical cigar roller came on the market. He worked a variety of menial jobs to help his family make ends meet in their tenement apartment in the Bronx.
    [image: Moss Hart, 1940]

    Moss Hart in 1940. (Source: Wikipedia)

  2. Hart was introduced to the theater by his flamboyant Aunt Kate, an aspiring actress. According to Hart’s memoir, Act One, Kate grew increasingly erratic as she got older. She reportedly set fires in theaters and even attacked her nephew on several occasions.
  3. Hart also was said to suffer from mental illness in the form of depression; some speculate that it was bipolar disorder. Reportedly, he was constantly swinging back and forth between writing and threatening to commit suicide, a condition that he reportedly drew on when penning the musical The Lady in the Dark. Read more about his Hart’s struggles.
  4. Hart was only 57 when he died of a heart attack in Palm Springs, Calif., in 1961.
  5. Kaufman and Hart were paid $200,000 for the film rights to You Can’t Take It With You in 1938. That sounds like a small sum, but it would equal $3,329,390 today.
  6. Like Hart, George Kaufman also experienced a difficult childhood after his father was laid off from his job. He would pursue a law degree and a job as a ribbon salesman before becoming a humor columnist—a turn that would lead to a job at The New York Times as a theater critic in 1917.
  7. All of Kaufman’s successes as a playwright came through collaborations. In addition to Moss Hart, he worked with George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and the Marx Brothers, to name a few.
  8. Kaufman directed the Broadway world premiere of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in 1937.
    [image: George S. Kaufman]

    George S. Kaufman around 1915. (Source: Wikipedia)

  9. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize with Hart for You Can’t Take It With You, Kaufman won the award for the now lesser-known musical Of Thee I Sing! in 1931, which he wrote with Morrie Ryskind and George Gershwin.
  10. Kaufman enjoyed numerous affairs with many of Hollywood’s most beautiful leading ladies, which caused him to become embroiled in a scandal in 1936. During a bitter custody battle, the ex-husband of actress Mary Astor threatened to publish a portion of her diary containing very explicit details of their affair.

 

“You Can’t Take It With You,” by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, runs May 29-June 21 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to westernstage.com/tickets.

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