PICK ASR ~~ TheatreWorks’ Sondheim Tribute a Delightful Production

By Joanne Engelhardt

Combine a half-dozen versatile actors, a maestro of the keyboard (Bill Liberatore) and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s long-time artistic director Robert Kelley (now retired), and the result is Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration — a concoction that makes for a pleasurable two hours of theatre.

Both Kelley and Liberatore say they’ve been so influenced by Sondheim over the years that they felt he deserved his own production chockful of his incredibly long list of songs – some so familiar it’s hard not to start singing along.

The women (Melissa WolfKlain, Solona Husband, and Anne Tolpegin) butt heads with the men (Sleiman Alahmadieh, Nick Nakashima, and Noel Anthony Escobar) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration,” performing June 5-30.
Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Many, like “Putting it Together,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Pretty Women” and “Love is in the Air,” not to mention the sensitive, soulful “Children Will Listen,” are as familiar to theatregoers as old friends. Others such as “Loving You,” “Love’s a Bond” and “There is No Other Way” introduce audiences to lesser-known Sondheim songs. Yet, by the time the audience heads home, the actors have sung a whopping 35 songs — 36 in fact,because “Send in the Clowns” is sung twice.

” … a pleasurable two hours of theatre …”

During Kelley’s 50-year tenure at TheatreWorks, he actually mounted 18 Sondheim productions. Upon learning that it’s now “legal” to create a musical review of Sondheim’s works, Kelley said the first thing he did was ask Liberatore to collaborate with him as they have many times before.

The cast (l to r: Melissa WolfKlain, Nick Nakashima, Solona Husband, Noel Anthony Escobar, Anne Tolpegin, and Sleiman Alahmadieh) put a show together in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

And, while not every song or performance zings, it’s likely audiences will recognize once again Sondheim’s musical genius through most of the songs sung, danced and acted here. What’s so surprising is that all of the music – which sounds both fulsome and lyrical — comes from Liberatore’s melodious piano playing and Artie Storch’s occasional drumming accompaniment.

No small credit, of course, goes to the cadre of fine performers, most particularly the diminutive Solona Husband as Sally, who acts, dances, jumps and belts out her songs with joyfulness. Nick Nakashina as Gene and Melissa WolfKlain are solid additions who know how to charm an audience with a sassy wink or nod. Rounding out the cast with equally fine performances are Anne Tolpegin as Lena, Sleiman Alahmadieh as George, and Noel Anthony as Ben.

The cast (l to r: Anne Tolpegin, Sleiman Alahmadieh, Solona Husband, Noel Anthony Escobar, Nick Nakashima, and Melissa WolfKlain) embraces new possibilities in “Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Sondheim, who passed away in 2021 at the age of 91, wrote an astonishing 334 songs in his lifetime. That’s why Kelley and Liberatore decided to concentrate on songs that are primarily focused on love – in all its iterations: first love, love lost, broken hearts, redemptive love and more. Audiences happily responded to the upbeat “Love is in the Air, ”Everybody Says Don’t,” “Can That Boy Foxtrot” and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” WolfKlain’s rendition of “The Wedding is Off” is another crowd pleaser.

Then comes the poignant “Send in the Clowns,” sung with heartfelt sincerity by Tolpegin, and the equally touching “We Do Not Belong Together” sung by Husband and Alahmadieh. Husband also stands out in “Our Time” with Nakashima and Alahmadieh as well. The same trio joins up in “Old Friends” and does a terrific switching hats routine.

Kelley sandwiches in touching songs like “Children Will Listen,” sung by WolfKlain and Tolpegin. with comedic ones like “Agony” sung by Nakashima and Anthony, as well as “Any Moment/Moments in the Woods,” sung by Anthony and WolfKlain, to balance out the program.

But it’s the song “Being Alive,” sung by all six performers, that ends the show on a high note. It’s a reminder of just how astounding Sondheim’s music really is.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionBeing Alive: A Sondheim Celebration
Conceived by
Robert Kelley and William Liberatore
Directed byRobert Kelley
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Entre Acts
Production DatesThru June 30th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$37- $82
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “Kinky Boots” — High Heels on Mt. Tamalpais

By Cari Lynn Pace

Kinky Boots is this year’s offering in Mill Valley’s Mountain Play 111-year run of award-winning shows. The musical, directed by Gary Stanford, Jr. normally fills Cushing Amphitheatre, an outdoor venue of carved granite seats with spectacular views of San Francisco and beyond. This annual event for families and friends who come to picnic and party has been tagged “a great outdoor theatre adventure.”

Although Kinky Boots won several awards when it was originally presented on Broadway, This year’s show failed to attract the crowds on opening day, even when all youth to age 25 were given free tickets.

“Kinky Boots” at The Mountaiun Play.

Kinky Boots unfolds with the plot of a British shoe factory nearing closure which reinvents itself making boots for drag queens. Based on actual events, Harvey Fierstein wrote the book with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper. It’s a heartfelt unfolding of how Lola, a gay diva sashaying onstage and portrayed by an outrageous Miss Jay, and Charlie (Cody Craven), a straight businessman, learn that mutual respect can do wonders for the soul and for business.

“…mutual respect can do wonders for the soul and for business.”

Charlie wonders if his failing factory should re-tool to make high-heeled boots for drag queens. Lola’s “Angels” take to the stage giving a risqué bump and grind dose of convincing to the shoe factory workers.

Although this show is not rated, one audience member commented “This is not a family show” as she left during the first act with her children. Others said “Let’s go” at intermission.

“Kinky Boots” cast at work.

Executive Director and Artistic Producer Eileen Grady noted that Kinky Boots was presented in an attempt to foster “authenticity, compassion, acceptance of self and others, and to see each other in person.” The program contains a half-page instruction of “How to be an Ally” to actively support LGBTQ+ people.

Opening day suffered setbacks including a lack of shuttles to parking areas, microphones which malfunctioned, and no food vendors on site. The orchestra under the capable direction of Daniel Savio often overwhelmed the ensemble musical numbers. This was likely due to the technical sound problems.

The Mountain Play presents “Kinky Boots”.

Despite any difficulties, many fine actors gave solid performances in Kinky Boots. In addition to knockout vocals by Jaye and Craven, outstanding voices that carried through the amphitheater included Imri M. Tate, Gillian Eichenberger, David Schiller, Anna Joham, and local favorite Sean O’Brien. They perform on a fantastic stage set, done by Andrea Bechert, which revolves as the scenes require.

“Kinky Boots” cast at work.

 

If you go: Picnics including alcohol are invited. Seat cushions are okay, but chairs are not. Dress in layers, and bring sunscreen and hat. Blankets are good, too, in case the fog rolls in. Opening day was a balmy affair, but weather on the mountain can be fickle—from freezing to frying.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. Contact: pacereports100@gmail.com

 

ProductionKinky Boots
Written byBook: James Lapine
Music/Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Directed byNicole Helfer
Music & LyricsCyndi Lauper. Book by Harvey Fierstein.
Producing CompanyThe Mountain Play Association
Production DatesJune 8, 9 and 16 at 2 PM
Production AddressCushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mt. Tamalpais State Park, 801 Panoramic Highway, Mill Valley CA
Websitewww.MountainPlay.org
Telephone(415) 383-1100
Tickets$25-$125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK ASR! ~~ LASC’s Fabulous “Young Frankenstein” is Monstrous Laughs!

By Joanne Engelhardt

Whenever you go to a Mel Brooks production, you know you’re in for a barrel of laughs, sight gags, and a quirky plot. But when it’s also a musical with sensational actors, singers, and dancers, it’s a given that it’s going to be good.

The Los Altos Stage Company’s current production of Young Frankenstein isn’t just good.

It’s GREAT!

(L-R) Bryan Moriarty as The Monster, and Joey Dippel as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein at work.

Director/choreographer Morgan Dayley has pushed her cast of 13 actors to the highest levels of absurdity to make this production zing. There’s hardly a false note anywhere, although this reviewer thought there were a few times when the onstage band conducted by Benjamin Belew played a tad too loudly to hear the zany lyrics being sung. But that’s a trifle because sold-out audiences like the one at last Sunday’s matinee couldn’t stop laughing, cheering and happily enjoying the whacky show.

Young Frankenstein is based on the 1974 comedy film written by Gene Wilder and Brooks. Brooks and Thomas Meehan began working on the musical version in 2006; it opened on Broadway the following year.

“… sold-out audiences … couldn’t stop laughing …”

In LASC’s production, it took just a little lime-colored headpiece and platform shoes to turn Bryan Moriarty into The Monster, but he was a perfect one. Other standout performers — in a cast that is uniformly excellent — are Dave Leon as Igor, Caitlin Gjerdrum as the rubber-faced Frau Blucher, an over-the-top Gwyneth Price Panos as Elizabeth and Keith Larson as the hapless one-eyed Inspector Kemp.

(L-R) Dave Leon as Igor, Joey Dippel as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, & Gwenaveire Garlick as Inga.

Who’s left to mention? Why, Frankenstein’s heir, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (fast-talking Joey Dippel), who is the dean of anatomy at a respected New York City medical school. This Frankenstein has spent his lifetime insisting he’s not a madman, but a scientist –- he even tries to distance himself by saying that his last name is pronounced “Fronk-en-steen.”

But when he finds out he has inherited his grandfather’s castle in Transylvania, he is forced to head there to resolve the issue of what to do with the property.
Eventually he meets all the people who work in the castle as well as a yodeling (and beautiful) lab assistant named Inga (a delightful Gwenaveire Garlick).

Joey Dippel as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in “Young Frankenstein.”

Perhaps it’s best to let theatregoers discover all the charm and joys of LASC’s Young Frankenstein on their own because it’s got it all: Fine dance numbers, strong vocals, fun costumes (thanks to Lance Muller), a versatile set by Bryan Hornbeck, good sound (Chris Beer and Brian Foley) and lighting (Carol Fischer).

“Young Frankenstein” cast stepping it out!

And that rarity: A couple of tap numbers including Irving Berlin’s “Putting on the Ritz.” It’s worth the price of admission just to watch The Monster try to keep his top hat and lime headpiece on while tapping!

This show is 2 ½ hours of unadulterated fun including one 15-minute intermission. Go see it!

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionYoung Frankenstein
Written byMel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Music-Lyrics by M. brooks.
Directed byMorgan Dayley
Producing CompanyLos Altos Stage Co.
Production DatesThru June 23rd
Production Address97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos, CA
Websitelosaltosstage.org
Telephone650.941.0551
Tickets$22-$45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Pick ASR! ~~ “The Lehman Trilogy” Stuns at ACT

By Barry Willis

A family saga may never be better depicted than in The Lehman Trilogy, at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theatre through June 23.

The three-actor, three-hour+ production encompasses the birth, rise, expansion, and ultimate fall of the Lehman Brothers financial empire—from the moment the first hopeful brother arrives in New York from Bavaria with nothing but a suitcase and ambition to the firm’s collapse in late 2008 during the mortgage meltdown crisis, an event that doomed many big banks and institutions. The crisis had a worldwide impact.

(L-R): Actors John Heffernan, Aaron Krohn, and Howard W. Overshown in “The Lehman Trilogy”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

A touring version of the multiple award-winning National Theatre production directed by Sam Mendes and starring John Heffernan, Aaron Krohn, and Howard W. Overshown as brothers Henry, Mayer, and Emanuel Lehman, respectively, the huge immersive production is a recreation of the first West End show, complete down to its amazing set, overwhelming video effects, and the astounding abilities of its three actors, all in multiple roles—toddlers to codgers, and many incidental characters with a wide range of backgrounds and accents.

… “The Lehman Trilogy” is a master class in character acting …

It’s also a master class in storytelling. Originally written in Italian by Stefano Massini and first produced onstage in 2013, the tale spans approximately 160 years in the family’s history—and massive upheavals in the American economy, in particular the stock market crash of 1929, which Lehman Brothers survived, and the Second World War.

(L-R) Aaron Krohn (Mayer Lehman), John Heffernan (Henry Lehman), Howard W. Overshown (Emanuel Lehman), John Heffernan (Henry Lehman) in the National Theatre and Neal Street Productions’ critically acclaimed, fivetime Tony Award® winning production, “The Lehman Trilogy”, performing at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater now through Sunday, June 23, 2024. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Partly narrated in the third person, and partly delivered as straight dialog, the show’s incredibly effective verbosity is leavened by precise editing. We are given enough information to follow the story, but not so much that we get bogged down. The show sails along briskly and never feels overlong despite its more than three-hour run time.

All three performers are superb with characterizations, vocal inflections, and adroit movements on a set that itself is a master class in design—a rotating large open cubicle that serves variously as the brothers’ first cotton brokerage in Montgomery, Alabama; the state governor’s office during Reconstruction; and the New York high-rise headquarters of Lehman Brothers Holdings, where the company’s last rites took place during the mortgage meltdown crisis in 2008. Immersive video projections by Luke Halls surround the faux office, adding a palpable sense of urgency to everything taking place on stage. Rebekah Bruce’s piano accompaniment adds the perfect touch of melodrama.

(L-R): Howard W. Overshown (Emanuel Lehman), John Heffernan (Henry Lehman), & Aaron Krohn (Mayer Lehman) at work in San Francisco. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The Lehman Trilogy is much more than a tale of three immigrant brothers—and their offspring, who helmed the company until the death of Bobbie Lehman, last of the clan to lead the enterprise. It’s also a spectacularly compelling history of American industry, ingenuity, and ultimately, hubris. “Too big to fail,” was a catch-phrase uttered during the crisis that crushed many global financial powerhouses.

To that, Henry Lehman might have responded, “Baruch Hashem.”

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Lehman Trilogy
Written byStefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power
Directed bySam Mendes
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough June 23rd
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 – $147
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “Native Gardens” Humor Undermines More than Plants

By Cari Lynn Pace

What happens when an older couple with a properly manicured flower garden shares a backyard fence with young new neighbors who prefer wild native plants? Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse presents Native Gardens, Karen Sacarias’ amusing play digging into more than just dirt.

The mostly painted setting in the 99-seat Monroe Stage is of the backyards of two homes. Frank and Virginia Butley (Ron Smith and Sheila Lichirie) welcome the new young homeowners, Pablo and Tania De Valle (Lorenzo Alviso and Lexus Fletcher), and proudly show off their garden.

digs deeper to unearth prejudices about class, age, and race …”

The Butleys soon suggest the De Valles cut down their huge oak tree which has acorns and messy branches threatening their roof. Tania takes umbrage at this suggestion, unleashing her own criticism about the Butley’s choice of non-native plants. Tania wants her yard to attract bugs, which feed the birds, and so on with the circle of ecology. The Butleys are aghast at her idea of planting “weeds,” and the acrimony begins.

“Native Gardens” cast at work.

Further hostilities ensue when the backyard mutual fence line is found to be in error. A survey shows correcting the property line will wipe out the flower garden Frank Butley has been tending for decades, dashing his hopes of winning a neighborhood garden award.

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse presents “Native Gardens”, by Karen Sacaria.

The Butleys stop construction of the De Valle’s fence with something akin to a food fight, done with acorns and a shredded stop-work order. Some fences do not make good neighbors.

Native Gardens digs deeper to unearth prejudices about class, age, and race. Director Beaulah Vega notes “perhaps we can choose…to be good neighbors and appreciate the beauty in this hybrid garden of a country.”

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. Contact: pacereports100@gmail.com

 

ProductionNative Gardens
Written byKaren Zacarias
Directed byBeaulah Vega
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThru June 16th, 2024
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$37 to $45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

ASR Theater ~~ “Best Available”: Naval Gazing About How Theaters Are Run

By Susan Dunn

The set is a simple rotating turntable under an arched, red-curtained proscenium. A ghost light illuminates the bare stage, a stand-in for the story’s ghost, Gary, a disgraced Artistic Director and theater founder whom no one is allowed to speak about but does anyway. This well-known non-profit theater has fired him under a cloud of scandal. The remaining company members must pick up the pieces, find a replacement, and hold the rest of the season together.

It’s fitting that the play opens with the box-office staff taking calls to quiet the scandal, reassuring patrons, and putting a gloss and smile on their every cover-up word. We begin to get the idea BS will be the name of the game.

” … Best Available hits the sweet spot …”

Jonathan Spector’s Best Available pulls the curtain back, reveals, and satirizes the many interested parties that posture, opine, and expound on the importance of this key position of Artistic Director (AD). And how the theater organization can be made whole again now that ‘SHHHH, Gary’ is gone. We meet these stakeholders for two and a half hours, their varied perspectives and final choice to run the show in individual scenes rotating on the turntable.

linda maria girón as Veronica & Dave Maier as Dave in “Best Available”.

First, the Managing Director, Helen, deftly played by Sarah Mitchell, tries to grasp control of the staff hiatus by persuading the former Assistant Artistic Director, Maya, to assume the position of Interim Artistic Director. Regina Morones, as Maya, is a convincing aspirant for the top staff position and wants to move to the key AD slot. She needs assurance that she can wrangle her way into the permanent position. As a Latina, she has an advantage that raises the stakes for DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and so critical to winning grants and other financial opportunities.

These two women scheme their different agendas together – and at cross purposes behind each other’s backs – to drive their power. Helen wants to book a new Musical based on the themes of old TV Movies – a direct appeal to the moneyed donor age group since she is in charge of finances. The new Interim Director, Maya wants to mount an early work of an unknown playwright with no financial resources — a forward-looking play choice, but one which might result in low box-office receipts.

From left, Denise Tyrell, Steve Price, Dave Maier, linda maria girón and Regina Morones in a scene from Jonathan Spector’s crazy comedy about theater companies “Best Available” performing at Shotgun Players in Berkeley through June 16.

The Theater Board of Directors, hilariously set up in numerous scenes to reveal how very little they understand how a theater is successfully run, want to outsource the decision of a new AD to a consulting firm helmed by the Tweedledum and Tweedledee duo of Dave Maier and Steve Price. Their board pitch is an extended circum-fabulation, guaranteed to confuse and insomnia a clown-car board. Finally, there is the ex-Board Member and mega-donor, Dolores, who still wields power and ultimately gets her way through her legacy donation and its requirements and restrictions.

Austine De Los Santos as Bex at Shotgun Players.

Best Available hits the sweet spot for anyone who has worked in theater or on a board of directors. There is much humor bordering on farce, and the multiple short scenes well describe the various stakeholders. But this reviewer felt that some passages and video projections could use … trimming. There is much potential here for a tighter comedy about that world that we love so well—the world of theater.

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ASR Senior Writer Susan Dunn arrived in California from New York in 1991, and has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionBest Available
Written byJonathan Spector
Directed byJon Tracy
Producing CompanyShotgun Players
Production Dates
Thru Jun 16th, 2024
Production Address1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley CA 94705
WebsiteShotgunplayers.org
Telephone(510) 841-6500
Tickets$28-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4.0/5
Script3.0/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK ASR! ~~ “Before It All Goes Dark” –Paintings, Music, and Deprivation in a New Art Form

By Jeff Dunn

A new art form graced San Francisco’s Presidio Theatre one night before moving on to Chicago.

For lack of a better word, I would call it an conversalonera—a collaborative work that interweaves related themes via three “acts”—a 30-minute semi-scripted “conversation,” a 25-minute salon, and a 35-minute opera. In less expert hands, such a concept might result in merely a time-filling hodgepodge.

” … Before It All Goes Dark is worthy of many more performances …”

Not so in this case! Five brilliant collaborators have created a structure that allows for a compelling theme—art deprivation as the result of the Holocaust—to resonate to the maximum.

Joined by many others on the production end, the chief collaborators on the creation side were Mina Miller, founder of Music of Remembrance; Jake Heggie, composer; Howard Reich, former arts critic with the Chicago Tribune; and Gene Scheer, librettist.

The “interview” act began with Miller prompting first Heggie and then Reich to tell their stories: Heggie about receiving an open-ended commission from Miller, searching for a subject, and finally contacting Reich; Reich informing Heggie of a series of articles he had written 20 years previously about The Jewish Museum in Prague trying to find relatives of Holocaust victim Emil Freund. Freund’s valuable art collection had been seized by the Nazis and sequestered by the Czech Communist government.

Only some time after democracy was restored in the Czech Republic was restitution to descendants of original owners being considered. The Jewish Museum asked Reich to see if Freund’s two sisters had established family lines in the U.S. They had indeed. Reich found one, Gerald “Mac” McDonald, an ailing PTSD vet who had no idea that he had a grand uncle who was Jewish or an art collector. Reich traveled with McDonald to Prague to see and obtain Freund’s legacy. McDonald’s story became the substance of Scheer’s libretto.

It was Miller’s idea to make the second “act” a salon-style performance of instrumental works written by composers murdered in the Holocaust. The “salon” was a projected intimation of Freund’s pre-war apartment with its impressive display of art. The music was instrumental—one duet each by David Beigelman and Robert Dauber; and two duets, a piano solo, and a trio by Erwin Schulhoff. The Beigelman piece, the song Mak tsu di eygelekh (“Close your little eyes”), a Schindler’s List-like lament played by clarinet and piano, was the most moving of the fine set.

The salon morphed seamlessly into McDonald’s apartment for the beginning of the opera, accompanied by a small but effective ensemble (flute, clarinet, string quartet, piano) conducted by Joseph Mechavich. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny did a superb job of characterizing the tattooed, burly, angry, and dying vet sparring with his neighbor Sally (effective mezzo Megan Marino) about why he must head off to Europe despite his condition. Heggie wrote a great riff-leitmotiv for McDonald, inspired, as he told me, by the imagined bass line of a heavy-metal band.

Later, in the Jewish Museum, the short opera climaxes when curator Misha (also Marino) opens a figurative door to a gallery where the Freund collection has been assembled for McDonald’s examination. The first sight of Freund’s collection blows McDonald away—and the music and lighting do the same to the audience. The sound is suffused with Heggie’s version of a lament tune passed around the chamber orchestra. Masterpieces of the Freund collection zoom out in projection one after the other. Finally, an array of searing gold spotlights rotates slowly from the stage into the auditorium, flooding the audience.

McDonald empathizes with Freund’s tragedy: “Emil, Uncle Emil, these are the last things you saw … before it all went dark.” Scheer then wonderfully conflates McDonald’s parents’ neglect, where he acted up to try to be “visible” to them, with Freund’s need for his collection to be “chosen, seen, and loved.”

Unfortunately for McDonald, the Czech government ruled that the best of the Freund collection could not leave the country. He returns home to Chicago at the end, with a cheap painting he bought at a Prague art fair. He’s not a millionaire, but he has been touched by beauty and the revelation of his ancestry.

This was the second of four performances sponsored by Music of Remembrance, an organization dedicated to “honoring the resilience of all people excluded or persecuted for their faith, ethnicity, gender or sexuality.” The first was in Seattle May 19th; the third and fourth will be in Chicago May 25th and 26th.

I believe Before It All Goes Dark is worthy of many more performances, and would be effective even if actors play the roles of Heggie and Reich. I only wish that the program notes would include more about the ultimate fate of the Freund collection. The current notes give the impression that McDonald was Freund’s sole heir, but two children and two cousins survive and should have some claim to compensation.

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ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor Jeff Dunn is a retired educator and project manager who’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera, Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

ProductionBefore It All Goes Dark
Based on Chicago Tribune articles byHoward Reich
DirectorErich Parce
Producing CompanyMusic of Remembrance
Production DatesMay 19 (Seattle), May 22 (SF), May 25-6 (Chicago)
Production Address (SF)
Presidio Theatre
99 Moraga Ave, SF, CA 94129
Websitewww.musicofremembrance.org
Telephone
(206) 365-7770
Tickets$40-$85
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4/5
Music4.5/5
Libretto4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Quirky, Comical and Weird: “Pear Slices 2024”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Mountain View’s Pear Theatre is unique in the mid-Peninsula area in that it supports its own playwrights guild. This year’s compilation of eight short plays – all written by members of The Pear Playwright’s Guild – can justifiably be called an entertaining evening of theatre.

Half of the eight are directed by Troy Johnson, and half by Arcadia Conrad. Johnson, a member of The Pear’s board of directors, has co-directed Pear Slices 16 times, while Conrad is co-directing at the Pear for the first time.

” … ‘Pear Slices 2024′ is worth seeing …”

A mere half-dozen versatile actors make up the cast for all eight short plays, which means sometimes an actor must rush off stage in one costume and walk out in about a minute in a totally different outfit and persona. That usually means there’s a trained off-stage crew helping the actors handle their quick changes.

Several of the short plays are both engrossing and comical – something not always easy to achieve. Two of the best are whimsical or whacky – or both! That certainly describes Brick House, written by Paul Braverman, who not only is a member of Pear’s board but is also an actor and playwright.

It brought down the house watching three actors walk on with pink pig snorts and ears, earnestly discussing the pros and cons of whether to build their homes out of straw, sticks or brick. Pig 1 (Bezachin Jifar) lords it over the other two pigs (Lizzie Izyumin and Arohan Deshpande) because his house is made of brick and he knows the Fox (Vanessa Alvarez) won’t be able to blow his house down. The humorous dialog has Pigs 2 and 3 mixing up the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood with the fox. Silly? Yes. Funny: Absolutely.

Bezachin Jifar in “Brick House” by Paul Braverman.

Greg Lam’s clever take on all things Shakespearean is another fine short play. Called Juliet’s Post Credits Scene, Lam manages to include the names of a dozen or more Shakespeare plays (with one actor almost saying the dreaded word MacBeth inside the theater!)

Cleaning Up, written by Christine C. Hsu, is another interesting short. Actors Jifar and Vivian Truong expertly unfold the odd but interesting storyline. Truong plays Ruby, who was previously married to Jifar’s Donny. His second wife recently passed away, and Ruby attended her funeral, bringing food for the reception afterward. It’s just a simple plot, but the two actors make it come alive and retain our attention.

Jenna Ruby Marvet at work in “Pear Slices 2024.”

While the short called I’m Not Her by Teresa Veramendi is somewhat difficult to watch, it’s nevertheless riveting thanks to the performance of its lone actor, Jenna Ruby Marvet playing the character Passion Monster. It’s not easy to keep an audience’s attention for 10+ minutes when you’re on stage all alone, but Marvet manages to do just that.

L-R: Bezachin Jifar and Vivienne Truong in CLEANING UP by Christine C. Hsu.

Although Truong is never seen (only heard), she nevertheless is the most interesting person in Cherielyn Ferguson’s Backyard. The setting is the backyard of Dana (Vanessa Alvarez) who is sitting with her friend Jill (Izyumin). They’re discussing plans for a school book fair and Truong (as Robin) is supposed to join them. Instead, Dana and Jill hear Robin constantly berating her children, screaming at them to do what she says. Disparate reactions of Jill and Dana are the heart of this play.

(L-R): Bezachin Jifar and Jenna Ruby Marvet in “Juliet’s Post Credits Scene” by Greg Lam.

Three other short plays complete this year’s Pear Slices. One, Accidental Immortal by Sophie Naylor left this reviewer a tad confused, with actor Arohan Deshpande (Charlie) rushing his lines a bit, and Marvet showing up in a mask as Death.

This reviewer also thought the two remaining short plays could benefit from a bit more polish. The first is Bridgette Dutta Portman’s Fertile Soil featuring Marvet and Truong as two women planting a garden. The storyline has promise, but seems to run out of gas by play’s end. Ditto the second and last play of the night, The Tarot Reading by Sophie Naylor. (Suggestion to The Pear: Make sure the last show is a crowd pleaser because the audience needs to leave the theater with a good feeling about the plays.)

Overall, Pear Slices 2024 is worth seeing, both to admire the work of The Pear’s Playwright’s Guild as well as the production of short plays by those same playwrights.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionPear Slices 2024
Written byThe Pear Playwrights’ Guild
Directed byTroy Johnson and Arcadia Conrad
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru June 2nd
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.75/5
Performance4.0/5
Script3.75/5
Stagecraft3.25/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

PICK ASR! ~~ “Clyde’s” – City Lights Serves up Delicious Comedy/Drama

By Susan Dunn

Whatever you do, don’t come hungry to this play.

Your mental, visual, and even olfactory senses will be challenged from the opening scenes as new-hire Montrellous (subtly played by Fred Pitts) offers his chef’s token of competency to boss Clyde (smartly and adeptly delivered by Kimberly Ridgeway)–his first grilled cheese sandwich. In her cutting, tight-ass managerial style, Clyde turns the sandwich down and dumps his ex-con backstory, sweetly delivered by Montrellous, into her trivia box.

“… Clyde’s gives us characters unique…humane…worth caring about…”

Written by the prolific Lynn Nottage, Clyde’s is set in a truck stop’s back kitchen, where four ex-cons are lucky enough to work there laboring to produce sandwiches for truckers. Clyde has her own prison backstory, but we never hear it. She is all business in the here and now. Reprehensively, she takes advantage of newly released convicts with no normal life to return to and provides them with a small wage to sustain themselves. She’s been there, done that, and now makes it work for her own gains.

It takes the right touch to create the perfect sandwich, and in the “Clyde’s” restaurant kitchen these three have big dreams. From left: Letitia (Damaris Divito), Montrellous (Fred Pitts) and Rafael (Ricardo Cortés). Photo by Christian Pizzirani.

As Clyde and Montrellous exit, we meet Raphael, Letitia, and Jason, the rest of the line chefs. As they banter, they either assemble a sandwich or ruminate on the “ultimate sandwich,” their current inspiration and life goal…

“Maine lobster, potato roll gently toasted and buttered with roasted garlic, paprika, and cracked pepper with truffle mayo, caramelized fennel and a sprinkle of… of… dill.”

In a series of one-upmanship, each chef dreams up the most obscure ingredients. Raphael waxes poetic on his gustatory concoction of fabulous spices and add-ins which will prove irresistible and take you spiritually to a new level.

Rafael (Ricardo Cortés, right) and Jason (Nick Mandracchia) swoon after tasting a fine, fine sandwich. Photo by Christian Pizzirani.

Admirably acted by Ricardo Cortes, Raphael is a Latino recovering addict, looking to reach out into a new life off the streets. He uses body language and gestures like a new-found drug. Letitia (Damaris Divito, outstanding) is both foil and enticement to Raphael. While he can’t stop his body, she can’t stop her mouth. With a child disabled from her drug use during pregnancy, and an unreliable ex-husband, she is swamped with trying to be the wage-earner and mother, and has served time for stealing drugs from a pharmacy for her daughter.

Newcomer Jason, sporting facial and body gang tattoos, gets the putdown from the others for wearing his lifestyle on his person. He is finally accepted when he breaks down to share his pre-prison story of his uncontrollable rage, assault and beating which almost turns to murder. Movingly portrayed by Nick Mandracchia, he gains acceptance with his co-workers if not with the standoffish Clyde.

Rafael (Ricardo Cortés, right) has his eye on co-worker Letitia (Damaris Divito) in “Clyde’s.” Photo by Christian Pizzirani.

Clyde’s is about starting over when your odds for success in life are few and seem to be working against you. The ex-cons seek redemption for past misadventures and crimes, for lack of life vision and personal self-control. Playwright Nottage shows us life’s human underbelly, struggling to make it with so few advantages. Clyde’s gives us characters unique and humane and worth caring about.

This production is admirably directed by Aldo Billingslea to create a tight ensemble that both bonds and breaks against itself in scene after scene. And it sparkles with lighting and sound that flesh out the truck-stop world. Eat your sandwich first and then head on over to Clyde’s for this compelling tragicomic story that sadly reflects many aspects of our world.

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ASR Senior Writer Susan Dunn arrived in California from New York in 1991, and has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionClyde's
Written byLynn Nottage
Directed byAldo Billingslea
Producing Company
City Lights Theater Company
Production DatesThru June 9th, 2024
Production Address529 S. Second St., San Jose
Websitewww.cltc.org
Telephone
(408) 295-4200
Tickets$28 – $67
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!
Other Voices ...
"With its tasty repartee and redemptive mouthfeel, "Clyde’s" may not be Nottage’s most profound play, but you see why.... like (a) grilled cheese, (it) lifts into the sublime...."
TheGuardian.com
“Clyde’s” is a fugal symphony of repeated motifs: the ding of the bell; a sandwich tossed in the trash; Montrellous’ mystic insights; Clyde’s vitriolic bile. It’s a sharply defined structure. But Nottage breaks it up with real-world chaos. It never feels like artifice."
YourObserver.com
"...(the play) ... transmits joy and deeply felt emotion across an audience visibly thrilled to be in its presence."
LondonTheatre.com

PICK ASR!~ ~~ “Galileo” Soars at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

The centuries-old battle between reason and faith may never be better staged than in Galileo: A Rock Musical, at Berkeley Rep through June 23.

Perhaps historically accurate and certainly plausible, Danny Strong’s three-hour world premiere ushers its audience into the huge Roda Theatre with giant immersive projections of ancient cosmological charts (Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras, projection designers), which soon segue into a horrific depiction of the execution of unrepentant atheist Bruno Giordano.

“… It’s a work of collaborative genius. …”

The sympathies of the playwright and director Michael Mayer are immediately clear. Welcome to the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

Four-time Tony Award nominee Raul Esparza stars as Galileo Galilei, the 17th-century mathematician/inventor/astronomer whose refinement of the telescope made possible his detailed observations of planetary and stellar movements, verifying earlier work by Copernicus and upending the Church’s long-held belief in the Ptolemaic (or geocentric) model of the universe, with the Earth at the center and all other heavenly bodies revolving around it.

Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei, center) and the cast of “Galileo: A Rock Musical”, making its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Galileo did his work with the encouragement of his friend, Bishop Maffeo Barberini (Jeremy Kushnier), a liberal, forward-thinking clergyman who later rose through the clerical ranks to become Pope Urban VIII, head of the church and the nation of Italy. Galileo’s promotion of a heliocentric model of the known universe was a threat to the hegemony of the church, then suffering a rebellion by Protestants in Germany and elsewhere. He was accused of heresy and only his long relationship with the pope and his forced recantation saved him from a death sentence. He spent the remainder of his life under house arrest and published other treatises but never again ventured into astronomy.

That’s the synopsis of the core story of this spectacular musical, certainly one of the most original and audacious large-scale productions to come along in years. It’s magnificent in every respect. Rachel Hauck’s enormous, elegant set couldn’t be better or more appropriate, nor could Anita Yavich’s costumes or the adroit, athletic large-cast choreography by David Neumann.

Ticket buyers are encouraged to engage in as much research as they can to fill in potential blanks, but even those going in cold and knowing little about the historical facts will be astounded. Music director Roberto Sihha gets the utmost from Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak’s hard-rock music thanks to a terrific eight-piece band and superb sound design by John Shivers.

Christian Magby (Alessandro Tarantola) and Madalynn Mathews (Virginia Galilei) in the world premiere of “Galileo” at Berkeley Rep. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Esparza is a tremendous singer and convincing actor, as is Madalynn Mattews as Galileo’s daughter Virginia. She’s a powerful and evocative pop-rock singer. The show’s secondary plot about her life is compelling on its own. Kushnier’s high tenor—venturing here and there into falsetto—is very effective too.

In recent years, the use of high-brightness/high-definition projections has been a revolution in live theater. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Galileo. We first see the night sky as if through the unaided eye, then thousands more stars as if through the telescope—a phenomenon dismissed as a trick by some of Galileo’s inquisitors. One of them mocks the effect, saying “He has crystals in his device to make it look that way.“ Others refuse to look through it at all, deeming it a devilish invention. The band of red-robed cardinals and bishops stand high on a parapet during his trial, chanting “faith, faith, faith” like an evangelical mantra.

Jeremy Kushnier (Bishop Maffeo Barberini) and Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei) in “Galileo: A Rock Musical”, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre now through June 23, 2024. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The creators and cast of Galileo are clearly against blind adherence to religious doctrine. That’s all to the good; the show falters only in not better mining some emotional nuances, such as Galileo’s personal struggle with renouncing his discoveries vs. saving his life. It also skims the thorny issue of his former friend abandoning rationality and personal loyalty in favor of political expediency.

But these are minor quibbles. Galileo is one of the greatest productions that any of us may ever see. It’s destined for Broadway, where it will likely run forever, and justifiably so. It’s a work of collaborative genius.

Not to give anything away, but the closing moment when the cast comes onstage is a poignant reminder that issues of reason vs. faith are still very much with us today. We have legislators, policymakers, and many others with strong influence, who are adamant science deniers. Even today, in an age of space exploration, organ transplants, and ultra-high technology, true believers will say “Science is Satan’s way of deceiving you.” Keep that in mind when you enter the world of Galileo.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionGalileo: A Rock Musical
Written by Danny Strong

Music and Lyrics by Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak
Directed by Michael Mayer
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru June 23, 2024
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Tickets$29.50-$139
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK ASR! ~~ “Torch Song” – A Search for Love

By Cari Lynn Pace

Wikipedia defines a torch song as “a sentimental love song, typically one in which the singer laments an unrequited or lost love, either where one party is oblivious to the existence of the other, has moved on, or a romantic affair has affected the relationship.”

Harvey Fierstein adapted Torch Song from his original 1982 trilogy to sensitively expose what one gay man endures in his quest for love and belonging. Heavily infused with Fierstein’s wit and wisdom, it’s a thought-provoking glimpse into an alternative lifestyle, presented at Mill Valley’s Marin Theatre and directed by Evren Odcikin.

“…(a) thought-provoking glimpse into the universal urge for love …”

From above a dark stage, an invisible announcer intones, “Presenting Miss Virginia Ham.” A tall diva in drag (Dean Linnard as Arnold Beckoff) sashays into a spotlight and mimes a forgotten lovelorn song, milking it for laughs with exaggerated mannerisms.

Backstage, Arnold disrobes from his costume to share a rapid-fire soliloquy of his journey as a lovelorn drag queen. It’s been a rocky road, with Arnold’s mantle of hope always wrapped around him.

From L to R: Ed (Patrick Andrew Jones) and Laurel (Kina Kantor), Arnold (Dean Linnard) and Alan (Edric Young) in the “Fugue in a Nursery” portion of “Torch Song” at Marin Theatre, performing now through June 2, 2024. Photo credit: David Allen

Arnold is infatuated with a teacher, Ed, whose conflicting sexual preferences are convincingly channeled by Patrick Andrew Jones. Spurned by Ed, Arnold tries the seedy back rooms of anonymous sex. Dispirited, Arnold finds a handsome boy toy Alan (Edric Young). Arnold’s love fling ignites jealous sparks in Ed, without a satisfying result for either.

Ed and his new wife Laurel (Kina Kantor) have a hilarious repartee in a giant bed, sequentially populated by Arnold and Alan, then all four in every combination. The clever stage set is simple and superb at hiding the simulated sex acts.

From L to R: Ed (Patrick Andrew Jones) and Laurel (Kina Kantor), Arnold (Dean Linnard) and Alan (Edric Young) in the “Fugue “Torch Song” at Marin Theatre. Photo credit: David Allen

This reviewer found the scenes in Act I’s a tad long but the pacing was reinvigorated by Act II with its knockout stage set by Sarah Phykitt. Arnold’s apartment is now a haven for Ed, separated from his wife and still sorting out his life’s direction. They are joined by David (Joe Ayers) a rebellious young man adopted from the streets and now part of Arnold’s triad of family.

When Arnold’s mom Mrs. Beckoff (Nancy Carlin) shows up, the fur begins to fly. Mom thinks her gay son is not the best influence for a teenage boy. She lectures Arnold “David’s only been here six months and he’s already gay!” Arnold drolly replies “He came that way.”

From L to R: David (Joe Ayers) shows off his new look to Arnold (Dean Linnard) and Ed (Patrick Andrew Jones) in Marin Theatre’s “Torch Song.” Photo credit: David Allen

Mrs. Beckoff and Arnold are wary of one another, circling like two cats with claws. Mrs. Beckoff tries to accept Arnold’s unconventional lifestyle, urging “A conflict is never as permanent as a solution.” Despite a well-intended start, Arnold and Mrs. Beckoff have a knock-down battle. She spits out “You cheated me out of your life, and then you blame me for not being there.”

Fierstein’s acerbic witticisms continue to come fast and furiously in Act II. When Ed desperately seeks approval from Arnold, his reply is “Never fish for compliments in polluted waters.”

“Torch Song” is an eye-opening journey intended for adult audiences.

Kudos to Fierstein for this honest and thought-provoking glimpse into the universal urge for love.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. Contact: pacereports100@gmail.com

 

ProductionTorch Song
Written ByHarvey Fierstein
Directed byEvren Odcikin
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThru June 2nd, 2024
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$39.50-$65.50
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.0/5.0
Performance4.0/5.0
Script4.0/5.0
Stagecraft4.0/5.0
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES! - for ADULTS ONLY
Other Voices ...
"... the semi-autobiographical story of Harvey Fierstein’s TORCH SONG has you laughing, crying, and laughing to keep from crying. If it doesn’t reflect your own experience, it surely reflects the experiences of someone you know. It’s emotional, revelatory, cathartic, and honest."
RVArt Review
"... Fierstein really knows how to shape a scene and end it on a button ..."
TalkinBroadway.com
“Torch Song” has its moments of pure sitcom — there’s a protracted scene about the awfulness of Ed’s cooking — which you can only grin and bear. But it also incorporates shadows of tragedy, including a plot turn involving a brutal hate crime, that feel sadly topical."
The New York Times

PICK ASR! ~~ Surprising Stunner: Throckmorton’s “Fiddler on the Roof”

By Cari Lynn Pace

This timely and fact-based story of a Jewish village in 1905 Imperialist Russia is heartbreaking and hopeful. It’s a tale of young love that transcends bias and ignites sparks of idealism to challenge traditional thinking.

Fiddler on the Roof won awards with beloved songs like “Sunrise, Sunset” and “If I Were a Rich Man” when it debuted on Broadway 60 years ago. It became the longest-running musical for ten years. The superb production at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley is a must-see for many reasons.

“The superb production at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley is a must see…”

The massive cast of actors – an astonishing 50 biographies are in the program –acts, sings, and dances with precision and high spirits. There is so much talent that eleven leading roles are double-cast, so you might have to see the show twice.

The impressive stage work belies their youthful ages from grade school through high school. There are even a couple of veteran actors in the show. Perhaps it is the beards that fooled me? More likely, it is the eight weeks of rehearsal under director, producer and co-choreographer Rebecca Gilbert. Kudos also to co-choreographer Erin Gentry for the cast’s high-stepping energy.

“Fiddler on the Roof” plays at the Throckmorton Theatre.

It’s impressive how all this talent can fit on the Throckmorton stage. Set designers Steve Coleman and Jean-Paul LaRosee are wizards at their craft. When costume designer Lyre Allston adds her skills, the audience is immersed in the village of Anatevka with its determined residents.

Another highlight of this production is the nine-piece band under the alternating musical direction of Desiree Goyette and Noah Bossert. Taking place front and center, the music fills the house yet never overwhelms the songs, adding haunting melodies with the violins, clarinet, mandolin, accordion, and more.

As the classic story unfolds, Tevye, a poor milkman eking out a living, has five daughters and the responsibility of finding suitable husbands for them. Tradition commands the father must choose, giving his approval and blessing. Along with his wife Golde they face the village’s limited prospects of suitable mates, urged by the matchmaker Yente. The eldest daughters have their ideas of spouses, chafing at the tight rope of tradition until it snaps.

The cast at work in “Fiddler” on now at the Throckmorton.

The Russians are also tightening their territorial ropes, causing mayhem and upheaval against the settlement. The culmination of the harassment forces a resigned exodus from the village. This reviewer’s own father-in-law, born in the Ukraine during this period, supports the story’s sad basis in truth. The imagined Anatevka is like many other villages under duress today.

Don’t miss Fiddler on the Roof, an energetic show with belief in a hopeful future for all who are displaced.

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ASR Senior Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionFiddler on the Roof
Written byJoseph Stein
Directed byRebecca Gilbert
Music/Lyrics byJerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
Producing CompanyThrockmorton Theatre
Production DatesThru May 26th
Production Address142 Throckmorton, Mill Valley CA 94941
Websitehttp://www.throckmortontheatre.org/
Tickets$25-$30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK ASR! ~~ RVP’s Marvelous “The Book Club Play”

By Cari Lynn Pace

No sacred cows were spared for this bestseller! What a pleasure to see a clever new show brimming with witty dialogue and spot-on casting! Ross Valley Players has a winner with this comedy, ably directed by Mary Ann Rodgers, on a comfy living room set designed by Ron Krempetz and built by Michael Walraven.

“…a hilarious … slice of Americana.”

The Book Club Play is Karen Zacarias’ hilarious expose of another American staple: the book club. The author of multiple award-winning plays, Zacarias accurately and humorously captures social dis-harmony with blatantly biting truth.

Mark Vashro as Robert, Elena Wright as Ana in “The Book Club Play”.

Laughter is a hallmark of many of her plays’ continuing successes, and this one is no exception. The set-up of The Book Club Play reveals egocentric tensions and ridiculous banter when five friends gather to discuss their impressions of a recently read book. The kicker is that the entire evening meeting, a social connection, is filmed remotely by a camera. The participants have signed waivers acknowledging that their meeting is destined to be edited for a forthcoming documentary on book clubs. The documentary director is famous, so they are excited that their images might become an award-winning movie. Or maybe a play. Go figure!

No spoilers here, but one can guess that there are conversations and interactions that the participants reluctantly realize are taped by the all-seeing eye. Can these sections be expunged? And why does the famous unseen director refer to the filming as “juicy?”

The dialog is sharp and fast-paced. Many sacred cows are spared.

Elena Wright as Ana, Chiyako Nelson as Lily in RVP’s “The Book Club Play”

Nothing is safe from the camera’s eye…sex, idiocy, religion, gender, color, superiority, or class. It’s a cornucopia of hot topics on display as only a witty comedy writer can present. Laugh out loud, and enjoy the interaction tremendously. This reviewer certainly did!

RVP gathered the perfect mix of great actors for this show, starting with Elena Wright as Ana, the uptight, in-control organizer, and her husband Rob (Mark Vashro) as the one who would rather see the movie than read the book. Matthew Travisano, Jannely Calmell, and Chiyako Delores are the regulars who join them. Their facial expressions are worth the price of admission. Gabriel A. Ross joins in Act II as Alex, an interloper who provokes questions while being vetted for club admission.

Scene changes bring Marsha van Broek to the wing of the stage. She poses as various spoof characters, extrapolating topics the club members discuss. With a video screen and much laughter, it’s a clever way to darken the stage while keeping the audience entertained.

Make The Book Club Play your required reading—err, viewing—at the Barn Theater.

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ASR Senior Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionThe Book Club Play
Written byKaren Zacarias
Directed byMary Ann Rodgers
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru June 9th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Tickets$20-$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5.0
Performance4.5/5.0
Script4.5/5.0
Stagecraft4/5.0
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK ASR! ~~ Risk-Taking Exercises with “Extreme Acts”

By Susan Dunn

In San Francisco’s black-box Marsh Stage, two chairs and a table provide all the set needed for a fierce story about two performers who live mainly in their bodies and explore the heights and depths of audience risk-taking together. I was immediately struck by the almost wildcat energy and defiance of Sophia (Arwen Anderson), who plays Sophia, a woman supporting herself solely through performance art with audience engagement.

We begin peacefully enough. She has just come off one of her museum gigs, where the audience pays to sit across from her and gaze directly into her eyes for an hour. She describes how the experience transports and inspires both her and the other sitter. From there, her performance routines escalate rapidly into aggressive activity and physical danger.

” … Try Extreme Acts and be entertained by its acting and invention …”

The Table Challenge alters Sophia’s life. In this performance, a table is set with various items of pleasure, like a rose or perfume, and items of pain, like a thorn or pin or a gun. The audience is invited to interact with Sophia using any of the items on the table. She experiences sensations of both kinds depending on the audience member. She is physically pricked by one of them. Another takes and loads the gun. Her lover-to-be, Jasper (Johnny Moreno), rushes in from the audience, removes the gun, and saves Sophia from harm. Their subsequent love affair is extravagant, both physically and mentally, framing two people who obsess on the present through a filter of their individual childhood experiences.

From L to R: Arwen Anderson and Johnny Moreno star in the world premiere of “Extreme Acts,” written by Lynne Kaufman at The Marsh San Francisco May 11 – June 2, 2024.
Photo credit: David Allen

Extreme Acts is about taking risks, testing your ability to manage possible jeopardy, and succeeding in defying danger, isolation and pain of all kinds. It’s not for the faint of heart. Sophia is shaped by a mother who puts her in harm’s way and abandons her, while Jasper is driven by his desire to fly, to escape the security of the ground and to dare to defy gravity. As these two partner into a joint challenge of performance acts, it is clear that Sophia is physically more capable of withstanding some of her daredevil schemes. This culminates in an act of sitting across from each other, looking into each other’s eyes for 8 hours at a stretch, for 8 days. On the last day Jasper gets up from the chair, with his body is in physical rebellion, and abandons the performance, leaving her to her paying public.

Will these two lovers survive their acts and each other’s worlds? Hers, the physical mutilations and his, the flying escapes? Will their thoughts on family and normalcy ever mesh? This play succeeds on the great strength of the acting. It continually engages us in a fantastic narrative, in a barebones surrounding, with minimal costumes and props. As the battle of the sexes is so often fought in the minds of the players, the shift to the physical battleground is a refreshing slant. A final note has Sophia challenge the audience directly. It’s up for grabs whether this strategy works in the play but take the risk and see.

Try Extreme Acts and be entertained by its acting and invention. The authenticity of the actors demands kudos.

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Senior Reviewer Susan Dunn arrived in California from New York in 1991. Since then she’s been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionExtreme Acts
Written byLynne Kaufman
Directed byMolly Noble
Producing CompanyThe Marsh, San Francisco
Production DatesThru June 2nd
Production Address1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA, 94110
Website
https://themarsh.org
Telephone (415) 282-3055
Tickets$25-$100
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
ASR Pick?YES!

PICK ASR! ~~ Damilano Shines in “The Glass Menagerie”

By Cari Lynn Pace and Barry Willis

San Francisco Playhouse has launched an ambitious new production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which will run through June 15.

Set in a shabby apartment in St. Louis in the spring of 1939, on the verge of World War II, the classic mid-century family drama gets an unusual treatment by director Jeffrey Lo. Instead of an intimate or nearly claustrophobic setting, the Wingfield family residence is on a high open platform atop SFP’s famous turntable stage, a feature that worked supremely well in Guys and Dolls and Nollywood Dreams.

“… Susi Damilano … anchors this Glass Menagerie …”

Whether a rotating stage is appropriate for this production is a matter of personal opinion. Lo also has his actors sit stage-left and stage-right when they are not in a scene, like basketball players on the sidelines waiting to return to the game.

Tom (Jomar Tagatac), Jim (William Thomas Hodgson) and Amanda (Susi Damilano) toast to their meal in San Francisco Playhouse’s “The Glass Menagerie,” performing May 2 – June 15. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The Wingfields—matriarch Amanda (Susi Damilano), asocial daughter Laura (Nicole Javier), and disaffected son Tom (Jomar Tagatac)—struggle to survive in the wake of a long-ago departure by an unnamed father and husband, whose vandalized portrait presides over everything in the household. Behind it is a huge neon sign for the Paradise, a music club across the alley from the Wingfield apartment. The sign is beautiful, beckoning, and aspirational but we hear little music from the club.

Amanda is an aging Southern belle who has never let go of her glory days attending cotillions in the Mississippi delta, where she was courted by—in her memory—a seemingly endless procession of “gentlemen callers.” Laura is a high-school dropout with a limp, who pretends to be attending secretarial school while doing little more than wandering around town, playing old records on the family’s Victrola, or managing her collection of glass animal figurines—the “glass menagerie” of the show’s title.

Tom is a would-be writer toiling away in a shoe warehouse, and the tale’s narrator in Williams’ gorgeous prose. He and Laura both chafe under pressure from their mother, but Tom alone displays open rebellion, much of it self-defeating, such as spending money for the household’s monthly expenses on personal frivolities—including making his first payment for merchant mariners’ union dues.

Lo introduces Laura’s only gentleman caller, Tom’s co-worker Jim O’Connor (William Thomas Hodgson), immediately in the first scene, although he doesn’t appear in the drama until much later, when his tentative introduction to Laura appears promising but goes awry when he recognizes that the Wingfield family dysfunction isn’t to his liking.

Javier brings a weary lack of confidence to her character, but director Lo doesn’t give her much opportunity to mine Laura’s nuances. In the entire production, we don’t see her at the Victrola or playing with her glass collection until her encounter with Jim. Javier is underutilized in this production—she could contribute much more with directorial encouragement.

The set, in fact, doesn’t include a Victrola at all, but stage-right there’s an oddly-positioned 1980s-style record player—clearly not part of the Wingfield residence—to which Tom returns several times to cue up a 12” vinyl record, which also didn’t exist in 1939. The Glass Menagerie is what Williams called “a memory play,” so it’s possible that this gambit is a visual reference to a time in the future when Tom is recalling his past.

Amanda (Susi Damilano) is concerned for her children in San Francisco Playhouse’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Even so, it’s one of several anachronisms in the show. Another is the ultra-long cigarette that Tom habitually smokes, a product that didn’t hit the market until the 1980s. Jomar Tagatac is a fabulous actor with wonderful delivery. He appears frequently at most major SF and Bay Area theaters, but it’s a big leap of faith to accept him as a 20-something aspiring writer. He’s more like an uncle to Laura than a brother and former high-school classmate. Hodgson is also a talented prolific actor and nails the subtlety of the Jim O’Connor role, without bringing anything new.

But it’s Susi Damilano who anchors this Glass Menagerie. She absolutely shines in the role of Amanda, a character often portrayed as bitter, delusional, and manipulative—a fearsome harridan. Damilano turns this tradition on its head—yes, her Amanda exudes worry, frustration, annoyance, insistence, and pathos, but is also infused with love, whimsy, good humor, and self-awareness. Damilano mines hidden comedy in the Amanda role. She has always done great work, but she finds new depth is a character that other performers have been prodding for eighty-some years. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission. Brava!

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ASR Senior Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Glass Menagerie
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byJeffrey Lo
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru June 15ht
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK ASR! ~~ A Firehose of Neo-Romanticism: “Florencia en el Amazonas” at San José Opera

by Jeff Dunn

In one of Lisa Kleypas’ bestselling romance novels, the leading character Lillian, gives advice to her younger sister about the act of love: “You wouldn’t want to swoon, or you might miss something.” In Daniel Catán’s 1996 opera, resplendently on stage in San Jose on May 3rd, a long-unfashionable surge of romanticism floods out of mouths and instruments with the force of a firehose. A lot is missed in the process, but does it matter?

“… (this opera) …will flow far into the 21st century….”

Soaring Pucciniesque vocal lines, shimmering woodwinds out of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé augmented by marimbas, swashbuckling brass pronouncements recalling Wolfgang Korngold’s opera and film scores–all of these inundate the audience at considerable volume throughout Act 1 like the Amazon itself in flood. Only a few quieter moments allow much time for breathers until Act 2. But by that time, in spite of the over-intensity, I was beginning to realize I was experiencing a new masterpiece performed in a forgotten style: an opera where melody takes precedence over system, where music takes precedence over libretto, and, with thanks to Stage Director Crystal Manich, where librettos are respected and not mauled (i.e., regietheater).

Passengers (from left to right: Efraín Solís, Aléxa Anderson, Guadalupe Paz, and César Delgado) on the El Dorado riverboat play a rousing game of cards in the Bay Area premiere of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas,” presented by Opera San José. Photo credit: David Allen

Manich neatly summarizes the river-journey plot as the evolution of three kinds of love in three couples: “blossoming” (Arcadio & Rosalba), “rotting” (Alvaro and Paula) and “lost” (Florencia and the deceased Cristobal). The journey is mediated in the physical realm by the ship’s Captain (sympathetic bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian) and in the spiritual by deckhand Riolobo (warm baritone Ricardo José Rivera). Tenor César Delgado was a fine, youthful Alvaro; soprano Alexa Anderson a standout as Rosalba—I want to hear more from her ASAP. Baritone Efrain Solis and mezzo Guadalupe Paz were emotionally and musically on the money as the sniping couple Alvaro and Paula. And Elizabeth Caballero’s uplifting Florencia seemed like a gift from soprano heaven—her concluding aria melted all the plastic in the house.

Paula (Guadalupe Paz, left) and Alvaro (Efraín Solís, right) board the El Dorado riverboat to the Amazon and join Riolobo (Ricardo José Rivera, center) and the Captain (Vartan Gabrielian, upper right) in the Bay Area premiere of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas”. Photo credit: David Allen

This reviewer felt Liliana Duque-Piñeiro’s stage design was far superior to the recent Metropolitan opera’s overly abstract and distancing version. Its dangling jungle, like the music, was embracing rather than pictorial. The performance I attended was led by Assistant Conductor Johannes Löhner, who did passionate justice to the 30-pound score. As he put it in a subsequent interview:

“I will die on any hill for this score … The orchestration, it’s massive. … It’s like Puccini meets [Richard] Strauss, but it never feels plagiarized. It always feels genuine. It comes from the heart.”

I blame Catán, not him, for the music that made an iguana in an early scene sound like a brontosaurus.

I predict that Florencia en el Amazonas, with its voluptuous river of sound, will flow far into the 21st century.

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ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor Jeff Dunn is a retired educator and project manager who’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera, Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs

ProductionFlorencia en el Amazonas
Libretto byMarcela Fuentes-Berain
Stage DirectionCrystal Manich
Producing CompanyOpera San Jose
Production DatesThru May 5th
Production AddressCalifornia Theater -
345 S First St, San Jose, CA 95113
Websitewww.operasj.org
Telephone(408) 437-4450
Tickets$50- $175
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Music4.5/5
Libretto4.0/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Benicia Theatre Group’s Superb “Blithe Spirit”

By Denise Armistead

The B.D.E.S. Hall at 140 West J Street in Benicia may seem an unlikely place for a play involving a séance, but under Clinton Vidal’s skillful direction, the Benicia Theatre Group’s production of Noël Coward’s 1941 Blithe Spirit is a fun romp about the perils of long-term commitment, perfectly suiting the historic hall’s stage.

Coward’s hero, Charles Condomine, performed with adroit comic skill by Matt Cardigan-Smith, is a popular novelist who feels spooked by his past. Married to his second wife, the super-rational Ruth, played by Jenny Rastegar, who lends Ruth an air of steely ferocity, Charles holds a seance to research a thriller he’s writing about a homicidal medium.

“… a truly enjoyable production! …”

He invites a couple to the affair: Mrs. Bradman (Paige Whitney-White) and her husband, Dr. Bradman (Patrick Kenney). Whitney-White gracefully embodies her role of a properly skeptical British wife, while Kenney brings an air of medical professionalism to his character, although to this reviewer’s ear his British accent seemed a bit absent during the second act. The séance is led by a local medium, the bicycle-riding, cucumber sandwich-eating Madame Arcati (Donna Turner).

The jokey experiment causes marital mayhem when Charles finds his first wife, Elvira, portrayed by the alluringly beautiful Kelsey Bye, has suddenly materialized. Madame Arcati takes her trade seriously, and is delighted at her unexpected success at raising a spirit, even if only Charles can see her. What follows is a ghostly variation on the eternal triangle, with Charles torn between two equally demanding women, Elvira and Ruth.

Donna Turner as Madame Arcati does a lovely job of displaying hearty enthusiasm and finally genuine dismay when she learns she was summoned under false pretenses. Brittany Kamerschen rounds out the cast as Edith, the excitable maid.

Brian Hough’s handsome living room set becomes a character in itself, imploding impressively as the unquiet spirits settle in. Altogether, a truly enjoyable production!

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Senior Reviewer Denise Armistead of St. Helena, has long enjoyed live theatre. Denise began writing reviews of local productions, and eventually made her way into the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, where she is delighted to find a home. Her goal to see as many productions as she possibly can. Contact: denise@armistead.com

ProductionBlithe Spirit
Written byNoel Coward
Directed byClinton Vidal
Producing CompanyBenicia Theatre Group
Production DatesThru May 12th
Production AddressBDES Hall, 140 J St., Benicia
Websitebeniciatheatregroup.org
Telephone (707) 746-1269
Tickets$26

ASR Theater ~~ Lamplighters’ Delightfully Baffling Interactive “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”

By Jeff Dunn

The best way to enjoy Lamplighters’ production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is not to be embarrassed by making a fool of yourself.

Why? Because 19 actors will be wandering around in the audience from time to time. Sooner or later, they will be in your face begging you to boo and hiss at them, clap and cheer for them, and even … think this coming November … vote for them. Do this, and you’ll help recreate the heady atmosphere that reigned for generations in British music halls—until alcohol was banned in them starting in 1914.

“…Brett Strader’s first-rate music direction is a pleasure …”

Edwin Drood disappears in Charles Dickens’ last novel, confounding the book’s other characters and readers as well. The novel was published in installments, but Dickens died suddenly after only half of them were written. Only Dickens knew how it was to end, though some hints were given to a friend of his.

Rupert Holmes wrote the book, lyrics, and music for this musical version, which premiered on Broadway in December 1985. To add levity to the rather dismal original, Holmes placed the mystery as a play about Drood presented in a Victorian/Edwardian music hall with actors who love to interact with the audience.

Jill Wagoner does a great job as the lead actor (“Chairwoman”) explaining to the audience that they are to vote for possible conclusions to Dickens’ work, and even choose Drood’s murderer (if he indeed was murdered). The actors immediately fly into the audience, vying for attention and audience-members’ votes, to be collected in Act 2.

The Cast at work for “The Lamplighters”. Photo by by Joe Giammarco.

The play then proceeds, but with the actors periodically breaking the fourth wall as livelier Victorian actor personalities with their own hopes and dreams, vs. their more dour Dickens roles. The three levels—21st-century actor, Victorian/Edwardian music-hall actor, and Dickensian character can get a tad confusing at times. (I found myself going back and forth between my 21st-century program and the Victorian/Edwardian “Dramatis Personae” handout to keep a handle on who’s who.)

Among the many cast members, Nathanael Fleming does a great job as the unstable and unseemly Jekyll/Hyde Jasper. Natalia Hulse exploits her lovely light, child-like soprano as Rosa, Jasper’s ward and music student. The song he forces her to learn, “Moonfall,” is the best in the show, with creepy lyrics oozing harmonies worthy of 1986’s Phantom of the Opera. Wayne Wong’s comic talents grab the audience as he portrays the  “slosh”buckling alcoholic, Durdles. And Noah Evans delightfully overacts as the minor character Bazzard, who hopes for a better role by upstaging fellow cast members. Peter Crompton’s attractive set design provides the right milieu, and Brett Strader’s first-rate music direction is a pleasure.

Peter Crompton’s set designs set the right milieu. Photo by by Joe Giammarco.

The entire ensemble under M. Jane Erwin’s direction does its best to entertain over the nearly three-hour duration of the show. If you attend, make the most of it by challenging them to stay in character when they approach you and demand your vote. Later, they will line up for you in the lobby, where you can ask them what they think really happened to Edwin Drood.

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ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor Jeff Dunn is a retired educator and project manager who’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera, Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

ProductionThe Mystery of Edwin Drood
Written byRupert Holmes
Directed byM. Jane Erwin
Producing CompanyLamplighters Music Theatre Co.
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressPresidio Fine Arts Center 99 Moraga Ave SF 94129
Websitewww.lamplighters.org
Telephone
(415) 392-4400
Tickets$65-$80 with Discounts available.
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Book/Lyrics3.5/5
Music3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

Pick ASR!  ~~ “The Wind in the Willows” the Musical: Classic Children’s Story is Fun for All

By Cari Lynn Pace

 Want to watch a friendly rat give a boat ride to a timid mole? In this charming tale of forest creatures and friendship, Spreckels Theatre assembled a talented cast of nineteen. Many are well-known veterans of Bay Area stages. Director Sheri Lee Miller wisely lets these pros have a blast with their roles, and the show is a winner for it.

“…these pros have a blast with their roles, and the show is a winner for it.” 

It’s spring, and the woods are jumping with singing animals in colorful costumes designed by Donnie Frank. It’s not entirely clear which animal is which, but they’re having a joyful party in the leafy glade.

Sean O’Brien takes the central role of Mole, befriended by Nelson Brown as Rat. They strike up a friendship and are entreated to help Mrs. Otter (Molly Larsen-Shine) track down her headstrong daughter Portia (Nicole Stanley).

Into their midst zooms Toad (Tim Setzer), as green as a toad should be, on a low-riding tricycle or some such vehicle. The youthful audience screams their delight. The always-delightful Setzer is over-the-top and steals every scene, which any respectable toad will do. Toad is addicted to fast motorcars, his or anyone else’s. He nabs a sports car, and that lands him in court.

“Wind In The Willows” cast at work.

Meanwhile, in the dark wild woods, a jumping Weasel – kudos to the athleticism of Keene Hudson – hungers to take over Toad’s castle, Toad Hall. Weasel and his minions can only be thwarted by Badger, a commanding role by Mary Gannon Graham. Rat and Mole seek her out and beg her to chase out Weasel and the squatters and help stop Toad’s need for speed. Will she do it for her friends?

The Wind in the Willows delivers songs with clever lyrics, although this reviewer found some of the lyrics a bit difficult to hear clearly, due to the twelve-piece orchestra directed by Lucas Sherman. Scene changes happen smoothly with superb visuals using the rear-screen projection so beloved by the Spreckels audience. Karen Miles choreographed dances that the animals, err, actors happily perform. The entire cast seem to have as much fun in this adventure as the audience does.

All singing, all dancing when the wind is “In The Willows” at Spreckels Theatre.

The Wind in the Willows overflows with fantasy and energy. Perfect for young and old, it’s a giant-scale school musical by adults pretending to be animals. As the audience exited, one mom said to her child “You did very well—you sat through your first live show.” The child answered simply “I liked it.”  Spreckels offers special $10 tickets for patrons  18 and under.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionThe Wind in the Willows
Written byJulian Fellowes, based on the book by Kenneth Grahame
Music and Lyrics byGeorge Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Theatre Co.
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$10 for 18 & under, $20 adult
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick ASR!  Palo Alto Players’ Tender, Pastel Version of “The Music Man”

By Joanne Engelhardt

If you’re at least 50, it’s likely you’ve seen The Music Man several times over the years. Meredith Willson both wrote and produced it the 1957 Broadway hit, a portrait of the fictional town of River City, Iowa. It won five Tony Awards that year.

Five years later, it was made into a wildly popular film adaptation starring Robert Preston, Buddy Hackett, Ron Howard, and Shirley Jones. Of course, it’s been a mainstay of community theatre companies everywhere since then. Many theater fans consider The Music Man the greatest piece of Americana ever written.

“… sure to resonate with audiences of all ages …”

Because of its wholesomeness and down-home characters, the musical still draws in adults who remember the movie, as well as young people seeing it for the very first time.

Photo by Scott Lasky — Harold Hill (Alex Perez) convinces the citizens of River City, Iowa that the presence of a pool table in town is trouble in THE MUSIC MAN at Palo Alto Players.

Palo Alto Players’ current rendition of the predictably sweet story doesn’t disappoint. That said, on opening night, this reviewer believed that “Professor” Harold Hill (a charming Alex Perez) spoke and sang perhaps a tad softly (maybe because he has a lot of songs to sing and words to speak).

The Music Man’s first scene is a classic – and PAP’s version is a winner. Aboard a train heading to River City, a number of traveling salesmen are debating whether they are becoming a dying breed thanks to modern technology.  One has to posit that it’s a difficult scene to do well, because all the men on the train have to sway and bounce in precise harmony! (They performed flawlessly on opening night.)

The last man to get off the train in River City turns out to be Hill himself, who’s decided it’s the perfect town for him to do his special kind of “sales” (Spoiler Alert: he’s a con man.) And so he promises to form a children’s marching band and gets parents to pony up for musical instruments as well as band uniforms. Then, after collecting the money, Hill plans to skip town and head to another to sell his spiel. Of course, he always likes to woo a lady or two wherever he goes, but things in River City don’t exactly turn out the way the professor expects.

There are several excellent performances in PAP’s production, not least of which is Gabrielle McColgan as Mrs. Paroo, whose daughter Marian (Alicia Teeter), is the town’s librarian and the object of Harold Hill’s affection. Both McColgan and Teeter have two of the loveliest voices in this show.

Photo by Scott Lasky — Pictured: Winthrop Paroo (Russell Nakagawa, who alternates the role with Henry Champlin) sees the Wells Fargo Wagon coming down the road in THE MUSIC MAN, Meredith Willson’s six-time, Tony Award-winning musical comedy.

Other standouts include Sheridan Stewart, who plays the town mayor’s oldest daughter, Zaneeta, with Andrew Mo as bad boy Tommy Djilas, and Russell Nakagawa playing Winthrop Paroo. (Nakagawa shares his role with Henry Champlin.) On opening night Nakagawa was wildly applauded as he proudly sang his second-act song, “Gary, Indiana.”

One of the “inside jokes” in The Music Man is that the four men who serve on the school board can’t stand each other. Yet they suddenly turn into a barbershop quartet thanks to Prof. Hill recognizing that their voices blend perfectly as parts of the quartet. Together with Hill they sing “Ice Cream” and “Sincere.” Later they again join up with Hill (and Marian) to sing “Lida Rose” and “Will I Ever Tell You,” in beautiful harmony.

Director Lee Ann Payne has her hands full trying to corral this large cast of more than 30. She also choreographed the large dance numbers, among the best parts of Music Man.

The show has at least seven full-cast dance numbers for which costume designer Katie Strawn dressed the young girls in an adorable rainbow of pastel dresses. Strawn had much-needed assistance by a crew of seamstresses for all the outfits needed for the production’s big cast. Live music emanated from the pit in front of the stage, thanks to a skilled group of musicians led by music director/conductor Tony Gaitan.

Photo by Scott Lasky — The Pick-a-Little ladies of River City practice their dance presentation for the town’s Ice Cream Sociable in THE MUSIC MAN at PAP.

No review of The Music Man is complete without mention of the “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” ladies lead by the rubber-faced Linda Piccone as the mayor’s wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. It’s fun to watch as she herds her ladies into Grecian urn poses in their oversized black-and-white bathing suits.

This reviewer wondered why Drew Benjamin Jones (as anvil salesman Charlie Cowell) rushes his lines, and constantly wears a mean, vindictive scowl? As Harold Hill’s old sidekick, Marcellus, Dane Lentz at first seems ill at ease, although he does a credible job when he joins Perez singing and dancing “The Sadder by Wiser Girl.”

PAP’s artistic director Patrick Klein (and scenic designer for the show) created several set pieces that have the original look-and-feel of a little midwestern town. Angela Young is spot-on as sound designer; Chris Beer’s lighting works well.

Overall, PAP’s The Music Man is sure to resonate with audiences of all ages.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionThe Music Man
Written by Meredith Willson
Directed byLee Ann Payne
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru May 12th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$35-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.25/5
Performance4.25/5
Script4.50/5
Stagecraft4.25/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK ASR! ~~ Hillbarn Theatre’s Superb “Something Rotten”

By Joanne Engelhardt

There is unequivocally nothing rotten in Hillbarn Theatre’s enchanting rendition of Something Rotten, running through May 12 at the Foster City theater. The sold-out crowd on opening night showed the hard-working cast their love by standing up and awarding them a prolonged round of applause.

For this musical, it helps to have seen many other Broadway musicals, because references to hit songs from Annie, Beauty and the Beast, A Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera, and more are sprinkled throughout the production.

Playwrights John O’Farrell, Karey, and Wayne Kirkpatrick obviously used their theatrical backgrounds in writing Rotten and bringing it to Broadway in 2015. The show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including “Best Musical,” and earned one.

For the Hillbarn production, director Randy O’Hara rounded up a talented cast of 21 performers who all act, sing, and dance—and here’s a plus: there are even a few tap numbers!

Jill Jacobs and Nigel Bottom in “Something Rotten” at the Hillbarn. Photo courtesy Tracy Martin.

In his pre-show speech, artistic director Stephen Muterspaugh joked that it took three Hillbarn artistic directors to bring Rotten to Penninsula/South Bay audiences: himself, O’Hara, who was his predecessor, and Dan Demers, the company’s artistic director from 2011 to 2021. Demers has returned to play Brother Jeremiah in Rotten, with the audience applauding loudly when he made his first entrance.

As the lights dim and pixyish Jon Gary Harris enters, wearing a flashy costume and big pink hat as The Minstrel, singing and playing a tune. The magic begins. Quickly the entire cast walks onstage to sing the opening number “Welcome to the Renaissance.”

The crux of the story is that the two Bottom brothers, Nick (a sensational Brandon Savage) and Nigel (a sweetly charming Andrew Cope) are trying to come up with an idea for a play to counterprogram anything Will Shakespeare might be writing. They are desperate for an idea, a backer and some good actors.

Because the Bard has just produced Richard III, the Bottoms decide to write a play about Richard II. Then someone tells them that Shakespeare is now working on a Richard II. “What?” screams Nick: “Who goes backwards??” That results in the play’s second song: “God, I Hate Shakespeare” sung by Nick.

Nick is desperate to put on a money-making play—especially when his wife, Bea (Melissa Wolfklain) tells him he’s going to be a father. He enlists the help of the famous soothsayer, Nostradamus (an electrifying Caitlin Beanan). She agrees to help him come up with a great topic for a play–of course, extracting money from him for that little favor.

(L-R) Melissa W., Brandon S., Julio C., Jill J., and Andrew C. from “Something Rotten” at Hillbarn Theater. Photo courtesy: Tracy Martin.

Beanan practically steals the show as she gestures/cogitates/imagines what Nick’s play will be about. Using her magic powers, she tells him that he should make a musical. Up until that time apparently, plays were either comedies or tragedies. No one had ever included music in a play, let alone have actors sing words rather than speak them.

She then uses her magical powers to conjure up what the musical should be about. “It’s something about an egg—and maybe ham—Danish ham” she says, before finally blurting out “Omelet!” Nick doesn’t think it’s a good play topic but he follows her lead because the first idea he had, a musical about the Black Death, was a total flop. Later, when Shakespeare announces he’s written a play about a melancholy Dane named Hamlet, Nostradamus snaps her fingers and says, “Oh! So close!” (“Omelet,” “Hamlet” – get it?)

There are so many terrific performances in Rotten that it’s difficult to single out all of them. Julio Chavez is a delightfully over-the-top Shakespeare who with the swagger and costumes of Elvis, immodestly sings “Will Power” and “It’s Hard to Be the Bard” with a roguish smile.

Demers plays the firebrand preacher Brother Jeremiah who refuses to let his daughter, Portia, get near heathens such as the two Bottom brothers. But Nigel and Portia fall in love nonetheless, brought together by the fact that he writes beautiful sonnets (poems) and she loves reading poetry.

Nick Bolton and Nigel Bottom at work at Hillbarn. Courtesy Tracy Martin.

Then there’s the Jew, Shylock, well played by Jason Nunan. At the time, laws didn’t allow people to employ Jews, so Nick refuses his money. Later, after having no money left of his own, he relents and accepts the Jew’s backing.

Hunter B. Jameson gets credit for creating the flexible, quick-change scenic design. Long-time Hillbarn costume designer Pamela Lampkin must have had a mighty crew to help her create the many costumes needed for the 29-member cast, with several actors playing three or four roles.

Somehow the audience knows that by the end of Rotten, all’s well that ends well” as the Bard himself famously wrote! Muterspaugh said he and the play’s production staff decided against a live orchestra for this show. “Given the amount of dancing in the show, this gave the creative team and cast access to the musical tracks during the entire rehearsal process and allowed them to work out exact timing.”

That was obviously the right choice because Hillbarn’s Something Rotten is something irresistible. The show has even garnered a “Go See” recommendation from the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle! Get tickets soon before they sell out.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionSomething Rotten
Written byJohn O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick
Music & Lyrics byKarey and Wayne Kirkpatrick
Directed byRandy O’Hara
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru May 12th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4.50/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK ASR! ~~ Fine Cast in Pear Theatre’s Episodic “The Chinese Lady”

By Joanne Engelhardt

The very first thing that strikes the eye when sitting down in your seat for The Pear Theatre’s The Chinese Lady is the lush gold satin curtain that encircles the small circular stage.

Written by Lloyd Suh, the son of South Korean immigrants who grew up near Indianapolis, this 90-minute play tells the story of Afong, who has been treated all her life as a beautiful, delicate toy, something to admire from afar. The other character, Atung, is basically “irrelevant”—at least if you believe Afong’s opinion of him.

” … It’s definitely worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time …”

This production, running through May 12 in Mountain View, is playing in repertory with Love Letters by A. R. Gurney. Both productions are directed by Wynne Chan, who does a credible job of attempting to help audiences understand the plight of women like Afong, who was sent to New York in 1934 to appear on stage—more as a novelty or curiosity than anything else.

Each of the roles is shared by two actors, but for the purpose of this review, Eiko Moon-Yamamoto plays Afong and Joseph Alvarado plays Atung. Both are excellent. Sharing the two roles for other performances are Joann Wu and Daniel Cai.

This reviewer found that the play itself at times is rather a challenge to understand, despite the fact that every time the satin curtain is drawn and then opened again, Afong tells the audience how old she is and what year it is. Afong’s poignant storyline begins in 1894 when she explains that she’s the first Asian woman to ever arrive from the “Orient.”

 

Eiko Moon-Yamamoto in “The Chinese Lady” at The Pear. Courtesy of The Pear Theater.

“Everyone’s curious about the Chinese lady,” she remembers. It cost 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children to see her. “The first thing they look at are my feet. I have to be coy and charming and show the way of eating with chopsticks.” Then she adds: “Forks are violent! Chopsticks are elegant.”

After the curtain twirls around, Afong is now 16 years old. This continues, but as the years go by, Afong realizes that on the social pecking order she is considered a carnival act or freak show. Eventually the entrepreneur who sponsors her raises ticket prices to 75 cents. “I demand more!” she says.

By the time she’s 29 years old, Afong feels she is losing the “ring of the Cantonese language.” Eventually she’s sold off to P.T. Barnum where she once again becomes a sideshow act.

Afong grows so tired of the whole “entertainment” business that she makes up her mind to retire. Yet, does she have any skills or abilities to help her earn a living? She has read newspapers and realizes that “the Chinese were perfect for doing the hard work for building a railroad. But once it was built, they are told: ‘You are irrelevant.’ ”

 

The cast of “The Chinese Lady” at work. Courtesy of The Pear Theater.

The poignant play ends in the year 2024. Obviously Afong isn’t still alive, but perhaps one of her descendants tells the audience to “take the time to really look at each other. Then we’ll be understood.”

Though this review doesn’t make much mention of the Atung role, he is nevertheless more than just a curtain turner. He, too, is caught in the same predicament as Afong. He has never learned how to earn a living, nor does he have any skills. He’s just one of many Chinese who worked hard all his life but earned little.

“… Suh wrote ‘The Chinese Lady’ six years ago, yet it’s perhaps more relevant today than ever …”

Sharon Peng’s costumes are authentic to the period, and the rounded two-step stage created by Louis Stone-Collonge feels just right. Sonya Wong’s lighting is excellent, and original compositions by Howard Ho are appropriate. It seems logical that a play such as this would have a history and cultural consultant, a role filled by Patrick Chew.

One projects that what Suh hoped to do by writing this play is to help today’s audiences reexamine their own feelings about Asian-American and Pacific Island people. It’s definitely worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time to relive Afong’s life and consider it in the context of 2024.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionThe Chinese Lady
Written byLloyd Suh
Directed byWynne Chan
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru May 12th
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$38-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.25/5.00
Performance4.25/5.00
Script4.00/5.00
Stagecraft4.25/5.00
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK ASR! Audacious and Confounding: ACT’s “A Strange Loop”

By Barry Willis

A would-be creator of musical theater named Usher wrestles with his demons in Michael R. Jackson’s one-act musical fantasy A Strange Loop. The West Coast premiere of the seven-actor, no-intermission, nearly two-hour production runs at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater through May 12.

A poorly paid young theater usher (Malachi McCaskill) is the only character with a name in Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning script. The others are called “Thought 1,” “Thought 2,” etc., because they exist only in the protagonist’s mind.

(front) Malachi McCaskill (Usher) with (L-R) Jordan Barbour (Thought 5), Avionce Hoyles (Thought 3), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), and J. Cameron Barnett (Thought 2) in “A Strange Loop”, performing at A.C.T. Photo credit: Alessandra Mello

His demons include profoundly obsessive issues about family, culture, identity, body image, loneliness, sexuality, and ambition. In various combinations, they’re all eating away at him. It’s a wonder he can function.

Strange Loop is certainly challenging and transgressive …

Sharply directed by Stephen Brackett, A Strange Loop opens with an explanation by Usher of the significance of the show’s title: a concept of the self, put forth by cognitive researcher Douglas Hofstadter about the human ability to perceive ourselves. We begin at one point, wander about in a miasma of fantasies, remembrances, and hall-of-mirrors self-concepts, then ultimately return to where we started—an interpretation of life as an exhaustive exercise on a closed-loop obstacle course.

Usher spends his work hours escorting theater fans to their seats at the perpetual Broadway show The Lion King, and his remaining time dreaming about writing his own musical theater blockbuster. Owner of both keyboard and computer, Usher carries with him a little notepad on which he jots down ideas, but when he sits at his desk he accomplishes little more than self-pity. He has many concepts—most of which play out very effectively on ACT’s stage—but no all-encompassing scheme to put them together.

(L-R): Avionce Hoyles (Thought 3), Jordan Barbour (Thought 5), J. Cameron Barnett (Thought 2), Tarra Conner Jones (Thought 1), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), and Jamari Johnson Williams (Thought 6) in “A Strange Loop” Photo credit: Alessandra Mello

What we get, rather than a traditional beginning-middle-ending storyline, is a hodgepodge of Usher’s imaginings, from hilarious to horrific, all of them brilliantly delivered in rapid-fire succession on Arnulfo Maldonado’s astounding set. We get the show’s amazingly talented actors/singers/dancers as multiple and widely divergent characters, including not only garden-variety and exotic theater people, but promoters, advisors, gay men cruising for momentary hookups, and a huge array of black stereotypes, such as Usher’s aloof, beer-drinking father (Jordan Barbour) or his Bible-clutching mother (John-Andrew Morrison), who begs him to abandon his sinful lifestyle and return to the church.

There’s plenty of sly self-deprecating humor in Jackson’s tale, but the outstanding moment of confrontational comedy comes with a depiction of Usher’s slacker brother, clad in giant oversize basketball shorts, who lives rent-free with his ditzy girlfriend in the parents’ basement. It’s a moment out of The Jerry Springer Show.

(front) Malachi McCaskill (Usher) with Tarra Conner Jones (Thought 1), Jordan Barbour (Thought 5), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Avionce Hoyles (Thought 3), J. Cameron Barnett (Thought 2), and Jamari Johnson Williams (Thought 6) in A Strange Loop, performing at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater now through May 12, 2024. Photo credit: Alessandra Mello.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum is a scene where Usher reluctantly submits to an encounter with an overbearing older man, an encounter as painful and grim as a prison rape. When it’s over, Usher shuffles away in shame. He’s already mentioned that he’s not a particularly prolific gay man. If this is an example of his once-yearly erotic adventures, he’s a miserable soul indeed.

By far the highlight of A Strange Loop is the big-production gospel sendoff for departed cousin Darnell, a victim of HIV. The funeral is a conflation of Usher’s guilt, his experience growing up in the church, and the urgings of friends and theater promoters for him to create “a Tyler Perry musical.” Set designer Maldonado is at the top of his game with this creation, alone almost worth the price of admission. Clad in glittering choir robes, the supremely talented performers make it shimmer and shine.

(L-R): J. Cameron Barnett (Thought 2), Tarra Conner Jones (Thought 1), Jamari Johnson Williams (Thought 6), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Malachi McCaskill (Usher), Jordan Barbour (Thought 5), and Avionce Hoyles (Thought 3). Photo credit: Alessandra Mello

Some observers have opined that McCaskill’s voice is inadequate for the demands of the music, but his apparent vocal shortcomings actually reinforce the verity of Usher’s deep self-doubt. His less-than-assertive singing style is likely intentional.

In all his interactions with other characters, there’s only one positive note. Toward the end, Usher has a friendly chat with a rabid theater fan, a lady standing near the aisle with a souvenir poster of The Lion King. Among the many parts she plays in this show, the gifted Tarra Conner Jones provokes a warm response when she gives him heartfelt encouragement to pursue his dreams.

Does he follow her advice? That’s not made clear. In keeping with the show’s introductory remarks, we return to where we began. There’s no character arc in A Strange Loop.

After a long wild ride through the tormented mind of an insecure artist, we find that he’s exactly as he was when the tale began. It’s a ride that’s by turns audacious, confounding, annoying, offensive, beautiful, pointless, uplifting, depressing, poignant, amazing, and celebratory. Most importantly, it’s thought-provoking—and absolutely not recommended for children.

Among the most enduring clichés about contemporary art is the assertion that really effective pieces should be “challenging, transgressive, and transformative.” A Strange Loop is certainly challenging and transgressive. Is it transformative? That’s a purely personal assessment.

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionA Strange Loop
Written byMichael R. Jackson (book, music, and lyrics)
Directed byStephen Brackett
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough May 12th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 – $137
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3.0/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

PICK ASR! ~~ Another Take on “The Hello Girls:” A Sharp, Snappy Salute to Unsung Heroines

By Cari Lynn Pace

Writers Cara Reichel and Peter Mills dug deep to unearth this historically factual story from World War I. Mills added music and clever lyrics to propel The Hello Girls from the back offices of Bell Telephone to the battlefields of France. Sonoma Arts Live marshaled thirteen talented actors and musicians who recreate our forgotten heritage in a splendid show.

“…SAL…recreates forgotten heritage in a splendid show …”

Artistic Director Jaime Love notes “I had a stack of scripts from which to choose. “ The Hello Girls just fell out of the stack. I asked Maeve Smith if she thought we could do it. She said yes! Maeve then spent an entire year researching and meeting with descendants of these women and the Doughboy Foundation to perfect her gift of storytelling.”

And what a remarkable story it is!

From L to R) – Caroline Shen, Tina Traboulsi, Emily Evans, Sarah Lundstrom, Jenny Veilleux at work. Photo credit Oberlin Photography.

During WWI, communication in the field of battle was the lifeblood of the Army, but their skilled soldiers could not handle plug-and-cord switchboards fast and efficiently. General John J. Pershing put out the call to recruit telephone switchboard operators, all of whom were female one hundred years ago and lacked the right to vote. Hundreds of women volunteered to serve, learning French to enable them to work with our allies.

(From L to R) – Emily Evans, Sarah Lundstrom, Tina Traboulsi, Jenny Veilleux at SAL. Photo credit Oberlin Photography.

Jenny Veilleux commands The Hello Girls as Grace Banker. Her strong vocals and rapidly delivered lyrics are impressive, earning spontaneous applause. She’s joined by Tina Traboulsi, Sarah Lundstrom, Emily Owens Evans and Caroline Shen, who lend their fine voices in close harmonies that soar on wings. They could have led the way for the Andrews Sisters who followed years later.

Drew Bolander shares his powerful tenor voice bolstering his character Lt. Riser. He is ably joined by servicemen Skyler King, Phi Tran, Jonathen Blue, with Mike Pavone as General Pershing.

Jenny Veilleux in “The Hello Girls”. Photo credit Oberlin Photography.

The Sonoma Arts Live cast of The Hello Girls has a healthy dose of perseverance along with their talent. Traboulsi learned French from scratch, with a convincing accent, for her part as Louise. Shen broke her foot ten days before opening. Insisting she could carry on, scenes were adjusted to allow for Shen’s crutches and limited dance moves, as she continued to play the piano. Kudos to this show that goes on!

The voices, the music, the clever lyrics, the costumes and the acting chops…this is a superb show to salute.

March to it!

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews. Contact: pacereports100@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Hello Girls
Written byCara Reichel and Peter Mills
Music/Lyrics byPeter Mills
Directed byMaeve Smith
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru May 5th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.25/5
Performance4.25/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick ASR! ~~ Tender “Love Letters” Features Real-Life Partners

By Joanne Engelhardt

Such a simple set, yet by the time the Pear Theatre’s production of Love Letters ends, the show’s various actors (all but one couple are real-life partners) bring a tear or two to audience members. In the play, characters Andrew and Melissa love each other – but never at quite the same time. That’s what makes it so poignant.

The Pear’s Artistic Director, Sinjin Jones, came up with the novel idea of selecting different actors who are real-life couples to appear at each performance. Each duo is asked not to read the script ahead of time or do any research for their roles.

… The Pear definitely has a hit…

Playwright A.R. Gurney conceived Love Letters as a short novel in 1988 but later realized it made a better play. (He’s also written such well-known plays as Sylvia, The Dining Room, and The Cocktail Hour.)

Director Wynne Chan explained to each couple there would be no rehearsals. The actors don’t even see the set until they walk out to perform. The two enter from separate parts of the stage and each sits down at a desk, facing away from each other, with a white curtain serving as a barrier between them.

The first letter, written by Melissa, is sent to Andrew (Andy) when both are in the same second-grade classroom. “My parents are sending me to dancing school. Do you go to dancing school, too?” Andy scoffs at that, writing back that he’s supposed to take up sports – even though he doesn’t want to.

As they grow up together, they also recognize what different worlds they come from even though both are born into wealthy WASP families. They are trained from childhood to follow the customs of their class structure, but while Andy conforms, Melissa is something of a rebel. She sees her family as dysfunctional, which, she says, is like having no family. Andy’s family is more stable and he’s more conventional, so it’s likely Melissa’s rebellion is why he’s attracted to her.

Photo credit: Liz Edlund. From left: Robyn Ginsburg Braverman and Paul Braverman

Eventually, Andy goes to an all-boys school, and the two keep up their friendship by sending each other letters. He then gets into a prestigious men’s college. Melissa chides him by writing: “Going off with the boys again…” Later, the two begin calling each other rather than sending letters, but it’s not the same – and they both recognize the value of the written word.

One of the delights of doing this play without rehearsals is that occasionally, even the actors laugh at something they are saying – or laugh at what the other says in response.

If all of the actor couples who appear in Love Letters are as charming and enthralling as the Bravermans, The Pear definitely has a hit on its hands. Check out the schedule of which couple appears on which date on the theatre company’s website: www.thepear.org

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionLove Letters
Written byA.R. Gurney
Directed byWynne Chan
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru May 12th
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$38-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.50/5.00
Performance4.75/5.00
Script4.50/5.00
Stagecraft4.25/5.00
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

Pick ASR! ~~ History Lesson: “The Hello Girls” at SAL

By Barry Willis

A mostly unacknowledged contribution to victory in the First World War gets a nice up-close-and-personal examination in The Hello Girls, at Sonoma Arts Live through May 5.

Adroitly directed by Maeve Smith, the musical tale by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel explores the US Army’s recruitment of bilingual female switchboard operators for service near the front lines in France in the final years of the war. The Army had reached the quite reasonable conclusion that women were far more competent at the task than were the men who were trying to do the job.

Caroline Shen, Jenny Veilleux, Skyler King, Tina Traboulsi, Jonathen Blue, Emily Evans, Phi Tran, Sarah Lundstrom at Sonoma Arts Live. Photo credit Oberlin Photography.

The result was an all-female unit of the Army’s Signal Corps, or “America’s First Women Soldiers,” as the cover of the playbill has it. Jenny Veilleux stars as Grace Banker, a real historical figure, the first recruit, and the ultimate leader of a team of five operators. Banker’s teammates Suzanne Prevot, Helen Hill, Bertha Hunt, and Louise Le Breton, are endearingly portrayed by Sarah Lundstrom, Emily Owens Evans, Caroline Shen, and Tina Traboulsi, respectively. Traboulsi is especially entertaining as the only native French woman in the group. She also performs on guitar and clarinet. Evans doubles on violin.

The Hello Girls is a wonderful production on many levels …

Drew Bolander is compelling as Lt. Joseph Riser, tasked with recruiting and training the new operators. Skyler King, Jonathen Blue, and Phi Tran appear as assorted officers, enlisted men, and other characters, with veteran actor Mike Pavone in a convincing role as General John J. Pershing, who originated the initiative. Blue is the show’s choreographer and also performs on snare drum and keyboard, backed by a all-women band—Erica Dori and Elizbeth Dreyer Robertson on percussion, with Elaine Herrick on bass and cello.

There’s a whole lot of talent on the sparsely-decorated SAL stage, evocatively illuminated by lighting designer Frank Sarubbi. Without any hint of parody, Peter Mills’ songs are reminiscent of the WWI era while sounding quite contemporary, and are delivered with gusto by the cast. The larger story is simply and effectively conveyed, while sub-plots are also made clear, such as Le Breton’s being underage, or Lt. Riser’s challenges in attempting something new.

From L to R) – Caroline Shen, Tina Traboulsi, Emily Evans, Sarah Lundstrom, Jenny Veilleux at work. Photo credit Oberlin Photography.

The Hello Girls was produced with expert advisors. It’s a great example of both plausible historical fiction and onstage story-telling, with enough detail to make it realistic, such as the mention of the hellishness of sustained trench warfare. A brief but particularly poignant scene features Phi Tran as a German prisoner of war, spared when captured only because he spoke English. He states flatly that his comrades were killed as they tried to surrender—a reminder that in armed conflict, good guys and bad guys alike are capable of atrocities and war crimes.

Jenny Veilleux in “The Hello Girls”. Photo credit Oberlin Photography.

The larger historical context isn’t included in the story, but it’s one that might prove enlightening for potential ticket buyers. American public knowledge about World War I is shockingly scant. At its outbreak, most of the crown heads of Europe were cousins. They were incredibly suspicious and jealous of each other, leading to an arms race that ultimately consumed 20 million lives. The armistice that ended the war established conditions that led to WWII twenty years later, which in turn gave us the world we now inhabit.

The US Army’s 2,300 female telephone operators made an enormous contribution to the victory, but as we are reminded late in the play, the Veterans Administration refused to recognize them as anything other than “civilian contractors” although none of them had ever signed contracts. This insult was corrected decades later, when only 63 of them were still alive to receive benefits.

(From L to R) – Emily Evans, Sarah Lundstrom, Tina Traboulsi, Jenny Veilleux at SAL. Photo credit Oberlin Photography.

The Hello Girls is a wonderful production on many levels. Especially fitting is a post-show celebration of veterans in the audience, asked to stand and be recognized while the cast performs theme songs from all six branches of the US military. Both the show’s cast and these veterans deserve every bit of approval. Like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, it’s something that works for everyone regardless of where you land on the political spectrum.

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Hello Girls
Written byCara Reichel and Peter Mills
Music/Lyrics byPeter Mills
Directed byMaeve Smith
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru May 5th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Thornton Wilder’s Charming, Epic-Length “Skin of Our Teeth”

By Joanne Engelhardt

In a way, Los Altos Stage Company’s production of The Skin of Our Teeth is somewhat like a Ringling Brothers three-ring circus: It’s got woolly mammoths, it’s got an Atlantic City seductress, and it has an ice wall pushing down from Canada into New Jersey.

Thornton Wilder’s 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about as close to an allegory of the entire history of the world ever attempted on stage. It gets a decent, if “mammoth-sized”, production, thanks to the efforts of director Chris Reber, five strong actors, and an interesting scenic design enhanced by Reber’s creative projection touches.

… “An antic ode to human resilience…”

It’s difficult to describe Skin in a few words because just when it seems to be veering toward sheer fantasy, something akin to pathos pops up. And though attempts are made to modernize it (like adding a few visual sound bites from TMZ), some might think it shows its age.

 

In any case, as the play opens, a beleaguered Mr. Antrobus is making his way home during a full-blown blizzard, exhausted but exhilarated after a hard day at the office doing such things as dividing M and N as he invents the alphabet. (He’s also inventing the lever and the wheel … …)

Michael Hirsch plays Mr. Antrobus with authority and a bit of wonder, especially when it comes to his family. As Mrs. Antrobus, Mary Hill is a neurotic marvel. She pops and twirls around with motherly authority in period dresses that float around her thanks to lots of crinoline petticoats.

(L-R) Kristin Walter and Olga Molona at work.

But first it’s the ditzy maid Sabina (a delightful Kristin Walters) who commands the audience’s attention. Using her little feather duster, she flits around the stage dusting this, that and whatever suits her fancy, including other people. She tells anyone who will listen that she can no longer stand being the Antrobus family’s maid and she gives Mrs. A her two-weeks’ notice. “That’s the law!” she smirks. Sabina’s also the character who breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience and suggesting several times that a scene should be skipped. Irascible to the end, she guides us through the willful anachronisms of the play.  At one point, Mrs. A yells at Sabina because she (Sabina) apparently let the fire go out in the fireplace. Now, Mrs. A says, her family will freeze to death, so she sends Sabina out in the blizzard to gather more twigs.

Mary Hill and Michael Hirsch in “The Skin of Our Teeth”.

When Act 2 opens, the Antrobus family is now in Atlantic City on vacation and celebrating their 5,000th wedding anniversary. Mrs. A, carrying a purse large enough to hold a good-sized dog, says she’s delighted that her husband can enjoy a few days with the family and relax. He’s also there to give a speech and to announce the winner of the “Miss Atlantic City” beauty contest.

Turns out Kristin Walters (Sabina), now wearing a sexy bathing suit and cover-up, is the contest winner, and Mr. A is ready for a little extra-marital fling. Spoiler Alert: Mrs. A makes sure he doesn’t get the chance.

Four actors (LASC’s artistic director Gary Landis, Olga Molina, Patty Reinhart and Sam Kruger) play a number of ensemble roles. Molina stands out as the gypsy fortuneteller, and Landis is deadpan funny wearing a UPS uniform in short pants.

The Antrobus children, Henry (Max Mahle) and Gladys (a pert Emily Krayn) have very little stage time and only a few lines, so it’s difficult to judge their performances.

It’s likely most theatergoers will recognize that many of the things happening in the lives of the Antrobus family are still relevant today: Hoards of homeless people have nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat; a large poster states “Make Mammals Great Again,” and there’s a sequence where Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus attempt to herd various animals (some long extinct) into a ship (aka Noah’s Ark).

(L-R) Kristin Walter, Mary Hill, costumed Sam Kruger and Patty Reinhardt, and Gary Landis.

Kudos to Jonathan Covey for excellent sound,  to Aya Matsutomo for comprehensive lighting, Yusuke Soi for good scenic design, and Miranda Whipple’ for zany props (a gargantuan “A” is part of the Antrobus’ living room décor.)

However, the production team ‘s decision to combine Acts 2 and 3 into one “Act 2” (with only “one brief pause”), the play’s overall length (~2 hours and 45 minutes), and the play’s period dialog and sexual politics–might be a stretch for some modern audience members.

In the end, Skin is a rallying cry for a world that could use some reassurance that it will, despite everything, carry on — even if by “The Skin of Our Teeth.”

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionThe Skin of Our Teeth
Written byThornton Wilder
Directed byChris Reber
Producing CompanyLos Altos Stage Co.
Production DatesThru May 5th
Production Address97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos, CA
Websitelosaltosstage.org
Telephone650.941.0551
Tickets$22-$45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4.00/5
Script3.25/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-------

Pick ASR! ~~ “Hairspray” Rocks the Orpheum

By Barry Willis

A spunky teenager brings social justice to 1962 Baltimore in the uproarious comic musical Hairspray, at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater through April 21.

Directed by Matt Lenz, with choreography by Robbie Roby, the national touring production is the most recent incarnation of John Waters’ iconic 1988 film starring Ricki Lake as the irrepressible Tracy Turnblad, a chunky girl auditioning for a spot on The Corny Collins Show, a Baltimore teen music-and-dance show.

 … the huge cast are all simply tremendous. …

Her ambition grows from merely personal to societal when she pushes for inclusion of the black community, much to the dismay of her rival Amber Von Tussle and Amber’s manipulative mother Velma. In her efforts to do the right thing, Tracy runs afoul of local police and even the governor of Maryland, but emerges victorious.

“Hairspray” at the Orpheum in The City.

Social justice issues are often served best by comedy and humor. Likewise, bigots and oppressors are often best skewered the same way. Hairspray spares none of them in a two-and-a-half-hour kitsch extravaganza spoofing all that was both serious and ridiculous in the early 1960s.

The Orpheum production is swollen to bursting with world-class talent, starring Caroline Eiseman as Tracy, Andrew Scoggin as Corny Collins, Caroline Portner as Amber, Sarah Hayes as Velma, Skyler Sheilds as heartthrob crooner Link Larkin, Greg Kalafatas as Tracy’s mother Edna, Ralph Prentice Daniel as Tracy’s goofy dad Wilbur, Scarlett Jacques as Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton, and Josiah Rogers as Seaweed J. Stubbs. Diedre Lang astounds as Motormouth Maybelle, especially in her breakout solo song, and Micah Sauvageau is a comedic delight in multiple roles. Let’s not overlook soul-sister song-and-dance trio “The Dynamites” – Ashia Collins, Leiah Lewis, and Kynnedi Moryae Porter.

“Hairspray” cast at work.

The huge cast are all simply tremendous. So are sumptuous quick-change set designs, immersive projections, dazzling costumes, and the rock-solid band (music director Lizzie Webb) in the orchestra pit. The show couldn’t be more appropriate for San Francisco, whose eager fans on opening night loudly applauded every scene and gave the whole affair an extended standing ovation.

Deservedly so. Hairspray is an absolute joy.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionHairspray
Written ByJohn Waters
Directed byMatt Lenz
Choreographed byRobbie Roby
Producing CompanyBroadwaySF
Production DatesThrough April 21st
Production AddressThe Orpheum
1192 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://www.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$55-$161
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Pick ASR! “Birds and Balls:” Opera as Spectator Sport

By Jeff Dunn

Sports spectators usually take sides. So can opera composers—say, Puccini in that heavyweight match, Scarpia vs. Tosca. But what do composers do when an opera is a spectator sport taking place on stage?

On April 5th, Opera Parallèle provided two fascinating examples of sports opera and the “sides” promoted by two composers, David T. Little and Laura Karpman. Little took on an obscure Belgian bird-call competition called Vinkensport, and Karpman had a swing at exhibition tennis with the King/Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” match of 1973. Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel brilliantly collaborated with the composers to subsume Little’s opera into the 1973 ABC Wide World of Sports broadcast moderated by immoderate Howard Cosell. Parallèle publicized the combination cleverly as Birds and Balls.

 … I was happy to be a spectator …

The upshot was that Karpman’s sympathies (and librettist Gail Collins’) were with Billy Jean King, but the music was rooting for Riggs. In contrast, Little’s music and Royce Vavrek’s libretto were rooting for all the competition participants, especially the birds.

The evening began with Little’s 45-minute Vinkensport, or the Finch Opera, which premiered in 2010 and was revised in 2018. In it, six contestants with sticks sit in a line with their trained chaffinches in boxes and count each series of chirps their birds emit. (You can hear the sound at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COllwlh-jXo.)

Each count is supposed to be marked with chalk on the sticks; the trainer with the most counts at the time limit wins. Although sticks were present, no chalk marks were made, nor were calls heard, so audience members not reading up on the details of this bizarre activity were probably confused about the rules. The six contestants did sing a chorus depicting the calls and marks: “Susk-e-wiet, Susk-e-wiet, Susk-e-wiet, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tally.”

Courtesy of SF Chronicle.

Not that the contest itself mattered. Like the musical A Chorus Line, Vinkensport is really about the hearts and souls of the contestants. Each has a backstory and an attitude. These are absorbing, utterly human, and superbly conveyed by the libretto, projected videos, and especially, the rhythmic and orchestral variety found in Little’s music. A testament to the effectiveness of characterization is that the audience cares for the two cheaters of the six as much as for the four others: a sex-starved yet religious wife, a dutiful son who hates the sport, an alcoholic trophy wife, and a principled yet lonely man who ends the opera with a moving farewell to his bird, “Atticus Finch,” whom he releases to the skies after a decade of service.

In contrast to the depth of Vinkensport was the glitz and bang of the second opera Balls, a premiere which I suspect needs a bit more polish. In it, honoring of women’s political progress by the victory of Billie Jean King is undercut by the extended satire of Seventies styles and fashions, “Laugh-in” funny as they are. The over-the-top self-promotion by the Bobby Riggs character is accompanied by music with a disjointedness that seems undistinguishable from King’s music, which should convey a more steady and subdued determination. Rather than highlighting a Seventies moment in time, the opera contrarily includes the appearance of Susan B. Anthony in 19th-century dress. Perhaps this underlines women’s striving for progress and the continuing failure of the ERA to cap it today.

However these two operas fare in the future, either together or separately, I must vouch for the incredible job the entire Opera Parallèle team did in mounting them under Nicole Paiement’s and Brian Staufenbiel’s supervision and creative input.

All performers were outstanding, most especially Nathan Granner as both Hans Sachs’ cocaine-hypered trainer in Vinkensport and Bobby Riggs in Balls. David Murakami’s projections and Lawrence Dillon’s videos greatly enhanced the proceedings. The impressive Nikola Printz sang Billie Jean King. Jamie Chamberlin, Daniel Cilli, Chelsea Hollow, Shawnette Sulker, and Chung-Wai Soong wonderfully embodied their distinct Vinkensport characters.

Finally, Mark Hernandes did a fine job sporting Howard Cosell’s unique approach to English. And I was happy to be a spectator to the whole operation.

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 ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor Jeff Dunn is a retired educator and project manager who’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera, Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

Production"Birds" (Vinkensport) and Balls
Directed byBrian Staufenbiel
Producing CompanyOpera Parallèle
Production DatesThru April 7th
Production AddressSF Jazz Miner Auditorium 201 Franklin St, SF, CA 94102
Websitewww.operaparallele.org
Telephone(415) 392-4400
Tickets$40- $180
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5.0
Performance4.5/5.0
Music (Vinkensport)4.5/5.0
Music (Balls)3.5/5.0
Libretto (Vinkensport)4.5/5.0
Libretto (Balls)4.5/5.0
Stagecraft4.5/5.0
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

Pick ASR! ~~ Pain and Triumph: “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord”

By Barry Willis

Some have forgotten the horrors of 2020—the sudden onslaught of a deadly new airborne disease called COVID-19, the fear and hate it provoked, the many thousands of victims it claimed, and the governmental incompetence that failed to save them.

Performance artist Kristina Wong has forgotten none of it.

Her career abruptly cut short by the pandemic, the San Francisco native found herself isolated in LA’s Korea Town, dismayed by the daily news and baffled about what—if anything—she could do to help. The national Centers for Disease Control repeatedly issued edicts that the best way to prevent transmission of COVID was through the simple act of wearing masks, which were in short supply during the first months of the pandemic.

Photo – Kevin Berne/American Conservatory Theater

Wong was stunned by the lack of facemasks, not just for ordinary people but for frontline healthcare workers, many of whom succumbed to the disease as a result of their work. She sprung into action with her trusty sewing machine, making masks from any available fabric and mailing them off in small batches where she thought they might be most needed. She gradually recruited other women sheltering-in-place, most of them Asians, who cranked out homemade masks from anything they could find, including old clothing. Soon she was head of a loosely-organized but very determined network of “Aunties” who busied themselves with the laudable work of saving lives—a group she called “The Auntie Sewing Squad,” or “ASS” for short. Ultimately, ASS made more than 350,000 masks.

… the best solo performance we’ll see this season …

Part standup comedy, part performance art, part concise and incisive recent history, and all heart, Wong’s self-titled Sweatshop Overlord is by turns hilarious, heartwarming, and horrific. She spares no one in her retelling of that hideous year and the months that followed, with special vitriol directed at both the anti-mask/anti-vax/anti-science faction and at the incomprehensible nostalgia for the 45th president—one who was himself infected, got world-class medical treatment at taxpayers’ expense, then refused to endorse mask-wearing while hosting super-spreader events at the White House. And of course, no revisiting of that period would be complete without mention of the Jan. 6 insurrection—another astounding act of idiocy.

Photo – Kevin Berne/American Conservatory Theater

Wong covers all this and more with wry, self-deprecating humor and frenetic energy as she roams the stage at ACT’s Strand Theater, designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee to evoke a sewing room out of “Gulliver’s Travels,” with bolts of fabric the size of rolled carpets, and pincushions large enough to serve as chairs.

Projections by Caite Hevner provide much-needed visual background as Wong relates her tale, never hesitating to lay blame where it most belongs, which is not to imply that her approximately 95-minute nonstop performance is wholly a political rant. Some of her cutaways are drop-dead hilarious, such as an extended bit about a genital cyst she suffered during the shutdown, evoked by an inflated balloon bobbling between her legs. In a throwaway bit about organizing groups of children to stitch masks, she crows about having one-upped Nike and Apple by “getting kids to work for free.” Sweatshop overlord!

Her script is brilliant, and under the direction of Chay Yew, brilliantly delivered—truly standing-ovation stuff.

On the way out, I commented to a speechwriter friend,

“Now that was a speech!”

“No,” he countered, “That was a sermon.”

Indeed it was—a much-needed one. Monday April 8 was total eclipse day, one that followed a rare earthquake in the Northeast USA. Those two events will be followed by the confluent emergence of both 13-year and 17-year cicadas. All of these, for some believers, are proof of God’s wrath against sinful humans.

Ignorance may still abound, but heroic figures like Kristina Wong send it scampering into the darkness. Quite possibly the best solo performance we’ll see this season, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord runs through May 5. Don’t miss it.

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionKristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord
Written by Kristina Wong
Directed byChay Yew
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater
Production DatesThrough May 5th
Production AddressACT’s Strand Theater
1127 Market Street
San Francisco
Websiteact-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 - $130
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5.0
Performance4.5/5.0
Script4.5/5.0
Stagecraft4/5.0
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick ASR! Highs and Lows of the Ubiquitous “Kite Runner” by EnActe Arts

By Susan Dunn

Can there ever be too much of something wonderful? The Kite Runner might just test those boundaries.

The first novel by Afghan refugee-turned-physician-and-novelist Khaled Hossieni, The Kite Runner, became a runaway success with 101 weeks on the best seller list and 3 weeks at #1. Published in 2003, it was expanded into an acclaimed Academy Award-nominated movie in 2007 and then adapted into a stripped down theater version by Matthew Spangler. Other lives include a graphic novel created in 2021.

Now The Kite Runner, the play, is back to a packed audience at the Hammer Theatre Center in San Jose, where it first launched over fifteen years ago in 2009.

… a classic story of sin and redemption …

It’s a story that helped educate the American public on the culture of a distant country with which we happened to be at war for 20 years. It is a classic story of sin and redemption based on the lives of two young men raised in different social classes and physical abodes but within the same household and ultimately by the same father.

The author of ‘The Kite Runner’ says what his characters choose “is not interesting to me, but why they choose it and the consequences are interesting.” Photo EnActe Arts

Amir, the first son and our lead and narrator is passionately and convincingly portrayed by Ramzi Khalaf as a man coping with his own failings to do the right thing by Hassan, the son of a servant. Amir’s father is in the diplomatic corps, houses his immediate family in a privileged Kabul home, and is able to escape Afghanistan with Amir as refugees to California.

Hassan, however, ultimately becomes a victim of terrorists who overrun his home in Kabul. Amir’s sin is to take advantage of the lower-class Hassan, lord his superiority over him and to let jealously of his father’s affection for Hassan infect him. A local crime of shame separates the two young men, who were so close in their early years, and leaves a lasting scar on Amir as he refuses to help Hassan and ultimately rejects him.

Years later, when Amir returns to Kabul he faces the truth of his past, makes the requisite sacrifices for the future and asks for forgiveness and redemption.

The “Tabla” drum instrument in “The Kite Runner”.

Does The Kite Runner work as a play? The adaptation by Spangler is essentially a narrative told to us directly by Amir who remains the center of every scene. It is a compelling story told mostly in first person and staged with minimal sets, lighting and music, very much like Word for Word productions.

What keeps this play from stasis? It’s the multiple levels of time – youth and maturity; country – Afghanistan and the US; culture – Islamic and Democratic; fortune – wealth and poverty; class — multi-ethnic upper and lower classes; and finally family – the father’s and son’s stories. It wasn’t until his second novel that Hosseini writes in depth about women.

Accompanying these various stories, woven together for us by Amir, and semi-staged and acted, is the music of this Afghan culture: the tabla, a set of drums played with the hands that create different rhythms and tonal sounds. The tabla opens and closes this multi-cultural epic, which continues to entertain and move us with its staying power.

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Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionThe Kite Runner
Play Adaptation byMatthew Spangler
From the novel byKhaled Hosseimi
Directed byGiles Croft
Producing CompanyThe Hammer Theatre and EnActe Arts
Production DatesThru April 7th
Production Address101 Paseo De San Antonio, San Jose, CA 95113
Telephone(415) 677 9596
Tickets$65-$125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Pick ASR! “Million Dollar Quartet”— A Whole Lot of Shaking Goin’ On!

By Cari Lynn Pace

I rocked my way through the 1960s and ‘70s, blithely unaware that the music that made me dance had its roots in ‘50s-era Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. They had a mutual connection in their early discovery by Sam Phillips, a music producer at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.

One incredible night in 1956, these four legends showed up at Sun Records. Each had a different agenda. Million Dollar Quartet is the ostensibly true story of what may have happened that unforgettable night.

Million Dollar Quartet is a freewheeling frenzied ride …

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse presented Million Dollar Quartet in 2019 to great acclaim. Their GK Hardt stage is once again rockin’ the house with this hit Broadway musical.

The cast of “Million Dollar Quartet” at work, 6th Street Theater, Santa Rosa. Pictures courtesy 6th Street.

Director (and music director) Steve Lasiter doubles his formidable talents playing Johnny Cash. Lasiter has channeled “The Man in Black” in national tours. He’s joined onstage by Elvis, a movin’ and shakin’ Nathan Roberts. Roberts gets the audience roaring when he encourages the audience to beg for more.

Nathan Roberts as Elvis in “Million Dollar Quartet” at 6th Street Theater, Santa Rosa. Pictures courtesy 6th Street.

Wyatt Andrew Brownell harnesses the wild energy of Jerry Lee Lewis, complete with his foot bangin’ piano. Jake Turner portrays songwriter/guitarist Carl Perkins as the oft-disregarded rockabilly star chasing his next hit. These actors are musicians who take glee in trying to “one-up” each other when they hog the mike.

The backstory gradually exposes why these four have come to meet up with Phillips, “The Father of Rock and Roll,” a part perfectly cast with veteran Dwayne Stincelli. Phillips is credited with discovering and nurturing many musicians to the top of the charts. When his artists’ agent contracts renew, surprises occur.

Steve Lasiter (right) in “Million Dollar Quartet” at 6th Street Theater. Pictures courtesy 6th Street.

Joining the on-and-off recording session are George Smeltz on drums, with Michael Leal Price on the upright bass. Elvis brings his current girlfriend (sultry Jennifer Barnaba) to the gathering. She lends silky singing and style to soften the macho-but-friendly aggression between the guys.

Million Dollar Quartet is a freewheeling frenzied ride, playing “Can you top this?” to the audience. One drawback is that the comfortable seats at the GK Hardt Theatre leave no room for dancing in the aisles. If you never heard these legends in person—or even if you did—come rock with this show. There’s a whole lot of shaking goin’ on!

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. Contact: pace-koch@comcast.net

 

ProductionMillion Dollar Quartet
Written byColin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Directed bySteve Lasiter
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThru May 4th, 2024
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35 to $58
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Other Voices: “Million Dollar Quartet”

'Lovers of old school rock ‘n' roll will get a big bang out of 'Million Dollar Quartet,' a mighty slick jukebox musical powered by a dynamite song stack and dynamic portrayals of the four legends singing ‘em..."
New Jersey Newsroom
"What exactly is it that makes the new musical 'Million Dollar Quartet' so damn enjoyable and invigorating? Is it the pure simplicity and rapid-fire energy of four rock 'n' roll legends performing their signature tunes for 100 blissful minutes? Is it the charisma and talent of the actors who portray these legendary figures Whatever the case, it's one hell of a winner..."
On Off Broadway
"The musicianship sells this entertainment. If the rockabilly rhythms of Perkins or the proto-rocker antics of Lewis don't set your heart to palpitating, then 'Million Dollar Quartet' will be lost on you. The calculation is that fans of early rock-and-roll and idolaters of Presley and Cash are of an age and economic level to fill the Nederlander's pews. And for them, the musical will feel at times like a throbbing worship service..."
The Washington Post

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Basketball Jones: CenterREP’s “The Great Leap”

By Barry Willis

A pivotal year, 1989 saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and widespread anti-government protests in China, culminating in the months-long protest occupation of Beijng’s Tiananmen Square, and the ultimate declaration of martial law that resulted in countless deaths and injuries.

It was also the year of an important basketball game between the University of San Francisco and Peking University (as it was known then)—at least, in Lauren Yee’s fictional retelling in The Great Leap, the CenterREP production at the Lesher Center for the Arts through April 7.

… All four performers are wonderful. …

In Yee’s dramatic comedy, the game coincides with the final days of the Tiananmen Square protest—an event that figures prominently as a secondary plot element. (The actual USF vs. PU game took place in 1981, one in which Yee’s father played.)

Taking its title from “The Great Leap Forward” as the Chinese Cultural Revolution was called, the play involves only four actors—Cassidy Brown as a USF coach named Saul, his Peking University counterpart Wen Chang (Edward Chen), a Chinatown high-school basketball prodigy named Manford (James Aaron Oh), and Manford’s “cousin” Connie (Nicole Tung).

Manford (center -James Aaron Oh) makes a shot as Saul (left – Cassidy Brown) and Wen (right – Edward Chen) watch in Center Repertory Company’s “The Great Leap,” presented March 16 – April 7 at Lesher Center for the Arts. Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

Saul is sweating bullets about the upcoming game, where he will be reunited with his friendly rival Wen, when Manford approaches him about joining the USF team despite being only 17 years old, not having graduated from high school, and not being nearly as tall as other players.

Manford’s ability on the court is well-depicted even if we never see him make a free throw or sink a fadeaway jump shot. He makes much of the importance of basketball in Chinatown—his mother was a star player in her native China—while Saul dismisses him with salty language very much reminiscent of standup comic Rodney Dangerfield.

Saul (Cassidy Brown) coaches Manford (James Aaron Oh) in Center Repertory Company’s “The Great Leap,” thru 4/7/2024. Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

Manford’s persistence pays off and he joins the team despite Saul’s misgivings and Wen’s warnings that his presence may not be officially approved. As the play’s anchor character, Nicole Tung gives both Manford and the audience much-needed schooling in practical reality. All four performers are wonderful.

Directed by Nicholas C. Avila, who also directed CenterREP’s tremendous In the Heights, Yee’s tightly-woven script combines issues about international politics, high-level sport, cultural identity, and the nature of parentage, friendship, rivalry, and commitment to a code of personal conduct. All of this is beautifully depicted on the Margaret Lesher stage, doing multiple duties as basketball court, coaches’ offices, hotel rooms, apartments, and more—an elegant bit of set design by Yi-Chien Lee, whose projections add resonance to this emotionally engaging production.

Connie (Nicole Tung) gives her cousin Manford (James Aaron Oh) advice in Center Rep’s “The Great Leap.” Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

As with many current comedies, The Great Leap takes a serious turn toward the closing of the second act. That’s perhaps as it should be—eventually, life has a way of making everyone reconsider the frivolous importance of even our most cherished pursuits.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

**Special thanks to Portland Center Stage for graphics.

ProductionThe Great Leap
Written byLauren Yee
Directed byNicholas C. Avila
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru April 7th, 2024
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$42-$70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Other Voices on: “The Great Leap”

"...Lauren Yee’s "The Great Leap", ... reconfigure(s) Chinese history into a story between parents and children, mapping painful histories of nations onto the painful histories of family. In this so-called “socio-political fable,” allegory and memory are intertwined to both delightful and calamitous effect."
Theatrely.com
"...Renowned for deftly combining her San Francisco roots, Chinese culture and global politics, (Lauren) Yee puts it all together in this often humorous, yet emotionally stirring piece of theatre..."Broadwayworld.com
"..."The Great Leap" opens with hearty humor and carries its audience along in an absorbing story until a profound poignancy begins to permeate the senses..."Stageandcinema.com

Pick! ASR Theatre ~~ Hillbarn’s “Once” Tugs at Your Musical Heartstrings

By Joanne Engelhardt

A simple set-up has profound consequences in Once—a guy from Dublin, Ireland, a busker or street performer, meets a girl from Czechoslovakia. She recognizes his talent and encourages him to go to New York to pursue a musical career. That’s just one of many pieces in this musical at Foster City’s Hillbarn Theater through April 7.

For Once, the Hillbarn stage has a working saloon on one side where theatre patrons can purchase beer at intermission. The floor also revolves, so that during some songs, everyone on stage eventually gets around to the front to sing or play their instruments.

… It’ll keep your toes tapping– for Once! …

Written in 2007 as a film by John Carney, the musical premiered on Broadway in 2012 and won seven Tony Awards that year. Like the Broadway production, Hillbarn’s version has a minimalistic set with chairs on three sides. Cast members, who also serve as the orchestra when sitting in their chairs, simply step forward for their lines and sit down when others are the focus.

Kaylee Miltersen in “Once” at Hillbarn Theater. Photo: Tracy Martin.

What gives this production its authenticity are several fine actors, none better than Kaylee Miltersen playing Girl, a little scrap of a thing with an authentic-sounding Czech accent and a way of whipping out lines that cause the audience to laugh. She’s so delightful! Why wouldn’t the Irish musician Guy (Jake Gale) fall for her?

Gale has a wonderfully lilting voice that brings life to many of his songs, such as “Say It to Me Now,” “Leave,” and even “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy.” They all sound incredibly sincere. Miltersen and Gale team up on piano and guitar, respectively, and sing “Falling Slowly” and “If You Want Me”—simultaneously melting the audience’s hearts.

Musical instruments and connections abound (more on this in a minute), in fact, the accordion player is Girl’s mother, Baruska (a spirited Sarah Jebian, in an indelible performance). Another fine actor, Paul Henry, plays Billy—who owns a music store, is somewhat shy and thinks he’s in love with Girl. He attempts to show he’s a judo expert until his back gives out. Meanwhile, Guy and his father own a vacuum cleaner repair shop where Guy works. It happens, as Girl reminds Guy, that she has a Hoover vacuum that “doesn’t suck” so he needs to take it to his father’s shop for repair.

Cast of “Once” (L-R, Jake Gale, Jesse Cortez, Nicholas Conrad, and Chloe Angst) at work at the Hillbarn Theater. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

Hillbarn’s artistic director Steve Muterspauch lyrically directs Once, with assistance from choreographer Francesca Cipponeri to include modern dance and ballet moves as the musical progresses. For a few songs, timing must be perfect, and on opening night, it was.

As mentioned, nearly every minute of the two-act, roughly two-hour play is filled with music. There’s a cello playing in one corner (cellist, Kit Robberson), a guitar or two a minute later (Brad Satterwhite, Nicholas Conrad, Jesse Cortez), two violins (Nina Han and Karen Law) or Chloe Angst with their tattoos, attitude and angst (pun intended) up to the end of their spiked red hair. (And don’t forget the accordion!)

Nick Kenbrandt does a fine job as the bank manager who decides to take a chance on Guy when he needs a loan so he can get into a sound studio and make a complete recording of his songs to send to New York.

One small curiosity for this reviewer was why Hillbarn hired Equity actor Colin Thomson in the relatively insignificant role of Da? Thomson is a fine actor but has not much to do here except add his strong voice to group songs and play Girl’s father in one short scene.

“It’ll keep your toes tappin’! “Once” at the Hillbarn Theater. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

Musical director Amie Jan and vocal director Joseph Murphy did a masterful job of selecting actors who could also play musical instruments and sing, a necessity in this musical.

To set the right tone, costumer Lisa Claybaugh found outfits that nicely complimented each performer’s character. Lighting by Pamila Gray and sound by Jeff Mockus were first-rate. Two young sisters, Stella and Sybil Wyatt, play the small role as Girl’s daughter.

Although Once may not be everyone’s cup of tea, this reviewer believes that it certainly deserves bigger audiences than it had for opening night. Could be because Hillbarn patrons aren’t familiar with it as it hasn’t been performed on the Peninsula in years, if ever.

But seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical) say “Go see it!” It’ll keep your toes tapping– for Once!

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionOnce
Written byEnda Walsh
Directed bySteve Muterspaugh
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru April 7th, 2024
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.50/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Other Voices on: “Once”

"...The script is ... steeped in wise and folksy observations about committing to love and taking chances..."The New York Times
"...captures the loveliness of the music, the likability of the characters, the fluidity of the staging, the sweetness of the ending..."The Chicago Sun Times
" ...Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant! This is one of those shows that remind you: magic is real..."New York Theatre Guide

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Immigrants’ Tale: “The Far Country” at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

Xenophobia—the fear of foreigners—has infected human societies since the dawn of time. A particularly American variety gets an insightful treatment in The Far Country at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through April 14.

In the early-to-mid 19th century, Chinese immigrants were welcomed into the United States as a source of cheap labor. They built the railroads that enabled America’s great industrial expansion, but by the 1880s, that work was mostly completed, and fear of foreigners prompted the Chinese Exclusion Act, intended to keep more of them from entering the country.

… “insightful” (and) “adroitly directed”  …

Toward the end of the century, there were reportedly fifty Chinese men in the US for every Chinese female. Most of these men sent a substantial portion of their earnings to their families back in China. That sort of ‘family-support-via-long-distance’ is still common among immigrants to this country.

Tess Lina (Low/Two) in Lloyd Suh’s breathtaking, “The Far Country”, performing at Berkeley Rep through Sunday, April 14, 2024. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Playwright Lloyd Suh’s The Far Country examines the phenomenon from the individual perspectives of two generations of Chinese immigrants. Act One opens with a grueling interrogation of a San Francisco resident named Gee (Feodor Chin), a laundryman claiming that all his identification papers were destroyed in the fire that consumed the city after the 1906 earthquake. Aaron Wilton is effectively annoying as an aggressive, condescending interrogator, assisted by a perfectly bilingual interpreter despite Gee’s apparent ability with English.

Gee seeks permission to travel to China to visit his family and bring back his son, but he lacks proof of legal residency and isn’t sure he’ll be able to return. Repeated questions and more-than-implied doubts about Gee’s honesty intentionally rankle him—and the audience.

(L-R) Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet), Sharon Shao (Yuen/Four), Whit K. Lee (Yip/One), Tess Lina (Low/Two), and Feodor Chin (Gee/Three) at work at Berkeley Rep. Credit: Kevin Berne

The San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island served as a sort of counterpart to New York’s Ellis Island, where for many decades, European immigrants were processed for admission to the US, often without difficulty. Angel Island was different, a sort of choke-point for incoming Asians who could be kept in detention for as long as two years. In keeping with the Chinese Exclusion Act, the government’s work on Angel Island was to reject as many of them as possible.

Much subterfuge was involved in trying to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to admission—the theme of Act Two, where we meet Moon Gyet (Tommy Bo), Gee’s “son” who endures 17 months of detention on Angel Island, where he was allowed only one hour per day outside, and where he was subjected to intense interrogations including nonsense questions about how many steps led to the door of his childhood home.

Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet) and John Keabler (Dean/Inspector), in Lloyd Suh’s “The Far Country” at Berkeley Rep through 4/14/2024. Credit: Kevin Berne

The somewhat intricate story goes back and forth from California to China, where Moon Gyet meets Yuen (Sharon Shao), a bright, sassy prospective wife. There’s also an emotional flashback of Gee reuniting with his mother, Low (Tess Chin), as he hunts for an appropriate son. The whole affair of ‘admission-or-rejection’ is depicted as a complicated, high-stakes game of deception and manipulation, both by immigration authorities and people hoping to become US residents—a situation still playing out every day almost 100 years after the era of The Far Country.

Adroitly directed by Jennifer Chang and dinged only by a couple of overlong bits of dialog, The Far Country is an insightful and effective examination of gut-wrenchingly difficult circumstances. Its abrupt ending on a beautiful, upbeat note gives hope where there might have been only despair. That is the power of great art.

-30-

ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is an American Theatre Critics Association member and SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle president. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Far Country
Written by Lloyd Suh
Directed by Jennifer Chang
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru April 14th, 2024
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Tickets$22.50-$134
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick! ASR  Theater ~~ RVP’s New Works Musical Celebrates “The Divine Sarah”

By Cari Lynn Pace

As a child, when I was being overly whiney or dramatic, asking my mom for some permission, she would sometimes ask, “Who are you, Sarah Bernhardt?”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but I know it had something to do with my pleading going over the top.

Ross Valley Players exalted and explained my mom’s response, going over the top with their new work, The Divine Sarah, directed by award-winning Jay Manley. Prior to the opening, Manley noted, “It’s always a challenge to present a new show.”

… a well-crafted story …

In this reviewer’s eyes, the challenge has been met and exceeded admirably. Manley’s assemblage of talented actors and singers, with an original script and songs by June Richards and Elaine Lang, gave RVP a full house on opening night and a standing ovation.

Merrill Grant as Sarah Bernhardt at RVP. Photos by Robin Jackson

So—who was this Sarah Bernhardt, beautifully channeled by Merrill Grant, and why was she so famous? The house lights dim …

The play begins in 1844 with narration punctuated by musical numbers. A large and well-rehearsed cast clad in fabulous period costumes by Michael A. Berg enters the stage flanked by musicians Jon Gallo on keyboards and Diana Lee on cello.

Sarah’s life as an unwanted child is delightfully sung by Alexandra Fry. Fry’s doppelgänger has to be Amanda Seyfried, that charmingly lovely songbird. RVP is fortunate to have such talent to cast in these local productions. Sarah pleads for love and acceptance from her dismissive mother, imperiously played by Anna L. Joham. No luck there, so Sarah is sent to a convent.

(L-R) The cast at work, including Julia Ludwig, Merrill Grant, Brad Parks, & Keith Jefferds. Photos by Robin Jackson

The balance of Act I recounts Sarah’s early washout as a dancer, actor, and singer. Rejected as talentless by school and theatre company alike, Sarah is kept moving on only by her mother’s wealthy and influential lover, a relative of the French Emperor, perfectly portrayed by RVP favorite Keith Jefferds.

By intermission at the end of Act I, one wonders when the star of the show will actually become a star.

Act II details Sarah’s path of flamboyance as she beings to conquer a war-weary Paris. She’s a notorious rebel, a single unmarried mother, a femme fatale with multiple lovers. She’s exotic, and hailed as the “Goddess of the Left Bank.” Beautiful Sarah flaunts convention and is expert at self-promotion.

She acts with overt drama onstage, dismisses lovers when it suits her career path, writes and publishes a book with her own illustrations, and styles herself as the high fashion influencer of her time. She spends more than she makes, tempting seizure of her assets. Sarah is a diva, a celebrity famous for being famous. All this without social media of the sort we have today!

(L-R) The cast of “The Divine Sarah” at work at The Barn. Photos by Robin Jackson

Throughout The Divine Sarah the cast stays impressively true to their characters. Kudos to Director Manley for drawing out gestures and facial expressions to pull in the audience. The plot at times reads like a soap opera, and one wonders if perhaps it might benefit from a bit of trimming, but the actors are all a pleasure to watch.

Love or dismiss the woman at the center of the story, but you’ll remember RVP’s The Divine Sarah as a well-crafted story of a woman who shattered conventions — and raised a glass of champagne while doing it. Go see it!

-30-

ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. Contact: pace-koch@comcast.net

 

ProductionThe Divine Sarah
Written byJune Richards and Elaine Lang
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru April 7th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Tickets$20-$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5.0
Performance4/5.0
Script3/5.0
Stagecraft3/5.0
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK ASR Theater ~~ “The 39 Steps”, Mystery Thriller and Comic Farce at SF Playhouse

By Susan Dunn

Even before the story from the famous film begins, missteps, gags, mockery, parody, double-takes, and more abound in The 39 Steps at San Francisco Playhouse.

Our leading man appears, apparently ready to begin the show, then is blacked out by the lighting, comes back into view, then falls asleep in a chair while SFP Artistic Director Bill English gives the welcoming speech. What’s happening? Are they confused? Are they ready for opening night?

You bet!

It’s the audience that should be ready to exhilarate in two hours plus of clowning and buffoonery animating Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of a Hitchcock classic.

… Highly recommended to recharge your funny bone…

The 39 Steps is a classic noir narrative which started with a 1915 novel, was adapted in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock, and from there morphed into new films, TV series, a radio play, and a stage comedy. It’s a popular and easily adapted story that has proven its popularity time after time. Its secret is a mystery thriller base that has been freely adapted with new or excised material in subsequent renditions.

Richard Hannay (Phil Wong) is captivated by the mysterious Anabella (Maggie Mason) in “The 39 Steps,” presented by San Francisco Playhouse March 7 – April 20.
Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The story revolves around the stylish character Richard Hannay, marvelously played by Phil Wong, as he falls into one unlikely scenario after another. The action follows his path from falsely accused murderer to international spy-ring exposer and hero. It snakes from London to Scotland and back again with a cast of 150 characters, according to SF Playhouse. (I confess I lost count.)These roles are hilariously and frantically embodied by three superb actors.

Lithe and intense Maggie Mason shows us the women in Hannay’s life: Annabella, the spy whom Hannay is accused of murdering; Pamela, the girl on the train whom he first meets by attacking her with kisses; and Margaret, the collier’s wife who helps him escape from murderous thugs. Greg Ayers showcases a multitude of male and female roles with comic physical and facial wit that continually inspires laughter, as do his double takes for additional laughs. He both opens and closes the show with an important character, Mister Memory, and his shenanigans expand this role with his stage antics.

Richard Hannay (center – Phil Wong) is apprehended by two policemen (l to r: Renee Rogoff and Greg Ayers) as Pamela (Maggie Mason) denies association in “The 39 Steps,” presented by SF Playhouse. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Covering another bevy of parts, including a squadron of police and thugs, a ruthless power-hungry professor, and a dour innkeeper, Renee Rogoff seems to appear in every other scene in new costume or aspect. One of the funniest moments occurs when Mason, Ayers and Rogoff miraculously turn into six marching bagpipers immersing Wong in one of his many escape moves – a showcase for the inspired direction by Susi Damilano.

Like icing on a delicious cake, the lighting design, sound effects, costumes, projections and puppetry mesh together with the clowning to create a play that is a many-layered spoof. The 39 Steps is a farce that skims ever so lightly over themes of fate, chance, romance and ultimately human empathy. This production is a delight for all the senses. Highly recommended to recharge your funny bone.

-30-

 

Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionThe 39 Steps
Sourced byPlay Adaptation by Patrick Barlow...

From the Novel by John Buchan...

From the Movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru April 20th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ TheatreWorks “Queen” Probes Scientific Morals

By Joanne Engelhardt

San Jose-based playwright/filmmaker Madhuri Shekar tackles the real-life dilemma of saving bees in Queen, running through March 31 at Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto. The “queen” here is the queen bee in a bee colony, voraciously devoured by worker bees.

Is this enough to absorb an audience for 90+ minutes? In this reviewer’s opinion: yes and no.

That said, four fine actors are nearly first-rate; Shekar incorporates a lot of humor into her dialogue to counter the heaviness of scientific research and supposition. Just when it gets a bit too much on the statistics side, Shekar slips in a joke about bees or science to loosen things up.

… Her grandfather keeps setting up blind dates for her, most of whom she finds loathsome…

Queen’s premise is unquestionably true: There’s been a disheartening drop in the number of bees over the past decade. As research assistant Sanam Srinivasan (Uma Paranjpe) points out, “The human race depends on bees.”

L-R, Kjerstine Anderson, Mike Ryan and Uma Paranjpe play researchers in “Queen,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

That’s why she and her Ph.D. research partner, Ariel Spiegel (Kjerstine Rose Anderson), have been doggedly trying for years to figure out how to address the issue. They’ve concluded that a pesticide used by Monsanto has killed more than one billion bees. (That’s billion–with a “B.”)

They’ve meticulously done their research and, after eight years, are about to present their case at a conference scheduled a few days hence, then publish their research results in the prestigious scientific journal “Nature.” But the night before the conference they meet with their mentor and supervising professor, Dr. Philip Hayes (Mike Ryan). Sanam says she has discovered an error in coding which is causing the results to be off by a few percentage points.

That’s when a riff appears between Dr. Hayes and Sanam, with the professor telling her that the error is small and can be adjusted later, while Sanam emphatically declaring that she can’t present inaccurate data.

(L-R) Uma Paranjpe, left, and Kjerstine Anderson star as researchers exploring declining bee populations in “Queen” for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Photo: Kevin Berne

There are also a couple of side stories: One involves Ariel’s decision to take six months off from her research to have a child (a daughter often heard crying but never seen). Another involves Sanam whose Indian parents are concerned that she may not marry and give them grandchildren. Her grandfather keeps setting up blind dates for her, most of whom she finds loathsome until she meets Arvind, an Indian American financier who thinks her devotion to her bee research is charming and admirable.

Deven Kolluri plays Arvind as a confident, handsome rogue who eventually wins over Sanam for a romantic night – but she has no intention of following him to New York where he lives.

Playwright Shekar has set her play in a nearby location (UC Santa Cruz), which helps theatregoers relate to the story. But it might not be a winner for everyone–because while it has humor, this reviewer found it a tad heavy on the scientific side. Director Miriam A. Laube ensures that the play moves along quickly, especially when the methodical discourse gets a bit… murky.

All four actors bring unique personalities to their roles– with a couple personal asides: IMHO, Paranjpe speaks a shade too fast and not quite loud enough. Also, Ryan tends to become a bit too…well, bombastic when he’s telling his research assistants to present their data –-inconsistent or not.

Among the clever subtleties of Queen is scenic designer Nina Ball’s proscenium and panels, pockmarked with cut-out circles that give the appearance of a beehive. The panels are quickly moved in and out as lead deck crew Megan Hall and her team soundlessly move set pieces for different scenes. Kent Dorsey’s lighting design is excellent, as is James Ard’s sound.

As with the flawed data, this reviewer is of the mind that this play needs a bit of work to make it as good as it could be. That said, for those more scientifically inclined, the play will give them food for thought.

A joint collaboration between TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and EnActe, located in Sunnyvale and Texas. the entire production runs a scant 100 minutes without intermission.

-30-

 

Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionQueen
Written by
Madhuri Shekar
Directed byMiriam A. Laube
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Entre Acts
Production DatesThru Mar 31st
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$42- $82
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3.25/5
Stagecraft3.75/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?No.

PICK ASR! Oakland Theater Project’s “Cost of Living”

By Susan Dunn

Heading to a show titled Cost of Living, I anticipated an evening of economists discussing the GNP. Given our current rampant politics, that would have seemed a fit.

Mercifully, Martyna Majok’s play is a more personal view of costs—economic, physical, and emotional. Four characters—two disabled and two caregivers—play out the feelings and the passions of their respective situations, juxtaposed against their class and educational backgrounds.

Cost of Living is a “must see”…

In the opening scene, a feisty, loquacious Eddie (masterfully played all over the stage by high-energy Daniel Duque-Estrada), regales us from his bar stool about how the “shit in life is not to be understood.” We learn he’s lost his truck-driver’s license due to a DUI. Moreover, his estranged wife and texting mate has died, and in his loneliness and desperation, he continues to send text messages to her cell phone to comfort himself. When he gets text replies, he is confounded but also mysteriously buoyed.

The play is framed by two capable and well-cast disabled actors: Matty Placencia, who has met the emotional and physical challenges of cerebral palsy all his life, and Christine Bruno, whose accomplished acting resume has focused on a range of acting roles and disability-inclusion consulting.

In Majok’s play, Placencia embodies John, a young upper-class professor at Princeton, who partially manages with one functioning hand, a wheelchair, and a wealthy family, but requires a part-time caregiver for his daily personal hygiene. He is supercilious, defensive, and insensitive to needs other than his own. Christine Bruno plays Eddie’s paraplegic wife Ani, crippled by a traffic accident following her estrangement. Eddie has come back to care for her, hoping to share in her insurance proceeds. Bruno’s wide range of facial expressions and sharp and ironic tongue reveal her frustrations with her ex-husband. But she warms up to Eddie as her caregiver over time.

Finally, there is Carla Gallardo’s Jess, a 20-year-old Latina struggling to sustain herself with bar jobs and living in her car. In desperation she applies to be John’s caregiver, attracted by his higher-class aura and his financial means. Gallardo gains our sympathy through her wide range of expressivity while meeting the physical challenge of showering, shaving, and dressing John on stage before us. Prompted by John, her own challenged history ekes out as they get used to his routine.

The cast at work. Photos by Ben Kranz Studio

Cost of Living is two plays with one set representing two apartments that occupy their own respective mini-set areas and finally merge together in the final scene. The mini-sets create difficulty for the arena staging, but are mostly well-handled by set designer Emilie Whelan. Blocking for disabled actors is also tricky, but necessary to play well to the three audience sections. Some scenes were partly obstructed by the five or more floating mini-sets.

For this reviewer, occasionally, actors’ words were lost when delivering lines away from parts of the audience, but in general the utilization of space clarifies the action and imaginatively creates an atmosphere with a single rear window. Projections keep us emotionally in the right plane with grey weather, rain or pelting snow.

With a complex story and characters that ring true as individuals in straits that could be our fate as well if we were not so fortunate, Cost of Living is a “must see.” The authenticity of the actors in this play demands kudos to the production.

-30-

Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionCost of Living
Written byMartyna Majok
Directed byEmilie Whelan
Producing CompanyOakland Theater Project
Production DatesThru Mar 24th, 2024
Production AddressFlax Art and Design, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland, CA 94612
Websitewww.oaklandtheaterproject.or
Telephone(510) 646-112
Tickets$35-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Pinkalicious: Foothill’s Spectacular Production of “Legally Blonde”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Over-the-top enthusiasm of the sisters of Delta Nu sorority, coupled with terrific musical numbers. keep Foothill Music Theatre’s production of Legally Blonde zooming along at Lohman Theatre in Los Altos Hills. Although some of the college sorority sisters seem past their college years, Blonde is nevertheless a pleasant way to spend 2 ½ hours.

Directed by Milissa Carey, Legally Blonde is filled with Stacy Reed’s enthusiastic choreography, Y. Sharon Peng’s pinkalicious costumes, and a lively score played backstage by music director Michael Horsley and his pocket orchestra of six musicians.

… it’s a good idea to get tickets now for this (fun) production…

Most attendees likely remember the 2001 movie with Reese Witherspoon as the lead character, Elle Woods. Later, it was turned into a stage musical that opened on Broadway in 2007.

Carey, whose style of directing might be described as “exuberant,” found some young actors who were able to bring some nuance and likeability to characters that might otherwise present as one-dimensional. And then there were the two sweet dogs who, unfortunately, didn’t spend very much time on stage but always invoked a chorus of “Ahhhhhs….” from the audience.

Selfie! (L-2-R) – Pilar, Elle, Margot & Serena. Photo credit David Allen

Act 1 begins with the UCLA sorority sisters of Delta Nu jumping up and down with excitement as they gather to celebrate the expected engagement of their president, Elle (sweet, sincere Rachelle Schaum) to her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (good-looking Jason Mooney).

But apparently Warner believes Elle doesn’t have enough smarts, nor does she come from the “right” background, so he dumps her. What’s a perky cheerleader to do??

That’s when she decides to get serious about her life and, like Warner, she applies to Harvard Law School to become a lawyer. Obviously, that’s a bit more difficult than just applying, but one of her Delta Nu sisters, Kate (versatile Lauren Berling), helps her study for her LSATS.

In its light-and-frothy-musical way, Elle goes to the Harvard Admissions office, backed by her cheerleading squad, does a cheerleading routine and then sings a song that gets her in because she’s “motivated by love.”

She also decides that because she’s a blonde, she isn’t taken seriously. That’s when she meets a woman who becomes a good friend: Paulette (an excellent Sarah Bylsma), who owns the local hair salon and who convinces her that changing her hair color won’t change her life. Bylsma has arguably the best voice in the cast, which she demonstrates with the song “Ireland.” She also shows her comedic side in the song “Bend and Snap.”

The Girls at work, in “Legally Blonde” at Foothill. Photo credit David Allen

All this happens in Act 1 . And there are more unexpected twists in Act 2.

After intermission, likely the best choreographed musical number, “Whipped into Shape” starts the continuation of our story with a bang. It features fitness instructor Brooke (Melissa Momboisse) and her fitness students doing a sensational number with jump ropes.

Almost overnight Elle becomes a crackerjack lawyer… saves a young woman wrongly sentenced to death for murder… and ends up with the “her” guy (Andrew Cope as Emmett) who has been right there all along.

Rachelle Schaum as Elle & Andrew Cope as Emmett. Photo by by David Allen.

Foothill’s Lohman Theatre is relatively small, so even though an additional performance has just been added on Wed., March 13 at 7:30 p.m., it’s a good idea to get tickets now for this frothy-but-fun production.

If you don’t, it’s likely you’ll be singing what the Delta Nu sorority sisters enthusiastically sing in Act 1: “Omigod You Guys!”—because you’ll be out of luck.

-30-

Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionLegally Blonde
Written byHeather Hach
Directed byMilissa Carey
Music & lyrics byLaurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin
Producing CompanyFoothill Music Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 17th
Production Address12345 El Monte Rd.
Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
Websitehttps://foothill.edu/theatre
Telephone(650) 949-7360
Tickets$20 -- $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.75/5
Script3.25/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?No.

ASR Opera ~~ Political Incorrection at San Jose’s California Theater

By Jeff Dunn

In 1832, Victor Hugo had a play produced in Paris about a serial rapist and murderer, a brother-sister pair of cutthroats, a gang of kidnappers, and a hunchbacked provocateur who berates everyone and imprisons his daughter. All of these characters escape the law. Is this politically correct? It wasn’t in 1832 when it was banned in France as an insult to the monarchy, nor was it in 1851 when Verdi and his librettist Piave retold the same story.

Hugo’s rapist was the King of France, who hung the Mona Lisa in his bathroom, and the play was called The King Has Fun. Verdi and Piave squeaked by Austrian censors in Venice by making all the characters Mantuan instead of French, and naming their opera Rigoletto. Far from being banned, the opera has spread throughout the world like Covid, its many jaunty tunes inoculating audiences into enjoying themselves while at the same time being reminded of how abuse of power is the chief ill of civilization.

… Conductor Jorge Parodi did a fine job of pacing the proceedings …

Among the range of interpretations for this constantly reproduced staple of the repertoire, San Jose Opera’s take is somberly traditional. Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s dark and musty costumes evoke the 16th century. Steven C. Kemp’s sets are nondescript black and dingy, except Rigoletto’s brilliant white-and-red home or, instead, keep, that is supposed to protect his innocent daughter from the Duke of Mantua and his court. Director Dan Wallace Miller adds two gruesome deviations from the norm: Rigoletto’s congenital hunchback is instead a hideous red scar branding his bald pate, and the Duke has syphilis.

Count Ceprano (Glenn Healy, back center) and courtiers have no pity for the jester Rigoletto (Eugene Brancoveanu, front center) in Opera San José’s production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. Photo credit: David Allen

Performances fit well into Wallace’s gloomy vision. Eugene Brancoveanu’s obnoxious grizzly bear of a Rigoletto makes the courtiers and the audience wince, but his notes are spot on. At the conclusion, his grief is a Niagran force of nature. Edward Graves, a newcomer to the role of the Duke, also fits the director’s tone with his accurate voice, despondent more than joyfully playing the field. Melissa Sondhi, as Gilda, conveys innocence as puzzlement while negotiating her complex music.

The Duke of Mantua (Edward Graves, left) and his jester Rigoletto (Eugene Brancoveanu, right) at work. Photo credit: David Allen

Standout performances were contributed by Philip Skinner as the wronged Count Monterone and Ashraf Sewailam as the principled murderer-for-hire Sparafucile. Melisa Bonetti Luna’s expressive acting was a great plus, though, in this reviewer’s opinion, her voice was occasionally overshadowed by others. Conductor Jorge Parodi did a fine job of pacing the proceedings. Most impressive was the Opera Chorus of courtiers and kidnappers, meticulously prepared by Johannes Löhner.

The jester Rigoletto (Eugene Brancoveanu, center) entertains the Duke of Mantua’s courtiers in Opera San José’s production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” playing thru March 3, 2024 at the California Theatre in downtown San Jose. Photo credit: David Allen

While Miller’s approach is undoubtedly defensible, I wonder if Verdi’s message would be better conveyed by even greater present-day incorrectness. If a director pretended to endorse the duke’s and courtier’s predations with cheery carryings-on and bright colors, if women happily allowed men to have their way, that murder was a trip to the nearest 7-11 in a Death of Stalin milieu, maybe some in the audience might question power structures more strongly.

-30-

ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor, Jeff Dunn, is a retired educator and project manager who’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle member and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera, Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won photography prizes and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

ProductionRigoletto
Based on a play byVictor Hugo
Libretto byFrancesco Maria Piave
Stage DirectionDan Wallace Miller
Producing CompanySan Jose Opera
Production DatesThru Mar 3rd
Production AddressCalifornia Theater -
345 S First St, San Jose, CA 95113
Websitewww.operasj.org
Telephone(408) 437-4450
Tickets$50- $195
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Music4.75/5.0
Libretto4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?No

ASR Theater ~~ Cautionary Tale: ACT’s “Big Data”

By Barry Willis

American Conservatory Theater had the prescience to open Big Data the same week that chipmaker Nvidia’s stock rose by a factor of seven, prompting a market-wide surge. Nvidia makes microprocessors essential to artificial intelligence (AI), the subject of daily news and consternation for at least the past two years.

A world premiere, Big Data launches with an old-fashioned console TV with a big “play” button onscreen, beckoning someone—anyone—to come up from the audience and press it. A long wait ensues until someone can’t stand it any longer and climbs onstage to start the show.

Big Data launches with an old-fashioned console TV …

We are then treated to a grainy 1950s-style black-and-white film clip about trained pigeons that peck at various levers, piano keys, and other devices to get rewards of food pellets—and an overlong diatribe by a character named “M” (B.D. Wong), a very self-amused expert who equates humans to trained birds. (In the playbill is a “conversation” between playwright Kate Attwell and ChatGPT on this very subject. Somewhat disturbingly, the AI program mentions psychologist B.F. Skinner and his concept of “operant conditioning” but ignores Pavlov and his proverbial dog.)

The cast of ACT’s “Big Data” at work. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

We get the message within the first thirty seconds. Perhaps to test our patience, this introduction runs for what seems like 15 or 20 minutes, then fades as M visits a depressed writer named Max (Jomar Tagatac). M arrives unbidden at Max’s sparsely furnished apartment. “How did you get in?” Max asks. “You invited me,” M replies.

The meaning of this mysterious statement is elucidated a bit later when M visits quarrelling but very-much-in-love couple Sam and Timmy (Gabriel Brown and Michael Phillis, respectively). During an interminable exchange, one of the pair says, “How do you know my name?” “You told me,” comes the reply.

On a stage whose backdrop is a giant computer screen, with empty living quarters depicted in the stark-white Apple Computer aesthetic, M obviously represents intrusive technology—not merely computers, but all the interactive spinoffs that now seem essential to contemporary life: mobile phones, “smart” TVs, bio-feedback wristwatches that monitor bodily functions and daily caloric expenditures, and presumably even our emotional states. All this is conveyed with aggressive humor and plenty of gratuitous sexual teasing—symbolizing, of course, the seductive lure of life online.

The first act is loud, long, and obnoxious, a sort of survivalist boot camp to see if the audience is willing to hang in there for the second act. We didn’t notice defectors leaving at intermission, but if there were some, their dismay would be somewhat understandable to this reviewer.

The first act of Big Data may be an egregious act of beating the audience over the head, but it’s redeemed by the gorgeously performed second act, which opens on a warm, richly furnished traditional home—all natural wood, with lots of books and art objects (scenic design by Tanya Orellana). This home is inhabited by a very likeable and very comfortable couple in late middle age, Joe and Didi (Harold Surratt and Julia McNeal, respectively) who’ve been puttering in the garden and kitchen in anticipation of hosting a Sunday brunch for their children Sam and Lucy (Rosie Hallett), Max’s wife, and their partners.

(L – R) Gabriel Brown, Rosie Hallett, and Michael Phillis. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The visitors arrive, and the disconnect between the younger generation and their predecessors begins in earnest—first, with Sam asking what happened to the Nest-style thermostat he had given them. Joe responds with self-deprecating humor “I buried it. Under concrete.”—also the fate of their Wi-Fi router, a situation that throws Max into a frenzy. Having abandoned his journalistic career, he’s now engaged in public relations for some high-pressure enterprise, and comes to brunch fretting about being past deadline. He absolutely flips out when he realizes he’s in the countryside with no internet connection. Whatever project of world-shaking importance that he’s working on simply has to wait.

Then Joe and Didi drop the bomb, telling their visitors that they’re withdrawing in protest from the world of interactive technology. Like 19th-century Amish, they’ve decided that further advancement is not for them. This second act unfolds beautifully. Surratt and McNeal are supremely confident and relaxed actors. Their characters’ message—reached after prolonged private discussion—is delivered appallingly to their offspring but convincingly to ACT’s audience.

The second act is almost a one-act play in itself, and well worth sitting through the first. Its impact is weakened by a silly coda in which M reappears and walks among the other six characters frozen in place, making snarky comments as if the preceding drama were of no consequence, as if Joe and Didi’s decisions were pointlessly frivolous. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jomar Tagatac and BD Wong at work. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

To its detriment, Big Data hedges its bets. In her playbill notes, director Pam MacKinnon mentions “surveillance capitalism,” a wonderfully apt description of contemporary life. The show’s closing scene would leave viewers with much more to ponder if Joe and Didi were to simply slump to the floor. Fade to black—no cutesy commentary needed.

The audience departing the Toni Rembe Theater perhaps didn’t grasp the enormity of what they had just seen. Many had their phones out before the applause died, and were seen walking up the aisles with faces illuminated. Clearly, the word “irony” is not in fashion.

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionBig Data
Written byKate Attwell
Directed byPam MacKinnon
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Mar 10th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 – $130
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4.0/5
Script3.0/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

ASR Theater ~~ Stark Reality: “Bees & Honey” at Marin Theatre Company

By Barry Willis

Obsessive sexual attraction proves inadequate to sustain a marriage in Guadalis Del Carmen’s Bees & Honey, at Marin Theatre Company through March 10.

Strongly directed by Karina Gutierrez, Del Carmen’s two-actor, no-intermission script covers a wide territory: mating behaviors, racial and cultural identities, class distinctions, family and professional obligations, the nature and seriousness of commitments, and many other issues.

… It’s laudable that any playwright would attempt all of this in a single play …

Del Carmen does so adroitly and mostly succeeds, provoking questions without providing answers. Her somewhat disjointed story involves two ethnic Dominicans from the Washington Heights district in Manhattan: Manuel (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), owner of an auto repair shop, and Johaira (Katherine George), a recent Columbia law school graduate on track to become an assistant district attorney.

Katherine George as Johaira and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. in “Bees & Honey” at Marin Theatre Company now through March 10, 2024. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The two meet in a neighborhood bar and are immediately drawn to each other, propelled partly by their shared love of Caribbean and Latin American music (Michael Kelly, sound designer). They flirt, dance, and make love to exhaustion and soon are co-habiting in a nice apartment (Carlos Antonio Aceves, set designer), but trouble looms as their differences emerge. Johaira is college-educated and worldly, while Manuel is working class and suffering from a bit of arrested development, as many men do—his favorite hobby is playing video games, which he tackles with the enthusiasm and demeanor of an adolescent boy.

But Manuel’s no mere immature wrench jockey—he’s planning to expand his business by opening a new location, and ultimately hopes to have one in each of New York City’s five boroughs. Johaira admires his ambition and offers encouragement while pursuing her legal career, including a gut-wrenching case that consumes her. She admonishes Manuel about his misogynistic tendencies, giving him feminist books to read, which he dutifully does and learns from—a palpable character arc. Johaira’s arc is less pronounced until she suffers a miscarriage and concludes that she needs far more from life than she will ever find with Manuel.

There are also secondary plots about how to care for Manuel’s mother, suffering the early stages of dementia, hopeful plans about caring for a baby that never arrives, and issues about personal identity. In one assertive outburst, Manuel shouts “I’m not black! I’m not white! I’m Dominican!” to which Johaira responds that maybe he should dial back his indiscriminate use of the “N” word.

Katherine George and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. at work on the MTC stage. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Lendeborg and George are both passionate and convincing in this demanding performance. Their characters’ irresistible attraction and ultimately dividing differences are all made abundantly clear. While the time-line isn’t as obvious, we guess that it covers probably two intense years in the lives of a vibrant couple—wisely or not, Del Carmen deletes all time-wasting connective tissue from the script. The two get married, but we never know about it until the end, when Johaira says “I’ll draw up the papers.”

Repeated distractions about Manuel’s mother and his brother Mario never reach resolution the way Johaira’s failed court case does. Not that we care. Both celebration and tragedy, Bees & Honey is a beautifully flawed long-exposure portrait of the intersecting lives of two very likeable young lovers.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionBees & Honey
Written ByGuadalis Del Carmen
Directed byKarina Gutierrez
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThru Mar 10th, 2024
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$12-$66
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.75/5.0
Performance4.0/5.0
Script3.50/5.0
Stagecraft3.50/5.0
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! AST Theater ~~ Joyful Noise: CenterRep Rocks “Mystic Pizza”

By Barry Willis

As you enter the capacious Hoffman Theatre in Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, a rock band is already in position in a large alcove at the back of the stage, gorgeously arranged to look like the inside of a Mystic, Connecticut pizza shop. The B-52s’ enduring hit “Love Shack” blares from the house PA.

Then the fun begins—all of it performed to upbeat pop tunes from the 1980s, all of it instantly recognizable to anyone who lived through that decade, by superstars such as The Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper, Rick Astley, The Bangles, Huey Lewis & the News, and many others. The six-piece band absolutely roars as each song propels the story, an amusing and ultimately heart-warming one about three waitresses recently graduated from high school and making plans for what comes next, while their employer Leona (Rayanne Gonzalez) worries about her failing business.

The cast of the new musical “Mystic Pizza,” presented by Center Repertory Company February 15-25 at Lesher Center for the Arts. Photo credit: Jason Niedle.

Based on the 1988 film of the same name, CenterREP’s Mystic Pizza is a big exuberant musical of Broadway proportions and aspirations. It leverages a huge dollop of nostalgia and mines the sweet innocence of the period while ignoring all that was malevolent and unpleasant. Why remind audiences about the threat of nuclear annihilation when you can get them to sing along with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun?”

It opens with a comical production number of a reluctant bride falling flat on her face and calling off the wedding. The bride Jojo (Gianna Yanelli) clearly loves her would-be heavy-metal guitarist and fisherman fiancé Bill (Jordan Friend) but simply isn’t ready to tie the knot, a running theme throughout the show. Her coworkers Daisy (Krystina Alabado) and Kat (Kyra Kennedy) are sisters with ambitions—Daisy hopes to go to law school, while Kat wants to major in astronomy and eventually become a NASA engineer. All three are simply tremendous—individually and as a high-energy song-and-dance trio.

The cast of the new musical “Mystic Pizza,” presented by Center Repertory Company February 15-25 at Lesher Center for the Arts. Photo credit: Jason Niedle

All three have romantic interests, of course—a musical rom-com wouldn’t be possible without them. Michael Thomas Grant is wonderful as wealthy slacker Charles Windsor, Jr., Daisy’s catch of the day. Grant’s loose, lanky physique, mannerisms, and voice are remarkably similar to the Steve Buscemi character from the film The Wedding Singer, also set in the ‘80s, with some similar themes. Kat’s object of affection is a young architect named Tim (Chris Cardoza) who’s overseeing the renovation of a classic home. Cardoza is a powerful actor and singer. Jeff Skowron is a scream in multiple roles, as rich dad Chuck Windsor, as the presiding priest at Jojo’s botched wedding, and especially as food critic the “Fireside Gourmet.”

The Hoffman’s large stage is ideal for this production. Nate Bertone’s imaginative set pieces glide on and offstage almost unnoticed, the set changes carefully choreographed by Conor Gallagher and effortlessly performed by the large cast during song breaks. Gallagher’s dance moves are all lifted from the era, as are costumer Jen Caprio’s authentic period apparel. Ryan J. O’Gara’s lighting and Josh Bessom’s sound design make enormous contributions. Top-to-bottom, side-to-side, and front-to-back, Mystic Pizza is a fantastically professional production.

The cast (Krystina Alabado, Michael Thomas Grant, Jordan Friend, Gianna Yanelli, Chris Cardozo and Kyra Kennedy) prepares for date night in the new musical “Mystic Pizza,” presented by Center Repertory Company February 15-25 at Lesher Center for the Arts. Photo credit: Jason Niedle.

Which leads to this question: Why does a show this big, this good, and clearly very expensive to produce, run only ten days? Such a short run is inexplicable, because CenterREP could easily give it six weeks of full houses.

But scheduling decisions aren’t up to critics. This gorgeous show runs only through February 25, with not a bad seat in the house. While only two of the three girls ultimately land the men of their dreams, Mystic Pizza is as happy and upbeat an experience as you’re likely to have in a theater this year. Don’t miss it!

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionMystic Pizza
Written byBook by Sandy Rustin

Story and characters by Amy Holden Jones

(Based on the MGM motion picture)

Musical arrangements by Carmel Dean
Directed by
Casey Hushion
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru Feb 25th
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$38-$78
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Music ~~ ‘70s Pop Icon Freda Payne Honors Ella Fitzgerald at Marin Showcase Theatre

By Barry Willis

One-time events can be difficult for reviewers because repeat performances may or may not come again. That’s the case with 1970s pop star Freda Payne and her February 16 A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald at the Marin Showcase Theatre.

Famed primarily for her hit song “Band of Gold,” one that seemed to be in continuous play throughout the years leading up to the disco era, Payne is still youthful and beautiful, with a shimmering alto voice and confident stage presence. Her approximately two-hour performance in the nearly-sold-out Showcase was delightful.

Freda Payne. Photos supplied by Jon Finck

Backed by a superb three-piece band (Larry Dunlap, piano; Leon Joyce, Jr., drums; and Gary Brown, bass), Payne recited Fitzgerald’s history as between-songs patter while plowing through her many iconic recordings, such as “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” “How High the Moon,” and the crowd-pleasing “Mack the Knife.” The American Songbook figured prominently during the evening, with compositions by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Hoagy Carmichael, and many others.

Fitzgerald’s oeuvre included jazz standards covered by many other artists, not merely during her decades as a musical force, but right up to the present day. Payne’s showbiz history includes working with such legends as Duke Ellington, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Quincy Jones, Omar Sharif, Liza Minelli, Pearl Bailey, Johnny Mathis, Leslie Uggams, the Four Tops, Gregory and Maurice Hines, Della Reese, and actor/pianist Jeff Goldblum.

… Payne is still youthful and beautiful, with a shimmering alto voice and confident stage presence …

While Payne’s timbre doesn’t match Fitzgerald’s seductive contralto, she gets the phrasing and tempo just right, especially while riffing a la Ella. During the first set she shared the stage with New Orleans native and Oakland-based jazz singer Kenny Washington, called by the SF Chronicle “the superman of the Bay Area jazz scene.”

Kenny Washington. Photos supplied by Jon Finck.

Washington is a tremendous performer with gifts for both music and comedic self-deprecation. He appears nationally and internationally with The Joe Locke Group, while pursuing a busy solo schedule. Pairing him with Payne was a special treat for the very enthusiastic audience, who enjoyed a post-show meet-and-greet with the headliner and an opportunity to get signed copies of Payne’s autobiography.

With decades of Broadway performances, TV shows, and a collection of 21 albums to her credit, Payne portrayed Ella Fitzgerald in Ella: The First Lady of Song, written by Lee Summers and conceived/directed by Maurice Hines, Jr. in acclaimed performances nationwide. She will reprise that role this summer at Michigan’s Meadow Brook Theatre. Payne’s new single, “Just to Be with You” is scheduled for release this year.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

 

ASR Theater ~~Pear Theatre’s Quirky “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday”

By Joanne Engelhardt

American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s plays are frequently fascinating and often almost psychological studies of families. Many of her plays have appeared on Broadway, and two were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. She received a Tony Award for Best Play for In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). She’s also an acclaimed professor, poet, and essayist.

In other words, she’s the real deal.

Yet the Ruhl play now running at The Pear Theatre in Mountain View, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,  has not reached those levels of acclaim. (Well, to be fair — a person has a shot at the MLB Hall of Fame by only hitting the ball four times in ten!) Anyway, the play is partially autobiographical, having molded the main character, Peter Pan, after her mother, who once played Peter Pan when she was a young girl.

… (the play) has its own charm and offers…a ..reminder … growing old doesn’t necessarily mean growing up …

Moving on. In this reviewer’s opinion, director Austin Edginton made an … interesting … choice in casting Monica Cappuccini as Ann, who is turning 70 but is spending that day with her siblings in a hospital room where her father lies dying. Make no mistake: Cappuccini is a fine actress, and she’s got just the right combination of spunk, caring, and droll humor to carry off wearing a Peter Pan costume and giving a charming speech directly to the audience before the curtain opens.

But — Ms. Cappuccini is British, and her accent is unmistakably British.  So how does she manage to have four siblings, none of whom are or speak the Queen’s language? Non-traditional casting, perhaps?

L-R: John Mannion (Jim), Tannis Hanson (Wendy), Bill Davidovich (John), Ronald Feichtmeir (Michael), and Monica Cappuccini (Ann). Photo credit: Sinjin Jones.

There’s also a bit of exciting casting in this situation as well: white-haired Ray Renati plays the father of Ann as well as of her sister Wendy (a credible Tannis Hanson) and three sons: Jim (John Mannion), John (Bill Davidovich) and Michael (Ronald Feichtmeir). Yet Mannion and Davidovich look about the same age as Renati – who’s supposed to be their father! Mannion even mentions being the third child, which seems odd. Que sera sera!

Casting aside, Pear’s production is an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes. The sword-fighting scenes are fun to watch (thanks to fight choreographer Dexter Fidler), and Greet Jaspaert’s Peter Pan costume for Cappuccini is charming, as is the Captain Hook costume worn by Mannion late in the play.

Once the large green curtain opens, the setting is a hospital room where Renati (as the father) lies hooked up to tubes and machines, apparently ready to take his last breath at any moment.

All five “children” are at his bedside, torn between hoping he will improve and wondering which breath will be his last. There’s talk about sending someone out to pick up Chinese food to bring back to Dad’s hospital room because they have been there for many hours. But then Dad finally kicks the bucket, and the action moves to a dining room where the siblings talk about politics and reminisce about their childhood. But good old dad is wandering around the room, although they can’t see him!

One child mentions the hereafter and wonders whether Dad is there now. Then Davidovich says, “Dad if you’re here with us, give us a sign.” With a twinkle in his eye, Dad decides to drop a plate of nibbles he’s eating. That generates the biggest laugh in the play.

Then, one of the other kids drags out an old trunk where Ann finds —  her long-ago Peter Pan costume.

All the grown-up children put on costumes from the play and begin jumping around saying “I’m flying” and “Cock-a-doodle-doo…” There are even a couple of brief appearances by Tinkerbell! After that bit of fantasy, they all leave the family home and return to their spouses and children.

L-R: Tannis Hanson (Wendy), John Mannion (Captain Hook/Jim), Bill Davidovich (John), Ronald Feichtmeir (Michael), and Monica Cappuccini (Ann). Photo credit: Sinjin Jones.

Although your experience might vary, this reporter did not find For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday as focused as other Ruhl plays. Yet — it has its own charm and offers audience members a soothing reminder: growing old doesn’t necessarily mean growing up.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionFor Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday
Written bySarah Ruhl
Directed byAustin Edgington
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru Mar 3rd
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$38-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5.00
Performance3.25/5.00
Script3.5/5.00
Stagecraft3.75/5.00
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

PICK! ASR Opera ~~ Unfinished Business at West Bay Opera

By Jeff Dunn

For a long time, I was wondering if Corpus Evita was the correct title for West Bay’s latest offering in Palo Alto. It’s a sequence of scenes—roughly connected, suffused with contradictory elements—that swirl in the past, present, and future about the troubled 1974-76 presidency of Argentina’s Isabel Perón and the legacy of Juan Perón’s previous wife, Eva.

It was Isabel’s mistakes and ouster that began the murderous military dictatorship of 1976-83, El Proceso. In the opera’s strongest scene, Isabel begs for forgiveness, an act the now 93-year-old has never performed publicly. The opera’s librettist claims that were she to do so, it “would be cathartic for a society that’s still divided about what happened back then.” Yet the opera is not named Isabel, not Eva, but Corpus Evita, the embalmed corpse of Eva.  Why?

Scene 5. (L-R): Isabel, Ministro, Ghosts of Eva and Perón. Background, members of WBO chorus. Photo credit Otak Jump.

The answer gradually dawned on me: There are two Eva Peróns. There is the myth of Evita as “patron saint of public spending, labor pampering, and largesse to the underprivileged” (The Atlantic, October 1952). Then there is her literal, trundled-about corpse representing a past that can never be recreated. The opera depicts both with two singers, respectively, lovely soprano Jessica Sandridge and the imposing Laure de Marcellus. But the title betrays the creators’ preference. In the words of the librettist, “People keep returning to the myth and they keep voting for it. And politicians keep handing out benefits that the country’s economy can ill afford, in a never-ending downward spiral.”

… When hope is suffused with nostalgia, as in the Evita myth, the result can be dangerous, unfinished business …

And who are the creators? Lorenz Russo–concept, Carlos Franzetti–music, and Jose Luis Moscovich, West Bay Opera General Director, Music Director, Stage Director–Librettist. All were present at the performance, and there was no question it was a labor of love, resplendently executed by a terrific set of soloists and chorus.

Scene 6. (L-R): Isabel and Ministro’s ghost. Photo credit Otak Jump.

White-suited tenor Patrick Bessenbacher was particularly impressive as sinister “Ministro” Lopez Rega, the Svengali with mystic influence over Isabel. Sara LeMesh was outstanding as Isabel, along with Casey Germain as Perón and Anders Froehlich as the Doctor.

Of all the wonderful aspects of the evening, the most stunning was the set and projection design by Peter Crompton, with gorgeous overlapping projections on three screens. Example: the final scene culminates in an apotheosis of Evita glowing with light with Statue of Liberty rays that suddenly morph to blood red as armed guerillas march out by Sandridge’s side.

Projections showing their magic in “Corpus Evita”. Photo credit Otak Jump.

When hope is suffused with nostalgia, as in the Evita myth, the result can be dangerous, unfinished business. When I heard Fanzetti’s gorgeous orchestrations in a 100-year-old Ravel-like milieu, I was at first confused until I realized they could apply to the Evita and not the Corpus. A bit more modernism in the Corpus music might have been helpful in emphasizing the temporal distinction.

Scene 4. (L-R) Isabel, Ministro, WBO Orchestra, Maestro José Luis Moscovich. Photo credit Otak Jump.

I could not justify in my mind a different, unfinished structural aspect: the abrupt breaks between scene changes, and the intermission break after, not before, a so-called Entr’Acte, a pantomimed scene in a torture chamber.

And finally, I feel a deeper impression would be made on audiences if additional transition music were composed and this compelling opera were performed without a break.

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ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor Jeff Dunn is a retired educator and project manager who’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera, Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

ProductionCorpus Evita. Based on a concept by Lorenz Russo.
Music byCarlos Franzetti
Libretto & Stage Direction by Jose Luis Moscovich
Producing CompanyWest Bay Opera
Production DatesThru Feb 25th
Production AddressLucie Stern Auditorium
Websitewww.wbopera.org
Telephone(650) 424-9999
Tickets$43- $115
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Music3/5/5
Libretto4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Film. Oscars 2024: Recap and Some Predictions

By George Maguire

I have now seen every film and performance nominated for an Academy Award. I’ve let them germinate in my mind and with the SAG awards coming and the Golden Globes already history, it’s time to ruminate.

Let it first be said that even with the global success of Barbieheimer, the year was finally a testament to what can be achieved during and after the COVID pandemic.

… will win … should win … and some potential dark horses…

So, I am splitting my predictions into what I think will win, what should win, and some potential dark horses. Enjoy!

Best Picture:

  •  Oppenheimer
  •  Barbie
  •  Anatomy of a Fall
  •  American Fiction
  •  Zone of Interest
  • ` Past Lives
  •  Killers of the Flower Moon
  •  The Holdovers
  •  Poor Things
  •  Maestro
  • Will Win: Oppenheimer
  •  Should Win: American Fiction

Best Actress:

  •  Annette Benning (Nyad)
  •  Lily Gladstone (Killers of the Flower Moon)
  •  Sandra Hueller (Anatomy of a Fall)
  •  Emma Stone (Poor Things)
  •  Carey Mulligan (Maestro)
  • Will Win: probably Lily Gladstone
  • Should Win: Anyone else
  • I found Lily Gladstone (who spent most of the film in bed) monochromatic. Emma Stone may pull a surprise here in a film I loathed—a rarity for me. My hope is that Annette Benning can pull an upset and finally win an Oscar.

Best Actor:

  •  Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer)
  •  Bradley Cooper (Maestro)
  •  Jeffrey Wright (American Fiction)
  •  Coleman Domingo (Rustin)
  •  Paul Giamatti (The Holdovers)
  • Will Win: Jeffrey Wright – I sincerely hope this is so. Cillian Murphy has a leg up though as Oppenheimer is a frontrunner.
  • Should Win: Jeffrey Wright
  • And bravo to local hero Colman Domingo for his beautiful work in Rustin (and in Color Purple)

Best Supporting Actress:

  •  Emily Blunt (Oppenheimer)
  •  Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Holdovers)
  •  Danielle Brooks (Color Purple)
  •  America Ferrera (Barbie)
  •  Jodie Foster (Nyad)
  • Will Win: Da’Vine
  • Should Win: Da’Vine This is assured!!!

Best Supporting Actor:

  •  Sterling Brown (American Fiction)
  •  Robert Downey Jr. (Oppenheimer)
  •  Robert DeNiro  (Killers of the Flower Moon)
  •  Mark Ruffalo (Poor Things)
  •  Ryan Gosling (Barbie)
  • Will Win: Robert Downey Jr.
  •  Should Win: Robert Downey Jr. (Oppenheimer). A side of him we have never seen before. Stunning!!!

Best Director:

  •  Justine Triet (Anatomy of a Fall)
  •  Martin Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon)
  •  Jonathan Glazer (Zone of Interest)
  •  Christopher Nolan (Oppenheimer)
  •  Yorgos Lanthimos (Poor Things)
  • Will Win: Christopher Nolan
  •  Should Win: Christopher Nolan.  No competition here!

Best Original Screenplay:

  •  Anatomy of a Fall (won the Golden Globe, will win here)
  •  The Holdovers
  •  Maestro
  •  Past Lives
  •  May/December

Best Adapted Screenplay:

  •  Zone of Interest
  •  Poor Things
  •  Oppenheimer (will win this!!)
  •  Barbie
  •  American Fiction

Best International Film:

  •  Io Capitano (Italy)
  •  Perfect Days (Japan) – a perfect film!! Should win here!
  •  The Teacher’s Lounge (Germany)
  •  The Society of the Snow (Spain)—done before as Alive.
  •  Zone of Interest (UK)

Best Animated Film:

  •  The Boy and the Heron (The absolute best!)
  •  Spiderman across the Universe (excellent, but no Heron!)
  •  Elemental
  •  Nimona
  •  Robot Dreams (No one saw this!)

So there we are my friends.

As I said I found Poor Things just awful (as did Mick LaSalle of the SF Chronicle). Half way through the film, two girls next to me stood up and stormed out. As a SAG voter, I never leave a film.

I found Zone of Interest terrific and horrid, telling the story of the family who lived next to Auschwitz, without getting into “documentary commenting.” Either way you perceive it, it is a must see!

Oscars are March 10th at 4 p.m. Pacific with host Jimmy Kimmel.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco-based actor/director and Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre. He is a voting member of the Screen Actors Guild, and of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: gmaguire1204@yahoo.com

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Hillbarn Theatre’s “Rent”— A Haunting Look Back at AIDS

By Joanne Engelhardt

If you’ve never seen Rent, Hillbarn Theatre’s rendering of what happened in the lower East Side of New York City in 1989 will give you goosebumps. It’s an authentic look at what young people had to deal with during that era. Not only is the cast filled with marvelous singers, but the entire set makes the audience feel as if they are living there, too.

As the audience walks into the theater, replicas of big 1989-era posters greet them, advertising the New York City Ballet, the Ramones, and several NYC theatre productions. After taking their seats, audience members discover they are entirely surrounded by the multilevel set designed by Hillbarn’s Artistic Director, Stephen Muterspaugh. It enables the cast to suddenly appear two feet away from you as they descend down one of the stairways or walk out onto the catwalks.

… “RENT” … will give you goosebumps!”

Director Reed Flores finds multiple ways to ramp up the agony and the ecstasy of the Rent storyline. First, he cast the excellent Brandon Leland as Roger, a songwriter/musician who is HIV positive. Roger lives with Mark (Edward Im), who gives a finely etched performance as a man whose big dream is to be a filmmaker one day.

It’s Mark who is determined to document the lives of his friends, to show how hopeless they feel – unemployed and uncertain about how they’ll find food, heat and a roof over their heads tomorrow. It’s a stark, realistic look at New York City’s struggling artists.

Though it takes place 35 years ago, it has some similarities with what’s happening today in San Francisco, Los Angeles and most large cities that have large numbers of people who can’t find jobs, a place to live and health care when they need it.

Arguably the most memorable character in Rent is Angel, a drag queen and the partner of Tom Collins (stalwart Dedrick Weathersby), an anarchist with AIDS. Tom has AIDS but still manages to teach philosophy part-time at New York University.

Jesse Cortez plays Angel in such a sweet, caring way, it’s hard not to be concerned for her. As written, Angel is a young drag queen who’s addressed as female when in drag and as male when out of drag.

It’s the grit and determination to try to hang on to much of their lives as best they can that makes Rent such a gut-wrenching experience. The story opens on Christmas Eve, with Mark and Roger attempting to keep warm in their apartment. Their heat has been shut off because they haven’t paid their rent. This is New York in December, so having no heat is a big deal.

Their landlord Benny (Jamari McGee), is their former friend, who has reneged on his promise to not require them to pay their back rent. Angel finds Tom Collins wounded in an alley and tends to him. They share the fact that they both have AIDS and discover they are instantly attracted to each other. Amazingly, all of this happens in the first half hour of the musical!

Director Flores selected at least half-a-dozen actors with big voices – voices that carry throughout the theater. Danielle Mendoza’s voice (as Maureen) is one. Both she and Solona Husband as her on-again/off-again lover, Joanne, have two of the best voices in Rent. Each also has one solo (“We’re Okay” for Joanne and “Over the Moon” for Maureen) in Act 1. Then they duke it out in a duet in Act 2’s “Take Me or Leave Me.”

Musical director Diana Lee conducts and plays keyboard with three other musicians (Mike Smith on guitar, John Doing on drums and Paul Eastburn on bass) from a tiny black pit at the back of the stage.

Though they are few and far between, there are some comic bits in Rent. One that got laughs at Hillbarn was persistent phone calls from anxious mothers calling to find out if their grown-up “children” are all right. Some of the calls are made by ensemble member Kristy Aquino who starts by begging them, as their mother, to call her back. Later, she calls to wish them “Merry Christmas.” Finally, out of frustration, she yells into the phone: “Pick up the phone, damn it!!”

The show’s wondrous musical score includes many songs that are part of our collective musical playbook. Who can forget “Another Day,” “La Vie Bohème,” “Take Me or Leave Me” — and the ubiquitous “Seasons of Love” with the wonderful line: “Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes?”

All of this – music, lyrics, book – came from the incredible mind of Jonathan Larson, who passed away before it ever opened on Broadway. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical.

Clearly, any production of Rent has historically big boots to fill. Hillbarn’s thrilling production does so quite comfortably.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionRENT
Written byJonathan Larson
Directed byReed Flores
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Feb 25th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~“Cult of Love” a Family Riot at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

Resentments and accusations derail a family Christmas in Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through March 3.

As in Tracy Letts’ August:Osage County and Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage—but nowhere near as savagely—the veneer of nicety slowly peels away as the Dahl family reunites for an annual holiday celebration. And as in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, venality displaces civility as the alcohol flows. Headland’s brilliant script adroitly acknowledges its predecessors without blatant imitation.

With snow falling continually outside the windows, Christmas cheer looks likely in the Dahl family’s upper-middle-class home, decorated to the max by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado. Its underlying elegant comfort is apparent even though every part of it is covered with lights and seasonal décor. Maldonado’s rococo visual treatment extends throughout the wide stage of Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, a dazzling background for an excursion into familial conflict decades in development—not in the playwright’s case, but in the lives of her characters.

… Hilarious as it is insightful …

The Dahl home is also festooned with musical instruments—piano, guitars, violin, ukulele, flute, drums, and more—that the clan employs to perform Christmas songs throughout the show. Even though the ten performers don’t appear to be organically related, they do a marvelous job of emulating family harmonies as they sing and play classic holiday songs. This happens early in the first act, seducing the audience into expecting a potentially happy event. Nothing could be further from the truth.

(L­–R): Cass Buggé (Pippa Ferguson), Kerstin Anderson (Diana Dahl Bennett), Virginia Kull (Evie Dahl, kneeling), Luisa Sermol (Virginia “Ginny” Dahl), and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Mark Dahl) in Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love, performing at Berkeley Rep through March 3, 2024. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Dan Hiatt stars as Bill Dahl, the piano-playing patriarch beginning to have memory problems. Fully cognizant and conversational, he’s nowhere near suffering from dementia, but his occasional lapses provoke questions from his adult children about his fitness, and suggestions that soon it will be time to consign him to full-time professional care.

Such discussions are merely smokescreens for the real issues eating away at all of them. Innuendoes and minor sniping soon morph into barely-contained guerilla warfare, most of it disturbingly funny. Comedy depends on provoking the audience through accidents, embarrassments, and absurdities. Cult of Love mines them all.

Luisa Sermol appears opposite Hiatt as his loyal and very religious wife Ginny, while Lucas Near-Verbrugghe embodies the role of eldest son Mark, a former Supreme Court clerk and would-be Lutheran minister who’s disappointed his family and himself by not living up to his potential. Mark’s wife Rachel, skillfully played last week by understudy Emily Ota, is the audience’s disaffected point-of-view observer who launches barbs almost at random during the Dahls’ escalating and unresolvable disputes.

Their many issues include angry lesbian daughter Evie (Virginia Kull), who’s had the audacity to bring home her new, recently-pregnant wife Pippa (Cass Buggé). In a paroxysm of liberality, the Dahls welcome them to the party. Much more problematic is Dahl daughter Diana (Kerstin Anderson) a true-believer fundamentalist whose penchant for channeling spirits and talking in tongues has cost her husband James (Christopher Lowell) his tenure as an Episcopalian minister. With nowhere else to go, Diana and James have been staying with her parents for the past month. Far more deadly than Dad’s memory problems is Diana’s failure to take her psychosis medications, her potential mishandling of an infant that we hear upstairs but never see, and her rejection of another developing infant in her womb.

Kerstin Anderson (Diana Dahl Bennett), Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Mark Dahl), and Virginia Kull (Evie Dahl) in Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love, performing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre now through March 3, 2024. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Rounding out this mélange-a-dix is rambunctious younger son Johnny (Christopher Sears), a former child chess prodigy and adult drug addict, who arrives late with an unexpected guest Loren (Vero Maynez), a smart-mouthed lapsed addict (“Nothing is more powerful than drugs”) that Johnny is sponsoring for his 12-step program. As current jargon has it, there’s a whole lot to unpack on Christmas Eve at the Dahl residence. That playwright Headland, director Trip Cullman, and this superb Berkeley Rep cast manage to do it all so seamlessly is truly a Christmas miracle.

Cult of Love is no lightweight comedy. It adheres to popular trends in playwriting that clad serious issues in humor and detour toward weighty ambiguity in the final act. Hilarious as it is insightful, it will leave you with plenty to ponder long after you’ve left the theater.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionCult of Love
Written by
Leslye Headland
Directed byTrip Cullman
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru March 3rd
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$22.50-$134
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.0/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Spamalot” — Novato Theater Company Masters Madcap Musical

By Cari Lynn Pace

Spamalot is the wacky stage musical written by Eric Idle of “Monty Python” fame. Veteran North Bay actor Larry Williams puts his comedic credentials to skillful use in directing the cast of nineteen in this hilarious send-up by Novato Theater Company. It’s part goofy, part camp, and all irreverent, with enough local references to make a real winner.

Four offstage musicians under Daniel Savio quickly open the fun onstage with John DuPrez’s “Fish Slap Dance.” NTC Artistic Director Marilyn Izdebski choreographed this screwball start (and other dances) while Tracy Bell Redig costumed the dancers in bright kinda-classic outfits and dead fish. Redig noted, “Wait ‘til you see the other outfits in this show. There are over 500 pieces of costuming and props. We’re amazed we can keep it all straight backstage.”

. . . full of outstanding comic performances and knockout voices . . .

This is the first production in Novato Theater Company’s lineup for 2024, and it’s full of outstanding comic performances and knockout voices. The castle stage, designed and built by Michael Walraven, is a real treat, lit up to the nines by Frank Sarubbi and the irrepressible Izdebski.

Spamalot spoofs Camelot, of course—the legend of King Arthur in Medieval England. The King, a royally regal and handsome Bruce Vieira, seeks Knights for his round table. He clops into ye olde towne accompanied by his hardworking horse clopper Patsy, (Michael Hunter). Townsperson Nicole Thordsen has a feisty exchange with the King as victims of the Black Plague victims are carted out. Athletic Kevin Allen insists he is “Not Dead Yet” as he rises from the pile of corpses and dances, singing and smiling.

(L to R) Top Row: Nicole Thordsen (Sir Robin), Izaak Heath (Sir Lancelot), John Griffin (Sir Bedevere), Michael Coury Murdock (Sir Galahad). Bottom Row: Michael Hunter (Patsy), Bruce Vieira (King Arthur) Dani Innocenti Beem (Lady of the Lake). Photo by Jere Torkesen and HariettePearl Fuggit.

The spotlights shine on multiple dance numbers, delightfully performed by a cadre of four local chorines: Hannah Passanisi, Olivia Ekoue Totou, Shino Yamagami Cline, and Abigail Burton, frequently backed up by the guys. The talented cast are clearly having a blast onstage with infectious moves and star-quality smiles.

Star quality: when Dani Innocenti-Beem materializes as the stunning “Lady of the Lake,” there’s no doubt she will knock ‘em dead, plague or not. Her powerhouse voice fills the theatre; her comedic expressions and mannerisms are over-the-top.

(L-R) Top Row: Nicole Thordsen (Sir Robin), Izaak Heath (Sir Lancelot), John Griffin, (Sir Bedevere), Michael Coury Murdock (Sir Galahad). Photo by Jere Torkesen, HariettePearl Fuggit.

Monty Python’s Spamalot has no real plot, with loosely connected scenes and goofy sight gags. Nonsensical characters are amusingly costumed and often disjointed, including one particular Black Knight. Even God himself makes an appearance. One hesitates to laugh too long for fear of missing what comes next. The show winds up with the familiar song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to encourage the audience to whistle along.

Truly a marvelous madcap romp, it’s shaping up to be a sold-out start to the year for Novato Theater Company. Don’t miss it!

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. Contact: pace-koch@comcast.net

 

ProductionSpamalot
Written byBook & Lyrics by Eric Idle. Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Directed byLarry Williams
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThru Mar 3rd
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
WebsiteNovatoTheaterCompany.org
Telephone(415) 883-4498
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5.0
Performance4.75/5.0
Script4/5.0
Stagecraft4.5/5.0
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES

ASR Theater ~~ Coastal Rep’s “Boeing, Boeing.” An Amusing Look Back at the 1960s

By Joanne Engelhardt

What happens when the electricity and amplification go off in the middle of a performance? If you’re the cast and crew of Coastal Repertory Theatre in Half Moon Bay, you just go with the flow and continue the performance!

That’s what happened last Sunday afternoon when this reviewer saw CRT’s pleasantly charming (if a tad dated) production of Boeing, Boeing. Clearly, the Coastal Rep bunch believes in the old theater adage: “The show must go on.”

“… terrific performances by Deborah Joves…Mark Selle…Danny Martin and Maddie Rea…”

Go on, it did, thanks to opening large doors to let in some light. Even a few audience members contributed by using their phone lights or getting a car flashlight to shine on the stage.

“Boeing, Boeing” cast at Coastal Rep!

Boeing, Boeing was written by French playwright Marc Camoletti and later translated into English by Beverley Cross and Francis Evan. It was first staged in London in 1962, where it ran for seven years. When it opened on Broadway in 1965, it was a flop, running for only 23 performances. That same year it was made into a movie starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis. The film was considered somewhat dated but mildly amusing. That about sums up Coastal Rep’s production as well.

And so it is that in this reviewer’s opinion, if it weren’t for the terrific performances by Deborah Joves as the housekeeper Berthe, Mark Selle as Robert, an American who comes to visit his old college friend Bernard (Danny Martin) in Paris, and Maddie Rea as the Lufthansa flight attendant, Gretchen, this production would be, well, a challenge at attracting viewers.

Danny Martin and Emily Krayn at work in “Boeing, Boeing”

Joves, in particular, carries the brunt of the storyline and performs her role in the deadpan manner of Thelma Ritter (who was in the 1965 film). Watching her attempt to keep her boss’ love life straight is priceless.

When Gretchen arrives, Berthe has to be sure that her photo is sitting in the frame in the living room. But if Gabriella (Emily Krayn), the Air France stewardess, is coming, her picture has to be visible. Ditto for Gloria (Erica Racz), the American air hostess who strangely loves catsup on her breakfast waffles!

(L-R) Danny Martin, Deborah Joves, & Erica Racz.

Director Mark Drumm is a pro and does a good job of trying to keep this menage a trois x2 up in the air! But, the play, so much a product of its time, is itself the source of its own … turbulence. That said, kudos and all credit to the production crew, too.

The spectacular set and the oh-so-authentic 1960s furniture and paintings are both the work of Doug McCurdy. Imagine creating a set with six single doors and then double doors at the center rear of the stage! The authentic-looking costumes of the flight attendants, and of the housekeeper, are the creative work of Michele Parry and add so much as well. Jaap Tuinman’s sound design is fine as is Blake Dardenelle’s lighting design.

And please be aware: Coastal Rep’s website advises that this play has “mature themes. Parental guidance suggested for persons under 13.”

Many of the paintings on the walls of the set are actually for sale, although they’re not available until the play closes on Feb. 18. Check out the Coastal Rep website at www.coastalrep.com for photos of the paintings and how to place a bid.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionBoeing Boeing
Written byMarc Camoletti
Directed byMark Drumm
Producing CompanyCoastal Repertory Co.
Production DatesThru Feb 18th
Production Address1167 Main St.,
Half Moon Bay, CA
Websitewww.coastalrep.com
Telephone(650) 204-5046
Tickets$19– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.75/5
Performance3.5/5
Script2.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ “Sylvia” Shines at Sonoma Arts Live

By Barry Willis

A rambunctious dog drives a wedge between a couple of empty-nesters in Sylvia at Sonoma Arts Live through February 18.

Melody Payne delights and astounds as the lovable stray dog whose name gives the title to A.R. Gurney’s sweet story. David Shirk is perfectly cast as Greg, a middle-aged middle-manager who’s grown dissatisfied with his job and has begun taking unauthorized leave from work to bask in the sun in New York’s Central Park.

… Sylvia … It’s simply brilliant…

That’s where he meets Sylvia. It’s love at first sight for both of them. It’s also where he meets Tom (Mike Pavone), a gruff-voiced and opinionated dog lover whose big bruiser “Bowser” is Sylvia’s object of affection. As they watch their dogs cavort, Tom dispenses advice to Greg, much of it applicable to Greg’s marriage to Kate (Jill Zimmerman), an English teacher who hopes to enlighten inner-city students with Shakespeare by comparing his work to rap. Kate’s reached a breakthrough in her career. With kids grown and out of the house, she’s ready for the next stage in life—one that does not include the encumbrance of caring for a dog.

Jill Zimmerman, Melody Payne in Sonoma Arts Live’s “Sylvia”, February 2-18. Photos credit Miller Oberlin

Greg campaigns mightily for Sylvia—whom Kate dismissively calls “Saliva”—and ponders his future while Kate considers hers. Sylvia slowly but inevitably wins her over through sheer enthusiasm—repeated with outrageous comic energy by Payne as she sniffs, romps, growls, humps, and gives voice to everything we imagine that a dog might say if gifted with speech.

Payne’s ultra-high-energy performance absolutely carries this uproarious comedy. She’s simultaneously perfectly on the mark, on time, and precise in her movements while conveying a delightful lack of inhibition. Shirk wisely plays Greg as understated and hopeful if a bit morose—a masterful encompassing of character. Zimmerman, winner of a Critics Circle award for her performance in August: Osage County, is tremendous as the self-centered wife who resents an intrusion into what she had imagined as her personal renaissance.

Pavone is superb in multiple roles—not merely as a NYC tough guy, but as Phyllis, a kleptomaniac socialite, and as Leslie, an androgynous psychotherapist. Costume designer Kate Leland makes a serious contribution, not merely with humans—Phyllis is a scream—but especially with her depictions of Sylvia as both scruffy stray and pampered house pet.

 

Mike Pavone, David Shirk at SAL. Photos credit Miller Oberlin

Following last summer’s tour-de-force Dinner with Friends, director Carl Jordan has another hit. He takes this one in unexpected directions with musical interludes that other productions have never explored. Over the years, this reviewer has seen several iterations of Sylvia. SAL’s is orders of magnitude better than all of them — combined. It’s a riotous, wonderfully uplifting story and an absolute must-see for dog lovers—or for anyone who’s ever made an impetuous decision that proved enormously rewarding.

Don’t let Sylvia get away. It’s simply brilliant.

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Aisle Seat Review Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionSylvia
Written byA.R. Gurney
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru Feb 18th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Our Town” – Heartfelt & Timeless Hits Home at RVP

By Cari Lynn Pace

COVID kept me from attending the opening night of Our Town on Friday, January 26th, at Ross Valley Players. By the time I was well a week later, the theatre was sold out. With good reason, indeed.

This endearing Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Thornton Wilder harks back to a simpler time in the early 1900s. Horses outnumbered cars, and a first date might have been a shared strawberry phosphate at the soda counter. Mothers in aprons kept busy from sun-up; fathers home from work guided their children.

“Narrator Lisa Morse takes us on an imaginary and vivid exploration of the town…”

The play opens with a large and delightfully costumed cast (kudos to designer Michael A. Berg) bustling about onstage in the quaint hamlet of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Narrator Lisa Morse takes us on an imaginary and vivid exploration of the town.

Lisa Morse as “The Stage Manager”. Photos by Robin Jackson

Morse is remarkably skilled at describing what we cannot see; we can almost smell the heliotrope she points to, wafting up from a garden. All this is evoked in the imaginations of the audience, as the play’s staging is quite austere—not “black box theater,” but close.

Spot-on acting abounds under the capable and sensitive direction of Chloe Bronzan. Fast-moving scenes include Jennifer McGeorge as Mrs. Webb, Steve Price as local newspaper editor Mr. Webb, Tina Traboulsi as their daughter Emily Webb, Jaedan Sanchez as George Gibbs, Michael-Paul Thomsett as Dr. Gibbs, Lauri Smith as Mrs. Gibbs, Peter Warden as Simon Stimsom, Justin Hernandez as Sam Craig/Howie Newsom, Ann Fairlie as Mrs. Soammes, Alexandra Fry as Rebecca Gibbs/Si Crowell, and Dalton Ortiz as Wally Webb/Joe Crowell Jr. Tom Reilly rounds out the cast as Professor Willard/Constable Warren/Mr. Carter. Quite a list of characters for such a small town!

Dalton Ortiz as Wally Webb, Jennifer S. McGeorge as Mrs. Webb, Tina Traboulsi as Emily Webb. Photos by Robin Jackson

Poignant emotions flow freely from energetic and idealistic youth to elder acceptance of regrets now past. Our Town is more than a slice of life as it may have been. It’s a meal of a nearly full life, a lovely homage to a time long gone. This popular play is well-attended; plan accordingly.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. Contact: pace-koch@comcast.net

 

ProductionOur Town
Written byThornton Wilder
Directed byChloe Bronzan
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru Feb 25th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Tickets$20-$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5.0
Performance4/5.0
Script5/5.0
Stagecraft4/5.0
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “She Loves Me” – Musical Theater With a Comic Touch at 6th St.

By Susan Dunn

If a musical set in a 1937 Hungarian perfume shop seems like a stretch for a good evening out, you might want to think again.

She Loves Me has all the elements of compelling characters, charming scenes, sonorous music that stays with you, and three storylines that meld together into a hit show and a staple in our musical repertoire. 6th Street Playhouse puts on a visually and musically compelling production that is receiving enthusiastic response in the GK Hardt Theatre.

… humor in almost every scene …

Three couples working in the Parfumerie spin the story, including shy and hardworking George (Lorenzo Alviso) and Amalia, a combative new hire (Molly Larson-Shine). The two bicker through their professional lives but are secretly lonely-hearts pen pals. 30ish and flirtatious Ilona (Julianne Bretan) is having an affair with the male attraction in the shop, suave and mellifluous Stephen Koday, (Drew Bolander). Finally, there is the unlikely couple of elderly and humorous Mr. Marachezek (Garet Waterhouse) and his young delivery boy Arpad, played with amazing finesse by 15-year-old Tyer Ono). Arpad turns our enthusiasm up to boil with his big moment in the show, singing “Try Me.”

“She Loves Me” cast at work. Photo credit: Eric Chazankin

The cast is augmented by an ensemble of ubiquitous shoppers who amuse us scene after scene with their various cosmetic issues and gift needs. They double as patrons and staff for the nightclub scene in which the pen pals, known to each other only as “Dear Friend,” will finally meet.

…see it, for the charm, music, captivating story & production values…

Gracing this production is an appealing set that takes us into the shop, and is flexible enough to transport us to a hospital room and a darkly mysterious nightclub. Director Emily Lynn Cornelius makes use of every opportunity to tweak our sense of humor using pratfalls, original and sometimes noisy props, exaggerated expressions, and actions which resound in laughter through the audience. She deftly varies the shoppers’ scenes which run the gamut of Christmas shopping madness at the play’s end, and feature one-off surprise moments.

“She Loves Me” shows thru Feb 25th at 6th St Playhouse. Photo: Eric Chazankin

The audience-rousing approach emphasizing humor in almost every scene, however, seems to come at the cost of a lack of subtle character development found in other productions.

To this reviewer, some actors were more physically expressive than others, notably Tyler Ono, who seems made to fall through the door when he is revealed as eavesdropping, and Julianne Bretan, who winningly commands all parts of the stage as she details her adventure with new beau Paul, an optometrist she met at the library. Sound design was OK in the miking of the singers, but this reviewer found the orchestra was occasionally too loud for a proper balance and support to the vocals.

Will you love She Loves Me? The plusses outweigh the few minuses in this production. Go see it for the charm, music, captivating story and production values. My prediction: you will love it.

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Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionShe Loves Me
Book byJoe Masteroff
Directed byEmily Lynn Cornelius
Music byJerry Bock
Lyrics bySheldon Harnick
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThru Feb 25th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$29 to $51
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “My Home on the Moon”, S.F. Playhouse’s Huge Serving of Hilarious Cyber-Pho!

By Susan Dunn

Here’s a play that will teach us how to make the Vietnamese soup specialty: Pho. Not quite! My Home on the Moon quickly takes us from our ordinary lives to other realities in the cyber world.

Act One opens on an average-looking Asian soup shop, adorned with pictures of the homeland and featuring a much-revered shrine to the shop owner’s sister, and former joint owner. The discouraged proprietress Lan (versatile and winning Sharon Omi) reveals the desperate straits her business is experiencing with the neighborhood takeover by mega-corporations and the fall to the wrecker’s ball of small businesses like hers.

…”My Home on the Moon” is a humorous take on a Matrix-like reality…

Lan is joined by her grouchy assistant Mai (hilariously played by Jenny Nguyen Nelson), who breaks the 4th wall to great effect. Soon enough, we hear the doom of a building being crushed to rubble off-stage. The corporate enemy is closing in.

Lan (Sharon Omi) reminisces about her childhood with a giant noodle (background: puppeteered by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) on the moon in San Francisco Playhouse’s World Premiere Play “My Home on the Moon,” performing January 25 – February 24. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

But Lan has applied for a financial aid grant for her shop, and her winnings come in to save it from default. First, a huge basket of delectable Vietnamese goodies appears, and the consumables seem to anesthetize Lan and Mai, whose binge puts them prone on the floor.

Next, they are greeted by marketeer Vera, who represents Novus Corporation, the company taking over local real estate. She promises the shop will be transformed, dripping with cachét and busy with customers now that Lan has won the grant. And Vera, smartly and charmingly played by Rinabeth Apostal, can make it all happen: the blank white shop turns to orange ambience, NFTs (Non-fungible tokens in cyber-talk) grace the walls, and the backyard becomes a Vietnamese jungle.

(L-R) A food critic (Will Dao) samples cuisine, watched by Lan (Sharon Omi), Mai (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) and a camera person (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) in SF Playhouse’s “My Home on the Moon.” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Miraculously, both Lan and Mai are smartly re-uniformed to enhance the look of the café. But who is Vera really? And why doesn’t she eat the fabulous Pho?

Understanding who is real and who is a robot or ‘simulation’ challenges us as the story and timeline proceed, and actors take on multiple roles. A standout is Will Dao, playing four very different personas, all to amazing effect. He grabs our attention immediately with every unexpected appearance. This is truly an eye-popping show, replete with suggestive dancers, sinuous and menacing cyber light cords, and alternate states of consciousness or digital manipulation depending on which of the corporate robots or managers are controlling the scene.

Mai (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) and Vera (Rinabeth Apostol) share a moment at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The challenge and ultimate success of scene changes and manipulations are handsomely done by the creative team under the direction of Mei Ann Teo. Projections are used to great effect in many scenes and in many parts of the stage by Hao Bai, and the scene swivels to reveal three different sets, times/places and states of consciousness.

Finally we are left to ponder what reality we live in. Is it the actual world, or is it the digital river of games, memes, virtual reality, NFTs and other predations on our consciousness?

My Home on the Moon is a humorous take on a Matrix-like reality where people are trapped in a simulated digital world. Warning: the constant food themes may spark your hunger for an immediate bowl of Pho.

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Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionMy Home On The Moon
Written byMinna Lee
Directed byMei Ann Teo
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru Feb 24th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ LASC’s “Heroes” a Difficult Play

By Joanne Engelhardt

A tall man walks out of a Wyoming cabin in the woods, hears the rustle of leaves and a tell-tale sound. He grabs his shotgun and – POW! He’s shot a deer. The man gets it, lays it on the cement in front of his cabin, and … well, let’s just say he makes sure it’s dead.

Does this have anything to do with the rest of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, playing through Feb. 18 at Los Altos Stage Company? Difficult to say. It does establish place: an old cabin in the woods, far out in the Wyoming countryside.

The crux of the storyline is that four former students of the extremely conservative Transfiguration College of Wyoming return to the school to celebrate the inauguration of one of their favorite professors as president of the college. She’s also the mother of one of the four.

From left: Will Livingston, Tim Garcia, April Culver

Reuniting at the inauguration, the friends accept an invitation from Justin (Will Livingston) to stay at his mountain cabin for a few days to catch up with each other and to see an upcoming full eclipse of the moon.

. . . each of the quartet suffers from either a gigantic bucketful of animosity, angst, feminist beliefs, booze or alt-right dogma…

This is not an easy play to watch, and it’s wise that LASC advises that it may be unsuitable for younger audiences.

LASC Executive Artistic Director Gary Landis directs this production with a steady hand, allowing each of the actors to have his or her own moment in the sun. In fact, all five of the actors seem to fit into the characters they play as easily as putting on a favorite set of clothes. They are:

Tim Garcia as Kevin, a booze-swilling, neuroses-filled hot mess who whines, cries, throws up and basically flops down on the hard dirt while asking pointed questions he has about his Catholic upbringing and why they must love the Virgin Mary. It’s difficult to watch his thin, almost-frail body suffer so horribly.

April Culver as Emily, daughter of the new college president. She suffers terribly from an unnamed disease, frequently crying out in pain and needing help to walk even with the cane she uses. She has become far more liberal since leaving college, having seen the anguish of a woman who went to Planned Parenthood after an unwanted pregnancy. Basically, she says she’s come to have empathy with even those with whom she fundamentally disagrees.

From left: Tim Garcia, Sarah Thurmond at work.

Sarah Thermond as Teresa, who has clearly drunk the Kool-Aid of Trumpian America and calls Steve Bannon her “personal hero.” Teresa believes that by out-shouting and out-talking her three friends, she will succeed in winning them over to her beliefs. Mesmerizing as she is, Teresa is easily the least likeable character, at least by liberal standards.

Will Livingston (Justin) owns the cabin where everyone is congregating. He has chosen to withdraw somewhat from the world, although he makes it abundantly clear that he believes that by focusing on Christianity, he can block out liberals “trying to wipe us out.”

The fifth character is the newly anointed school headmistress, Gina (Lee Ann Payne). She doesn’t show up until the last 45 minutes of the show, but she plays forceful, decisive and dynamic. With a slight Southern drawl, she describes herself as a “Goldwater gal” but admits to being appalled by Theresa’s ultra-far-right rhetoric.

Will Arbery’s 2019 play is nothing if not unsettling. The single-set production is creatively designed by Seafus Chatmon. Sound is crucial for such a wordy play, and Ken Kilen’s sound makes almost every intelligible. Kudos, too, for Mykal Philbin’s moody outdoor lighting design.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionHeros of the Fourth Turning
Written byWill Arbery
Directed byGary Landis
Music byMatthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin
Producing CompanyLos Altos Stage Co.
Production DatesThru Feb 18th
Production Address97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos, CA
Websitelosaltosstage.org
Telephone650.941.0551
Tickets$25-$48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.25/5
Performance4.50/5
Script4.50/5
Stagecraft4.25/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-------

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Almost, Maine” — Heartfelt Snippets in a Winter Whimsy

By Cari Lynn Pace

Almost Maine is an offbeat title perfectly suited to an offbeat show at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa.

Four actors deftly switch identities in ten loosely connected vignettes to portray characters who reside in Almost, a chilly little hamlet 183 miles from Bangor, Maine.

Cast of “Almost Maine” at work. Photo courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions

The resilient residents are variously in love, out of love, falling for each other, and so on against a postcard background designed by Barry Martin, Lucky Penny’s Managing Director and Co-Founder with Taylor Bartolucci.

… It’s a testament to the skill of the actors that they disappear so completely into their roles …

It’s a testament to the skill of the actors that they disappear so completely into their roles; my companion was sure there were more than just four actors in the show. Kudos to Julianne Bradbury, Mark Bradbury, Max Geide and Jenny Vielleux for making their nearly 20 total roles so convincing.

Cast of “Almost Maine” at work. Photo courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions

John Cariani wrote the ten scenes of Almost, Maine with poignant bits of humor, humanity, and wackiness. The connecting thread is one’s desire to connect, to perhaps find that special love.

Each blackout invites a new set of characters to meet, another emotion to evoke. It’s all a charming glimpse of the vast spectrum of the heart, ably directed in a debut by Alexander Gomez.

Cast of “Almost Maine” at work. Photo courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions

Playing Thursdays through Sundays until February 11, 2024 at Lucky Penny Productions, 1758 Industrial Way, Napa CA. Tickets at www.luckypennynapa.com or call 707-266-6305.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. Contact: pace-koch@comcast.net

 

ProductionAlmost, Maine
Written byJohn Cariani
Directed byAlexander Gomez
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru Feb 11th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$28-$38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Cirque du Soleil Astounds with “Kooza” at PacBell Park

By Barry Willis

Miracles and madness are on full display with Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza at San Francisco’s PacBell Park through March 17.

The Montreal-based contemporary circus troupe’s first visit to the Bay Area since 2019 is a revelation in a huge tent outside PacBell Park. The Cirque complex actually occupies one large square block (“Lot 1”) on the edge of the bay, immediately across the street from Atwater’s.

Fans who arrive early can enjoy entertainment by wandering clowns, a pair of very well-balanced stilt-walking girls, and a wonderful four-piece band playing extended riffs on familiar jazz standards—“Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Caravan” among them. Another benefit to early arrival is ease of parking.

… There’s something for everyone in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza …

The real show, of course, happens in the big tent. Formed decades ago with the intent of modernizing the circus, Cirque du Soleil has proven to be a worldwide success, with multiple touring shows, and two or three in constant production in Las Vegas. Many of the troupe’s acts have roots in traditional circus acts, but there are no animals. That was one of the founders’ intentions. Those with qualms about abused animals can set their misgivings aside. The only potential damage is to Cirque du Soleil performers.

“Silk” is a fierce character with the ability to fly, spin, and swing in all directions in “Zooza”. Picture copyright & courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

All Cirque shows have a theme or through-line to tie diverse acts together. In Kooza, we meet a lackluster clown called “the Innocent” with an uncooperative kite, and another who’s a rowdy clown king with a missing crown and a couple of riotous sidekicks who continually prod the audience.

The search for the crown and its ultimate acquisition by the Innocent is all that connects this huge show’s opening and closing moments, but a through-line isn’t really needed. Every act is a mind-blower, from aerialists and contortionists to hand-balancers and high-flying acrobats. Even while watching in astonishment, viewers must ask themselves how anyone learns to do any of this. Where does one go to school to learn how to do a “five-man high” ???

Twin highwires crisscross diagonally at 15 and 25 feet above the stage in “Kooza”. Picture copyright & courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

Ukrainian unicycle performers Dmytro Dudnyk and Anastasiia Shkandybina blow minds early in the show. Dudnyk rides about the circular stage, picking up his partner and putting her on his head—where she performs several balancing stunts as he continues peddling. She mounts and dismounts, he picks her up and sets her down, all without stopping or losing stability. It all looks so easy—and so impossible.

“Impossible” is the perfect description for just about everything that happens in Kooza. A Spanish/Columbian highwire act appears to have fatal potential, as does a solo performance with aerial silks by Japan’s Mizuki Shinagawa. A trio of ultra-lithe Mongolian girls contort themselves into positions that would send ordinary people to the emergency room. Solo artist Aruna Bataa, also Mongolian, takes the hula hoop into the stratosphere, spinning several of them at once—sometimes in opposite directions. Her closing bit makes a stack of silver hoops look like an oversize Slinky that completely encompasses her.

The “Wheel of Death”—a huge contraption with a spinning wheel at each end, in which actors walk, run, dance, and fly, both inside and out. Picture copyright & courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

Perhaps the most astounding act of all is the “Wheel of Death”—a huge contraption with a spinning wheel at each end, in which Columbians Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Angelo Lyezkysky Rodriguez walk, run, dance, and fly, both inside and out. Then there’s Russian Victor Levoshuk’s handbalancing act, a riff on one of the most ancient circus acts, in which he positions chairs ever higher until he’s nearly at the top of the big tent and balancing motionless on the whole stack. The crowd-pleasing finale is a multi-national teeterboard act that sends acrobats end-over-end high in the air to safe landings back on earth.

Between all of these acts are comic interludes, audience participation bits, ensemble dances, and fantastic performances by an onstage band, whose drummer Eden Bahar from Israel enjoys a tremendous solo.

There’s something for everyone in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. An astounding blend of art and athleticism, it’s also an enlightening metaphor about the potential of multi-national cooperation.

Kooza runs at PacBell Park through March 17, then moves to San Jose’s Santa Clara Fairgrounds for a one-month run April 18 – May 26. It’s by far the most amazing thing you will see this year.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionKooza
Written byCirque du Soleil
Directed byCirque du Soleil
Producing CompanyCirque du Soleil
Production DatesSF: Through March 17

San Jose: April 18 – May 19
Production AddressLot 1, PacBell Park, San Francisco (through March 17)

Santa Clara Fairgrounds (April 18 – May 26)
Website
www.cirquedusoleil.com/kooza
Telephone
Tickets
Variable – see website for times and prices
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Steven Anthony Jones Soars in “How I Learned What I Learned”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Not many actors can stand on stage for 90+ minutes and talk with just a few sips of water – all the while keeping an audience mesmerized. Yet that’s exactly what Steven Anthony Jones does in August Wilson’s theatrical memoir How I Learned What I Learned.

As directed by former TheatreWorks Silicon Valley artistic director Tim Bond, an acclaimed interpreter of Wilson’s works, How I Learned is as mesmerizing as anything you’ll see on a Broadway stage. It runs through Feb. 3 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

..shares the stage with a table, a chair & a gigantic wall of red bricks…

Co-conceived by Todd Kreidler, the show is a wondrous gift to Peninsula theatregoers who have the opportunity to see it. That’s because it forcefully relates so many difficult, lonely and unfair experiences that people like poor, black, uneducated Wilson experienced growing up after his family came to the United States.

Steven Anthony Jones at work in Palo Alto.

“My mom came to Pittsburg in 1937,” Jones recalls, in Wilson’s voice. August, the fourth of six children, was born in 1945, and was immediately saddled with the “unfortunate circumstance” of being born black. “I was supposed to be white! I got that from Clarence Thomas,” he jests.

Wilson’s works examine the American condition, which is why he’s been referred to as theater’s poet of Black America. All the pain and suffering that both he and his family before him bore is clearly visible in his series of 10 plays collectively called The Pittsburgh Cycle. They include such award-winning plays as Fences, The Piano Lesson, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Jones is a short, somewhat pudgy man who, as Wilson, hobbles around a bit on stage. As he meanders here and there, he doffs a beret, perches on a desk, sometimes turning his back on the audience for a second or two before winking and then continuing on an autobiographical journey.

This is his fourth time performing in Wilson’s one-man show since 2019. Over the years it’s obvious that what he says and does on stage has become more nuanced, more human, more real.

Jones shares the stage with a table, a chair and a gigantic wall of red bricks reaching high into the rafters. That wall is where a word or three appear up high – propelling him to segue into another story, another vignette, another unfairness.

Growing up, August had a few good friends he’d hang around with – friends that he’d stay close to all his life. But he clearly emphasizes that he’s his “mother’s son,” and she told him he had to get a job after school to help out with the family’s expenses. He endured many experiences of prejudice and unfairness, to the point where he’d finally quit a job rather than be treated that way. “Something is not always better than nothing,” he declares, once again quitting a job rather than being accused of something he didn’t do.

The takeaways are many in this 95+ minute presentation of Wilson’s life and literary evolution into becoming one of American’s most celebrated and influential playwrights. Equally telling are his observations on what it means to be a black writer and artist in the 20th century.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionHow I Learned What I Learned
Written by
August Wilson; co-conceived by Todd Kreidler
Directed byTim Bond
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThru Feb 3rd
Production Address500 Castro St. Mountain View
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$37- $82
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.25/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Palo Alto Players’ Mesmerizing “Misery”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Expect to spend more than 1 ½ hours being mesmerized by the Palo Alto Players’ production of Misery, running through Feb. 4 at Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto. It’s so scary you might even consider taking a Valium before heading to the theater!

Because of all the suspense, violence, and downright nastiness in Misery, it’s no wonder that PAP has made it abundantly clear that this play is recommended for ages 17 and older.

Kimberly Ridgeway’s direction is so carefully executed that even the most violent scenes provoke fascination and horror. That’s also due to the two fine actors she chose to perform onstage nearly nonstop for the entire production.

Photo by Scott Lasky. Paul Sheldon (Chris Mahle) is being nursed back to health after a car crash by Annie Wilkes (Maria Marquis), in MISERY, one of Stephen King’s best novels come to life onstage.

As the quirky, isolated-from-society Annie Wilkes, Maria Marquis is both exquisitely frightening and authentic. Marquis’ Annie has a childlike vibe about her that makes her even more bizarre and creepy.

…When she says to Paul: “I’m your Number One fan!” it’s not a compliment …

As well-known author Paul Sheldon, Christopher Mahle is the object of all of Annie’s affection and attention after she pulls him out of his car when he has an accident not far from her home. She takes on the role of nursing him back to health in her spare bedroom, a task she relishes because she’s read all of his “Misery Chastain” novels and can’t wait to read the next one.

Although Annie is somewhat experienced in nursing, she also decides that she wants Paul all to herself for as long as possible. She takes away his car keys and cell phone, hiding them where he’ll never find them.

Annie’s delighted when Paul finally wakes up after being unconscious for four days. During that time, she discovers he has a new manuscript in his briefcase and asks him whether she might be allowed to read it as his “Number One fan.” Grateful for her care, Paul begrudgingly agrees. But when she discovers that the book isn’t about Misery Chastain, she is enraged.

She tells him he must continue writing about her favorite character, Misery. Paul tells her he wanted to write something somewhat autobiographical. Helplessly he watches as she sets fire to the book he’s spent months writing.

Even this much of the storyline doesn’t reveal a lot about the play’s plot because it has more twists and turns than a maze.

Photo by Scott Lasky. Annie Wilkes (Maria Marquis) discusses the mysterious disappearance of author Paul Sheldon with the local Sheriff Buster (Zachary Vaughn-Munck) who is on the case in MISERY at Palo Alto.

Written by playwright William Goldman, based on the Stephen King novel, the cast of Misery includes just one other character: the local sheriff, Buster (Zachary Vaughn-Munck). The sheriff makes several trips to Annie’s home to talk to her about the missing author.

Gillian Ortega’s rotating three-room set (plus a front door at the far right) is an integral part of Misery. The bedroom, living room and kitchen are the three rooms that slowly move in a circle as the actors sometimes rush through them to be in place when the pre-recorded music stops and lights go up on the next scene. Edward Hunter’s lighting is appropriately scary. Dave Maier also deserves a shoutout for making the fight scenes authentic (and again: scary).

With Misery, Palo Alto Players provides an absorbing evening of theatre. Just leave the kiddies at home.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionMisery
Written by William Goldman. Based on the novel by Stephen King.
Directed byKimberly Ridgeway
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru Feb 4th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$35-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Legally Blonde” Pinks the Stage on Barbie’s Coattails

By Susan Dunn

Kicking off 2024, Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre Company, formerly based in Pleasanton, has come out touting its new name (they’ve dropped the “Repertory”) and moved their venue to the capacious 400-seat Bankhead Theater, which was sold out for the opening night of a rocking Legally Blonde.

The launch for this re-start is a high-energy musical based on the 2001 film and a positive way to show off a 40-plus cast, 19 scenes, an expansive set, and show-stopping choreography and costumes. The two doggie stars Bruiser and Rufus are an audience delight and success capper!

… a show that will wipe away the winter weather and all serious issues!

Some musicals are just for fun, with no apologies. Legally Blonde infects us from the opening number, “Omigod You Guys,” with a repeating anthem to high-energy vocals and sorority-girl buzzy action. The song title personifies Elle Woods, the forceful star who exudes the ubiquitous smile, “out-there” stance, and drop-dead costume changes of a showoff who knows she’s terrific and revels in it.

Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde”.

Elle has it all: the man of her dreams, a secured future, and a validation that she’s a sorority star and adored princess—until she doesn’t have her man. When Warner Huntington III drops her as not being serious enough to be mate to his legal and political ambitions, she spends most of the rest of the musical plotting to get him back.

Deftly acted and sung by Gwynevere Cristobal, she faces the challenge of Harvard Law School and finds her own style and maneuvers to succeed at law. Along the way, she finds new capabilities and some depth in her relationships. But it’s her “Omigod You Guys” prevailing positivity, energy, and in-your-face attitude that move the show to its raucously happy ending.

Themes in this show teeter-totter between being 2001 out-of-date and 2024 Barbie with-it: dumb blondes, popularity queens, gay putdowns, corporate corruption, and sexual predation. But what really matters are the fine direction by Misty Megia, expert, and varied choreography—particularly with jump-ropes—by Cat Delos Santos Reyes, costume eye-candy and surprise reveals by Andrea Gorham-Browne, and continual set manipulations designed and executed by Tom Curtin. With a few standouts, the cast works together to execute an almost flawless high-pitch musical.

In this reviewer’s opinion, the orchestra was a bit of a low point of the evening, but the huge cast just danced and sang their brains out and put orchestra shortcomings in the shade. Time to pull out your own pink wardrobe and accessories and head to the Bankhead for a show that will wipe away the winter weather and all serious issues!

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Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionLegally Blonde
Written byLawrence O’Keefe, Nell Benjamin, and Heather Hatch
Directed byMisty Megia
Producing CompanyTri-Valley Theatre Company
Production DatesThru January 28, 2024
Production AddressBankhead Theater
2400 First St, Livermore, CA 94551
Websitehttps://trivalleytheatre.org/
Telephone(925) 373-6800
Tickets$53
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Fences” – 6th Street Playhouse Honors Wilson Masterpiece

By Susan Dunn

The Monroe Stage is small and dark, an arena with its three sides packed with audience. The simple but evocative set by Aissa Simbulan is a small frame house and yard with a view through a window into the kitchen interior. Surrounding the arena stage is the fence – a work in progress – which marks the passage of time and is finally finished at the play’s end.

Keene Hudson stars as Troy Maxson, with Val Sinckler as Rose in “Fences”. Photos by Eric Chazankin

August Wilson’s Fences is about the life of Troy Maxson (Keene Hudson) and how he keeps family and friends close and how he lets them go. It’s everyman’s story. As Troy’s friend Bono (Nicolas James Augusta) warns in act two: “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.”

 … Fences is one of our greatest American masterpieces …

In Wilson’s most intense play about family, Troy can’t seem to finish his fence just as he can’t step outside himself and share the musical world of his son Lyons (De’Sean Moore) or the sports world of his son Cory (Mark Anthony). We learn Troy’s own life in detail through his many stories, colorful swagger, sexiness, and bonhomie.

His tales mask a man disappointed in himself and angry at his life’s chances and challenges. He’s burdened by the drudgery of his work as a Pittsburgh garbage collector and by the responsibility of caring for his brain-damaged brother Gabriel (Jim Frankie Banks). His is a story of oppression and homelessness at age 14 and eventual seeming stability in the loving support of his wife Rose (Val Sinckler), a powerhouse of tolerance who finds in herself a way to pardon his many outbursts.

Each family member and friend is memorably etched by Wilson, and the acting in this production never disappoints. Principals Hudson and Sinckler, and supporting cast Anthony, Augusta, and Banks are all simply outstanding. They bring home an empathy that provoked tears and audible gasps and cries from the audience.

What gives this production such a high level of excellence are the many elements that immerse the audience in the scene: blues music from the 1950s, actors’ use of the small stage creating a whole world inside Troy’s fence, a baseball hanging on a string from a tree branch, clothes on a wash line, crates serving as chairs, and the unfinished fence that lines the stage edge. And outside that fence are the forces of unpredictability, menace, constriction, and banishment.

Photos by Eric Chazankin. L-R: Mark Anthony, Val Sinckler, Keene Hudson.

Direction by Jordan Oliver-Verde is spot on: his use of sound and light effects when Troy is wrestling with death, Troy’s meandering as he tells his stories, and the fight scenes, which are brief but unforgettable. In the end, Rose emerges as a woman saved from the loss of her husband’s love by the raising of a daughter, not her own—a lovely stunning performance by Sinckler.

August Wilson’s Fences is one of our greatest American masterpieces. 6th Street’s production does it full justice.

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Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionFences
Written byAugust Wilson
Directed byJordan Oliver-Verde
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesJanuary 12 – February 4, 2024
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$29 to $45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ CenterREP’s Lovely “Every Brilliant Thing”

By Barry Willis

William Thomas Hogsdon delivers a wonderful presentation of Every Brilliant Thing at the Lesher Center for the Arts’ Vukasin Theatre through January 28.

The approximately 90-minute/no intermission show features prolific actor/director/teacher Hogsdon as the unnamed narrator of a coming-of-age story spanning three decades—from the time he was seven years old and began compiling his list of “every brilliant thing,” to his divorce from his college sweetheart in his mid-thirties.

The Narrator (William Thomas Hodgson) takes the audience on a journey through life’s most remarkable moments in “Every Brilliant Thing,” performing January 6-18 at Lesher Center for the Arts. Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

Co-written by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, the tale launches with the first attempted suicide by the narrator’s mother—am event that recurred over the years until she finally succeeded, when the list of brilliant things had grown to thousands of entries. All of them are numbered, and stage assistants give notes to the audience so that they can shout out words when Hogsdon mentions a number—for example, 316: “Jerry Rice,” or 123,321: “palindromes.”

Every Brilliant Thing is a wonderful exercise in audience participation …

He also recruits willing attendees to play various roles as the story unfolds. On opening night, one woman agreed to play a veterinarian euthanizing a treasured dog named “Charles Barkley.” Another stepped up from the front row to take the role of the narrator’s first love, a woman he met in college and ultimately married. A tall man in the third row volunteered to play his father delivering a heartfelt speech at the wedding—an astoundingly convincing bit that Hogsdon described post-performance as completely improvisational.

The Narrator (William Thomas Hodgson) includes an audience member in the celebration of life’s most remarkable moments in “Every Brilliant Thing.” Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

Personal triumph and family tragedy are expertly and delicately woven throughout this engaging tale, made more engaging by Hogsdon’s ability to manage the crowd. A mostly-solo effort, Every Brilliant Thing is a wonderful exercise in audience participation. It’s a near-perfect balance of drama, humor, observation, and poignant personal narrative, with two performances per day on Saturdays and Sundays.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionEvery Brilliant Thing
Written byDuncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe
Directed byJeffrey Lo
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru January 28, 2024
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$35-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ ASR’s Favorites of 2023

by Team ASR

2023 was a wonderful year for live theater in the Bay Area. Although many companies are still struggling financially, it’s clear that artistically most have bounced back from the pandemic. Rather than a “best of” list, here are ten of the past year’s favorites submitted by ASRians.

Dinner with Friends: In June, Sonoma Arts Live served up a Pulitzer Prize-winning treat. Director Carl Jordan had the perfect recipe for casting Ilana Niernberger, John Browning, Katie Kelley, and Jimmy Gagarin. Recipe?

The play’s friends are foodies, couples who uncouple and all but food fight on a multi-stage set by Jordan and Gary Gonser. The play had just the right amount of both relationships’ spice to flavor any postprandial discussion. — Cari Lynn Pace

Dragon Lady: Spanning most of the life of Maria Senora Porkalob, the playwright/performer’s grandmother and a first-generation Filipina immigrant, Marin Theatre Company’s Dragon Lady was an inspiring, entertaining survival yarn and a master class in solo storytelling. Part biography, part autobiography, part cabaret musical, and part comedy, Dragon Lady was a tour-de-force written and performed by Sara Porkalob, with wonderful instrumental backing by three members of the Washington-based band Hot Damn Scandal.Barry Willis

 … 2023 was a wonderful year for live theater in the Bay Area …

Stones in His Pockets: Spreckels’ production of this whip-smart Irish comedy was touching, insightful, and laugh-out-loud funny. It demanded the utmost from only two actors, playing no fewer than fifteen characters of varying ages, cultures, social classes, and genders.

All that and no costume changes, no props beyond two simple wooden crates, and a bare-bones stage with only a small stone wall and a projection screen to serve as a backdrop. A brilliant exercise in theater done right. — Nicole Singley

Crowns: Walnut Creek’s CenterREP presented an exhilarating, uplifting celebration of life with this serio-comedic musical. A coming-of-age story about a hip-hop girl from Brooklyn on a journey of discovery in a small South Carolina town, the revival-meeting production starred Juanita Harris as the town’s no-nonsense matriarch and queen bee of a bevy of church ladies, each with a collection of elaborate fancy hats mostly reserved for Sundays, when they want to look their best “to meet the king.” — Barry Willis

Silent Sky: Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions gave us a lovely rendering of Lauren Gunderson’s biographical tale about pioneering mathematician/astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, who toiled at Harvard University Observatory for approximately twenty years until she was finally allowed to look through the telescope. She faced opposition from the scientific establishment of the era, but Leavitt’s insights led to major breakthroughs in human understanding of the universe. — Barry Willis

The People vs. Mona: Pt. Richmond’s cozy Masquers Playhouse delivered a delightfully interactive comedic musical about a trumped-up murder case in the tiny south Georgia town of Tippo. The engaging Nelson Brown served as both MC and inept defense counsel Jim Summerford, who comes to the trial having never won a case. Shay Oglesby-Smith was tremendous as the town’s prosecutor and manipulative mayoral candidate Mavis Frye, matched by Michele Sanner Vargas as the accused Mona May Katt. — Susan Dunn

Clyde’s: Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre was the scene for this scathing comedy by Lynn Nottage, in which four parolees try their best to thrive under an oppressive boss.

April Nixon was brilliant as the voluptuous, wise-cracking owner of the roadside diner named for her character—a deliciously malicious force of nature. An uplifting, uproarious, and realistic tale about hope, Clyde’s was among the best comedies of the year. — Barry Willis

Hippest Trip—Soul Train, the Musical: The stage of ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater was transformed into both a giant 1970s television set and the production studio for Soul Train, reportedly the longest-running music-and-dance show ever made. Dominique Morisseau’s dazzling retrospective of the groundbreaking television show was wonderfully directed by Kamilah Forbes. Played by confident Quentin Earl Darrington, Soul Train founder Don Cornelius was a former Chicago crime reporter who envisioned a TV show that would uplift his community. Through sheer willpower, he made it a reality, and so did ACT. — Barry Willis

The Wizard of Oz: The Emerald City met Beach Blanket Babylon in ACT’s spectacularly goofy psychedelic The Wizard of Oz. The wild production adhered closely to the beloved original, including story and songs, but was as far removed from a 1940s Saturday afternoon movie matinee as you can imagine—a hilariously gender-bending extravaganza just perfect for Pride Month in San Francisco.  — Barry Willis

The Glass Menagerie: Ross Valley Players returned to the essence of mid-century theater with a sobering production of Tennessee Williams’ classic family drama. Directed by David Abrams, who also played the role of disaffected son Tom Wingfield, the show starred Tamar Cohn as his delusional, manipulative mother Amanda, Tina Traboulsi as his asocial sister Laura, and Jesse Lumb as the good-natured gentleman caller Jim O’Connor, who arrives late in the tale and quickly discovers what a dysfunctional morass he’s stepped into. Tom O’Brien’s austere set, period-perfect costumes by Michael Berg, evocative lighting design by Michele Samuels, and music collected by sound designer Billie Cox all made significant contributions to one of the year’s most compelling dramas. — George Maguire

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PICK! ASR Theater ~~ ACT’s “A Christmas Carol” Still Rules

By Barry Willis

The greatest redemption story in the English language is still going strong at the American Conservatory Theater in The City, through December 24.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has riveted readers, film fans, and theatergoers for many decades. ACT’s annual extravaganza is hugely satisfying, as it has been in its current configuration for 17 years. The sumptuous Carey Perloff/Paul Walsh production is scheduled for retirement after this season, to be replaced by a new one next year, according to ACT Executive Director Jennifer Bielstein.

 … hugely satisfying …

Details about the new version aren’t available, but those who wish to see the classic that has inspired many imitators have the remaining week to get a full helping of Christmas uplift.

The company of ACT’s “A CHRISTMAS CAROL” at work. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

James Carpenter alternates with Anthony Fusco in the lead role of curmudgeonly miser Ebenezer Scrooge—a role that both actors were born to play. (Ditto for Patrick Stewart in one of many film versions. Stewart may be the best Scrooge ever to sully the silver screen.) Sharon Lockwood is delightfully astounding as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper. She also has a cameo as the energetic Mrs. Fezziwig, wife of young Scrooge’s first employer.

The cast is universally excellent—we’d expect nothing less from ACT—with Jomar Tagatac as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s oppressed clerk, B Noel Thomas as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Catherine Castellanos as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Brian Herndon shines as Fezziwig, and Dan Hiatt is a malevolent reminder of accumulated karma as the ghost of Scrooge’s departed partner Jacob Marley.

Dan Hiatt (L) and Anthony Fusco (R). Photo credit: Kevin Berne

There’s a gaggle of charming children, and enough Londoners to fill the wide stage of the Toni Rembe theater—all of them in plausibly authentic 19th century costumes by Beaver Bauer.

Music by Karl Lundeberg (directed by Daniel Feyer) is wonderfully dynamic, and Val Caniparoli’s choreography is dazzling. John Arnone’s set design has been scaled back from previous elaborate productions but is still effectively versatile and immersive.

Anthony Fusco (L) and Piera Tamer (r) in “A Christmas Carol” at ACT in The City. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Those who have seen multiple productions of ACT’s A Christmas Carol may be slightly disappointed that this year’s offering doesn’t reach the astronomical heights of last year’s, but it’s nonetheless an immensely satisfying show.

This show is pretty much a requirement for those in need of high-quality holiday cheer, which is to say, all of us. Tickets for the final few performances are disappearing fast. Grab them while you can!

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionA Christmas Carol
Written byCharles Dickens - adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Wals
Directed by
Choreographed by
Peter J. Kuo
Val Caniparoli
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Dec 24th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$15 – $167
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Pick! ASR Film ~~ “The Crime Is Mine”—French Screwball Satire Carves Up Justice, Feminism

By Woody Weingarten

Screwball comedies satirizing traditional love stories peaked in the early 1940s — after having begun to gain popularity during the Great Depression.

New examples of that romantic comedy sub-genre would manage to pop up every few years thereafter, but they’d usually fail to be as funny or polished as those of yesteryear.

But now comes The Crime Is Mine, a French-language satire (with subtitles, of course) that stands up with the best of them. The one-hour, 42-minute film time-warps back to 1930s Paris and provides a Duisenberg-speed storyline that repeatedly twists and turns as it focuses on a sexy, penniless actress who figures she can become famous by confessing to a murder she didn’t commit.

 … “The Crime Is Mine” ain’t subtle, but delightfully tasty it is …

Scheduled for release on Christmas Day by Music Box Films, the flick lays onto the marvelous comedy, an equally marvelous carving up of feminism, the class system, show biz antics, and courtroom machinations.

In the final analysis, though, within weeks after watching the movie, you’re likely not only to have forgotten slices of the plotline but exactly who is who, especially when it comes to lesser characters such as the judge, the prosecutor, the police inspector, and a boyfriend (even though all are amusing) and exactly what who said to whom.

Madeleine, played by Nadia Tereskiewicz, is tried for murder in “The Crime Is Mine, a screwball comedy.

Nadia Tereskiewicz merrily plays blonde bombshell Madeleine Verdier, a talent-less wannabe who desperately craves stardom and her close-up. She’s aided in her quest for fame by her brunette BFF and starving garret roomie, Pauline Mauléon (played by Rebecca Marder), a young lawyer with no other clients who launches a campaign based on the notion of self-defense against sexual assault.

Supporting their skillful acting chops is Isabelle Huppert, a French icon who, while chomping on the scenery, portrays silent film star Odette Chaumette, the real killer turned blackmailer.

All the main characters, each of whom is self-serving, mug a lot (except the murdered producer) — and every now and then, Madeleine’s combined flightiness and earthiness may remind a filmgoer of Renee Zellweger playing Roxie Hart in Chicago.

 … Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 100% rating …

François Ozon’s direction of this adaptation of a 1934 stage play is almost as perfect. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 100% rating with 22 credits so far.

Best buddies and roomies — Madeleine (Nadia Tereskiewicz) and Pauline (Rebecca Marder) — hatch a scheme to beat the system in “The Crime Is Mine.”

With humor ranging from dry to frivolously farce-like, it’s virtually impossible not to like the film—whether or not you can relate to kooky but intelligent women who easily outmaneuver the men in their lives.

The Crime Is Mine ain’t subtle, but delightfully tasty it is — a cinematic soufflé that never falls.

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ASR Senior Contributor Woody Weingarten has decades of experience writing arts and entertainment reviews and features. A member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, he is the author of three books, The Roving I; Grampy and His Fairyzona Playmates; and Rollercoaster: How a Man Can Survive His Partner’s Breast Cancer. Contact: voodee@sbcglobal.net or https://woodyweingarten.com or http://www.vitalitypress.com/

ProductionThe Crime is Mine
Directed byFrançois Ozon
Run DatesOpens December 25, 2023
VenuesTBA
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5//5
Overall4.25/5
Performance4.25/5
Script4/5
Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Metromaniacs” a Linguistic Howl at Spreckels

By Sue Morgan

Do mellifluous words set you atwitter? Do powdered wigs and Converse sneakers make you jitter? Would missing a night of hilarious hijinks, deftly performed by Sonoma County’s own Spreckels Theatre Company make you bitter?

Then, by all means, do yourself a favor and drive the short distance to Rohnert Park to see The Metromaniacs, playing now through Sunday, December 17th in the Spreckels Performing Arts Center studio theatre.

 … plenty of laugh-out-loud moments throughout the performance …

The Metromaniacs is a translation and adaptation by David Ives of a little-known French play written in 1738, entitled La Métromanie (also called The Poetry Craze). Ives became intrigued with the play due to its comedic underpinnings based on a real-life scandal in which none other than the great Voltaire professed his love for and desire to marry a highly esteemed yet unknown poetess, only to find out that the “Mademoiselle” was in fact a Monsieur, writing under a pseudonym to exact revenge on poetry-mad society that had ignored works published under his own name.

The play was written in verse, was hilarious, and its author had also written a “lengthy poetic Ode to the Penis.” Those facts clinched the deal for Ives, who had adapted two French comedies for the Shakespeare Theatre Company and had enjoyed the process so much, he sought out a third. [Editor’s note: David Ives is not only a brilliant translator, especially of Moliere, but is a wonderful comedic playwright himself. “All in the Timing”, his collection of one-acts, includes a hilarious piece called “The Universal Language.”]

Spreckels director Kevin Bordi’s spare suggestion of a set-within-a-set exists sans the 4th wall, which allows the audience to engage (albeit silently) with cast members as we serve as guests invited to the grand estate of Francalou (Edward McCloud), who’s hosting a play intended to draw suitors for his unmarried, poetry-loving daughter Lucille (Mercedes Murphy).

Brady Voss plays the delightfully obsessive poet and would-be playwright Damis in Spreckels Theatre Company’s “Metromaniacs,” a farce about poetry fans by David Ives. Photo by Jeff Thomas.

Talented yet penniless poet Damis (the fabulously over-the-top Brady Voss) believes that the mysterious Mlle. Meridec de Peaudoncqville is also in attendance, and Francalou—the actual composer of the poems ascribed to the non-existent Mlle. Meridec—leads Damis to believe that Lucille is the real Mlle. Meridec.

Tajai Britten plays the opportunistic Mondor in “The Metromaniacs,” now at Spreckels. Photo by Jeff Thomas.

With hidden and mistaken identities, pseudonyms, outrageous plot lines (Ives described The Metromaniacs as “a comedy with five plots, none of them important”) and outlandish dialogue delivered in rhyming couplets, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments throughout the performance.

Edward McCloud (right) as the wealthy poet Francalou, with Sarah Dunnavant as the scheming servant Lisette, in “The Metromaniacs.” Photo by Jeff Thomas.

Voss, Murphy and Sarah Dunnavant (as Lisette, a servant disguised as mistress Lucille) all deliver their lines with aplomb, but this reviewer thought that some other players seem more focused on correctly reciting the trippingly tricky rhymes, rather than allowing their characters to carry on actual conversations with one another.

The dialogue in The Metromaniacs is some of the most challenging I’ve encountered outside of Shakespeare. Despite that bit of difficulty, the audience—myself included—laughed heartily and often and thoroughly enjoyed this engaging and entertaining performance.

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ASR Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Metromaniacs
Translated & Adapted byDavid Ives
Directed byKevin Bordi
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough Dec 17th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$14 - $346
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance3.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Lucky Penny Rocks The House With “Trailer Park Christmas Musical”

By Barry Willis

Welcome back to Armadillo Acres, North Florida’s premiere residential destination. Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions ushers in the holiday season with The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, through December 17.

Familiar characters return from last summer’s kitsch extravaganza: trailer park trash-ettes Pickles, Linoleum, and Bad Ass Betty (Kristin Pieschke, Shannon Rider, and Sara Lundstrom, respectively).

“The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical” cast are rockin’ it, y’all! Photo credit Kurt Gonsalves/KMG Design.

Two other cast members from that show return in new roles: Taylor Bartolucci as Darlene Seward, a Christmas-hating curmudgeon, and Skyler King as Rufus, the trailer park’s well-intentioned but goofy handyman, who’s annoyed Darlene by installing a community Christmas tree too close to her abode.

 … There’s a whole lot of trouble brewing in the trailer park as Christmas approaches …

We also get to enjoy some authentic redneck antics from Jackie Boudreaux (director Barry Martin), the cowboy-hatted owner of a pancake house called “Stax” pandering to lustful locals. The eatery employs Armadillo Acres girls as waitresses, who call it “IHOP meets Hooters.” They also delight in tormenting Darlene by pronouncing her family name as “C-word.”

The play’s director, Barry Martin as cowboy-hatted Jackie Boudreaux, at work. Photo credit Kurt Gonsalves/KMG Design.

Darlene is contentious with her trailer-mates from the beginning, but an electric shock prompts a twelve-day case of amnesia, during which time she forgets that she hates the holidays. And Linoleum has almost forgotten her husband Earl, a convicted killer executed by the state of Florida (he was on death row when we last checked in). She now wears dangling from her neck an amulet containing some of his ashes, but she’s clearly ready to move on.

There’s a whole lot of trouble brewing in the trailer park as Christmas approaches, most of it propelled by a hard-rocking band led by Debra Chambliss in an alcove above the stage. David Nehls’ infectious music spans rock and country genres—the cast are all superb singers—with many tunes echoing classic bad-taste musical comedies such as Little Shop of Horrors. Bartolucci’s tacky costumes are outrageous fun, as is the frenetic choreography by Alex Gomez.

Good times and great music in Napa! Photo credit Kurt Gonsalves/KMG Design.

No Christmas-theme production would be complete without references to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Betsy Kelso’s script doesn’t disappoint. Trailer Park includes ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future; an aggressive nay-sayer, and a mean-spirited capitalist oppressor (Boudreaux) who threatens to bulldoze the entire complex on Christmas Eve so he can build a megastore in its place.

      • Will disaster be averted?
      • Will Armadillo Acres survive?
      • Will its residents return to more-or-less peaceful coexistence?

The outcome won’t be revealed here! For that you’ll have to get one of the few remaining tickets. The December 17 closing performance of The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical is “100% sold out” according to Barry Martin, so hurry up and grab what’s left.

You’ll be glad you did.

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NorCal Aisle Seat Review Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical
Written byBetsy Kelso
Music & LyricsDavid Nehls
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru June 24th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$22-$45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ TheatreWorks’ Terrific “25th Annual Putnam Co. Spelling Bee”

By Joanne Engelhardt

A funny thing happened on the way to creating Silicon Valley TheatreWorks’ top-notch production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. When auditions were held, Broadway actor (and TheatreWorks alum) James Monroe Iglehart was Spelling Bee’s director. He cast the fine actors who are now performing at Lucie Stern Theater.

But then Broadway called, and Iglehart left the production in the capable hands of Meredith McDonough and the Genie returned to the Great White Way for the plum role of King Arthur in Spamalot.

 “…get yourself to Lucie Stern Theatre!” …

But somehow Iglehart magically reappeared for opening night to watch the cast he chose spell themselves into a frenzy or two! All six of the “youthful” performers as well as their moderator (and fellow Putnam County Spelling Bee champion) Ronna Lisa Peretti (a dynamic, animated performance by Molly Bell) are first-rate.

Logainne (Jenni Chapman), Leaf (Blake Kevin Dwyer), Olive (Maia Campbell), William Barfée (Beau Bradshaw), Marcy (Mai Abe), and Chip (Dave J. Abrams) are eager to compete in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

What’s fun about this show is that at each performance, several audience members are invited to join the spellers onstage. The four non-actors may or may not be good spellers, and when it’s their turn to spell a word, they sometimes are given one as easy to spell as “cow” – or their word might sound as if it has ten syllables and has a very obscure definition.

The cardinal rule of the spelling bee is that to continue, contestants must spell each word correctly. Spellers can ask the judges for pronunciation, a word’s etymological origin, and to say it in a sentence. After that, the spellers must take a swing at spelling it correctly or be eliminated. Which is how many real spelling bees work.

What makes this small-cast musical work is how well-balanced the storyline is. Each of the six Bee spellers has his or her own backstory, which come out one way or another along the way to achieving the epitome of spelling mastery: Being the last surviving contestant.

Mitch (center – Anthone Jackson) comforts a guest speller (Romelo Urbi) as he’s eliminated as the cast (background l to r: Mai Abe, Jenni Chapman, Christopher Reber, Blake Kevin Dwyer, Molly Bell, Maia Chapman) celebrate him in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” performing November 29 – December 24. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

First produced on Broadway in 2005, the musical comedy was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn. It ran for more than 1,100 performances and won two Tony Awards (Best Book and Best Featured Actor).

At TheatreWorks, Beau Bradshaw is affecting as William Barfee, a student who has found spelling success only by spelling out words using his right foot. He gears himself up for attempting the spelling by doing a little hop or two and then twisting his foot this way and that to spell out the word.

Though all the adult actors are playing middle school students, probably Mai Abe as Marcy Park truly comes closest to looking the part because of her diminutive size. The two other female contestants, Maia Campbell as Olive Ostrovsky and Jenni Chapman as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, have unusual family backgrounds that make them both sympathetic characters.

As Leaf Coneybear, Blake Kevin Dwyer is endearing as he attempts to spell the word “capybara” as if in a trance. Dave J. Abrams plays Chip Tolentino, a speller who finds himself in a difficult physical predicament and ends up being the first one eliminated when he misspells his word.

Mitch Mahoney, played by the strong Anthone Jackson, is the “enforcer” for the contest. When someone is eliminated from the competition, it’s Mahoney who physically escorts that person off the stage.

Chip (Dave J. Abrams), Leaf (Blake Kevin Dwyer), and Logainne (Jenni Chapman) gawk as Marcy (Mai Abe) introduces herself to Rona (Molly Bell) in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Bee has about twenty songs (and several reprises), so Bill Liberatore’s small orchestra of three (Liberatore on piano, Artie Storch on percussion and Steve Park on woodwinds) is kept mighty busy.

A shoutout, too, to Courtney Flores-Kerrigan for her costume design and the amazing holiday scenic design of Andrea Bechert.

There’s so much more to this production of Spelling Bee that it’s best to just get yourself to Lucie Stern Theatre between now and Dec. 24 to enjoy a holiday treat.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionThe 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Written byRachel Sheinkin
Music byWilliam Finn
Directed byMeredith McDonough
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThru Dec 24th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662- 8778
Tickets$27 – $92
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

ASR Theater ~~ A 6’2” Elf Captures Hearts In LASC’s “Elf The Musical”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Ridiculous, implausible, irresistible: Elf, the Musical will worm its way into the hearts of young and old alike in Los Altos Stage Company’s holiday production running through Dec. 23 at Bus Barn Theater.

Before the start of the actual play, Santa (Michael Johnson), in a dignified-looking dressing gown, sat down in a proper Santa chair on stage and began chatting with the audience.

 … Elf, the Musical has … heart!

He asked whether any child wanted to share Christmas wishes with him. At last Sunday’s matinee, several children responded quickly, including a young girl who said “a Barbie!” Santa, who likely saw the recent big-screen adaptation, asked her: “Do you want a little Barbie or a big Barbie?” Without hesitation she responded, “A little one!”

Santa open “Elf, The Musical”

A young boy’s voice yelled “Can I tell you what I want?” Santa chuckled and said, “Go ahead,” but apparently at that point the child was overcome with shyness and refused to say another word. Then Santa asked the children if he should read them a story. That received a big round of “Yes’s!” and he picked up a storybook about Buddy the Elf.

For purists, the Bob Martin–Thomas Meehan musical might fall short in the annals of Broadway musicals — but with a winsome cast, some terrific tap dancers and the charming, child-like Andrew Cope as Buddy the Elf, it also has much to recommend.

Andrew Cope as Buddy the Elf at work in Los Altos.

Cope, who likely inches past six feet, is simply terrific as the awestruck newcomer to New York City who arrives in search of his real dad. He’s been one of Santa’s helpers for many years, but now Santa decides it’s time that he depart the North Pole to search for his father.

Eventually he finds him: Walter Hobbs (Lysander Abadia), a workaholic who neglects his son Michael (Jackson Janssen) and his loyal wife Emily (Annmarie Macry). When Buddy shows up in his bright green elf outfit claiming to be his long-lost son, Walter thinks he’s a lunatic and calls the police to haul him away.

An Elf in The Big Apple.

Once Emily and Michael learn that Buddy is really Walter’s son , they take him home with them. When Walter gets home and finds Buddy there, he wants to throw him out, but his family stands firm. Eventually dad agrees to take him shopping for some more suitable business attire and then reluctantly takes him to the office.

Once there, Buddy keeps pestering other workers but one woman, Deb (an effervescent Alison Starr), takes pity on him and tries to find him something to do. That “something” turns out to be feeding unwanted paper into the office shredder. Buddy says the chopped-up paper particles reminds him of snow at the North Pole, so he’s happy just shredding paper.

Dancing, Singing, Acting, and an Elf!

Another office worker, Jovie (Corinna Laskin) catches Buddy’s eye, and she eventually agrees to go out on a date with him. At times, the storyline zigs and zags so it might be hard to keep up, but — what Elf, the Musical has in spades is heart! It also has tap dancing! And some fine musical voices (Macry, in particular, with an extensive background in musical theatre).

It even has ice skating, a small live orchestra lead by Catherine Snider, strong direction from Sara K. Dean, colorful costumes by Lisa Rozman, a jolly good Santa Claus….and snow!

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionElf, The Musical
Written byBob Martin and Thomas Meehan
Directed bySara K. Dean
Music byMatthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin
Producing CompanyLos Altos Stage Co.
Production DatesThru Dec. 23rd
Production Address97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos, CA
Websitelosaltosstage.org
Telephone650.941.0551
Tickets$22-$45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.75/5
Performance4.25/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.25/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR THEATER ~~ SAL’s “Nuncrackers” a Holiday Crack-Up

By Barry Willis

Merriment is always appropriate at holiday time. It doesn’t get any merrier than Nuncrackers – The Nunsense Christmas Musical at Sonoma Arts Live through December 17.

Welcome to the basement of the Mt. Saint Helen’s convent in Hoboken, New Jersey, where four nuns and one priest do their best to put on a Christmas-theme extravaganza for a local public-access TV channel. Among many iterations of Dan Goggins’ immensely popular “Nunsense” comedies—a franchise now nearly forty years old—this one takes many potshots at church traditions, most of them landing with resounding hilarity as five adults (and four charming students) dance, sing, and goof endlessly with each other and the audience.

 … a holiday crack-up …

Izaak Heath is a standout as Father Virgil, given the unenviable task of managing an outrageously amateurish church-basement production featuring Goggin’s recurring sisterhood—Sister Robert Anne (Dani Innocenti-Beem), Sister Mary Amnesia (Maeve Smith), Mother Superior (Libby Oberlin) and sister Hubert (Emma Sutherland). Propelled by onstage keyboardist/music director John Partridge, the quintet hams it up in plausibly authentic attire—if you overlook baseball caps worn sideways over habits and brightly-colored Converse high-tops under them, which make Lissa Ferreira’s outlandish choreography all the goofier.

The cast of “Nuncrackers” at Sonoma Arts Live. Photo credit Miller Oberlin.

Father Virgil displays infinite patience riding herd on his sisterly soul-mates, and even tackles a Julia Child-style holiday cooking show, complete with a few too many nips from the brandy bottle. With impeccable comic timing and complete lack of inhibition, the sisters run rampant over the modestly-scaled stage in Andrews Hall, making each scene a riot unto itself while paving the way for the next one. Imagine clever but sometimes hokey comedy sketches strung end-to-end over approximately two hours and you have some idea of the treats this show offers.

Directed by theater veteran Andrew Smith, it’s a delightfully well-paced rib-tickling production. Queen bee of North Bay musical comedy and a reliable fountain of throwaway improv, Innocenti-Beem is perfectly in her element as Sister Robert Anne, a role she’s taken on several times. Maeve Smith displays a previously unnoticed—at least, locally—penchant for comedy, giving Sister Amnesia a beguiling impishness. She also looks a bit like B52s chanteuse Kate Pierson in her prime, minus the giant beehive hairdo. Libby Oberlin brings faux-seriousness to the part of Mother Superior, while Emma Sutherland anchors the entire production.

The kids are alright in “Nuncrackers” at Sonoma Arts Live. Photo credit Miller Oberlin.

The show’s ultra-competent performers are more than aided by four sweetly innocent student actors—Vivian Haraszthy, Autumn Terradista, Raina Gibbs, and Fiona Smith, who happens to be the daughter of Andrew and Maeve. In their several appearances onstage—especially their spoof ballet—they manage to charm the socks off the audience. Who can say “no” to a gaggle of cute kids?

What can go awry will go awry: that’s an essential tenet of comedy, one that Sonoma Arts Live consistently brings to life on the Rotary Stage. Much more than a family act, Nuncrackers is a holiday crack-up and a great way to ease into a season of too much eggnog, too many glad tidings, and too many fruitcakes destined to become petrified artifacts of good intentions. Happy Holidays!

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NorCal Aisle Seat Review Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionNuncrackers
Written byDan Goggin
Directed byAndrew Smith
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru Dec 17th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ An Uplifting “Sound of Music” at Hillbarn Theatre

By Joanne Engelhardt

Rogers and Hammerstein’s iconic musical The Sound of Music is so ingrained in the annals of Broadway, Hollywood, and the community theatre world that one wonders what a new production can offer.

Quite a lot, to judge by the standing ovation given it on opening night (Dec. 1) at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City.

Despite the fact that The Sound of Music is not a Christmas musical, director Dennis Lickteig creates holiday magic with an ethnically diverse cast that brings tears to the eyes by play’s end. There’s even a small live orchestra led by music conductor Debra Lambert to add to the production’s excellence.

Two professional actors play the two key roles of Maria and Captain von Trapp: an affecting Sophia Alawi and a commanding Jared Lee. Both possess strong voices and a naturalness that adds credibility. A slew of other cast members also enrich the production.

There’s even a tiny mite named Kaylee Lopez who plays the youngest von Trapp, Gretl, who generated many “awwws” from the audience. (On opening night she tried mightily to stifle a yawn toward the end of the 2 ½-hour production!)

All seven of the youngsters playing the von Trapp children are fine, with strong singing chops and the ability to provide texture and nuance to their scenes. Chloe Fong as Liesl stands out as does McKenna Rose as Brigitta. Nicki Weppner appears as Liesl’s love interest, Rolf, who brings a lot of telegrams to the von Trapp family home so he can chat with her.

Arguably the best voice in this Sound of Music belongs to Sarah Jebian who plays the Mother Abbess. Her lead vocal on “Climb Every Mountain” ends Act 1 on a high note. Another strong performance came from Brad Satterwhite as Max, the music festival promoter who helps the von Trapps escape the Germans as they take over Austria.

“The Sound of Music” at Hillbarn Theater.

It’s important to applaud Hillbarn for choosing live music for this production – expensive, yes, but so much better than canned. Music director Debra Lambert, who both conducts and plays one of two keyboards and the organ, also has two violins, a cello, and a reed player doubling on clarinet and cello in her orchestra.

Jayne Zaban’s choreography also adds a lot, especially in the musical numbers featuring the Von Trapp children. Stephanie Dittbern had her hands full designing costumes for the large cast – she actually created outfits for the children (supposedly made from Maria’s bedspread) that they wear for only about 15 seconds on stage!

Sound is so important in a musical, and Joshua Price’s sound design is spot-on throughout the show. Ditto Sarina Renteria’s lighting, but this writer felt Hunter Jameson’s scenic design was just a bit too static and artificial. A slight flaw, but easily forgiven with all the other reasons to see the show. Obviously it takes a village to create a show like The Sound of Music. Kudos to all whose work brings this classic to life.

Though not a traditional Christmas offering, The Sound of Music is well worth a trip to Foster City before it closes on Dec. 17.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionThe Sound of Music
Book byHoward Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Music byRichard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed byDennis Lickteig
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Dec. 17th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ MTC’s Amazing “Dragon Lady”

By Barry Willis

Sara Porkalob’s tribute to her grandmother is an exceptional theatrical adventure at Marin Theatre Company through December 17.

Part biography, part autobiography, part cabaret musical, and part comedy, Dragon Lady is a solo tour-de-force. Written and performed by Porkalob, with wonderful instrumental backing by three members of state of Washington-based band Hot Damn Scandal, the tale spans most of the life of Maria Senora Porkalob, the playwright/performer’s matrilineal predecessor and a first-generation Filipina immigrant.

 … Dragon Lady is … a superb evening spent in the theater! …

An astounding actor and voice talent, the hyperkenetic Porkabob recites the two-hour tale almost entirely in the first person, embodying characters as diverse as a Manila gangster, a heartless proprietress of a nightclub catering to hordes of drunken American sailors, her own mother (also named Maria), several children, and some residents of a trailer park where the Porkalob clan lived.

Sara Porkalob in “Dragon Lady”, written and performed by Sara Porkalob, at Marin Theatre Company in association with Center REP. Photo: MTC/Kevin Berne.

She achieves all of this with seemingly no effort, moving from one character to the next with only a shift in intonation and body posture. She also manages to occupy the entirety of MTC’s abundant stage, transformed by set designer Randy Wong-Westbrooke into an extravagance of bordello-like red velveteen. Brilliantly directed by Andrew Russell, it’s a dazzling magic show.

The first act provides all the background: grandmother Maria as a young woman doing janitorial work in a Manila nightclub, who gets boosted onto the stage after being heard singing at work. The cabaret aspect comes on strong as Porkalob sings a mashup of “Sway” and “A City Where it Never Rains.” She’s a wonderfully evocative singer, gliding easily from contralto to alto. She engages the audience at every turn, including a couple of comedic forays into the audience. The minimal three-piece band (Pete Irving, guitar and vocals; Mickey Stylin, bass; and Jimmy Austin, trombone) are the perfect complement.

Set for “Dragon Lady” at MTC.

The horrendous part of grandma Maria’s story: she witnessed the torture and murder of her own father at the hands of Manila gangsters, one of whom fathered her daughter in a forced mating. She later came to the States as the wife of a smitten US sailor. That relationship didn’t last long, but somehow she managed to keep her family afloat even when it required days or weeks away from home, leaving her namesake daughter to care for herself and five kids. Other than the mention of Maria Jr.’s biological father and grandma’s unfaithful bridegroom, there’s no explanation of the parentage of kids Sara, Charlie, Junior, AnneMarie, and infant Lilly. It’s as if they all popped out of the womb of their own accord. This reviewer thought this a huge omission in an otherwise compelling family story.

The second act is mostly a retelling of life in the trailer park, including a somewhat overly-long bit about siblings Charlie and Junior in pilfered Boy Scout uniforms, going door-to-door with a wagon, collecting food for “the needy.” Porkalob’s channeling of the kids and their “donors” is priceless. She closes the performance as strongly as she opens, with a brilliant mashup of “Love for Sale” and “Holding out for a Hero,” and ending with the most-appropriate “Trouble is a Family Trait.”

Jazz ensemble members of Hot Damn Scandal in “Dragon Lady” at MTC. Photo: MTC/Kevin Berne.

One-third of a trilogy about her immigrant family’s struggles, Dragon Lady is an inspiring, vastly entertaining survival yarn and a master class in solo storytelling. It’s a superb evening spent in the theater.

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionDragon Lady
Written BySara Porkalob
Directed byAndrew Russell
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec. 17, 2023
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$43-$70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “The Umbrella Play” – Show and Tell

By George Maguire

In my early days in New York city, I was part of the Off-Off Broadway movement, where new works were presented on a small stage with no budget, both as a vehicle for emerging playwrights and for actors hoping to be seen and picked up by an agent.

Writers like Christopher Durang, Albert Innuarato, Lanford Wilson and even Tennessee Williams were showcasing experimental works in theatres like The Direct Theatre, Caffé Cino, La Mama, The Cubiculo, The Impossible Ragtime Theatre and Joe Papp’s Public Theatre.

 … Ms. Frederick … is truly a Bay Area Theatre treasure …

Viewing The Umbrella Play by Linda Ayres-Frederick at the Phoenix Theatre on Mason Street, I was reminded of the power and the joy of presenting the premiers of new works in a workshop setting with no budget and minimal props, lights and sound. Ms. Frederick has a long and remarkable career as a playwright (over 50 plays), an actress and at the Phoenix Theatre as a producer. She is truly a Bay Area Theatre treasure.

Linda Ayres-Frederick at work.

Ms. Frederick uses an umbrella (played by Ms. Frederick herself) as a possession to be passed around, passed down and always remembered. These elements are filled with special memories as we touch them, recall them, and indeed cherish their memory.

The umbrella sees, comments and indeed feels emotions as it watches a family going through a series of confrontations of inheritance after the death of the mother (Adrienne Krug). The feud as such is fueled by a brother, sister and sister in law as they gather to hear the reading of Mama’s will.

Cast members of “The Umbrella Play” at work with the Phoenix Theater.

Among the cast are Michael Sommers (terrific) as the brother, AJ Davenport (strong and willful), Juliet Tanner (excellent) as the sister-in-law, and John Hurst as the bumbling husband.

Adrienne Villalon, Shailesh Sivanantham at work in “the Umbrella Play”

Ms. Frederick sets this play in Russia with allusions to Chekhov in character names and situations. For me, this led to confusion of both time and place. The family, the umbrella, and the challenges could easily have been in Pittsburgh. Were we supposed to glean a Chekhovian air? Probably…but for me, not at all necessary, thank you.

The production is billed as a “workshop” sponsored by the Multi-Ethnic Theatre. My hope is that Ms. Frederick utilizes this experience to craft a truly magical play of an umbrella’s observations.

The potential is all there.

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ASR Contributing writer George Maguire is a San Francisco-based actor/director and Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre. He is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: gmaguire1204@yahoo.com

 

ProductionThe Umbrella Play
Written byLinda Ayres-Frederick
Directed by Julie Dimas Lockfeld
Producing CompanyPhoenix Arts Association
Production DatesThru Dec 2nd
Production AddressThe Phoenix Theatre
414 Mason Street, 6th floor
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttp://www.phoenixtheatresf.org/
Telephone(415) 336-1020
Tickets$20 or pay what you will
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3.5/5
Script2.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR FILM ~~ ASR Film: Hite Documentary Details Woman Sexologist’s Rapid Rise and Exile

By Woody Weingarten

Cancel culture wasn’t a concept in the 1980s, but slinky sexologist Shere Hite became victimized by something exactly like it.

The feminist author of a 600-page 1976 blockbuster, The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, was not only lambasted as a man-hater because of her writings but partially because, being broke, she’d posed nude for Playboy and modeled for paperback covers and ads that objectified women. She was slut-shamed even though that phrase hadn’t been coined either.

Hite became so distraught at her treatment, mostly at the hands of male critics who felt threatened, she ultimately fled from the states to Europe, mainly Britain and Germany, and relinquished her American citizenship.

… “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” is fascinating throughout …

Now, The Disappearance of Shere Hite, an R-rated biopic by Nicole Newnham, resurrects the researcher’s life by cobbling together frequent rolling texts of her basic material (and a voice-over by actor Dakota Johnson) with sometimes fuzzy newscasts and archival footage, next to interviews with the Missouri-born writer, her ex-lovers, her detractors, and her friends and supporters, including Kate Millett, author of the groundbreaking Sexual Politics, who bemoans Hite’s public erasure and self-exile and points out that the academic social scientist could no longer earn a living in the United States.

Shere Hite as she appears in new documentary. Courtesy of Mike Wilson. An IFC Films release.

The nearly two-hour documentary strikingly shows Hite being ambushed by tabloid-type television journalist Maury Povich, causing her to leave the interview almost as soon as it started (with the interviewer’s aide forcibly trying to stop her), as well as her haughtily blowing smoke in talk show host Mike Douglas’s face, and trying to cope with a rude, all-male Oprah audience that couldn’t wait to take pot-shots at her research.

It further connects disparate items such as Anita Bryant attacking gay rights, a conference of the National Organization of Women (NOW), Anita Hill testifying at a Supreme Court confirmation hearing that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, Hite’s neighbor and KISS co-lead singer Gene Simmons reflecting on her New York parties that collected endless celebrities, and a James Bond poster for the movie Diamonds Are Forever with two sexy women flanking Sean Connery (Hite had posed for both, one featuring her signature strawberry blonde hair, the other with tousling pure blonde tresses).

Disappearance, which is being distributed by IFC Films, also builds a sense of a whole woman by stitching scenes of raw but lovely sexuality with staged images of women with tots, women cooking dinner, women strolling.

The film was written by director Nicole Newnham, who’d co-directed the Oscar-nominated Crip Camp, an amazing, feel-good 2020 doc that had a 100% Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating after 99 reviews. That flick managed to link a summer camp for the crippled to both the American disability rights and civil rights movements, making sure to note along the way that the disabled are also sexual beings.

The Hite Report on Female Sexuality — which had started as a post-grad thesis at Columbia University — was based on questionnaires filled out anonymously by 3,000 women. Hite, an admitted bisexual, defended the anonymity of her interviewees by insisting the women wouldn’t have been honest had they been required to list their names because they feared negative reactions from their male mates and other men.

That approach, however, gave major ammunition to vilifiers who claimed her methodology was flawed.

The tome drew as much public attention as those by Kinsey and Masters & Johnson and earned a ranking as the 30th best-selling book of all time. It became a key element of feminist history by stressing that most women felt unsatisfied sexually with their male partners, that women achieved orgasm through clitoral stimulation and masturbated often, that rampant infidelity existed, that 95% of women faked orgasm, that sexual equality was possible, and that few people (men and women) knew much about the female genitalia.

Despite her instant best-seller and subsequent titles (including her first follow-up, The Hite Report on Men and Male Sexuality) that were believed to have advanced the so-called Second Wave of feminism, Hite, because of the extended backlash, never reached her goal of overcoming both gender and class bias — even after having sold 20 million books overall.

Shere Hite. Courtesy of Mike Wilson. An IFC Films release.

The sex educator was criticized heavily for virtually everything she peddled, especially such statistics as 84% of women being unsatisfied emotionally and only 13% of women still loving their husbands after two years of marriage.

Whether you think Hite an innovator or fraud, The Disappearance of Shere Hite is fascinating throughout — and offers viewers an opportunity to see how she flaunted her body and flamboyant costumes at the same time as it provides dramatic insight into her original, creative mind.

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ASR Senior Contributor Woody Weingarten has decades of experience writing arts and entertainment reviews and features. A member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, he is the author of three books, The Roving I; Grampy and His Fairyzona Playmates; and Rollercoaster: How a Man Can Survive His Partner’s Breast Cancer. Contact: voodee@sbcglobal.net or https://woodyweingarten.com or http://www.vitalitypress.com/

ProductionThe Disappearance of Shere Hite
Written byNicole Newnham
Directed byNicole Newnham
Production DatesOpens Dec. 1st
Production AddressLandmark Opera Plaza
601 Van Ness Ave.
SF, CA
Websitehttps://www.landmarktheatres.com
Telephone(415) 771-0183
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~SF Playhouse Bends Genders in Superb “Guys and Dolls”

By Woody Weingarten

It’s virtually impossible to rate the new San Francisco Playhouse production of Guys and Dolls as anything but almost perfect, not quite as good as God’s long-running comic-tragedy, Mankind.

Sanitized, slang-spouting characters lifted from two 1920s and ‘30s Damon Runyon short stories remain extremely likeable 73 years after the Tony Award-winning musical comedy debuted on Broadway — New Yawk gamblers and gangsters mostly, but also a couple of inept Chicago crooks/crapshooters. And then, of course, there’s Sarah Brown, the Save-A-Soul missionary heroine who proves that love can conquer all.

… it’s the cast of the superb show …

Frank Loesser’s music (and lyrics) for this rendition — accompanied by a sprightly, hidden-onstage band under the direction of Dave Dobrusky — reaches the epitome of peppy, ideal for the holiday season.

Sky Masterson (David Toshiro Crane, center) and gamblers roll the dice.

Choreography by Nicole Helfer, even if somewhat derivative, hits an exciting high (with each dancer sublimely connected to all the others). Costumes designed by Kathleen Qiu appear both authentic to the era and playful (especially numbers in the Hot Box burlesque hall where Adelaide comically struts her stuff), augmented by sundry wigs concocted by Laundra Tyme—some straightforward, some whimsical.

Adelaide (Melissa WolfKlain, center) performs with the Hot Box Girls (from left, Malia Abayon, Alison Ewing, Jill Slyter, and Brigitte Losey) in “Guys and Dolls.”

The frequently revolving sets by scenic designer Heater Kenyon come across as exceptionally imaginative, a proverbial wonder to behold. Yet it’s the cast of the superb show — which is labeled a fable, but which adroitly delves into how one segment of society has trouble understanding another — that shines brightest.

Audience faces light right up, for example, each time Melissa WolfKlain, who delightfully and deliberately squeaks as Adelaide steps onto the stage, a stripper-star who’s been engaged for well over a decade to Nathan Detroit a guy whose livelihood stems from running a long-haul floating crap game. She’s particularly marvelous rendering “Adelaide’s Lament” (“In other words, just from worrying if the wedding is on or off, A person can develop a cough”), “Take Back Your Mink,” and “Marry the Man Today” (a duet with Abigail Esfira Campbell, as puritanical but seducible Sgt. Sarah Brown).

Campbell sings with a purity that can make most other vocalists jealous. She’s top-drawer on “I’ll Know” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” with her acting chops becoming an ideal accompaniment to her vocals (her slinky drunk scene in Cuba is most noteworthy). Both melodies are performed, by the way, in duet with David Toshiro Crane as charismatic, cocky, sexy gambler Sky Masterson.

Crane gives the Masterson character a sturdiness that makes you believe he can change from a high-roller to a guy high on life and love. His voice, too, soothes while delivering whatever emotion is required.

Joel Roster acts appropriately oblivious to his doll as Nathan Detroit, the guy who can’t bring himself to commit to her but who’s committed to finding a gambling site somewhere.

Kay Loren, who uses the pronouns they/them, rounds out the frontline performers as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a part usually filled by a man. Director Bill English and casting director Kieran Beccia, in fact, carefully gender-bent other actor-singers (such as having Kay Loren and Jessica Coker play Nicely-Nickely Johnson and Big Jule, respectively). They ethnic-bent, too, with Asian Alex Hsu assuming the slick role of Irish cop Lt. Brannigan.

But it takes only a minute or two for a theatergoer to fully suspended his or her disbelief and enjoy the binary and racial tampering.

Underscoring what unison truly means — musically and with a racial mix — is the praiseworthy chorus.

Sgt. Sarah Brown (Abigail Esfira Campbell, center) tries to enlist sinners for the Save-A-Soul Mission.

The major plot device is about finding a location for that dice game. The subplot feels terribly familiar: Guy meets and courts girl (because he bets the then huge sum of $1,000 that he can); girl is attracted to and then turned off by guy; guy gets girl.

Other don’t-miss tunes include the title tune, “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” — and two exhilarating all-dance numbers, “Havana” and “The Crapshooter’s Dance.”

The only thing absent from this two hour-plus version is the thick, unpolished Lower East Side of New Yawk accents — along with the “deses” and “doses” — that instantly tell visitors from Boise, Idaho, that they’re in the Big Apple.

Guys and Dolls has been considered by many as the ultimate musical comedy. The SF Playhouse production shouldn’t disavow that opinion.

Dancers Chachi Delgado and Malia Abayon move fast but sensually in a Havana nightclub.

A Footnote: I’ve told the tale of my wife’s obsession with the show for about 20 years — ever since the last time we saw it.

Before watching a touring company at another San Francisco theater, she’d played the entire score for me on our piano at home. She’d followed by humming most of its tunes during our trip into the city from San Anselmo. And, as I did, she loved the show itself.

But then she inserted a CD of the score on the way back from that performance. I knew she’d adored the show penned by famed theatrical storyline fixer Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling ever since as a pre-teen she’d seen the original with Robert Alda, Alan’s dad, playing Sky Masterson — that final over-the-top fangirl action was much too much for me to handle.

Ergo, I had some trepidation about leading her to the SF Playhouse, even as a MysteryDate, something we’ve been doing for all 36 years we’ve been wed. A MysteryDate, FYI, is an almost-certain way to help keep the sizzle in a relationship — an activity you arrange without your partner knowing where she or he is going until you get there. Or vice versa — that is, one arranged with you in the dark.

After five years of working on it, not incidentally, I’ve just finished writing a book about MysteryDates, one that can double as a travel guidebook while clobbering the myth that long-term relationships are inevitably doomed to become unexciting, monotonous, or drab. The book should be available in January. Check out https://woodyweingarten.com to be sure.

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ASR Senior Contributor Woody Weingarten has decades of experience writing arts and entertainment reviews and features. A member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, he is the author of three books, The Roving I; Grampy and His Fairyzona Playmates; and Rollercoaster: How a Man Can Survive His Partner’s Breast Cancer. Contact: voodee@sbcglobal.net or https://woodyweingarten.com or http://www.vitalitypress.com/

ProductionGuys and Dolls
Book byAbe Burrows and Jo Swerling
Directed byBill English
Musical Direction byDave Dubrusky
Choreography byNicole Helfer
Music/Lyrics byFrank Loesser
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru Jan 13th, 2024
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Shakespeare and Zombies at the Pear Theater – What a Combo!

By Joanne Engelhardt

John Heimbuch’s William Shakespeare’s The Land of the Dead is a pairing that almost works at The Pear Theater in Mountain View. That it keeps the audience’s attention as much as it does is due in large part to some fine acting performances and the steady direction of Sinjin Jones, The Pear’s artistic director.

Welcoming the audience at the first performance of Dead, Jones described it as a “Shakespeare-adjacent play.”

Photo (“LoTD_3”): L-R – Helena G. Clarkson (Queen Elizabeth), Adam C. Torrian (Soldier 1), Marc Berman (Sir Francis Bacon).

Though there’s no scientific data to back up this reviewer’s opinion, it’s likely there are more Shakespeare-inclined people in the “50-and-older” category, while the majority of Zombie lovers skew younger. Some audience members will be thrilled to hear Marc Berman as Sir Francis Bacon make the Bard proud. He has an extensive background in Shakespearean roles.

Other cast standouts include:

— Helena G. Clarkson as the white-faced (and white accordion-collared) Queen Elizabeth. Her heavily British-accented lines make her a force to be reckoned with.

–Arturo Dirzo as Richard Burbage, also uses a fine British accent. He’s also credited as the fight choreographer for Dead.

–William J. Brown III as Shakespeare himself. Perhaps  Brown could have been a bit more forceful in his portrayal, but his commanding physical presence is impressive.

It’s best not to read too much ahead of time about this play….

As Kate, Nique Eagen is another forceful character. She and Burbage are lovers, and he wants to marry her as soon as possible. They both show real passion in their romantic scenes, although Eagen can talk so fast that this reviewer found it difficult to catch what she said, on occasion.

L-R – Adam C. Torrian (Sinklo) and Nique Eagen (Kate Braithwaite).

One of the fun parts of Heimbuch’s script is how many references to Shakespeare’s real plays are slipped it here and there by different cast members. Dirzo can barely keep a laugh from escaping when he mentions “To be….” And then mumbles “…or not to be.”

When Zombies show up –- and they show up many times –- there’s more than one insinuation that they represent the famous London plague of 1592-93. Whatever they represent, be prepared to be horrified as they seem to bite into the flesh of other actors on stage. Stage blood also appears which horrified one young girl at the Nov. 18 matinee. Nevertheless, holding tightly to her mother, she stayed to watch the entire production.

Surprisingly, it’s a tiny wisp of a character, Olga Molina (as Rice) who is the glue that holds this production together. Molina plays a boy who must wear a young maid’s dress in Shakespeare’s play, so when he gets offstage, he wants to take it off, but other characters are always commanding him to keep the dress on and go fetch something for them.

L-R – William J. Brown III (William Shakespeare), Marc Berman (Sir Francis Bacon) and Nique Eagen (Kate Braithwaite)

Molina also delivers a moving speech toward play’s end that almost made all that Zombie gore acceptable!

So: Is it true what one character says (“Only the dead shall reign”)? Best to see for yourself. Dead plays in repertoire with District Merchants by Aaron Posner through Dec. 10 in case you’d like a dash of the dead for your holiday merriment.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionThe Land of the Dead
Written byJohn Heimbuch
Directed bySinjin Jones
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru Dec. 10, 2023
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$38-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5.00
Performance3.5/5.00
Script3/5.00
Stagecraft4/5.00
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Delightful, Funny Radio Play of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at RVP

By Woody Weingarten

I may not believe in angels, especially bumbling ones, but I do believe in redemption. It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Show fits snugly with that concept.

With at least two major wars raging at the moment, the charming 95-minute throwback is, because it’s mostly cornball, a major relief — and totally delightful.

Yes, this buoyant production by the Ross Valley Players — just like its classic Frank Capra holiday film predecessor starring Jimmy Stewart — toys with a viewer’s emotions. And because I welcome a good cry, I give the trip into Nostalgia Land four-and-a-half handkerchiefs.

The heart-warming, intermission-less play still focuses on George Bailey’s tale of love and loss (and, yes, of course, redemption). But this version also emphasizes wacky sound effects that might have been used by a snowbound 1940s radio station.

That makes the whole enchilada a lot funnier.

For a good chunk of Joe Landry’s play, Clarence Oddbody, George’s 292-year-old apprentice guardian angel, is more likeable than the guy he’s supposed to help. As anyone who’s ever turned on a TV set anywhere near the winter holidays knows, he’s sent to Earth to rescue George, whose father had willed him the family’s moribund savings-and-loan business.

For the three people on our planet who don’t yet know the storyline, heed this spoiler alert: Clarence accomplishes his mission by showing George, who’d been champing at the bit to get out of Bedford Falls where he grew up, what the town and his loved ones would have been like had he not been born. And by convincing the suicidal guy to do the right thing, the angel second class also manages to earn his wings because his actions also wrest control of the town from Mr. Potter (a purely evil dude who aims to deconstruct the savings-and-loan).

If for some demonic reason you’re looking to fault Adrian Elfenbaum’s direction, don’t waste your time — it’s almost impeccable. Rarely can a theatergoer be confused by rapid switches from one character to another to another all mouthed by a single actor.

Loren Nordlund takes a break from tinkering with the piano to voice one of 15 characters he plays. Photo by Robin Jackson.

Outstanding in the five-member ensemble are Evan Held, who flawlessly captures George and each of his changing emotions, and Loren Nordlund, who adeptly plays 15 parts and the piano. But the other three thespians — Molly Rebekka Benson, Elenor Irene Paul, and Malcolm Rodgers — are at most a quarter step behind in excellence.

Malcolm Rodgers reads from script of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Showwhile Elenor Irene Paul ponders with some sound effects gadgets. Photo by Robin Jackson.

Each actor grabs items from two large tables to concoct sound effects that range from a big tin sheet that becomes a thunderous gong to sundry women’s and men’s shoes that are used to simulate footsteps. The cast’s dexterity not only eliminates the usual need for a Foley artist onstage but adds to the fun of the production by having everybody move hither and yon with fluidity.

In unison, the quintet twice breaks into the storyline to jointly present comic singing commercials — for a Brylcreem-like hair product and a soap that can clean bugs off your windshield.

Forming a chorus in “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Show” are (from left) Molly Rebekka Benson, Elenor Irene Paul, Malcolm Rodgers, Loren Nordlund, and Evan Held. Photo by Robin Jackson.

Viewers are entertained, from before the radio show begins (via a recording of a vintage Jack Benny radio program) to a post-show sing-along (with audience participation) with the words of poet Robert Burns’ New Year’s Eve standard, “Auld Lang Syne.” Between those two events, sentimental moments are enhanced by lighting designer Jim Cave dimming the environment while costume designer Michael A. Berg ups audience pleasure with his ‘40s outfits that include vests, a bow tie, and silk stockings with seams in the back.

What also works perfectly is the conceit of the actors’ alternate personas, radio performers holding scripts, a device that helps them cover any lines they may have truly forgotten and could flub. This spin-off from the 1946 film was first performed in 1996 and has had more than 1,000 productions since then.

Ross Valley Players’ It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Show at the Barn Theatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center is clearly a holiday presentation, but its upbeat message transcends any calendar dates and should be fully absorbed by all local theatergoers (and, in fact, everyone else in our divided society).

With apologies to DC Comics and those who hate parallels, I think this Radio Play is a Superplay — dazzling as a speeding moonshot. See it!

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ASR Senior Contributor Woody Weingarten has decades of experience writing arts and entertainment reviews and features. A member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle,  he is the  author of three books, The Roving I; Grampy and His Fairyzona Playmatesand Rollercoaster: How a Man Can Survive His Partner’s Breast Cancer. Contact: voodee@sbcglobal.net or https://woodyweingarten.com or http://www.vitalitypress.com/

ProductionIt’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Book byJoe Landry
Directed byAdrian Elfenbaum
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru Dec 17th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Tickets$20-$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5.0
Performance4.5/5.0
Script4.5/5.0
Stagecraft4.5/5.0
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Sounds of the Whale: “Moby Dick” at Stanford

By Jeff Dunn

In 2009, blogger Eric Lanke reported after his sixth full reading of Moby Dick that “the novel is clearly a White Whale in and of itself, denying in its aloofness our attempts to define and understand it.”

This year, yet another Ahab is trying to figure out the monster: filmmaker Wu Tsang. She and her collective have created a 75-minute film that requires a live-orchestra accompaniment. Released early this year, it has graced many venues from Zurich to Sydney.

Her interpretations of 20 or so chapters of the book’s 136 are beautiful, challenging, and complex. The work has already moved on to L.A. after a single performance at Stanford on November 8th—I will not provide an overall review. (An excellent one by Duncan Stuart is here: https://exitonly.substack.com/p/on-not-reading-herman-melville-or.)

 … beautiful, challenging, and complex …

Instead, the question: Is a movie with live music better than one with a soundtrack? In the case of Wu Tsang’s Moby Dick, or The Whale at Stanford’s Bing Auditorium, both were a part of the production, and can be compared. Live music by the New Century Chamber Orchestra was the winner.

Reasons were many:

Number one was the natural string-section acoustics that no electronic version could match. Talkies were the death knell of pianos, organs and orchestras that used to accompany films in the 1920s. Lip synching and the removal of intertitles increased realism and audience engagement, trumping any concerns about the degradation of acoustic quality. On November 3, 1987 however, musical immediacy was restored when Andre Previn and the L.A. Philharmonic accompanied Eisenstein’s subtitled film Alexander Nevsky with Prokofiev’s original music for it. Since then, particularly in the last 15 years “live to projection” concerts have become an audience hit. Improved technologies have made the process considerably easier to produce.

Number two was the quality of the string music itself, composed by Caroline Shaw and Andrew Yee. Never did it distract from the action on screen, but often its subtleties enhanced the emotionality of the moment. I was particularly impressed by the hymn-like effect of the music for Tsang’s interpretation of the “Cabin-table” chapter, where Ahab presided over dinner with his officers “like a mute, maned sea lion.” Also, in the “Queequeg in his coffin” chapter, glissandi in the basses and cellos struck me with eerie effect. My only disappointment in the music was when it had to accompany nearly 10 minutes of credits at the end. That was the time when the banality of the proceedings on screen demanded something more alluring to the ear.

Number three was the superb conducting by Christopher Rountree and faultless intonation of the 18 members of the chamber ensemble. Number four was the acoustics of the Bing, enhanced by the giant whale shape gracing its ceiling.

Number five was one of the worst defects of the film: the soundtrack itself. Acoustically, like so many tracks in theaters today, it was loud and woofer-heavy. This was okay for some of the mysterious electronica added by Asma Maroof, but it undercut the frequent voice-overs and lips-synchs by collective member Fred Moten, who plays a somewhat audience-confusing, non-Melvillian character called the Sub-Sub-Librarian. According to Tsang, this person magically “tackles the novel’s subterranean currents” while living in a library inside the whale.

From time to time, Moten recites Melville or Moten’s own poetry. Unfortunately, his words are not subtitled; this reviewer found about half of them unintelligible and not favored by the recording. The result is inadequately justified confusion that can distract from the work’s many other strengths — including, of course, the on-stage music.

When Tsang produces a commercial video of her mostly wonderful and stimulating film, some of the lovely live-music qualities will no doubt be lost, but at least, I hope, more sense will be made of the “subterranean” mariner.

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ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor Jeff Dunn is a retired educator and project manager who’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera, Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

ProductionMoby Dick; or 'The Whale'
Based on the book byHerman Melville
Directed byWu Tsang
Producing CompanySchauspielhaus Zurich
Production DatesThru Nov 8th
Production AddressBing Concert Hall, Stanford CA 94305
Websitewww.live.stanford.edu
Telephone
(650) 724-2464
Tickets$48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4.0/5
Screenplay3.5/5
Music3.5/5
Stagecraft4.0/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

ASR Theater ~~ “Geogia McBride” Amuses at CenterREP

By Barry Willis

Down on his luck, a scrappy Elvis impersonator reinvents himself as a drag queen at a Gulf Coast dive bar in The Legend of Georgia McBride, CenterREP’s November production.

A recurring Bay Area favorite, Georgia McBride pops up locally a couple times per year. The current production in Walnut Creek’s Margaret Lesher Theatre is as good as most such efforts, without reaching the uproarious heights of absurdity achieved by some.

 … “The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a good bet for a fun night out …

Set in Cleo’s, a sleazy joint in Panama City Beach, Florida, the show stars Joe Ayers as Casey, a good-natured part-time roofer by day and a not-so-successful Elvis impersonator by night. He’s just bounced the monthly rent check in favor of buying a new Las Vegas-style jumpsuit, an expenditure that dismays his wife Jo (Sundiata Ayinde), who can’t deal with a potential eviction on top of her newly discovered pregnancy.

Casey reassures her that he’s made a smart investment, one that will bring more customers into Cleo’s. It’s a pipe dream at best. As it sits, Casey isn’t earning enough at the bar to cover his 80-mile round-trip commute, and his high school pal Jason (Jed Parsario) — who’s also his landlord and sometimes employer — leans on him persistently to pay his bills. Furthermore, Cleo’s owner Eddie (Alan Coyne) has threatened to cancel his performances because they simply aren’t attracting paying customers.

Georgia (Joe Ayers), Tracy (J.A. Valentine), and Rexy (Jed Parsario) put on a show in Center Rep’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride”. Photo: Kevin Berne

Casey’s in a multi-pronged pinch, but to his rescue come two itinerant drag queens — Miss Tracy Mills (J.A. Valentine) and her bedraggled friend Rexy Nervosa (also Parsario). An equal opportunities employer for inebriants of all kinds, Rexy is too hammered to perform, but Tracy has enough practicality and good business sense to leverage an opportunity.

Against his will, and with Eddie’s grudging agreement, she converts Casey to “Georgia McBride.” Casey has an aw-shucks sort of embarrassment his first time onstage in a wig and dress, but slowly warms to the new role—especially when Cleo’s becomes the hottest nightspot on the beach. He’s then faced with hiding the new source of much-needed income from Jo, who harbors many doubts about what he’s doing, and when she discovers what it is, believes that he’s gone gay.

Eddie (Alan Coyne) and Tracy (J.A. Valentine) are disappointed as Rexy (Jed Parsario) stumbles in late and Casey (Joe Ayers) watches in Center Rep’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride,”
thru Nov 26th at Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek. Photo: Kevin Berne

Trading one set of problems for another is always a great comedic setup, and this Georgia McBride doesn’t disappoint. Performances are very good in the sumptuous Lesher Theatre—especially the confident Valentine, the subtle Ayinde, and the outrageous Coyne. Ayers has a sort of innocent schoolboy charm, while Valentine is a take-charge veteran. The only Equity actor in the cast, Parsario encompasses everything from a beer-swilling redneck to a completely plastered flat-on-her-face drag queen. Stagecraft is more than adequate but not dazzling.

Tracy (J.A. Valentine), Georgia (Joe Ayers), and Rexy (Jed Parsario) put on a show at Center Rep.
Photo: Kevin Berne

Interestingly, the music played in the many lip-synching scenes has been different in all the productions this reviewer has seen. Apparently, playwright Lopez didn’t instruct directors about that. Musical variations contribute much to keeping the show feeling fresh. On opening night, pacing and timing issues interfered with landing some of the humor, with which the script is deeply endowed. That’s an issue easily solved with a couple more performances. Sweet and endearing, The Legend of Georgia McBride is a good bet for a fun night out.

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionThe Legend of Georgia McBride
Written byMatthew Lopez
Directed byElizabeth Carter
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru Nov 26th
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$45-$70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ PAP’S “Wizard of Oz” a Nostalgic Delight

By Joanne Engelhardt

There she is, her hair in short pigtails, wearing a starched blue-and-white pinafore over her plain white dress. If that doesn’t take you back to your own childhood, nothing will.

It’s Dorothy Gale (a delightful Libby Einav) and her little dog Toto (played by a stuffed replica named Beanie) who decides to hide from her Aunt Em (a rather stiff Kayvon Kordestani) and ends up being blown away when a hurricane pummels their little Kansas farm.

…So, what are you waiting for? Best get off to see the The Wizard of Oz!…

After an overly-long video of swirling clouds (and cows!), Dorothy finds herself and Toto somewhere new – and entrancing.

So begins this nostalgic story that just about everyone from eight years old to 80+ likely remembers fondly. There are a few new technological twists in this version, as well as delightful casting choices that make the Palo Alto Players’ production of The Wizard of Oz a must-see for all ages (over three).

Naturally there’s a mean-spirited (and green-faced) Wicked Witch of the West, played with devilish delight by Barbara Heninger.

Barbara Heninger as The Wicked Witch and Penelope DaSilva as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”. Photo Credit: Scott Lasky.

The role of Dorothy is shared by two young girls: Einav and Penelope DaSilva, but for the purpose of this review, all comments are about Einav, who played Dorothy on opening night. As young as she is, Einav has already performed in a number of roles and obviously taken singing lessons because her vocals are strong, clear and sung with real meaning.

Credit PAP with making casting diversity a priority. Here, it’s the delightfully acrobatic Noelle Wilder as the Scarecrow, along with Lauren D’Ambrosio as their voice. Wilder identifies as Deaf. They actually look as if they are stuffed with straw the way they slither and maneuver their body!

Diminutive dynamo Stacey Reed serves as director and choreographer –- excelling at both. She smartly cast her husband, Michael D. Reed, as the Cowardly Lion who hesitates but finally agrees to join Dorothy to see if the Wizard can give him some courage. (His rendition of Act 2’s “If I Were King of the Forest” is a production highlight.)

Several other actors deserve a shout out as well:
~~Andrew Mo is the perfectly (and greenly) dressed Guard who determines who does – and doesn’t – get to see the Wizard;
~~Ian Catindig plays the Tinman who joins Dorothy’s merry troop to see the Wizard and plaintively sings “If I Only Had a Heart;”
~~Jessica Ellithorpe brings sparkly white sprinkles with her every time she enters and leaves as Glinda the Good Witch. It’s distracting, however, that Ellithorpe’s lovely gown seems too big for her, so she kind-of floats around inside it.

Naturally, The Wizard of Oz would be incomplete without disarmingly cute little Munchkins — who turn into equally cute-but-dangerous Winkies in Act 2.

There are numerous other surprises awaiting PAP audiences who see Oz. Other than Glinda’s dress, costume designer Jenny Garcia and her crew did an A+ job of creating the dozens of costumes for the 23-person cast.

Kevin Davies wears several hats – and excels with all of them. He’s the technical director, scenic and properties designer and master carpenter. The audience burst out in applause in the number “If I Only Had a Heart” as the Tinman blew smoke and whistling sounds from under his hat!

Mr. Reed (the Cowardly Lion) also found time to create the projections of the tornado footage that throws Dorothy out of Kansas and back again.

Lighting and sound are so important in a musical production and both are first class here thanks to Edward Hunter on lighting and Sheraj Ragoobeer on sound. Finally, Greet Jaspaert and her large crew deserve credit for the beautiful scenic backdrops.

So – what are you waiting for? Best get off to see the The Wizard of Oz before PAP’s production closes Nov. 19!

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionThe Wizard of Oz
Written by L. Frank Baum with Music and Lyrics by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg
Directed byStacey Reed
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru Nov. 19th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$30– $57 (limited availability)
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.25/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The People vs. Mona”— Masquers Playhouse Delivers “Hootchie” & “Koochie”

By Susan Dunn

This musical comedy at Point Richmond’s cozy venue is all about involvement: our involvement. As we await the opening, actors drift into The Frog Pad bar, engaging audience members as they proceed to the stage. The MC and lead actor, the likeable, energetic Nelson Brown, opens the show for those in the seats: “Take out your provided fans and wave in unison.” First joke of the night, and a heads-up: “Listen up! You’re in this show too!”

It’s present day in the tiny south Georgia town of Tippo, where a murder has divided the populace into two factions, one represented by town prosecutor, suave manipulator, and would-be mayor Mavis Frye (Shay Oglesby-Smith). Their opponents are fronted by defense counsel Jim Summerford (Brown) who cannot get a truthful statement from the accused Mona May Katt (the stagey Michele Sanner Vargas). Frye’s fiancé of more than eight years, Summerford has never won a case—quite a defense attorney!

…This production sports a fine cast …

Early on, the odds are stacked against a not-guilty verdict. The town converges on The Frog Pad where an opening number pays froggy tribute with amusing choruses of “Ribbet, Ribbet.” A podium appears center stage and we are now in the courtroom, with an unpredictably opinionated Judge Jordan (Jeffrie Givens), who leads us through the trial. Givens swaps her judicial robe for a choir robe as Rev. Purify, guiding cast and audience alike through a rousing revival. Judge Jordan repeatedly reminds her court that she won’t tolerate any “hootchie” or “koochie.”

Musical comedy depends on outsized characters, hummable or memorable music and action paced at various speeds to bring us to a satisfactory conclusion. I enjoyed many of the songs, in various styles from hoedown blues, gospel, rock, and Cajun, to a winsome ballad by defendant Mona. The composers are the married duo Jim Wann and Patricia Miller, who keep us rapt with special surprises such as Officer Bell (Steve Alesch) trumpeting an operatic note whenever appropriate or not.

The town’s coroner Dr. Bloodweather (Arup Chakrabarti) turns out to be a dentist who, for clarity, insists on adding an extra letter to his professional title. Two key witnesses—including the town’s legendary litigator Eubal R. Pugh (Harrison Alter)—expire during the trial and their ghosts hilariously waft out the stage. Street-performing soul singer Blind Willy (Kamaria McKinney) does an outstanding number with cane and dark glasses. McKinney is also delightful in the role of local heartbreaker Tish Thomas. The show’s director Enrico Banson appears as bartender, court reporter, and does triple duty as onstage keyboardist.

Just when we thought we had seen all the play had to offer, Mona suddenly appears, in jail, in a sly side stage area where she performs the show’s only heart-rending ballad. Through all the fast-paced musical numbers, audience engagement is palpable.

This production sports a fine cast with outstanding leads and a “laugh a minute” script that whets our appetite for more. The numbers are long enough to engage us but short enough to keep the action going. The production is pulled together by Katherine Cooper’s choreography, perfectly scaled for a small stage. Marla Plankers Norleen supplied the characters’ amusing costumes; Vicki Kagawan did the props. This production makes for a fun evening!

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Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com.

ProductionThe People Versus Mona
Written byJim Wann and Patricia Miller
Directed byEnrico Banson
Producing CompanyMasquers Playhouse
Production DatesThru Nov 26th
Production Address105 Park Place
Pt. Richmond, CA
Websitemasquers.org
Telephone(510) 232.4031
Tickets$27-$30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 4.5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Film ~~ “Stop Making Sense” Still Rules

By Barry Willis

Approximately forty years after its first release, Stop Making Sense is back, to near-universal acclaim. Jonathan Demme’s ultimate concert film chronicles art-rock band Talking Heads at the height of their frenetic creativity.

Pieced together from several performances at the same venue, the film famously opens with lead singer/band founder David Byrne solo on stage, accompanying himself on guitar with rhythm supplied by a boom box. Various band members appear one-by-one—bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, percussionist Steve Scales, guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison, guitarist Alex Weir, and singers/dancers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt.

Stop Making Sense is a must-see…

As they appear, black-clad stage hands carefully assemble the set. It’s one of many moments of cinematic brilliance—matched by the musical and performance brilliance of one of the quirkiest and most talented bands of the late 20th century.

The amazing Talking Heads in their “Must See” movie! — Barry Willis

Talking Heads were unlike any group before or since. In an era of poseurs and pretentions, they delivered powerful commentary on everything in contemporary life, drawing from sources as diverse as snake-handling Pentecostal religious practices, black gospel traditions, and ongoing social problems such as the worldwide fear of nuclear annihilation that permeated the Reagan-Thatcher-Gorbachev period. Talking Heads’ music was—and is—both celebratory and cautionary.

The film has been re-released several times since its debut, but the latest stands far above its predecessors. Newly remastered, its visual impact features superior color saturation, focus, and detail. Supervised by Talking Heads original member Jerry Harrison, the discrete 7.1-channel 24 Bit/48Khz Dolby Atmos soundtrack is crisp, punchy, and completely engaging without any of the annoying artifacts often inserted into remasterings by engineers eager to put their personal stamp on iconic recordings.

Director Jonathan Demme passed away in April, 2017. He did not live to see his magnum opus lovingly honored as it is in this new release, essential viewing for film fans and rock music aficionados alike.

Now playing at a cinema near you, Stop Making Sense is a must-see.

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

Production  —  Stop Making Sense

Developed by  —  Talking Heads/Jonathan Demme

Directed by  —  Jonathan Demme

Rating  —  4.75 of 5. PICK!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Berkeley Rep’s Astounding, Confounding “Bulrusher”

By Barry Willis

Magical realism, a small-town soap opera, and the need for identity all combine in Eisa Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-finalist Bulrusher, at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through Dec. 3. Davis also composed the show’s original music.

Directed by Nicole A. Watson, Jordan Tyson stars as the show’s eponymous “Bulrusher,” a mixed-race foundling so named because she was discovered as an infant floating in the bulrushes of the Navarro River near the Northern California town of Boonville. Raised by a single male schoolteacher named Schoolch (Jamie LaVerdiere), she’s been gifted with magical clairvoyant powers. Bulrusher can see images of the future through the medium of water.

…There’s enough material in Davis’ story to supply a year’s worth of Lifetime TV episodes…

Most of the tale plays out on an elaborate two-level set by Lawrence E. Moten III, elaborated by superb projections by Katherine Freer and lighting by Sherrice Mojgani. The central locale is a brothel operated by hard-to-the-core Madame (Shyla Lefner) and patronized by Schoolch and a local handyman named Logger (Jeorge Bennett Watson).

Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger), Shyla Lefner (Madame), Jamie LaVerdiere (Schoolch), and Rob Kellogg (Boy) in Eisa Davis’ lyrical coming-of-age story, “Bulrusher”, performing at Berkeley Rep October 27 – December 3, 2023. Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

Another frequent visitor is a guitar-playing young man called Boy (Rob Kellogg) who relentlessly pursues Bulrusher despite her aggressive disinterest. Out front of the stage is a small but convincingly realistic stream that serves as the river,  visited often by Bulrusher as a source of solace.

The playbill states the era as 1955—those who haven’t read it would more likely have pegged the time as twenty years earlier. The residents sometimes default to a local dialect called “Boontling,” developed in the 1880s and now almost extinct. It sounds like English but doesn’t register with non-speakers: “harping the ling” means “speaking the language” in Boontling. The only clue to the timeframe is an offhand comment by Boy to Logger that he “missed the Korean draft.” Otherwise we wouldn’t know.

Cyndii Johnson (Vera), Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger), and Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher) at work in “Bulrusher”. Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

The home-schooled Bulrusher earns a decent living buying and selling fruit. One rainy night she encounters a lone woman on the road, gives her a ride, and a place to stay. The woman is Vera (Cyndii Johnson), broke and far from her home in Birmingham, Alabama. On orders from her mother, she’s on her way to visit her uncle Logger. Vera is the first black woman Bulrusher has ever encountered, and the two become fast friends. The development of their friendship is among the play’s many endearing subplots. Another less endearing is Madame’s constant threat to sell her property and move away. A third that continually runs in the background is the mysterious identity of Bulrusher’s parents.

Rob Kellogg (Boy) and Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher) in Eisa Davis’ “Bulrusher”, at Berkeley Rep Oct 27 – Dec 3, 2023. Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

It’s a complicated task for the show’s all-Equity cast, but they rise to the challenge most compellingly. Tyson is especially astounding, with several long monologs that are gorgeous sustained poems. Her interactions with Johnson, LaVerdierre, and Watson are all tremendous. Her closing confrontation with Lefner as Madame unveils the unspoken secret propelling the whole story.

There’s enough material in Davis’ story to supply a year’s worth of Lifetime TV episodes. At nearly three hours, the script at times feels over-long and in need of an edit, but who would know where to start on a project of that scale? Even so, it’s a tremendous night at the theater—a heartfelt celebration of one spunky girl who finds home at last.

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionBushrunner
Written by Eisa Davis
Directed by Nicole A. Watson
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru Dec 3rd
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Tickets$22.50-$134
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.0/5
Stagecraft4.0/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Music ~~ Adversity Brings Close-up Concert Series by Marin Symphony

By Cari Lynn Pace

There’s good reason folks affectionately tagged Marin Symphony “the freeway philharmonic.” Many of its award-winning musicians have travelled to play with the symphonies in San Jose, Oakland, and Santa Rosa. As of now, the entire Marin Symphony can be found scooting up and down 101.

Without a permanent concert hall to call their own, this beloved orchestra has used the Marin Center as their venue for over 50 years. Last year seismic updating caused the facility to shut down. “These challenges have given us the opportunity to build our muscles and flexibility…our resourcefulness in the face of adversity,” explained Executive Director Tod Brody.

And resourceful they are!

Marin Symphony took their talented musicians on the road and landed their instruments right in the audiences’ laps, so to speak. Downsizing the orchestra and creating chamber quartets gave the group new freedom of venues. Their current schedule of nineteen classical performances is spread throughout Marin, in country clubs, churches, and schools from Tiburon to Novato.

“Audiences can be up close and personal to really feel the music vibrating just a few feet from them…”

Audiences can be up close and personal to really feel the music vibrating just a few feet from them. The first performance at the Marin Country Club held the audience spellbound as an intimate chamber quartet of flute, cello, and piano performed Farrenc’s “Trio in E Minor”. The awe continued as a sextet of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano took their places to reveal a lyrical composition by Poulenc.

To cap off Act II, eight musicians doubled up in pairs to raise the bar with Mozart’s “Serenade for Winds in E flat”. It was fascinating to watch the precision and concentration of each musician just a few feet away. Fingers zipped on the clarinets, the burnished bassoon gave forth deep toots, and an oboe musician puffed out her cheeks, reminding us of the breath control required to play such an instrument. The horn players intermittently turned their instruments to ease out the moisture which always collects. These entrancing details are typically overlooked on a large stage, and the audience loved every minute.

The Marin Symphony alternates these small intimate performances with larger yet close-in gatherings. Their upcoming chamber orchestra performance will be guest-conducted by Edwin Outwater, and will feature flutist MyungJu Yeo. The program of Stravinsky, Mozart, and Beethoven takes place at the College of Marin, James Dunn Theatre, on Nov 11 & 12, 2023.

In December, the Marin Symphony Chamber Chorus and the Marin Girls Chorus join the Symphony’s brass and percussion musicians for their annual Holiday Choral Concert at St. Raphael Church in San Rafael. It’s sure to be a sellout on December 2 and 3, 2023.

For a full schedule of Marin Symphony performances into May of 2024, go to MarinSymphony.org or call 415-479-8100. Single tickets and subscriptions are available.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. Contact: pace-koch@comcast.net

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Poignant, Powerful “Without You” at the Curran

By Barry Willis

Love, loss, and acceptance all figure into Anthony Rapp’s solo musical Without You at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre.

Rapp’s show encompasses his first professional audition—a performance of REM’s “Losing My Religion,” reprised as the opener in this moving retrospective. The audition landed him a role in the off-Broadway debut of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, the AIDS-era reworking of Puccinni’s La Boheme, and in the larger long-running production.

Without You is a wonderful show…

Larson died of an aneurism the night before his show opened. Rapp works that tragedy into his narrative and song selections, plus his loving relationship with his mother, who slowly came around to accepting his gay identity. His relationships with other members of his family are also depicted with fondness.

There’s no bitterness or rancor in anything he conveys. Backed by a superb onstage band, Rapp proves to be a compelling raconteur and singer. His penultimate song is a howl of anguish, but his closing number is one of universal love.

At 95 minutes—with no intermission—Without You is a wonderful show with an inexplicably short four-day run, closing Sunday October 22. Opening night was a near sellout—ticket buyers should jump on the remaining opportunity.

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionWithout You
Written byAnthony Rapp
Directed bySteven Maler
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Oct 28th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$49-$160
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Horrific and Hilarious “Ideation” at Left Edge Theatre

By Barry Willis

Competing doomsday scenarios form the basis of Aaron Loeb’s incisive and hilarious Ideation, at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through October 28.

One part Dr. Strangelove and one part No Exit, the tale features a group of high-level consultants struggling to work up proposals to dispose of millions of people while arousing as little attention as possible. Three of them—Brock (Mike Pavone), Ted (Justin Thompson), and Dr. Min Le (Phi Tran) arrive at company headquarters, jet-lagged from a month-long scam in Crete.

… they realize that they have stepped into some extremely deep doo-doo from which there may be no escape…

They meet their supervisor Hannah (Gina Alvarado) in a conference room, where they learn that they have exactly ninety minutes to produce a plan for their CEO, a disembodied voice called J.D. Annoyed by the presence of a young intern named “Scooter” (Lauren DePass), they’re slow to get to work until the interloper leaves the room.

Phi Tran (Min), Gina Alvarado (Hannah), and Mike Pavone (Brock) in “Ideation.”

Adroitly directed by David L. Yen, the tale is slow to launch for the same reason: the Scooter distraction wastes a good ten minutes until the core group feels comfortable enough to start “ideating”—generating concepts that may or may not work in a world theoretically threatened with a virus that could wipe out the entire human species.

Choking back their fundamental revulsion, the consultants come up with concepts such as “liquidation centers,” “disposal sites,” “self-service mass graves,” “acid pits that can melt bone,” and problems dispersing large quantities of “biosludge” once the victims are dead.

Phi Tran (Min) and Gina Alvarado (Hannah) in “Ideation” by Aaron Loeb

They willingly accept the conceptual challenge as a more-or-less academic exercise, assigning the nuts-and-bolts design to Dr. Le, owner of both a Harvard MBA and an engineering degree from Georgia Tech. A subplot involves an office romance between him and Hannah that could scuttle her comfortable upper-middleclass life, but the bulk of the comedy is the escalation of absurdly horrific proposals and rising personal tensions as deadline approaches. Ted and Brock even engage in a quite realistic shoving match as their frustrations build.

Justin Thompson (Ted), and Mike Pavone (Brock) at work.

It’s all quite funny until the consultants figure out that they themselves may be disposable, or that they are competing against other groups, all of whom may be at risk for extermination. At that point they realize that they have stepped into some extremely deep doo-doo from which there may be no escape. From a slow launch, the play rises like fireworks exploding on the Fourth of July.

Written pre-pandemic in 2013, Ideation was originally produced at SF Playhouse to rave reviews. That show’s cast went to New York with it, where it ran for a month. Among the best contemporary comedies, it’s a prescient piece of theater.

The current show at the cavernous California benefits from new raked seating near the stage, but is marred by an adjacent music club whose thumping bass and drums force the actors to shout over the noise. For that reason, ticket-buyers are encouraged to attend a Saturday matinee. Left Edge is producing the show on Thursday and Friday evenings at 7:30 and on Saturdays at 1 p.m.—no Saturday evening or Sunday performances.

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionIdeation
Written byAaron Loeb
Directed by David L. Yen
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre Co.
Production DatesThrough October 28th
Production AddressThe California
528 7th Street
Santa Rosa CA 95401
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 664-7529
Tickets$20-$29
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.75/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Seussical” a Giddy, Colorful Musical at Woodside Musical Theatre

By Joanne Engelhardt

Dare to admit that you’ve never read “Green Eggs and Ham,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “Horton Hears a Who,” and….duh: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” OK, if you didn’t read them, then it’s likely someone read them to you when you were a little tike.

Woodside Musical Theatre’s playful production of the 2000 musical comedy Seussical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty takes you back to the entire world of Dr. Seuss even before the curtain opens. That’s when the pert, wily Olivia Swanson Hass as that famous Cat in the Hat (you know: the one with the tall red-and-white striped hat) hustles onstage to retrieve said hat.

The Cat in the Hat (Olivia Haas) takes Jojo (Tyler Kawata) on a ride! Photo credit Nancy Fitzgerald.

Sadly, in its initial Broadway appearance, the Great White Way apparently felt Seussical (a portmanteau of the words “Seuss” and the word “musical”), was a dud. Later it was revived and had several national tours and now is a frequent production at regional theatres and schools.

It’s easy to see that WMT’s production has a heart as big as the one of Horton – performed here with plenty of down-home sincerity by Jay Steele. His gentle, caring vocals help the audience understand how really compassionate Horton is.

…Bright primary colors make “Seussical” a visual delight…

Horton and a young boy named JoJo – who is doing poorly in school and is teased by his classmates – are at the core of the story. JoJo’s the only child of the mayor of Whoville and his wife, who are trying to decide how to discipline him. They tell him to take a bath, go to bed and have some normal “thinks.”

Two young actors alternate playing JoJo: Nadia Moehler and Tyler Kawata. On opening night Moehler was JoJo and she did a remarkable job. Her strong voice and commanding stage presence is rare in such a young person.

Jeffrey Ramos has his hands full directing the incredibly large cast – and he succeeds beautifully.

Standouts in the cast include: Leslie Chicano as Mayzie LaBird, who longs to have more than one tail feather – then comes to regret it when she gets more than she bargains for; Sarah Szeibel as Gertrude McFuzz; Angela Harrington as Sour Kangaroo, and Lauren Biglow as Yertl the Turtle. Biglow also plays a wacky judge in Act 2.

John Tondino makes a solid Vlad Vladikoff as does Mark Bowles as General Genghis Kahn Schmitz.

Of course, a musical with about 30 songs obviously needs strong singers – and a large orchestra to keep them all on key. Musical director Justin Pyne and his 13-piece orchestra are at the back of the stage mostly hidden from the audience by what looks like an ornate metal barrier.

Mayzie LeBird (Sarah Szeibel) and her Bird Girls (Samantha Ayoob, Samantha Ayoob, Ayanna Brewer, Erica Waxer, Jennifer Yuan) teach Gertrude (Leslie Chocano) how to be amayzing too. Photo credit Nancy Fitzgerald.

Greet Jaespert’s delightful costumes are an essential part of Seussical. She cleverly finds a way to help audience members remember who’s who by adding a feather here, a tiny kangaroo there, and a military-looking uniform that stops at the geneal’s knees to show off his silly socks.

All-around handyman Don Colussi deserves heaps of applause for not only creating the set, but doing lighting design and serving as technical director. Another crucial position for any musical is the choreography, and Richard Nguyen and his assistant choreographer Samantha Ayoob handle that chore gracefully.

It’s clear that for WMT’s actors and production staff, it’s a labor of love for their annual show.

It’s unfortunate that Seusical plays for only one more weekend because the effort put into it by the cast and crew deserves a longer run. Discounts are available for tickets outside the center orchestra premium section.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionSeussical
Written ByLynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Directed byJeffrey Ramos
Producing CompanyWoodside Community Theatre
Production DatesThrough Oct. 22nd
Production Address199 Churchill Ave., Woodside, CA
Websitewww.woodsidetheatre.com
Telephone(650) 206-8530
Tickets$30 (youth); $52 (seniors); $57 (adults).

Discounts available online.
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.25/5
Performance4.25/5
Script3.0/5
Stagecraft4.25/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Film ~~ New Documentary On Joan Baez Shows Three Lives: Public, Private…and Secret

By Woody Weingarten

The documentary film Joan Baez: I Am a Noise appears to check all the right boxes, revealing three lives of the iconic singer/protester and civil rights activist.

The Public:

• Becoming world-famous overnight as a barefoot thrush at age 18 and having Time magazine plaster her face on its cover.

• Being immersed in a relationship with then unknown songwriter/singer Bob Dylan and helping catapult his career, only to have him break her heart (“It was horrible.”)

• Being married for five years to David Harris — an icon in the anti-Vietnam War movement whose outcries led him to be jailed for more than a year — and having a son with him.

• Relishing the marches where she accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. (“Nonviolent action is what I was born for”).

The Private:

• Having at least two mental breakdowns and dealing with decades of almost constant sensations of panic, depression, inadequacy, insecurity, and loneliness (she describes herself as “a personalized time bomb” and her inner life as “dark, dark, dark”).

• Experiencing midlife torment when her “career plunged into the abyss.”

• Agonizing because her two sisters, Mimi (Farina) and Pauline, distanced themselves from her, unable to live in the shadow of a star.

• Enduring racial slurs as a child because her physicist/inventor dad was Mexican and she, therefore, was “half-Mexican” and “thought I was inferior to the white kids, the rich kids.”

• Savoring a two-year lesbian relationship (“She was more feral than I”).

• Accepting the fact that her son, Gabe, still bemoans her frequent absences because she was “too busy saving the world.”

The Secret:

• Finding her father’s alleged sexual abuse (which she unearthed during hypnotherapy) “bone-shattering.”

The film stitches all that together, nearly seamlessly, yet might still leave a viewer with the sense that something’s missing, that some of the in-depth excursions into her psyche dig down only about 85 percent and that the most difficult truths are still covered. It’s not unlike checking out the headlines of a story rather than reading it all the way through.

Truly vulnerable moments are few in Joan Baez: I Am a Noise — the title, not incidentally, stems from a journal entry from her 13-year-old incarnation in reaction to being likened to the Virgin Mary, “I am not a saint, I am a noise.” Two stand out. Most moving is when she lovingly caresses her mother’s face on her death bed. Another is when she’s photographed taking off all her makeup.

But oddly absent from the film — which is distributed by Magnolia Pictures and deftly inserts Baez’s home movies, artwork (her originals as well as someone else’s animations), journal entries, and, surprisingly, therapy tapes — are:

• Her multi-tune appearance at Woodstock.

• Her two-year relationship with Steve Jobs.

• Full-song performances (the doc does contain many, many fragments).

• Humor (one rare inclusion is her imitating Dylan imitating her).

Baez, who’s followed around — almost reality TV-like — during her final tour at age 79 (she’s now 82), admits she likes being the center of attention. Even now, although she says her once pure voice has turned “raggedy.” That craving, the doc demonstrates, is evident when she dances to street drummers when no one else is dancing.

As to fame, she says, “I was the right voice at the right time.”

The singer, who attended Palo Alto High School and now lives in Woodside in San Mateo County, also enjoyed making tons of money when she was young, despite her father dissing her because he’d always had to work harder for it. She particularly enjoyed literally tossing $100 bills at him and the rest of her family.

Regarding her dad, who denied inflicting any abuse, she tells the filmmakers — Miri Navasky, Karen O’Connor, and Maeve O’Boyle (who also deserves major accolades for her editing skills) — that if only 20% of what she remembers about the abuse is true, that’s damning enough.

Baez doesn’t only point fingers at her father. She, who says she’s been diagnosed as having multiple personalities, confesses that she’s simply “not great at the one-on-one relationships — I’m great at one-on-2,000.”

When all’s said and done, Joan Baez: I Am a Noise is a fascinating portrait of somebody we thought we knew but didn’t. Though it’s possibly 20 minutes too long, it’s definitely like having a backstage pass into all three of her lives.

The film’s ending is clearly intended to show her finally at peace, but it feels too posed, too contrived, as she dances — eyes closed — with her dog as she recites lines from a Robert Frost poem that indicates she’s not done yet (“…miles to go before I sleep”).

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ASR Senior Writer Woody Weingarten is a voting member of the S.F. Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: voodee@sbcglobal.net

 

 

Joan Baez: I am a Noise

  • Opens October 13
    Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco
    AMC Metreon 16 in San Francisco
    AMC Bay Street 16 in Emeryville
    Landmark Piedmont Theatre in Oakland
    Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley
    Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa
    Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol in Sabastopol
    3Below Theaters in San Jose
    Landmark Del Mar Theater in Santa Cruz
  • Opens October 16
    Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael
    ***** Q&A with Joan Baez following the November 3rd, 7:00pm screening!

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ASR Movies ~~ ‘King of Animation’ Unveils Slide, Spoof About Fighting Evil

By Woody Weingarten

An online bio of the animator notes that “Plymptoons Studios started in 1987 with the creation of the Bill Plympton’s Oscar-nominated short film ‘Your Face.’”

It neglects to mention that many fans regard Plympton as an animation and graphic design genius.

As if to prove them right, the 77-year-old’s credited with animating, writing, producing, and directing Slide, a new, dark, musical Western that acerbically spoofs Hollywood while feeling like an animated graphic novel.

…the flick’s worth looking for…

The 1 hour, 20-minute flick spotlights a slide-guitar player, the title character, who assumes multiple roles but always keeps his cowboy hat on.

Action begins quickly, when Slide faces off with two obese, evil twin brothers, Mayor Jeb Carver, who kills people without blinking, and Zeke, the town’s sheriff, whose niece Delilah is a plaintive Lucky Buck Saloon and Bordello hooker who craves a singing career. The brothers aim to cut down the forest, pave over Sourdough Creek, their 1940s Oregon logging town, and build a casino.

To make all that happen, the twins enlist the aid of an army of assassins, one at a time. One of Plympton’s most creative inventions, tangentially, is a contest for most evil laugh among the hired killers.

Slide, a combo hero/anti-hero who at one point runs a bulldozer, seemingly can do anything. He slips through a tornado, fights off a humongous Hellbug, saves Delilah from a torrent of bullets, stops a cadre of protesters who want to burn down the Lucky Buck, and, naturally, joins two other musicians onstage.

Plympton’s signature hand-drawn animation is stylistically sketchy and primitive but highly artistic. The result is either a viewer’s delight (along with multiple laugh-out-loud moments) or repulsion.

The multi-talented artiste, who funded Slide in part via an $85,000 Kickstarter campaign, is often considered the King of Indie animation. His skill set has resulted in his winning a second Oscar nomination, and collaborating with Madonna, Kanya West, and Weird Al (on videos and book projects),

Plympton has compared the music in Slide — in the style of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline — to the outrageousness of Blazing Saddles, one of his favorite movies.

He’s written that the flick “looks beautiful” and is “different from any other animated film I’ve ever seen.” Accurate, but spoof or no spoof, this feature film contains so much amusing but hardline sexual content that parents should keep their kids away.

According to the IndieWire website, Plympton noted last year at the Mendocino Film Festival that he likes “to try to break the rules as much as possible.” Clearly, Slide, succeeds in doing just that.

Slide has had difficulty finding a distributor, so it currently has no opening dates, and it was pulled from the Mill Valley Film Festival, where it was supposed to be screened in two movie houses this week.

The flick’s worth looking for, though — whenever animator / writer /  producer / director Bill Plympton pins down what he needs to pin down.

ASR Senior Contributor Woody Weingarten has decades of experience writing arts and entertainment reviews and features. A member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle,  he is the  author of three books, The Roving I; Grampy and His Fairyzona Playmatesand Rollercoaster: How a Man Can Survive His Partner’s Breast Cancer. Contact: voodee@sbcglobal.net or https://woodyweingarten.com or http://www.vitalitypress.com/

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Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Hefty Main Course at Livermore Opera’s “Of Mice and Men”

by Jeff Dunn

Suffocated puppies, broken necked strumpets, agitated posse flashlights blinding the audience—people could easily fault Of Mice and Men for being too melodramatic.

But do they know they are also disparaging the meat and potatoes of opera? Carlisle Floyd’s gripping adaptation of Steinbeck’s famous novella offers a heavy dish of steak-and-spuds emotion, and a crew of uneasy ranch hands as a bonus. Moreover, the opera is couched in a near-perfect set of production values from the creative teams at Livermore Valley Opera.

To begin my multi-course menu of praise, try the superlative performance of tenor Matthew Pearce as the mentally challenged Lennie. He has mastered the character’s physical behaviors and childlike mental condition, but best of all, unlike some of the others who have faced the part’s musical difficulties, he hits his several high notes like hot butter melting into the toast of Floyd’s phrases. Baritone Robert Mellon, as George, Lennie’s companion and minder, clears the air with vocal authority–all suffused with a nervous anxiety appropriate to knowing the potential damage Lennie can cause with his inhuman strength.

Overseer Curley’s nasty disposition and cock-of-the-walk power parades are strikingly portrayed by tenor Chad Somers’ spot-on reedy voice and balletic body movements. Curley’s unhappy and lustful wife is not treated kindly by Floyd’s music, yet coloratura Véronique Filloux deftly negotiated her often see-saw extremes of lyricism.

Baritone Matthew Worth offered his sympathetic voice to the role of Slim; bass Kirk Eichelberger excelled as a maimed farm worker trapped in a box-canyon life; and the rest of the ranch hands under chorus master Bruce Olstad added societal weight to the proceedings. Superb acting in all quarters was directed by Marc Jacobs. Conductor Alexander Katzman deftly handled Floyd’s constant metric changes in the score, a reduced but mostly effective orchestration by Jim Meduitz.

…a near-perfect set of production values…

Rather than refer specifically to the Depression-era’s mass migrations, Jean-François Revon’s set, video, and tech team were absolutely top-notch in creating a rural California ambiance of summer oaky hills, rivers, barns, and woods. Not only were there large collections of background projections, but also animation effects of moving stars, suns and moons. The moon in the last scene was scaringly reminiscent of the last scene of Berg’s Wozzeck.

Steinbeck’s drama and pathos might be hard to take for some, but the story about the human need for companionship and something to call one’s own is a verity worth everyone’s revisiting. The issue of what right we have over others’ lives is also paramount in this work. Floyd’s music is up to the task in mirroring the explosive emotions and events in his unflaggingly concise libretto.

In a 2011 interview, he opined that a libretto is 60% or more of what makes an opera successful. I certainly agree in the case of Of Mice and Men: its music does not have the melodic or harmonic immediacy that will bring audiences back for many repeat visits. Artists who must live with an opera to bring it to life find ways to make sense of lyric lines, and end up praising the effectiveness of melodies that even sophisticated audience members will never hear on first, second, or even third hearings.

Floyd’s music is more like a film score that enhances emotive moments. These moments are so compelling in this opera–especially in this superbly crafted and executed production–that attendees should treasure their exposure to Floyd’s aesthetic, even if the meat and potatoes are mostly in the libretto, and the score is an impossible burger.

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ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor Jeff Dunn is a retired educator and project manager who’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera, Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

ProductionOf Mice and Men
Story byJohn Steinbeck
DirectorMarc Jacobs
Producing CompanyLivermore Opera
Production DatesThru Oct 15th
Production AddressThe Bankhead Theater
2400 First St, Livermore, CA 94551
Websitehttps://livermorearts.org/
Telephone(925) 373-6800
Tickets$20 - $105
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Music3/5
Libretto4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ TheatreWorks’Disjointed Retelling of Agatha Christie’s Disappearance

By Joanne Engelhardt

Whether or not you’re an ardent devotee’ of all things Agatha Christie, you likely will find much to appreciate in Mrs. Christie, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s current production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

In this reviewer’s opinion, high praise should be showered on the incredibly beautiful scenic design by Christopher Fitzer. The stage itself features the interior of the lovely Devon estate (called Greenway) of the renowned author Agatha Christie.

The expansive set includes three handsome bookcases, a warm fireplace, a very high ceiling, an elegant chandelier, four doorways and some tables with chairs. Below the stage – right across from patrons sitting front row center – are the table and chair where Agatha writes. That little spot is her sanctuary, one she escapes to frequently in the play.

Impressive set design for “Mrs. Christie.”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Author Heidi Armbruster has taken a tiny swatch of Agatha’s life and created this play. The incident that Armbruster choose to highlight: eleven days in 1926 when Agatha mysteriously disappeared.

… high praise should be showered on the incredibly beautiful scenic design…

The story opens as a car comes to a halt offstage and Agatha (stalwart Jennifer LeBlanc) runs onstage and screams “Peter is dead!” – a line which certainly perks up the audience. She continues to scream that Peter has bit the dust while yelling to her maid Charlotte (a role marvelously deadpanned by actress Elissa Beth Stebbins): “I must call the doctor!”

Charlotte asks Agatha whether she is hurt, but Agatha stumbles over some books sitting in the middle of the stage and simply insists: “Call Dr. Hancock!” The level-headed maid reminds Agatha that if Peter is, indeed, dead, then a doctor will be of no use.

Thus begins the rather convoluted, occasionally humorous and sometimes riveting storyline of Mrs. Christie. (Incidentally, Peter — “Petey” in the program– is a loveable big black dog played by Murphy and, in other performances, by Anubis).

“Mrs. Christie” cast at work. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

One of the primary flaws of Mrs. Christie is that it’s set both in 1926 and in the current day. Some of the actors perform in dual roles while others, like the enigmatic Jane (charmingly played by Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) and Lucy (Nicole Javier) are only in modern scenes.

Javier has a pivotal role, yet , in my opinion, she speaks much too softly and hurriedly to be understood in the carnivorous theater.

Lucy has been a huge Christie fan for many years, so she seizes the opportunity to attend a celebration of the author’s 125th birthday at her Davon estate, but she isn’t content staying outside Agatha’s home at the celebration – she finds a door open to let in air and ends up in her living room. She instantly turns into a kleptomaniac and starts grabbing anything that Agatha owned, small enough to fit in her large purse!

That’s when Stebbins becomes the present-day maid, Mary, who quickly removes everything Lucy has taken – then stands guard to make sure she leaves the house. (Oddly, she doesn’t shut and lock the doors, because Lucy returns to pilfer again.)

There are a few scenes with Agatha’s husband, Colonel Archie Christie (a somewhat strident Aldo Billingslea) and his lover Nancy Neele (Kina Kantor) who, while attractive, is directed to show zero emotion in her role.

The playwright adds more characters to compound the confusion. When Agatha is sitting in a bathtub trying to forget all her marital problems, who shows up to keep her company but her own creation Hercule Poirot – called Le Detective in the program and appealingly played by William Thomas Hodgson.

Agatha Christie and Monsieur Poirot chatting. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Watching Stebbins as the maid Mary get down on her hands and knees and spend several minutes drying the floor in semi-darkness after the bathtub scene was, for this reviewer, a lighthearted highlight! The stalwart Max Tachis appears in both 1926 and today as William and Collins – adding a down-to-earth quality in both parts.

TheatreWorks’ new artistic director Giovanna Sardelli directs this, the company’s first production of the 2023-24 season. Though she likely found ways to make the script more meaningful to 2023 theatregoers, Armbruster might want to consider a rethink of what she has written – so that audiences will perhaps better understand the Agatha Christie she obviously adores.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionMrs. Christie
Written by
Heidi Armbruster
Directed byGiovanna Sardelli
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThru Oct 29th
Production Address500 Castro St. Mountain View
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$37- $82
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script2.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Hello, Dolly” an Authentic Joy at Spreckels

By Sue Morgan

Spreckels Theatre Company lit up the 500-seat Nellie W. Codding Theatre at Friday night’s brilliant opening of the beloved classic Hello, Dolly.

With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart, director Elly Lichenstein’s production is refreshingly true to the original. Set in 1890s Yonkers and New York City, the play follows the machinations of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a former socialite forced to use her prodigious wiles as matchmaker and “arranger of all things” to earn a living after the death of her beloved husband Ephraim. Exhausted by the effort required to keep herself afloat, Dolly sets her sights on snaring the “well-known half-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder, while ostensibly trying to match him with comely milliner and widow Mrs. Irene Molloy.

The choice to stage Dolly in the wake of the complex (and also outstanding) contemporary Irish comedy Stones in His Pockets was a bit of showbiz genius by Spreckels’ Artistic Director Sheri Lee Miller. While at first glance the plays appear wildly disparate, in fact, they both explore the theme of the effects of living in wealth versus poverty, a topic of vital relevancy today as “haves” continue to displace “have nots,” housing prices soar, and wages stagnate.

While some might view Dolly as a gold digger, she is not at all interested in hoarding wealth, as evidenced by her assertion that she adheres to her former husband’s belief that, “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”

(Pictured: Daniela Innocenti Beem as Dolly Levi and Chris Schloemp as Horace Vandergelder).

Perfectly cast in the title role, Daniela Innocenti-Beem radiantly guides the action, charming the audience from her first appearance walking down the center aisle, handing out business cards for every conceivable need before taking the stage to introduce herself in song in the delightful “I Put my Hand In.” The spotlight always appears to shine brighter in her direction.

She’s a solid performer, whether enlivening the many comic scenes, conveying tender wistfulness as she beseeches her deceased husband to send her a sign, dancing, or showcasing her superb voice. Innocenti-Beem is absolutely the star of this show!

Chris Schloemp is spot on as gruff, miserly and calculating Horace Vandergelder. Zane Walters’ combination of earnestness and humor in his portrayal of Chief Clerk Cornelius Hackl hits just the right notes. Both men shine in their respective roles. Fun-loving widow Irene Molloy is deftly played by Madison Scarbrough, whose clear and rich tones during the gorgeous “Ribbons Down My Back” made the song a show-stopper. Kaela Mariano as Ermengarde is also a standout in her perfectly over-the-top depiction of Horace’s spoiled niece. There’s not a lackluster performance in this show!

“Hello Dolly” cast at work.

Set design by Eddy Hansen and Elizabeth Bazzano is beautifully augmented by Nick Lovato’s skillful projections. Lighting and sound design by Eddy Hansen and Jessica Johnson are straightforward and effective. Choreography by Karen Miles, superb throughout the show, reaches its crescendo during the madcap performance of the “Waiter’s Gallop” preceding dinner service at the Harmonia Gardens. Music Direction by Debra Chambliss is impeccable. Many guests made their way to the orchestra pit as the performers left the stage to enjoy seeing the musicians play the final notes of the evening. Oh, and you just have to see the wonderful costuming by Donnie Frank.

Spreckels Theatre Company’s production of Hello, Dolly is musical theatre at its best and kept this reviewer smiling throughout the performance and happily humming all the way home.

With an abbreviated schedule due to an unforeseen issue which caused the play to open a week late, Spreckels has added a special-price performance on Thursday, October 12 at 7:30 P.M. during which all tickets will be $20 for adults and $10 for youth 18 and under. Grab your tickets right away—the show ends its too-brief run October 15th.

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