Start with a song
Music, Shakespeare and an ill-fated queen mark 23rd year of summer-theater fest.
The phantom of local yokelry seems particularly fond of stalking community-theater musicals, always lurking in the wings intent on tainting the best-intended productions; it takes a particularly powerful collection of talent to ward off its unwanted influence.
Fortunately, Jerry Miller, primary organizer behind the Chico Summer Theatre Festival, assembled such a group for Radioland’s 1949 Cavalcade of Stars, which kicked off the festival’s 23rd year last Thursday (Aug. 2) at the Chico Women’s Club. (Great Moments with Shakespeare, eight scenes of the Bard’s greatest hits, ran for two nights only—Tuesday and Wednesday—and Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh will begin tonight and run through Sunday.)
In a phone interview before I attended the Saturday matinee performance of Radioland, Miller—who wrote and directed the show with longtime collaborator Marcel Daguerre as musical director and arranger—promised a “big rolling barrel of fun.
“It’s a joy for us to put on, getting all these amazing people together to sing great songs and do comedy,” he continued. “There’s a feeling of lightness, even for the actors. Since it’s a radio show there’s no blocking, they’re just at their mics reading and having a really good time with it.” Miller said the fest’s performers—more than three score volunteers contributing to all three productions—represent the cream of Chico’s theater crop.
As promised, Radioland was a hoot. Presented in old-timey variety radio show fashion, a group of consummate singers and actors called the Sophisticated Six anchored the action, reading tongue-in-cheek serials such as “The Adventures of the Scarlet Ranger” and “Zap Flanagan, Spaceketeer,” humorous ads and jingles and musical performances from a cavalcade of Chico’s finest backed by a five-piece live band, Lord Windsmere and the Windbreakers.
Further aural stimulation came by way of sound effects by Thomas Billheimer III and Tom Billheimer II—including a theremin to approximate spaceship sounds and banging pots and pans to simulate a robot battle—and added greatly to the show.
There was plenty of double entendre and ribald humor, much of it punctuated by perfectly placed winks and hip bumps courtesy of Arin Larson’s bombshell Bonnie “Baby” Dahl. Other highlights were Bavarian folk act The Kraukaiser Singers (Shauna, Christa and Terra Jones with the hilarious Judy Clemens) and Loki Miller and band performing as Luke and the Drifters (one of Hank Williams’ favored alter egos), reprising roles they played in the Blue Room’s Lost Highway.
Great Moments with Shake-speare was directed by Jeff Dickenson and included scenes from As You Like It, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Measure for Measure, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV Part 1 and Much Ado About Nothing. The Shakespeare show took the festival back to its roots, as it originally began as Shakespeare in the Park—first in Bidwell Park, then in the City Plaza.
“Since we left the plaza we ceased to be Shakespeare in the anything,” Miller said. “It wasn’t so much a matter of making sure we did some Shakespeare as it was the individual director’s choice. We also really wanted to have something for everyone, and I think we have that covered—comedy and music with Radioland, the classics with Shakespeare, and high drama with Marie Antoinette.”
Miller was particularly excited about the festival-closer, which he is also directing. Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh was written by Joel Gross and focuses on a love triangle between the ill-fated queen (played by Hannah Knight), her historical friend and portrait artist, Elisabeth Vig"e Le Brun (Ashley Garlick), and the fictitious playboy, Count Alexis de Ligne (Matt Hammons).
“I got my dream cast, and the material is just so good that it’s going to be a really beautiful, poetic production,” Miller said. “We re-envisioned how to set up the theater for the show. It’s on the floor and seating had to be cut in half. It’s a very intimate and in-your-face setup. It will be almost like being a voyeur in the bedroom, you’ll be right there with them.”
The play may also be Miller’s last contribution to the Summer Theatre Festival, leaving the future of the event in uncertainty: “I am retiring from the festival,” he said, noting that he is the artistic director at Theatre on the Ridge and directs and teaches at Butte College. “Between the three projects I just don’t have the time to produce the festival, and I have not been able to find anyone either interested enough or foolish enough to take over the reins … 16 years is enough for me.”