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.

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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!

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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

 

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.

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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 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.

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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

 

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.

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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

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.

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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

 

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.

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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 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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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

 

ProductionHello, Dolly
Music & Lyrics by

Book by
Jerry Herman

Michael Stewart
Directed byElly Lichenstein
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough Sept 10th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$16 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR THEATER ~~ Talented Cast Lifts Hillbarn’s “Baskerville”

By Joanne Engelhardt

You can count on one hand theatrical productions where the supporting cast is by far the best part of the play. Add Hillbarn Theatre’s current production of Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery to that short list.

Ludwig is known for his comedic work including Lend Me a Tenor (which won two Tony Awards), Crazy for You, Moon Over Buffalo and Shakespeare in Hollywood.

…several production team members deserve a shout-out..

At under two hours with one intermission, this efficient production meticulously directed by Leslie Martinson, moves so quickly that it’s sometimes all an audience can do to watch the three versatile supporting actors — playing 40+ different characters — rush out and then return in slightly altered costumes as other characters. There must be several dressers backstage to assist with so many quick changes!

A mysterious stranger on the moors (George Psarras*) *Actors appear courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association. Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

Ted Zoltan (Actor 1), Darrien Cabreana (Actor 2) and especially Alicia M.P. Nelson (Actor 3) are the warp-and-woof of Baskerville, despite the rather annoying tagline which says it’s a “Sherlock Holmes mystery.” Nelson uses a dozen or so different accents (both upper and lower-class British), Scottish, Irish and who knows what else, to steal the show from George Psarras (Sherlock Holmes) and John Watson (Michael Champlin).

Champlin, at least, has more to do (and far more stage time than Psarras). He deservedly garnered a huge sympathetic reaction from Friday’s opening night audience when he intentionally fell flat on his back with a resounding thud!

It’s useless to attempt to describe the storyline, although perhaps anyone who’s read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles might have an easier time of it. If not, it’s best to just go with the flow and not worry when something doesn’t make sense or when an actor changes from a landowner to a pauper in a few seconds by dashing out one of the four archways, switching into a different hat or scarf, and walking back in as a different person.

(L to R) Watson (Michael Champlin) and Holmes (George Psarras*) learn never to question a cabbie (Alicia M.P. Nelson) — *Actors appear courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association. Photo Credit: Tracy Martin

The first hint that something has gone awry is the introduction of a troupe of traveling artists who are touring England in a production of the original tale. Alas! All but five of the actors have missed the train – and only a few trunks of costumes and props have made it on the train as well. Their next stop: Barnhill-on-Foster (wink wink) in Hampshire, England, circa 1892

Despite a performance by Psarras which this reviewer found  a bit wanting, the other four players made sure Hillbarn audiences got to chuckle a lot and go home feeling that they’ve had a jolly good time.

(L to R) Holmes (George Psarras*) and Watson (Michael Champlin) are hot on the case, interviewing Actor 1 (Ted Zoldan) and Actor 2 (Darrien Cabreana). *Actors courtesy Actors’ Equity Assoc. Photo Credit: Tracy Martin

Several production team members deserve a shout-out for superior effort: costume designer Nolan Miranda is one; ditto scenic designer Kevin Davies and sound designer Jeff Mockus.

Steve Muterspauch, Hillbarn’s new executive artistic director, can justifiably be proud of Hillbarn’s first production of the season. Discounts are available for anyone under 18 as well as seniors and groups of 10 or more.

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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

 

ProductionBaskerville
Book byKen Ludwig
Directed byLeslie Martinson
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Oct 22nd
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$30-$62 (plus discounts)
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5
Performance4.25/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Rags to Riches Hilarity: “Nollywood Dreams” at SF Playhouse.

By Susan Dunn and Barry Willis

An aspiring actress gets her chance in Jocelyn Bioh’s uproarious Nollywood Dreams, at San Francisco Playhouse through November 4.

Ayamma Okafor (Angel Adedokun) works at her family’s travel agency in Lagos, Nigeria, where the entire story takes place. Probably not a well-known fact among Americans, Nigeria’s thriving film industry is one of the world’s most prolific.

Ayamma (Angel Adedokun) is starstruck as she meets Wale (Jordan Covington) and Gbenga (Tre’Vonne Bell) in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Nollywood Dreams,” performing thru Nov 4, 2023.
Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Ayamma hopes to lift herself out of the tedium of her daily work and venture into the glitzy world of film—and fame. Her lackadaisical sister and workmate Dede (Brittany Nicole Sims) has no such aspirations, but does worship film stars, especially the handsome charmer Wale Owuso (Jordan Covington).

…Nollywood Dreams is exactly the feel-good antidote we need today…

The Playhouse is lit with neon and splashy patterns, accompanied by throbbing rhythms of Africa. Your heartbeat is up even before the actors appear. The production is significantly interactive: we are invited to let the actors know how we feel about them and their story by joining in with our own reactions. Breaking the “4th wall,” one scene includes an actor sitting with the audience.

On a huge revolving set by Bill English, Nollywood Dreams features continual scenes across three different locales: the travel agency, a TV studio, and the office of film director Gbenga Ezie (Tre’Vonne Bell). Initially we meet our protagonist, wannabe actress Ayamma—slim, intense, and sincere—who pours her heart out to older sister Dede, an outrageous, outspoken, but unmotivated couch-potato. Their dynamic is loving and hilarious at each turn.

The stage turns and a TV interview is in progress. Now we (the play’s audience) become the vocal audience of a daytime TV show hosted by the queen bee of Nigerian celebrity gossip, the brightly-swathed and head-dressed Adenikeh (Tanika Baptiste), a character partly modeled on America’s own Oprah. Baptiste is totally engaging and effusive as she prods interviewee Gbenga about auditions for his next film, a romantic comedy called The Comfort Zone.

Adenikeh (Tanika Baptiste), the Oprah of Lagos, dishes on her talk show in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Nollywood Dreams.” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Her outsized female persona foils his suave, understated but sweeping masculinity. Our verbal reactions to his story of marital and extramarital love up the ante of our emotional engagement. Through some Nigerian film history projections we meet the final two characters in this play: Wale the endearing lover-boy actor already well-known to Nigerian audiences, and Fayola (Anna Marie Sharpe), an established actress whose career has hit an impasse. Sharp’s wise-cracking subtlety must be seen to be believed.

Who will be cast in this next movie? How will previous dating relationships, careers (or lack thereof) and political machinations solve the casting choices? The set revolves to reveal the director’s office, where auditions of a kind, amid spats and jealousies, play out evoking old loves and new emotional blooming. A favorite scene involves Dede’s curse on the rival actress to aid sister Ayamma’s chances for snagging a role.

Nigerian film director Gbenga (Tre’Vonne Bell) dishes on a talk show in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Nollywood Dreams” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Nollywood Dreams is a terrifically paced production of a laugh-out-loud script, filled with characters who pop with iconic familiarity. The show is blessed with performing excellence, directorial finesse and assurance and production values that excel in every scene. As fabulous or ordinary costumes (Jasmine Milan Williams, designer) change from one quick scene to another we wonder how they can top the previous look.

Theater veteran and director Margo Hall has coaxed the utmost from her richly talented cast. The eye-candy set and projections, and especially the unexpected finale, deliver a luscious dessert of a play that on opening night provoked a sustained standing ovation. Nollywood Dreams is exactly the feel-good antidote we need today.

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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.

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.

 

ProductionNollywood Dreams
Written byJocelyn Bioh
Directed byMargo Hall
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru Nov 4th
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
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Beautiful Shattered Glass: RVP’s “The Glass Menagerie”

By George Maguire

Ross Valley Players has at last been able to re-mount Tennessee Williams’ classic play The Glass Menagerie.

First seen for a very short time in 2020 pre-pandemic, the estimable company has brought back this production and the rewards are ours to behold. Anchored with a stunning performance by Tamar Cohn as Amanda Wingfield, the mother of iron, this production draws on the finest of both technical and actor/director support making it a must-see for the final two weeks of its run.

…Ross Valley Players has given us a gift not to be missed….

Written in 1944, The Glass Menagerie catapulted an obscure Thomas Lanier Williams to the heights of fame. His promise continued with Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Night of the Iguana, Sweet Bird Of Youth, Suddenly Last Summer and many more plays indelibly etched in the American Theatre psyche. A playwright/poet of astonishing language skills, Williams (who adopted the name “Tennessee”), weaves together memories, idiosyncratic characters and pain in this first of his great works.

The play is set in 1937 in a small St. Louis flat inhabited by Amanda Wingfield, her son Tom (David Abams) and her emotionally and physically fragile daughter Laura (Tina Traboulsi). Looking down on them is a portrait of the father, who left for parts unknown years earlier, sending only a postcard with the words “Hello” and “Goodbye.” Laura spends her time tending to a collection of glass figurines which her mother calls “Laura’s glass menagerie.” Tom keeps the family afloat working at a shoe warehouse and dreaming of joining the merchant marines.

Tamar Cohn as Amanda. David Abrams as Tom. Photos by Robin Jackson.

Wanting Laura to break through her intense shyness and hopefully meet and marry, Amanda coerces Tom to bring home a “gentleman caller” for Laura to meet. Tom invites his work colleague Jim O’Conner (Jesse Lumb) without knowing that Laura has had a crush on him since high school.

The RVP production has a simple but almost gauze-like set by Tom O’Brien complete with pastel walls and a see-through curtain separating the dining space from the living room. Outside is the landing with a fire escape where Tom smokes and narrates the memory tale. Spot on costumes by Michael Berg, an imaginative and evocative lighting design by Michele Samuels and period victrola music collected by resident sound designer Billie Cox, complete the fragile memories that Tom illuminates.

Jesse Lumb as Jim. Tina Traboulsi as Laura. Photos by Robin Jackson.

This is indeed a memory play as Tom tells us directly guiding us into his world of painful guilt as he looks back on the family he left behind when, like his father before him, he leaves and never returns.

The RVP cast is exemplary. Tom is played with deep sincerity, beautiful vocal assuredness and pained recollection by Abrams, also the director of the production. Tina Traboulsi brings all right qualities of awkward shyness and yet an underlying strength to Laura. She eschews a leg brace which is often used in productions, and instead adopts a slight limp, which she of course sees as a monumental obstruction. Jesse Lumb’s warm, comforting and caring gentleman caller is pitch-perfect. His scene lit by candlelight with Laura is a particular highlight of emotional excellence.

Tamar Cohn as Amanda. David Abrams as Tom. Photos by Robin Jackson in Tennessee William’s “The Glass Menagerie” Photos by Robin Jackson.

The production however belongs to Tamar Cohn and her astonishing portrayal of Amanda. Wielding wiles of ever imaginative possibilities, this force-of-nature mother cajoles, primps, screams in frustration and anger, and utilizes every tool in her arsenal to help her children. Underlying it all in this beautiful performance is love – a love that shines through the gauze like a beacon of hope. Stunning!

Memory plays such as The Glass Menagerie and Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa necessitate such simplicity of distance bringing us into the narrator’s world, so we feel the pain, anguish and the love of our own lives long past and yet long remembered.

Ross Valley Players has given us a gift not to be missed.

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

 

ProductionGlass Menagerie
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byDavid Abrams
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru Oct 14th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Tickets$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5.0
Performance4.5/5.0
Script5.0/5.0
Stagecraft4.5/5.0
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

PICK! ASR Music/Opera! ~~ San Francisco Opera’s New Wave

By Jeff Dunn

Steve Jobs rode the crests of waves of computer technology that have transformed society.

In The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs we experience his growth, wipeout, and spiritual arrival on a farther shore. The opera is a triumphal result of Mason Bates’ continually engaging, effervescent score; Mark Campbell’s tersely masterful 18-scene libretto; the design teams’ fabulous blending of set, lighting, sound, and projections; and flawless orchestral and vocal performances under the direction of Michael Christie. It is not to be missed.

Bille Bruley as Steve Wozniak and John Moore as Steve Jobs. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Most significant to me was Bates’ mastery of orchestration, and deepening range of emotive expression. Rather than use melodic leitmotivs as Wagner did to distinguish characters, he uses groups of instruments: guitar and percussion for Jobs (superb baritone Joseph Lattanzi), strings for his wife (luscious mezzo Sasha Cooke), flutes for his earlier girlfriend (plaintive soprano Olivia Smith), saxophones for his Apple 1 partner (powerful tenor Bille Bruley), and Asian gongs and other flavorings for his Zen mentor (rich bass Wei Wu).

…Most significant to me was Bates’ mastery of orchestration…

In Bates’ earlier orchestral music, I heard an heir to John Adams’ post-minimalist aesthetic leavened by experimentation with added electronica. But in Jobs, Bates has matured beyond Adams with the use of tonal and triadic effects to inject warm-heartedness into the mix via the string section, much as the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara did in his ground-breaking Cantus Arcticus and later symphonies.

Members of the SF Opera Chorus in “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Campbell’s dramatic and often ironic instincts are ever present. Jobs is worth its price in gold for Scene 12 alone. In it, Jobs browbeats his Apple 1 co-creator into quitting, denies siring his live-in girlfriend’s child, rejects seven proposals from seven different designers, refuses to support the girlfriend financially, even after DNA proof, and gets kicked to tech “Siberia” by his company’s board. Jobs tries to explain it all in the next scene to his post-mortem spiritual advisor, “I was only seeking perfection.” All of this is peppered with Bates’ most frenetic accompaniments.

The staging by Victoria Tzykun is simplistic, with giant monoliths silently wheeled around by (mostly) unseen “mover” stage staff. On these are projected a dazzling array of computer-board circuits, lighting effects, and contemplative outdoor scenes. This eye candy has many calories, appropriate to the vast fortunes swirling about Silicon Valley.

Sasha Cooke as Laurene Powell Jobs and John Moore as Steve Jobs in Mason Bates and Mark Campbell’s “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.” Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera

Finally, near the close of the opera, Campbell has Job’s wife deliver a moral to a communication-obsessed society: “Glance at the smile of the person sitting right there next to you. Look up, look out, look around. Be here now.” I did so and wondered, will technology take us safely to a New World beach, or will we too wipe out, even more permanently? I think Surfer Steve tells us in this opera that we will make it.

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Jeff Dunn is ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor. A retired educator and project manager, he’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 (R)evolution of Steve Jobs
Musical DirectionMichael Christie
Stage DirectionKevin Newbury
Producing CompanySan Francisco Opera
Production DatesThru Oct 7th
Production Address301 Van Ness Ave, SF, CA
Websitewww.sfopera.com
Telephone(415) 392-4400
Tickets$33-$426
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Libretto5.0/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Comic Relief: “POTUS” Rocks at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

The door-slamming farce is alive and well at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre. A likely sold-out show, Selina Fillinger’s outrageous comedy POTUS runs through October 22.

In the grand tradition of Lend Me a Tenor and Noises Off, the show stars seven Equity women as various figures in the White House, doing their best to contain potentially disastrous effects from an erratic president, whom we never meet—and truthfully, hope we won’t.

Stephanie Pope Lofgren (Margaret), Deirdre Lovejoy (Harriet) , and Stephanie Styles (Dusty) at work. Credit: Kevin Berne

Diedre Lovejoy and Kim Blanck are perfectly balanced as Chief of Staff Harriet and Press Secretary Jean, respectively. Their worrisome back-and-forth bickering is hilarious on its own, but the remaining five cast members take the whole affair into the comedic stratosphere.

…Raunchy, rambunctious, and bursting with savagely cynical energy…

First Lady Margaret (Stephanie Pope Lofgren) is the cynical, long-suffering eye of the storm. White House correspondent Chris (Dominique Toney) shares much of the exasperation expressed by FLOTUS (“First Lady of the United States”) while having embarrassing personal issues as a new mother with leaky swollen breasts. The two are superb with both deadpan delivery and physical comedy.

Stephanie Pope Lofgren (Margaret) and Susan Lynskey (Stephanie) in Selina Fillinger’s gleefully feminist satire POTUS through Sunday, October 22, 2023. All Photos Credit: Kevin Berne

Then there’s addled secretary Stephanie (Susan Lynskey), whose accidental acid trip pushes the tale in marvelously unexpected directions, and Bernadette (Allison Guinn), the president’s tough-talking, drug-dealing sister, recently released on parole and hoping to get a pardon from her brother.

Dominique Toney (Chris) and Stephanie Pope Lofgren (Margaret) at work in “POTUS” at Berkeley Rep.  All Photos Credit: Kevin Berne

Topping it off is Dusty (Stephanie Styles), the president’s barely-pregnant “dalliance.” She’s a ditzy former cheerleader with wild commentary on everything taking place, and even wilder antics so funny that you’ll do well to catch your breath.

Embracing the fantastic performers in POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive is the quick-change set by Andrew Boyce. The frenetic pace of the performance is perfectly matched by the timing of set changes—and by Palmer Herreran’s great sound design and Yi Zhao’s lighting. Annie Tippe’s expert direction couldn’t be better.

Raunchy, rambunctious, and bursting with savagely cynical energy, POTUS is a cathartic exploration of presidential insanity—and the insanity induced in those who’ve signed on as members of his team. Painful as it is to remember the extreme dysfunctionality we experienced during the reign of “the former guy,” POTUS delightfully informs us how much worse it could be.

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ASR 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

 

ProductionPOTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive
Written by
Selina Fillinger
Directed byAnnie Tippe
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough Oct 22nd
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$37 - $134
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 ~~ Palo Alto Players’ “Matilda” A Mixed Bag

By Joanne Engelhardt

Palo Alto Players’ current production of the musical version of the beloved Roald Dahl book, Matilda is a bit of a mixed bag.

While there are odd bits to enjoy – most especially Doug Santana’s uproarious acting and buxom look as the school’s old bag principal, Miss Agatha Trunchbull – there are also times when the sounds of screeching little voices and painfully outdated sound system at the Lucie Stern Theatre make one wonder whether to leave at intermission. And why did someone run the air conditioning during the show, making people try to bundle up in their sweaters or jackets for a matinee production?

…Costume designer Greet Jaspaert also deserves a shout-out…

Two young girls play the title role of Matilda Wormwood: Sofia Zamora and Araceli Grace. This reviewer saw Grace as Matilda, so comments made here are about her. Grace is a charmer, though I also found it frequently difficult to hear her words clearly. Good news: when she sings, her words are crystal clear.

For those who are not familiar with Dahl’s book, it can be quite confusing to watch the PAP production. Matilda’s parents, Mrs. Wormwood (a campy take on the role by Brigitte Losey) and her husband, Mr. Wormwood (Randy Lee) are more interested in money and trying to con other people out of theirs than they are in Matilda.

But the young girl has two people who watch out for her: Mrs. Phelps (Kayvon Kordestani) and her kindly teacher Miss Honey (Madelyn Davis). Davis likely has the best voice in the 29-member cast, and she uses it in several numbers: “Pathetic,” “This Little Girl,” “When I Grow Up” and “My House.”

One of the best group musical numbers in Act 2 is “When I Grow Up” featuring the children, Matilda and Miss Honey. Four long swings are lowered from the rafters, and some of the youthful ensemble jump on them and swing away. Then four older boys take over and swing far out into the audience. That causes an audible “Oh!” from the audience, and applause. Credit choreographer Whitney Janssen for that bit of excitement.

Costume designer Greet Jaspaert also deserves a shout-out for coming up with appropriate clothes for the large cast – and for creating the comical clothing of Santana as the dreaded Miss Trunchbull.

As the Escapologist, Steve Roma plays a large part in Matilda, although to anyone not familiar with the book, it might be a mystery what he does.

For some reason, PAP seems to be focused on children’s stories this year.

Matilda runs for just four more performances this weekend, ending on Sunday, Sept. 24. If you go, prepare by bringing along a warm jacket. PAP’s next production in November is The Wizard of Oz, then there’s more adult fare in 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

 

ProductionMatilda
Written by Dennis Kelly
Directed by
Janie Scott
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru Sept 24th, 2023
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
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.25/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

ASR Theater ~~ “Rehoming”– Shotgun Players’ “Wolf Play”

By George Maguire

The redoubtable, inventive Shotgun Players troupe continues its journey into the the realm of high-value, thought-provoking and theatrically-bold selections with Korean playwright Hansol Jung’s masterful and multi-layered Wolf Play.

Directed with whip-smart precision by Elizabeth Carter, the show takes the audience on a discovery trip as we define and then redefine what the words “home” and “family” mean.

Wolf Play tells the story of Jeenu (Wolf) a six- year-old child first adopted by Peter and Kate. When Kate becomes pregnant with her own child, Jeenu is “rehomed” by Peter on the internet to Robin – half of a lesbian couple. Robin’s wife Ash is an aspiring boxer whose life and immediate goals are compromised by the unexpected arrival of the child.

…In a world of its own is James Ard’s glorious soundscape…

Played as a puppet manipulated with insouciant and inquisitive spirit by Mikee Loria, Jeenu is seeking a home and a pack and refers to himself as Wolf. He howls, bays, snarls, and growls with anger as his life is uprooted.

Mikee Loria as Wolf. All Photography by Ben Krantz.

Complications ensue when Peter (played with angst and determination by Sam Bertken) discovers that he has sold the boy to an LGBTQIA+ couple, and wants him back. By this time, having discovered his new “pack,” Jeenu has acclimated himself into the home life of his “moms.” Despite Robin’s motherly warmth, clear love of this child, and simultaneous steel (portrayal by the talented Laura Domingo) it is Gobby Momah’s Ash that the boy eventually identifies with.

Laura Domingo as Robin, Caleb Cabrera as Ryan.

One of the joys of the play is watching them communicate. All others look at the puppet when talking to the boy, Ash looks directly at Jeenu. She talks to him, not just about him. Ash is being trained for the big fight by Robin’s brother Ryan (a focused and determined Caleb Cabrero). The characters of Kate the wife and also Ryan and Robin’s Mom are not seen, but are spoken to by the actors in what the reviewer found to be a rather confusing mélange of conversation.

We watch the puppet/boy react with pain, confusion, and tears as his search for family, a pack, is ripped once again away from him. All this culminates in a final courtroom custody battle deciding the fate of the child. The results of that trial won’t be given away here.

Technical elements are good. Stephanie Johnson (whose gorgeous work illuminated Marin Shakespeare Company this summer) brings similar creativity to Shotgun Players. Celeste Martone’s set and Ashley Renee’s costumes serve the play well. The combination of David Maier and boxing consultant Emmanuel Blackwell bring the big match and Gabby Momah’s remarkable reactive punch/foot work to life.

Caleb Cabrera as Ryan, Gabby Momah as Ash.

In a world of its own is James Ard’s glorious soundscape. The opening moments with clangs and bells of the ring, are brilliant. The play’s running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.

Shotgun delivers a play dealing with many current issues of queer identity, broken lives, the vulnerability of children being bartered like animals, and above all, the need for roots, family, a pack.

Caleb Cabrera as Ryan, Sam Bertken as Peter, Laura Domingo as Robin, Gabby Momah as Ash in “Wolf Play” at Shotgun Players.

On Facebook, we see actors referring to casts as “my chosen family.” How long will that last past the closing? We chose family as such for a lifetime of eternal, ethereal connection. Wolf Play helps us clear the air and get to the root of this journey.

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

 

ProductionWolf Play
Written byHansol Jung
Directed byKatja Rivera
Producing CompanyShotgun Players
Production Dates
Thru Oct 1st
Production Address1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley CA 94705
WebsiteShotgunplayers.org
Telephone(510) 841-6500
Tickets$26-$44
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft2.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Addams Family Musical” Really is a Scream! NTC Musical Comedy Nails It!

By Cari Lynn Pace

Characters from the 1964 television series come alive, along with many ghosts, in this hilarious fun-filled musical. Novato Theatre Company under the direction of Marilyn Izdebski pulled out all the stops, including thunder and lightning, to rival any Broadway stage. The derelict Gothic mansion, designed and built by Michael Walraven, is just the start of this journey with a dark and bizarre family.

Morticia (Alison Peltz) at work on the NTC stage.

The casting is hilariously perfect. Bruce Vieira commands the role of Gomez with an authoritative touch and comedic timing. Veteran Alison Peltz slinks and sizzles as Morticia, a perfectly gorgeous foil to amorous Gomez. Their children yank on one another, as siblings do, Pugsley with his chains (alternating roles Robin Kraft and Milo Ward) and Wednesday (Harriette Pearl Fugitt) with her crossbow.

…Novato Theater Company has a graveyard smash…

Fugitt has the central role in the plot: she’s the daughter with a serious boyfriend who is “normal.” She fears bringing him and his ordinary family into her own bizarre home. Fugitt seems made for this part, breathing life into her deadpan delivery and big brassy voice.

Uncle Fester (Pat Barr) and Grandma (Kayla Gold) at work on the NTC stage.

Wednesday’s boyfriend Lucas (John Diaz) is a sweetie who somehow finds love in her peculiar antics. His conservative midwestern parents, Alice (Jane Harrington) and Mal (David Shirk) are taken aback at the oddities of the Addams family when they come for dinner. They struggle to retain their cheery composure for their son’s sake.

“The Addams mansion overflows with outlandish occupants…”

The Addams mansion overflows with outlandish occupants. Pat Barr channels Fester, the genial uncle who charms the audience. Lurch, the monosyllabic Frankenstein-like butler, is brought to life by Todd Krish, green skin tone and all. When asked post-show how long it took to get into their makeup, these actors laughed and answered “We’re both bald anyway, so it was an easy half hour to complete the job.”

Grandma, played with a wink and a sly grin by Kayla Gold, draws laughs just showing up onstage. She has a cart full of potions and poisons. Pugsley doesn’t want Wednesday to marry Lucas and leave home, so he sneaks a snootful to dose Wednesday. Intended to turn loose her inhibitions and offend Lucas, it mistakenly is swallowed by Alice, who goes wild in a showstopper number on the Adams’ dinner table.

The principal actors at work in “The Addams Family Musical” at NTC

As if all this outlandish talent wasn’t enough, eleven graveyard “ancestors” dance around in cadaverous make-up and ghostly costumes designed by Tracy Redig. Their beat goes on with the help of a live band offstage directed by Judy Wiesen.

Be warned: the line for tickets went out the door on opening night, and preview night was also sold out. Novato Theater Company has a graveyard smash in The Addams Family Musical so snap your fingers and get there soon.

Playing now through October 8th at the 99-seat Novato Playhouse, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato CA. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 PM. Tickets@NovatoTheaterCompany.Org or email Tickets@NovatoTheaterCompany.Org.

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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

 

ProductionThe Addams Family Musical
Written byMarshall Brickman & Rick Elice
Directed byMarilyn Izdebski
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough Oct 8th
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
Overall4.25/5.0
Performance4.25/5.0
Script4/5.0
Stagecraft4.75/5.0
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES

Pick ASR Theater ~~ Prepare to Die Laughing at Pear Theatre’s “Noises Off”

By Joanne Engelhardt

It’s a miracle that Mountain View’s tiny Pear Theatre pulls off the complex staging required for the insanely wacky Michael Frayn comedy Noises Off.

Some may recall that Frayn’s 1982 play was made into a film a decade later with Carol Burnett playing the role of the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett/Dotty who keeps losing her plates of sardines. Here, the exceptional Judith Miller takes on that role and excellently conveys her incredulity and amazement as plates of sardines appear and disappear at will.

Kristin Walter (Belinda), Judith Miller (Dotty), Natalie To (Brooke), Kyle Dayrit (Lloyd), Michael Rhone (Frederick). Photo credit: Caitlin Stone-Collonge.

Though the entire cast is fine, Chris Mahle as the lecherous Garry and Natalie To as the dim-witted Brooke skillfully find their characters’ charm and nuanced characteristics.

What’s most amazing about the Pear’s production is that at the end of Act 1, the audience is directed to leave by a side entrance, then, once in the front of the theatre, the Pear’s education director Meaghan Anderson commands their attention as she charmingly gives a history of sardines to the crowd. Next, she takes everyone on a tour of the theatre’s green room as well as the dressing room where various actors are sitting, standing or reading lines.

“Noises Off’ cast working hard at the Pear theater. Photo credit: Caitlin Stone-Collonge.

When they emerge, the audience is now invited to take a seat in the Pear’s somewhat small backstage area. It’s from this vantage point that Act 2 begins.

It’s quite obvious that Champlin, the actors and crew all had to work with the same goal in mind to make Noises Off work so well in this theatre.

…Frayn’s entire set of characters are just that: characters!…

There are two casts in this Pear show: the “Sardines Cast” and the “Doors Cast” although all but three actors perform in both casts. (The “Sardines” cast is the one reviewed here.)

Other standouts in the Sardines cast include:

–Brandon Silberstein as Tim, the put-upon set-builder, carpenter and general jack-of-all-trades who suddenly discovers he enjoys being in front of the curtain as well as behind the scenes.

–Kristin Walter as Belinda, wife of the couple who own the house where everything takes place. For tax purposes she and her husband (Michael Rhone) have to stay in Spain for a year, but they sneak back to their home for a romantic one-night getaway for their anniversary.

–Ken Boswell as Selsdon, who is always hunting for his bottle of booze which is frequently snatched away from him by other cast members for fear he’ll get drunk and not remember his entrances or his lines.

–Kyle Dayvit as Lloyd, the long-suffering director of the play-within-a-play, who constantly yells at his actors when they forget lines, their blocking, and their entrances and exits. He’s constantly marching down to the set to scream, yell and generally seethe at how the rehearsal is going.

Walter and Dayrit do not appear when the “Doors” cast is performing.

Judith Miller (Dotty), Ken Boswell (Selsdon), Kristin Walter (Belinda), Brandon Silberstein (Tim), Vivienne Truong (Poppy), Kyle Dayrit (Lloyd), Natalie To (Brooke), Chris Mahle (Garry). Photo credit: Caitlin Stone-Collonge.

The show is a riotous testament to the ingenuity of director Katie O’Bryon Champlin and a top-notch cast capable of juggling pratfalls and senseless lines – all while looking as if it’s an everyday occurrence!

The Pear Theatre’s website (www.thepear.org) lists which cast performs on which dates.

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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

 

ProductionNoises Off
Written byMichael Frayn
Directed byKatie O’Bryon Champlin
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru Oct 1st
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets
SOLD OUT. Contact Box Office for additional performances
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5.00
Performance4.75/5.00
Script4.75/5.00
Stagecraft4.75/5.00
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “Anna Christie” – Eugene O’Neill’s Fallen-Woman Play Rescues the Genre from Convention

By Susan Dunn

The annual Eugene O’Neill Festival is dedicated this year to the voices of women, and Anna Christie is the play that delivers that goal. To get there, we took a Festival Bus to an old barn on a remote hill in Danville to be entertained, time-warped, and enveloped by three compelling characters.

It’s the story of a former prostitute who must reveal her past to her father and fiancé. The denouement is a nut to crack enveloped in fog. Is this a drama, a tragedy, or a melodrama? Anna Christie has occasional aspects of all of these elements. But the engaging characters, their stories, and ultimately their charm work their magic.

Look up and see the stars through the holes in the barn ceiling. Pray that rain won’t come during the performance. Crickets crawl across the stage, and flies waft by. Where is this superb venue? At the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site, managed with cooperation and support from the Eugene O’Neill Foundation.

…a triumph for one of O’Neill’s best plays to our delight…

Before showtime, one can tour O’Neill’s former residence, Tao House, now a complete museum and gift shop, just a short walk from the barn. At the end of September, the whole cast and production will perform again at The Eugene O’Neill International Festival of Theatre in New Ross, Ireland. It’s an annual cultural and civic celebration of the strong ties between Ireland and the United States exemplified by O’Neill’s Irish heritage.

Anna Christie opens with a glimpse of Anna, now a refugee from a hard-knock life, scurrying through the scene with her belongings in hand. Adriene Deane’s every expression reveals a 20-year-old who is oppressed but aching to recover from her past. It’s a subtle and primarily low-key role that is an excellent foil to her two loves. Her father, Chris Christopherson, hasn’t tried to see her in 15 years. He’s a crusty, boisterous, hard-drinking womanizing scamp ably captured by Charles Woodson Parker. He packs a hidden, vulnerable heart of filial love and a penchant for cursing “Ye old devil sea!” on whom he blames all life’s challenges.

Into this unlikely duo charges Matt Burke, a lowly Irish sailor whose profession is stoking coal on ships and living the itinerant life of the sea. Expertly played by Kyle Goldman, Matt makes up for his ignominious status with an explosive personality. His body writhes, his limbs contort or strut, his eyes bug and pinch, his eyebrows arch, and his chatter is non-stop, with an appeal that makes us want to take him home. This reviewer couldn’t wait for his next entrance.

Anna re-enters her father’s life, playing her last and lost family card, and hopes for help to recover from the abuse of her former professions: farm worker-slave, nurse, governess, and finally prostitute, a past she must hide. She moves onto the barge with her father and Matt. She ultimately is restored by the sea and the fog, which hides her past life from her consciousness, and the attentions and affections of Matt, who takes her for a well-bred young woman.

By Act III, this restorative happiness is challenged by Matt’s proposing marriage and her father’s attempts to control her – to steer her back to the land, to stability, to permanence, and away from the sea and the life of a sailor’s wife. She finally finds her voice and declares her love for both of them–and her right to personal responsibility and determinism.

Assisted by minimal but appropriate production elements, three featured roles, and the embrace of being set next to O’Neill’s former residence, the play delivers a triumph for one of O’Neill’s best plays to our delight and the Festival’s excellence.

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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

ProductionAnna Christie
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed byEric Fraisher Hayes
Producing CompanyThe Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House
Production DatesThrough Sept 24th
Production AddressThe Old Barn, Tao House, 1000 Kuss Rd
Danville, CA 94526
Websitehttps://eugeneoneill.org/event/eugene-oneills-anna-christie/
Telephone(925) 838-0249
Tickets$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~Hats Off for CenterREP’s “Crowns”

By Barry Willis

A hip-hop girl from Brooklyn goes on a journey of discovery in CenterREP’s Crowns, at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through October 6.

Yolanda (Antonia Reed), Mabel (Phaedra Tillery-Boughton), and Velma (Constance Jewell Lopez) listen as Jeanette (Janelle LaSalle) extolls the flirtatious power of hats in Center Repertory Company’s “Crowns.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

After the murder of her brother, Yolanda (Antonia Reed) is sent by her mother to live with her grandmother in a small South Carolina town. Juanita Harris stars as Mother Shaw, the town’s no-nonsense matriarch and queen bee of a bevy of church ladies, each of whom owns a collection of elaborate fancy hats mostly reserved for Sundays, when, as is repeated throughout the serio-comedic musical, they want to look their best when they “go to meet the king.”

..an exhilarating, uplifting celebration of life …

Jeanette’s dad (Darryl V. Jones) does a softshoe in a memory shared by the women (l to r: Phaedra Tillery-Boughton, Constance Jewell Lopez, Yaadi Erica Richardson, and Juanita Harris) in “Crowns,” performing Sep 9 – Oct 6, 2023 at Lesher Center for the Arts. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Veteran actor/director Darryl V. Jones is wonderful as the town’s pastor, and in multiple roles as various males—father, brother, bridegroom—in a show that’s an outrageously infectious celebration of the feminine side of African-American culture. He’s surrounded by members of his congregation, each with flamboyant headgear and tales to tell about every one of them. Yolanda wanders in bafflement among these congregants—Harris, Constance Jewell Lopez, Phaedra Tillery-Broughton, Yaadi Erica Richardson, and Janelle LaSalle—slowly making her own discoveries about ancient African traditions that persist in modern communities.

Sassy, self-assertive, and self-deprecating as only black women can be, these church ladies enlighten the audience with anecdotes that encompass everything from the basics of flirtation to coming of age in the Civil Rights era. Much of it is very funny, and some of it quite sad, such as a dance scene in which a wedding transitions into a funeral, then into a remembrance of the community’s departed males, symbolized by simple hats laid side-by-side on a set piece that’s both church pew and casket.

JT (Darryl V. Jones) and Mother Shaw (Juanita Harris) share a moment as Mabel (Phaedra Tillery-Boughton), Velma (Constance Jewell Lopez), and Jeanette (Janelle LaSalle) look on in Center Repertory Company’s “Crowns.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Scenic designer Nina Ball’s austere gothic arches serve as the sole set throughout the show, an adaptation by Regina Taylor from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. Crowns is elegantly and powerfully directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.

Yolanda, and the audience, get schooled about a phenomenon that they may not have understood, but the dramatic theme that ties the story together is little more than a framework on which to hang plenty of great old Gospel hymns, all delivered with overpowering conviction: “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” to name just a few. The intermission-free performance is a riveting old-time revival, propelled by pianist Andrew Barnes Jamieson and percussionist Ken Bergmann.

It’s bedrock stuff.

Yolanda (Antonia Reed – left) shares her story with the cast (right – Darryl V. Jones, background: Yaadi Erica Richardson, Phaedra Tillery-Boughton, Janelle LaSalle) in Center Repertory Company’s “Crowns,” performing September 9 – October 6, 2023 at Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.
Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

“Take me to church,” sang pop star Hozier—a song that exemplifies the universal human need for spiritual redemption. That imperative is exactly what Crowns delivers—an exhilarating, uplifting celebration of life that will force even curmudgeonly nonbelievers to leap from their seats in praise.

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ASR 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

 

ProductionCrowns
Written byRegina Taylor
Directed byDelicia Turner Sonnenberg
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru Oct 6th
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
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR Theater ~~ TTC Enchants at Beltane Ranch

By Barry Willis

Transcendence Theatre Company has another winner on its hands with An Enchanted Evening at the sprawling Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen. The song-and-dance extravagance runs through September 17.

Directed by TTC co-founder Brad Surosky, the two-hour show features eleven supremely talented singers/dancers/actors and a supremely talented on-stage band—choreography by Michael Callahan, music direction by Matt Smart.

TTC’s “An Enchanted Evening” and Taylor Noll, Whitney Cooper, Alloria Frayser, Alyson Snyder, Emma Grimsley, Michael Callahan

Collectively they take their large outdoor audience on a hike down the memory lane of decades of pop music—some of it from classic stage musicals and some of it, Top 40 radio hits including at least one country song and one from the Motown catalog.

…There’s something for everyone in this diverse, marvelously engaging production—even an aria by Puccini…

Opening with “Pure Imagination” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the show then kicks into high gear with a mash-up of “I Put a Spell on You” and “Love Potion Number Nine.” An extended “Moon Medley” includes several songs with “moon” in the title or featured prominently in the lyrics. There’s a long, fun moment of audience participation, some bits of goofy comedic improvisation, but mostly two hours of tremendous singing and dancing from a deeply talented cast. Their playbill bios are especially impressive given their apparent youthfulness.

Emma Grimsley, Alloria Frayser, Alyson Snyder, Michael Schimmele, Whitney Cooper, Joey Khoury, Michael Callahan in “An Enchanted Evening.”

 

TTC has managed to correct a couple of minor problems that marred the opener of The Full Monty—the too-low stage and seats that had the audience staring directly into the backs of those sitting in front of them. It’s all good now—clear views for everyone, and now that it’s late summer, no squinting into the sun during the first act.

Colin Campbell Mcadoo, Joey Khoury, Michael Schimmele, Nathan Andrew Riley at work.

The show is a glorious way to spend a late summer evening. Early arrivals can enjoy a variety of vittles from several food trucks parked onsite, and wines from several Sonoma County vintners.

Whitney Cooper and Kyle White in “An Enchanted Evening by TTC.

TTC isn’t exaggerating in describing An Enchanted Evening as “a magical night of Broadway and beyond”—as truthful a tagline as one can imagine. It’s all that and more.

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ASR 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

 

ProductionAn Enchanted Evening
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed byBrad Surosky
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThru Sept 17th
Production AddressBeltane Ranch
Glen Ellen, CA
Websitewww.transcendencetheatre.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414. Toll free,
Tickets$35-$49
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.75/5.0
Performance4.0/5.0
Script3.5/5.0
Stagecraft3.0/5.0
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Soul Train Musical” Roars into San Francisco

By Barry Willis

A party atmosphere greeted the arrival of Hippest Trip – the Soul Train Musical last week at American Conservatory Theater. Brightly-attired fans spilled out into the street in front of the theater and filled it to capacity for the world premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s dazzling retrospective of the long-running television show and its founder Don Cornelius, wonderfully directed by Kamilah Forbes.

The cast of “HIPPEST TRIP – The Soul Train Musical”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

San Francisco mayor London Breed further amped up the crowd with a high-energy pre-show pep talk delivered from one of the most imaginative sets ever created for a big-production musical: a giant old-school TV set surrounded by extravagant neon in the rich brown and orange of early 1970s psychedelia, running up the walls and onto the ceiling of ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater—a brilliant effort by scenic designer Jason Sherwood.

…one of the most engaging musicals to land in San Francisco this year…

The incredibly confident Quentin Earl Darrington stars as Don Cornelius, a former Chicago journalist who grew tired of producing stories about crime and misery. He envisioned an upbeat dance-and-music show that would uplift his community. Through sheer willpower he made it a reality—first in his home town, then in Los Angeles, and then nationwide. New episodes aired every Saturday, and as Soul Train gained popularity, older episodes were available as re-runs.

Pam Brown (Amber Iman) and Don Cornelius (Quentin Earl Darrington). Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

Thanks to Cornelius’ tireless campaigning, the show featured top talents from the Stax and Motown labels—acts such as Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Four Tops—and superstars such as James Brown. Soul Train was hugely popular not only with its target market, but with music fans of all varieties. His tireless efforts yielded tremendous results, at the expense of alienating him from his family and ultimately provoking a divorce from his loyal wife Delores, evocatively portrayed by Angela Birchett.

In a resonant baritone, Darrington recites the Cornelius tale in the first person, directly to the audience, while other essential parts of the story are conveyed through what we can only assume are historically accurate sketches—and by lots of spectacular dancing propelled by an equally spectacular band. Kudos to choreographer Camille A. Brown and music supervisor Kenny Seymour.

The musical context is very much linear. The early days of Soul Train were a showcase for 1960s soul music, the favorite genre of the show’s founder and host.

Kayla Davion (Jody Watley) and the cast of “HIPPEST TRIP – The Soul Train Musical”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

Like swing era bandleader Glenn Miller, Cornelius imagined that his preferred music would endure forever, and was dismayed—if not blind-sided—by the rise of disco in the mid-to-late 1970s. Disco was a market disrupter for all kinds of pop music, and Cornelius ultimately relented, promoting disco acts such as the trio Shalamar, whose female singer Jody Watley (Kayla Davion) went on to have a solo career. He was further annoyed by the rise of hip-hop, a genre that originated at the same time as disco but proved to have much more staying power. Disco faded—1979 was reportedly the peak year for sales of vinyl records—but hip-hop and its offshoots remain dominant musical forces today.

Cornelius was further irked by the emergence of New Jack Swing, exemplified by Bobby Brown’s hard-rocking 1980s hit “My Prerogative”—in this show, a music-and-dance performance so stunning that it provoked a spontaneous standing ovation in the second act. This reviewer has attended thousands of productions, but until September 6 had never seen such an outpouring of enthusiasm and appreciation. Opening night was truly astounding.

An obsessed, well-intentioned visionary, Cornelius was nonetheless no angel. One of his sons was estranged, but Tony Cornelius (Sidney Dupont) signed on as his overbearing dad’s apprentice, and gradually worked his way into management of the Soul Train empire, a position he holds today. (A very informative interview between Tony and the playwright is included in the playbill. The real Tony Cornelius was at ACT on opening night, as was Morisseau, who delivered a heartfelt speech at closing.)

Perhaps the worst shortcoming of the elder Cornelius was his refusal to pay Soul Train dancers, even after the show was an undeniable big-ticket hit. He found his initial cadre at a Los Angeles recreation center, where they were being mentored by a kind-hearted woman named Pam Brown (Amber Iman), who became Cornelius’ loyal production assistant. Iman is a wonderfully compelling performer with a glorious singing voice. As with “My Prerogative,” she provoked sustained applause in almost every scene.

Roukijah “NutellaK” Rooks and the cast of “HIPPEST TRIP – The Soul Train Musical”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

There’s a tertiary thread in the show’s narrative where some dancers discuss going on strike until they realize they can’t demand higher wages if they aren’t being paid at all. Spunky dancer Rosie Perez (Mayte Natalio) repeatedly demands a contract, but only with lawyers present, a demand that her boss consistently rebuffs. The tight-fisted Cornelius may have harbored a fear that his eminently seaworthy ship might spring a leak at any moment.

All of this—personal and professional alike—is woven into one of the most engaging musicals to land in San Francisco this year. Both deeply informative and wildly entertaining, Hippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical is a hugely important piece of American cultural history. There aren’t enough stars in our ratings system to shower all the praise it deserves. It is without question the most important show now running in San Francisco.

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ASR 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

 

ProductionHippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical
Written by Dominique Morisseau
Directed byKamilah Forbes
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater
Production DatesThrough Oct 8th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA
Websiteact-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 - $130
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5.0
Performance4.75/5.0
Script4.75/5.0
Stagecraft4.75/5.0
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Music & Opera ~~ Rare Treat Gone Too Soon: Delightful Family Opera Buoys the Spirit

By Jeff Dunn

This summer, we’ve had hot and muggy days. But overnight, a front can move through quickly and by sunrise we’re treated to clear, cool air with gentle breezes. Such was the refreshing joy of Solo Opera’s production of The Three Feathers. With delightful music by Lori Laitman and a well-crafted libretto by Dana Gioia, this 85-minute fairy tale opera was loaded with eye candy and star-powered performances.

The story is from the Brothers Grimm collection of 1812 about an aging king (the resonant baritone Eugene Brancovenanu) who wants to pass on his kingdom to one of his three offspring who best fulfills a series of challenges. In the Laitman/Gioia adaptation, these descendants are princesses rather than princes. The youngest, shiest, most naïve yet loving daughter Dora (the sweet soprano Shawnette Sulker) ends up the victor thanks to an underground frog king (the stentorian bass Kirk Eichelberger) that she finds via her magic feather, along with families of rats, bats and snakes.

…The pleasures are many…

Laitman’s music was charming and superbly orchestrated. I particularly admired her use of percussion and brass. While the music was rich in melodic evanescence, I must admit to wishing for at least one substantial aria. Gioia’s text added considerable depth to every one of the cardboard characters from the Grimm tale, and it did so such that it reads like music itself.

The Frog King’s Court with the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

And three of these characters really stood out, doubly boosted by the talents of coloratura Chelsea Hollow as the frivolous shopaholic princess Gilda, mezzo-soprano Hope Nelson as the she-woman princess Tilda, and Sam Faustine as the Frog Prince. Hollow’s voice was thrilling in its scamper. Nelson’s no-nonsense athleticism and vocal clarity would easily land her an executive position in a Silicon Valley startup. Finally, though a late arrival on the scene, Faustine’s frog brought down the house. His transformation from an idiotic frog to a loving and still idiotic prince still brings me tears of laughter.

Sam Faustine as the Frog Prince

All of the above excellence was couched in the transformative projections and most of the stage design by Peter Crompton. (I, for one, do wish the trap door to an underworld from the Grimm tale and the 2014 Virginia Tech production could have been retained somehow. Instead Gilda goes through a vertical panel behind her father’s throne. C’est la vie!) Callie Floor’s costume designs were resplendent, and the respective stage and music direction by Sylvia Amorino and Alexander Katsman left nothing to be desired.

The Three Feathers is not just a zoo of princesses, frogs, rats and bats, As Amorino pointed out in her program notes. “The opera invites us to be more inclusive, open our hearts and minds, and work to connect with those who are different than us.”

Sadly, the last performance of this rare treat occurred on September 10th, and with this show’s departure, mugginess returned to the Bay Area. That said, if you ever hear of a company producing this show, “hop to it” and see The Three Feathers.

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Jeff Dunn is ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor. A retired educator and project manager, he’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 Three Feathers
Stage DirectionSylvia Amorino
Musical DirectionAlexander Katsman
Producing CompanySolo Opera
Production DatesSep 8th, Sep 10th
Production AddressHofmann Theatre, Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr, Walnut Creek 94596
Websitewww.soloopera.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$25-$55
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.3/5.0
Performance4.4/5.0
Libretto4.5/5.0
Music4.0/5.0
Stagecraft4.5/5.0
Aisle Seat Review Pick?N/A

 

 

Opinion: The Nuances of Scoring in Theater Criticism — Why 0.00 and 5.00 Are Off-Limits at ASR

By Kris Neely and Barry Willis

 

Dear Theater Professionals and Fellow Critics,

Aisle Seat Review’s (ASR) management team of Kris Neely (Owner, Editor-in-Chief) and Barry Willis (Senior Executive Editor and Writer) want to address an issue that some have found confusing or contentious: ASR’s theater review scoring system ranges from 0.00 to 5.00 but disallows either 0.00 or 5.00 ratings for any theatrical production or for any performance aspect (performance, stagecraft, etc.)  Clarifying why such an approach is valid and important for maintaining the integrity of ASR’s theater criticism and respecting the art it speaks to.

We understand that the notion of imperfection is not always comfortable, especially regarding the painstakingly complex task of creating and evaluating any art.

The Diverse Voices Behind Our Reviews

ASR’s critics are not just writers—they represent a tapestry of experience across theater arts. Our team encapsulates a wide range of expertise, including seasoned journalists, former theater professors, theater board members, and veterans of stage and screen.

Every one of our nine Nor Cal critics is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC), assuring that our reviews emanate not merely from knowledge but also from a profound passion and a solid history of and reverence for, the theater and theater arts and artists.

Furthermore, ASR’s coverage model also demonstrated our dedication to the diversity of Bay Area theater. Even a simple analysis of San Francisco to Antioch and Santa Rosa to San Jose reveals that ASR’s coverage model exceeds 4,500 square miles.

The Dual Objectives of Criticism

It is essential to differentiate the expectations of theater professionals and a critique website like ours, each with contrasting objectives. Theater companies, actors, and production artists naturally seek validation for their labor-intensive, experienced-based, and painstakingly-educated artistic endeavors.

This quest goes beyond artistic appreciation; high ratings translate to broader acclaim and increased ticket sales and funding opportunities. For artists aspiring to carve a niche in theater, ratings can contribute to following their passion—or enduring mundane jobs. Any theater’s desire for a favorable review and its artistic professionals’ individual aspirations are intrinsically linked to quests for financial stability, peer recognition, and reputational growth.

Conversely, a critique website operates from a more distant standpoint, though its responsibility is no less significant. Our primary commitment is with our readers, the expansive theater community, and, importantly, the ticket-buying public, all asking ASR to deliver precise and unbiased performance and value evaluations of productions.

That is why at ASR, we aim to “call balls-and-strikes” and to demonstrate a neutral adjudication of each show. We aim to delineate any show’s strengths and weaknesses without, we hope, our judgment being clouded by bias, preconceptions, or inclinations.

This perspective does not diminish our subjective experience of a production. It focuses on appraising a  show’s substance, delivery, technical consistency, and resonance with and for an audience. This nuanced approach does not reflect a lack of esteem or admiration for theatrical craft; instead, it emanates from our unique vantage point within the sprawling theater landscape.

Decoding the ‘Broadway’ Shorthand in ASR’s Scoring System

ASR’s discussions about theater and its intricate evaluations tap into a rich well of critical experiences and understandings. Like any community with a history of intense debates and discussions, we have developed our own internal language—a convenient shorthand. This language allows us to concisely encapsulate complex ideas, past experiences, or general sentiments, enabling more efficient and pointed conversations.

And so, over the years, we have invoked references to past shows or industry standards to make a point. For example, mentioning “Another Antioch The Foreigner” (a made-up example) is not just about recalling a particular show but is also an embodiment of a specific sentiment or quality we felt about a production that might not have met our expectations.

Similarly, saying, “Is their Christmas Carol as good as CenterRep’s?” encapsulates the shared experiences and judgments of a recurring version of the Dickens classic that has few peers in all of the Bay Area.

Perhaps the most nuanced shorthand we use revolves around the term “Broadway.” In the universe of American theater, “Broadway” is not merely a location or a production level; it is emblematic of the zenith of theatrical arts achievements. Saying something is “Broadway” taps into the collective consciousness of theater enthusiasts, critics, and artists, evoking images of unparalleled quality, the crème de la crème of actors, directors, producers, facilities, top-tier technical expertise, and budgets.

However, when we say a play under critique at ASR is “Not Broadway,” we are not deriding its quality, dismissing its value, or judging its talent base. Instead, it is our internal-only discussion/shorthand way of appreciating the production’s hard work and dedication while noting that it might not have reached the pinnacle of theatrical excellence one might associate with a mainline Broadway production.

On the flip side, an internal discussion at ASR that a 4.75-rated show is “Almost Broadway” is not a literal stamp of its “Broadway-worthiness.” It is conceptual, marrying the notion that a ‘perfect’ 5.00 in art is elusive (and, as we say, not possible) concerning the production quality presented. Our “Almost Broadway” idea is that the show, as commendable as it is, might soar even higher with the resources, talent pool, and budget typically associated with a Broadway smash.

To be clear: Inside ASR, this shorthand does not devalue (or overvalue) any production. It is not meant as praise or an insult. It is a conceptual sightline. An abstract mile marker. A convenience for communication inside ASR. Along with other shorthand terms ASR has developed over the past eight years, it offers a shared lexicon to convey complex sentiments, ensuring our discussions remain relative, vibrant, and efficient.

Zero to Five: The Myth of Zero Value

Theater is a collaborative endeavor that requires the confluence of various art forms—acting, direction, writing, music, set design, lighting, and costume design, among others. Even if a production falls dramatically short in one or multiple areas, it is almost impossible for it to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

A 0.00 rating would imply a nullification of effort, a denial of even the attempt to create something meaningful. It would be disrespectful to the labor, however flawed, that has gone into creating a piece of art. It would not only be devastating to the morale of those involved in the production but would also inhibit constructive criticism. The lowest scores in our range should indicate a severe need for improvement, not oblivion.

The Elusiveness of Perfection: Why We Do Not Have a “5-Star” Rating System

On the flip side, a score of 5.00 suggests perfection—again, a feat unattainable in the art world — which is inherently subjective and ever-evolving. What might be considered a perfect performance today could be seen as dated or flawed in the context of future artistic innovations, new theater technologies, and social shifts.

Moreover, even the most revered productions have quirks or elements that divide opinion.

Art’s beauty and value often lie in its juxtaposition of blindingly brilliant efforts, debatable imperfections, and its ability to provoke thought, incite debate, and leave room for interpretation. Giving any production a ‘perfect’ score risks stifling that discourse and undermines the essence of what makes art so compelling and richly complex in the first place.

Thus, if one cannot conceive of a production that would merit a 0.00 score, it should be equally impossible to imagine a “perfect” 5.00 score across any or every aspect of its production. (That is a huge reason why ASR stopped using a so-called “Five Star” rating system back in 2018. We do not have a “5 Star” rating system now but a 0.00-to-5.00 rating system.

That said, astute readers will note that, in the past, we have given 5.00 points in selected reviews, such as for the national touring production of The Band’s Visit a couple of years ago, a show that many thought was Broadway quality. Today, even a show this good would rate a 4.90 at ASR.

One exception: Even amidst an internal swirl of controversy, ASR has been known to award 5.00 ratings for selected scripts and scores, for example, the score from West Side Story, or the script from To Kill a Mockingbird, or most Shakespeare scripts. This practice will end shortly. More on that later.

Reputation and Credibility

ASR’s long-term plan is to be a viable commercial venture supported by advertising. And to labor to maintain a reputation for being fair and even-handed — even if that means occasionally dispensing some “tough love” in a review.

If critics who write for our website were to hand out 5.00 scores freely, it would seriously jeopardize our credibility. Any grading system loses meaning and utility if its upper limit is frequently touched. Readers rely on critics to be discerning to help them navigate the vast and varied landscape of theatrical productions. A 5.00 score, if doled out indiscriminately, would dilute the weight and significance of all our reviews.

Imagine overhearing a conversation between two theater folks:

SHE: “Hey, ASR gave us a 5.0!”

HE: “So what? They give everyone and everything a 5.0.”

This reflects not just a casual dismissal but a severe undermining of the role that critics play in the theater ecosystem. It would indicate that our evaluations are meaningless, serving more as empty applause than as considered analyses.

The answer lies in the use of the ratings score as a guidepost—not as an ultimate judgment. A 4.75 score would indicate an exceptional, perhaps groundbreaking, production but would also implicitly acknowledge room for debate, interpretation, and, yes, improvement.

Similarly, a score at or above 0.10 would recognize the absence of complete worthlessness, emphasizing that every production has at least some redeemable quality or lesson to offer, even if it is a lesson in how not to do things.

At ASR, we aim to recognize the multi-dimensional aspects of theater while maintaining a grading system that reflects both highs and lows without resorting to absolutes. We believe such a nuanced approach encourages improvement, invites dialogue, and, most importantly, respects art’s ever-changing, ever-subjective nature.

Not Change For Change’s Sake

We hope this helps clear the air on our current scoring model, our use of shorthand in internal discussions, and our efforts to maintain our neutrality and credibility as a critical organization.

However, it is essential to add this in closing: for almost a year, ASR’s management has been discussing eliminating our 5.00-based rating system soon, the same way we did our 5-star rating system years ago. Our new, non-numerical rating system has been selected and will appear in ASR reviews starting in October 2023.

Thank you for your understanding and for your invaluable contributions to the theater world.

 

Sincerely,

Kris Neely and Barry Willis, Aisle Seat Review

E-mail:  staff@aisleseatreview.com

 

P.S.

Thank you for those of you who have raised concerns about the reference to “Broadway” as a benchmark in ASR’s current scoring system. We deeply value all feedback and the opportunity here to clarify our intent.

We wholeheartedly agree that some of the most impactful, innovative, and profound theatrical experiences can be found in local and regional theaters across the USA. The Bay Area boasts an amazingly rich tapestry of theatrical talent and has been the birthplace of numerous groundbreaking productions. We never intend to diminish or shade that. In 98% of the shows ASR reviews, the subject or measure of “Broadway” is absent.

At ASR, our primary focus is on celebrating, critiquing, and promoting local Bay Area theater. We are deeply committed to recognizing the brilliance, diversity, and innovation that our local and regional theaters bring to the table, year after year, as our reviews clearly demonstrate. Our reviews and ratings aim to provide constructive feedback to these productions.

We deeply respect and cherish the myriad forms of theater we are honored to review and we understand and appreciate that each brings its unique flavor, essence, and invaluable contributions to the world Bay Area performing arts.

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ASR ~~ Commentary on a Communication

By Kris Neely

ASR wishes to acknowledge and to thank Ms. Sheri Lee Miller, Artistic Director of the Spreckels Theatre, for the following communication we received today. She writes…

“Yesterday, I posted ( anonymously on Facebook) an email I received containing a policy for reviews at Aisle Seat Review (ASR), which many of us found disturbing. I believed I had received the official policy written by the site’s owner, Mr. Kris Neely.

I was wrong. I have since learned it was a paraphrased version of the policy written by one of his staffers for internal use, not by Mr. Neely, nor did he approve it.

I apologize to Mr. Neely for incorrectly ascribing the words to him. I deeply regret the error, the rush to post, and any negative repercussions it may have caused for Kris Neely or Aisle Seat Review.

If anyone wishes to know about any policies or procedures at ASR, they should email their questions to staff@aisleseatreview.com.”

Thank you, Ms. Miller

–KN

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ASR Theater ~~ An Addendum to Our Opinion Piece About Sept. 8

By Barry Willis

Aisle Seat Review wishes to apologize for any unintended offense that may have come about due to our recent opinion piece about the troublesome cluster of North Bay theater openings scheduled for the weekend of September 8th.

We did not and do not wish to alienate anyone in the hard-working theater community.

Our purpose then and now is not to glorify ourselves or any other critics. What we really hope to do is to encourage theater companies to cooperate and communicate with each other so that all can enjoy full houses, lots of ticket sales, and lots of sales at the concession stand.

ASR has the Bay Area’s biggest team of expert reviewers…

Optimum revenue for all would be the result of staggered openings—or barring that, press openers held on weekday evenings as is commonplace elsewhere in the Bay Area. Admittedly many such openings are at Equity houses, but not all.

More opportunity for all can’t possibly be a bad thing, can it? Staggered openings would allow theater fans to see everything they’d like to see rather than having to choose among them—plenty of exposure for performers, directors, choreographers, musicians, etc., and a bonanza for fans. A real win-win.

Some detractors mentioned that with so many shows, we should simply recruit more reviewers—a hilarious suggestion in view of the fact that there are precious few people with any knowledge of theater and even fewer with the ability to write a coherent sentence. The literary talent pool is a tiny fraction of the size of the North Bay’s acting pool.

It’s actually frightening how many Americans are functional semi-literates. Even many highly educated people are mediocre writers. Writing ability is simply not a huge value in our culture, except where and when it’s desperately needed.

Aisle Seat Review has the Bay Area’s biggest team of expert reviewers, most of whom have decades of journalistic experience with theater and other special interests. All but one of us are voting members of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC), now the only awards-granting theater organization in the region. ASR is also the only theater-centric website covering the entire Bay Area, a geographic entity the size of Switzerland.

SFBATCC nominations and awards may be of minimal importance to company directors, but they are hugely important to theatrical talents onstage and off, as any perusal of playbill bios will reveal.

ASR’s reviewers don’t attend theater simply to take advantage of free tickets, snacks, drinks, and the opportunity to chat with colleagues. Thoughtful, informative, and entertaining reviews are hard specialized work, something that may not be apparent to casual readers. Everything expertly done looks easy from the outside, but there is enormous knowledge, energy, and skill behind every review that appears on ASR.

We wish to avoid insulting theater companies by not coming to opening nights. How many times have we fielded complaints from company directors that they simply can’t get reviewers to their shows? Or that a review appears three days before closing weekend? The fault is not ours. It’s the failure of theater companies to communicate with each other. If the NBA can schedule hundreds of basketball games each season, without conflict, a handful of North Bay theater companies can certainly do something similar.

Aisle Seat Review’s utmost duty is to inform potential ticket buyers as to whether any production is a good use of time and money. By fulfilling this duty, we hope to elevate the theatrical experience for all.

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ASR 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

 

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Stones in His Pockets” a Must-See at Spreckels

By Nicole Singley

Something special is gracing the stage at Spreckels’ intimate Condiotti Theatre, and it’s worth every penny of the price of admission. Playing now through September 10, Stones in His Pockets is, simply put, a master class in theater done right. And it’s no easy feat, at that.

As touching and insightful as it is laugh-out-loud funny, this whip-smart Irish comedy demands an awful lot of its only two actors, who are tasked with filling the shoes of no fewer than fifteen characters of varying ages, cultures, social classes, and genders. This would be challenging enough were it not compounded by zero 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 its backdrop.

…”Stones in His Pockets” is simply a must-see masterpiece of local theater…

In less talented hands, this might add up to a confusing mess of mistaken identities and muddied transitions. But thanks to the careful stewardship of director Sheri Lee Miller, stellar casting and skillful staging combine to wring every last drop of humor and heart from playwright Marie Jones’s exacting script. And boy, is there a lot of it.

Irishmen Charlie and Jake (Jimmy Gagarin and Sam Coughlin, both phenomenal) become fast friends during their stint as extras on the set of a Hollywood epic that’s taken over their small rural town. But their starstruck excitement quickly fades. Behind the scenes is an industry that doesn’t care who it hurts, dehumanizes, or exploits in the name of wealth and fame. The show must go on, after all, at any cost – even when tragedy strikes. Jones manages to touch on some heavier subject matter and launch some incisive criticisms while never losing sight of the play’s comedic billing.

Sam Coughlin and Jimmy Gagarin. Photo courtesy The Sonoma Index-Tribune.

Gagarin and Coughlin are masters of their craft, moving seamlessly between characters (often multiple in the same scene) with apparent though undoubtedly hard-earned ease. Changes in posture, inflection, and dialect – some subtle, others dramatically overt – enable audiences to easily distinguish between characters. Each is impressively distinctive and fully formed. So much so, in fact, that on opening night, it was easy for this reviewer to forget there were only two actors on stage, so wholly convincing they were in each capacity. Hats off to dialect coach John Rustan for a job well done.

Among the colorful cast of side characters are glamorous leading lady Caroline Giovanni (Gagarin, whose affectations are hilarious), persnickety director’s assistant Aisling (Coughlin, also hilarious), spirited local elder Mickey Riordan (Coughlin), no-nonsense assistant director Simon (Gagarin), and a host of others who are all brought to life with sensitivity and self-possession. The actors’ chemistry shines through in every scene.

Though there’s little on stage, the stagecraft doesn’t disappoint. Gagarin and Coughlin are aided greatly by Chris Cota’s nuanced lighting and Jessica Johnson’s simple but effective sound design, subtly transforming the stage into a local pub with aptly-chosen background music and creating the illusion of a morning shower with perfectly timed sound effects. Allison Rae Baker deserves a mention here, too, for choreographing a charming Irish dance it’s clear the actors were having fun with on opening night.

Seldom does a production come along that checks all the boxes, but Miller has hit this one out of the park. Stones in His Pockets is simply a must-see masterpiece of local theater. It’s moving, it’s smart, and it’s wildly funny, to boot. Though the show must go on, this one’s only here for two short weeks. Don’t miss your chance to see Gagarin and Coughlin at the height of their powers.

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Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

 

Production
Stones in His Pockets
Written by Marie Jones
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough Sept 10th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$14 - $34
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!
  • Graphics courtesy of Liverpool Theater.

ASR Theater ~~ North Bay Theater’s September 7-8th Debacle

By Barry Willis

September 7-8th is shaping up to be problematic for the North Bay theatre community.

At least five new productions are scheduled to open over those days: The Sound of Music at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, Dames at Sea at Sonoma Art Live, Fiddler on the Roof at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse,  An Enchanted Evening at Transcendence Theater Company, and The Addams Family Musical at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions.

This last one will overlap with a production of the same show opening the following week at Novato Theater Company.

This cluster of openings presents a plethora of choices for theater fans, and possibly a substantial problem for both theater companies and reviewers. Even with a big team of reviewers, it will probably be a tough chore for us to cover all these shows on opening weekend.

That means that some shows will get reviewed late—or not at all, a real injustice to hard-working performers, tech crews, and theater lovers alike.

….Our purpose at Aisle Seat Review is to provide expert guidance for potential ticket buyers…

Clustered openings make this difficult.

Bay Area theater critics have long complained that problems like this could be minimized if theater companies would just communicate with each other to the extent that they could stagger opening weekends. That would guarantee more review coverage and better ticket sales for all companies, but every time we have suggested this to company directors, the response has been “That’s a great idea, but it’s impossible.”

At Aisle Seat Review, we don’t think it is “impossible”.

Hard, yes, to be sure. But “impossible”, no.

Theater companies seem to think that they exist in independent bubbles, but the fact is that they are all drawing from the same talent pool and all selling into the same market. We know this is true because we see many of the same faces at the many diverse theaters that we visit.

For theater companies, failure or refusal to communicate with each other is a self-defeating lack of practicality. ASR apologizes in advance for what may be incomplete coverage in early-to-mid September.

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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

 

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Curtain Theatre Wows with “Romeo and Juliet”

By Cari Lynn Pace

 

Shakespeare in Mill Valley’s Old Mill Park means late summer has truly arrived.

Hidden in this majestic redwood grove is The Curtain Theatre, showcasing award-winning plays complete with renaissance music, dancing, and lots of swordfights. You won’t want to let another weekend go by without seeing Romeo and Juliet, this year’s stunning production.

Actors surround the audience, dashing on and off the impressive set by Steve Coleman, in dazzling period costumes by Jody Branham. The grove fills with the sounds of flute, concertina, mandolin, and more under the direction of Don Clark. Even the band is in costume!

“Verona, a city on the verge of anarchy…”

Director Steve Beecroft, the talented impresario of The Curtain Theatre, has been at the company’s helm since 2009. In addition to doing the choreography and swordfight scenes, and lending his acting chops, Beecroft spent nine months dissecting and reconnecting Shakespeare’s classic. He was intrigued by the interrelationships between the characters in Verona, a city he portrays as on the verge of anarchy.

“Hatred and violence between the two houses of Montague and Capulet created a toxic cloud that overshadowed all good,” Beecroft noted.

Into this pressure cooker step the lovely Juliet, brought to life by Dale Leonheart, and handsome Romeo, portrayed by Nic Moore. Their passion is real. Juliet’s balcony is real. The swords are also real.

In his day, Shakespeare was required to cast males in female roles. In an ironic twist, this Romeo and Juliet has several females in male roles. Heather Cherry, a versatile actor and company member, is royally powerful as Prince Escalus. Alexandra Fry plays sidekick Balthasar, with Grace Kent as Benvolio/Benvolia.

Also well-cast is popular local Kim Bromley in the demanding role of Juliet’s nurse, played with just the right touch of humor. Nelson Brown, another local favorite, gives Mercutio, one of Romeo’s closest friends and a blood relative to Prince Escalus and Count Paris, a lovable, albeit brief, appearance.

Romeo’s parents portrayed by Marianne Shine and Tom Reilly fill their roles well. Amy Dietz, a true talent, brought tears to my eyes as a distraught Lady Capulet mourning her nephew Tybalt (Ramon Villa). Many other actors admirably fill out this full-stage production.

Grace Kent (Benvolia); Nelson Brown (Mercutio); Nic Moore (Romeo). Photo by Russell Johnson.

The remarkable aspect to this professional production is the performances are FREE of charge. Donations, of course, are welcome. And — to be perfectly candid — necessary, if The Curtain Theatre is to continue despite the costs of each presentation.

All ages are welcome to attend these open-air and open-seating shows. Parents bring young ones for their first exposure to Shakespeare, and most are enthralled by the pageantry and swordfights. Picnics abound, with a few tables not far from the stage area. A small snack bar is available. Plastic chairs are set up by the company on a first-come basis. Bring your own for lounging behind the Mill Valley Library. Dogs on leash are encouraged to watch the show.

Romeo and Juliet plays at 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and on Labor Day, Monday September 4th, 2023. The hottest summer afternoons can become quite cool in the grove, so bring layers.

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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

 

ProductionRomeo and Juliet
Written byWilliam Shakespeare
Directed bySteve Beecroft
Producing CompanyCurtain Theatre
Production DatesSaturdays/Sundays and Labor Day Monday at 2 PM through September 4th
Production AddressOld Mill Park Amphitheater.

375 Throckmorton Avenue (behind the library), Mill Valley
Websitewww.curtaintheatre.org
TicketsFree!
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yea, Verily!

ASR Mourns Dottie Lester-White

By George Maguire

 

All of us at Aisle Seat Review are saddened by the loss of Dottie Lester-White, an icon in Bay Area musical theater. Dottie passed away on August 17th in Mesa, Arizona, where she was choreographing a new production of Hello Dolly!

…A beloved and treasured choreographer, teacher, stage manager, and tapper extraordinaire…

Dottie played on Broadway in the ensemble of No No Nanette, and worked with national touring companies of Nanette and Hello Dolly! Her numerous choreography credits include award-winning productions at AMTSJ, San Jose Stage, Woodminster Summer Theatre, Foothill Musical Theatre, TheatreWorks and the Hillbarn Theater.

A beloved and treasured choreographer, teacher, stage manager, and tapper extraordinaire—she actually taught a renowned tap class at Burning Man—Dottie leaves an unparalleled legacy of excellence. She will be missed by the entire SF Bay Area theater community.

Vaya Con Dios, Dottie. Your spirit lives on.

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

 

 

ASR Theater ~~ Fascinating But Flawed ‘The Language Archive” at Masquers Playhouse

By Barry Willis

Love and linguistics get a joint workout in Julia Cho’s The Language Archive, at Masquers Playhouse in Pt. Richmond, through September 3.

One of the Bay Area’s oldest community theater venues, Masquers has been home to many compelling productions, notable among them last fall’s suberb Amelie, the Musical. An examination of the love life of an academic named George (Austine De Los Santos), The Language Archive takes its title from the laboratory where George works with his assistant Emma (Samantha Topacio), researching extinct and near-extinct languages. Tape recordings of the utterances of native speakers are kept in file boxes stacked to the ceiling in set designer John Hull’s austere interpretation of what such an archive might look like.

George has a problematic relationship with his wife Mary (Sarah Catherine Chan) who abruptly leaves him to start her own little bakery. The reasons for their difficulties are not quite clear in Cho’s script, nor in director Wynne Chan’s production. Emma is smitten with George, but not sufficiently for them to engage in any sort of meaningful long-term commitment. It’s all a maddening muddle for George, like his partial knowledge of disappearing languages or the fact that he never learned how to speak with his grandmother, the last practitioner of her own native tongue.

A “constructed” language invented by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof in 1887, Esperanto figures prominently into the story line. With its primary vocabulary and grammar derived mostly from Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese), Esperanto was envisioned as an international or universal language to make communications easier among diverse nationalities. The language today has approximately 100,000 speakers worldwide.

Joseph Alvarado does a couple of nicely convincing turns in this show as Zamenhof, and is amazing as Resten, one of two remaining speakers of a disappearing tongue (“eloway”), along with his partner Alta (Pauli N. Amornkul). Like a botanist gathering seeds, George makes recordings of their speech in the hope of somehow preserving it—not that it will be anything other than an academic curiosity in a file box once Resten and Alta are gone. Armornkul is also very convincing as a no-nonsense Esperanto instructor, with Emma as her only student.

The story obliquely recalls David Ives’ The Universal Language (from his All in the Timing series) as well as Melissa Ross’s tightly-scripted An Entomologist’s Love Story that played to sold-out houses at San Francisco Playhouse in 2018, another tale about love among academic researchers. This reviewer found Cho’s contribution to the genre lacks the comedic brilliance of Ives and the poignancy of Ross, but with revisions has potential to be a truly compelling piece.

Alvarado and Amornkul are superb actors in multiple roles. Their younger castmates are still finding their sea legs onstage, but they give a solid effort. The sound designer isn’t credited in the playbill but deserves accolades for making the small stage at Masquers a believable railroad depot. Masquers too deserves accolades for taking risks with little-known plays, some of which, like tiny acorns, can grow into mighty oaks.

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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 Language Archive
Written byJulia Cho
Directed byWynne Chan
Producing CompanyMasquers Playhouse
Production DatesThru Sept 3, 2023
Production Address105 Park Place
Pt. Richmond, CA
Websitemasquers.org
Telephone(510) 232.4031
Tickets$27-$30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Tina Turner the Musical” Reigns at SF’s GG Theatre

By George Maguire and Barry Willis

“Queen of Rock’n’Roll” is a title that’s been bestowed on several performers—Stevie Nicks and Joan Jett among them. None are more deserving than Tina Turner, who passed away in May 2023. She was a major force during several decades as a pop music icon.

Tina – The Tina Turner Musical gloriously brings her music and life to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater through August 27. The production moves to Broadway San Jose August 29 – Sept. 3.

…One of this year’s most important national touring productions…

Both a staged equivalent of a “biopic” (a filmed biography) and a “jukebox musical,” The Tina Turner Musical tells the tale of her origin in the small town of Nutbush, TN, to her eventual marriage to musician Ike Turner, and her re-emergence as a solo superstar after their breakup.

At nearly three high-intensity hours, the production is so demanding that it requires two performers in the lead role, alternating performances so that each can have a full rest day before the next one. Zurin Villanueva starred in the Wednesday Aug. 2 opener, with Naomi Rodgers taking the lead on alternate dates. Rodgers is presumably Villanueva’s equal in a huge, sumptuous production directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

Zurin Villanueva.

With the lanky physique and endurance of a distance runner, Villanueva tears into the drama and music with power and conviction. Just when you think she can’t possibly top herself as the eponymous lead, she opens her throat and brings Tina Turner straight to the heart. The Golden Gate’s near-capacity crowd couldn’t get enough.

Naomi Rodgers

The show is all about Tina, of course, but it’s marvelously fleshed out by many other superb talents. High praise to Roderick Lawrence who manages to find humanity in the troubled life of Ike Turner, a talented, charming manipulator who abused Tina so hard and so often that she ultimately made a desperate dash across a busy freeway to throw herself on the mercy of a motel clerk who provided her a room, food, medical care, and an armed guard at her door. That true event is a pivotal scene in the film What’s Love Got to Do with It? and the closing scene in the musical’s first act.

A compelling musician, Lawrence’s vocals are pretty damned good too, but he doesn’t quite measure up to Gerard M. Williams as Tina’s lovelorn bandmate Raymond, whose gorgeous rendition of “Let’s Stay Together” exceeds by many degrees the original by Al Green. Roz White stars as Zelma, Tina’s disdainful mother who sends her daughter away to live with her grandma. There’s no evidence of a father figure in the depiction of Tina’s early life, a circumstance all too prevalent among adult women who subjugate themselves to abusive men. White has only one moment to sing in this show, but her contralto is wonderful.

Ayvah Johnson.

The real emerging superstar in this production is child performer Ayvah Johnson, who captivates the audience as young Anna-Mae (Tina’s birth name), first as a very enthusiastic member of her gospel-singing church, and appearing intermittently throughout the show to remind us where Tina Turner came from. Johnson is clearly a crowd favorite. The Ikettes, the big backstage band, and the show’s stagecraft are all superb. While engaging, we found that the new music by Nicholas Skilbeck  just doesn’t compare favorably with the Turner songbook.

Jeff Sugg’s projection design is a force of its own. Act Two is like a psychedelic trip accentuating and building each song with magic, greatly enhanced by Bruno Poet’s lighting design.

Although the adequate book glosses over details, it provides highlights of her life, reminding us that her biggest personal and professional successes happened well after she turned 40. More than a juke-box musical, this is a superbly conveyed story of triumph and tragedy, blazing the life of icon Tina Turner to the back of the capacious Golden Gate. This inspiring, uplifting tale is beautifully rendered.

One of this year’s most important national touring productions, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical is an absolute must-see.

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

 

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

 

ProductionTina – The Tina Turner Musical
Written byKatori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins
Directed byPhyllida Lloyd
Producing CompanyGolden Gate Theatre
Production DatesSF: Thru Aug. 27, SJ: Aug. 29 – Sept. 3

Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA
...
Broadway San Jose (Aug 29 – Sept. 3)
Center for the Performing Arts
255 S. Almaden Blvd.
San Jose, CA
94102
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$66.50 – $179.50
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!

ASR Theater ~~ TTC Braves Obstacles with “The Full Monty”

By Cari Lynn Pace

Transcendence Theatre Company is Sonoma County’s award-winning home of song and dance stars under the moonlight. Twelve years ago TTC presented their first stunning summer revue to help fund Jack London State Historic Park, which had been targeted for closure. Their goal of the “Best Night Ever!” succeeded, and to date TTC has donated nearly $700,000 and attracted audiences totaling over 325,000 people to keep this beloved landmark open to all.

Unfortunately TTC’s success with audience attendance has led the California State Park Rangers Association to file a lawsuit against California State Parks. They question the appropriate use of a public resource, noble fundraising notwithstanding. The lawsuit has caused cancellation of all shows this summer, resulting in a major loss for the non-profit that operates Jack London State Historic Park and a blow for TTC, a casualty caught in the lawsuit’s crossfire.

Forced to relocate, TTC presented this year’s first summer shows at Belos Cavalos ranch and their second (and soon to be third) “Broadway Under the Stars” at the Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen. TTC charged ahead with astounding enthusiasm and energy, building a stage, parking area, hiring electric carts, setting up picnic tables and hundreds of chairs, installing lighting and sound, and even building an entire bridge over a stone wall to reach the picnic area.

“It was an unbelievable and difficult undertaking. Expensive too.”

Relocation not once, but twice, was an unbelievable and difficult undertaking. Expensive too. One obstacle TTC could not overcome was the Sonoma County building code. Artistic Director Amy Miller was dismayed to learn they could not build a stage any higher than 30” – not nearly enough for everyone to have a clear view. The stage location also had to be to the west, where the setting sun was problematic for a short while for those without brimmed headgear.

Despite the multiple stumbling blocks, TTC rose to the challenge to present the hit Broadway musical comedy The Full Monty. With a huge cast of 20 talents from the stages of NYC, LA, Texas, and more, this hilarious Tony-award winning musical shows off non-stop fun, and a lot more. Dancers, singers, and young and veteran actors delightfully expose the amusing plot.

Five down-on-their-luck buddies share beers in Buffalo, New York and compare jobs. They’re stunned when their ladies flock to buy pricey tickets to the male striptease show that’s come to town.

(L to R) Nicolas Garza (Ethan Girard), Jason Simon (Dave Bukatinsky), Michael Burrell (Jerry Lukowski), Lee Palmer (Noah “Horse” T. Simmons), Justin Anthony Long (Malcolm MacGregor), and Jesse Swimm (Harold Nichols) in Transcendence Theatre Company’s The Full Monty. Photo credit: Mimi Carroll

One of the buddies comes up with a brilliant idea to raise money quickly, as he wants to retain custody of his son. Why don’t they do the professional strippers one better? They could take it all off and dance their way into much-desired cash. All they need is one show, another brave recruit, a sexy dance routine, and the guts to go through with it to give their audience the “Full Monty,” a striptease down to bare essentials .

It’s hilarious when the guys are coached by one of the professional strippers, who has a bodacious body and the moves women pay to see. It’s endearing how these out-of-shape dudes hang together out of camaraderie and desperation. When their wives and ex-wives get wind of the scheme, their mighty fine female voices add to the merry mayhem—made all the better by a great band seated stage left.

TTC cleverly but briefly exposes the guys in The Full Monty to keep the rating slightly under “X”. It’s an adult show nonetheless. Strict enforcement of the “no photos” rule is done by roving spotters.

The show plays on weekend nights through August 20th. Come early with your picnic to enjoy the pre-show entertainment and sample the wines. When the sun goes down and the spotlights come on, the air can get cool so dress in layers. You can always take off whatever you want.

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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

 

ProductionThe Full Monty
Directed byJosh Walden
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThru Aug 20th
Production AddressBeltane Ranch
Glen Ellen, CA
Websitewww.transcendencetheatre.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$35-$49. Student ID rush tickets are 50% off
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

ASR Theater ~~ Marin Shakespeare Company’s “Twelfth Night or What You Will”

By George Maguire

Combine designer Nina Ball’s lush sylvan setting bedecked with flowers, curtains, and marbled painted stairs, with sumptuous lighting by Stephanie Anne Johnson for warm evenings bringing us a perfect illustration of joy in a production rounding out Marin Shakespeare Company’s nascent season under the helm of artistic producer JonTracy.

One of the most popular plays in the Shakespeare canon, 12th Night is rife with music and gloriously rich poetry, making it one of the bard’s most popular adaptations for musicals. Broadway productions include Your Own Thing (1968), Music Is (1977), Play On (1997 and All Shook Up (2005). The original’s name derives from the fact that it was usually performed on the 12th night of midwinter holidays.

One of the major challenges of any production of 12th Night is deciding whether it’s a comedy, a romance, a tragedy, or all three. Whatever the director stresses, it must be cohesive and indeed always supported by the text and not layered with extraneous effluvia.

…One of the major challenges of any production of 12th Night is deciding whether it’s a comedy, a romance, a tragedy, or all three…

The MSC production directed by Bridgette Loriaux opens Act 1 and later Act 2 with a voice-over contemporary conversation between a parent and a child talking about what love is—a cute idea which doesn’t fulfill the inspiration of the idea itself. This is followed by a rather clumsy depiction of the squall that sunk the boat separating look-alike brother and sister and beginning the play itself as they find themselves in Illyria.

(L to R) Salim Razawi (Sebastian) and Justin P. Lopez (Antonio) in Marin Shakespeare
Company’s Twelfth Night. Photo by Jay Yamada

Once the play itself begins, we are on more firm footing as rich poetic words are proffered by the cast.

Stevie DeMott’s Viola (in disguise as the lad Cesario) grounds this production in such glorious verbal/physical joy that we are transported. Her scenes with Charisse Loriaux (Olivia) bring us the wonders of sexual attraction and wonderment without, of course, Olivia knowing the object of her affection is her same sex. In fact, this machination of same-sex desire makes 12th Night the perfect play for today’s awakening and yes, political discussion dominating our landscape. There’s a lovely moment when Johnny Moreno’s Orsino looks at Stevie LaMott thinking it’s a boy. His pause of simplicity is actor magic.

Of course, no Shakespeare play is complete without the requisite clowns. Robert Parsons is Sir Toby Belch (with a ready flask in hand) commenting, planning and of course drinking and Steve Price is his cohort Sir Andrew Aguecheek who bounces around the stage at times like a manic overzealous kangaroo.

(Front) Michael Gene Sullivan (Malvolio), (Behind, L to R) Robert Parsons (Sir Toby
Belch), Adrian Deane (Feste), and Steve Price (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) in Marin
Shakespeare Company’s Twelfth Night. Photo by Jay Yamada

Adrian Deane’s androgynous Feste is always on the periphery with comments, or simply observing and singing composer David Warner’s many songs is. Her “Come Away Death” is a particular highlight. Michael Gene Sullivan’s prim and proper Malvolio is the perfect foil for his downfall in yellow and cross-gartered stockings orchestrated by Sir Toby, Aguecheek and Mariah (Nancy Carlin). The sight of him alone is enough to make the audience laugh, but then a song with sexual physical groveling is added, which unfortunately takes the point way over the top.

There are moments in the production (Olivia’s pas de deux with others) which although lovely, are only confusing in execution, but again the situation and the talents of actors involved are enough.

Lastly, it is crucial to the play that Sebastian and Viola look alike and wear (unknowingly) the same outfits. How else could the others be confused by them? The costuming of the look-alike twins and the physiques of the actors are incongruent and dissimilar, making both confusion and acceptance laughably impossible.

The end of the play is lovely, where lovers are united and brother and sister find one another in the Illyrian mayhem. The uniting of Sebastian (Salim Razawi) and Antonio (Justin P. Lopez), the love of Johnny Moreno’s Orsino with the now woman revealed Viola, and the aloneness of Olivia are deeply moving.

But wait . . . there’s a coda at the end with Olivia and Malvolio at the edge of the stage which almost sets us up for a sequel.

12th Night Part 2? Someone write it!!!

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

 

Production12th Night
Written byWilliam Shakespeare
Directed byBridgette Loriaux
Producing CompanyMarin Shakespeare Company
Production DatesThru Sept 3rd
Production AddressForest Meadows Amphitheater (outdoors),
Dominican University of California 890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael, CA
Websitewww.marinshakespeare.org
Telephone(415) 499-4485
Tickets$10 – $40. Pay what you will Thursday Aug. 17
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Top-Notch Fun with “Kinky Boots” at SJ’s City Lights Theater

By Joanne Engelhardt

 Seeing Kinky Boots at City Lights Theater in San Jose is a little like witnessing a 2 ½-hour earthquake: It’s guaranteed to shake you right down to your boots, shoes, slippers or whatever else you’re currently wearing on your feet.

The much-acclaimed musical starts out rather innocently, with a young white boy befriending a young black boy – a very brief prologue. Face it: with book by Harvey Fierstein and music/lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, it would require some pretty poor directing decisions to make Boots a disappointment.

That doesn’t happen here., although it starts out slowly with a grown-up, Milquetoast-like Charlie Price (Matt Locke) torn between taking over his father’s faltering shoe company in Northampton and moving to London where Nicola (Amber Smith), his demanding fianceé, wants to live.

The team at the factory celebrates the new boots. Photo by Christian Pizzirani.

That would mean laying off all of the long-time employees of Price & Son. Charlie is torn between going broke making shoes nobody wants to buy or shutting down the business altogether.

. . . A scuffle in a dark alley changes his life – and that of a transvestite named Lola . . .

It’s almost as if Barton “Bart” Perry is made to play the part of Lola (Simon when he’s not in drag.). He’s equally at ease playing both roles, although in San Jose he’s definitely kickin’ it as Lola.

What City Lights also has going for it is a secondary tier of actors who do a credible job of both singing and acting. AJ Jaffari as Harry, one of Charlie’s drinking buddies, is one and Dane Lentz as George is another. Both Karen DeHart and Molly Thornton as female factory workers have strong voices and show good acting skills.

Lauren Berling as Lauren is a somewhat happy surprise. She’s just part of the Price & Son work team until Charlie asks her to do some administrative work in his office. She’s dumbfounded that he even notices her, and it’s then that she blossoms, both in her role and as a singer.

Scenic designer Ron Gasparinetti’s versatile set works perfectly on the City Lights stage. Initially the audience sits outside the tall walls of the shoe factory, which seamlessly fade away to reveal a two-story set with rolling benches where shoes are measured, cut and sewn. Lysander Abadia’s choreography is lively and fun, and Samuel Cisneros provides fine vocal direction.

Lola (Barton “Bart” Perry) and her Angels sparkle in their nightclub drag act. Photo by Christian Pizzirani.

Costume designer Kailyn Erb, assisted by Gloria Garcia Stanley, must have had her hands full creating costumes for the 20+ cast members. The best ones, of course, fit on Lola and her four tall, leggy “Angels.”

Here’s a tip: Just sit back and enjoy an evening of fun, entertainment and song. Some of the best: “”Take What You’ve Got,” “Sex is in the Heel,” “Everybody Say Yeah,” “The Soul of a Man” and the uplifting “Raise You Up.”

Ticket sales have been so strong that Artistic Director Mallette decided to extend the show through Aug. 27th. Grab a seat while you can!

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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

 

ProductionKinky Boots
Written byHarvey Fierstein
Music & Lyrics byCindi Lauper
Directed byLisa Mallette and Mark Anderson Phillips
Producing Company
City Lights Theater Company
Production DatesThru Aug 27th
Production Address529 S. Second St., San Jose
Websitewww.cltc.org
Telephone
(408) 295-4200
Tickets$24 – $65
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.8/5
Performance4.6/5
Script4.8/5
Stagecraft4.8/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Meta-American Dreams: “Thanks For Playing: The Game Show Show” in San Jose

By Jeff Dunn

Game shows are the American Dream. “It could be me on that stage; Imagine winning all that money!” you might think. Well imagine attending San Jose Playhouse’s revival of their Thanks for Playing! The Game Show Show—you might think, “I love musicals! This one might be fun!” Not only might it be fun–in this one, you too might be contestant! And win an ironic box of Ramen.

The show is the brainchild of Scott Evan Guggenheim, with book and lyrics by his wife Shannon Guggenheim, and music by Shannon, her brother-in-law Stephen Guggenheim and Thomas Tomasello. It is billed as the “final revision” of the musical that premiered in 2010 and was reexamined by its creators in 2012 and 2020. I did not see the first version, although a few excerpts on YouTube indicate that while some songs have been dropped/replaced, the sets and props remain fairly much the same.

…Historical Note: 390 backers pledged $51,648  on Kickstarter to help bring this project to life, back in 2012-14…

And the best part of the show does seem to be the same: the high energy and accurate singing of its eight on-stage performers, the feeling they project of having a jolly good time together and wanting to carry the audience happily along with them in a slurry of upbeat tempos. And Julie Engelbrecht’s sets intensify the atmosphere with its palette of colors borrowed the from late 60’s show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, not to mention her inventive costumes, one collection of which turned the cast into a giant slot machine.

Photo credit to Dave Lepori. — The cast at work as a collective slot machine!

The more problematic part of the show is the first act. Shannon herself plays Frankie Marks, a Game-show-history buff. We are told she’s attending the 70th anniversary of the first TV game show at Studio 84 in NYC (this would be in 2008). Very quickly, she is given the offer to play a mysterious “game” by an unseen godlike Announcer. She accepts, and is magically sent back into the beginning of a game show called “Secret Square” starting in the early 1950s.

As the show evolves, the Announcer periodically offers options to change history or even revise game-show personalities. I don’t know if this Meta-Announcer business is new to this revised version, but this reviewer found it confusing at first, and didn’t feel that changing history or personalities added much to the humor. (Suggestion to the Playwright: a straight-line “How to Succeed…” plot starting in the 1950s might be easier to grasp. Just sayin’.)

By the second act, after the show runs into trouble with revelations of cued contestants a la the $64,000 Question, the story becomes easier to follow and more enjoyable.

Photo credit to Dave Lepori. — Schannon and Scott Guggenheim as Frankie Marks and Bill Todson.

A love interest emerges between Frankie and Secret Square’s producer Bill Todson (Stephen Guggenheim), making me wish a bit more had been done in Act One to generate empathy with the protagonists. Such empathy might have required a ballad which might have the salutary effect of adding additional variety to the musical style. (As it was, only the last song, “Thanks For Playing,” really stuck in my memory.)

Hopefully, future attendees will not experience the sound issues that had the prerecorded orchestral track outbalance the singers, and younger gamer-attendees, used to computer role-playing scenarios, will have less trouble Meta-time-traveling.

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Jeff Dunn is ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor. A retired educator and project manager, he’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.

ProductionThanks For Playing: The Game Show Show
Stage Direction byScott Evan Guggenheim
Producing CompanyGuggenheim Entertainment, Inc.
Production DatesThru Aug 20th
Production Address3Below Theaters, 288 S Second St, San Jose, CA 95113
Website
www.sanjoseplayhouse.org
Telephone
(408) 404-7711
Tickets$25-$55
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Book/Lyrics2.5/5
Music2.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

ASR Music ~~ Iolanthe: Fairies and Lords Walk the Boards

By Jeff Dunn

Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe is about two groups hidebound by rules who battle it out on stage. One group has power over the other because they’re magic, but both groups have definitely lost their marbles–just read what they sing!

CHORUS OF FAIRIES

Tripping hither, tripping thither,

Nobody knows why or whither;

We must dance and we must sing

Round about our fairy ring!

 

CHORUS OF PEERS (LORDS)

Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!

Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses!

Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses!

Tantantara! Tzing! Boom!

Imagine the silliness of it all–female fairies having power over men, forcing their favored half-fairy male candidate to run parliament houses. Fortunately, all the men and women marry each other at the end, and 19th-century normality is restored. There are other reasons than plot to enjoy Iolanthe, mainly Gilbert’s barb-aplenty text coated by the pill of Sullivan’s inoffensive music.

Lyric Opera has put many of their marbles into their chorus, and the result is a major strength in Music Director Michael Taylor’s department. Kathleen O’Brien’s colorful fairy costumes along with Shirley Benson’s stunted light-saber wands are another plus. Larry Tom’s set designs are spare, but not inappropriate. The single forest projection in Act 1 was so gorgeous, however, it made this reviewer wish there were more of them to follow—a hope unrealized.

…”Iolanthe”, or “The Peer and the Peri”, opened at the Savoy Theatre on November 25, 1882…

I was also hopeful that the soloists’ best efforts would match the consistent delights of the chorus, but no luck. However, voices improved as the operetta progressed opening night.

Bobby Singer was a standout as Private Willis, as was Katie Francis as Queen of the Fairies. Minju Jeong’s light but lovely voice was always on pitch as Phyllis. Tenor Eric Mellum grew well into his role of Lord Tollroller. Jeffrey Lampert’s Lord Chancellor was fun to watch in his famous “headache” patter song (where his jet pace even outpaced the orchestra for a moment!)

For a title character, G&S surprisingly gave Iolanthe only one aria, but Kaelyn Howard carried it off well, with the enthusiasm characteristic of the rest of the cast.

Iolanthe is ranked highly in the Gilbert and Sullivan canon by many commentators. To me, it was a good reminder of why our American Experiment did away with titled nobility. As to the current value of what replaced it, that’s a matter for later discussion.

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Jeff Dunn is ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor. A retired educator and project manager, he’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.

ProductionIolanthe
Stage Direction byDoreen Finkelstein
Musical Direction byMichael Taylor
Producing CompanyLyric Theatre
Production DatesThru Aug 6th
Production AddressHammer Theatre Center, 101 Paseo De San Antonio, San Jose, C 95113
Website
www.lyrictheatre.org
Telephone(408) 986-1455
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Libretto4/5
Music2.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Theatrical Treat: “My (Unauthorized) Hallmark Movie Musical”

By Barry Willis

A diehard fan creates her own romantic production in My (Unauthorized) Hallmark Movie Musical, at San Francisco’s Top of the Shelton through July 30, with a possible extension to August 20.

A solo show developed and composed by playwright/actress/lyricist Eloise Coopersmith, the production stars the writer as an inveterate viewer of feel-good films on the Hallmark Channel—a pandemic burnout who sustains herself on dark chocolate, red wine, and an insatiable appetite for upbeat escapism. Her character is so immersed in it that she’s become her own writer/director/producer. The concept is brilliant. So is the execution.

…an incredibly clever and charming production…

Flanked by two large video screens, with a larger projection screen behind her, Coopersmith interacts with an ongoing romantic comedy musical performed by a sizable cast of professional L.A. actors including Nina Herzog, Benny Perez, Andrew Joseph Perez, Jim Blanchette, Tess Adams, Monika Pena, Maggie Howell, and Samantha Labrecque.

She talks to them, and they respond—to her and each other—and they sing some really infectious tunes (music by Roxanna Ward, lyrics by Coopersmith). The recorded video is presumably always the same but with the aid of her technical wizard, Coopersmith can pause it whenever she likes to interject commentary and jokes, some of them laugh-out-loud funny.

A unique multimedia production, it’s also a solo show in that Coopersmith is the only live performer onstage. She gears her performance to each audience regardless of number—she says she has done My (Unauthorized)Hallmark Movie Musical for single viewers and for large houses, including a 900-seat theater in West Virginia.

Performances in mid-July at the Shelton (former longtime home of SF Playhouse, before that company moved to Post Street) were not sold out, and that’s a shame because My (Unauthorized)Hallmark Movie Musical is an incredibly clever and charming production—both a spoof of and an homage to an enduring genre. Most spoofs tend toward vicious satire but this one is a love letter from a real devotee. As the Hallmark tag line puts it, “Love always wins.” Coopersmith delivers that sentiment with aplomb.

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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

 

ProductionMy (Unauthorized) Hallmark Movie Musical
Written byEloise Coopersmith

Music by Roxanna Ward
Directed byAnne Runolfsson
Producing CompanyTop of the Shelton
Production DatesThru July 30, with possible extension to Aug. 20
Production AddressTop of the Shelton
533 Sutter Street
2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.lovealwayswinsmusical.com and

Topoftheshelton.com
Telephone(833) 526-3675
Tickets$20 - $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Music~~ “Tosca” Quartets: A Critic Learns From Four Very Different “Toscas” In Four Months

By Jeff Dunn

As an opera lover, I’m lucky to live in the Bay Area. Already, I’ve seen Tosca produced by four different opera companies this year: Livermore Opera’s in March, San Jose Opera’s in April, Cinnabar Theater’s in June, and Pocket Opera’s in July. What did I learn from the experience?

Lesson One: To my surprise, “lotsa Tosca” never wore me out. This was due to each company’s success in generating a Quartet of Joys from Bernard Shaw’s definition of opera: “… the story of a soprano and tenor who want to sleep together, and a baritone who tries to stop them.”

The joys were namely: 1-3, feeling the infusion of life into one or more of the three principal singing roles (Tosca, Cavaradossi, and Scarpia) and 4, relishing inspired stage-direction. Sure, there are other things that could have gone right or wrong in these performances, but:

    • Musical direction was excellent across the board.
    • Costume design was uniformly fine.
    • And the sets, though ranging from magnificent to bare-boned, seemed to matter so much less compared to the force of the Joy Quartet.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these masters of their art could all be together someday in a future production?

Lesson Two: You can’t beat powerful intimacy when it comes to Tosca. Yes, Act 1’s Te Deum is designed for Grand Opera, and San Jose’s full-sized orchestra was magnificent, but Tosca is about outsized personalities, not crowds or elephants.

The joint productions of Cinnabar and Pocket Opera were a revelation in terms of intimacy, with first-class actors and vocalists almost within spitting distance. Seeing the same casts at Cinnabar’s opening in Petaluma and at Pocket’s first venue in Mountain View after five more performances at Cinnabar was a chance to witness how the principals had perfected their artistry. Michelle Drever had evolved her exceptionally passionate Tosca into a uniquely buttery sound reminding me of Placido Domingo. Spencer Dodd’s well-voiced Scarpia had become more self-assured and less cartoonish. And Alex Boyer, who was also Cavaradossi in the Livermore production, had somehow grown from superb to stupendous.

Alex Boyer.

Oh, and you must read about critic Eddy Reynolds’ goosebumps at https://theatreeddys.com/2023/07/tosca-2.html.

Lesson Three: Creative stage direction is a hit or miss proposition. Cinnabar/Pocket director Elly Lichenstein had three hits with having Tosca accidently find her knife to kill Scarpia inside a cross, having two young sisters sing the shepherd’s role on stage to open Act 3, and having kids on stage to open Act 1.

Elly Lichenstein.

Bruce Donnell for Livermore did a great job of fight direction between Tosca and Scarpia in Act 2.

Tara Branham for San Jose had an interesting idea to put a bed in Scarpia’s Act 2 apartment where the fight with Tosca took place, but in this critic’s opinion it was too far upstage. In perhaps another miscue, she had the churchgoers in Act 1 walk in front of Scarpia during his Te Deum aria.  And her worst idea, in my opinion, was having Cavaradossi have a tryst with a woman (Attavanti?) to open Act 1. While intellectually justifiable, I feel the cost of diminishing Cavaradossi’s stature in the hearts of the audience is not worth the innovation.

Lesson Four: Hearing three world-class singers is unforgettable. Maria Natale’s debut as Tosca in San Jose, with her physical and aural beauty, acting chops and clarity, put all other Toscas aside for me.

Maria Natale.

The same went for Livermore’s Scarpia, Aleksey Bogdanov.

Aleksey Bogdanov.

And Alex Boyer, among all his other excellences, brought forth the rarely conveyed fact in the story that he is a noble, not just a handsome hunk.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these masters of their art could all be together someday in a future production?

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Jeff Dunn is ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor. A retired educator and project manager, he’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.

ProductionTosca
Stage DirectionTara Branham
Producing CompanyOpera San Jose
Production DatesThru Apr 30th
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
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ SAL’s “Guys and Dolls” Hits all the Right Notes!

By Sue Morgan

Ready to be swept away on a whirlwind of roguish charm, romance, and toe-tapping tunes? Treat yourself to Sonoma Arts Live’s production of Guys and Dolls.

This jubilant musical masterpiece, brought to life by a sensational cast and spot-on production, is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

Set in the bustling streets of 1930s-era New York City, Guys and Dolls follows the antics of a motley crew of high-rolling gamblers and vivacious showgirls and the earnest temperance workers intent on saving their souls.

“1930s-era New York City in “Guys and Dolls” at Sonoma Arts Live.

Enter the world of Nathan Detroit (played with a combination of panache and haplessness by SAL newbie, but seasoned performer Skyler King) charismatic mastermind behind the oldest permanent floating craps game in town.

…Grab your lucky charm, roll the dice, and immerse yourself in this wonderful play…

Desperately trying to find a safe spot for his next nefarious gathering, Detroit tries to acquire $1,000 (needed to hold the game at a local garage) from slick and suave Sky Masterson (given unexpected depth of character by Andrew Smith), a high-stakes gambler with an insatiable appetite for unconventional wagers. Detroit bets Sky that he won’t be able to persuade prim and prudish temperance worker Sergeant Sarah Brown (pitch perfect Maeve Smith) to have dinner with him in Havana.

The Hot Box Girls in Sonoma Arts Live’s “Guys & Dolls” See ’em while they’re hot! Opening July 14th!

Love, however, finds its way into the hearts of these streetwise hustlers when Nathan’s long-suffering fiancée, Miss Adelaide (beautifully executed by gifted Jenny Veilleux) decides it’s time for him to ditch the shady lifestyle and settle down. With her irresistible charm, hilarious accent, and fervent belief in Nathan’s 14-year-long promise to marry, Adelaide uses every ounce of guile she possesses in a desperate bid to secure a wedding date. But the true test of love and faith falls upon Sky, whose high stakes wager to woo Sarah and prove that love can conquer even the most unlikely of pairings turns out to be much more than a dare.

Standout performers such as Jonathen Blue as Nicely Nicely—whose rousing rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” was a crowd favorite—as well as Rick Love’s cigar-chomping menace as Chicago gangster Big Jule, help to round out this outstanding ensemble.

Gamblers in Sonoma Arts Live’s “Guys & Dolls”, running July 14th-30th.

With a legendary score by Frank Loesser, the irresistible melodies will have you tapping your feet and humming along in no time. From the iconic “Luck Be a Lady” to the comical ode to psychosomatic distress “Adelaide’s Lament” (a side-splitting show-stopper as performed by Veilleux), the music seamlessly weaves its way into the fabric of the story, leaving you longing for more.

Under the expert direction of the brilliant creative team (Larry Williams, director: Liz Andrews, choreographer; Frank Sarubbi, lighting design; Laurynn Malilay, sound design, and all their cohort, the simple set manages to capture the essence of 1930s New York, the costumes add a vibrant splash of color, and the understated choreography elevates the music. Best of all is the convincing chemistry between the romantic leads, not surprising as the Smiths (Sarah and Sky) are husband and wife in real life, but also holds true for Veilleux and King, as Detroit and Miss Adelaide.

Cast of “Guys & Dolls” at work.

Guys and Dolls is a jubilant celebration of love, misadventure and the power of redemption. With its infectious spirit, catchy tunes, and effervescent performances, this exuberant musical is a must-see for theatre enthusiasts and newcomers alike. Grab your lucky charm, roll the dice, and immerse yourself in this wonderful play that will leave you grinning, clapping, and begging for an encore!

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Sue Morgan is a Senior Contributing Writer at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.co

 

 

ProductionGuys and Dolls
Written byMusic and Lyrics by: Frank Loesser

Book by: Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by
Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesJuly 14th - 30th
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
Script5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “Falsettos” – A Mixed Bag at The Pear Theatre

By Joanne Engelhardt

A strange musical production with an equally strange history is currently on stage at The Pear Theatre in Mountain View.

Falsettos is an impressive undertaking for a small theatre which seldom offers musicals in its season. First, there’s a four-piece band, led by conductor Val Zvinyatskovsky, playing in a tiny second-story balcony. That’s a good thing, except that for some of the songs, the musicians played so loud so that singers’ voices could not be heard.

The unique shape of The Pear means that viewers sometimes all sit on the north side of the building, sometimes all on the south side and sometimes on three sides. Director Janie Scott apparently decided to have three rows of seats on the north and two on the south.

…Most everything is conveyed by song…

Bad choice. For some parts of Falsettos a performer is singing only to those on the north side, while for other songs, most of the song gets sung to people on the south side. Why would anyone want to see the back side of a singer?

There are numerous other issues with this production, but the core cast of actors makes it marginally enjoyable. Key among them is young Russell Nakagawa, as Jason, who “ages” from 10 to 13 by play’s end. Nakagawa’s clear, clean voice is fine, but it’s his earnest, complex acting that is a wonder to see in someone so young.