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The 2014 Variety Show

I went to the 2014 Anderson Valley Variety Show at the Philo Grange on Friday night and then again on Saturday. As always, the pre-show parade of local glitterati showing off their star power as they sashayed along the red carpet was worth the price of admission all by itself. I saw people I hadn’t seen since the day before! Some people I hadn’t seen for three days! Even saw a couple of folks I hadn’t seen all week! If you think I am complaining, I am not. I love the Variety Show as a coming together of friends and neighbors, onstage and off. I am exaggerating a little, though. On Saturday night, Steph and I met some new people in line and a lovely couple they were. The fame of the Variety Show brings ‘em in from Ukiah, Willits… even San Francisco! You are not going to get a night (or two!) of entertainment like this in them big cities, that’s well known.

But once the lights went down and the participants started acting up, the audience got a shock: instead the normal opening skit spoofing matters national, global or local, the fellas and gals were laying on the high-brow: Shakespeare! That’s another cool thing about the Variety Show. People you know, or thought you knew, turn up displaying skills you’d hardly suspected of them. So from now on, my rule around here is that I assume everybody can do everything. What took me so long to get to this, I don’t know. I am finally there, however.

So if I’d known Cob Martin a little better, I’d have expected him to be able to create an edifying, culturally uplifting, funny and entirely skillful staging of three crucial scenes from Romeo and Juliet, complete with slick edits and hilarious side gags. I should have figured Justin Laqua for an artful Romeo and Charlene Rowland for a loose-limbed, dance-happy Tybalt. Julianna Maidrand we all already knew would be a perfect Juliet, and Marcus Magdaleno was masterfully entertaining (hardly a surprise) as the high-stepping, sharp-tongued Mercutio. Sometime during the 1800s, the role of the EMT/narrator was dropped from most productions of Romeo and Juliet, but the Variety Show players wisely restored the part and just as wisely cast Angela DeWitt. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Shakespeare wrote those lines specifically for her. The whole thing was bawdy and hilarious and, as was common in the days of Elizabethan England, worked in a salute to our tireless volunteer emergency responders. The break-dancing was a new twist for that play, I think, but entirely within the spirit of the action, and certainly the right tone for the Grange.

The company pulled off this Shakespearean hullabaloo to great effect both nights. And who are you going to get to follow that? Hats off to Chris Marchio a relative newcomer to the Valley who stepped over from the brewery to hit leadoff on Friday night with only an acoustic guitar for protection. High grades for his spirited rendition of Dylan’s “Silvio,” both for the quality of the performance and for resurrecting a relatively obscure Dylan tune (although I guess the Dead Heads all know it). Chris kind of got thrown into the breach there, but he pulled it off with panache.

On Saturday night, it was 10-year-old Ty Benfield, seemingly impervious to the pressure, turning in a smooth rendition of something he called “The Not So Boring Minuet” on the Grange’s sparkling new piano. All hail this fine new instrument, and the musical enjoyment it promises us all in the months and years to come. But let me not pass so quickly from Ty’s contribution. A classical piano piece, charmingly delivered by a youngster who has already been studying piano was another fine way to follow-up the rowdy Shakespeare opening. One classic following another, you might say, but provided by a young Valley talent.

And away we went, two nights in a row. Of course, there was one glaring difference immediately apparent. Captain Rainbow, the valiant emcee and heart and soul of the proceedings, absent, off with the lovely Yvonne working hard in Myanmar. Obviously, there was no one person going to fill those shoes, so master of ceremony duties were turned over to a triumvirate of Ryan O’Corrigan, Seasha Robb and the aforementioned Mr. Laqua. Dividing host duties like that was a fine idea, the trio made things hum, and Seasha’s many ensemble changes were downright Cher-like. Captain Rainbow will be back, but this year’s fill-ins provided reassurance that inspired new blood aplenty is at the ready as needed.

Rainbow wasn’t gone entirely, however, as relatively early on Friday night the crew aired a video he’d sent from Myanmar. It was classic Rainbow, all right, a film in which the Captain chased a flying ball around town, providing laughs, a reminder of how much we like and miss him, and a great look around the fascinating locale he and Yvonne are currently calling home. Fittingly, the video was repeated on Saturday night.

Seeing the kids go for it is one of the great features of any variety show. It’s comforting and fun for any community to see their future courageously on stage before them, and great for the kids, as well, to know they can show off, try things out, and be accepted. This acceptance—providing the security to give things a go in public—is one of the basic tenets of the whole proceedings, a point ably made by emcee Ryan.

At any rate, the youngsters kept popping up like prairie dogs. Friday night we had Sierra Peters and her friends workin’ it and then some as the strutted the runway showing off Sierra’s scissor cut t-shirt fashions. Then Willow Thomas, one of the fashion strutters, made a quick return to the stage, giving that new piano it’s first workout of the show with ardent boogie woogie ivory work.

The AV Dance Team, a few years older and growing into their talent, got the audience moving with some high-spirited, pop-music choreography. When the kids move like that, the grown-ups (and the other kids) gotta love it.

Hanna Wolverton’s ballet performance was especially moving. Here was a young girl already four years into her study of this incredibly beautiful and demanding art form, sharing with all of us the sharing with us both what she has learned already, and giving us a glimpse of what she will become, as a dancer, perhaps, but almost surely as an expressive, artistic person in whatever way seems right to her as the years progress. High schooler Emma Hanes, who seemed like she was everywhere this weekend, also danced on Friday night, with a routine that was inventive, fun and fluid.

On Saturday night appeared the hip hop dance team from the Space Theater in Ukiah, polished, with a complicated, rousing routine of street theater/dance. (At first I thought maybe we were getting Shakespeared, via West Side Story.) It was compelling and one of the night’s true highlights.

And while we’re on the subject of mesmerizing dance, we must go back to Friday night and consider the Can Can Dancers DeLuxe! This was talent! This was splendor! Eight beautiful ladies (one of whom is cooking my dinner as I write this, by the way) plus one 18-year-old man wearing devil’s horns, swishing skirts, flashing legs, bouncing and twirling to the Offenbach, cartwheels from the youngsters, and a final booty shake and a devastating split! It was inspiring! Did I mention that one of these beautiful women is waiting with a particularly keen eye to see what I write about this performance? Seriously, though, the Can Can was a blast.

When David Jones strode to the front of the stage early on Friday night for a spoken word performance, I thought perhaps the Shakespeare theme was about to be resumed. Hamlet’s soliloquy, perhaps? Well, not quite, as David narrated instead the touching tale of Needy Ned the Rental Dog. I can tell you that there was one particular detail of that story that was still being discussed in the Grange parking lot on Saturday night.

Musical acts were in happy abundance this year. Julia Brock, speaking of young and talented, and Rachel Juster, a welcome returnee to the Variety Show stage, tackled a couple of tough songs. Rachel, on Friday night, belted out Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Julia sang Elton John’s “Your Song,” a tune that sounds simple but is tricky to navigate successfully.

Every community needs its touchstone perennials. The Raging Grannies, dependable every year for raucous lefty fun with plenty of hoots and hollars, fill that role, all right. They slaughtered the Rolling Stones on Friday night with “We Don’t Want No Frickin’ Frackin’” and confirmed their icon status on Saturday, “Dancing on the Grave of Multi-National Corporations.” And speaking of icons, the AV Chorus had fun with “Singin’ in the Rain.” We still have a drought, but at least it’s a soggy drought, now, and our chorus pals did their part by chanting for rain all week, so they said.

And, hey, Joe Blow rocked the place, as they always do, on Friday night. “Let the Four Winds Blow” was fun, but “Love Potion Number 9” is one of my favorite rave-ups and the boys did it up right. It’s been cool to see Stevie D get better and better over the months on that baritone, too.

It’s impossible to do justice to all the musical performers in this short space, but special notice must be taken, sez I, of Lily Apfel’s return to the Variety Show stage. Her simple but beautifully expressive vocal and percussion performance, “You’re Going to Miss Me When I’m Gone,” lit up Saturday night. And it was great to see Mitch Holman playing the new piano and to hear his deep, pleasing singing voice on two moving originals. And I have to mention Bill and Jaye, who I missed last year. I found the lyrics of Bill’s song about family to be genuinely moving.

The cute award went, for the second straight year, to Harvest Ryan and her mom, Sarah, this year paying tribute to Pete Seeger by singing his classic, “What Did You Learn in School Today.” Honorable mention in this category, at least for this viewer, went to The Wolf Pack, a five-voice ensemble of young women who made the trip up from San Francisco to sing on Saturday night, good cheer and bright harmonies a-shining.

Another clear, and more painful, absence was that of Henry Hill, who left us this year. Henry was honored twice on Friday night. Once via a moving video put together by Mike Crutcher showing short clips and stills of Henry, skillfully edited, that put his joie de vivre and kind soul on affectionate display. The film was silent, with touching musical accompaniment supplied by Henry’s bandmates in the Ukaholics. Then the night’s penultimate act featured Kevin Jones’ black light stage piece, “The Nature of Man/The Birth of Capoeira” that was a spectacle of motion and dance in its own right, and brought Henry’s presence to the room once again.

There were videos, also, from the high schoolers on both nights. On Friday, Colin van Ree and Otto Frazier were too cool in their video tribute to Billy Joel and Otto’s VW. Then Julia Brock was back on stage to introduce her video, which in fact was a cleverly edited mash-up of three of her previous works. And finally, on Saturday night, Emma Hanes showed off some more tight editing by way of her uplifting video starring many of her classmates and friends. That video class at the high school must be a great one.

I came back into the theater a little late after intermission on Saturday night to find Trio Steve-O on stage, backing a dance troupe including Marcus again, plus Rita Bates, Jerzy Slupny, Rose Flanigan and Sophia Bates whopping around in Polynesian drag (the guys, anyway). Again, I thought we might be back into the Shakespeare theme, maybe a Islands rendering of the Macbeth scene where Great Birnam wood comes to high Dunsinane hill. But, wrong again! It was some great tom foolery, though, to some snappy rhythms from Steve & Jill Derwinski (steel drums) and Fred Wooley (percussion), and it ended with a limbo line! It sort of reminded me of the limbo line scene in The Merchant of Venice… or is it Henry V?

Before I finish up, apologies to those I’ve missed. Dan and Valerie, sincere thanks for your moving and lovely song on Friday night. Holly Tannen, the Mistress of Folklore, was funny singing about the Irish lass and the didgeridoo player. Bill and Gail Meyer, as Francois LePeau and his lovely assistant, carved up a bunch of fun and a nice birthday surprise for Justin, and the duo from Clowns Not Bombs cracked us up with their ropes and unicycles.

The closing acts on both nights lived up to all that had come before them. On Friday night, just after the black light/Capoeira show had ended, handsome John Pleasants arrived on stage in drag and launched into an astonishingly well-performed Italian aria. Well, we’d started with Shakespeare, and so concluding with a beautiful classic centuries-old song, extremely difficult to sing well but just nailed dead-center, certainly was a good idea. Then out we floated, looking forward to the next night’s entertainment.

On Saturday night, we neared the end of another year’s Variety Show with Sarah Ryan and Sarah Larkin. These two, singing as The Real Sarahs, have become Valley favorites over the past months, a popularity entirely deserved. Their singing and harmonies, guitar playing and song writing are all profoundly endearing. They sang on Saturday, reminding us that, despite each day’s hurdles, “there’s infinite potential in this life, you know,” striking a happy note of optimism that seemed just right for an almost end to the show. Following the Real Sarahs were the calming, jovial Hawaiian rhythms of Hui Arago: Michael and Marybeth Arago playing guitar and singing and the Valley’s Dennis Hudson shining on ukulele. Michael’s sister Phyllis added Hawaiian dance and eventually they brought out several of the night’s performers to join them onstage. It was a splendid, joyful, final gathering. And so we wandered into the night, full of lemon bars, music, organic popcorn, fun and fellowship, perhaps a little thoughtful. And with a new appreciation for Romeo and Juliet.

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