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Old vs. New on Local Theater Stages

The Phantom (Derrick Davis) has Christine (Katie Travis) under his spell.

“Phantom of the Opera” versus “Stupid F**king Bird” — Sacramento stages feature a battle of old vs. new plays this week and guess who wins?

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” is turning 30 years old and holds the title at the longest-running production on Broadway. Touring companies have visited Sacramento in the past, with the current road show at the Community Center Theater through Sunday. The new production is impressive, with the original’s lavish costumes paired with new staging and scenic design and speakers mounted throughout the theater for spectacular sound and sound effects.

The set is large, multi-layered, and surprisingly adaptable for something of its size. The stage is densely populated with people and the props and backdrops required of an operational theater. Special effects, including fire and smoke — and that chandelier — are superior. And, of course, there is that mighty organ dun de dun dun that thunders the Phantom’s rage.

Based on the French novel “Le Fantome de L’Opera” by Gaston Leroux, “Phantom” tells the story of a masked figure who lurks in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House, haunting it in a reign of terror over everyone associated with it. He falls in love with an innocent young soprano, Christine, and devotes himself to creating a new star by nurturing her talents at the same time he sidelines the Opera’s diva, Carlotta, and wreaks all sorts of havoc to have his way. Derrick Davis is the man behind the mask; Katie Travis sings the role of Christine; Trista Moldova is Carlotta; and Jordan Craig plays Raoul, a would-be suitor of Christine, were it not for the Phantom. The cast and orchestra total 52, making it one of the largest touring productions in the country.

There are those who aren’t fans of Lloyd Webber’s music and it’s true that some phrases become quite familiar in their repetition, but paired here with lyrics by Charles Hart, some of the songs are hard to beat. “The Music of the Night” has a life outside the play, but it’s perfectly situated within it.

“Phantom” plays at 8 nightly through Saturday, with 2 pm. matinees Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (final show). Tickets are $25-$128.  For more information, call (916) 557-1999 or go to BroadwaySacramento.com.

The New Play in Town
From left: Jason Kuykendall, Rebecca Dines and Ian Hopps as lover, mother and son, respectively, in “Stupid F**king Bird.” Photo by Charr Crail/Capital Stage

So, the oldie is a goodie, for sure, but what about the newbie?

“Stupid F**king Bird” is an adaptation and satire of Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull” by playwright Aaron Posner. It’s barely four years old — commissioned by Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC in 2013. Posner is a director of some repute but has built his playwriting career mainly on adaptations of the work of others. Besides “Stupid … Bird,” he has adapted Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” (as “Life Sucks”) and “The Three Sisters” (as “No Sisters”). He is known for his highly regarded adaptations of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “My Name Is Asher Lev.”

“Bird” begins promisingly as it introduces a large cast of theatrically involved family and friends, all unhappy in the way Chekov’s characters often are. The layering and intertwining of people and events is very Russian in manner, and you begin to think this guy is onto something: Updating and undoing a classic of world drama. But the work is too meta, referencing the theater — and itself –too much, and constantly reminding the audience that it is watching (and sometimes being forced to participate in) a play about a bird.

Ian Hopps plays Con, an aspiring young director intent upon creating theater that eschews all the elements of “art” of his mother’s generation. Rebecca Dines plays the successful actress Emma, Con’s mother, and Bittni Barger is Nina, the young actress who is Con’s muse. Complicating things is Jason Kuykendall’s Trigorin, a famous writer who is Emma’s lover and who soon becomes the object of Nina’s affections, too. All four actors are excellent, particularly Kuykenall as the author whose opinion of himself is higher than anyone else’s. And, you know, life with a famous (if aging) actress is one thing, but the attentions of a sweet younger thing can’t be ignored.

This quartet swirls among the discoveries and disappointments of love, art and growing up. But three other actors — at least as talented as the others — round out the cast. Wenona Truong plays Mash, a dour delight who has a crush on Con; Jouni Kirjola plays Dev, who has a crush on Mash and provides optimism to counter her darkness. Truong, a Capital Stage apprentice, is a real find and she sings a couple of deliciously dreadful songs –but, as she says, “Don’t judge!” She’s great. Peter Mohrmann makes regret and melancholy palpable as Dr. Sorn, the one character who knows where life leads — and it isn’t usually to a happy ending.

Michael Stevenson directs as if he knows exactly what playwright Posner intends. He gives it his all, and to be truthful, it reads better than it is. Any play that won’t start until someone in the audience shouts, “Start the  f**king play,” and that ends with an actor announcing that the show’s over and telling the audience to leave is a little too full of itself.

“Stupid F**king Bird” plays at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June 4. Tickets are $28-$40. Be forewarned: The f-word flies throughout the show.

For more information, call (916) 995-5464 or go to capstage.org.

Old vs. New on Local Theater Stages via @sacramentopress

About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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