Yo to the Ho! Pirates rock in Penzance

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John Paul Gonzalez (far right) as Frederic proclaims his love and his loathing for his fellow pirates and their life of crime in the Berkeley Playhouse production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, a rock update of the operetta classic. Below: Rana Weber is nursemaid Ruth, explaining to the pirates how Frederic, her charge, ended up with pirates instead of a pilot, as was intended. Photos by Larry Abel

Singing pirates automatically make me think of two things: the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland with their rousing “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” and the dreadful and utterly loveable 1982 movie musical flop The Pirate Movie starring Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins as Mabel and Frederic, respectively, in a pop-rock adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance. Along with Grease 2 (also 1982), this is one of the worst movie musicals ever and, also like Grease 2, one of my all-time favorites. For a taste of The Pirate Movie, see the videos below. Would that I could show you the whole, terrible thing. We’d have so much fun.

I’m thinking about singing pirates because I had the pleasure of seeing Berkeley Playhouse’s production of The Pirates of Penzance this weekend. If Berkeley Playhouse is not on your radar because you think it’s a kids theater, you should think again. The Playhouse’s professional season produces shows for the entire family, and they do mean entire. Adults can have as much fun (if not more) than the kids. They hire some fantastic directors such as, in this case, Jon Tracy, who turns Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 operetta into a high-energy rock musical.

Without straining too hard, musical director Jonathan Fadner (on guitar and keyboards) and his other three players turn the score into a legitimate pop-rock score. The only difference between this and, say, Rent, is the abundance of clever, tongue-twisting lyrics and the utter sweetness of a swashbuckling show that values poetry as much as swordplay.

There’s a vague futuristic tone to Tracy’s vision, from the industrial look of Nina Ball’s sets to the punky flair of Abra Berman’s costumes, and that makes it all seem rather cartoony in a fun comic book sort of way. Why shouldn’t there be merrily marauding pirates in the future?

Pirates 2

The G&S story about a 21-year-old pirate – Frederic (played with dashing charm by John Paul Gonzalez) – who’s really only 5 years old because of leap year complications and his love-at-first-sight girlfriend, Mabel (the silken-voiced Juliet Heller). There’s a Pirate King, of course, played with cross-dressing panache by Cathleen Riddley, and a hard-of-hearing nursemaid who’s much cuter than she’s supposed to be (thanks to Rana Weber) and the very model of modern major general who happens to ride a motorized scooter (excellent driving and rapping by Terry Rucker).

Even musical director Fadner gets in on the act. During an Act 1 scene change, he pops up from the orchestra pit in full snorkel headgear, wailing on his guitar … with a fish.

The show is just under two hours even with an intermission and zips by with help from Emily Morrison’s fist-pumping choreography that occasionally recalls large group moves from ’80s videos – and what’s more fun than ’80s videos? The kids sitting around me were captivated by the show, especially when swords were drawn and the large cast was engaged in fight director Dave Maier’s always excellent moves.

The rock sound of the show spans the decades. There’s a lot of 1950s rockabilly with an Elvis-like rumble, not to mention ’60s surf guitars, ’70s punk and ’80s post-punk. Of course it’s all of a family-friendly variety and played at a comfortable volume.

[bonus videos]
In case your knowledge of The Pirate Movie is limited, please feel free to drink from this well of ’80s kitsch and see why Christopher Atkins and Kristy McNichol were never huge musical stars (but they’re adorable and awfully good sports). The first song, “Pumpin’ and Blowin’,” is an extreme guilty pleasure. The second song is the grand finale, with Frederic and Mabel and everyone pairing off for a happy ending. What would Gilbert and Sullivan think?


Berkeley Playhouse’s The Pirates of Penzance continues through April 1 at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$35. Call 510-835-8542 or visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org.

Fuzzy no more: life after Disneyland

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Trevor Allen re-lives his time behind the mask in Working for the Mouse, a hilarious solo show about what it’s really like for costumed characters behind the scenes at Disneyland. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

Last summer at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre, Trevor Allen dusted off Working for the Mouse, his finely tuned one-man show about his years as Pluto, Mr. Smee, the Mad Hatter and others on the pavement at Disneyland.

I reviewed the show in June (read the review). Here’s a sample:

Throughout, Allen is a dynamic, highly appealing performer, attacking this coming-of-age story with unflagging energy and crack comic timing. Director Carlin has helped Allen warm up the show and find even more edge to the humor. This is not a Disney-bashing experience, though it certainly could be. Even rabid fans of Disneyland (consider me guilty) will savor Allen’s tales of misbehavior, mismanagement and misbegotten Matterhorn sex.

I also had a chance to interview Allen about the show as he prepared to re-open it at the EXIT Theatre. Read the feature in the San Francisco Chronicle here. Here’s a taste:

Q: So you were studying classical acting during the week and playing Pluto in a hot, sweaty costume on the weekends?

A: Yes, and my classical training came in handy, believe it or not. More than anything, it helped me with creating an attitude on stage that helped gauge and interact with an audience. Later on, when I graduated to playing the Mad Hatter and was allowed to talk, I was able to maintain a character in the face of withering sarcasm from hipper-than-thou teenagers and 8-year-old agnostics who want to pull off your nose. It’s tremendous training for live theater, where everything can and does go wrong.

Trevor Allen’s Working for the Mouse continues through Dec. 17 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$22. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.

Mouse tales live again

What would Walt think? Working for the Mouse, Trevor Allen’s one-man recollection about being a costumed character in the Magic Kingdom, returns to Berkeley’s Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

About nine years ago, Trevor Allen lifted the veil on an operation so shrouded in secrecy and intrigue that the merest glimpse inside set people salivating. He revealed what it was actually like to be inside a costumed character in Disneyland.

Oh, yes, This is deeply inside stuff. And sweaty. And hilarious. It’s what you call a theatrical experience bursting with character.

Allen’s autobiographical solo show, Working for the Mouse, premiered at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre in 2002 then transferred to San Francisco. Now Allen is reviving the show for Impact and his own Black Box Theatre at La Val’s Subterranean.

The estimable Nancy Carlin has taken over the directing reins from Kent Nicholson, and the revised show is sharper and funnier than ever.

Allen hits the stage ready for battle in shorts, knee pads (one of the characters is a pint-sized guy, so there’s a lot of time on bended knee) and a vintage “Zoo Crew” T-shirt (that’s how Disneyland’s costumed atmosphere characters are described) emblazoned with Jiminy Cricket. Like any good Disney employee, he’s also wearing his name tag.

We learn that at age 17, Allen left his hometown in the Bay Area to find seasonal work in Disneyland. Throughout the 70-minute show he glances off the deeper theme of not wanting to grow up, but he’s also beginning to flex his young actor muscles. His dream is to be a “face character,” which is to say a character like Peter Pan or Prince Charming who is not engulfed in a full, furry body suit. The face characters also tend to have what every actor desires: voice clearance. They get to talk to the guests rather than remaining a mute sweat bomb in a giant head and stuffed body.

We watch as Allen progresses through the character infrastructure. First he’s Pluto, then pirate Mr. Smee, then a talking Mad Hatter, and we can see him maturing and opening his eyes to some of what the real world – even in its Magic Kingdom form – has in store for him. He gets hazed by the veterans in the department, has his heart broken and gets his best, most creative intentions trampled by the corporate machine.

Throughout, Allen is a dynamic, highly appealing performer, attacking this coming-of-age story with unflagging energy and crack comic timing. Director Carlin has helped Allen warm up the show and find even more edge to the humor. This is not a Disney-bashing experience, though it certainly could be. Even rabid fans of Disneyland (consider me guilty) will savor Allen’s tales of misbehavior, mismanagement and misbegotten Matterhorn sex.

One of the things that tickled me the first time I saw the show was Allen’s Ed Wynn impression – a necessity for anyone playing Disney’s version of the Mad Hatter – and that delight is still very much present here. Another huge piece of enjoyment, especially for Disneyphiles, is the sound design by Cliff Caruthers, which is filled with wonderfully incisive references to rides and movies.

Allen has honed Working for the Mouse to an impressive level, but that’s not all. There are more tales to be told. If the show leaves you wanting more, and it will, check out Allen’s book-in-progress at www.workingforthemouse.com.

Trevor Allen’s Working for the Mouse, a co-production of Impact Theatre and Black Box Theatre, continues an extended run through July 16 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit www.impacttheatre.com.

Warm and fuzzy: `Working for the Mouse’ evolves

A man of character, Trevor Allen decided to put his character life behind him.

Having detailed what it’s really like to work as a costumed character in Disneyland in his popular solo show Working for the Mouse, Allen made a conscious decision to focus on his burgeoning career as a playwright. Mouse, under the direction of Kent Nicholson, had a great run at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre (and a transfer to the EXIT in San Francisco), but the time had come to hang up the ears and write.

Trevor Allen

He had abundant projects, including one about Albert Einstein with found-object puppeteer Liebe Wetzel, another about artificial intelligence that the Magic Theatre picked up for its New Media Festival and yet another assignment to write something for Playground.

The resulting plays, One Stone, The Nutshell and Tenders in the Fog respectively, were all well received but only Tenders ended up being produced (by San Jose Stage Company). Then came Zoo Logic and Lolita Road Trip, two more projects that generated readings and interest but, so far, no actual productions.

Rather than do the writerly thing and revel in despondency, San Francisco resident Allen headed back to the Magic Kingdom. For just a few jam-packed performances in the summer of 2005, he resurrected Working for the Mouse at Bus Barn Theatre in Los Altos. For those few shows, he traveled back in time to age 17. He was an acting student at UCLA (studying with “The Brady Bunch’s” Robert Reed, no less) and worked at Disneyland, first as Pluto, then as Capt. Hook’s first mate, Mr. Smee, then as various characters including Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh), Friar Tuck (from Robin Hood) and Gideon (the mute cat from Pinocchio). He graduated to “face work,” meaning he wasn’t enclosed in plastic and fur, with the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland and actually got to utilize his improvisational skills when interacting with park guests.

A friend of Allen’s from Los Angeles encouraged him to come do Mouse at a small North Hollywood theater. “It’d sell out!” the friend said.

And Allen wondered, if he took the show to LA, if that is exactly what he’d be doing: selling out.

“I had considered taking the show to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, then I had to think about LA, and then I thought, `Do I really want to be the guy who does funny voices and plays Pluto and the Mad Hatter?'” Allen says over lunch at, yes it’s true, Pluto’s.

That’s when Allen’s wife, Theatre Bay Area magazine editor Karen McKevitt, said it was time to do something serious about Working for the Mouse. She pointed out that when he talked about his four years as a character in Disneyland, he always had fresh stories to tell that never made their way into the show. She landed on a solution: Turn the stories into a book utilizing the factual but entertaining writing style known as creative nonfiction.


Allen is currently hard at work on that book. Until he finds a publisher brave enough to weather the Disney waters, that book-in-progress is also a blog: www.workingforthemouse.com. This is the 21st century, after all.

“As a performer, you get immediate response from an audience,” Allen says. “You know when a story or a line works or doesn’t work. The same is true with the blog. You put it out there yourself – you don’t have to wait for someone to publish you. There’s no barrier between the artist and the audience anymore. I hear immediately from people, some who love Disney, some who hate it.”

The blog belies Allen’s theatrical roots because there’s a whole lot more available than chapters (called “mouse droppings”) of the upcoming book. There’s performance video and, to the author’s great delight, podcasts in which the actor gets to exercise his expertise with voice over narration.

“Now that I’m not writing for performance, I’m able to get into the heads of the other characters more,” he says. “Then turning that into audio is great fun.”

Working for the Mouse is, in many ways, Allen’s coming-of-age story. He was a 17-year-old San Jose native, somewhat naïve, getting a fast education about life in the real world. Backstage and after hours at Disneyland was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but it was also more than that.

“It was a real education,” Allen says. “What I saw there, backstage and during work hours, was tragic, raw, funny and sad. From inside the costumes, you saw a parade of human tragedy going by in the guests. At a certain point after I had left the Disney bubble, it occurred to me, `Why is no one telling this story?'”

One answer is easy: because Disney will sue your pants off. They’ll cease and desist you so quickly you won’t know your Mickey from your Mouse.

“I’ve always thought that in the world of theater, the more controversial the better,” Allen says. “Freedom of speech is supposed to allow for that. But Big business has co-opted the place of religion and government in dictating what you can or can’t say. I’m of the school, as a playwright, a performer or a writer, you have to tell stories that haven’t been told, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

So far, response to the blog has been good. There’s even been some interest in reviving the one-man show, which Allen says he’d be happy to do, especially since working on the Mouse has given him new insights.

“This has been a process of rediscovery,” he says. “The arc of the show would likely remain unchanged, but I think I’m finding some other stories with some different resonance.”

Here’s a taste of Working for the Mouse, the show and the Web site:

Visit www.workingforthemouse.com


GrooveLily’s Milburn, Vigoda tune up a new musical `Story’

Husband-and-wife team Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda follow up the success of Striking 12 with a new two-person musical, Long Story Short, a TheatreWorks production now at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.


The last time we got into the GrooveLily groove was about four years ago when TheatreWorks produced the group’s terrific holiday show/concert, Striking 12, a modern-day retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Matchgirl.

GrooveLily’s Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda, who also happen to be husband and wife, are back at TheatreWorks with a new show, but they will not be onstage singing and playing the way they were in Striking 12.

For Long Story Short Milburn and Vigoda provide music, lyrics and book (based on a play by David Schulner) for a two-person musical about Charles and Hope, an unlikely couple – he’s a Jewish man from New York, she’s an Asian-American woman from Los Angeles – and their relationship through the decades.

The show is a co-production with City Theatre in Pittsburgh and comes to Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre after a successful run there.

One advantage of a co-production is two opening nights and some space in between to make some changes if necessary.

“We discovered things about the show you can only find out about in front of an audience,” Milburn says. “During previews in Pittsburgh, we saw several things we thought were hilarious get no reaction. And several things we thought were boring filler got guffawing, side-splitting laughter. Several songs we though were so-so got a huge reaction. We feel really blessed to be given the chance to do some re-writes between the close of the Pittsburgh run and the opening of the TheatreWorks run.”

During the run of Striking 12, Milburn and Vigoda forged a strong relationship with TheatreWorks and have been intimately involved with its new works program, where “Long Story Short” saw a fair amount of development.

“We were here a little under a year ago as part of the TheatreWorks writers’ retreat, and that was an incredibly fruitful time for us with new songs and new writing,” Vigoda explains. “That week alone I think we wrote and tossed a couple songs. It really helped us in the process of writing this.”

The actual writing of the show began in 2006 – after being commissioned by City Theatre — and by most new musical theater standards, the show was created incredibly quickly. Long Story Short also benefited from the development process in Pittsburgh, where the show was part of its Momentum Festival.

Milburn discovered Schulner’s play, An Infinite Ache, in a pile of scripts City Theatre had sent him with a goal of collaborating on a new musical with an established playwright. (The show stars Pearl Sun as Hope and Ben Evans as Charles, seen at right, photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons)

“As soon as I read the script, I knew this was the piece we could turn into a musical,” Milburn says. “What appealed to me first was the gimmick – the story actually has too much heart to call it a gimmick – but it’s the leaping forward in time without giving the audience any warning that a leap has happened, thus forcing the audience to keep up with the play. It’s a little confusing, but there’s always enough context to get what’s going on. You feel like you’re being taken for a very fast, very exciting roller coaster ride. It’s a little like science fiction without the science fiction – it’s a domestic time-travel story.”

Prior to writing this show, Vigoda and Milburn had been content writing for their band and performing. But lives change. The couple has a 3-year-old son, and Vigoda says the notion of creating a show and sending it out into the world without having to be in it has its appeal.

There are plenty of other irons in the creative fire for Milburn and Vigoda. They’ve written a musical version of the Disney-Pixar movie Toy Story for the Disney Cruise Line that is now being adapted to fill the stage of the Hyperion Theatre in Disney’s California Adventure, the sister park to Disneyland in Anaheim.

They’re also working on another musical for TheatreWorks: Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. The show began life as a one-woman show for Vigoda (who sings and plays a mean electric violin), and it’s about one modern-day woman’s special night in the company of the great arctic explorer. If all goes well, there’ll be a reading of that new show next June.

As for the couple’s band, GrooveLily (which also features Gene Lewin on drums), they report they’re in the midst of recording the next album, which is based on a show they created for Deaf West Theatre: Sleeping Beauty Wakes, which was performed bilingually, in American Sign Language and spoken English.

They say to look for the album in early 2009.

Though Milburn and Vigoda won’t be on stage in Long Story Short, their fans can hear them perform the songs from the show on their Web site: http://www.groovelily.com/store/songs/

And they’ll perform the holiday show Striking 12 for one night only, Dec. 15, at the Little Fox in Redwood City. Visit http://www.foxdream.com/foxdream/shopexd.asp?id=1357&bc=no for information.

Long Story Short previews Wednesday, Dec. 3-5, opens Saturday, Dec. 6 and continues through Dec. 28 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $27-$65. Call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Christmas in the kingdom

If you’re a regular Theater Dogs reader, you may already know that I’m obssessed with Disneyland and consider it to be a masterful work of theater — sets, costumes, lights, drama (and, OK, robots).

Spent last weekend in the happiest place on Earth, and here are some observations:

– America needs to lose a little weight. I’m afraid that people are counting on those motorized scooters, those “little buddies” if you will, to maintain their lifestyles even when they’re too big to walk anymore.

The Christmas Candelight Procession, which occurs one weekend each Decmeber, is a tremendous event. A 50-piece orchestra and a 500-member choir (I’m estimating the numbers here, but I’m close) singing Christmas songs and Hector Elizondo (the guest narrator changes each year) reciting the Christmas story is lovely in both sight and sound. The event takes place behind the Main Street train station, in proximity to the giant Christmas tree, so the mood is appropriately ye olde time Christmas. But the best part involves the eight trumpeters on the roof of the train station. Spectacular.

– Disneyland’s parades have gotten so fancy they’re like Broadway shows on wheels (and on foot). The Holiday Parade is still cute, but this year’s best performances go to the woman playing Cinderella’s stepmother and the guy with braces playing Sleeping Beauty’s prince. It’s hard to charm from the confines of a cheesy holiday parade, but these two performers managed it.

– In Disney’s California Adventure, the new “High School Musical Pep Rally” is a hoot as 25-year-old performers play high school basketball players and drama geeks. This is essentially a mini-parade that does a full performance at the beginning and at the end of the short route. As you might expect, kids and pre-teens loved it, knew all the words to the songs and danced along with the choreography. Cute. Disney’s got a gold mine here.

– Speaking of gold mines, Disneyland has been overrun by pirates — everything is pirates. There’s a great actor playing Capt. Jack Sparrow running around New Orleans Square like he’s tripping on some psychedelic drug, but the tourists just eat it up. Pirate T-shirts, hats, Mickey Mouse ears and biker regalia have infiltrated every gift shop. It’s all too much pirates. Argh. Can Disney keep up the momentum before the third (and please, Walt, final) movie drops next summer? Probably not.

– The three new Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow Audioanimatronic figures in the ride Pirates of the Caribbean are very nice. The first two bear an uncanny resemblance to the actor and move so realistically it’s eerie. The final Capt. Jack on the way up the waterfall where he’s sitting on looted treasure and singing his own cocky version of “Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life For Me” looks like it’s been botoxed.

– The holiday version of “it’s a small world” is so unbelievably charming you can’t even believe it. It’s like jumping into a stack of Christmas cards and splashing around in lights, sparkles and good cheer. The holiday overlay packs so much charm it makes the regular “small world” seem like not much.

– On Splash Mountain, having heavier people in the front of your log means you’re going to get extra wet — mainly from water sloshing over the sides and into your shoes.

– The “new and improved” Space Mountain is, sorry to say, not that great. The new score is not nearly as good as Dick Dale’s surf guitar soundtrack. DCA’s California Screamin’ roller coaster is now the Disneyland Resort’s best coaster. On Jan. 3, both Space Mountain and California Screamin’ get new, temporary “rockin'” soundtracks, supposedly by name musicians. And Space Mountain is rumored to be prepping an accompanying light show for the new rockin’ track.

– If you’re enjoying the marvelous Sunday brunch at Storyteller’s Cafe in the Grand Californian hotel, and Chip (of Chip ‘n’ Dale fame) is scurrying about, watch your Mickey Mouse waffles.

– As a child, I dreamed of a) living in Pirates of the Caribbean and b) becoming a Disneyland Ambassador and wearing a plaid vest while escorting visiting dignitaries around the park. I’d still like to do that, actually.