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San Francisco by Richard Connema

My Àntonia is a
Nice Sentimental Play with Music


Also see Richard's review of Anna Christie and Smoke and Mirrors

My Antonia
Michael Butler, Jessica Meyers
and Julien Hornik

TheatreWorks closes it 34th season with the world premiere of Scott Schwartz and Stephen Schwartz's play with music, My Àntonia, which is currently at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. This is the first collaboration between Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, The Baker's Wife) and his son Scott (current director of Broadway's Golda's Balcony and off Broadway hits Bat Boy and tick, tick ... Boom!)

My Àntonia is a nice heartwarming play with music. Scattered throughout the production are Russian and Czech folk songs with Stephen creating a movie type score that includes church hymns and folksongs sung at a party. There is also a lovely waltz melody in a charming dance scene in the second act. The music is always in the background and it follows the emotional ups and downs of the characters The original preview production ran three hours and 20 minutes and it has now been cut down to three hours. It could stand further trimming, possibility to two hours and 40 minutes. Some scenes still go on too long, and some audience audience members seemed to be losing interest in what is going on onstage in certain spots.

My Àntonia starts with Jim Burden (Michael Butler) in 1910 returning to Blackhawk, Nebraska in hopes of re-establishing a connection with his past. He remembers memories of his adolescence years in the 1880s, growing up on his grandparent's farm just outside of the town. The Shimerda family, immigrants from Bohemia, buy a run down farm from a shyster (Louis Parnell) next to their property. They are ill-equipped to run the farm since they do not speak a word of English. The daughter Àntonia (Jessica Meyers) is a strong-willed teenager who is determined to learn the new language. Adolescent Jim (Ian Leonard) starts a friendship Àntonia and agrees to teach her English. Jim is very shy and na´vely worships the strong young girl. A young filly Lena (Lianne Marie Dobbs) enters the picture and Jim's sexual being is aroused. The play slowly ambles on and we see the trials and tribulations as the years pass. Extra scenes are thrown in as some of the characters relate stories from their past. These scenes seems to slow down the central theme of the play

My Àntonia is an epic that has the look of The Grapes of Wrath and the Royal National Company's Nicholas Nickleby. Most of the ensemble cast of 16 actors are on stage most of the time and it looks like Our Town transported to the prairies of Nebraska. The production follows Willa Cather's acclaimed 1918 novel and adapter and director Scott Schwartz says that 50 percent of the play is comprised of the author's actual words.

My Àntonia has a brilliant cast of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay area actors taking on various roles in this mammoth production. Jessica Meyers (Metamorphoses with the Berkeley Rep) is excellent as Àntonia. She ages beautifully through the production. Ian Leonard (Jane Eyre at TheatreWorks) is delightful in his portrayal of a na´ve young Jim. He has the look and mannerisms of a young Derek Jacobi. Noted actor Louis Parnell exceeds himself in playing three "villainous characters." He is particularly exceptional as Cutter, a randy employer of an adult Àntonia. Dressed in a loud suit of various colors, he looks like a character out of a Dickens novel. His wife, played by Anne Buelteman, also dresses like something from Dickens or Les Mis and is wonderful. (When they appeared together, I thought they would break out into "Master of the House.")

Nick Tagas (PINS, Amadeus and R & J) gives a consummate performance as a spastic young son in the Shimerda family. This is an amazing performance for a 23 year old actor. He is constantly in character, even when appearing in the back of the stage away from the spot lights. He is able to contort his whole body. His scene with Àntonia when she teaches him the words "sky" and "home" is wonderful. He also plays an over the top camp "Armand" in an onstage production of Camille in the second act.

Lianne Marie Dobbs (Little Night Music, Ragtime, Jane Eyre at TheatreWorks) once again gives a sterling performance as the sexy Norwegian American woman who introduces young Jim to the ways of sex. She is delightfully coy in her performance. Jordan Lund (New York Shakespeare Festival, Peter Hall's Romeo and Juliet and over 75 film and TV appearances) is one big bear of an actor, and his portrayal as Mr. Vanni is priceless. He has an infectious laugh. Joseph Ribeiro (Into the Woods and many productions in the Bay Area) has a magnificent voice, especially when he portrays Gaston Cleric. I would have loved for this scene to last longer as he is lecturing Jim on the works of Homer. It is a wonderful theatrical scene. His role as the head of the Shimerda family is great with very little English and he reminds me of Topol in Fiddler on the Roof. Michael Butler (appeared on Broadway in Macbeth and The Shakespeare Actors) as the adult Jim is very good reminiscing about his adolescent years in Nebraska.

Scott Schwartz has tightly directed this drama with the scenes flowing easily into one another. He has obtained great performances from many in the cast. Scott said in an interview that he would like to see this production go to Broadway, but he relates that the "the odds are against it. It's a large play and large plays are rarely done on Broadway." He concludes that he's "not thinking of anything past this production right now. This is not to be a tryout for another theater or for New York." However, this would be a good play for regional theaters throughout the country if it can be shortened a little bit more.

My Àntonia runs through April 25. Tickets can be obtained by calling 650-903-6000 or visiting www.theatreworks.org.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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