Center REP should feast on Mamma Mia!, its season opener

By Randy McMullen
August 31, 2018

Mamma Mia! Here we go again.

Is there anyone who likes music and/or theater who doesn't know the story of "Mamma Mia," the jukebox musical that inserts glorious ABBA songs into a really silly story, and inserts them in ways that are even sillier than the storyline itself?

But that is just part of the fun - the whole show has a vibe that says everyone is in on the joke. And, like we said: ABBA songs! Hummable hits like "Dancing Queen," "Take a Chance on Me" and "The Winner Take It All" carry the show and are a treat in any setting.

And here's the other good news - it's the musical that opens Center REPertory Company's new season. This is the kind of high-energy, well-sung musical comedy that Center REP routinely knocks out of the park. The talented cast includes Leanne Borghesi, Lynda DiVito, Alison Quin and Mark Farrell.


From Sweeney cutting throats
to praising the dancing queen:

Noel Anthony Escobar's beautiful voice is taking him many places in the theater world


By John Orr
August 26, 2018

In 2016, Noel Anthony Escobar was "the very scary, very intense Burrs" in "The Wild Party" at San Jose Stage.

In March of this year, Escobar was the revenge-obsessed and murderous Sweeney Todd, also at San Jose Stage.

On August 31, he will appear as one of three possible dads in the musical bit of cotton-candy fluff known as "Mamma Mia!" at Center Rep in Walnut Creek.

"The Wild Party" and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" "are obviously both dark musicals, very demanding vocally," said Escobar during a recent phone conversation. "I had a great time with the company of 'Sweeney.' I love the Kings (Randall and Cathleen, who founded and run San Jose Stage). 'Wild Party,' the book wasn't my favorite, but I love Andrew Lippa's music. It's just fun to sing."

"Sweeney Todd" was composed by Stephen Sondheim, "Wild Party" by Lippa, and both are very demanding of singers. Both tend to write melodies that require huge vocal ranges and difficult techniques, and not everybody who attempts to sing in their shows actually succeeds.

Escobar sang magnificently in both shows.

By comparison, "Mamma Mia!" at first, seemed like it might be a cakewalk.

"It's a lot of fun, not super challenging," said Escobar. "It is ABBA, so nothing too difficult. It's all very campy and fun."

But, "I've discovered, now being in rehearsals for three weeks, that 'Mamma Mia!' is not a cakewalk at all," said Escobar via email. "The singing is actually quite challenging. Our MD (music director Brandon Adams) has raised the key of the song 'Knowing Me, Knowing You,' that I sing in the show, a half step. The show is very much about the energy and pacing. Not an easy show to put together."

But as he said before, "Audiences eat this show up. It has quite a following."

Which is great for Escobar's day job, as artistic and administrative coordinator at Diablo Regional Arts Association in Walnut Creek, the fundraising arm of the Lesher Center for the Arts, which houses Center Rep.

"I do many things," Escobar said. "I've been there two years. Things are going well. We have a lot of donors, have a great board."

Escobar plays Sam Carmichael in "Mamma Mia!" That role was played in the movie by Pierce Brosnan, who was pilloried and insulted around the world for his horrid singing. But Escobar is an excellent singer.

Escobar started out as a singer, thanks in part to his father, Daniel Escobar, a musician, who played in a lot of nightclub acts around the San Franciso Bay Area. "He played with a lot of famous Latin artists who hadn't broken through yet," said Noel.

Daniel Escobar started his son Noel singing when he was 18. "That's how I started singing in the first place. My father taught me Spanish love songs, boleros, got me hooked on some Spanish artists in my youth, which led me to theater, ultimately."

Now 44, Escobar has been performing in musicals since he was 23.

"It used to be I took more pride in the singing, but now, as I am looking for work, I am finding the acting more satisfying," he said. "I like the idea of engaging the audience and telling a story, rather than just worrying about what I sound like. Which is better — you want to engage the audience, not just park and bark. (An old theater saying.)"

"He's one of those actors, for me personally, I know I can trust him," said Allison F. Rich in a recent phone conversation. Rich has been in four shows with Escobar. He was the preacher in "Bonnie and Clyde" at San Jose Stage; was King Triton to Rich's Ursula in "The Little Mermaid" at Pacific Coast Repertory in Pleasanton; was Burrs to Rich's Queenie in "The Wild Party" at San Jose Stage; and Sweeney to Rich's Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd" at San Jose Stage.

"In any given performance situation, like if something goes awry, he is so solid you can trust him to do his job," said Rich. "I have been on stage with actors I couldn't trust, but Noel is just somebody for whom it's all about the work, and getting the job done.

"He can come across as serious and quiet, but he's a huge goofball at heart, a goofball and a clown. You don't expect it, because he's quiet and controlled. Getting to know him was fun. But he's also one of the more supportive actors I've ever worked with, very giving and selfless."

Escobar has been all singing, all the time, in musicals, cabaret shows and other performances, but is thinking more of auditioning for straight plays.

"I would love to do a play, absolutely," he said. "But it's been such a busy year — 36 weeks of theater this year. I have been meaning to audition to some company that is doing plays. But I've been busy, and it's hard to transition into being a straight actor after doing musicals for 22 years."

Rich, in addition to being a resident artist at San Jose Stage, is also its casting director.

"At San Jose Stage we love Noel," Rich said. "We're always looking for ways to bring him in. … I know that he's capable of being so much more than just a pretty voice."

But first, "Mamma Mia!"

"It's going to be a blast," Escobar said, "with houses full every single night. People love this show for some reason. It's campy, and a lot of bubble gum music, and a lot of fun. Definitely not 'Sweeney Todd." The cast is wonderful. … It's going to be a good time."

The day after "Mamma Mia!" closes, Escobar starts rehearsal for "Guys and Dolls" at Tri Valley Rep in Pleasanton.

"Then that's it for the year."