Are You a Devoted Theater Fan? — Check Out Our “BEHIND THE SCENES” Page!

News and events in the theater community, each hand-curated by ASR’s Editors.

Stay up-to-date on national touring shows, in memoriam, new events at key stages and theater companies within our coverage area, and more.

So check it out — on the BEHIND THE SCENES page. Access it from the menu bar above!

Now in “Behind the Scenes”…

  • Oakland Ballet Brings the East Bay The Nutcracker
  • > Pretty Woman: The Musical? Yep, Check it Out!
  • SF Opera Showcases Orpheus and Eurydice
  • Stalwart Jeffrey Lo Directs Little Shop of Horrors in South Bay
  • SF Playhouse Adds Music to As You Like It
  • Book of Mormon Fan? It’s Coming….!
  • Grab Those Tickets! A Christmas Carol at ACT!
  • … & more!

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PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Scrooge in Love A Musical Treat at 6th Street

By Cari Lynn Pace

Anyone reluctant to revisit old Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghosts should prepare to be delighted by this musical follow-up to Dickens’s original story. Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse once again shines with this perfectly polished performance of stunning characters – yes, including the ghosts, following Scrooge a year after Tiny Tim intoned “God bless us, every one.”

Director Jared Sakren was the ideal choice to lead this full-blown musical, having previously directed and played Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. He notes “I’m delighted to bring Scrooge in Love to 6th Street with its festive, heartwarming, and magical story.”

…The songs are delightful, and move the plot along quickly, just in time for more ghosts…

The curtain opens with an annoyed Scrooge (superbly characterized by Jeff Cote’) awakened by his former partner – now hairy ghost – Marley (Peter Downey). Kudos to sound designer Ben Roots for the spooky echo when Downey speaks, in contrast to Cote’s dialog. Scrooge thought his visitation by ghosts was over and points out his forward progress, singing “In Just One Year.” Alas, ghosts have other plans.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (beautiful Alanna Weatherby) floats in to convince Scrooge of her mission. Her hilarious song “I Love Love” may not be hummable for mere mortals, but this soaring soprano nails the highest notes to earn the audience’s spontaneous applause.

Transported to a long past Christmas celebration, Scrooge is urged to have a little party fun when his buddy Dick (Skyler King) leads the company in singing “A Regular Day.” Choreographer Joseph Favarola must have worked tirelessly with this large ensemble of adults and children to produce one of several joyous dance scenes.

Scrooge sees himself as a timid young man, well cast in Noah Sternhill. It’s love at first sight for young Scrooge and lovely Belle (superbly acted by Erin Rose Solorio.) Belle is eager, but shy Scrooge is painfully unsure of himself and lets the relationship slip from his grasp.

Cote’ is a formidable actor and comedic talent, and carries Scrooge in Love with energy and perfect characterizations. Singing is not his strong suit, yet his down-to-earth voice harmonizes well when he does a duet with Sternhill singing “The Things You Should Have Done.” Ginger Beavers directs the show’s live music written by Larry Grossman with lyrics by Kellen Blair. The songs are delightful, and move the plot along quickly, just in time for more ghosts.

The big Ghost of Christmas Present (Ezra Hernandez) arrives with an even bigger baritone voice. When he gets into the party action, Scrooge begins to get the picture. A cadre of kids and the cast sing “Do It Now” but Scrooge is unsure.

Finally, the silent and scary Ghost of Christmas Future (King doubles up for this role) shows a dismal ending. Scrooge sings “Sad I’m Dead” to great laughter. This reviewer found the many funny lines peppering this show added to the wit and enjoyment of the total production.

Scrooge at last is spurred to action. Scrooge, Marley, and the Three Ghosts sing “You Can’t Put a Price on Love” that brought the house down. A huge shout-out goes to the behind-the-scenes work of costume designer Mae Heagerty-Matos, and wig/hair/makeup designer Rosanne Johnson. The pair’s wizardry transforms actors into outrageous ghosts and classic Dickens characters.

So in summary, grab the family and go see Scrooge In Love — it’s a winter wonderland winner!

NOTE: Covid restrictions at the 6th Street Playhouse require masks to be worn throughout the production. Please see website for further advisories about this performance.

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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

 

ProductionScrooge in Love
Written byDuane Poole
Directed byJared Sakren
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough Dec 18th. (Some dates have both afternoon and evening shows)
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$19 (under 18) to $48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ On Track: Marin Theatre Company’s “Two Trains Running”

By George Maguire

Recognized as one of the greatest voices in American theater, Pittsburgh native August Wilson set out with the task of chronicling a century of the African American experience with ten plays reflecting each decade of the 20th century.

Two Trains Running is his 1960s play, bringing to life the assassination of Martin Luther King, inner city re-development and subsequent brewing discontent.

Set in Home Style, a restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Hill District, we meet owner Memphis (Lamont Thompson – an actor of endless vocal variety and passion), as he prepares for the inevitable selling of his property to the city, which will tear it down eliminating both history and the convivial meeting place for the few remaining patrons.

Sam Jackson (Risa) and Lamont Thompson (Memphis
) at work at Marin Theatre Company. Photo: Kevin
Berne

Memphis has property in Jackson, Mississippi and he is eager to take one of the daily two trains running from Pittsburgh to Jackson to set claim with the papers he owns on his entitled land.

I love this play…

This play always resonates home for me, as I am from Pittsburgh and can recall when a vast swath of the Hill District was torn down to build the huge City Arena where I would begin my own career as a professional actor. The inhabitants were simply given notice and moved. Eminent domain! No choice! Literally hundreds of families and the history of a vital and thriving section of Pittsburgh ended in the 1960s.

What makes Two Trains Running so remarkable is that as we are introduced to seven characters whose threatened lives bring the play to life, there is no bombast as their idiosyncratic personalities express pain, humor and a searching for some continuity. We meet Wolf, a dynamic and always plotting numbers-runner played to slithering perfection by Kenny Scott. There is Holloway (a remarkable Michael Asberry), the moral compass of the café, always there, always at the down front table ready for a coffee and a chess game and a tete-a-tete conversation with Memphis.

Michael J. Asberry (Holloway) in Marin Theatre Company’s production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” — Photo: Kevin Berne

The stage is then energized by Eddie Ewell as Sterling. Fresh out of the state pen, he is glib and suave. Mr. Ewell fills the room with effortless radiance with a smile and guile that can melt the heart of Risa the waitress (Sam Jackson) whose life, it seems, is to refill the always emptying coffee cups and dish out the cornbread and chicken, which seem to be the only foodstuffs served at the Home Style. Risa has a secret which has protected her from any assault. Jackson hides the daily grind and the pain with a quiet resolve.

Eddie Ewell (Sterling) in MTC’s production of “Two Trains Running”. Photo: Kevin Berne.

Home Style is across the street from West’s Funeral Home. Khary L. Moye’s West, wearing his black suit and black gloves at all times, proudly announces his many Cadillacs, the dream cars of the black experience, are always in tip-top shape readying for the next death. Lastly and most movingly there is Hambone, whose two reiterated lines “I wants my ham. He gonna give me my ham!” brings us to tears in Michael Wayne Rice’s simple rendering of this sad complicated man.

Wilson’s play is filled with lengthy but distinctive monologues as Memphis and Holloway especially bring us Wilson’s prescient, proud profundities with shooting arrow precision. “No wonder Justice is wearing a blindfold” . . . “We are all a part of everything that came before.” The play is directed with infinite care and precision by Dawn Monique Williams. Even the scene changes under sound designer Gregory Robinson’s haunting work bringing the shifting passage of time are a part of Ms. Williams’ clarity.

I love this play and its bold attempt not to be bold, but just be! It is never boring. All we have to do is listen. Listen to the beating hearts of the black men and women impatiently and patiently knowing that change is coming.

Sometimes it’s the quiet ones who scream the loudest in our hearts,

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is 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

 

ProductionTwo Trains Running
Written byAugust Wilson
Directed byDawn Monique Williams
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec. 18th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$25.50 – $60.50
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Compelling, Controversial “Wuthering Heights” at Berkeley Rep

By George Maguire and Barry Willis

Writer/director Emma Rice has deconstructed one of the most beloved English novels of the 19th century and has remade it into a pop-rock extravaganza, delighting some critics and outraging others. Her Wuthering Heights runs at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 1, 2023.

Traditionalists expecting a stage production of the dark 1939 film starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier are likely to be disappointed. This frenetic, high-energy show is geared to a younger generation with a different aesthetic, but it can work equally well for those not necessarily tethered to the past. Innumerable classic stories have been reinvented for the sake of stage and screen entertainment. There’s certainly no reason why Wuthering Heights shouldn’t suffer the same fate, just as Hamlet can be reinterpreted as a modern business drama, or Romeo and Juliet reconfigured as a rock opera.

…The movement work in this show is inspiring. So is (the) mining of humor…

Controversy swirled at Berkeley Rep’s November 22 press opener. Some critics raved to their colleagues about Rice’s stunning production while others dismissed it as an abomination. ASR’s George Maguire and Barry Willis comment here:

BW: This is an amazing, dynamic production with multi-threat performers who can act, dance, do gymnastics, and in some cases, play instruments. Especially impressive are Jordan Laviniere, who plays the leader of the Yorkshire Moors, and Leah Brotherhead as Catherine. She’s also a great rock singer. TJ Holmes, who plays Dr. Kenneth, performs on cello and accordion when he’s not stage center. He’s a delightful comic actor, one of a cast of eleven, most of whom tackle multiple roles. Theatrical talent is everywhere in this show but the multi-casting can cause confusion among viewers because most of the characters are cousins with similar names.

GM: Yeah, Barry! It is a fairly faithful adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel, and if you can stop conflating the story with her sister Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, you’re a winner. The story itself is weighted down with so many generations of relationships, and births and deaths, with eleven actors playing all the roles. It’s often highly confusing.

Leah Brotherhead as Catherine and Liam Tamne as Heathcliff in the West Coast premiere of Wise Children’s “Wuthering Heights” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo by Kevin Berne.

BW: I’m no Bronte expert, but it looks to me like Emma Rice has adhered to the original plot, but uses story elements and characters to create something entirely new. I’m generally approving of prequels, sequels, and reinterpretations of classic stories — with the exception of Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!, a real horror show.

Rice’s Wuthering Heights isn’t really the Bronte classic. I attended with my friend Marcia Tanner, an art curator with a degree in English Literature from UC Berkeley. She quipped: “It’s misleading to title this show Wuthering Heights . . . it should be Something Based on Wuthering Heights.” That’s a fair assessment.

GM: My biggest challenge was not hearing the play (technically, a musical), but frankly, it was not understanding what the cast was saying and singing.

BW: That was a problem for many in the audience, I believe. Thick Yorkshire accents were tough enough to understand during dialog, and impossible to decipher during the show’s many songs. I loved the music but couldn’t tell you what any of the songs are about. Marcia astutely observed, “They need superscripts.” The only words that appear on the large backdrop are a few lines from the novel.

GM: Etta Murfitt’s choreography is wonderful and eclectic, ranging from almost hoe-down, to Irish jig, to nonspecific elegance. A lovely and diverse musical score by Ian Ross keeps the play moving. The casting of eleven very accomplished members of the Wise Children’s troupe was a joy, as was watching them effortlessly morph into the manifold characters in the novel. Heathcliff (Liam Tamne, of multi-national background) is particularly inspired casting, making the orphan Heathcliff the dark, brooding, and very sexy creature he was — unlike anyone else in the Yorkshire moors.

BW: I was knocked out by the performers and the quick-moving stagecraft, especially the rolling doors-and-windows pieces that transformed into beds and other devices. The books-on-sticks-as-fluttering-birds bit is brilliant low-cost theatricality. So are the chalkboards that serve as erasable tombstones.

GM: The movement work in this show is inspiring. So is Rice’s mining of humor — she finds comedic potential in many of Bronte’s situations, something that to my knowledge has never been done. But this Wuthering Heights is no spoof — it’s an inspired reinterpretation.

BW: Was the love affair between Heathcliff and his adoptive sister Catherine considered scandalous when the novel was published? It might be seen as close to incest today even though the two were not biologically related. Save Dr. Kenneth and the narrator Mr. Lockwood, almost all the other characters in the production are cousins, nothing unusual in an isolated community.

Jordan Laviniere as the Leader of the Yorkshire Moors; Eleanor Sutton, Katy Ellis, Tama Phethean, Stephanie Elstob, and Ricardo Castro as The Moors in the West Coast premiere of Wise Children’s “Wuthering Heights” now showing at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne.

GM: A community that’s cold, damp, and dark! Rice and set designer Vicki Mortimer went over the top portraying that.

BW: I had no expectations about this show, and was delighted — especially by the incredibly dynamic first act.

My only prior exposure was reading the novel in ninth grade — required reading — and having watched the movie at some point not long after that on late-night TV. The subject matter wasn’t something that resonated for me and wasn’t anything I cared to revisit.

I have difficulty relating to the social structure and morality of the time, which makes playwrights like Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekov, and their contemporaries something of a slog for me. I never liked G. B. Shaw until I saw Major Barbara, but I hope to live a thousand years without enduring another Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

But I understand the appeal of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, especially for women. In their time, the only path to a better life was through choosing the right marriage partner. Mothers often bled to death after childbirth. Infant and childhood mortality were rampant, from conditions easily treated today. This whole pathetic milieu is background for Wuthering Heights, but Emma Rice makes it entertaining and enjoyable..

GM: In all, this Wuthering Heights is a truly nifty addition to the repertoire of Wise Children, a new theatre company founded by Ms. Rice, whose group brought The Wild Bride to life at Berkeley Rep a few years ago. Imaginative, enthralling and chillingly-thrillingly theater.

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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

 

ProductionWuthering Heights
Written by Emily Bronte
Adapted by Emma Rice
Directed by Emma Rice
Choreographed by Etta Murfitt
Saheem Ali (Conceiver/Director)
Producing CompanyWise Children / Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough January 1, 2023
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Tickets$24 - $119
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! AST Theater ~~“Amélie the Musical” a Charmer at Masquers Playhouse

By Barry Willis

Happenstance, a lost notebook, a garden gnome, and Zeno’s Paradox all converge as a quirky Parisian girl finds love in Amélie the Musical, at Masquers Playhouse in Pt. Richmond through December 10.

Written by Craig Lucas, with music by Daniel Messé, and lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen, the production helmed by Enrico Banson is based on the popular 2001 film. Structured more as an operetta than a traditional musical, Amélie features almost no spoken dialog.

Everything—32 songs in all—is beautifully sung by a surprisingly large cast for a small theater. Most of the performers also play instruments and handle multiple roles with aplomb. This show may be the only one where a violist (Hayley Kennen) plays and sings at the same time.

…This production sails joyously all the way to theatrical satisfaction.

Solona Husband shines in the lead role. Cute as she can be, Husband innocently seduces audience and cast mates alike with her confident acting and superb vocal abilities, nearly matched by Sleiman Alamadieh as guitar-playing Nino, the boy Amélie hopes to meet. A musical theater performer since childhood, Husband has enormous talent with plenty of potential for further development. Should she stick with it—that’s her stated goal—she’s destined for stardom. She’s that good.

Solona Husband at work.

Her performance alone recommends this production, one that exceeds expectations at every turn. The supporting cast is tremendous, especially Anand Joseph as the Blind Beggar, who entertains the pre-show audience with his accordion, and double bassist Douglass Mandell, who tackles two roles in addition to playing throughout the show. North Bay theater veteran Nelson Brown, also one of this show’s guitarists, and fresh from Marin Musical Theatre Company’s production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, does a fine job in dual roles, including a convincing turn as Amélie’s stiff, socially awkward father.

Set design by John Hull is delightful, including Le Café des Deux Moulins (Two Windmills Café), a photo booth, and a sex shop where Nino works. Aaron Tan’s music direction is unassailably great, as is Katherine Cooper’s choreography.

“Amélie the Musical”, cast at work, Masquers Playhouse in Pt. Richmond

How does Zeno’s Paradox fit in? The Greek philosopher’s most famous conundrum involves an examination of the concept of “half,” as in the question “If you cut the distance to your goal by half at each step, how many steps will it take to get there?” The answer: An infinite number, because each half-step leaves some distance remaining.

The theme recurs throughout the show—half measures, half asleep, halfway there, but its philosophical implications should have little bearing on Amélie’s audience. This production sails joyously all the way to theatrical satisfaction. Amélie the Musical is a totally charming and terrific diversion.

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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

 

ProductionAmélie the Musical
Written byBook by Craig Lucas, Music by Daniel Messé
Directed & Choreographed byEnrico Banson
Producing CompanyMasquers Playhouse
Production DatesThrough December 10th, 2022
Production Address105 Park Place
Pt. Richmond, CA
Websitemasquers.org
Telephone(510) 232.4031
Tickets$27-$30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Chart Topper: “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Golden Gate

By Barry Willis

The Temptations were one of Motown’s most successful and enduring vocal groups, one that in many ways shaped and defined American pop music in the 1960s and ’70s. Four years after it debuted at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations has come roaring back to San Francisco after becoming a major attraction on Broadway.

The national touring production has reportedly sold out the capacious Golden Gate Theatre for its entire run into early December–and deservedly so. It’s a dazzling spectacle covering the entire arc of the Temps’ storied career, from their origins as a street-corner doo-wop act in the late 1950s to long-term superstardom.

…the #1 R&B group of all time”…

Beautifully structured by playwright Dominique Morisseau (Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew) and narrated by Marcus Paul James as the group’s founder Otis Williams, the story encompasses not only the group’s enviable success, but many of the personal tragedies incurred along the way: Williams’ estrangement from his wife Josephine (Najah Hetsberger) and their son; the dismissal from the lineup of Paul Williams (James T. Lane) due to his alcoholism; and the unreliability of top talents such as Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin (Jalen Harris and Elijah Ahmad Lewis, respectively), both of whom had great solo careers despite their personal issues. Ruffin was dismissed from the group due to drug problems — he died of an overdose — and the erratic Kendricks succumbed to lung cancer.

PHOTO CREDIT: EMILIO MADRID
National Touring Company of AIN’T TOO PROUD

These tragedies provide real-world counterbalance to the upbeat feel of the whole show, as do projections that put many Temptations hit songs into historical context, including the 1967 riots in Detroit and the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King in Memphis the following year. All of that is valuable information, especially for younger members of the audience who weren’t here at the time, but it’s the music that sustains this amazing production, performed by a stellar cast backed by an equally stellar band behind the stage’s backdrop.

The nearly three-hour show sails along thanks to expert flawless stagecraft, amazing dance (Sergio Trujillo, choreographer) and absolutely stunning vocal performances. Songs include all the Temps’s greatest hits — “My Girl,” “Cloud Nine,” “Get Ready,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “War,” “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” “Shout,” and many many others too numerous to list here.

The Temptations were listed by Billboard magazine as “The #1 R&B Group of All Time.” For those who weren’t around during their peak, Ain’t Too Proud is a vastly entertaining immersion in cultural history. For those who were, it’s an equally valuable reminder of how much Motown contributed to our lives. It’s a night in the theater that no one will forget.

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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

 

ProductionAin't Too Proud
Written byDominique Morissea
Directed & Choreographed byDirected by Des McAnuff; Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Producing CompanyBroadwaySF
Production DatesThru Dec 4th, 2022
Production Address1192 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://www.broadwaysf.com/
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$56 - $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Gypsy” an Oldie but Still a Goodie!

By Mitchell Field

Marin County’s venerated 110 year-old Mountain Play, which bills itself as a “Great Outdoor Theatre Adventure” is currently producing the 63-year-old Broadway smash musical Gypsy indoors. Neither is showing its age.

Nor is the venue, The Barn Theater at the Marin Art and Garden Center. Normally the home of the 92-year-old Ross Valley Players, the theater has undergone a recent face-lift, including brand new seats and a remodeled concession area.

With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by the then 30-year-old Stephen Sondheim, 1959’s Gypsy is a much-beloved American musical about a fame-obsessed stage-mother during the waning days of vaudeville, with her itinerant troupe of ‘kids’– including her own two daughters, one of whom grows up to become the world-famous burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, on whose memoir the show is loosely based.

Director/choreographer Zoe Swenson-Graham’s well-cast group of thirteen exuberant performers, including two Equity actors, play thirty-seven different roles in this three-hour extravaganza, on choreographer/scenic artist Zachary Isen’s clever yet spare set, with musical-direction by Jon Gallo.

…Is Gypsy a superb black comedy or an American tragedy? Decide for yourself at this smashing production.

Even those who are not musical-theater aficionados will probably be familiar with the show’s hits: “Some People,” “‘Together, (Wherever We Go),” the classic strip-tease number “Let Me Entertain You” and Broadway belter favorite “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

“Gypsy” guys: L to R – Anthony Maglio as Yonkers, Alex Alvarez as Tulsa, Lucas Michael Chandler as L.A., and Michaela Marymor as Broadway Boy. Photos: Robin Jackson

This over-the-top musical, which American essayist Frank Rich described as, ” . . . nothing if not Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to King Lear . . .” demands that performers give their all to pull it off successfully. Swenson-Graham’s troupe does just that, led by Dyan McBride as the ultimate likeable-but-nightmarish stage mother.

Jill Jacobs as Gypsy Rose Lee. Photos: Robin Jackson

McBride’s Mama Rose drives ahead constantly, no matter the difficulties, financial setbacks, slap-downs, fleabag accommodations and poverty. She’s ready, able and willing to digest even canned dog food to achieve her ambition of propelling her daughter June to stardom. It’s hard not to despise the ego-driven Rose, whom theater critic Clive Barnes described as “one of the few truly complex characters in the American musical’ and yet not admire her at the same time for her grit and spirit, as she harangues and uses her own children and everyone else around her, including her long-suffering boyfriend/manager Herbie, played charmingly by Bay Area stage veteran DC Scarpelli.

Her awkward, yearning-to-be-loved daughter Louise’s ultimate transformation into the glamorous, sexy Gypsy Rose Lee is quite extraordinary. The talented Jill Jacobs absolutely kills it. While the primary plot is Mama Rose’s struggle to keep her act afloat in a changing market, the secondary plot is a wonderful ugly duckling story.

Alexandra Fry as ‘Baby June’ in “Gypsy” at The Barn.

Alexandra Fry and Julia Ludwig, as daughter June at different ages, also shine. Swenson-Graham’s supporting cast is terrific. In the show’s most hilarious burlesque scene, showgirls Michaela Marymor and Libby Oberlin and the outstanding Tanika Baptiste, as stripper Tessie Tura, dance and prance in Adriana Gutierrez’s fabulously ridiculous outfits, one of which even lights up! Kudos to Marymor who cutely ad-libbed when one piece failed to fire up on opening night.

The lighting of a stage show is critical to its ambiance and drama. Ellen Brooks and Frank Sarubbi handle the Barn’s lighting design with aplomb. Bruce Vieira’s sound design follows suit.

There’s no live orchestra for this production, unlike regular Mountain Play performances, but the recorded tracks directed by Sean Paxton work well, although sometimes the music seemed to overwhelm the vocals. Perhaps the volume might be lowered for the music or the lead performers should be miked.

Is Gypsy a superb black comedy or an American tragedy? Decide for yourself at this smashing production.

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Mitchell Field is a Sr. Contributing Writer for Aisle Seat Review. Based in Marin County, Mr. Field is an actor and voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: mitchfield@aol.com

 

ProductionGypsy
Written byBook: Arthur Laurents.
Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Directed byZoe Swenson-Graham
Producing CompanyThe Mountain Play Association / Ross Valley Players
Production DatesThrough Dec 18, 2022
Production AddressThe Barn Theater @ Marin Art & Garden Center 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. Ross, CA.
Websiterossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone(415) 456-9555
Tickets$40
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 ~~ PAP’s Production Has Lilting Voices — And A Few Strange Choices

By Joanne Engelhardt

An enchanting Belle, a handsome, muscular Gaston and snappy choreography. What could go wrong?

A few things, actually, although the large opening night audience at the Palo Alto Players’ production of Beauty and the Beast probably didn’t notice. In fact, after the big Act 1 production number “Belle” — featuring the entire ensemble clicking metal drink cups — the audience whistled, applauded and stomped their feet so long, you’d have thought it was the finale!

Sam Mills is close to perfection as Belle, who is shunned by the townspeople for being a little strange (she loves to read books!). Her plain blue pinafore makes her look a bit like Judy Garland in….you know: THAT movie.

Sam Mills as Belle in Palo Alto Players’ production of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, the enchanting Broadway musical based on the animated film. Photo by Scott Lasky.

But she’s got gumption galore, and she does her best to take care of her somewhat eccentric father (Michael Johnson) who loves to fiddle with all things electronic. He’s especially proud of the automobile-type contraption he’s invented which has a habit of breaking down every few feet or so.

In addition to Belle, director Patrick Klein made several fine casting choices here: Frankie Mulcahy as Gaston is one. Mulcahy has played Gaston before, and he’s likely only grown better in the role. Such biceps! Such conceit! Such a devilish grin as he boasts to one and all that he — and only the magnificent he — will sweep Belle off her feet and she’ll melt like honey in his arms. Ha! Belle has absolutely no interest in the self-absorbed Gaston, and the more she resists, the more he’s sure she’s all his.

It’s difficult to go wrong when you’re watching a musical that has an enchanting musical score by Alan Menken, with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.

… Such biceps! Such conceit!

Lucky for Mulcahy that he has someone as versatile and pliable as John Ramirez-Ortiz who, as Lefou, gets batted around and mightily bruised whenever Gaston needs something to punch.

The hard-working cast of 24 brings choreographer Stacy Reed’s sprightly dance numbers to life, helping recreate the magic of the Broadway musical. Yet there are a few strange choices which, to this reviewer make it slightly less than it could be.

Sam Mills as Belle and Frankie Mulcahy as Gaston. Photo by Scott Lasky.

Michael Reed is strong as the Beast. His large structure, gnarled face, ugly horns (thanks to Shilbourne Thill and the Children’s Musical Theatre of San Jose, from whom all the costumes were borrowed), and thoroughly obnoxious disposition make him a Beast to cower before and obey.

But underlying that blustery front is a lonely man who has never known love. Reed’s vocals are clear and filled with longing. So, though he snarls and barks commands to his household servants (who are gradually turning into inanimate objects), he becomes subservient to Belle when she becomes the first person to defy him.

It’s simply delicious to watch him suddenly become a tongue-tied male in love with the dainty Belle.

“…I’m not going to dinner!”

Yet at play’s end, as the Beast finally explodes in a mighty whirl of smoke and lightning, why did director Klein decide to remove Reed from the scene and put in a different actor? It felt wrong because actor Justin Kerekes, as the Prince, looks nothing like Reed.

(To this reviewer, it actually looked as if Kerekes was embarrassed to be standing on stage in Reed’s place.) There’s no logical reason for this switch. Other productions have easily removed the Beast’s facial makeup and hair during the 10 – 15 seconds when he isn’t visible.

Several other supporting characters deserve mention, most especially Arjun Sheth as Lumiere, who was once the Beast’s servant but is now gradually turning into a chandelier. Sheth is so subtle that at one point he goes from a standing position to slithering across the stage like a snake!

Juliet Green is a charming, sweet Mrs. Potts, who, instead of serving tea, is gradually turning into a teapot, and Ben Chau-Chiu is a deservedly disgruntled Cogsworth.

But PAP choose not to have a live orchestra in the pit, so musical conductor Daniel Hughes is there, all alone, giving the actors musical direction.

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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

 

ProductionBeauty and the Beast
Based onWalt Disney’s animated film
Directed byPatrick Klein
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru Nov 20th, 2022
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$10 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Classic Comedy: “The One Act Play That Goes Wrong”

By Mitchell Field

In an era when so many live entertainment venues have closed down, how encouraging it is that a new one has opened: The California Theatre of Santa Rosa, California.

Before the end of 2022, the cabaret-style venue will host blues music, comedy nights, cabaret, a solo show, soul music and a “Mardi-Gras Style” New Year’s Eve party on Dec. 31. Unlike many other Bay Area theaters, The California offers beer, wine, cocktails and a menu of snacks, plus pizza and salads.

The California is also the new home of Left Edge Theatre, featuring through November 20, the hilarious farce, The One Act Play That Goes Wrong. It’s a condensed version of the comedy-collective Mischiefs’ world-famous The Play That Goes Wrong that originally premiered at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London in 2012 and went on to win the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

… the terrific eight-person cast all manage to find the foolishness in every turn…

This production is a classic 1920s murder mystery, involving the totally inept and accident-prone Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, attempting to stage a production of The Murder at Haversham Manor. A police inspector has been sent to a country manor to investigate a mysterious death. It might be murder and everyone is a suspect in this Monty Python-style riot.

With falling props, missed cues, forgotten lines, hilariously mispronounced dialog, slapstick antics and a secret romance, the whole sidesplitting debacle ends with a total collapse of the set. Giving away the ending is of no consequence in this case because everyone (except of course the play’s characters) can clearly see what’s coming . . . and it does.

The secret to success for this type of show is in the actors not playing it for laughs but being absolutely serious and in the moment, no matter what happens, allowing the audience to split their sides with laughter. That’s exactly what they did on opening night. Well directed by North Bay theater veteran, actor/director David L. Yen, the terrific eight-person cast all manage to find the foolishness in every turn.

A big welcome to The California! This theatergoer hopes that it finds its audiences and that it thrives in the Bay Area.

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Mitchell Field is a Sr. Contributing Writer for Aisle Seat Review. Based in Marin County, Mr. Field is an actor and voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: mitchfield@aol.com

 

ProductionThe One Act Play That Goes Wrong
Written byHenry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields
Directed
Musical Direction
David L. Yen
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Nov 20th, 2022
Production AddressCalifornia Theatre
528 7th St.
Santa Rosa, CA
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 664-7529
Tickets$22-$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “After I’m Dead:” a Daughter’s Moving Tribute

By Barry Willis

North Bay residents don’t often appreciate how unusual is the fact that Marin and Sonoma counties have so much open space so close to one of the world’s major cities.

Marin County has approximately 10% of the population as envisioned by real estate developers in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, who seriously imagined flattening the hills and crisscrossing the county with freeways feeding numberless housing tracts. They saw Marin as the potential Orange County of the north.

That avaricious program was stopped in its tracks by environmental activists like Ellen Straus, co-founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.(MALT). The Amsterdam native came to the US in her teens, escaping the Holocaust. She married German-Jewish immigrant Bill Straus, and joined him on his dairy farm in Marshall, a small West Marin community near Tomales Bay.

…one of the best celebrations of life imaginable…

Through November 27, her daughter Vivien Straus gives a wonderfully poignant and at times laugh-out-loud funny tribute to her mom in a solo show called After I’m Dead, You’ll Have to Feed Everyone: The Rollicking Tale of Ellen Straus, Dairy Godmother.

Vivien Straus.

Ellen Straus passed away some 20 years ago but her legacy lives on. Part history, part reminiscence, part catharsis, part standup comedy, and all heart, After I’m Dead is a concise (slightly over one hour) tale of life on the very ranch where the show takes place. Vivien explores her relationship with her mother and family, and takes us through a grueling but heartwarming end-of-life ordeal. That may not sound like a recipe for a fulfilling theatrical experience, but Vivien has achieved sufficient distance to mine all the pathos and abundant humor, supplied with love that only a daughter can convey. It’s one of the best celebrations of life imaginable.

A career writer/actor/performer, Vivien conceived and polished this show with expert guidance from longtime North Bay actor/director/artistic director Elly Lichenstein, recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and the director of After I’m Dead. Straus’s timing and delivery are spot-on. She’s a confident performer delivering a deeply personal story, one that’s beyond effective.

Vivien Straus, daughter of Ellen Straus of Straus Family Creamery fame, stands among grazing dairy cows at her family ranch home in Marshall, Ca.

The venue is the beautifully restored old barn on the Straus Home Ranch, with room for—a guesstimate here—maybe 150 visitors. Early arrivals can enjoy a picnic from a food truck parked nearby and may enjoy tossing scraps to some of the lovely free-ranging chickens wandering from table to table.

It’s chilly this time of year—visitors should bring ample clothing and leave in plenty of time to get out to Marshall. There are no freeways in that direction, thanks mostly to unsung heroes like Ellen Straus, West Marin is served almost entirely by two-lane roads. It’s a sweet drive and destination. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

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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

 

ProductionAfter I’m Gone, You’ll Have to Feed Everyone
Written byVivien Straus
Directed byElly Lichenstein
Producing CompanyStraus Home Ranch
Production DatesThrough November 27th
Production AddressStraus Home Ranch, 22888 Highway 1, Marshall
Websitehttps://www.vivienstraus.com/
Telephone------------------
Tickets$45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

ASR Theater ~~ “Red Shades” A Rockin’ World Premier

By George Maguire

 

It takes years to get a new musical up and ready to be seen.

The rockabilly sound-and-light fest Red Shades is no exception. A cast of mostly trans, binary, and renowned queer artists of the Bay Area take us on a phantasmagorical journey in wild comic book style with a heart as big as Golden Gate Park. Started at the El Rio with follow-up work at PianoFight, Starlight and other workshop homes, Red Shades finally opened as a completed musical at the Z Space Steindler Theater.

…For a seemingly simple story of a boy/girl arriving in SF, this one has more twists and turns than Lombard Street…

Three years before the Stonewall riots in NYC, the Gene Compton Cafeteria trans, drag queens and queers riots in San Francisco’s Tenderloin began it all only to be lost in gay “herstory.” It has been re-discovered by playwright Adrienne Price, forging a union with composers Matt Fukui Grandy and Jeanine Adkisson creating this world premier.

Pictured (L to R): Chris Steele, May Ramos, Romelo Urbi. Photo by Jay Yamada

Red Shades tells the story of Ida Diamond, who as a boy in rural Nevada, dons a dress and is accosted by his father. The music and lyrics (which in a genuine and glorious surprise for a rock musical, are at least 80% crystal clear), take us on Ida’s journey. Dad sends him/her off to a hospital. The songs “Daddy Eggshells” and the wonderful “For Your Protection” are sung with panache and total drag-nurse commitment by the estimable Chris Steele.

Adam KuveNiemann gets to flex a host of scumbag sensibilities (and a terrific voice) as the abusive father, the sadistic doctor, and the sheriff. Ida finally escapes and arrives in San Francisco, finding a room with three of the wildest trans superheroes one can imagine (“Welcome to Flip House”). Chris Steele (Genevieve), Ezra Reeves (Tommy) and B Noel Thomas (Sherry) embody these three with amazing style and powerful vocals.

Pictured (L to R): Ezra Reaves, Chris Steele, Carmen Castillo, B Noel Thomas.
Photo by Jay Yamada

It takes Act Two to finally give us what the title is about—a hopefully fixable part in the development of this musical. When the hostility and threats of beatings arise, you put on the red shades and presto – you become a superpower and kickass with superhero strength. The shades bring rage into focus, and we can survive another day. Ida gets the glasses, and gets her life together despite the desperate attempts of her father and the Sheriff to arrest her. The shades win on all accounts. For a seemingly simple story of a boy/girl arriving in SF, this one has more twists and turns than Lombard Street.

 

Pictured, Foreground (L to R): Julio Chavez, Ezra Reaves. Photo by Jay Yamada

Sarah Phykitt has designed the terrific set and video projection work, Lyre Alston does spot on costume designing, and special mention must go to sound mixers Michael Creason and Daniel Hall who (except when the singer feels she has to screech and scream) give us the lyrics and thus the story. Bravo to co-directors Rotimi Agbabiaka and Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe for guiding Red Shades to the stage and to stage manager Marie Shell for wrangling this complicated, multi-cued production. She alone deserves a pair of red shades.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco base 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

 

ProductionThe Red Shades
Directed byRotimi Agbabiaka and Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe
Additional DirectionMusic Directors: Matt Fukui Grandy, Sid Quinsaat.

Choreographer: Stacey Printz.

Intimacy/Fight Choreographer: Carla Pantoja.
Production DatesThru Nov 5th
Production AddressZ Space Steindler Theater SF, CA
WebsiteBoxoffice@zspace.org
Telephone(415) 626-0453
Tickets$0-$50 (Sliding scale)
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Lucky Penny Stages Gruesome Favorite in “Sweeney Todd”

By Cari Lynn Pace

Stephen Sondheim wrote this dark and diabolical opera of an obsessed barber’s revenge gone amuck. It won multiple Tony awards including best musical, despite having only a few memorable songs such as “Pretty Women” and “(Nothing’s Going to Harm You) Not While I’m Around.”

Director/choreographer Staci Arriaga teamed up with costume designer Barbara McFadden to handle the dark tale with a minimal set but a talented cast. They make admirable use of the intimate 99-seat theatre with solo musicians set here and there, both onstage and off.

Sondheim’s dark tale takes center state at Lucky Penny.

Throughout the performance, actors appear from the back, sides and front, all the while singing in cockney patois. Makeup designer Brette Bartolucci worked overtime to fashion the faces of actors who sweep through the fog reciting the malevolent background story.

Lucky Penny Productions considers itself lucky indeed to mount this show after a forced two-year break due to Covid.

It’s decaying and corrupt 19th century London. Haughty politicians and desperate vagrants line the streets. A brooding sailor looms over the crowd, calling himself Sweeney Todd (Ian Elliott). His friend and shipmate Anthony (Ethan Thomas) does his best to include Todd in the activities, but Todd has other ideas in mind. He’s escaped a prison colony, sent there to pave the way for the seduction of Todd’s innocent wife. He is informed that she took poison rather than succumb.

Todd is a talented barber who captures the admiration of the street scene by challenging the local barber and swaggering mountebank Aldolfo (Jeremy Kreamer) to a shave-off.  The young assistant Tobias (charmingly done by Tuolumne Bunter) adroitly aligns himself with Todd when Todd wins the match.

Todd is swept into the entreating clutches of Mrs. Lovett (a brash role well handled by Taylor Bartolucci),  the widow pie-maker. She sets him up with a shop above her pie store, giving him the set of knives he once owned. Todd’s rival barber visits and makes the mistake of challenging Todd. Big mistake. He becomes a body for disposal. Since meat is in short supply, crafty Mrs. Lovett spots the opportunity to grind some fresh for her pies. Mrs. Lovett earns customers while Todd bides his time for revenge on the lecherous Judge (David Murphy) and his cohort Beedle Bramford (splendidly done by Sean O’Brien.)

Heaping more darkness on the bleak plot, Todd finds that his baby Johanna (Kirstin Pieschke) is now grown and a ward of the very judge who lusted after Todd’s wife. The libidinous judge is now focused on pursuing the daughter. Todd isn’t happy. He bides his time in fury waiting for the judge to come for a shave.

Sweeny Todd cast at work. Photo by Lucky Penny.
Sweeny Todd cast at work. Photo by Lucky Penny.

If it isn’t obvious, note that Sweeney Todd; The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has social elements which make it inappropriate for children. A young boy about age 12 who sat next to me laughed at some of the body dumping, as did many in the audience. The only gasps came when Todd had his own wife in the chair. No spoilers here, but this show doesn’t have a happy ending.

The show possesses sufficient twists and turns in the plot to keep the audience engaged. Sondheim’s songs and rapid-fire lyrics are a real challenge; a few audience members commented that they couldn’t follow all of the story. It’s classic Sondheim, with what some describe as “too many words.”

The show is well-cast and meticulously timed with many entrances and exits. It is a perfectly macabre show for the season.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. 

 

 

ProductionSweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Written byStephen Sondheim
Directed byStaci Arriaga
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru Nov 6th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$32-$43
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Thrilling “Jagged Little Pill” Triumphs in SF

By Sue Morgan

Like Alanis Morissette’s raw 1995 alt-rock/grunge album, which sold over 33 million copies, Jagged Little Pill can resonate long after the performance is over. The production shines unrelenting light on the often hidden or denied reality of human life. A week later, Morisette’s songs and images from the performance continue to play in my mind.

Diablo Cody (winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Screenplay for Juno) won the 2021 Tony award for Best Book of a Musical for Jagged Little Pill. Cody could have safely chosen to simply showcase Morissette’s music and lyrics in a standard jukebox musical, but instead elevated them with brilliant subtlety by creating a story using the dramatic archetype of the outwardly perfect family’s inward unraveling. She set the action in provincial whitebread Connecticut reinforcing the universality of the experience, rather than perpetuating the stereotype that life’s baser experiences occur only in impoverished places.

(L to R) Heidi Blickenstaff, Allison Sheppard and Jena VanElslander in the North American Tour of JAGGED LITTLE PILL. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The story line focuses on the Healy family, a privileged group comprised of mom, Mary Jane, “MJ,” (Heidi Blickenstaff) a perfectionista, universally envied for her seemingly charmed life; dad, Steve (Chris Hoch), a corporate attorney who works 60 hours per week; son, Nick (Dillon Klena), who succeeds at every endeavor and has just been accepted to Harvard; and adopted daughter, Frankie (Lauren Chanel), who feels unseen within her family and is in a romantic relationship with her best friend, Jo (Jade McLeod).

…The women of JLP have the most powerful roles…

Some have criticized the playwright for piling too many “hot button” topics into one show. Cody pulls off the magic trick of invoking addiction, sexuality, alienation, rape (and the culture of disbelieving/blaming/shaming the victim), perfectionism, workaholism, and betrayal—issues that are all too commonplace—all while eliciting empathy, compassion, and ultimately, a sense of redemption, rather than judgment, ennui or despair.

Set pieces – living room, kitchen, classroom, hospital room, etc. – glide on and off stage, while a few elements are assisted by actors, but the pieces de resistance are the gorgeous screen projections that instantly, and to excellent effect, turn each setting into its intended location or accentuate a mood or aesthetic.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s astonishing choreography melds seamlessly with Tom Kitt’s musical arrangements which, together, nearly capture the intensity of Morissette’s album. The feral, seemingly unselfconscious, yet clearly precise, hip-hop movements recalled the cathartic vitality of early moshpit melees.

Two of the most astonishing numbers were expressionistic compositions performed by Jena VanElslander who mirrored both Mary Jane’s and Bella’s sexual assualts. VanElslander’s portrayal of the intoxicated victims of “date rape” was stunning in its technical virtuosity but also in its ability to make us viscerally feel the confusion, fear, disbelief and despair of the characters. I literally stopped breathing during the performances.

The women of JLP have the most powerful roles. Heidi Blickenstaff was perfection as Mary Jane, looking every bit the preppy soccer mom, even as she sidled into back alleys to await her drug dealer, whom she tried, unsuccessfully, to engage in small talk. Blickenstaff’s gorgeous and powerful voice was able to capture Morisette’s intensity, if not entirely her rawness. Her head-to-head battle with Lauren Chanel’s Frankie during “All I Really Want” was a fiercely poignant way to highlight the mutual sense of alienation felt by this mother and daughter.

Allison Sheppard and the North American Touring Company of JAGGED LITTLE PILL. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Allison Sheppard as Bella was riveting in her performance of “Predator,” and did an outstanding job portraying Bella’s initial sense of self-loathing, gradually transforming into righteous indignation. The night’s show-stopper was “You Oughta Know,” performed by Jade McLeod, as Jo, who had half the audience on their feet as she belted out Morissette’s anthem to romantic betrayal. Both McLeod and Chanel more than held their own with the dancers in the troupe.

Jagged Little Pill may be the beginning of a trend in which jukebox musicals deal capably with grittier aspects of life. I salute Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, Diablo Cody, Diane Paulus, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Tom Kitt and the rest of the creative team for making it beautiful, powerful and moving, while also making it real. Given the opportunity, I would gladly see it again.

Performance is 2 1/2 hours with one 15 minute intermission. Masks are not required, but strongly recommended.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

ProductionJagged Little Pill
Written byDiablo Cody
Directed byDiane Paulus
Producing CompanyGolden Gate Theatre
Production DatesThrough November 6th
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$66 – $157
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Cinnabar Theater’s Outrageous “Misery”

By Barry Willis

A delightfully unexpected update to Stephen King’s novel—and the 1990 movie of the same name, starring Kathy Bates and James Caan—Cinnabar’s production mines the humor that’s long lain fallow in William Goldman’s adaptation.

As Annie Wilkes, North Bay theater veteran Mary Gannon Graham proves she’s lost nothing in the four-plus years she’s been away from the stage. Her last appearance was in Cinderella at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, and she brings plenty of pent-up energy to the part of an obsessed literary fan who rescues her favorite novelist from an auto accident that’s broken both his legs and done some serious damage to one shoulder.

… “Misery” is perfectly creepy, and abundantly appropriate for the Halloween season…

Edward McCloud has the difficult role of the mostly-bedridden Paul Sheldon, who regains consciousness in a bedroom in Annie’s isolated farm house. He’s thankful to be alive but soon learns that his rescuer has an agenda for him that he probably can’t fulfill. The author of many “Misery” books depicting the life of a fictional 19th-century heroine named Misery Chastain, Sheldon’s reached the end of the series, and carries the manuscript for the final installment with him.

Mary Gannon Graham as Annie Wilkes. Photography by Victoria Von Thal

It’s a discovery of enormous excitement for Annie, and also a cause of enormous dismay when she reads ahead and discovers that Misery will meet her ultimate end. This cannot do—she’s the self-proclaimed #1 fan of both the author and his most famous character—and to thwart it, she embarks on a program of limited physical rehabilitation and enforced rewriting for Paul, who’s cut off from all communication with the outside world.

It’s mid-winter, the surrounding countryside is buried in snow, and no one knows where he is. The good-natured local sheriff (Kellie Donnelly) comes around a couple of times, asking Annie some basic questions, and goes away believing that she knows nothing. McCloud effectively conveys Sheldon’s pain and anxiety. It’s actually excruciating to see him fall out of bed and try his best to find an escape.

Paul Sheldon (Edward McCloud) recovers in bed. Photo by Victoria Von Thal

Graham rides an emotional roller-coaster as the obsessed Annie, overjoyed to have rescued her favorite author, and honored to be caring for him, but interpreting the literary rescue of Misery as a mandate from heaven. She’ll do whatever it takes to get Paul to do her bidding. Her obsessions run in multiple directions, as do her emotional reactions and haphazard-but-somehow-logical manipulations of Paul. Her scenes are comedic riots.

Director Tim Kniffin has found new treasures in this timeless tale, and gets the absolute most from his three-actor cast. Set designer Brian Watson’s farmhouse works perfectly as the hidden locale where truly horrific and hilarious shenanigans take place, enhanced by Wayne Hovey’s moody lighting.

Misery is perfectly creepy, and abundantly appropriate for the Halloween season.

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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

 

ProductionMisery
Written byStephen King, adapted by William Goldman
Directed byTim Kniffin
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Oct 30th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “Dunsinane”: Unusual Undertaking for Marin Theatre Company

By Barry Willis

Theatergoers with an appetite for the unusual have until October 16 to see David Grieg’s Dunsinane at Marin Theatre Company.

A sequel to Shakespeare’s Macbeth that extends the original story without further illumination, MTC’s nearly three-hour production takes the bold approach of combining top-tier Equity actors with high school drama students from Mill Valley’s nearby Tamalpais High School. The student actors mostly appear as English and Scottish soldiers identifiable by red (English) or blue (Scottish) emblems on their vests—interchangeable as scenes demand, and perfectly in keeping with the old adage that wars are fought by the young, poor, and disenfranchised for the benefit of the old, rich, and powerful.

Aldo Billingslea in MTC’s “Dunsinane.” Photo by Kevin Berne.

None of Grieg’s poor young soldiers seem to have any idea what they are fighting for, nor why they are hiking around in some of the most inhospitable country imaginable. On the other hand, their respective leaders—Siward (Aldo Billingslea), an easy-going, rational English general, and Scottish queen Gruach (Lisa Anne Porter)—have some solid motivations. Gruach, known in the original as the avaricious Lady Macbeth, has a son by her deceased husband that she would like to see installed on the Scottish throne. Siward would like to put an end to the pointless bloodshed and initiate a lasting peace, even if doing so requires more bloodshed. That’s how the human animal behaves.

…inexplicability can…be quite entertaining…

It’s a good dramatic setup, and MTC’s superb cast goes at it with enthusiasm and plenty of wooden poles that serve as spears, swords, and knives. The modern-language script owes much to Shakespeare’s orgies of ruling-class bloodletting—King Lear and Hamlet, but especially, of course, to Macbeth.

The reasons for the struggle for the Scottish throne aren’t clear, but neither are most of reasons for most of the real wars that have plagued humankind since the beginning of time. They’re all about slaughtering infidels for the glory of an imagined deity, defeating this monarch and installing another one, pushing a border this way or that, or claiming some resource at the cost of thousands of lives to benefit an unborn generation, or in the case of Dunsinane, control of a castle. It’s inexplicable.

Aldo Billingslea (left) and Lisa Anne Porter in Marin Theatre Company’s “Dunsinane.” Phone by Kevin Berne.

But inexplicability can also be quite entertaining. In that, MTC’s Dunsinane succeeds well if not wildly. Billingslea and Porter are excellent, as are theater veteran Michael Ray Wisely as Macduff, and Tam High student Jack Hochschild as The Boy Soldier, who delivers a quite moving closing monolog as snow falls around him and the lights slowly fade (lights and projections by Mike Post).

The show benefits from a single austere set by director Jasson Minidakis and Jeff Klein, and gorgeous music by Chris Houston and Penina Goddessmen. Shakespeare enthusiasts may be especially intrigued by Dunisnane, a rare Shakespearean follow-up that’s not a spoof.

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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

 

ProductionDunsinane
Written byDavid Greig
Directed byJasson Minadakis and Rob Lufty
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Oct. 16th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$25 – $65
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ All the Right Notes: MMTC’s Raunchy “Rocky Horror Picture Show”

By Sue Morgan

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been an audience favorite since it first premiered in London 49 years ago. The production made its US debut in Los Angeles in 1974.

Rocky pays sexually lurid and comical homage to science fiction and horror B movies of the 1930s-60s. After a film version was released in 1975, some independent and art-house theatres began a tradition of showing the film on a weekly basis, usually at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Audience members came dressed as their favorite characters and stood in front of the screen, performing in tandem with the film’s characters, while other members of the audience threw rice and toilet paper and sprayed one another with squirt guns (among other antics) inspired by the action onscreen. Both the film and theatrical versions are often resurrected – pun intended – around Halloween.

…a high energy romp…

The plot follows virginal and naïve newly engaged couple Brad and Janet who, after a flat tire on a stereotypically dark and stormy night, seek assistance at the nearest location, a creepy and foreboding mansion. Arriving drenched and more than a little afraid, they’re greeted at the door by butler-cum-ghoul Riff Raff who lures them into the dwelling with the promise of using the phone.

Mayhem ensues as the master of the house Dr. Frank-N-Furter, mad scientist and self-proclaimed “transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania,” replete in corset, fishnet stockings and outlandishly high heels, appears and invites Brad and Janet to his lab where, he sings, “I’ve been making a man with blond hair and a tan, and he’s good for relieving my tension.” The Frankensteinian man in question is the titular Rocky Horror.

The Marin Musical Theatre Company’s production – performed at Novato Theatre Company – is a high energy romp with exuberantly exaggerated simulated sex acts not at all appropriate for children, but very entertaining for mature audiences, especially those who appreciate camp with a capital C.

Photos by Jere Torkelsen

The show begins with a costume contest (winners get a brief cameo in the production) after which cast members give the audience a dance lesson to induct those new to Rocky into the fine art of performing the “Time Warp,” a raucous number involving expansive gesticulations and pelvic thrusts. The audience is also apprised of the tradition of spectators to heckle the actors during the production by shouting out prescribed and extemporaneous responses prompted by names of characters and other trigger words spoken by members of the cast. These proceedings successfully elevated the energy level in the house, ensuring the audience was excited for what was to come.

The cast was cohesive and mostly convincing in their respective roles. Stephen Kanaski did an outstanding job as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, combining seething sexual panache with the ability to strut like a runway model in ridiculously high heels. Added bonus: he can sing like there’s no tomorrow.

Sleiman El-Ahmadieh nailed his character, Brad, whose awakening from naivety to carnal rapture – and also his transformation from nerdy wimp to insatiable stud – were a pleasure to watch, and among the highlights of the show. Jenny Boynton’s voice and mannerisms were just right for Janet. Standouts characters include the Narrator (sultry Shayla Lawlor), Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s servant Columbia (Harriet Pearl Fugitt), and Magenta (Anna Vorperian), incestuous sibling of Riff Raff (Nelson Brown ). They all did fine work anchoring each scene with their sexy antics and wonderful vocal abilities.

Brown was appropriately creepy as Frank-N-Furter’s handyman/henchman, especially when fondling his sibling, Magenta. Ken Adams showed his wonderful versatility as wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott and biker/rocker/undead lover of Columbia, Eddie. Had I not anticipated having Rocky portrayed as a muscle-bound blond god in gold lame briefs, I would have loved Anne Clark’s female version, with her vacuous physicality and almost innocent sexuality. Ensemble members added a wonderful energy and vitality to the overall production. The addition of their voices helped each song reach an almost fever pitch of intensity.

“Rocky Horror” cast at work! Photos by Jere Torkelsen

Jenny Boynton’s spot-on choice of actors and direction made the production sizzle, as did Katie Wickes’ choreography. The spare setting worked within the parameters of the production. Daniel Savio’s musical direction was on point and all members of the band performed well. Krista Lee’s costuming was wonderfully true to the original show and film. Sound mixing by Simon Eves and lighting design by Michael Kessell lent a wonderful sinister ambience to the production.

Audience members are encouraged to dress in costume, to contribute to heckling the cast, and are given a list of suggested items to bring to the show in order to fully immerse themselves in the Rocky Horror Show experience. If you love over-the-top, sexually explicit, profanity-laced, hard-rocking theatre this show is for you!

Masks and proof of vaccination are required. Remember, no children allowed!

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

ProductionThe Rocky Horror Show!
Written byRichard O’Brien
Directed byJenny Boynton
Producing CompanyMarin Musical Theater Company
Production DatesThru Oct. 31st
Production AddressNovato Theatre Co.
5420 Nave Dr. Novato, CA 94949
Websitewww.marinmusicals.org
Telephone---
Tickets$35 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Coastal Rep’s Engrossing “Murder on the Nile”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Who doesn’t love a “whodunit?” Audiences revel in the idea of trying to figure out which one of a number of suspects is the culprit. And who is the Queen of that genre? Agatha Christie, of course.

Director Brad Friedman and Coastal Repertory Theatre in Half Moon Bay figured it was a safe bet that audiences would find Murder on the Nile a fine way to spend three hours.

It most definitely is.

Though that pillar of Christie books Hercule Poirot appears in this one as well, Agatha herself decided that he had no place in the stage play.  But one of the play’s characters, Canon Pennefather (played to perfection by Louis Schilling), is the closest thing to a Poirot surrogate as possible – and it’s much easier to understand him!

…there’s plenty of murder, mayhem and mystery…

A week or so before opening night, this production caught a bad break when Carolyn Ford Compton, set to play the part of Miss Foliot-Foulkes, spent several days in the hospital and had to bow out. Her role was taken over by Nancy Martin, a seasoned actress who taught high school drama for 19 years and has performed in many area productions.

Martin was commendable as Miss F-F, but a shade too severe and wore a stern frown in nearly every scene. Still, on quick notice, her effort is admirable.

Amy Stringer brings the exact amount of agita to her role as the jilted woman, Jacqueline De Severac, whose fiancé, Simon Mostyn (a somewhat miscast Rob Hedges) breaks off their engagement when he falls for Jackie’s best friend, the rich beauty Kay Mostyn (Allison Gamlen).

Though she’s only in a few scenes, Gamlen makes an indelible impression with her savoir faire, attractiveness, permed hair wig and gorgeous costumes (the work of Michele Parry and her assistant, Sue Joswiak).

The cast overall is strong, including Janelle Aguirre as Louise Bourget, who works for the story’s small river cruise company and attempts to keep her small cadre of guests happy while onboard the S.S. Lotus. Alex Bloom is youthfully perfect as Christina Grant, the niece of the hyper-critical Miss F-F, always trying to please her – a task too Herculean for anyone.

Johnny Villar as William Smith, seemingly the only guest who doesn’t come from money, starts out as a milquetoast – or even a gold-digger when he starts flirting with Christina – but he, too, isn’t really who he appears to be.

As the German doctor, Dr. Bessner, Amnon Levy provides a very-authentic sounding accent and a seriousness about all the murder attempts in the play. Greet Jaspaert as Mrs. McNaught, Kay’s maid, seems somewhat miscast, though she tries hard to fit in.

R. Dutch Fritz uses the wide CRT stage to good advantage, giving it the appearance of one end of a river boat with six large windows at the back of the set, doors to cabins on each side of the set and a few accoutrements of Egypt like a wall hanging and period sconces. The wicker furniture at the front of the stage looks right at home in Egypt’s heat and humidity. Opposite is a long bar, a period radio and some kind of Egyptian bird on the wall. Persian rugs are scattered around the two-level set with long white curtains tied back on the windows so the blue sky is visible to all.

Lighting by Carson Duper is fine, and Kristin Pearson’s sound design is pitch perfect. Nearly every word was easily understandable from the first- to the top- row of seats.

Interestingly, CRT’s Murder has two intermissions and is presented in three acts, although some are much shorter than others. Overall, there’s plenty of murder, mayhem and mystery to keep the audience’s attention. Many walk away asking each other: “Did you figure out who the real murderer was?”

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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

 

ProductionMurder on the Nile
Written byAgatha Christie
Directed byBrad Friedman
Producing CompanyCoastal Repertory Co.
Production DatesThrough Oct. 23. No performances Pumpkin Festival Weekend (Oct. 14 - 16)
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
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!
ASR Editorial's Special Thanks!Footlighters Co.

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ A Spin on “The Moors” at MSW

By Sue Morgan

If the Bronte sisters and Alfred Hitchcock had a love child, they would produce The Moors, currently playing through October 23rd at Main Stage West in Sebastopol.

An absurdist gothic romance/surrealistic existential dreamscape/satiric black comedy by playwright Jen Silverman, the story is set in an eerie mansion on the desolate and windswept English moors, ̀a la the Brontes and involves gaslighting, madness and mayhem ̀a la Hitchcock.

…Intentionally lugubrious in tone, the plot is best left undescribed…

Silverman manages to elicit amusement, horror, compassion, revulsion, revelation, tension and relief from her audience and does so using characters as disparate as a scullery maid/parlor maid (Marjory/Mallory), a dominating house Mistress (Agatha), and her flibbertigibbet younger sister (Huldey), a hapless governess (Emilie), a bullied and lonely mastiff, and a wounded Moorhen. Branwell, the purportedly physically and sexually violent brother of Agatha and Huldey, is locked in the attic and never seen, nor heard. “Branwell” is the middle name of the Bronte sisters’ real-life brother.

Taylor Diffenderfer and Madison Scarborough in “The Moors” — Photo/Main Stage West

Intentionally lugubrious in tone, the plot is best left undescribed, as watching it unfold is a wonder to behold. Silverman is a master of imagination and one of the things I love most about her plays is being unable to anticipate what lies ahead.

The entire ensemble is excellent in their respective roles, and I can’t say any one performance outshone the others. Director James Pelican did an outstanding job of accentuating the outlandish with subtlety, which somehow increased the merriment while deepening the sense of foreboding.

The Moors is not for everyone, but those who enjoy a dark satirical farce (as I do) will have plenty to talk about with their friends after the show.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

ProductionThe Moors
Written byJen Silverman
Directed byJames Pelican
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Oct. 23, 2022
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Cabaret” a Stunner at 6th Street Playhouse

By Barry Willis

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse is the latest theater company to tackle Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, a musical now in its 56th year. Having missed one weekend due to a Covid outbreak, the 6th Street production runs through October 16th.

A sugar-coated cautionary tale, the 1972 film version firmly established the show in pop culture. Many people know its songs without understanding that the show itself is far more than a lightweight romp through the decadent underworld of Weimar Republic Berlin. The story’s late 1930s time frame isn’t specific, but encompasses the rise of the Germany’s Nazi party and its increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. It’s often forgotten that the Nazi party was democratically elected. By 1933 it was the most powerful political organization in Germany.

Directed by Jared Sakren, this Cabaret is a compelling musical drama with moments of great hilarity as the wraith-like Emcee (the superb Michael Strelo-Smith) welcomes us into the Kit Kat Club, a dingy dive that’s a mainstay of Berlin’s entertainment underground.

The cast of 6th Street’s “Cabaret” at work. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

The primary plot revolves around an itinerant American novelist, Cliff Bradshaw (Damion Matthews)) befriended by German businessman Ernst Ludwig (Izaak Heath) on a train ride into Berlin. Ludwig knows the city intimately, and introduces Bradshaw to the club and to Fraulein Schneider (Ginger Beavers), proprietor of a rooming house where he takes up residence.

At the club he meets a self-centered British songbird named Sally Bowles (Erin Rose Solorio). The two of them are soon deeply but contentiously involved. Solorio plays Bowles as she is usually depicted—a ditzy performer whose only concern is occupying the spotlight, who cares nothing for politics or for the great upheaval ahead, provoking Bradshaw’s enormous frustration.

A secondary love story involves Fraulein Schneider and fruit seller Herr Schultz (Dwayne Stincelli), both of them in late middle age and deeply in love. The relationship between Bradshaw and Bowles is increasingly rocky and ultimately doomed, but it’s the fate of Schneider and Schultz that fascinates an audience.

One of only three characters in the play who comprehend the inevitability and threat of the approaching storm—the other two are Bradshaw and Ludwig—Schneider backs out of a late-in-life wedding, hoping to survive by keeping her head down and avoiding the ire of Nazis. Beavers is heart-breaking as Schneider, with a soaring voice capable of rattling the walls.

Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Amid the merriment, the Nazi movement rises from potential menace to full tsunami, symbolized by a moment when the charming Herr Ludwig comes out of the political closet sporting a Nazi armband. Heath is very good as the villainous but totally likeable true believer.

Fraulein Schneider vows that maintaining a low profile will insure her survival; while Bradshaw tries desperately to get Bowles to leave Berlin with him—before it’s too late. Too addicted to minor league stardom to consider going elsewhere, she stays behind when he escapes to Paris. Herr Schultz is similarly clueless, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first.

…a compelling musical drama with moments of great hilarity…

What hooks many first-time visitors to Cabaret isn’t necessarily the morality play but the show-within-a-show at the Kit Kat Klub. Stelo-Smith is spectacular throughout, as are the dancers and the live music from a strong eight-piece band led by Nate Riebli. Tara Roberts is solid as Fraulein Kost, a resident of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house, who makes her living entertaining sailors by the hour. She’s also one of the standout Kit Kat dancers. Devin Parker Sullivan, also a Kit Kat dancer, concocted some difficult but stunning choreography for the troupe of nine Kit Kat girls and boys.

A half-century after its debut, not much about this show will seem shocking other than its enduring message. The parallels with Trump’s MAGA movement, the January 6 insurrection—and our distraction by ephemeral entertainment—are, sadly, all too clear.

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ASR NorCal 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

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byMusic by John Kander and Fred Ebb

Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed byJared Sakren

Music Direction by Nate Riebli
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough October16th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35 – $48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Moors”: a Brontean Treat at Main Stage West

By Mitchell Field

When attractive young Emilie (Katherine Rupers), arrives to take a governess position and perhaps find love at a manor house on the foggy Brontean English moors, instead of encountering any children (nor indeed her possible suitor, a Mr. Branwell, who has apparently been writing her increasingly romantic recruitment letters), she finds instead his two odd sisters, the older starched-and-strict Agatha (Brenda Reed) and Huldey (Madison Scarbrough), the younger lonely scattered diary-scribbler.

The sisters are served by a grumpy, typhus-ridden and perhaps pregnant scullery-maid named Margory (Taylor Diffenderfer), mysteriously named Mallory when she acts as the parlor-maid in the house where little is as it appears.

Cast of “the Moors” at work.

Indeed, during the ponderous first act of The Moors, Jen Silverman’s beautifully crafted, pitch-black absurdist romance, even the home’s rooms take on different names and functions, while Emilie wanders about the house in her own foggy haze, trying to figure out what’s going on and whatever happened to Mr. Branwell, who’s purportedly “unavailable” in the attic. While Agatha has her own reason for wanting Emilie around, her woman-child sister Huldey appears willing to consider murder to get the attention she craves.

…Silverman’s delightfully quirky play about love and loneliness…

There are two other characters in the play, the home’s desolate, browbeaten dog “The Mastiff” (Kevin Bordi) who conducts a love-affair with an injured Moorhen (Nora Summers) although precisely what this charming and heartbreaking story-line has to do with the play’s plot is also murky. But no matter.

Kevin Biordi as the Mastiff in “The Moors” at Main Stage West

The second act of The Moors figuratively burns down the house as all hell breaks loose in director James Pelican’s cleverly-staged production on David Lear’s sumptuous set, featuring Tracy Hinman’s period-perfect costuming.

In Silverman’s delightfully quirky play about love and loneliness, every one of Main Stage West’s perfectly-balanced cast-members turns in a tremendous performance. When was the last time you were brought to tears by a lonely dog’s inner feelings or charmed by a skittish Moorhen with a game leg due to a poor sense of direction?

Reed’s Agnes is as frosty as ice and more brittle, even while talking love. Rupers is sexy yet sweetly naive as Emilie, until she isn’t, while negotiating her future real-estate, Diffenderfer’s Margery/Mallory is deliciously sly and as dry as the dust she sweeps, while Scarborough’s Huldey absolutely kills it with a hilarious yet completely unexpected cabaret-style song.

The New York Times called The Moors — “Truly clever and intelligent, You really ought to see this.” This reviewer agrees completely.

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Mitchell Field is a Sr. Contributing Writer for Aisle Seat Review. Based in Marin County, Mr. Field is an actor and voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: mitchfield@aol.com

 

ProductionThe Moors
Written byJen Silverman
Directed byJames Pelican
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Oct. 23, 2022
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Sorkin’s “Mockingbird” Fails to Sing at Golden Gate Theatre

By Sue Morgan

Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird played a pivotal role in awakening the social consciousness of countless Americans as they studied the story in middle school and high school English classrooms across the nation. It holds a secure place, among others, at the very top of the Western literary pedestal as it tackled, with clear-eyed accuracy, the issue of racial injustice in this country.

Award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, among many others) said he knew when he was asked to adapt Mockingbird for the stage, that “…there was no way I could get out alive.” Despite his early trepidation, Sorkin’s adaptation was a Broadway hit and has gone on to tour the country. It’s playing through October 9th at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco.

…the national touring production in San Francisco felt tone deaf and oddly flat…

Sorkin did not have free rein in reimagining the story. His earliest attempt raised the ire of the Lee estate, which launched a lawsuit contending that the playwright had gone too far in modifying both the character and behavior of beloved Atticus Finch, the story’s kind-hearted, principled lawyer, played in the national touring production by Richard Thomas.

Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”) and The Company of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

To move forward with the adaptation, Sorkin had to tone down his initial vision to meet the conditions set out in the suit. Given those constraints and believing that the original story, first published in 1960, did not stand the test of time, Sorkin made Atticus the primary protagonist, and dispersed the duty of narrator among Scout (Melanie Moore), her brother Jem (Justin Mark) and their friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson).

He also gave additional voice to Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), the Finch family maid, and to Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), a black man unjustly accused of rape by a white woman.

While this sounds reasonable in theory, to this reviewer the national touring production in San Francisco felt tone deaf and oddly flat, despite its fraught content and the beautiful careening of Scout about the stage.

Melanie Moore (“Scout Finch”). Photo by: J. Cervantes.

Sorkin stated in an interview that, “Using black characters simply as atmosphere in 2022, it’s not only noticeable, but more importantly, it’s a waste because these two characters’ voices should be heard.” Sorkin therefore gave Calpurnia a few lines in which she was able to vent her feelings about Atticus’ philosophy of treating everyone (including rabid bigots) with respect, and her resentment of being expected to be sufficiently grateful to Atticus for agreeing to represent Tom Robinson in the first place.

These sentiments were no doubt in play in the minds of subjugated peoples at the time the novel was written, but Harper Lee understood that a black servant in 1936 Alabama would not have risked speaking them aloud to any white person, no matter how kindly they appeared to be. She was not using her black characters as “atmosphere,” but was accurately portraying their inability to give voice to their own inner fury for fear of risking their lives.

Melanie Moore (“Scout Finch”) and Jacqueline Williams (“Calpurnia”). Photo: J. Cervantes.

A lot a mansplaining took place, particularly around every potentially poignant moment. When Tom Robinson explained that he helped his accuser with her chores because he felt sorry for her, Sorkin had Atticus explain to the jury that Tom Robinson knew that it wasn’t appropriate for a black man to express feeling sorry for (and therefore, superior to) a white woman, but did so anyway as a means of reclaiming his own sense of dignity. These sorts of heavy-handed explanations felt unnecessary and contrived.

In terms of direction, there was also a strange sense of disconnect when the character Boo Radley was played by the same actor (Travis Johns) who earlier played Mr. Cunningham (to very good effect). Because no attempt was made to alter his appearance from that of the previous character, it felt somewhat confusing to see him appear from behind a door when those who were familiar with the novel were expecting Radley. Had there been obvious previous instances of someone playing multiple characters, it may have worked but, as that was not the case, it just seemed odd.

Sorkin added humor to the production. While there were many humorous scenes in the novel, they were primarily centered on the antics of the children and felt organic and in context. Sorkin’s humor involved jokes (Dill explaining that he won Jem’s pants playing strip poker, “but only with the men”) and exaggerated facial expressions by Calpurnia, meant to evoke laughs, which felt not only inappropriate, but almost obscene to this viewer as they appeared meant to convey her exasperation (rather than anger) with what the white folk were saying now.

It was as if Sorkin forgot that the piece is a drama. Or perhaps he couldn’t imagine a contemporary audience having the fortitude to hold space for the unrelenting injustice unfolding before them. Whatever his motivation, it undermined what should have been a roiling sense of outrage at the conclusion of the play. Instead we are left with a mild and wholly bearable sadness.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

ProductionTo Kill a Mockingbird
Written byAdapted by Aaron Sorkin from the Harper Lee original
Directed byBartlett Sher
Producing CompanyNational Touring Production / Broadway SF
Production DatesThrough Oct 9th
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$56 – $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Theatre Time Capsule: “Indecent” at SF Playhouse, Best/Worst of History & Hope

By Cari Lynn Pace

San Francisco Playhouse’s play-about-a-play is both an historical recounting and a peek into theatre of today. Nominated for three Tony Awards, “Indecent” marks the Bay Area premier of this critically acclaimed work by Paula Vogel.

Director Susi Damilano staged this production with a skillful hand and an eye toward authenticity, expertly aided by the Yiddish Theatre Ensemble. The changes in place and time come together swiftly in this two-hour production, spanning the first half of the 20th century. Many stop-action tableaux are used to stunning effect, moving the scenes forward as the actors shift years. Three musicians led by Dmitri Gaskin lend joyful klezmer-infused songs onstage as actors intermittently dance and sing.

The set by Richard Olmsted is an open frame where props, costumes, lights, and actors wait on the sides until needed. “Indecent” action centers inside the frame as the narrator, the Yiddish theater company stage manager Lemml (Dean Linnard) begins telling the story to the audience. He’s backed by a solid wall punctuating the actors’ dialog as it flips from Yiddish to German to English and back again.

“…it became the first Yiddish play to be translated into multiple languages and staged across Europe”

“Indecent” follows the true 1906 saga of a young Jewish playwright, Sholem Asch (Billy Cohen), who vainly attempted to have the Polish literati support his new play “The God of Vengeance.” Soundly rejected by rivals in Warsaw for the “immoral and indecent” themes contained, Asch took the play to various international cities, starting with Berlin, to great acclaim.

Set in a Jewish community in Poland, it became the first Yiddish play to be translated into multiple languages and staged across Europe. It was controversial with its themes of sex, lesbianism, a brothel side business, hypocrisy, and the desecration of a Torah scroll. “God of Vengeance” was highly acclaimed and mightily condemned for 17 years. It enjoyed a successful international run until it reached New York City.

Lemml (Dean Linnard*, center) introduces the troupe (L-R): Mayer Balsam (Matthew Stein), on violin , Nelly Friedman (Audrey Jackson), on clarinet, Halina (Rivka Borek*), Mendel (Ted Zoldan), Chana (Malka Wallick*), Avram (Billy Cohen*), Moriz Godowsky (Dmitri Gaskin), on accordion, Otto (Victor Talmadge*), and Vera (Rachel Botchan*). Production photography by Jessica Palopoli for ‘Indecent’ by Paula Vogel at SF Playhouse.

In 1922 “God of Vengeance” was translated to English and premiered in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The controversial buzz—and the police—were waiting when the play opened in NYC the following year. The producer and entire cast were busted for “unlawfully advertising, giving, presenting and participating in an obscene, indecent, immoral and impure drama or play.” Their arrest and the fallout through 1953 form the basis for “Indecent,” which playwright Vogel has captured with astounding sadness, madness, and hope.

Interestingly, “Indecent” reveals it was the local NY rabbi who lodged the obscenity charges against the solidly Jewish playwright. Although overturned two years later, the charges altered the lives of all concerned. Eugene O’Neill(also Billy Cohen), a defender of the play, shares a cameo part onstage with an older Asch (Victor Talmadge) when he commiserates that “Every religion, even Jews, sells God for a price.”

The troupe makes its long journey to America. Photo by Jessica Palopoli for ‘Indecent’ by Paula Vogel at San Francisco Playhouse.

“Indecent” is a time capsule bursting with the best and worst of history and hope. Playing now through November 5th, it’s a welcome opener for San Francisco Playhouse’s 20th anniversary season. They couldn’t have made a more solid choice.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. 

 

 

ProductionIndecent
Written byPaula Vogel
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse and
Yiddish Theatre Ensemble
Production DatesTue, Wed, Thu & Sun at 7:00 PM.

Fri, Sat at 8:00 PM

Sat at 3:00 PM & Sun at 2:00 PM
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2022-2023-season/indecent/
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: F-U-N!

By Sue Morgan and Barry Willis

The 50th anniversary season of Petaluma’s beloved Cinnabar Theater is off to a rowdy, rollicking start with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, “Spelling Bee” delivers an evening of light-hearted musical comedy.

In the auditorium of Putnam Valley Middle School, we meet six adolescent contestants: returning champ Charlito “Chip” Tolentino (Alejandro Eustaquio); Leaf Coneybear (Zane Walters), who designs his own clothing and spells while in a trance-like state; Marcy Park (Gabi Chun), a high-achiever who speaks six languages and for whom failure is not an option; William Morris Barfée (Trevor Hoffmann), who spells using a unique “magic foot” technique in which he writes the letters out with his foot as he recites them; Logainne “Schwartzy” Schwartzandgrubenierre (Tina Traboulsi), who spells words out on her arm before reciting them; and Olive Ostrovsky (Krista Joy Serpa), whose absent mother is on a nine-month-long spiritual retreat in India. Olive anxiously awaits the arrival of her father as she has not yet paid the entrance fee.

…”Spelling Bee” is not to be missed. Get tickets now! We mean it!

Each child – excepting Leaf – has won an individual school’s bee. The pressure is on-they’re vying for the chance to go to the national competition in Washington, DC.

“Spelling Bee” cast at work. Photo courtesy Cinnabar Theater.

The Putnam County event is hosted by a former Spelling Bee champion, and now the county’s top realtor, Rona Lisa Peretti (Karen Miles) and a dour school vice principal, Douglas Panch (John Browning). Peretti is a perky, all-smiles dynamo, while Panch is a no-nonsense adminstrator. They ride herd on a group of very smart, gregarious, and nerdy kids—and a few audience members pulled onstage, we hope not against their will.

It’s a quick-moving hilarious show backed by a great band (music directed by Bill Keck) with many intriguing subplots, lots of goofy action, and some stunning choreography by Bridget Condoni. Sam Minnifield puts in charming performance as Mitch Mahoney, a local bad boy doing his community service by helping out with the Bee. Donnie Frank’s costumes go a long way toward establishing each of the characters, all delightfully portrayed by some hugely skilled and enormously uninhibited actors. They’re all tremendous, but Trevor Hoffman, Gabi Chun, and Krista Joy Serpa are standouts. Wow!

Photo courtesy Cinnabar Theater.

Director Zachary Hasbany has coaxed the absolute maximum from a brilliant cast. The show by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn is a recurring favorite among community theater troupes, and for good reason. It’s clean, harmless, happy, and uplifting—an absolute joy from beginning to end. Did we mention incredibly clever? “Spelling Bee” is not to be missed. Get tickets now! We mean it!

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

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

 

ProductionThe 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Written byRachel Sheinkin and William Finn
Directed byZachary Hasbany
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Sept 25th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$30 – $45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Amusing Back-to-back Productions at Pear Theatre

By Joanne Engelhardt

Although the Pear Theatre in Mountain View is currently offering two 90-minute plays in repertoire through Oct. 2, one far outshines the other, most likely because one of them was written by a more experienced playwright.

Jen Silverman’s “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties” is practically a laugh-a-minute as the lives of five women all named Betty intersect with one another in the most surprising ways.

Though audience members are warned that there is some foul language and nudity in “Betty,” it’s done discreetly and is certainly appropriate for adults. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why this one-act play is so funny.

… Clearly, you can never have too many Betties in a play…

Although all five Betties are good actresses, there are two who stand out for the absurdities that come out of their mouths and their ridiculously comic actions.

Crystal Liu is Betty 2, a quiet, unassuming woman who says she has no friends and is apparently afraid to look at her own privates. She always feels left out, and in fact she is the only one left whenever the other four Betties pair up. Liu’s Betty turns to her hand to talk to her—a clever ploy that enables her to have discussions with herself. Eventually, she decides to throw a dinner party for all the Betties, and she decorates by putting out a little wading pool, blow-up float toys, and beach balls.

(L-R): Skylar Rose Adams as Betty 4, Regina Kohl as Betty 1 and Marjan Safa as Betty 5 in Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties

The other standout Betty is No. 3: Vanessa Veve Melendrez. This Betty, with an itsy-bitsy size 1 figure, decides that she’ll become a playwright, then a director, as well as the lead actor in her own play. She bosses the other Betties around with varying success, but she does it all with such a cute, dimpled smile and shimmering little gold dress, that it’s difficult not to root for her whatever she decides to do.

Skyla Rose Adams (Betty 4), Carla Dejesus (Betty 1 but subbing for an actress who was not available one weekend) and Marjan Safa (Betty 5) are all fine, though Safa’s voice was sometimes too soft to hear clearly.

Clearly, you can never have too many Betties in a play, so make plans to see it before it closes on Oct. 2

The other Pear play, “Bull in a China Shop,” written by Bryna Turner, is a hodge-podge of short scenes that sometimes didn’t track. It attempts to cover a wide swatch of history—about 30 years, not always successfully. Dejusus (again subbing for a different actress) sometimes stumbled through her lines, but since she was just appearing in a few performances, it’s hard to fault her.

(L-R): Regina Kohl as Woolley and Tannis Hanson as Marks in Bull in a China Shop

”Bull’s” other main actress, Tannis Hanson, as Jeannette Marks, was exceptional. But even with her skilled acting, it’s a difficult play to follow. Chase Kupperberg’s first-rate costume design, especially for “Bull,” adds a lot, and Tanika Baptiste does her best to direct both short plays.

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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

 

Production"Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties" *and* "Bull in a China Shop"
Written byJen Silverman / Bryna Turner
Directed &
Choreographed by
Tanika Baptiste
Producing CompanyPear Theater
Production DatesThru Oct 2nd
Production AddressPear Theater
1110 La Avenida St.
Suite A
Mountain View, CA 94043
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone650.254.1148
Tickets$35-$38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Waves of Racial Justice at Berkeley Rep

By George Maguire

There are theater pieces which resonate in such a profound place deep within the psyche that you are dwelling in your life’s past, contemplating the present, and hoping for the future.

Christina Anderson’s “The Ripple, The Wave That Carried Me Home” is just that for this writer. In it, segregated swimming pools become a touchstone for black families not allowed to swim in “whites only” pools. This memory play of a black woman spans the years 1956 in Kansas, to 1992 Ohio, and again Kansas, as Christina Clark’s Janice wrestles with a decision to return to Kansas to speak at a community center ceremony honoring her activist father.

…See this play and then look inside yourselves.

I’m an east coast boy, born and raised in the 1950s in Wilmington, Delaware and later Pittsburgh, PA. As a child and as a teenager, I knew no black families, and indeed at the Catholic grade school and high school I attended, there were no black students at all. Only when we moved to Pittsburgh for my final 12th grade, did I meet any black students, and even those were mostly bused to school from another area of town. Four years later, post university (where again I recall only one black student), I returned to my high school to teach. Much had changed. Black and Latino families were moving into the community, and their children became active participants in the school curriculum. Penn Hills, PA became a melting pot.

Memories of missed connections in retrospect created a post-show train of thought as I went home after the Berkeley Rep production, directed with precision and grand compassion by Jackson Gay.

This remarkable play opens with Janice (our narrator Christiana Clark) drinking a glass of water. She does so every day, reminding herself of the water of the pools which transformed her life. Her mother (a richly multi-faceted performance by Aneisa J. Hicks) taught swimming to black children at the black swimming pool in Brookside Center. Janice’s father (a swaggering and charm-filled Ronald L. Conner) eventually goes on trial for activism in promoting change.

(l to r) Aneisa J. Hicks (Helen), Brianna Buckley (Gayle), and Christiana Clark (Janice) in the world premiere production of Christina Anderson’s the ripple, the wave that carried me home. Directed by Jackson Gay. In association with Goodman Theatre.
Photo by Kevin Berne.

The “young chipper ambitious black woman,” played to absolute perfection by Brianna Buckley, wants Janice to speak at the dedication to her father of the new swim center’s pool. Circling all of this is the simultaneous Rodney King uprising and the death by drowning of three boys.

So many colossal matters of change in the lives of all Americans surround this period with pain, guilt—and eventual breath—making Tony nominee Christina Anderson’s play harrowing and heart wrenching. Change can happen, change MUST happen, and indeed, change has happened. The question is always: Is it enough, or is it never enough? No, it is not!

See this play and then look inside yourselves. The answers are always there waiting to be revealed.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco base 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

 

ProductionThe Ripple, The Wave That Carried Me Home
Written by / Music & Lyrics by /
Choreography by
Christina Anderson
Directed byJackson Gay
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough Oct 16th, 2022
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$24 - $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Moulin Rouge” Sizzles at the Orpheum

By George Maguire

As you enter the Orpheum Theatre, gorgeously transformed by designer Derek Lane into the Moulin Rouge, the hottest of hot spots in all of Paris, you are taken into a past of song, dance (the infamous Can-Can of course) and musical revues which had no equal.

The Moulin Rouge (“red windmill”) created itself—there was nothing like it, with its huge iconic windmill of lights, the elephant which contained rooms for the performers, and above all, the stage itself, capable of whatever the director/presenter had in mind. It was the Las Vegas of its time.

The cast of the North American Tour of Moulin Rouge! Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

“Moulin Rouge” has a story as such, based on the exquisite Baz Lurhmann juke-box musical film with its echoes of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and the bohemian life that the characters embodied. Satine (Courtney Reed), is the star of the show, the silver goddess of song. Impresario Harold Zidler (a marvelous moustache-twirling Austin Durant) introduces each act and preps us for Satine, who enters flown in on a swing. Into the fray comes a sweet and innocent songwriter (golden voiced Conor Ryan) who falls for Satine. He has one desire: to compose a love song celebrating their mutual attraction and affair.

As in all tragedies, complications ensue. The Moulin Rouge is in deep debt, and to make ends meet, Zidler coerces Satine into an affair with the very wealthy Duke of Monroth (David Harris) who promises financing as long as he “owns” not just the club but also Satine. Add to this her impending death from consumption, and we can see that the end will not be a happy one. Andre Ward does a marvelous creation of Toulouse-Lautrec.

… This is just the beginning of theater at its absolute grandest.

Then there’s the music, with non-stop modern sources including U2, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Patsy Cline, Whitney Houston’s “And I Will Always Love You” (written by Dolly Parton), the Police, Adele and scores of others. One can only imagine the performance rights being paid to composers for even snippets of their work.

Courtney Reed and Conor Ryan. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

Special mention must be made to sound designer Peter Hylenski who manages to make everything crystal clear in the barn of the Orpheum Theater, a challenge for any sound designer. Multiple Tony Award-winner Catherine Zuber has designed an array of glitzy spangled and feathered costumes which outdo themselves at every moment. Justin Townsend’s Tony-winning lighting enhances every scene with new color and jaw-dropping splendor.

With moving direction by Alex Timbers, lush choreography by Sonya Tayeh (both Tony winners for their work), this ten-time Tony Award-winning musical is simply a “Must See” for a Bay Area audience.

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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 San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionMoulin Rouge: The Musical
Written byJohn Logan
Directed byAlex Timbers
Producing CompanyBroadwaySF
Production DatesThru Nov 6, 2022
Production Address1192 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://www.broadwaysf.com/
Telephone(888) 746-1799
TicketsUp to $307 (rush tickets/discounts available)
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ CenterRep’s Marvelous “Always, Patsy Cline”

By Barry Willis

In many ways, singer Patsy Cline defined a substantial swath of mid-century popular music. She was known primarily as a country artist but plenty of her recordings crossed over into other genres. Her soaring, pitch-perfect voice and heart-rending emotion brought her to the forefront of American culture, in a high arc from her debut in 1957 until her 1963 death in an airplane crash on the way back to Nashville.

Cline’s short career encompassed many firsts: first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, first woman to tour as a lead act, first to headline in Las Vegas, and first female country singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. Her glorious honey-toned voice and prodigious output of classic country and popular songs earned her a permanent place in the pantheon of American music.

Center Repertory Company has launched a lovely production of Ted Swindley’s “Always, Patsy Cline,” at the Margaret Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek. The truest of true stories, based on letters shared between Cline and her friend Louise Seger, the show combines music, comedy, and drama in a way equaled by few other theatrical productions. The big stage and capacious seating in the Lesher provide the perfect venue.

…”Always, Patsy Cline” is a fantastically entertaining tour of musical Americana…

Equity actress Cayman Ilika stars as Patsy, with Kate Jaeger as Louise. Ilika’s appearance is convincingly similar to Cline’s, helped of course by Brynne McKeen’s period-perfect costumes. Her voice is remarkably similar to Cline’s, although in a slightly lower register, with a dazzling capacity to sail from contralto to upper alto. Her ability to hold notes is astounding. She’s a powerful performer.

Cayman Ilika as Patsy Cline and Kate Jaeger as Louise Seger. Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello.

Supported by a superb six-piece band (“The Bodacious Bobcat Band”) arrayed across the stage behind her, Ilika covers memorable million-sellers like “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy” (written by Willie Nelson, by the way), “Walkin’ After Midnight,” and “Sweet Dreams” with aplomb, but also does great justice to rock icons such as “Shake Rattle and Roll,” plus old pop favorites like “Bill Bailey” and gospel classics such as “Just a Closer Walk” and “How Great Thou Art.”

But the show’s namesake is only part of the attraction. As Patsy’s friend Louise, the immensely talented and outrageously funny Kate Jaeger provides the perfect balancing act. A wry, self-deprecating Texan, Louise was a fan before she ever met Patsy. Her first-person narrative about their meeting and enduring friendship is both hilarious and heart-warming. Sharing a few songs with Illika, Jaeger is also quite a compelling vocalist. The pair’s harmonies are glorious; their interactions, natural and effortless.

(l to r) Ilika and Jaeger in Center Rep’s “Always…Patsy Cline.” Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello.

Director Karen Lund and her cast and crew have delivered a real gift to Bay Area theater-and-music fans. It’s a pity that this show has such a short run, closing on September 25. It could easily run for many weeks.

“Always, Patsy Cline” is a fantastically entertaining tour of musical Americana and a lovely, emotional portrait of a transcendent friendship. It’s a show that should be on everyone’s must-see list.

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ASR NorCal 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

 

ProductionAlways Patsy Cline
Written byTed Swindley
Directed byKaren Lund
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru Sept. 25th
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$49-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Everything’s Rosy in Hillbarn Theatre’s “Gypsy”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Rose– as in Mama Rose, the ball-busting lead character of the much-performed and universally loved musical “Gypsy,” is obviously a force to be reckoned with. But when that role is played by the phenomenally talented Stephanie Prentice, whose full-throated vocals can likely be heard at least several blocks away, it’s definitely worth seeing. The role fits Prentice like a glove.

Luckily for San Francisco Peninsula theatergoers, it’s just a short trek to Foster City’s Hillbarn Theatre to witness not only Prentice but also several other fine performers.

The hackneyed story of an overbearing stage mother (Rose) whose determination to make her younger daughter June (Melissa Momboisse) a star first saw light when the esteemed talents of David Merrick, Leland Hayward and Jerome Robbins combined to turn the Arthur Laurents’ book (suggested by Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs) into a Broadway show. Throw in music by Jule Styne, lyrics by the great Stephen Sondheim, then contract Ethel Merman to play Mama Rose, and what do you get? A sure-fire hit, that’s what!

Prentice has that Merman kind of chutzpa: badgering, bullying and generally making a nuisance of herself to make sure her Baby June gets the attention of everybody in the audience as well as backstage. Momboisse plays June with a wide smile, a blonde, curly wig and lots of sparkly pink tulle. She has talent – she can do cartwheels and summersaults, all while twirling not one but two batons.

Momma Rose (Stephanie Prentice*), June (Melissa Momboisse), Luoise (Makena Reynolds), and Herbie ( Chris Reber*) sit in Mrs. Crachitt’s (Lisa Appleyard) office waiting for a big meeting.
* Denotes member of Actors Equity Association. Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

When June was 10 or 12, the family troupe had a cute vaudeville act. But eventually vaudeville faded away and June grew up and developed a fetching figure, something her mother refused to accept. Vaudeville falls out of style, but Mama Rose keeps hauling her daughters around the country with her – to smaller and smaller venues – even as June can no longer pretend to be a little girl.

…A sure-fire hit that’s what!

Louise, the bookish mousy older sister, is perfectly content to let June have the spotlight. Instead, she lugs the suitcases around, acts as a gofer and buys chop suey for the three to eat morning, noon and night. “It’s cheap! And filling!” Mama Rose shouts.

Louise (Makena Reynolds) Attempts her first strip routine.
Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

As Louise, Makena Reynolds is a tad too attractive to be considered ‘mousy,’ but she does her best to stay in the shadows – even playing the front end of a cow when Mama Rose decides to make Baby June become a sweet farmgirl with six fine farmhands and a cow to dance with her. But when Baby June and one of her backup dancers elope and move away without a forwarding address, Mama Rose decides she’ll make Louise the star of the show.

Louise can’t really sing, and her dancing is mediocre, but she tries her best because that’s what mama wants. The turning point is when the act inadvertently gets booked into a burlesque theatre. When Mama discovers what it is, she tells Louise they need to leave immediately, but the practical Louise, as well as Mama’s long-suffering boyfriend Herbie (a rather subdued Chris Reber) – tell her they have no more money and nowhere to go.

The rest, as they say, is history. Louise’s shyness becomes her “thing” – that little something different that sets her apart from other burlesque queens. Soon she’s performing her burlesque routine at bigger and bigger burlesque emporiums –and earning much more money.

Hillbarn’s opening night audience last Friday night gave the entire cast a standing ovation – mostly deserved, although the large musical orchestra lead by Rick Reynolds sometimes played as if they were at a summer family concert.

Herbie ( Chris Reber*), Rose (Stephanie. Prentice*), and Louise (Makena Reynolds) Sing “Together Wherever We Go.”
* Denotes member of Actors Equity Association. Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

Standout songs include “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Some People,” “Rose’s Turn,” all sung by Prentice, “Small World,” sung by Prentice and Reber, and “Wherever We Go,” sung by Prentice, Reber and Reynolds. Y. Sharon Peng’s costumes also are a highlight – from the plain “housewifey” dresses Prentice wears throughout the play to the clever outfits for the young June and Louise and their cadre of boys, who all morph almost onstage into young people in similar costumes.

Whether familiar with the legend of Gypsy Rose Lee or not, audiences will appreciate Prentice’s fine vocals, the singing and dancing of the large cast, and an opportunity to look behind the curtain to see how struggling actors survive.

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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

 

ProductionGypsy
Book / Lyrics / Music byArthur Laurents / Stephen Sondheim / Jules Styne
Directed byLee Ann Payne
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Sept. 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
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Transcendence Theatre’s “The Gala”—Truly a Night to Remember

By Sue Morgan

The setting sun illuminated dramatic, pink-tinged clouds as the audience took their seats beneath the open sky in Transcendence Theatre Company’s outdoor performance venue at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen. The air was balmy and redwoods, silhouetted against the twilit firmament, perfectly framed the vineyard below. So began a magical evening as the performers took the stage for TTC’s final performance of the summer season: “The Gala.”

Hard to believe that director and choreographer Chip Abbot, associate director Billy Bustamonte, musical director Matt Smart and the rest of the creative team could surpass the excellence of Transcendence’s earlier productions “Let’s Dance” and “Hooray for Hollywood,” but “The Gala” is nothing short of a stunner! The talent and artistry on display were Broadway quality throughout .

…Choreography throughout the evening was tight, expressive and polished…

It would be too difficult to comment on the highlights of every outstanding performance during Sunday night’s show. Suffice it to say that nearly every number was a show-stopper! The opener, “on Broadway,” performed by the entire ensemble, was energetic, precise and joyful, promising wonderful things to come.

#317: (l to r) Kathleen Laituri, Ben Lanham, Colin Campbell McAdoo, & Ruby Lewis. Photo Credit: Ray Mabry Photography

“Beautiful City” from “Godspell” seemed written to showcase frequent Broadway performer Jesse Nager’s gorgeously smooth tenor. Resonating with gentle power and a palpable sense of yearning, Nager held the audience in thrall throughout the performance. Without the impediment of a ceiling, Nager’s vocals were remarkably crisp and soared unencumbered into the night sky. As the final notes slowly faded, twilight gave way to night, as if scripted. A truly transcendent experience!

Jesse delivered again, along with veteran Transcendence performers Colin Campbell McAdoo and Kyle Kemph, with an extraordinarily moving performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Other standout vocal performances (again, among dozens!) were Ruby Lewis in “It All Fades Away” and Colin Campbell McAdoo and Ruby Lewis in “Shallow.” Upbeat songs were frequently followed by ballads, which lent a nice balance to both sets in the show.

The Gala Company. Photo Credit: Rob Martel

Choreography throughout the evening was tight, expressive and polished, with the dancers making even the most intricate moves seem almost effortless! Again, there were too many memorable numbers to enumerate, but I must mention the exquisite interpretive dances performed by Kathleen Laituri and Ben Lanham as well as the wonderful moves (and vocals) performed by Cecil Washington Jr., Colin Campbell McAdoo, Jesse Nager, and Kyle Kemph in the wonderful Four Seasons medley.

Lighting and sound were solid, with nary a hiccup to interrupt the flow. This production was outstanding in every respect and every member of the audience I spoke with said they were delighted and surprised by the enormity of talent on display throughout the evening. This was indeed “the best night ever!”

(l to r) Cecil Washington Jr., Colin Campbell McAdoo, Jesse Nager, & Kyle Kemph. Photo Credit: Ray Mabry Photography

In its 11th year, Transcendence Theatre continues to raise the bar as they bring ever greater talent and vitality to Sonoma County Wine Country. The non-profit company, founded by Artistic Director Amy Miller, and husband, Executive Director Brad Surosky, has been instrumental in supporting Jack London State Park by providing over $675,000 in much-needed donations to sustain the beloved historical landmark. The duo informed the audience of a matching grant that would provide $500k in additional funding if the company is able to raise commitments of $500k in donations by the end of October and have donations in-hand by the end of the year—a deeply worthy cause.

“The Gala” begins at 7:30 but come early to enjoy a picnic supper (food vendors are on site for those who prefer not to bring their own) and wine and beer provided by Transcendence sponsors while listening to acoustic music in the lawn area. Remember to bring a sweater or lap blanket, as the temperature can drop after the sun goes down.

Tickets range from $25 to $165 for VIP seating (which includes wine tickets, premium seating, and priority parking). Masks are recommended but not required.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

ProductionThe Gala
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed &
Choreographed by
Chip Abbot
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThru September 18th
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen

2400 London Ranch Road, Sonoma
Websitewww.transcendencetheatre.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$25-$165
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
ScriptN/A
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~“Man of God:” Revenge is Sweet at Shotgun Players

By George Maguire

Have you ever had all-consuming revenge fantasies for acts of bullying, abuse, or sexual come-ons—whether real or perceived? Actions that hurt or damaged you emotionally, not just then, but into the future? Let’s face it: we all have!

Thoughts of “if only I had done this to the perpetrator” live on with us.

Such feelings of revenge surround four teen-aged Korean-American girls on a Christian New Seoul Church mission trip with their pastor to Thailand, a land of iniquity. As the girls acclimate themselves to their hotel room, one of them discovers a hidden camera tucked away in their bathroom.

…we laugh throughout as their Kpop-infused dialogue…

Who put it there? When the girls discover, to their horror, that it is the property of the church. They assume it was placed there by their pastor to watch them as they perform intimate functions in the expected privacy of their own bathroom.

Sharon Shao as Kyung-Hwa, Alexandra Lee as Samantha. Photos by Ben Krantz

“Man of God” presents the girls’ conundrum in flights of fancy, a dizzying array of wildly imaginative revenge scenarios from mafia-driven execution to machete kung-fu action to comedy blood-lust to ice bath disembowelment of vital organs. As they free-flight fantasize about their vengeance, we laugh throughout as their Kpop-infused dialogue brilliantly captures the patois of teenage girls while their imaginations fuel decisions they never make.

Boys are excused because it’s in their nature to “act out.” Girls, however are not doormats! “If we continue allowing ourselves this kind of abuse, it is actually on us!”

The girls understand the reality they live in, and they turn on a dime from spouting quick bursts of vital truisms of women in a patriarchal society to discussions of make-up and moisturizers.

Five very gifted Asian American actors embody the girls and the pastor. Each girl is distinctly depicted by playwright Anna Ouyang Moench and expertly guided by director Michelle Talgarow’s spot-on staging on Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s marvel of a set.

Sharon Shao as Kyung-Hwa, Lauren Andrei Garcia as Mimi, Alexandra Lee as Samantha, Joyce Domanico-Huh as Jen. Photos by Ben Krantz.

Joyce Domanico-Huh, Lauren Andrei Garcia, Alexandra Lee, and Sharon Shao are pure delights, bringing the language of their world alive. Did Pastor, played by Chuck Lacson, place the camera in the bathroom? That is not resolved until the final moments of this 90-minute one-act. To find out, you must see the play, as this reviewer certainly isn’t going to give it away.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco based actor-director and Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre.

 

 

 

ProductionMan of God
Written byAnna Ouyang Moench
Directed byMichelle Talgarow
Producing CompanyShotgun Players
Production Dates
Video On Demand
> thru October 2, 2022
> October 5-16
Production Address1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley CA 94705
WebsiteShotgunplayers.org
Telephone(510) 841-4500
Tickets$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ “Ain’t Misbehavin’” Rocks the Stage – Legendary Fats Waller Tribute Bursts with Energy

By Cari Lynn Pace

Welcome back to Harlem’s Golden Age of Jazz, with Prohibition booze and uninhibited dance clubs swinging circles around each other.

Fats Waller composed and played rockin’ songs in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s for folks who were “dance crazy.” Sonoma Arts Live brings back these fun-loving times with five talented singer/dancers, one superb slide piano player, and five backup band members on stage. The musical tribute showcases the breadth of Waller’s influence on jitterbug, Charleston, tap, and just plain foolin’ around to the sultry lyrics of sensual waltzes and slow favorites like “Honeysuckle Rose.”

“The musical tribute showcases the breadth of Waller’s influence on jitterbug, Charleston, tap, and just plain foolin’ around…”

Waller, a posthumous Grammy award winner, was one of the most prolific composers and entertainers of the era, writing over 400 songs. He had huge hands, wide enough to master the slide piano technique. With slide piano, the left hand plays the bass rhythm of a piece, typically when there is no actual bass musician to cover the beat. Some musicians of that era had surgery to cut the thumb-first finger tendon in their left hand in order to make the necessary ten-key reach from bass note to chord. Waller was born with that ability, a blessing the “King of the Stride” used to wrote songs that were equally successful with audiences of all colors in those highly segregated times.

Back in the 20’s Harlem, if the rent was due and there was nothing coming in, folks would gather at the apartment for a dance-and-booze “rent party” to chip in for their friends. There was always a gun check at the door, and a password to avoid the cops. They called these gathering “joints” to avoid tipping off the cops.

Photos in this review — Miller Oberlin

No Fats Waller revue would be complete without the raucous “This Joint is Jumpin’” as Serena Elize Flores, D’Artagnan Riviera, Jonathen Blue, and Bay Area favorite Phillip Percy Williams are joined by Director Aja Gianola-Norris in a slap and swirl romp. Costumes, designed by Jaya Grace, range from flirty to fancy as the exuberant cadre belts out “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own” and the signature song Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Waller gave us songs to make us smile, like “You Feet’s Too Big” or sigh, in “I’m Gonna’ Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”

Sonoma Arts Live is to be commended for gathering this group of talents to showcase a master entertainer of a bygone era. Williams is a seasoned standout with his smooth jazz voice, and Blue and Flores lead the others in clever tap dancing. It’s worth the price of admission just to watch Neil Angelo Fontano play jazz piano at the apron of the stage. The fun the performers have onstage is contagious, whether shouting out lyrics or kicking high. Harlem’s legendary “Clown Prince of Jazz” is rockin’ indeed.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionAin’t Misbehavin’
Written byMurray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr.
Directed byAja Gianola Norris
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesSeptember 25th, 2022
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
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ RVP’s “Picnic” a Feast of Acting Talent

By Cari Lynn Pace

Ross Valley Players takes a brave jump from their usual lighthearted productions to bring the mid-century classic “Picnic” to the stage.

William Inge situated his 1953 Pulitzer-prize winning drama in a dusty Kansas town not far from the train tracks. “Picnic” is a period piece, a slow-moving unfolding of womenfolk who share a backyard and reveal their varied emotional shackles. Widow Helen Potts (veteran Tamar Cohn) has hired Hal, a hunky young drifter, to help her with chores. Hal possesses both animal magnetism and a body budding with muscles. Whenever Hal appears, perfectly portrayed by Max Carpenter, the febrile women bite their lips and sigh.

Helen’s next-door neighbor Flo is a controlling mother (superbly channeled by Tori Truss) who urges her pretty eldest daughter Madge to ensnare Alan (Evan Held), the town’s eligible bachelor. Madge acts compliant but is conflicted by her own perceived limitations. Dale Leonheart enacts her delicate role, balancing eagerness and wistfulness, all the while listening for the whistles of distant trains.

…“Picnic” is a period piece, a slow-moving unfolding of womenfolk who share a backyard and reveal their varied emotional shackles.

Flo pays scant attention to her studious tomboy daughter Millie, a role captured with youthful impatience by Lizzy Bies. Flo’s two daughters have a rivalry common to close-age siblings. Bies admirably remains in character throughout her performance, even when she has no lines onstage.

Lizzie Bies is terrific as Milly Owens. Dale Leonheart as Madge Owens.

Into the backyard enters Rosemary (Valerie Weak), Flo’s house boarder, a prim and proper schoolteacher with buttoned up suit and perfectly aligned seamed stockings. Weak skillfully enacts this role, emphasizing Rosemary’s aloofness. From Act I to Act IV, Rosemary morphs from a self-proclaimed independent female to one desperate to get married. Her reasons for becoming so aren’t clear, but her need to get married propels the play’s secondary plot.

…Inge’s dramatic script is an edgy slice of life, and no picnic for the characters.

Madge’s boyfriend Alan appears—handsome, respectful and reserved, played understatedly by Held. Alan recognizes the drifter Hal as his former college buddy, and their joyful reunion provides a laugh-out-loud highlight.

It’s not the only amusing scene in this drama, thanks to Steve Price in the role of Howard, Rosemary’s sweetheart. Price has the capacity to be a larger-than-life comedic presence, but he keeps it mostly real in this production. Howard cajoles the staid Rosemary to take a swig of his illegal booze. He shares his booty with eager Hal, and young Millie sneaks in a few swigs too. The combustion begins when one buzzed and desperate spinster wants to dance with a virile hunk.

Tory Truss as Flo Owens with Dale Leonheart.

RVP made a good choice choosing director Adrian Elfenbaum and adding two Equity actors to their cadre of talented local actors. RVP’s masterful casting choices secure the believability and success of this production. Elfenbaum’s direction keeps each character’s performance in balance with the ensemble.

Opening night had bits of hesitation with the actors’ lines, perhaps due to opening-night jitters, but that will surely dissipate. This period piece moves at a slow pace, and at two and a half hours might benefit by trimming a few scenes, but overall it’s a tremendous production.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionPicnic
Written byWilliam Inge
Directed byAdrian Elfenbaum
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru October 9, 2022
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-383-1100
Tickets$15-$30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Fun Home” Hits the Mark at Left Edge Theatre’s New Location

by Mitchell Field / Sue Morgan

Intro by Mr. Field…

Reversing the Covid-related nationwide loss of theater venues, a brand new one has opened its doors in the North Bay: the “California” in Santa Rosa, CA.

Last week the 200-seat venue hosted a partisan opening-night crowd for Left Edge Theatre’s “Fun Home,” one of Broadway’s most controversial and ground-breaking productions, a musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s rich and complex 2006 tragicomic graphic memoir of the same name, with music by Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron.

A multiple Tony Awards winner, “Fun Home” was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s a deeply personal yet refreshingly honest show, about family, gender identity and seeing one’s parents through one’s grown-up eyes.

The non-linear story follows Alison through her early life, as she recounts her fraught relationship with her long-suffering mother and her late father, a closeted gay man, who may or may not have committed suicide shortly after Alison’s confession of her lesbianism to her family. Despite having some pre-adult cast members, this show is intended for mature audiences and includes adult language and discussion of sexuality and suicide. At the same time it’s funny, sad, poignant, charming, endearing and surprisingly fun!

“Fun Home” is enjoying a number of local productions since its performance rights were recently released. Left Edge Theater has assembled an excellent cast, including Elizabeth Henry, Bethany Cox and North Bay stage veteran Anthony Martinez. Lucas Sherman (keyboard) and Grant Bramham (percussion) provide the music and Maureen O’Neill ably directs a troubling, charming, touching and entertaining evening of theater. Hurrah for this new venue!

Review by Ms. Morgan…

What joy to attend the Grand Opening of Left Edge Theatre’s new California Theatre in downtown Santa Rosa for the opening night performance of “Fun Home.“ Based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, “Fun Home” garnered five Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.

The September 3 sold-out performance at the California Theatre was packed with friends and family of performers and production company, and many fans of local theatre. Abuzz with excitement before the performance began, the audience generated appreciative, electric energy which remained throughout the night.

…there are…moments of poignant introspection, fun, and joyful revelation.

“Fun Home” is an exploration of Alison Bechdel’s memories of her family, her sense of alienation from her once-beloved father, and her awakening to her sexual identity as a lesbian, her first love, and the impossible cost of hiding her innermost self. “Fun Home” (short for “funeral home”) was the ironic nickname given by the Bechdel family to their family business, a mortuary run by Alison’s father Bruce, who was also a high school teacher, restorer of historic homes and a closeted gay.

The play begins as contemporary Alison, a graphic novelist, (capably played by Emily Jansen-Adan) stands at her sketch board trying to remember the details of her childhood as they unfold on the stage in front of her. Alison is also played as a young child and as a college student by Addison Sandoval and Rae Lipman, respectively.

While the subject matter is deeply fraught and sometimes tragic, there are also moments of poignant introspection, fun, and joyful revelation. The outstanding music elevates the production, contributing to a sense of intimacy as the audience listens in on the otherwise secret thoughts of the characters. The actors were clearly chosen for their singing, as well as acting chops, and all songs were deservedly met with enthusiastic applause.

Two performances stand out among many. In “Ring of Keys,” Addison Sandoval, (one of three child actors) playing “small Alison,” brilliantly conveys the dawning of her understanding of herself as “different” than other girls when she first encounters a very butch delivery woman and, with wide-eyed wonder and a foreign sense of yearning, sings, “. . . with your swagger and your bearing and the just right clothes you’re wearing, your short hair and your dungarees and your lace up boots, and your keys, oh, your ring of keys . . . I know you . . . ” Whether speaking or singing, young Addison does an excellent job throughout “Fun Home,” with a self-possessed sense of confidence and ease that make her a pleasure to watch. Addison, surprisingly, is a self-taught vocalist and has never had professional instruction.

Bethany Cox (Joan) & Rae Lipman (Medium Alison). Photo by Eric Chazankin

The second standout was Rae Lipman’s rendition of “Changing My Major.” Waking beside her new lover the morning after their first sexual encounter, Lipman’s Alison emanates a sense of passion, wonder and gratitude at the miracle of the liaison. As she sings, “I’ve never lost control due to overwhelming lust, but I must say that I’m changing my major to Joan. I’m changing my major to sex with Joan, with a minor in kissing Joan . . . ” she brings the audience along with her as she circles the bed staring with a mix of ardor and tenderness at her sleeping beloved.

In his sixth performance with Left Edge Theatre, Bay Area theater veteran Anthony Marinez manages to portray Alison’s father Bruce with nuance despite the fact that the character is an egotistical, tyrannical husband and often overbearing father. Evoking enthusiasm, passion, righteousness, explosiveness, violence, sadness, and overwhelming desperation, Martinez is deeply compelling, and his exceptional voice lends itself beautifully to the production.

Elizabeth Henry plays Alison’s mother Helen with determined self-control. We can feel her inwardly seething, even when smiling politely as Bruce talks to members of the Historical Society about his restoration of the family’s museum-like home, which she is expected to maintain to gleaming perfection. Her rendition of “The Hours” brought me to tears.

Every member of the cast performed their roles admirably, both in terms of acting and vocals. In a few songs the performers sang different lines simultaneously in an attempt to express the chaos in the home despite the placid exterior. Unfortunately, the ensuing cacophony was too much for this viewer.

There were a few minor technical difficulties, not a surprise given that it was the first outing for Left Edge in their new performance space. There were problems with microphones, the live orchestra was at moments too loud, and the seating to the far left of the stage sometimes left us looking at the backs of the actors.

Minor issues aside, Left Edge Theatre’s production of “Fun Home,” with wonderful acting and superb vocals and music behind an exceptionally well-executed script is one not to miss!

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mitchell Field is a Sr. Contributing Writer for Aisle Seat Review. Based in Marin County, Mr. Field is an actor and voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: mitchfield@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionFun Home
Written byBook & Lyrics by: Lisa Kron.

Based on Graphic Novel by: Alison Bechdel.
Directed
Musical Direction
Maureen O’Neill
Lucas Sherman
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theater Co.
Production DatesThrough Sept. 18th, 2022
Production AddressCalifornia Theatre
528 7th St.
Santa Rosa, CA
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 664-7529
Tickets$15-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Palo Alto Players Delight with “School of Rock”

By Joanne Engelhardt

With a bushel of fresh-faced, multi-talented kids, Palo Alto Players has a hit on its hand with the broad comedy “School of Rock,” playing through Sept. 11 at Lucie Stern Theater.

Sure, there are tons of hackneyed caricatures in “Rock,” the kind that Julian Fellows creates here. In fact, almost all the production’s adults are caricatures, the better to contrast with their earnest, brook-no-prisoners reactions to the show’s fifteen kids.

…A special shoutout to the four youngsters who played their own instruments in solo numbers….

What’s even more amazing about these pint-sized stars is that the four youngsters who ultimately become members of the kids’ band are actually playing their instruments live. They do so despite the fact that a number of adult musicians are also playing in the orchestra pit during the show.

Photo by Kate Hart Photography Pictured: Dewey Finn (Jomar Martinez) and the kids of Horace Green rock out to “You’re in the Band” in Palo Alto Players’ SCHOOL OF ROCK!

Yet one adult actor – the crazy-good Jomar Martinez, playing out-of-work musician/faux substitute teacher Dewey Finn – stands out simply because Dewey is a kid at heart whose two loves are playing music and sleeping. Dewey is living in the bedroom of an apartment owned by his old bandmate, Ned Schneebly (the bland but affable Zack Goller) and his fiancée Patty Di Marco. Amanda Le Nguyen plays Patty with waaaay too much veracity—her Patty is so demanding that it’s hard to imagine she and the affable Ned would ever have connected.

It’s obvious director Doug Santana put a lot of love into this production—his own daughter Maddie plays one of the precocious kids! While he let the kids shine as much as they are comfortable, it might have made the show a little more reasonable if not every adult except Dewey was unpleasant or bland.

As Rosalie Mullins, the headmistress of the posh Horace Green School, Amy Kohmescher comes close to playing another caricature. But she loosens up when she agrees to have a cup of coffee with the ersatz substitute teacher. Turns out the coffee date is in a bar and with each sip of beer, Rosalie loses her inhibitions and becomes more fun. She and the disheveled Dewey even share a quick kiss as they part.

But the kids are really the heart and soul of “School of Rock.” From reading their biographies, most are middle school or high school students, although at least two are fifth graders. Nearly all have had drama experience either at their schools or with local theatre productions.

Photo by Scott Lasky Pictured (L to R): Hailey Matta as Summer, Adeline Anderson as Katie, Jomar Martinez as Dewey Finn, Rafael ‘Rafi’ Frans as Zack, and Alex Pease as Freddy in Palo Alto Players’ SCHOOL OF ROCK, the electrifying Broadway musical based on the hit movie.

A special shoutout to the four youngsters who played their own instruments in solo numbers: Adeline Anderson who, as Katie, played bass; Alex Pease playing drums as Freddy; CJ Fernando as Lawrence with his socko piano playing; and the blow-it-out guitar playing of Rafael “Rafi’ Frans as Zack.

Choreographer Joey Dippel smartly allows youngsters with previous dancing experience to lead the musical numbers, yet gives every one of the kids a chance to at least “doo wop,” dance, and sway to the beat.

Andrew Lloyd Webber composed “Rock’s” musical score, and Glen Slater provided lyrics. It has several memorable numbers, most notably: “You’re in the Band,” “Where Did the Rock Go?,” “School of Rock” and “Stick It to the Man.”

Photo by Scott Lasky. The teachers of Horace Green sing the “Faculty Quadrille” in Palo Alto Players’ SCHOOL OF ROCK!

Costume designer Noreen Styliadis really hit the mark here with cute maroon-white-and black plaid school uniforms worn by almost all the kids. She pulls off a coup when she dresses Martinez in – well, you’ll just have to see “Rock” to find out.

All in all, definitely worth the 2 ½ hours (with one 15-minute intermission) for young and old alike to revel in the clever joyfulness of “School of Rock.”

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionSchool of Rock
Book by / Lyrics By / New Music ByJulian Fellowes / Glenn Slater / Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed byDoug Santana
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThrough October 11, 2022
Production AddressLucie Stern Theater 1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$30 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Hershey Felder Delivers an Enchanted Evening in ‘Chopin in Paris’

By Sue Morgan

Hershey Felder swings wide the French door opening onto an opulent salon, replete with gilded framed mirrors, crystal chandelier and candelabras, luxuriously draped brocade curtains, elegant chaise longue and Victorian side tables. In the center of the room, mirrored surfaces gleaming in purple-gold “candle light,” stands a magnificent Steinway grand piano. Elegantly dressed in white starched shirt, narrow trousers, waistcoat, impeccably tailored frock-coat and cravat, he steps across the threshold. The spell is cast: Chopin has arrived.

The date is March 4th, 1848, mere days after the violent February Revolution in Paris and we, the audience, are among the privileged piano students (here for a lesson) from whose wealthy and illustrious families Chopin makes his living. Making a light-hearted joke about having just had “tea” in the rooms of a lady, Chopin – who had a reputation as a ladies’ man – proceeds to mesmerize his audience with detailed accounts which bring vividly alive the intimate details of his too-brief existence.

…Hershey Felder is simply a genius….

Over the following ninety minutes—no intermission—his students experience the full spectrum of human emotions. Using nothing but words and gorgeous renditions of many of his most famous pieces—gloriously executed on that spectacular Steinway—Chopin conjures those who inspired his genius and walks us through his musical passions and processes.

Several times breaking into his own narrative, Chopin invites his “students” to ask questions, responding to queries including, in part, the type and quality of sound of a piano typically played during that era, his greatest musical influence (Bach, from whom, he asserts, “we all just steal bits and pieces of his music”), and his feelings about his rival, Liszt.

Chopin played only thirty public concerts but made a reputation for himself in Paris playing in private salons at the homes of the city’s elite. While describing his distaste for pandering to some of his wealthy patrons, Chopin encourages his students who might find themselves playing under similar circumstances to ignore their surroundings and, “Play as if you are playing for God.” When he himself begins to play, one can only imagine the good favor with which God looks upon him.

Felder’s Chopin seems to have been resurrected, rather than contrived. Felder embodies the master with such seemingly effortless confidence that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he has had to memorize almost everything Chopin is known to have uttered or written. That dedication to authenticity is, in part, what makes this performance so riveting. I do not enjoy the banal and often mistakenly applied term, “tour de force,” but even that phrase seems too mild to express the brilliance and artistry of Felder’s performance.

Hershey Felder is simply a genius. He is a conceptualist, playwright, virtuoso pianist, actor, and set designer. Did I mention that he also sings like an angel? In addition to the numerous solo shows Felder has created and starred in, including George Gershwin Alone, Beethoven, Monsieur Chopin and many others, he created his own arts broadcasting company during the Covid crisis, which allows him to reach a larger audience for his theatrical films.

 

Director Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) uses a light hand, allowing Felder’s deep understanding of his character full expression in both movement and mannerism. The scenic design by Felder is perfect in its authenticity, truly bringing to life the luxurious and rarefied setting of a salon for the highest echelons of Parisian society in the mid-1800s. The pink porcelain swan, on the Victorian side table, is an artful touch. Lighting design by Erik S. Barry enhances the elegance of the setting with its rich purple tones and rose/gold effect. Dimming the overhead stage lights brightens the candlelight whenever Chopin plays.

Video projections using flame effects and renderings of buildings or participants in the salon are good effects, but the overly large and bright image of a female disembodied head (George Sand? Chopin’s sister Emilia?) is a bit disconcerting.

Felder gives his audience the gift of being transported to 19th century Paris to sit at the feet of one of the world’s most renown musical geniuses – with none of the discomfort or inconveniences of that time – and plays music of such beauty it elicits tears. If you love theatre, classical music, sublime acting, or all of the preceding, do everything in your power to see Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris. And bring your friends.

They’ll thank you for the experience.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionChopin in Paris
Written byHershey Felder
Directed byJoel Zwick
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThrough Sept. 11th
Production AddressMountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662- 8778
Tickets$35 – $95
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ “Goddess” at Berkeley Rep Looks Broadway Bound!

By George Maguire

Berkeley Rep’s “Goddess” opens with electrifying, high-energy afro-centric dance and music that encompass skat, jazz, and R & B, and introduces us to Moto Moto, a bar in Mombasa, Kenya. A loquacious and slitheringly sexy emcee Ahmed (Rodrick Covington) and company welcome us, the visitors, to an evening of high entertainment. “Moto Moto” means hot and fiery. Indeed it is.

Through a trio of always-present all-knowing spirits, we meet the bar’s owner Madongo (Lawrence Stallings), the snap-crackle-and-pop bar gal, Rashida (Abena), and the boy just back from Columbia University with a Poli-sci degree, Omari (the multi-talented quadruple-threat Philip Johnson Richardson). Suddenly the mood shifts from exuberant joy to a sense of fear and awe as we meet Nadira (the golden voiced Amber Iman). Nadira is the Goddess reaching into mortal elements trying to find that most human of virtues: love. Omari is smitten as she sings “That Love.” They meet and a bond of the heart begins.

…With some tweaking, this wonderful new musical should find its place on the Broadway roster of hits….

A weave of myth and legend, Nadira’s world is the African tale of Marimba, the Goddess of Music and Mother of Song. Nadira’s desire to understand the love possessed by mortals is hampered by a curse placed on her by her vengeful Mother, the Goddess of Evil—a curse that will be fulfilled should Nadira relinquish her power and attempt to come alive as human. The budding mutual passion she and Omari feel—and his own love of music (Mr. Richardson also plays a mean sax)—can only bring heartbreak.

(center) Isio-Maya Nuwere (Moto Moto Ensemble – Safiyah) (l to r) Teshomech (Grio Trio – Tisa), Wade Watson (Moto Moto Ensemble – Musa), Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi), Quiantae Thomas (Moto Moto Ensemble – Amina), Zachary Downer (Moto Moto Ensemble – Sameer), Aaron Nicholas Patterson (Moto Moto Ensemble – Yusef), and (stairs) Rodrick Covington (Ahmed) in the world premiere musical production of Goddess. Directed by Saheem Ali, book by Jocelyn Bioh, music and lyrics by Michael Thurber. Photo by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Complications ensue as Omari’s parents and fiancée have other plans for him. He is tied to the roots of family and must marry and become the Mayor of Mombasa. The talented Kecia Lewis and Kingsley Leggs as the parents, and officious Destinee Rha as the fiancée, offer Omari no alternative but to get out of his situation and back to Moto Moto and Nadira.

In the sixteen-year development of this musical, this area still needs work. We need to see and understand how Omari is torn between wanting to honor the commitment he made to them before he left for NYC and his nascent love for Nadira.

(front) Phillip Johnson Richardson (Omari) (back, l to r) Wade Watson (Moto Moto Enemble – Musa), Melessie Clark (Grio Trio – Mosi), Quiantae Thomas (Moto Moto Ensemble – Amina), and Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi) in the world premiere musical production of Goddess. Directed by Saheem Ali, book by Jocelyn Bioh, music and lyrics by Michael Thurber. Photo by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

A magnificent production surrounds the world of Moto Moto with a detailed Afro-Arabic set by Arnulfo Maldonado, luminous lighting by Tony Winner Bradley King, magnificent costuming by Dede Ayite and special mention to the sound design of Nevin Steinberg. Literally every word spoken or sung is clearly understood. Music director Marco Paguia honors Michael Thurber’s original score with joy and specificity.

With some tweaking, this wonderful new musical should find its place on the Broadway roster of hits.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco-based actor and director and Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionGoddess
Written by / Music & Lyrics by /
Choreography by
Jocelyn Bioh /
Michael Thurber /
Darrell Grand Moultrie
Directed bySaheem Ali (Conceiver/Director)
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough September 25, 2022
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$38 - $104
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Machines Revolt in “Atlas, the Lonely Gibbon” at Spreckels

By Barry Willis

A technological house of horrors is both a comedic trap and an existential crisis for a young married couple in Deborah Yarchun’s “Atlas, the Lonely Gibbon” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center through August 28.

Directed by Sheri Lee Miller, Yarchun’s world premiere script leverages an uncooperative “smart home” and digital-era social isolation as the basis for an acerbic comedy.

Taylor Diffenderfer (l) and Keith Baker (r). Photo by Jeff Thomas

Taylor Diffenderfer shines as Irene, a journalist reduced to doing copy-edit work on stories generated by computer, and one so spooked by and hooked on technology that she frequently dons a virtual reality (VR) headset to escape.

…an amusing and well-done cautionary tale….

All the devices in her fully-integrated home refuse to follow orders that she barks at “Atona,” the unseen interface and controller in her sci-fi residence. The refrigerator coughs and sputters and dances madly. The lights flicker and fade at random. Even the house plants seem to have minds of their own. Both unbidden and in response, the home’s devices talk to her, often with incisive comments. Kevin Biordi and Julianne Bradbury animate and voice the machines.

Irene doesn’t get much help from husband David (Keith Baker), also a journalist who despite the prevalence of every imaginable connectivity at home, has to keep dashing out “to the office.” The revolt of the machines at home launches his system-wide upgrade, a cure that proves worse than the disease. Irene’s also got some sort of fixation on a large mate-seeking gibbon named “Atlas,” enacted by Baker. Bradbury does a nice bit late in the show as the probable mate.

Diffenderfer and Baker at work. Photo by Jeff Thomas

It’s all very funny until, as John Craven described “The House of Yes” at Main Stage West, it’s not funny anymore. The story morphs into a showdown between husband and wife, with quite unfavorable implications for the future of their relationship.

It’s a circumstance that should prove immediately recognizable for anyone overwhelmed by the intrusion of technology into every aspect of daily life. “Atlas, the Lonely Gibbon” is an amusing and well-done cautionary tale about where all of this may lead.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionAtlas, the Lonely Gibbon
Written byDeborah Yarchun
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough August 28th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

ASR Theater ~~ Nasty, Disjointed “Oklahoma!” Lands in San Francisco

By Barry Willis

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” must have been a deeply traumatic event in the young life of director Daniel Fish.

There’s no other explanation for his nasty, disjointed interpretation of the beloved 1950s musical. A small part celebration, a larger part attack, but mostly a personal exorcism, Fish’s national touring production opened Wednesday August 17 to a nearly full house in San Francisco’s capacious Golden Gate Theatre.

Entering the theater, the audience squinted into a broad bank of harsh bright lights from high above the stage, perhaps a forewarning that they were about to undergo psychological torment of the type dished out to political prisoners. Below these lights lay the set for the entire production: a huge open room filled with rows of picnic tables and walls festooned with mounted guns—dozens of rifles and shotguns, implying that the space is possibly a hunting club, but also perhaps the rec room of a church, or a school cafeteria. It’s community meeting space with lots and lots of guns.

Gun culture is established early in the show—this is Oklahoma, of course—and despite the story’s lack of gunplay, it provides thematic background throughout a nearly three hour performance. Russian novelist/playwright Anton Chekhov famously commented “If there’s a gun hanging on the wall in act one . . . you must fire the gun by act three,” advice clearly followed by Fish in his rewriting of the show’s closing moments.

In the opening scene we meet most of the pertinent characters near the town of Claremore, Oklahoma Territory, all presided over by matriarch Aunt Eller (Barbara Walsh). This introduction closely adheres to Hammerstein’s original, with cowboy Curly (Sean Grandillo) accompanying himself on guitar while singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” We meet Laurey (Sasha Hutchings), the girl of his dreams, and Jud Fry (Christopher Bannon), village idiot and Curly’s rival for Laurey, goofy adventurer Will (Hennesey Winkler) and pivotal comic-relief character Ado Annie (Sis), the “girl who cain’t say no.” They’re mostly in fine voice, especially Sis, blessed with superb comic timing and a powerful contralto. The Laurey/Curly duet “People Will Say We’re in Love” is delightful.

The company of the National Tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! —- Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

But our short stay in traditional romantic musical territory is abruptly ended by a lengthy blackout scene in which Curly and Jud have a man-to-man discussion. The blackout is as annoying and unjustifiable as the airfield landing lights that illuminate the theater on entering, and is inexplicably repeated in the second act. If one long blackout wasn’t enough, how about two or three?

The original production featured a “dream ballet” in which Laurey tries to sort out her feelings for Curly and Jud. That’s been jettisoned for a solo modern dance routine done to a high-intensity heavy-metal medley of “Oklahoma!” tunes, in the midst of more stage smoke than ever obscured a 1980s rock concert.

Clad in an oversized T–shirt emblazoned with the words “Dream Baby Dream,” dancer Jordan Wynn performs well even if John Heginbotham’s choreography bears no relationship to 1906 Oklahoma, or to the rest of the show. It’s also Wynn’s only appearance. Benj Mirman does a nice turn as Ali Hakim, the “Persian” peddler, as does Mitch Tebo as local jurist Andrew Carnes. The production’s dozen or so musicians are excellent, and the show’s actors overall are very good.

…Director Fish’s conceptual conceits sink this show.

As done originally, both stage and film, “Oklahoma!” is a lightweight musical hampered by a weak story—its weakness forgivable because great music carries the show. Fish makes the too-obvious mistake of trying to push “Oklahoma!” into dramatic territory that would have appalled both its authors and previous generations of musical theater fans.

In the original, Jud appears in the penultimate scene at the wedding of Laurey and Curly. He’s drunk and belligerent, provokes a fistfight with Curly, then dies after falling on his own knife—an accidental death. In Fish’s version, he arrives stone cold sober, with a wedding gift for Curly: a revolver whose grip he puts in Curly’s hands. He provokes the inevitable single shot that kills him, and the blood-spattered newlyweds then sing the “Oklahoma!” anthem as off-key and ironically as possible. It’s an intentional abomination.

Fish may have many good reasons for hating the musical, for hating gun culture, for hating the state of Oklahoma and its history. He may even have some good reasons for sympathizing with a character as repellent as Jud Fry, but there’s no justification for turning what’s basically an upbeat romantic fantasy into a screed about evil.

This “Oklahoma!” is little more than a protracted, self-indulgent exercise in millennial irony. Professional tastemakers in New York and elsewhere may have gushed about its brilliance, but bear in mind that they also considered “Guards at the Taj” a delightful little comedy, “The Humans,” an insightful depiction of family dynamics, “Dance Nation” a revelation about adolescent girls, and “Next to Normal” a fun romp through the minefield of drug addiction and delusional behavior. God save us.

There are certain theatrical icons that should be off-limits to reinterpretation. Fish’s “Oklahoma!” neither honors the original nor does it provide any degree of satisfaction for an audience eager to leave the theater with songs in their hearts. Instead they go home sorry that they paid to be insulted.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionOklahoma!
Written byRichard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II /alterations by Daniel Fish
Directed byDaniel Fish
Producing CompanyNational Touring Production / Broadway SF
Production DatesThrough Sept. 11th
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$56 – $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Mill Valley’s Curtain Theatre Delights With “Two Gentlemen of Verona”

By Cari Lynn Pace

If Shakespeare’s plays have sometimes seemed confusing, with multiple characters speaking patois poetry and cross dressing, fear not. “Two Gentlemen of Verona” is one of the Bard’s early plays and has a believable plot, with only one actor disguising herself as a male.

Director Steve Beecroft worked for over a year on the play, writing in lines to bolster the motivation and beef up the characters’ actions. He did a solid job, as this play is both emotional and amusing, dark and light, with jealousy and forgiveness. And swordplay. Lots of swordplay.

The outdoor Curtain Theatre has returned post-pandemic, with a large talented cast creating splendid afternoon performances. They cleverly merge a smoothly flowing story to original Elizabethan-era music (thanks to Don Clark), proper dancing, the aforementioned swordplay (impressively done by Beecroft), and exquisite costumes by Jody Branham. The final result does Shakespeare proud.

“Two Gentlemen of Verona” opens as two friends joke and joust as young men in 1593 were wont to do. Proteus (handsome and confident Nelson Brown) has a lady, Julia (expertly acted by Isabelle Grimm), to whom he has sworn his love, and she to him. His buddy Valentine has no girlfriend, so he bids them “ciao” and sets out to neighboring Milan. It doesn’t take long for Valentine, enacted by a dashing and charming Nic Moore, to hook up with lovely Sylvia, an aristocratic and clever young lady regally played by Gillian Eichenberger. They plight (pledge) their troth, which is to say they really dig each other.

“They plight their troth, which is to say they really dig each other.”

Back in Verona, Proteus’s exasperated dad (channeled by Mark Shepard) boots Proteus off the couch and out of the family villa and shuttles him off to Milan. He meets up with Valentine, spots Sylvia, and suddenly he’s in love and forgets about Julia. Dramaturg Peter Bradbury succinctly points out “Proteus is named after the shape-shifting god of change.”

Sylvia will have none of Proteus, as she is true to Valentine. After all, she plighted her troth with Valentine. Spurned Proteus learns about his buddy’s plan to elope with Sylvia. He rats on Valentine to Sylvia’s daddy the Duke (a regal Glenn Havlan). Valentine is banished. Sylvia is mightily peeved, particularly when Proteus keeps pestering her, professing his love. Julia, smelling a rat, heads to Milan and disguises herself to watch her paramour’s antics in the forest. She gets the drift. The rest, as they say, shall be revealed in Act II.

No review of “Two Gentlemen” would be complete without commenting on the scene-stealing antics of Grey Wolf as Launce, a forest wanderer, and his dog. This particular dog is the hilarious Jamin Jollo; he plays the part on all fours and scratches and slobbers at will. The giggling of the children in the audience when he appears is the true testimonial of this actor’s over-the-top performance.

It is another scene-stealing surprise when Jollo shows up as Sir Thurio, one of Sylvia’s swishy suitors and a definite swipe left on Tinder. They are backed up by a talented cast of servants and outlaws, in a grove of stately redwoods reaching high above the fun.

…backed up by a talented cast of servants and outlaws, in a grove of stately redwoods reaching high above the fun.

The Curtain Theatre has no curtain, and their theatre is the Old Mill Park Amphitheatre, behind the Mill Valley Library on Throckmorton. Their productions are open to all at no charge, donations are most welcome, and chairs are set out in the glen, first come first served. The audience is filled with families, blankets, chairs, and picnics. It’s endearing to see the children enraptured by Shakespeare’s legacy. They get it!

Playing at 2 PM Saturdays and Sundays and through Labor Day Monday September 5th. Admission is FREE and donations are happily appreciated. Open seating, picnics welcome, cookies and coffee available for purchase, and chairs are provided on a first-come basis, or bring your own. Dress in layers as this redwood grove is always much cooler than the street level.

And, psssst..…If you’d like a sneak peek at this amazing work, try this video on You Tube:  https://youtu.be/JBCCpfpd368

 

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionTwo Gentlemen of Verona
Written byWilliam Shakespeare
Directed bySteve Beecroft
Producing CompanyCurtain Theatre
Production DatesSaturdays/Sundays and Labor Day Monday at 2 p.m. through September 5th
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
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yea, Verily!

 

ASR Theater ~~ Hillbarn Falters with “The Four Gifts”

By Sue Morgan

The playbill for “The Four Gifts” notes that Joe Bradley was coaxed into letting his well-regarded autobiography be adapted for the stage.

Pity. This story of faith, loss of faith, drug and alcohol addiction, hitting bottom, becoming a priest, overcoming life-threatening obstacles, and Bradley’s heart-felt life of service to others, is evidently much more effectively expressed in prose.

As scripted and performed at Hillbarn Theatre, “The Four Gifts” fails to create a genuinely human character that the audience can connect with. The poorly executed script is further hampered by stilted language—I didn’t notice a single contraction—overly short scenes, and confusing casting. When asked before the play what role he played (the program didn’t delineate cast members’ roles), Randy Allen stated that he played several roles, including Father Joe, noting, “We’re all Father Joe.”

…the play’s acting…was strangely devoid of emotion.

It quickly became apparent that his meaning was literal as well as figurative as each of the ten actors in turn transformed into Joe by donning a gold cross on a chain, passing it along to the next player when it was his or her turn. It’s an interesting concept to express the universality of every human’s struggle but, in practice, disconcerting and awkward.

The Cast listen to a sermon given by Johnny Villar (R). *Photo Appears Courtesy of Actor Equity Association. Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography.

In contrast to the intensity of the subject matter, the play’s acting itself was strangely devoid of emotion. Perhaps because the players switched scenes and characters so often and quickly, they never had time to settle into a role before rushing off to the next scene.

The three screens onto which background scenes were projected at times worked beautifully but were otherwise ill-fitted to the images on display, adding a sense of vertigo, such as when a seminary wall tilted precariously to one side.

Joseph Steely (L) give Johnny Villar (R) council. Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography.

The screens were also sometimes illuminated to very good effect, exposing shadow play, such as the goings-on in a hospital room, or a patient in a hospital chapel, fervently praying while attached to an IV pole.

Costuming was appropriate, the lighting fine, and sound design spot on, but given the show’s conceptual and performances shortcomings, you might want to give “The Four Gifts” a pass.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Four Gifts
Written byFather Joe Bradley and Antonia Ehlers
Directed byCara Phipps
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThrough Aug 21st
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$30-$58
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2/5
Performance2/5
Script2.5/5
Stagecraft2.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ 6th Street Showcases Playfulness with “Pride and Prejudice”

By Cari Lynn Pace

Step inside the 99-seat Monroe Stage black box theatre you’ve entered the drawing room of a 19th century English country manor. There’s a lovely scene behind the columns, reminiscent of a Maxfield Parrish painting. The floor has been transformed into a colorful faux-carpet, and there are touches of lace and lush drapery in the corners of the theatre.

The stage is set for “Pride and Prejudice,” an inventive adaptation by Kate Hamill of Jane Austen’s classic 1813 novel—an avant-garde production with contemporary costume touches mixed with period dresses and proper gentlemen’s coattails.

6th Street Playhouse chose to bring this nationally-recognized version to the Santa Rosa stage under the direction of Laura Downing-Lee. Opening night was sold out.

…the actors’ virtuosity and skill at their craft are apparent throughout this production.

The plot is driven by Mrs. Bennet, the rapacious mother of five daughters who must be married off to bring the family future prosperity. Enacted by stage veteran Kristine Ann Lowry, Mrs. Bennet brings laughter with her overbearing entreaties and dramatic entries and exits. The eldest daughter, Elizabeth, has sworn off love and marriage, secure in her denial of the existence of a perfect man. Neither her mother nor her sisters Jane (Lauren DePass) and Lydia (Sierra Dawn Downey) can persuade her otherwise.

Miranda Jane Williams infuses the pivotal role of Elizabeth with a precise accent, clearly enunciated for all to hear in this small ¾ round theatre. Some of her castmates could use better projection and accents, as their backs are frequently turned.


Pride and Prejudice’s Matthew Cadigan and Miranda Jane Williams.

Those familiar with “Pride and Prejudice” know that when Mr. Darcy, portrayed by Matthew Cadigan as a wealthy aristocrat with proud class distinction, is introduced to Elizabeth, their conversation provokes an instant dislike between them. That is not the end of the story, but rather the spark which eventually ignites the beloved “happy ending.”

The cast has a blast with some over-the-top characterizations. Shifting roles, costumes, and genders in amusing combinations, the actors’ virtuosity and skill at their craft are apparent throughout this production.

Lowry and Downey at work.

Skyler King draws the first laughs as the oversized and beleaguered sister Mary, only to reappear in the next scene as amiable and handsome suitor Mr. Bingley. Lauren DePass plays quiet Jane and loopy Miss De Bourgh. Sierra Dawn Downey convincingly channels a bubbly and impetuous 14-year-old, then transforms into an imperious dowager in a later scene. Tim Hayes, the elder in the cast, swiftly changes from Mr. Bennet to re-emerge as a spinster cousin. It’s all very well done and great fun to watch.

The scene-stealer role in this “Pride and Prejudice” undoubtedly belongs to Elijah Pinkham, an actor with such skill at his craft that he is alternately the unctuous and hilarious reverend Mr. Collins, the sharp Lieutenant Wickham, and the haughty and disdainful Miss Bingley. He immerses himself into each role so deeply that he is unrecognizable.

The actors do this character switching repeatedly and seamlessly from all corners of the theatre, all the while moving stage furniture for the next scene. Bravo to all!

DePass (top/L), Sierra Dawn Downey, & King.

The book “Pride and Prejudice” has spawned many films, television programs, and stage adaptations, even including one with Zombies.

This 6th Street Playhouse production is fun, while retaining Austen’s moral of the story: prejudice defended merely by pride will lose out. It’s a lesson for today’s bellicose bias and attitudes. Shakespeare was correct: “All the world’s a stage.”

Note:  When you go, Artistic Director Jared Sakren is protective of everyone at 6th Street. All patrons must show proof of vaccination at the door and wear masks inside. While theatres have been caught short by Covid illness of cast members, Sakren discloses that every actor in “Pride and Prejudice” has an understudy ready to assist.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionPride and Prejudice
Written byKate Hamill, based on Jane Austen’s novel
Directed byLaura Downing-Lee
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM through August 28th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$34 – $39; at (707) 523-4185
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Big Fun in Chinatown: “The Empire Strips Back”

By Barry Willis

San Francisco has a long strong history of audacious theatricality.

Home-grown dazzlers include The Cockettes, The Tubes, Beach Blanket Babylon, and Teatro ZinZanni. Add to this list two or three annual performances of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” periodic revivals of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” an occasional over-the-top production of “Cabaret” (SF Playhouse, summer 2019) and hilarious touring shows such as “Head Over Heels” that rocked the Curran in spring 2018.

R2D2 and dancer. Photo by Kevin Berne.

At Chinatown’s Great Star Theater through October 2, “The Empire Strips Back” is very much in this tradition. The show originated in 2011 for a three-evening run in Sydney, Australia and became a national hit, touring Down Under for years before it went global.

“ . . . some of the most fun you’ll have in a SF theater all summer long.”

Billed as “a parody of Star Wars,” the show is more a Star Wars-themed spoof, with dancers assuming the guises of many Star Wars characters and the stage filled with props from the long-running film franchise. The lack of a through-line doesn’t tarnish the production, a music-and-dance revue that in classic burlesque style features a comic emcee who keeps the audience laughing while stagehands scramble behind the curtain, prepping for the next act.

Old-time burlesque featured not only a comic emcee, but jugglers, clowns, and assorted other diversions between the real attractions: scantily clad female dancers, with which the Great Star is abundantly supplied. Jugglers and clowns are notably absent, unless you count a twerking Chewbacca late in the second act.

In a pale blue “Lando Calrissian” cape, Oakland comedian Kevin Newton serves amiably as emcee, with perfectly paced commentary on everything happening onstage and in the audience—a full house on opening night, and a rowdy one too. Who knew that San Francisco still had so many heterosexuals?

 

The show’s dancers are talented, gorgeous, and aggressive, with moves that encompass every dance genre from the early ‘60s to the hip-hop present. Erin Vander Haar is a standout, a superb performer with a compelling ability to flirt with her audience. The show’s pop music also encompasses the past 60-some years, going as far back as the Spencer Davis Group and into the contemporary era with pieces like “Seven Nation Army.”

Musically, and choreographically, there’s something for everyone in this show, but it’s geared for a young, contemporary crowd—especially those steeped in Star Wars lore, pretty much a definition of everyone born after 1965. Newton generates plenty of laughs with cult-insider humor.

The Empire Strips dancers. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Dance segments are outrageously delightful, such as one that liberally quotes the famous hair-slinging scene in the film “Flashdance,” done here atop Luke Skywalker’s hovercraft. As big as a dump truck, Jabba the Hutt appears onstage with dancers cavorting around and on him. Whether solo, duets, trios, or ensemble, the dance troupe is phenomenal. Stagecraft varies from amateurish to astounding.

Takeaway: “The Empire Strips Back” is as far from serious theater as we can get, and what a welcome departure it is. We have to go back to “Head Over Heels,” more than four years ago, to remember a show where the audience sang along and afterward lingered on the sidewalk out front as if they didn’t want to leave. It’s probably some of the most fun you’ll have in a SF theater all summer long.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Empire Strips Back
Production DatesThrough October 2. 2022
Production AddressGreat Star Theater
686 Jackson St.
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://feverup.com/m/114054
Tickets$39 - $100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Choreography5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ “Hooray for Hollywood” Hits the Mark; Transcendence Shows Off Silver Screen Energy

By Cari Lynn Pace

Lights, Camera, Action! Hollywood’s movies inspire and propel the latest Transcendence Theatre Company’s production, now showing live onstage at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, CA. If you grew up watching movies, and rocked along with the music, you’ve got to see this energy-packed show.

Over five dozen songs from movies then and now delight the senses in this fast-paced and multi-level production. Fifteen singers and dancers show off their vocal power and athletic moves as the klieg lights pierce the night. The stage bursts with costume changes from “The Greatest Showman” to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

Hooray for Hollywood cast working.

There’s a lovely pas de deux from “An American in Paris” and a clever “Jailhouse Rock” medley interspersed with “West Side Story.” The audience gave a standing cheer to “The Show Must Go On” in the second act, and many joined in when the “Time Warp” and “Footloose” let loose.

“…star talents with tight yet fluid moves. The silver screen never looked this good!”

Transcendence’s Musical Director Susan Draus conceived this amazing evening, revealing her lifelong love of movie music. Director/choreographer Alaina Mills, highlights the dancers’ star talents with tight yet fluid moves. The silver screen never looked this good!

Transcendence has but a few weeks to rehearse their superb talent in their short summer season. On opening weekend of “Hooray for Hollywood,” one of the TTC veterans had been injured in rehearsal and unable to dance. She sat alongside the orchestra and sang her part beautifully, smiling along with her fellow dancers. What a brilliant way to build company camaraderie!

Transcendence began ten years ago with a handful of singing and dancing performers who escaped their summer gigs on Broadway and LA stages. From their humble start as a nonprofit established to support the Jack London State Historic Park, they’ve grown to be a beloved part of the Bay Area performing arts family in Sonoma. Transcendence now has Kids Camps and Outreach Programs to bring joyful theatre and workshops to all ages.

To have what many call “The Best Night Ever!” bring a picnic starting at 5 PM and share the summer with pre-show entertainment, gourmet food trucks, and premium Sonoma County wines. After the party, settle into your seat surrounded by the stone ruins of the park. Dress in layers, for when the moon rises the temperature falls.

Transcendence Theater Company – 2022 Hooray for Hollywood cast at work

“Hooray for Hollywood” is the second outdoor show in their three-part summer series and runs Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings through August 14th at the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen in Sonoma. Next up will be the outdoor “Gala” set for September 9-18, and their indoor Holiday Show this winter.

New this year is a “Transcendence For All” program that shares the joy of musical theatre with the community. Affordable tickets are available for $25, with closer-in seats starting at $49 to $165 for VIP at www.ttcsonoma.org or call the box office at 877-424-1414.

And finally, if you’d like just a brief peek at the energy and excitement of “Hooray for Hollywood”, check out this video clip: https://youtu.be/b1ct15tnk_w

“Hooray for Hollywood” — it’s a fun-filled spectacular!

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionHooray for Hollywood
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed byAlaina Mills
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough August 14th 2022
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen

2400 London Ranch Road, Sonoma
Websitewww.ttcsonoma.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$25-$165
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Choreography5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ A Redemption Story in “Deal with the Dragon” at Magic Theatre

By Barry Willis

Two rival artists get what they need, if not what they want, in Kevin Rolston’s compelling solo show “Deal with the Dragon” at Magic Theatre through August 13.

On a bare stage with a straight-back wooden chair as his only prop, Rolston brings to life Brenn, a mysterious and potentially malevolent spectre “from the Black Forest” who’s been intervening in human affairs “for centuries.”

Kevin Rolston (pictured) stars in Deal With The Dragon at Magic Theatre.

The tale begins with his hovering over the life of a tormented artist named Hunter, who’s competing against a rival named Gandy for what will be, for one of them, the first-ever exhibition of their works at a major museum.

Rolston’s neurotic but hugely entertaining characters succeed beautifully…

The story’s a good one, made better by Rolston’s superb embodiment of its three primary characters, each clearly delineated from the others. Along the way, he also performs several minor characters, including a museum director, a counselor at a twelve-step meeting, and an annoying teenage girl in a coffee shop.

Rolston is a confident performer with superb timing and an excellent sense of plying his audience, and earned a rousing ovation from the theater’s nearly full house on opening night. Directed by M. Graham Smith, he delves deeply into his characters’ quirks—especially Hunter’s—and closes the approximately one-hour performance on a hopeful note, not something that most theatergoers would expect from what’s essentially a darkly comic recital, its darkness amplified by Sara Huddleston’s sound effects. The bare stage is beautifully enhanced by Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky’s subtle lighting.

Kevin Rolston at work at Magic Theater.

The title “Deal with the Dragon,” of course, is an imperative to conquer one’s demons—psychological, chemical, what have you. Rolston’s neurotic but hugely entertaining characters succeed beautifully in doing so.

Faustian tales are almost always tragic—this one is an unusually upbeat redemption story. And “Magic Theatre” couldn’t be a more appropriate venue, because what Rolston does in little over an hour is sheer magic. As Brenn puts it on first meeting Gandy, “It’s not so much who I am as what I can provide.”

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionDeal With The Dragon
Written byKevin Rolston
Directed byM. Graham Smith
Producing CompanyMagic Theatre
Production DatesThru August 13, 2022
Production AddressMagic Theatre Ft. Mason Center, Bldg D 2 Marina Blvd. San Francisco, CA.
Websitemagictheatre.org
Telephone(415) 441-8822
Tickets$20 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Maximum Nostalgia: “Follies” at SF Playhouse

By Mitchell Field

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical “Follies” first opened April 4, 1971. It was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, won seven, and has enjoyed many revivals.

During her 1987 West End performance, Eartha Kitt sparked a comeback and went on to perform her own one-woman show to sold-out houses after “Follies” closed. Several songs from the show—“Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” “Losing My Mind”—have become standards.

…an awesome, great, and exhausting show, done with San Francisco Playhouse panache!

The latest version of “Follies” arrived at the San Francisco Playhouse July 20, after five years in development and delays due to Covid. The show had never been performed in its entirety by a professional troupe in The City, according to director Bill English, also co-designer of the show’s imposing set and projections with Heather Kenyon.

Phyllis Rogers Stone (Maureen McVerry*, center) reckons with life’s choices through ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie,’ accompanied by (L-R) Jill Slyter, Chachi Delgado, Anthony Maglio, M. Javi Harnly, Cameron La Brie, and Ann Warque. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse. (*Equity Actor)

Set as a reunion of past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies,” (a musical revue based on the Ziegfeld Follies, that played in that theater between the world wars) in a soon-to-be-demolished Broadway theater, the show focuses on two mature married couples at the reunion: Buddy and Sally (Anthony Rollins-Mullens and Natascia Diaz, respectively) and Ben and Phyllis (Chris Vettel and Maureen McVerry, respectively).

Sally and Phyllis were once showgirls in the Follies; both marriages are in trouble. Ghosts of former showgirls as youngsters glide through the crumbling theater without being seen by the revelers. Thus begins a series of musical numbers performed by the Follies’ many veterans, exploring their lives and desires, while “invisible” younger performers mirror them in counterpoint. Other ghosts from former shows appear and the characters try to recapture their youth in re-creations of past performances.

The ghosts of Follies past (L-R: Catrina Manahan, Samantha Rose Cárdenas, Ann Warque, Danielle Cheiken, and Emily Corbo) welcome you to Dimitri Weismann’s theater. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse.

Broadway producer/director Hal Prince said of the show: ” ‘Follies’ examines obsessive behavior, neurosis and self-indulgence.”

Spirited, emotional and touching musical numbers performed by a perfectly-cast blend of seasoned professionals and talened newcomers fill this production with energy and verve, as do many lively and dynamic dance routines.

While the book by James Goldman is thin on plot, as one of the show’s characters opines: “Facts never interest me, what matters is the song!” Originally a one-act show, “Follies” was later expanded into two acts. Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote: “It wasn’t until the second act that I fell in love all over again with ‘Follies’.” This reviewer concurs.

As with several Sondheim shows, the second act is often “where the beef is.” The second act of “Follies” is wildly divergent from the first, as in “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods.” In “Follies,” the first act is primarily the introduction of characters and their back-stories. It’s a lot of exposition in the midst of glittering showgirls and assorted middle-aged matrons at the reunion party. Either by design or possibly due to opening-night nerves, act one got off to a stilted start, making the second act all the more spectacular.

Benjamin Stone (Chris Vettel*, center) reevaluates his priorities during ‘Live, Laugh, Love,’ accompanied by the Follies company (L-R: Emily Corbo, Anthony Maglio, Samantha Rose Cárdenas*, M. Javi Harnly, Catrina Manahan, Chachi Delgado, and Danielle Cheiken). Photo courtesy SF Playhouse. (*Equity Actor)

In the ‘Loveland’ scene, (“the place where lovers are always young and beautiful, and everyone lives only for love”), Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy, perform in a dream-like pastiche of vaudeville-style numbers in which each acts out their own particular folly.

The scene culminates in total hysteria, as the characters reveal their true emotions for all to see, before returning to the theater, the end of the reunion and the rest of their lives.

A long odyssey for SF Playhouse, “Follies” is an enormous undertaking for any theater company, requiring a large cast of triple-threat performers. The late critic Martin Gottfried wrote: “Follies is truly awesome and, if it is not consistently good, it is always great.”

This production lives up Gottfired’s description. Expertly directed by Bill English, with gorgeous costumes by Alba Berman and choreography by Nicole Helfer, it’s an awesome, great, and exhausting show, done with San Francisco Playhouse panache!

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Contributing Writer Mitchell Field is an actor and voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle based in Marin County, California. Contact: mitchfield@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionFollies
Written / Music byBook by James Goldman. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru September 10th, 2022
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Still Relevant: “Nan and the Lower Body” at TheatreWorks

By Sue Morgan

The two-hour drive from the Russian River to the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto proved to be more than worth the time to attend TheatreWorks’ world premier of Jessica Dickey’s remarkable “Nan and the Lower Body,” directed by Giovanna Sardelli.

Via a poignantly serendipitous series of circumstance, the production, which on the surface deals with women’s reproductive health, but at heart deals with every woman’s worth and right to be recognized as a human being, was originally scheduled to premier in 2020 but, due to the worldwide pandemic, was rescheduled for release a mere three weeks after what Dicky terms “this travesty; the overturning of Roe v. Wade.”

…a timely catalyst for deep reflection about the journey of women…

Dickey performs somewhat of a magic trick, successfully using both pathos and humor to express the urgency and maddening frustration of a midcentury medical system that ignored the number one cause of death in women (cervical cancer) due in large part to the discomfort of doctors and scientists in separating female anatomy from female sexuality.

Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) examines a slide as Dr. Papanicolaou (Christopher Daftsios), inventor of the Pap smear, watches in the World Premiere of “Nan and the Lower Body,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley July 13 – August 7.

Arriving in the US in 1913, Greek immigrant Dr. George Papanicolaou (skillfully played by Christopher Daftsios) toiled tirelessly for decades to develop and promulgate the use of the Pap Smear, allowing detection of cancers via analysis of cells found in women’s vaginal secretions.

Here, conceived as a jocular over-sharer and passionate champion of women’s rights, he exhorts all he meets to “call me Dr. Pap,” and enjoys frequent use of the word “vagina” to create discomfort in and shorten interactions with those who have interrupted his work. By contrast, in a deeply powerful scene, Pap’s face and gestures transform from angry frustration to compassionate tenderness as he gently places a series of unusable slides into the bottom of a garbage can, as if to honor the sacredness of the contents.

Nan’s character is based on Dickey’s maternal grandmother who became a cytologist. According to family lore, in 1952 she worked with Dr. Papanicolaou as a researcher, examining slides to ascertain the presence or absence of abnormal cells. Elissa Beth Stebbins’ Nan is a stolid woman determined to “do good” in the world both through the vehicle of her career and as a mother. Hired by Dr. Papanicolaou because of her insightful cover letter, outstanding academic performance and because she was “the only woman to apply,” Nan is secretly battling the baffling early stages of what will later prove to be multiple sclerosis.

Mache (Lisa Ramirez) meets Dr. Papanicolaou’s new assistant Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) in the World Premiere of “Nan and the Lower Body,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley July 13 – August 7.

In her first mainstage performance with TheatreWorks, Lisa Ramirez is compelling as Mache, Dr. Pap’s spouse, partner, former colleague, and test subject. Responding to her husband’s assertion that he knew she would be up to the task of being a doctor’s wife after seeing her bear an injury silently and without complaint, Mache momentarily cracks wide open as she admits that she remained silent because if she’d allowed herself to speak, she “would have sobbed.”

Jeffrey Brian Adams does a fine job as Nan’s husband, the minister Ted. In a riveting feminist discussion in which Dr. Pap asserts that women are superior to men because of the complexity and capabilities inherent in their anatomy, Ted insists that it is, paradoxically, essential for women to be seen simply as human beings if they are ever to be afforded the same rights and privileges as men. Ted points out that if women are seen to be “different,” they will continue to be subjected to separate rules.

Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) embraces her husband Ted (Jeffrey Brian Adams) after he visits her at work in the World Premiere of “Nan and the Lower Body,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley July 13 – August 7.

The various settings of the play—a university lecture hall, research lab, living room, night-time exterior—are depicted in keeping with the period with no outstanding features other than the lab’s examining table with stirrups. This adherence to the expected affords a lack of distraction so we can focus on dialogue and interactions between characters. Stagecraft by Nina Ball is superb, with one set literally splitting open in the center – half gliding off stage right and the other half stage left, after which the next set glides forward in a seamless motion that set off a chorus of appreciative gasps from the audience.

The Lucie Stern Theatre is itself a treasure. Set within a lovely neighborhood, it’s warm and inviting, spacious and well laid-out, with not a bad seat in the house. The outer courtyard with benches offered a lovely setting for the after-show reception.

“Nan and the Lower Body” acts as a timely catalyst for deep reflection about the journey of women (and the men who try to truly see them). When viewed through the lens of contemporary events, it also reminds us that progress is not always linear and must never be taken for granted.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionNan and the Lower Body
Written byJessica Dickey
Directed byGiovanna Sardelli
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThrough Aug 7th
Production AddressLucie Stern Theatre 1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto CA 94301
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662- 8778
Tickets$35 – $95
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Drowsy Chaperone” Delights at Sonoma Arts Live

By Nicole Singley

What do a tipsy wedding chaperone, a blundering Italian lothario, a pair of mobsters disguised as pastry chefs, and a musical theater-obsessed divorcé in an armchair have in common? They’re the unlikely ingredients for a night full of toe-tapping music, fun, and laughter in Sonoma Arts Live’s production of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” on the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall through July 31st.

With a delightful script that both celebrates and pokes fun at roaring 20s era musicals and vaudevillian hijinks, the show opens on North Bay stage veteran Tim Setzer – billed only as “Man in Chair” – regaling the audience with his love of classic musicals and ironically, his hatred of theater that breaks the fourth wall.

Tim Setzer as “Man in Chair” (Photo by Eric Chazankin)

But lucky for us, Setzer’s character continues to shatter that fourth wall to smithereens, with his frequently hilarious, oftentimes snarky, and occasionally sweetly reflective commentary. From the comfort of his armchair, he puts on a record and invites us to listen along to his all-time favorite musical as it comes to life before us on the stage.

With a quirky cast of characters, a bevy of silly song and dance numbers, and a classic will-they/won’t-they-tie-the-knot set-up, “The Drowsy Chaperone” – a fictitious musical from the late 1920s – is fantastic light-hearted fun, punctuated by catchy tunes and comical mishaps aplenty.

Daniela Innocenti-Beem in the title role (Photo by Eric Chazankin)

The production features some excellent ensemble work and a host of talented performers, though Daniela Innocenti-Beem steals the show with her powerhouse vocals. She’s an absolute hoot in the title role, too, stumbling in and out of scenes in a semi-drunken stupor.

. . . the perfect happy escape for anyone seeking a bit of refuge and good-natured fun.”

Andrew J. Smith is equally uproarious as Adolpho, the cape-clad caricature of an Italian ladies’ man, on a mission to break up the wedding. Maeve Smith takes an endearing turn as bride-to-be Janet Van De Graff, boasting a beautiful voice and a (deliberately) terrible French accent. Setzer is the show’s anchor, and phenomenally good in the role of “Man in Chair,” chaperoning us through the action on stage.

The cast of “The Drowsy Chaperone” at work!

Supporting cast members are marvelously entertaining, too. Jonathen Blue shines as George, the tap-dancing best man, joined by Stephen Kanaski, who makes a charming groom-to-be and earns laughs with his blindfolded roller-skating. Emily Owens Evans perfects the ditzy aspiring starlet trope as Kitty, and Sean O’Brien deserves kudos for enduring a series of preposterous spit takes in the role of “Underling.”

Liz Andrews has done an admirable job with style and period-appropriate choreography for this show. Rebecca Ann Valentino’s costumes deserve a nod, too, thanks to an array of fabulous, flapper-inspired frocks and a host of other elaborate get-ups that add immensely to the fun.

Stephen Kanaski and Maeve Smith as the bride and groom to-be (Photo by Eric Chazankin)

Brindle Brundage and Ryan Severt have designed and built a simple but charming set, with a clever layout enabling it to serve as both Setzer’s apartment and the stage for a full-ensemble musical. From ringing phones to record players, sound effects by Tom Luekens are perfectly timed. The accompaniment of a live band under Sherrill Peterson’s direction makes the music loud and lively, though at times it drowns out the singers on stage, due in part to the hall’s challenging acoustics. But any bumps in the road are easily forgiven amid the merriment.

As the “Man in Chair” reminds us, music and theater have the power to transport us away from our daily stress and struggles when we’re feeling blue. “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a celebration of this power, and the perfect happy escape for anyone seeking a bit of refuge and good-natured fun.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Drowsy Chaperone
Written byBook by Bob Martin and Don McKellar; Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThrough July 31st
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR Theater ~~ A Family Divided: “Dreaming in Cuban” at Central Works

By Barry Willis

Political differences have shattered families and friendships since the dawn of history. Cristina Garcia’s “Dreaming in Cuban,” by Berkeley’s Central Works through July 31, examines the impact of the Cuban revolution on a family irreconcilably divided by the event and its ideology.

The time is 1979-80. Mary Ann Rodgers stars as Celia del Pino, a true-believer revolutionary whose two adult daughters have gone in vastly different directions. One, Lourdes (Anna Maria Luera) left Cuba to open a successful bakery in Brooklyn, NY, while her rudderless sister Felicia (Natalia Delgado) chose to remain on the island. Among the many “gusanos” (worms) allowed to depart in the wake of the revolution, Lourdes is adamantly pro-capitalist and anti-communist. Her mother is the opposite, with a near-religious faith in Fidel Castro and his cause.

Central Works has a tradition of performing new plays…

Living far apart, they’ve had little communication until the sudden death of Felicia brings Lourdes and her artistic teenage daughter Pilar (Thea Rodgers) back to the island for the funeral. The story of the two sides of the family unfolds in parallel, going back and forth between Lourdes/Pilar and Celia/Felicia.

Pilar proves to be one of the script’s most interesting and most malleable characters, with the biggest character arc. As a teenage lefty, she has doubts about the benefits of capitalism and some sympathy for the social experiment taking place in her ancestral homeland, somewhere she’s never visited until late in the tale.

Mary Ann Rodgers as Celia, Anna Maria Luera as Lourdes

In significant ways “Dreaming in Cuban” is told almost passively from Pilar’s point of view, and more assertively from the perspectives of Celia and Lourdes. Familial love runs deep, but not deep enough to fill the divide between those on opposite sides.

Pilar’s starry-eyed fascination with the revolution is tempered by a few days in Cuba. She’s the delicate suspension bridge between two previous generations. No longer enamored with communism, she comments near the end of her visit: “Utopias have a terrible track record.”

Working in a small space in the Berkeley City Club, Julia Morgan’s beautiful old building on Durant Avenue, Central Works has a tradition of performing new plays with almost no set, relying instead on a few essential props, some projected images, and great sound design by Gregory Scharpen, almost compensating for the emptiness and constraints of the space.

The cast at work in Central Work’s “Dreaming in Cuban”

The performers in this production are generally quite good, especially Rodgers, Rodgers, and Luera. Eric Esquivel-Guiterrez does a nice turn as Max, Pilar’s Brooklyn-based musician boyfriend, and as Ivanito, Felicia’s son. Steve Ortiz appears in two minor roles, and voices a couple of announcers.

Developed from her novel of the same name, and directed by Gary Graves, Garcia’s play has enormous potential, not fully mined in this production. The near-total lack of set requires the audience to do an unusual amount of filling-in-the-blanks that isn’t counterbalanced by impassioned performances and excellent sound design.

Theater goers may find a lot to like in “Dreaming in Cuban,” especially should it be undertaken in a larger venue. The City Club production won a “Go See” recommendation from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionDreaming in Cuban
Written byCristina Garcia
Directed byGary Graves
Producing CompanyCentral Works
Production DatesThru July 31, 2022
Production AddressBerkeley City Club
2315 Durant Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704
WebsiteCentralWorks.org
Telephone(510) 558 -1381
Tickets$22 - $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?---

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Latin Flair Brings the Heat as Transcendence Theatre Returns with “Let’s Dance”

By Cari Lynn Pace

Summers at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen have been parched and dusty ever since Transcendence Theatre Company abandoned their outdoor stage for two years due to the pandemic.

TTC’s award-winning assemblage of talented singers and dancers from Broadway and LA shows have finally burst back onto the stage for their summer season opener “Let’s Dance.” They’ve returned with smiles, boundless energy, and rhythm from top to toe.

When the orchestra sounds the opening note, and the bright lights go up onstage, prepare to be blown away!

Transcendence has presented productions under the stars at Jack London State Park for ten summer seasons. Their successful “Best Night Ever!” formula has traditionally been a potpourri of popular song-and-dance numbers from hit musicals. “Let’s Dance” is their first summer offering for 2022, to be followed by two later productions: “Hooray for Hollywood” in late July and early August, and “The Gala” in September.

“Let’s Dance” displays the influence of guest director and choreographer Luis Salgado, whose Puerto Rican roots give the entire production a Latin flair. Salgado enthuses “I wanted to showcase the cultural heritage of dance to include salsa, Peruvian tap, and drum solos. We blended these with contemporary moves. It was a challenge rehearsing new movement styles outdoors in the heat of the sun, waiting for it to cool off a little. But we did it! I love this community and its spirit, its soul!”

L to R: Catherine Wreford, Anna Aliau I. Guerra, CorBen Williams, Sophie Lee Morris, Kyle Kemph Photo Credit: Rob Martel

Salgado brings out the best from TTC’s troupe of skilled dancers. Their exhaustive efforts—strenuous, athletic, and precise—give a rousing start to the opening number in “Primer Acto” (Act I.) Twenty singers and dancers, including many new faces among beloved Transcendence regulars, keep the energy charged up.

Segundo Acto (Act II) starts with a Peruvian drum solo improvisation by guest artist Luis Antonio Vilchez Vargas in baggy white pants and a big smile. The audience claps as instructed, to amusing pantomime. The feel-good atmosphere rises as does the moon above the stone ruins of the park.

“Let’s Dance” is mostly dance, yet plenty of singing numbers also shine. Spanish speakers may enjoy “Dos Oruguitas” while all can follow the many musical medleys packed with Broadway hits. The production is splendidly accompanied by the 10-piece Transcendence Band conducted by Matt Smart.

Jack London State Historic Park starts admitting picnickers to TTC performances as early as 5 p.m. Patrons bring hampers, food trucks ply their wares, premium wine and beer vendors offer tastes and sell glasses and bottles—to be enjoyed outside the amphitheater, as no alcohol may be brought in.

CorBen Williams & Brianna-Marie Bell Photo Credit: Ray Mabry

Live music encourages the fun and friendly banter in the dry open field, amusingly mislabeled the “great lawn.” Outdoor seating, all assigned, begins in the stone ruins as the sun drops low beyond the mountains. New this season are chairs with padded seats and backs, a welcome addition to the winery ruins.

Just before the show starts at 7:30, take time to breathe deeply of the clear air in the summer night. As the nearby vineyards glow in the setting sun, get out a jacket and lap blanket, and enjoy the quiet beauty of this Valley of the Moon. When the orchestra sounds the opening note, and the bright lights go up onstage, prepare to be blown away!

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionLet's Dance
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byLuis Salgado
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThru July 3rd, 2022
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Rd. Glen Ellen, CA 95442
Websitewww.transcendencetheatre.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414. Toll free,
Tickets$25 -$49-$165 VIP
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ 6th Street’s “9 to 5” a Feel-Good Feast

By Barry Willis

An inept small-scale rebellion leads to major improvements in a corporate office in “9 to 5, the Musical” at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through June 26.

Based on the proto-feminist comedy film from 1980 starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dabney Coleman, “9 to 5, the Musical” expands on the original with more music and lyrics by irrepressible singer/songwriter Parton, who introduces and closes the stage show via video clips. Between these bookends lie two hours of hilarity and silliness, tremendous song and dance, and plenty of barbed commentary about gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and managerial incompetence—problems as rampant today as they were forty-two years ago.

“9 to 5, the Musical’ is a feel-good reminder of what’s possible…

Fans of the film—and those who’ve never seen it—will find much to enjoy about this high-energy musical comedy. In fact, with its larger repertoire of musical numbers and its huge cast of talented performers, they may find that they enjoy this Carl Jordan-helmed production more.

Mark Bradbury as Franklin Hart

Mark Bradbury appears as Franklin Hart, a slimeball boss whose idea of humor is “How does a woman lose 95% of her intelligence? She gets divorced.” Hart’s a character easy to hate, but one so goofy that he actually evokes some sympathy. He’s clueless, and clueless about being so. He clearly doesn’t know that his 1950s attitudes and behaviors are no longer acceptable. He also doesn’t understand the threat lurking in his female underlings—ditzy Doralee Rhodes (Anne Warren Clark), workplace-hardened Violet Newstead (Daniela Innocenti-Beem), and new recruit Judy Bernly (Julianne Bradbury), whose office skills are so limited that she doesn’t know how to feed paper into a typewriter. Hart’s only trusted ally at work is his assistant Roz (Jenny Boynton), who almost foils the plot against him.

The cast at work at 6th Street

It’s a great comedic setup—one that plays out beautifully across the big stage in the G.K. Hardt Theatre. With impeccable comic timing and strong vocal abilities, Innocenti-Beem and Clark are perfectly cast and riveting to watch. Julianne Bradbury does a solid job as the less-assertive Judy, as does Noah Sternhill as junior accountant Joe, the rebels’ co-conspirator. Strong cameos include Cindy Brillhart-True as Franklin’s wife Missy Hart, and theater veteran Norman Hall as chief investor Russel Tinsworthy. It’s a well-chosen cast.

Suprise!

But “9 to 5” isn’t simply a great performance. Parton’s music is consistently upbeat and enlivening, as is choreographer Devin Parker Sullivan’s work, which alludes to an earlier era with a nod to the present. Monochrome slowly evolving to multicolor, the set by Eric Broadwater and costumes by Tracy Hinman also propel the story.

But the unspoken star of the show is Chris Schloempf, whose big bright projections fill the back of the stage. At intermission, theater director Marty Pistone, who worked with Schloempf on last year’s marvelous “Galatea,” commented “Chris’s work simply gets better and better. The guy is astounding.”

That’s the kind of upbeat feeling this show engenders, driving home its point with pervasive humor instead of angry admonitions. Franklin Hart gets his comeuppance—and with it, a promotion—while our conspirators create a workplace friendly to all, the kind of environment where most of us would be glad to spend our days. “9 to 5, the Musical’ is a feel-good reminder of what’s possible, even if by accident.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Production9-to-5 The Musical
Written byPatricia Resnick / Music and lyrics by Dolly Parton
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough June 26, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$32 – $42
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 ~~ Undead Cat Provokes Hilarity in MSW’s “Wink”

By Sue Morgan

Despite having read a synopsis of Jen Silverman’s “Wink” before attending the opening night performance at Main Stage West in Sebastopol, I was utterly unprepared for the existential poignancy and laugh-out-loud dark absurdist farce that awaited me.

The titular character, a cat named Wink, has gone missing. Wink’s human, Sophie (masterfully played by Ilana Niernberger, among the North Bay’s most versatile actors) is distraught but can’t prompt any concern from husband Gregor (John Browning). He’s long resented the affection Sophie expressed toward the animal, while maintaining a physical and emotional distance between herself and Gregor.

…a truly enjoyable evening’s diversion…

The simple set by David Lear—predominately a loveseat and wingback chair—alternates as a therapist’s office and the protagonists’ living room. Early in the story, Sofie destroys the room in a moment of grief, rage and roiling impotence. The mess remains throughout ensuing scenes, allowing the audience to perceive an appropriate façade and inviting us into the magical realism pervading this astonishingly original, brilliantly executed story.

Sam Coughlin may well have been a cat in a previous life, proved by his seamless embodiment of Wink. During his first appearance, the undead feline, driven by hunger, has risen from the grave. Coughlin, in flesh-toned briefs, moves about the set with grace, unbridled confidence and nearly-naked sexuality. He leaps effortlessly from floor to sofa back to window, sometimes draping himself languorously over furniture or an open lap, or rubbing seductively against a piece of furniture or the nearest human body part.

Michael Fontaine (L) as therapist Dr. Franz. Ilana Niernberger (R).

John Browning is utterly convincing as repressed, gaslighting husband and probable cat killer Gregor. While posturing as dismissive and unconcerned, Browning’s Gregor briefly allows us to glimpse an underlying thoughtfulness and vulnerability that allow us a few moments of compassion for his otherwise reprehensible character. The best villains always have redeeming qualities. The ensemble is rounded out by an adroit Michael Fontaine as therapist Dr. Franz, who sees both Sophie and Gregor professionally, but individually, reminding them that depression and dissatisfaction are synonymous with the human condition and that the proper course of action is to accept and steadfastly maintain both conditions.

Playwright Jen Silverman’s use of sophisticated language adds to the humor as Sophie attempts to explain the wrecked living room to Gregor. She invents a terrorist named Roland who, she says, came into their home, tore it up and pushed her menacingly (and, judging by her reenactment of the imaginary scene, quite seductively) against a wall. When Gregor asks how Sophie knows the assailant’s name and occupation, she explains that he told her “In a letter” which he communicated via “semaphore” from the roof of a nearby home.

John Browning (L) as Gregor.

Absurdities pile one on the other as the play progresses. Bent on revenge against Gregor, Wink moves in with Dr. Franz. The two begin sharing nightcaps and flirtations. While at first frightened and somewhat repelled by Wink, Dr. Franz is soon smitten with the cat and begins to let go of his dictum that life is nothing but responsibility and drudgery.

In a playfully sexual scene, Wink encourages Franz to loosen up by showing him how to walk and stand like a cat, placing his paws on Franz’ hips, reminding him that he has hips and shoulders. In one of the most poignant scenes, Wink announces that he’s leaving because he refuses to allow himself to be “skinned twice.” Franz implores Wink to tell him, before he leaves, if he has any feelings at all for him. Wink responds by rubbing himself lovingly against Franz, clearly moved by the gesture.

Ilana Niernberger at work in “Wink” at MSW.

As Dr. Franz begins to open up, Gregor is being swept down a maelstrom of rage and self-directed violence while, simultaneously, Sophie sheds her own persona, trading khakis and sneakers for black leather and combat boots, as she transforms herself into Roland in his over-the-top destructiveness and freedom from the constraints of civilized society. All three characters have taken unpredictable vectors thanks to Wink, who’s still out there somewhere, perhaps wreaking vengeance on another cat-hating egotist.

We might assume that one cat couldn’t have the power to upend the lives of three people, but that misgiving is put to rest in this 75-minute one-act directed by James Pelican. “Wink” sails along without a hitch toward a marvelously ambiguous conclusion—a truly enjoyable evening’s diversion.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionWink
Written byJen Silverman
Directed byJames Pelican
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru June 25th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!-----

 

 

 

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Ibsen Classic Gets a Striking Sequel: “A Doll’s House Part 2”

By Cari Lynn Pace

A stately 1879-era living room, complete with divan and chandelier, sets the stage for this four-person drama at the intimate 99-seat Novato Theatre Company: “A Doll’s House Part 2” written by Lucas Hnath as a continuation of Henrik Ibsen’s original. It’s a winner.

Hnath has created this sequel adroitly using four original characters. It is not necessary to have seen Ibsen’s original play to follow the plot of “Part 2.” This story, like the original, vacillates between uplifting and troubling in its examination of gender and society’s rules.

The die is cast when Torvald tells Nora “There’s the door. I know you know how to use it.”

This story, like the original, vacillates between uplifting and troubling in its examination of gender and society’s rules.

Director Gillian Eichenberger has pulled astounding performances from her well-experienced acting ensemble, lending depth and validity to their roles.

Nora, a determined and now successful woman of substance, returns after 15 years to her former home. She had walked out on her husband and young children in a quest to find a life that had purpose and passion. When award-winning Alison Peltz takes the stage as Nora, she imbues her with near-manic confidence, sure in her conviction of emotional decisions made so long ago.

Peltz and Hall at work. Photos by NTC.

As Nora initially shares her past with aging Anne Marie, the nanny beautifully portrayed by veteran Shirley Nilsen Hall, the question explodes: Why has Nora returned?

Nora’s husband Torvald unexpectedly shows up, and the biting recriminations begin. Torvald’s anger at Nora’s past behavior bubbles to the surface in a solidly convincing performance by Mark Clark. Nora wants something and displays herself to be self-centered and manipulating. Torvald says no.

Can Nora’s daughter Emmy, now grown, help convince Torvald to give Nora what she wants? The role is convincingly enacted by young Jannely Calmell, who stands up to Nora’s sly suggestions.

How will this remarkably written drama end? The die is cast when Torvald tells Nora “There’s the door. I know you know how to use it.”

Covid checks and masks required as of this writing.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionA Doll’s House Part 2
Written byLucas Hnath
Directed byGillian Eichenberger
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough June 12th, 2022
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
WebsiteNovatoTheaterCompany.org
Telephone(415) 883-4498
Tickets$15 – $27
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Literary Revelation: MTC’s “The Sound Inside”

By Barry Willis

The lives of two talented writers intersect in unimaginable ways in Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” at Marin Theatre Company through June 19.

The SF Bay Area’s multiple award-winning Denmo Ibrahim stars as Bella, a middle-aged professor of creative writing at Yale University. New York-based actor Tyler Miclean appears opposite her as Christopher, a belligerent but talented freshman in one of her classes. In a lengthy self-deprecating prelude, Bella relates her history as a writer and lover of literature, her relationship status (single) and a diagnosis of a potentially terminal medical condition. She’s published only one novel in her career, but is sanguine and accepting of her entire situation, including the fact that at 53, she still lives in faculty housing.

Denmo Ibrahim as Bella in MTC’s “The Sound Inside.” Photo by Kevin Berne

Into her comfortable but under-achieving life marches Christopher, a rebel to the core. He comes to her office repeatedly without seeking permission, rants impressively and knowledgeably about all things literary, refuses to use email, and even pounds out his own work on a manual typewriter—“a Corona, recently restored,” he brags. He basically intrudes into her life through sheer intellectual force, an intrusion that mystifies, annoys, and beguiles her. He’s clearly her psychic equal, perhaps the first she’s ever encountered.

Brilliantly written, brilliantly directed, and brilliantly performed…

Their uneven friendship grows as they parry and thrust with every sort of literary reference—biographical tidbits about legendary writers, arguments about interpretations of plots and characters. Whatever erotic tension exists between them is subsumed in a mutual intellectual frenzy. She can’t resist nurturing their friendship even when it might be seen as inappropriate. Partly guiding and partly following, she’s compelled to stay with it wherever it may go, without any lingering sense of guilt. A truly free woman.

Tyler Miclean as Christopher and Denmo Ibrahim as Bella at work. Photo by Kevin Berne

Early on he tells her that he grew up in Vermont in a house filled with books, where his reclusive mother lives. Bella jokingly asks if his mother might be Joyce Carol Oates, the prolific novelist and career academic famous for writing in longhand, as did Kurt Vonnegut, another writer who gets more than passing mention in Rapp’s fascinating, tightly-woven tale.

Christopher proves to be Bella’s biggest fan when he not only quotes verbatim from her novel, but presents a copy as his proudest possession, a book she was certain had long gone out of print.

Smitten with her troubled and troubling angel, she helps him with his manuscript, a first-person account of horrific events that may or may not be fiction. Bella’s interpretations of her own events may or may not be fiction, too, as in a hilarious regret-free retelling of a one-night stand she initiated with a contractor in a New Haven bar.

Together, Bella and Christopher are like two strangers bobbing about in a rowboat on an unfamiliar and turbulent sea. But what a sea it is! It would be unfair to performers and audience alike to reveal where their little boat ultimately goes, but it’s a journey recommended with the utmost sincerity.

Denmo Ibrahim as Bella. Photo by Kevin Berne

Generously directed by Jasson Minidakis on a simple set by Edward E. Haynes, Jr., with gorgeous immersive projections by Mike Post, Ibrahim and Miclean take us on a fantastical exploration of little-examined territory. Their characters are far deeper than the self-absorbed literary types that we might expect on first meeting.

In some ways, “The Sound Inside” is a simple portrait of two people clinging to each other from sheer need, but in much larger ways it’s a sweeping celebration of the life-affirming potential that lies in every seemingly insignificant—even annoying—encounter.

Brilliantly written, brilliantly directed, and brilliantly performed, “The Sound Inside” is a paean to human connectedness—a stunning, lovely piece of magical realism. Marin Theatre Company could not have chosen a more poignant tale to close its 2021-22 season.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Sound Inside
Written byAdam Rapp
Directed byJasson Minidakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThru June 19th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$10 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Bright Star” Shines at Napa’s Lucky Penny

By Barry Willis

On rare occasions, a local production exceeds a national touring show by a wide margin. Such is the case with “Bright Star” at Napa’s Lucky Penny Community Arts Center through June 12.

The national touring production of the Tony-nominated musical, by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, debuted some years ago in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater—a well-performed but underwhelming theatrical event. By contrast, Lucky Penny’s is a sustained joyful celebration undertaken on a small stage by the most enthusiastic and talented ensemble we have seen in the North Bay in a long time.

It’s a case of everything being so right—casting, performance, set, costumes, music—that it’s hard to imagine how any of it could be improved….

Based on real events, “Bright Star” is a redemption story set in North Carolina in the 1920s and 1940s, and tells the tale of literary editor Alice Murphy (Taylor Bartolucci) and aspiring writer Billy Cane (Tommy Lassiter), a young soldier who’s just come home from World War II. Lucky Penny Artistic Director Bartolucci is astounding in encompassing both the young Alice and her more mature counterpart; Lassiter is equally compelling as the sweet-natured Billy, a fledgling writer who refuses to be told “no.”

Among many standouts in the cast are Sean O’Brien as Billy’s backwoods father, Daddy Cane; Kirstin Pieschke as Billy’s potential girlfriend Margo; Ian Elliot as Jimmy Ray Dobbs; and Lucky Penny Managing Director Barry Martin as the despicable, manipulative Mayor of Zebulon, NC, Josiah Dobbs—the sort of character that audiences love to hate. Jenny Veilleux is excellent as Lucy Grant, as is Dennis O’Brien as Stanford, Mayor Dobbs’ attorney and advisor.

All of the eighteen-member cast are great performers and superb singers, backed by a five-piece band led by Craig Burdette (including Peter Domenici on banjo). Burdette’s crew propels the Lucky Penny ensemble through almost two-dozen rousing heartfelt tunes, performed with some of the most athletic and authentic choreography imaginable, created by Jacqui Muratori and Alex Gomez.

Directed by Martin, the show moves along quickly through two beautifully-paced acts thanks to minimal set changes. There are enough set pieces to establish each scene, but nothing more. Martin said post-show that in rehearsals, he and Bartolucci kept deleting set pieces until they reached the bare minimum.

The gambit works perfectly, as does every other risk that Lucky Penny took in putting on this gorgeous production. It’s a case of everything being so right—casting, performance, set, costumes, music—that it’s hard to imagine how any of it could be improved.

This “Bright Star” is truly stellar—and a welcome rejuvenation in an era of soul-crushing news. We need all the uplift we can get. Lucky Penny delivers.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionBright Star
Written bySteve Martin and Edie Brckell
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru June 12th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$37-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Mountain Play Returns With Charming “Hello, Dolly”

By Barry Willis

In its century-long history, the Mountain Play been cancelled only twice. Its return this past Sunday May 22 was a welcome return to normal, more or less. One of the great pieces of musical Americana, “Hello, Dolly” (directed by Jay Manley) opened to a less-than-capacity crowd at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheater in Mt. Tamalpais State Park—a crowd that made up with enthusiasm what it lacked in numbers.

The warm but not sweltering weather was just about perfect for the audience, although probably a bit much for the performers, who nonetheless gave their all in a compelling and totally enjoyable production of the Michael Stewart/Jerry Herman classic about Dolly Gallagher Levi, matchmaker and all-purpose huckster with a heart of gold. With superb comic timing and a soaring voice, Dyan McBride shines in the lead role. As Dolly’s marriage target Horace Vandergelder, Mt. Play veteran Randy Nazarian is McBride’s equal in stage presence and chutzpah, if not in vocal talent.

…”first-rate ensemble dancing and the musicianship of a fifteen-member orchestra…”

Primary and secondary characters are all fully engaged and expert at “going big”—including Chachi Delgado and Zachary Frangos as Vandergelder’s loyal undercompensated employees Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, respectively. Jen Brooks is delightful as Irene Malloy, as is Jill Jacobs as Ermengarde.

Mountain Play
5238 – L to R: Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi (Dyan McBride), Barnaby Tucker (Zachary Frangos), Minnie Fay (Julia Ludwig ). Photo by: Robin Jackson.

Jesse Lumb turns in a great performance as Ermengarde’s boyfriend Ambrose Kemper, but the real standout in the cast’s second rank is Gary Stanford, Jr., whose comedic take on maitre d’ Rudolph Reisenweber is an absolute scream. Stanford pulls out all the stops in spoofing a pompous German, a highlight of the show’s second act.

Ensemble cast dancing. Photo by: Robin Jackson.

The real standouts in this production are first-rate ensemble dancing (choreography by Zoe Swenson-Graham / Lucas Michael Chandler, dance captain) and the musicianship of a fifteen-member orchestra under the direction of David Moschler.

Andrea Bechert’s set was incomplete on opening day, reportedly because of high winds and a labor shortage in the week before opening, but whatever was missing from the set didn’t hinder the show’s total charm.

“Hello, Dolly” marks a welcome return to some semblance of normalcy. Showgoers should be aware that once they begin the uphill trek from Mill Valley, signage is nearly non-existent, and the entrance to the park is much farther than they might imagine. Best to be prepared rather than to get lost along the way—cell phone reception isn’t great up there.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Production"Hello, Dolly"
Written byMichael Stewart – Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanyThe Mountain Play Association
Production DatesThrough June 19th, 2022
Production AddressCushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mount Tamalpais State Park, Mill Valley
Websitemountainplay.org
Telephone415-383-1100
Tickets$25 - $185
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 ~~ A North Bay Spectacle: “Matilda – The Musical”

By Barry Willis

A precocious girl struggles valiantly against ignorant parents and a cruel headmistress in “Matilda – The Musical” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, through May 22.

One of the most popular children’s stories since the 1988 publication of Roald Dahl’s novel, the stage adaptation “Matilda – The Musical” (written by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin) launched to great acclaim in 2010 and enjoyed long runs in London, New York, and throughout the world, garnering many prestigious awards.

In the past five years, the play has been available to regional theater companies eager to produce their own. North Bay theatergoers are lucky in several respects. Against who-knows-how-many competitors, Spreckels landed the rights to put on the show in the most spacious and well-funded physical theater in Sonoma County, also home to a huge talent pool. The show is an absolute spectacular, expertly helmed by Spreckels Artistic Director Sheri Lee Miller.

The cast at work: Rudopho, Wormwoods, & Matilda.

As per Dahl’s original, Matilda is a hyper-bright five-year-old who loves books, reading, science, math, and every variety of imaginative intellectual pursuit. She’s also blessed with telekinesis—she can move objects with her mind—an ability that proves useful late in the story. Her parents Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Garet Waterhouse and Shannon Rider, respectfully) are self-righteous dolts with no appreciation for the life of the mind.

Altogether, “Matilda – The Musical” is a fantastic show for adults and kids….

Her parents refuse to acknowledge Matilda’s uniqueness. In fact, they dismiss her special talents as if they somehow bring shame on the family. Mr. Wormwood, a disreputable used-car salesman, is especially proud of his disdain for reading and brags that everything he knows he learned from watching television. Mrs. Wormwood is much more interested in dance lessons with Rudolpho (Damion Matthews) than she is in her husband or daughter. Waterhouse and Rider throw themselves into these repugnantly juicy roles with a delicious degree of abandonment.

Matilda also contends with her school’s mean-as-hell headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Tim Setzer), whose pervasive dislike of children is often expressed by sending them to “the Chokey”—a small-scale torture chamber—for minor infractions. The versatile Setzer perfectly fits a character described by its creator as “a former world champion hammer thrower” who’s not above throwing misbehaving children across the schoolyard. (Onstage villains who get booed during curtain calls know they’ve done their jobs well.)

But Matilda has adult champions too—local librarian Mrs. Phelps (Gina Alvarado) and teacher Miss Honey (Madison Scarbrough), who makes Matilda’s welfare her personal quest. Alvarado and Scarbrough are both deservedly frequent performers on North Bay stages. Both sing beautifully in group scenes; Scarbrough shines in her solos. Jamin Jollo and Bridget Codoni are tremendous in a running subplot of one of Matilda’s own stories—scenes from “The Escapologist and the Acrobat.”

Matilda and Trunchbull at work.

The cast is huge—almost thirty performers, most of them youngsters—and to list them all would turn a review into something resembling a phone book. Suffice it to say that all are good and some are excellent.

Also excellent are the towering set pieces—huge oversize bookcases as seen from a small child’s perspective. The use of giant letter blocks as props is brilliant—props put to especially effective use in “Revolting Children,” one of the final musical pieces as the closing act winds down. Michella Moerbeek’s choreography is dynamic and delightful, but not too complex for young dancers. Lead by Lucas Sherman, a ten-piece band “in the pit” provides gorgeous accompaniment, but on opening night sometimes dulled singers’ vocal details. We have been told that sound imbalances are being addressed for future performances.

Altogether, “Matilda – The Musical” is a fantastic show for adults and kids, of whom there were a couple hundred in attendance on opening night. Finding a five-year-old who can act, sing, and dance at Broadway level is just about impossible, so the lead has always been multi-cast with adolescents to reduce the strain on them and give them time to study. Spreckels has two young talents alternating as Matilda—Gigi Bruce Low and Anja Kao Nielsen. Low appeared in the May 6 opener and put in a marvelous performance. Theater insiders report that Nielsen is Low’s equal. For ticket buyers, any production should be a worthy one.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionMatilda - The Musical
Written byDennis Kelly – Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough May 22, 2022
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $36
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 ~~ “The Government Inspector” – Comedy Imitates Life in this Russian Town

By Cari Lynn Pace

Those who are appalled at the travesties between Russia and Ukraine which dominate our headlines may enjoy a respite with this Ross Valley Players comedy, at the Barn at the Ross Art and Garden Center through June 5.

This farce lampooning government officials was written by Nikolai Gogol, a Russian playwright who exiled himself after this play was presented to the Tzar in 1836. Gogol was subjected to intense official disdain after he parodied government unscrupulousness.

Act II is truly a laugh out loud absurdity….

Although the location is not specific, the play takes place in a Russian town filled with corrupt officials and workers who continually (and successfully) defraud the system. Their deceits are profitable and mutually accepted among themselves, resulting in uninhabitable hospitals, sub-standard schools, courtroom graft, fake employment, and the like. One is reminded of the phrase repeatedly heard from a Russian friend: “We pretend to work, and the government pretends to pay us.”

Steve Price as The Mayor; Benjamin Vasquez as Dobchinsky;
Raysheina de Leon-Ruhs as Bobchinsky. Photo Robin Jackson.

The trouble begins when the Mayor belatedly discovers that a “Government Inspector” has arrived unannounced from St. Petersburg and is residing undercover. Those in charge fear that the inspector will report their misdeeds to the Tsar, with distressing consequences. The Mayor and his minions go into hyperdrive concocting schemes to cover up the extent of the town’s corruption. Steve Price is hilarious playing the blustering and panicked Mayor, a role he pushes over the top with present pandemonium. He’s in charge of the mayhem, and it is truly madness.

Hlestekov, an indolent and lowly clerk from St. Peterburg happens to be passing through the town and has lost his funds gambling. He’s holed up in the inn awaiting funds from his family when the town mistakes him for the dreaded inspector. Suddenly, a stream of rubles get thrust into his hands, labelled “welcome gifts.” Michel B. Harris plays this role perfectly, from an initially confused clerk to the role of a now-corrupt official commanding further bribes from the guilty.

It’s not only rubles that get this clerk’s attention. He takes the opportunity of this sudden power to seduce the Mayor’s daughter Marya (Hunter Candrian-Velez), all the while deflecting passionate advances from the Mayor’s lustful wife Anna (hilarious Pamela Ciochetti.)

Wood Lockhart. Photo Robin Jackson.

Harris revels in his new identity, upstaged only by the snide comments of his servant, enacted by veteran Wood Lockhart in an elf’s garb. Act II is truly a laugh out loud absurdity.

The large cast of fourteen, directed by Lisa Morse, jumps into their madcap roles with full tilt energy. Some frantic bits bring to mind the antics of the Three Stooges, other moments are clearly inspired by Groucho Marx. One might expect the cast to emulate Russian accents, although most do not. “The Government Inspector” misadventure could easily be transported to any corrupt city these days, which makes Gogol’s plot from the early 1800’s a timeless possibility.

“The Government Inspector” is an ambitious production and an audience pleaser with the RVP crowd. Costume and wig changes are supported by an offstage production team more numerable than the cast. “The Government Inspector” is a wild ride and a frivolous breath of fresh air in these sober times.

Note: Ross Valley Players requires proof of vaccination in keeping with public health protocols. Actors, stage crew and volunteers are fully vaccinated. To attend performances, attendees must show proof of being fully vaccinated and masks always must be worn. There are no food and drink concessions open as of this writing. Parking is free at the lot at 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Government Inspector
Written byNikolai Gogol
Directed byLisa Morse
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThursdays through Sundays until June 5, 2022
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Tickets$15-$30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Fun Home” is a Solid Bet at the Gateway Theater

By Barry Willis

Despite at least one very dark plot element and an abrupt tragic ending, 42nd Street Moon’s musical “Fun Home” fills its 95 minutes with uplifting and delightful song-and-dance. At the Gateway Theatre on Jackson Street in the city’s financial district, the show closes its three-week run this Sunday, May 8.

A lesbian coming-of-age story derived from cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, the show features the adult Alison (Rinobeth Apostol) in her studio, overseeing her past unfolding before her as she scribbles and scrawls—a theatrical replay of her creation of the novel. Scenic designer Mark Mendelson cleverly places her in a sort of god-like position where she can observe all that’s transpired to make her what she is. Apostol is a confident and compelling actor, onstage throughout the show, sometimes fully engaged with her castmates and sometimes merely a somewhat detached observer.

Central to the story is Alison’s sexual awakening, and her relationship with her father Bruce (Jason Vesely), an English teacher, home renovator, and funeral home director—quite an imposing set of skills—and a closeted gay man given to frequent flings that distress his wife Helen (Jennifer Boesing).

Grown Alison watches as her younger self, “Small Alison” (McKenna Rose) cavorts with her brothers John and Christian (Keenan Moran and Royal Mickens, respectively), and is especially attentive to “Medium Alison” (Teresa Attridge), the college-age version of herself who wonders about lesbianism before finally giving it a go with classmate Joan (Sophia Alawi).

The cast, stagecraft, lighting and sound are all very good….

New for this reviewer, Attridge is an astounding performer whose rendition of “Changing My Major” celebrates Alison’s embrace of her sexuality and her deep love affair with Joan. It’s the high point of the first act and quite possibly the high point of the entire production—a simply off-the-chart performance, among many that almost reach that level. Musical theater veteran Dave Dubrusky leads a small ensemble that perfectly backs the show’s many great songs, reinforced by Natalie Greene’s high-energy au courant choreography.

The cast, stagecraft, lighting and sound are all very good—a rare production with no glitches to grumble about. Directed by Tracy Ward, “Fun Home” is a solid bet for those seeking entertainment with a plausible modern through-line.

42nd Street Moon’s publicity hypes it as “a Bay Area regional premiere” but the show has played at least twice in the Bay Area, first at the Curran in January 2017 then again in October 2018 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. It’s a popular show. This one runs 95 minutes, no intermission. Expect a couple of other local productions within the coming 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionFun Home
Written byLisa Kron
Directed byTracy Ward
Producing Company42nd Street Moon
Production DatesThru May 8th
Production AddressThe Gateway Theatre

176 Jackson Street San Francisco, CA
Website42ndstmoon.org/
Telephone(415) 255-8207
Tickets$45 – $79
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

ASR Theater ~~ SAL’s “Grossingers” a Nostalgic Romp

 By Barry Willis

The Catskills mountain region in upstate New York made substantial contributions to American culture throughout most of the 20th century. Many legendary comedians and musicians worked “Borsht Belt” resorts such as the one brought to life by Sonoma Arts Live with its new production of the Stephen Cole musical “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s.” Cole is the show’s librettist/lyricist; the music is by Claibe Richardson with additional lyrics by Ronny Graham.

Dani Innocenti-Beem (r) wowing her scene partner!

Dani Innocenti-Beem solidly anchors the show as the entrepreneurial singer/comedienne Jennie Grossinger, who almost single-handedly converted what had been a rundown farmhouse into one of the most recognized and desirable vacation destinations in the eastern U.S. In a short silver-gray wig, she commands the stage whether singing, dancing, or riffing on the circumstances around her.

Larry Williams, the show’s co-director with Jaime Love, is also formidable as Sheldon Seltzer, the resort’s announcer/master of ceremonies/fallback comedian. He’s heavy on Henny Youngman-style wisecracks such as “Take my wife. She runs after the garbage truck shouting ‘Am I late for the trash?’ The driver shouts back, ‘No, jump in.’”

…a delightful morsel of musical theater….

Innocenti-Beem and Williams are both gifted and confident comedic performers. Their appearance together on the same stage guarantees a good time for the audience—whether the comedy is intentional or not, as happened on opening night with a balky curtain. The pair covered so well that most folks in the nearly sold-out house believed the curtain glitch was built into the script. It wasn’t, but perhaps Stephen Cole should consider making it so. The perfectly-timed incident certainly seemed like something that might have happened infrequently at Grossinger’s, and it provoked plenty of laughter.

The substantially-constructed first act is a decade-by-decade revisiting of the history of Grossinger’s, from its 1904 origins through the 1960s. Musical director Sherrill Peterson and her band provide excellent backing for the all-singing/all-dancing Grossinger clan: Dan Schwager as patriarch “Papa,” David Shirk as Jennie’s mate Harry, and HarriettePearl Fugit and Tommy Lassiter as Grossinger offspring Elaine and Paul, respectively.

HarriettePearl Fugit (r) at Sonoma Arts Live.

With its compelling and perfectly paced scene-by-scene through-line, the show’s opening act induces strong anticipation in the audience, who come back from intermission expecting a big payoff. The second act doesn’t fulfill this expectation. It feels under-developed, as if some story elements were left dangling or cut without consideration for how this might affect the entire production.

The result is that the show seems to end abruptly, frustratingly so for the audience, as our very entertaining history tour of Grossinger’s doesn’t reach into the 21st century. Act One has a strong dramatic arc sorely missing in the second one. Maybe that will be corrected in the sequel: “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s, Part Two,” but even incomplete, SAL’s show is a delightful morsel of musical theater.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionSaturday Night at Grossinger’s
Written byStephen Cole
Directed byJaime Love and Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesMay 8, 2022
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
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

ASR Theater ~~ Darkness Rules in “One Flea Spare” at Main Stage West

By Nicole Singley and Barry Willis

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut sometimes joked about his “vector analysis” approach to understanding stories, in particular the trajectories of primary characters.

For example, Cinderella’s personal vector moves like a rollercoaster through peaks of hope and valleys of despair, ultimately ending on a high note. Her arrow repeatedly goes across the “zero axis” between darkness and light. Many other stories take place entirely in the dark, without ever entering the light. Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is one, in which a young man named Gregor Samsa, despised and reviled by his entire family, wakes up one morning to discover that he’s been transformed into a giant cockroach.  The murderous rampage that is Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” similarly takes place entirely in the dark. There’s nothing uplifting in the script, and no possibility of a happy outcome. The fact that the whole affair is miserably depressing hasn’t hampered the play’s enduring popularity. Nor has it impaired “Sweeney Todd,” a show that’s performed with inexplicable regularity.

 “One Flea Spare” is a deep probe into the dark side of human existence….

Naomi Wallace’s “One Flea Spare” is in this tradition.  A depiction of four people forced to quarantine in an upscale London home during the Bubonic Plague of the 17th century, it begins morosely and gets darker from there. Director David Lear and his excellent group of performers at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West don’t try to gussy up Wallace’s dim view of humanity but bore into the historical and emotional darkness like coal miners eager for work. Allusions to the COVID pandemic weren’t intended by the playwright, but are more than appropriate today.

The setup is simple: people are dying in droves and the city has commissioned some enforcers to keep those still symptom-free indoors at home until officials deem it safe for them to come out. Kevin Bordi plays one such enforcer, a good-natured oaf called Kabe, who visits the Snelgrave home to nail closed the shutters so that no one can escape.

Matthew Cadigan, left, rehearses with director David Lear for “One Flea Spare” at Main Stage West. (Photo by Main Stage West)

He converses amicably with the homeowners—superbly played by North Bay theater veterans John Craven and Elly Lichenstein—who are harboring two fugitives, a sailor named Bunce (Matthew Cadigan) and a young servant woman named Morse (Miranda Jean Williams), who have taken unapproved refuge in the Snelgrave home.

The four spend the next 28 days together in the dank house (set design also by Lear) getting to know more than they ever wanted to learn about each other, confessing things that might best be kept unspoken, and violating all kinds of social norms. Familiarity leads to contempt, as the old adage has it, and contempt leads to malicious violence, details of which won’t be shared here.

“One Flea Spare” is a deep probe into the dark side of human existence, offset somewhat by moments when the characters connect and seem to share some humanity with one another, usually in the context of revealing past hurts and painful secrets, such as Mrs. Snelgrave’s sad story about a fire that killed her horses and left her scarred and in a lonely marriage. Morse and Bunce have their own unhappy tales, but there’s palpable erotic tension and longing between Bunce and Mrs. Snelgrave.

Such scenes add dimension to the overwhelming darkness. Some viewers may feel compassion for all but the house’s master, and may enjoy a strange sense of delight when the others band together to strip him of his power.

It’s a beautiful bit of symbolism. All three had suffered greatly under men such as Snelgrave—the sailor’s forced military service destroyed his personal life, the servant girl literally lived under the control of her masters, and the wealthy lady of the house spent her life trapped in a dead and hostile marriage. The bizarre quarantine situation throws these three unlikely people together and enables them to challenge the power structure that has ruled their lives. Their joy, of course, is terribly short lived.

“One Flea Spare” is not a fairytale, but there is a bit of light peeking through the darkness. The production doesn’t feel like a month in quarantine, but theatrical magic does its work to convey an overriding sense of fear and claustrophobia, stretched out long enough to give the audience a taste of house arrest and an appreciation for the freedom of simply walking outside into the open air.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionOne Flea Spare
Written byNaomi Wallace
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru April 30th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!-----

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Cinnabar’s Delightful “Three Tall Women”

By Barry Willis

Anyone who’s dealt with elderly-parent issues will find much to enjoy in “Three Tall Women” at Cinnabar Theater through April 24.

Laura Jorgensen astounds in Edward Albee’s oddly-constructed two-act play. In the first act, she appears as a resident of an upscale retirement complex, nicely rendered by set designer Brian Watson. She’s engaged in what’s almost a monologue with a caretaker played by Amanda Vitiello, and a law firm representative played by Tiffani Lisieux, who’s there to prompt her to pay attention to mail and messages.

None of the characters have names but are instead designated simply A, B, and C, respectively, by playwright Edward Albee. Best known for skewering American upper-middle-class intelligencia (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Delicate Balance” among his many creations), Albee continued the tradition with 1994’s “Three Tall Women,” minus the blackout drinking common to his earlier works.

Director Michael Fontaine has gotten an excellent performance from this three-woman cast; in other hands, the script might have proven too difficult…

Albee reportedly said that he derived most of his characters’ dialog from listening to his parents’ cocktail parties. It’s as authentic as it can be in this show. Jorgensen riffs continually and brilliantly, confusing past and present, bouncing back and forth between lucidity and incoherence, hilarity and despair. It’s a stunning act of theatrical mastery. She manages her heavy line load adroitly, with only a bit of help from Vitiello and Lisieux.

 

If there are glitches in her recital, they’ll be obvious only to those who know the script word-for-word—Albee included plenty of intentional glitches in her speech, as might be expected from a ninety-something woman talking to a captive audience. As delivered, it’s all quite realistic old-person stream-of-consciousness. Vitiello and Liseux basically function to get her back on track when she goes off the rails, which is often, and often hilarious.

All three reappear in the second act, as the same woman (“A”) at differing ages—92, 52, 26—in a postmortem discussion of her life as they hover over her bed, as insightful in its own way as the long meandering riff that occupies the first act.

Left to right – Amanda Vitiello (B), Tiffani Lisieux (C), Laura Jorgensen (A)

Director Michael Fontaine has gotten an excellent performance from this three-woman cast; in other hands, the script might have proven too difficult. Lisieux was a welcome newcomer for this reviewer, one eager to see what she does next. Vitiello demonstrated a delightful flexibility—playing essentially two characters, neither of them resembling each other or the ditzy Long Island neighbor that she played in “Cry It Out.” And Jorgensen may be the North Bay equivalent of a national treasure. The veteran actress (“House of Yes,” “Ripcord,” many more) is amazing and wonderful in “Three Tall Women.” Her performance alone puts it over the top.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThree Tall Women
Written byEdward Albee
Directed byMichael Fontaine
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough April 24th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

ASR Theater ~~ Thought Provoking — Lucky Penny’s “The How and the Why”

By Barry Willis

Two research biologists have an unexpected encounter in the run-up to a scientific conference in “The How and the Why,” at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through April 24.

Lucky Penny Associate Artist Karen Pinamaki stars as Zelda, a career evolutionary biologist involved in hosting the annual meeting of the National Organization of Research Biologists (NORB). A late applicant named Rachel (Heather Kellogg Baumann) comes to Zelda’s office to plead for a speaking slot at the conference, to defend her hypothesis that human females menstruate as form of protection against sperm cells, which she characterizes as “antigens.”

Her hypothesis has gotten plenty of pushback from the biology establishment, especially from men. She begs Zelda for a speaking slot, despite having reservations about some of her own conclusions and many misgivings about drawing the ire of conference attendees, some of whom have already bashed her for what they perceive as outlandish assumptions.

Lucky Penny deserves praise for producing such a thought-provoking play….

Rachel enjoys some sympathy from Zelda, whose own hypothesis met a similar reception nearly thirty years earlier—in Zelda’s case, the “grandmother hypothesis” speculating that women’s longer lifespans compared to men serve an evolutionary purpose: they are needed to help younger women with child-rearing duties.

The two biologists argue their convictions passionately, but the story isn’t really about science, despite the seeming plausibility of both concepts, and despite the realistically-depicted rampant nitpicking, back-stabbing, petty bickering, and professional jealously that infect the scientific community.

Their real issue is that Rachel is Zelda’s biological daughter, given up for adoption when she was only six days old. She’s now 28, the same age Zelda was when she got pregnant. The moment when she enters Zelda’s office is the first time they’ve met as adults. They are both professional scientists, the epitome of rationality, and they try their best to remain above emotional outbursts, but the emotion comes through despite their efforts to contain it—resentment, betrayal, guilt, feelings of abandonment and diminished self-worth, the whole panoply of negativity that can affect both those given away by their birth parents and those who gave them away.

Karen Pinamaki and HeatherKellogg Baumann at work.

Pinamaki and Baumann tread this emotional minefield with great care and a growing sense of carelessness, which becomes more pronounced as their mutual familiarity improves. Written by TV writer Sarah Treem (“House of Cards” among many other credits) and directed by Dana Nelson Isaacs, it’s an impressive pas de deux performed mostly in Zelda’s office (set design by Taylor Bartolucci and Barry Martin) and later in a Boston dive bar.

The two performers are very well balanced and amazingly dynamic with material that here and there may veer too far in the technical direction for some viewers. But strip out the scientific stuff, expertly woven into Treem’s story, and you have a universal tale of long-estranged mother and daughter reuniting in adulthood and trying to make a go of it from there.

An old adage about science is that it’s very good about explaining how events occur, but not so good about why. This fundamental observation applies not only to hard-core objective reality but also to a whole range of human behaviors. “The How and the Why” is a fascinating examination of two people trying to make sense of something that may not ever be fully understood either by them or by professional therapists. Lucky Penny deserves praise for producing such a thought-provoking play.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe How and the Why
Written bySarah Treem
Directed byDana Nelson Isaacs
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough April 24
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ 6th St’s Stunning “Hank Williams – Lost Highway”

By Barry Willis

The North Bay has been blessed recently with a spate of jukebox musicals, none better than “Hank Williams – Lost Highway” which opened at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse April 1 and has been EXTENDED to May 1st!

Authored by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, and expertly directed by Michael Butler, the show is a big production in every sense of the word—a cast of ten superb performers on the wide stage of the G.K. Hardt theater, with a spectacular set by Butler, Zach Bowlen, and Kristina Dorman, who painted the wonderful giant picture postcard that serves as backdrop.

Steven Lasiter stars as Williams, the doomed country star whose short career put an indelible stamp on American culture. Born with spina bifida, Williams was plagued by pain his entire life, something he tried to ameliorate with prodigious amounts of alcohol and prescription drugs—substances that proved his undoing as a performer and that ultimately ended his life. He died in the back seat of his Cadillac en route to a gig in Ohio—the official medical report cited “heart failure” while noting an alarming level of painkillers and alcohol in his blood. He was only 29 years old.

…an uplifting, life-affirming experience…

The show opens with a somber radio announcement of Williams’ passing, then flashes back to his adolescence in Alabama, where he was mentored by a bluesman named Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, played by real bluesman Levi Lloyd. Payne coached him on guitar, taught him melody and chord progression, and the fundamentals of songwriting, which Williams did entirely by ear. Despite creating dozens of hit songs that became American standards, he never learned to read or write music.

He said often that Payne was his only teacher. Butler emphasizes Payne’s importance by keeping him onstage throughout the show, sometimes in the shadows and sometimes in the spotlight to perform at key moments in the story. His presence also reinforces the fact that black music is both foundation and backbone of 20th-century pop music. Williams blended the blues form with traditional country instrumentation in a way that hooked millions of music fans—heartfelt melodies and simple lyrics evoking universal human desires and problems.

Photography by: Eric Chazankin

His band—the Drifting Cowboys—consists of excellent musicians who have stepped out of their comfort zones to double as actors. Michael Capella appears as Shag, the pedal steel player; guitarist Derek Brooker is Jimmy “Burrhead;” Michael Price is Hoss, the bass player; and Paul Shelansky is Leon, performing on mandolin, fiddle, and slide whistle. They rock the joint through dozens of Williams’ greatest songs, aided by tremendous sound design from Ben Roots.

Peter T. Downey does a fine job as “Pap” Rose, the recording engineer who became Williams’ manager. Jennifer Barnaba is solid as Audrey Williams, and Ellen Rawley is delightful as the unnamed waitress who runs off with Williams. Stage veteran Jill Wagoner is perfectly cast as Mama Lilly, Williams’ mother and his band’s sometimes manager and driver. She absolutely nails every nuance of a hard-working tough-as-nails Depression-era Southern woman.

Photography by: Eric Chazankin

The show encompasses every aspect of Williams’ short life, from country-music boy wonder to Grand Ole Opry superstar to rejected drunk to venerated saint. It’s beautifully paced, even if Butler did confess post-show that he hoped it would move along faster.

“Hank Williams – Lost Highway” is a stunning, essential piece of Americana. Despite the tragedy at its core, it proves to be an uplifting, life-affirming experience. 6th Street deserves accolades not merely for producing it, but for producing it so well.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionHank Williams: Lost Highway
Written byRandal Myler and Mark Harelik
Directed byMichael Butler
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesEXTENDED -- through May 1st, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Dear San Francisco”, Riotous Fun Opens at Club Fugazi

By Cari Lynn Pace

Fans of Cirque du Soleil will be delighted to learn that “the circus has come to town.”

Seven performers and friends left the Montreal Cirque Du Soleil productions to form a troupe of high-flying acrobats calling themselves “The Seven Fingers”. They moved to San Francisco and now thrill audiences at the historic Club Fugazi on Green Street, a block of which was renamed Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard in honor of the beloved show that ran for a record 45 years until 2019.

The history of Club Fugazi, as introduced by Executive Director David Dower, is astonishing. Built in 1914, it has hosted an historic parade of entertainment, from jazz legends like Thelonious Monk, beat poets of the 50’s like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and even the Grateful Dead. Then came the irrepressible Beach Blanket Babylon, the longest running show in history with 45 years of outrageous songs, satire, and headdresses.

When the Queen of England requested a BBB viewing, a special box was built for her on the second floor rear of the theatre. Although she never attended, her son Prince Charles and Camilla did in her stead. “The Queen’s Box” is available for private parties and has its own elevator, anteroom and WC, otherwise known as a bathroom.

‘“Dear San Francisco” pays homage to the city’s history through video clips and acrobatics both onstage and in the audience.”

“Dear San Francisco” pays homage to the city’s history through video clips and acrobatics both onstage and in the audience. It’s a circus sans elephants or lions, with plenty of high hoop jumping and flying aerials to make you hold your breath. The performers don’t have glittery costumes, but they shine at their astounding feats. They’ll run into the audience to play catch over your head or unicycle on the counter in front of your drinks. They show off, and clearly love what they do.

Co-creators Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider are true circus brats. At age 4, Gypsy’s parents founded the Pickle Family Circus, which Shana joined as a trapeze artist for 20 years. Together they have assembled a fine troupe of jugglers, aerialists, cyclists, and musicians to astound the audience. It’s 90 nonstop minutes of over-the-top energy. The audience can’t stop applauding.

“Dear San Francisco” offers a limited selection of beer, wine, and nibbles. Guests are seated at comfortable backed swivel chairs of varying heights to allow for full viewing. The acoustics are difficult, but non-essential for the surrounding action of this show. Some seats are located onstage, behind and close to the performers. The kids seem to love the action there, almost as much as the adults.

There is no printed program, so you must bring a smart phone to scan the QR code. Who wants to read anyway, when there is so much going on around you? It’s a circus after all!

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionDear San Francisco
Written byShana Carroll and Gypsy Snider
Directed byShana Carroll and Gypsy Snider
Producing CompanyClub Fugazi Experiences
Production DatesWednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM through Summer, 2022
Production Address678 Green Street, San Francisco CA 94133
WebsiteClubFugaziSF.com
Telephone
Tickets$35– $79
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Almost, Maine” Sublimely Sweet at Spreckels

By Nicole Singley

Spreckels has something sublimely sweet in store for those in need of a little magic. On a snowy night in the remote outskirts of eastern Maine, nine couples confront questions about love, loss, hope, and healing under the spell of the northern lights. Gracing the intimate Condiotti Studio Theatre stage through April 10th, “Almost, Maine” is equal parts funny and moving, and a heartwarming night at the theater well spent.

John Cariani’s clever script features nine vignettes that play out across eleven short scenes, each brimming with witty wordplay and plentiful humor, a hearty sprinkling of magical – and sometimes absurdly literal – realism, and characters who are endearingly forthright and sincere. Cariani gives viewers a sampling of love stories in various stages of growth and decline, including missed connections, new beginnings, unexpected reunions, and sweet misunderstandings. While most of the endings are happy or hopeful, there are plenty of poignant moments, too, offering audiences a beautifully balanced exploration of human relationships and folly.

Director Anderson Templeton leans into the play’s comic absurdity just enough to earn laughs in all the right places without devaluing the more tender and genuine moments. He gets strong performances from a capable ensemble of six, who together take on the roles of nineteen different characters throughout the show, moving smoothly between parts and pairings. It is a testament to their talent that it’s not a struggle to adjust to the same faces reappearing in each new capacity. Instead, it imbues the show with a sense of intimacy and familiarity that feels becoming of the tiny, would-be town of Almost, Maine.

. . . refreshingly honest, tremendously funny, and full of love and wisdom, with a little bit of magic awaiting those who are willing to find it.”

Serena Elize Flores and Brandon Wilson (Photo by Jeff Thomas)

Serena Elize Flores and Brandon Wilson shine together as distraught Glory and earnest repairman, East, whose chance encounter under the aurora offers hope that a broken heart can possibly be fixed. John Browning and Molly Larsen-Shine are at once hilarious and charming as Lendall and Gayle, a couple on the verge of breaking up when a surprising revelation changes everything. Allie Nordby delivers a haunting performance in a touching scene with Skylar Evans, in which a woman named Hope comes home to find out if the man she once loved still holds out hope for her return. These are only a few of the most memorable scenes, but all are well-executed and highly enjoyable.

Combined with Chris Schloemp’s stunning astral projections, Andrew Patton’s simple, snow-covered set creates a lovely backdrop, and is complemented by Donnie Frank’s humble, cold-weather costumery. Elizabeth Bazzano assists with a whimsical array of props, including big red bags purportedly full of love, an ironing board that doubles as an accidental weapon, and a shoe that drops mysteriously from the ceiling with impeccable timing. Thanks to resident designers Eddy Hansen and Jessica Johnson, lighting and sound work together seamlessly to set the scene, transitioning the small stage from romantic star-lit night to local watering hole with ease.

There isn’t much more I can divulge without risk of ruining some of the delicious surprises that await first-time viewers, but suffice it to say that from start to finish, this production is an absolute delight. This reviewer laughed and cried in equal measure. “Almost, Maine” is the kind of world I want to live in – refreshingly honest, tremendously funny, and full of love and wisdom, with a little bit of magic awaiting those who are willing to find it. If you’ve been waiting to get back to the theater, this show is the perfect opportunity. Don’t let it pass you by.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionAlmost, Maine
Written byJohn Cariani
Directed byAnderson Templeton
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough April 10th, 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $26
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 ~~ “Rent” Pays It Back with Spirit and Energy; MMT Performs at NT

By Cari Lynn Pace

In 1996 Jonathan Larson debuted “Rent,” his musical about rebellious and irresponsible youth leading a lifestyle of hedonism and drug use in the rough streets of NYC. Their dismal lives are pointless and the ending isn’t pretty, but they sing and dance about it anyway. The musical won both Pulitzer and Tony awards and spotlighted the AIDS epidemic of that time.

Although this synopsis of “Rent” sounds cheerless, this show’s over-the-top energy and talent provide much to cheer about. The production by Marin Musical Theatre Company, in collaboration with the Novato Theatre Company, is really spirited. It took MMTC many years attempting to gain the rights to perform the show. It was worth the wait.

“It took MMTC many years attempting to gain the rights to perform the show. It was worth the wait.”

Accompanied by four onstage musicians, eighteen actors explode with powerful voices, tight choreography, and stunning staging. The dancing is particularly energetic, using table tops and platforms between high scaffolding. NTC’s small 99-seat theatre is an intimate venue which allows the audience to feel up close and personal with the performers. “I’ve seen this show on Broadway and it wasn’t nearly as exciting as this one,” one audience member noted.

Director Jenny Boynton confided, “We’ve been rehearsing only six weeks, but this cast really gelled together right from the start and amazed me with their talent. It made my job a lot easier.”

Local theatre fans will be delighted to see many new faces onstage. An NTC board member commented, “This is the next generation of actors to keep performance tradition alive. They’re young, and they’re our future stars.”

Vocal standouts abound, including Nelson Brown in perfect harmony with Jake Gale. Gary Stanford Jr.’s voice fills the theatre to the rafters. Stephen Kanaski twirls across the stage and croons to great applause. Trixie Aballa beautifully belts out her songs while dancing, topped only by Shayla Lawler’s sensual solo in Act II. Kudos to choreographer Katie Wickes for such spirited dances—from Anna Vorperian’s tango to the explosive rock-out of the entire company.

“Rent” is a remarkable tour de force, a tight production far beyond one’s expectations. With the adult themes of the show, consider the appropriate age to bring youngsters. Tickets are selling briskly, so take possession of this show before the lease runs out April 10th.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionRENT
Written byJonathan Larson
Directed byJenny Boynton
Producing CompanyMarin Musical Theatre Co. in collab. w/ Novato Theater Co.
Production DatesThrough April 10th
Production AddressNTC, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
Websitewww.MarinMusicals.org
Telephone
Tickets$18-$30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES

ASR Theater ~~“The Packrat Gene” Stashes Memories Amidst Stuff; RVP Offers New Production

By Cari Lynn Pace

It’s a common dilemma as years go by. Who can get rid of the pile-up of possessions, especially those linked to precious memories? “The Packrat Gene” explores this timeless agony with a true-to-heart script by the Bay Area’s Margy Kahn at the Ross Valley Players.

This new play was selected by the Ross Alternative Works Committee (RAW) for its original, provocative, and exciting aspects, an addition to RVP’s regular subscriber season. The familiar theme resonates with audiences young and old.

Marcia van Broek as Esther; Julie Ann Sarabia as Rachel. Phots by Robina Jackson.

In New Jersey, three generations of grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter gather with a goal to clear out grandma’s apartment. Their conversations are acerbic and amusing as the women cajole, collide, concede, and console one another.

Marsha van Broek is marvelous as widowed grandma Esther with the accent of a holocaust escapee from Paris. She’s just fine where she is, thank you, surrounded by her books, broken bowls, 30-year-old pay stubs and Edith Piaf records.

Maya Rath as Leigh. Photos by Robina Jackson

Maya Rath masters her role as the practical and frustrated daughter Leigh, flying cross country to take control of the situation. Concerned about her mother’s age and mental state, Leigh tries to convince her to consider a retirement community. She’s on a deadline to return back to work in LA. Her obstinate mother dismisses Leigh with harshness dredged up from the past, while the dutiful daughter patiently reminds her to live in the present.

Spunky granddaughter Rachel, superbly played by Julie Ann Sarabia, flies in to give affection and allegiance to her grandmother and a snippy attitude to her mother. It seems Leigh can’t do anything right by these two. Three divergent generations, three authentic portrayals, and three riveting backstories anchor this solidly satisfying production.

“Three divergent generations, three authentic portrayals, and three riveting backstories anchor this solidly satisfying production.”

Director Michael R. Cohen notes “This play succeeds because of the casting. I am fortunate to have three superb actors who worked well together and made my job easy.”

“The Packrat Gene” is an addition to RVP’s season of regular subscriber shows. It’s a new and fully staged production selected by the Ross Alternative Works Committee, running only through April 3rd. Pack this performance into your plans and make a move to see it.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Packrat Gene
Written byMargy Kahn
Directed byMichael R. Cohen
Producing CompanyRoss Alternative Works Committee via RVP
Production DatesThursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 2 PM through April 3rd
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Tickets$15-$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Big Hug: Lucky Penny’s “The Marvelous Wonderettes”

By Barry Willis

Through March 13, Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions has a feel-good treat in store for everyone repulsed by war ravaging Ukraine. “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is Roger Bean’s hit jukebox musical featuring 38 pop songs of the 1950s and ‘60s, performed by the cutest—and goofiest—foursome that ever hopped on stage.

The scene is the 1958 Springfield High School prom, where we meet Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy, and Suzy (Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Vida Mae Fernandez, Jenny Veilleux, and Kirstin Pieschke, respectively)—a vocal quartet in the poofiest skirts imaginable, on a kitschy set by Brian Watson, who also did the recent “Amy and the Orphans” at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater. Each of the four performers is a standout in her own way. Together they are delightful!

The The Marvelous Wonderettes at work. Photo courtesy Lucky Penny Productions.

Act One covers many of the best-known songs of the mid-to-late 1950s. Backed by a three-piece band, the girls have a bit of a rough start with The Chordettes’ deathless 1954 pop classic “Mr. Sandman.” Their timing and choreography are off just enough to provoke laughs but not cringes, and they gradually refine their act, dutifully plowing through many other anthems of teenage angst.

“The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a couple of hours of good clean lightweight fun and a welcome escape…

Comical petty jealousies infect both their performance and their between-songs interactions but never to the point where we’re afraid the group might break up. The Wonderettes are catty but loyal: all-for-one and one-for-all despite plenty of sniping. Writer Roger Bean uses the show’s playlist as a framework on which to hang the story of the Wonderettes’ drama with each other—both onstage and off.

The Wonderettes go mod. Photo courtesy Lucky Penny Productions.

Act Two finds the group reunited ten years later, this time in 60’s Mod attire (costumes by Barbara McFadden) and with an updated song list (music direction by Ellen Patterson). Several months pregnant, Suzy is wobbly but manages to be a real trooper even if she has to perform barefoot.

We learn a whole lot about what’s been going on with the girls during their decade after high school, none of it alarming and most of it amusing, such as flirting with “Ritchie,” the technician in the lighting booth. Stage manager Jeff Bristow is the good-natured recipient of such attentions. The girls’ relationships with the men in their lives can be a bit confusing, but don’t let the confusion interfere with your enjoyment of the show. It’s huge fun whether or not you can quote chapter and verse about the back story later.

 

Directed and choreographed by Scottie Woodard, “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a couple of hours of good clean lightweight fun and a welcome escape from the larger world’s insanity.

As Jeff Bristow put it, the show is “a big hug”—exactly what we need now!

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Marvelous Wonderettes
Written byRoger Bean
Directed byScottie Woodard
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru March 13th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$25-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Harry Potter” Comes Roaring Back to the Curran

By Barry Willis

A two-year hiatus hasn’t diminished “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which reopened at San Francisco’s Curran Theater February 24, after a two-week delay due to COVID—after a two-year delay due to COVID.

If anything, the production is more polished and more spectacular than during its aborted run late in December 2019. The new show combines the original’s separate Part One and Part Two in one mind-blowing three-hours-plus production.

Harry Potter (John Skelley) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

The February 24 opening night included a huge rowdy street party before the show with a presentation by San Francisco Mayor London Breed. There is clearly a pent-up desire for live theater among performers and audience alike. Nowhere was this clearer than this show’s opener, from the street party to the entire production. The new production is slated to run through August 31, and is certain to satisfy Potterites of every variety, who may have to horde their shekels to get tickets, ranging from $69 to $229. Discounts are available.

It’s the most spectacular and well-produced show that many of us will ever see…

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” is pretty much a theatrical miracle. Prior to COVID, the large-capacity Curran (nearly 1,700 seats) was closed for a couple of years for massive renovations, only to have some of the new seating and carpeting removed to create a realistic refugee camp for “The Jungle.” Then it was redecorated again, with carpeting and fabric wall coverings embellished with the Hogwarts logo, only to be abruptly closed by the pandemic.

From the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

The new production is incredible, even for those not steeped in Potter lore. It packs in more theatrical illusions than any dozen blockbuster shows in Las Vegas, including characters that step out of seemingly solid walls, or seemingly solid walls that absorb characters the way a sponge draws water, characters that instantly morph into other characters, characters that vanish only to reappear swimming in the sky, characters that emerge and exit through a burning fireplace, ghostly spirits that hover above the audience, and graffiti that somehow appears throughout the theater’s huge ceiling, like a celestial pattern in an observatory.

(L-R) Ginny Potter (Angela Reed), Harry Potter (John Skelley), Professor McGonagall (Shannon Cochran), and Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

Then there’s the amazing choreography of swirling capes and their disappearing owners (Steven Hoggett, movement director). Performers are all first-rate, from the primary characters all the way down to the chorus. There appear to be approximately thirty members in the cast, plus many dozens of specialists in the technical crew.

It’s one whale of a group effort, an amazingly well-polished production on an enormous scale. The imposing set by Christine Jones is amazing both in its audacity and its versatility, subject to instant change despite its size.

Pictured (L–R): Ron Weasley (Steve O’Connell), Hermione Granger (Lily Mojekwu), Rose Granger-Weasley (Folami Williams), James Potter Jr. (William Bednar-Carter), Harry Potter (John Skelley), Ginny Potter (Angela Reed), and Albus Potter (Benjamin Papac) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. — Photo credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The story by J.K.Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany (director of the show) has the now-adult Harry Potter (John Skelley) toiling away as a wizard in the Ministry of Magic, and about to send his son Albus (Benjamin Papac) off to school at his alma mater, where Albus meets Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), a boy his age who’s the son of dark lord Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall).

The two of them form an uneasy but solid friendship and are soon continuing the struggle against the evil Lord Voldemort (Geoffrey Wade) and his offspring. Pivotal roles of Ginny Potter, Hermione Grainger, and Rose Grainger-Weasley are adroitly covered by Angela Reed, Lily Mojekwu, and Folami Williams, respectively. Mojekwu and Williams are especially convincing as mother and daughter.

It’s a wild adventure, but may be too much for very young children. There were no frightened cries from the audience on opening night, even though some of the malevolent spirits haunting the Curran are (youngster) pants-wetting scary.

Casual theatergoers not in the Potter camp would do well to read up on the mythology before the show—a brief synopsis of which is included in the playbill, as well as some fascinating background information that will appeal to hardcore fans.

As we stated when “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” first landed in San Francisco, even those who don’t know Harry Potter from Harry Houdini will be astounded by this production. For true believers, it’s a religious experience. For everyone else, it’s simply the most spectacular and well-produced show that many of us will ever see.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionHarry Potter and the Cursed Child
Written byJ.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byJohn Tiffany
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesThru August 31st
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$69-$229
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Legend of Georgia McBride” Sizzles at 6th Street Playhouse

By Cari Lynn Pace

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse transforms their 99-seat Monroe Stage into Cleo’s Bar, a down-and-out dive in Panama City, Florida—a Gulf Coast town at the eastern end of the state’s panhandle, an area southerners refer to with disparaging affection as “the redneck Riviera.”

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a comedic and heartfelt unfolding of how female impersonators are made, not born. Directed by Carl Jordan, it’s a totally charming, well-acted and danced production. It blends the story of friendship and support with more than a few bawdy and ribald scenes. Leave the kids at home.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

Cleo’s Bar manager Eddie (Peter Downey) introduces an earnest but untalented Casey (Alexander Howard) to an underwhelming cluster of patrons. Casey is a down-on-his-luck wannabe Elvis impersonator who makes less money in tips than his gas bill to drive to work each night.

After the show, Casey arrives home to find his hardworking wife Jo (Jamella Cross) distraught as their rent check has bounced again. These two have a strong bond, now sorely tested by their desperate finances. When Casey shows Jo a sequined Elvis suit he purchased to enhance his act, Jo erupts in dismay and reveals she is pregnant. Casey promises he will do better for their future together. It’s a great setup.

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a comedic and heartfelt unfolding of how female impersonators are made, not born.”

The next night at Cleo’s Bar, two female impersonators arrive and size up their backstage digs. Miss Tracy Mills (an astounding performance by Joseph Abrego) is optimistic and determined to make their new gig work. She reminds her inebriated co-star Anorexia Nervosa (a hilarious turn by Tyler Bertolone) that this is their last chance; they’ve run out of options.

Casey knows nothing of this change of plans and prepares to drive to work as usual. In a remarkable double role, Bertolone appears as Casey and Jo’s butch neighbor and landlord. Friendly but determined, he lumbers over to collect the back rent or evict them. It seems Casey and Jo aren’t the only ones who’ve run out of options.

Casey arrives at work and is dismissed as entertainment by the manager. Elvis has left the building, and a new duo of divas is waiting to show off their assets. When Nervosa passes out drunk for the first show, Tracy plops an Edith Piaf wig on to a very reluctant Casey and shoves him onstage to lip sync. A star is born, sort of.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

The drag show money lures Casey to do it again, so Tracy coaches and grooms him for more female impersonator roles. She creates a “Georgia McBride” stage name as Casey starts to enjoy himself. Cleo’s Bar becomes the hottest and hippest joint in town.

When Anorexia sobers up enough to re-join the cast, the team’s sexy shiny costume changes and clever choreography propel the bar’s fame over the top. The first row of seats in this ¾ round theatre gets the action up close, and these outrageous gals really work the crowd.

Tracy’s generous guidance and stage smarts bring months of success to Cleo’s. But there’s a problem: Casey is uncomfortable in his new onstage “skin” and has not told his pregnant wife he has dropped performing as Elvis in favor of “Georgia McBride.” When she finds out, their reckoning is both painful and eventually productive. Love and community support conquer all.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

“Georgia McBride” delivers nonstop entertainment, filling this stage to the brim with pizzazz. Act II has the choreography talents of Devin Parker Sullivan and Jacob Gutierrez-Montoya. Add dazzlingly quick costume changes designed by Amaris Blagborne to the wig and make-up skills of Rosanne Johnson, and the audience goes wild.

Director Carl Jordan noted that “Georgia McBride” was ready to roll when the Omicron surge hit, and he had to replace three cast members who were no longer available. Fortunately, Jordan has the stunning talents of Joseph Abrego, a top drag queen across LA. Jordan also recruited Peter Downey to step into the role of the bar manager with a mere ten days’ rehearsal. You’d never know it, as Downey seamlessly fits into this talented crew as part of “The Legend of Georgia McBride.”

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Legend of Georgia McBride
Written byMatthew Lopez
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 20th, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$22 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Master Class” Sonoma Arts Live Hits the High Notes

Emily Evans and Libby Oberlin at work. Photo courtesy Sonoma Arts Live.

By Cari Lynn Pace

Sonoma’s Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall transforms into a classroom for opera legend Maria Callas, where she instructs aspiring opera stars. A creation based on actual events, Terrence McNally’s story stars Libby Oberlin as Madame Callas. Under the direction of veteran Carl Jordan, Oberlin becomes a tour-de-force in this poignant look back at the Diva’s life.

The audience is welcomed as if we are all students by a commanding Madame Callas. She sharply addresses us “There will be no applause, we are here to work!” We meekly obey. She is at once mercurial, charming and aloof.

Libby Oberlin at work. Photos courtesy Sonoma Arts Live.

Reduced to teaching master classes at Julliard in 1971-72, Madame Callas shares recorded snatches of her past triumphs and once-incredible voice. Although she does not sing, she reminisces about past triumphs and loves. And losses. Callas was the world’s American-born Greek goddess whose voice, like her pedestal, crumbled away far too soon.

Madame Callas as channeled by the talented Oberlin is a firestorm onstage. She mocks her pianist (John Partridge) for his clothing choices. She barks orders to stagehand Dan Monez. When her first student, a soprano beautifully played by Emily Evans, appears in a short dress, the Diva is not amused.

“Helpful” criticism overflows to the audience, some of whom are berated for their obvious lack of style. Evans does a fine turn as the terrorized young singer who does her best to comply with Madame Callas’ instructions. When the soprano finally does get to sing, the audience erupts in a burst of encouraging – and supportive – applause.

“When the soprano finally does get to sing, the audience erupts in a burst of encouraging – and supportive – applause.”

The Diva’s next “victim” (as she calls them) is another soprano, played by regal redhead Morgan Harrington. Although dressed resplendently, Madame cuttingly dismisses her to re-do her stage entrance. She does not reappear; Madame Callas suspects this student is gone for good.

An attractive tenor is next (Robert Dornaus) and his confidence and style impress the Diva. When his fine tenor voice fills the auditorium, Madame shifts her criticism. This class is not as much about his voice; she zeros in to correct his pronunciation and his presentation of the role.

Robert Dornaus as the tenor whose confidence and style impress the Diva. Photo courtesy Sonoma Arts Live.

The dismissed soprano (Harrington) reappears, Madame insists she fully master the emotion of what she sings. This is the reputation and legacy of Maria Callas as she performed at all the greatest opera houses around the world.

 

Throughout “Master Class,” Callas draws from the well of emotional pains of her upbringing and dramatic life onstage and off. Her end-of career reminiscences interrupt the lessons, with clips of her past projected behind her. The saddest line Madame Callas speaks is in Act II, when she admits to the re-appearing soprano “I would never tell anyone not to applaud. Sometimes applause is the only thing we have to live on.”

COVID Update: Sonoma Arts Live has a policy of COVID protections. They require evidence of vaccination or similar safety precautions and masks are worn throughout the performance. See the website for full information.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionMaster Class
Written byTerrence McNally
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesFebruary 27, 2022
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Pure Joy: Cinnabar’s “Amy and the Orphans”

By Barry Willis

On rare occasions, an obscure play with an unknown star rocks the theater world.

At Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater through February 20, Lindsey Ferrentino’s “Amy and the Orphans” is exactly that kind of production. In it, a couple of adult siblings named Maggie and Jacob (Mary DeLorenzo and Michael Fontaine, respectively) return to New York for their father’s funeral. They also have a half-baked plan to get their sister Amy (Julie Yeager) to move out of the state-supported home where she has lived for many years and to come reside with one of them.

It’s not clear why Maggie and Jacob wish to do this—they’ve had little contact with Amy for a long time, and no experience caring for her. Perhaps a lingering sense of guilt propels them, and while bickering with each other, they press their case with both Amy and Kathy (Jannely Calmell), her caretaker. The results are heartrending and comical.

“Amy and the Orphans” is one of the freshest things to land at local theaters in years…

A Down’s Syndrome person, Amy has a strong attachment to where she lives, a residence full of her friends. She’s a movie fanatic, watching them constantly on her iPad, and has a job working in a movie theater—a perfect occupation, in that she has memorized every classic line from every iconic film reaching back decades.

Left to right_ Mary DeLorenzo as Maggie, Julie Yeager as Amy. Photography by Victoria Von Thal

It’s a very fulfilling life for her. She doesn’t want to disrupt any of it, but her sister and brother insist that they know what’s best. Blessed with an innocent passion for fairness, Amy argues with impeccable logic about why she should remain where she is, and when rationality fails to convince them, she resorts to small-scale guerrilla tactics, coming close to risking her life in her fight for autonomy.

With a great sense of comic timing and tremendous confidence, Julie Yeager astounds in the lead role. Her wise replies come off with an improvisational immediacy that one might expect from a theatrical veteran of many years. So do her many movie-quoting bits, all done with perfect timing and the original characters’ diction. She’s a wonder to behold, provoking a spontaneous standing ovation from a nearly full house on opening weekend.

DeLorenzo and Fontaine are very good as middle-aged siblings whose differences have never been resolved. Calmell, a young veteran of many North Bay productions, is excellent as Kathy. Gina Alvarado and Justin P. Lopez are enjoyable diversions in a couple of flashback scenes of Sarah and Bobby, the parents of Maggie, Jacob, and Amy.

L-to-R_ Michael Fontaine as Jacob, Mary DeLorenzo as Maggie, Julie Yeager as Amy, Janelly Calmell as Kathy. Photo by V. Von Thal

Director Nathan Cummings has gotten a world-class performance from his cast of six, but most especially from Yeager, an absolute joy. Cinnabar’s whimsical set (by Brian Watson) and goofy props only add to the fun and satisfaction.

“Amy and the Orphans” is one of the freshest things to land at local theaters in years. Continually engaging, uplifting, and at moments downright hilarious, it’s a show that will instill hope and bring you to your feet in celebration.

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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

 

ProductionAmy and the Orphans
Written byLindsey Ferrentino
Directed byNathan Cummings
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Feb. 20th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Hair” an Exuberant Experience. Classic Rock Musical Shines with Energy

By Cari Lynn Pace

6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa took a brilliant risk in staging the rock musical “Hair.” From the moment one enters the theatre, one is surrounded by the exuberance of the hippie “Tribe” of actors cavorting onstage to drums. It’s clear this joyful “be-in” will be a performance like no other.

When “Hair” opened on Broadway 50 years ago, it broke every rule in the theatrical book. How did it become such a timeless musical? And how does it still capture audiences?

It has no real story line, plenty of four-letter words, a batch of rock ‘n’ roll songs strung together, and an in-your-face confrontation of the issues of race, the Vietnam War draft, sex, drugs, pollution, and clothing. It’s a brash bold and ballsy exploration of issues, many which still confront us today.

Photo courtesy 6th St Playhouse.

Whatever the magic formula, Director Aja Gianola-Norris brings this production of “Hair” over the top with a talented cast in fine frenzy, feathers, and fringe. Rachel Wynne’s choreography is vigorous and uninhibited, the onstage band under Lucas Sherman’s direction is spot on (although a bit loud for some of the solos), and the actors abound with strong voices.

Photo courtesy 6th St Playhouse.

Their physical performances are so impressive it would be no surprise if they lost weight after each performance.

“Hair” is a festival of fun, not to be missed…

Act I begins with a celebration of the extraordinary 1962 alignment of seven heavenly bodies (planets and the moon) in the constellation Aquarius. Time-tested favorites open with “Age of Aquarius” belted out by Serena Elize Flores. It’s followed by a dozen more, including “Hair,” “Hare Krishna,” and “Easy to Be Hard,” a solo soulfully sung by Gillian Eichenberger. The Tribe’s conflicts about the Vietnam War come to a head as some burn their draft cards. Others burn bras. Claude (an extremely acrobatic Jamin Jollo) and Berger (hilarious Ezra Hernandez) must decide their future paths in “Where Do I Go?”

Act II consists mainly of the Tribes LSD trip. It’s a free-flowing dream sequence, a circus with bizarre bits and beads. Famous characters come and go. The Tribe freely partners up, uncouples, and mixes again against the backdrop of “Good Morning Starshine.”

When the finale “Let the Sunshine In” is sung, audience hands wave in a reflection of peace, love, and difficult choices. “Hair” is a festival of fun, not to be missed.

 

*** Covid restrictions at the 6th Street Playhouse require proof of vaccination and masks to be worn throughout the production. Some material may not be suitable for people under 16 years of age. Please see website for further advisories about this performance.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionHair
Written byGerome Ragni and James Rado
Directed byAja Gianola-Norris
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 6th, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$22 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Exquisite Theater: MSW’s “The Glass Menagerie”

By Barry Willis

Main Stage West has rebounded from the confounding “Late, A Cowboy Song” with an exceptional production of the Tennessee Williams classic “The Glass Menagerie.” Expertly directed by Elizabeth Craven, it may be the only production ever done featuring real-life mother-and-daughter as their fictional counterparts.

Williams’ “memory play” takes place in St. Louis, in the late 1930s. A three-member family struggles to survive in the wake of a long-ago departure by an unnamed father and husband, whose portrait and influence loom over everything in the household.

Sheri Lee Miller, Theatre Manager at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, stars as family matriarch Amanda Wingfield, a manipulative and delusional faded Southern belle who smothers her adult children with a seemingly endless recital of recollections and demands. Miller’s daughter Ivy Rose Miller, MSW’s Managing Artistic Director, is understatedly amazing as Amanda’s weepy wallflower daughter Laura. MSW’s Producing Artistic Director Keith Baker turns in a solid performance as Tom Wingfield, Laura’s brother, a would-be poet and adventurer who also serves as the show’s narrator. Newcomer (for this reviewer, at least) Damion Lee Matthews does a more-than-convincing job as Jim, Tom’s associate from the shoe warehouse where they both work.

MSW’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is among the finest this reviewer has ever seen…

The four-member cast is beautifully balanced. MSW’s compact stage is the perfect venue for the Wingfield family’s shabby St. Louis apartment—set design by David Lear and Elizabeth Craven. Missy Weaver’s moody lighting contributes to the Wingfields’ unhappy ambience, and carefully-curated selections of ‘30s-era music help put the story in its proper historical perspective—sound designer not credited in the playbill.

Glass Menagerie – Keith Baker and Damion Lee Matthews

This “Menagerie” is a stunning example of superb ensemble work that sails along at just the right pace, neither too briskly nor too slowly. Matthews exhibits palpable sensitivity as his Jim gets to know Laura, and Ivy Rose plumbs the depths of Laura’s rudderless existence. Baker confidently anchors the whole production, serving as a morose counterbalance to Sheri Lee Miller’s flamboyant and hysterical Amanda.

MSW’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is among the finest this reviewer has ever seen—an exquisite piece of theatrical art that should be on every theatergoer’s must-see list.

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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

 

ProductionThe Glass Menagerie
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byElizabeth Craven
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough March 5th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily”: Ross Valley Players Blends Fantasy with Reality

By Cari Lynn Pace

A Sherlock Holmes fan, I was a bit hesitant when Ross Valley Players presented “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily.” Would it hold up to the reputation so solidly laid by the clever detective’s reputation? Would there be mental challenges to determine how Holmes knew a visitor’s occupation, history, or personal habits just by scientific observation?

No worries here. Playwright Katie Forgette has written enough clever observations for Holmes to satisfy classic fans. Veteran Director Phoebe Moyer has expertly cast a full complement of victims, villains, and simpletons to play several famous touchstone characters. The lead character could not be better cast than David L. Yen, a Bay Area favorite and an incredible personification of the famed detective. His voice and his cultivated manner channel savvy Sherlock, pipe and all.

“Playwright Katie Forgette has written enough clever observations for Holmes to satisfy classic fans.”

“Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily” opens with a quick side glimpse of a robbery. The real plot starts in Holmes’ study, handsomely designed by Tom O’Brien, where Holmes and the affable Dr. Watson, solidly enacted by Alex Ross, receive an odd visitor.

Sherlock Holmes is in residence at RVP! — Photo by Robin Jackson

At first the proposed crime adventure appears straightforward: Holmes’ client, now revealed, seeks to avoid blackmail by recovering a cache of stolen love letters. The client is famous actress Lillie Langtree (beautifully played by Ellen Brooks) who’s had an affair with her royal lover, Britain’s Crown Prince “Bertie” Edward. Lillie’s own moniker “The Jersey Lily” stems from her birth on Jersey Island in the UK.

“As details of the crime are discussed, there are twists and turns uncovered. The plot thickens, and the game’s afoot!”

Lillie’s friend and devotee, Oscar Wilde, tags along, languidly played by Isaak Heath. He adds comic relief to the repartee between Holmes, Lillie, and Dr. Watson. As details of the crime are discussed, there are twists and turns uncovered. The plot thickens, and “the game’s afoot!”

The stage setting changes to Lillie’s sitting room, a charming transformation done by two stage hands dressed as proper maids, an example of Michael A. Berg’s cleverness as costume designer.

Holmes and Langtry at RVP — Photo by Robin Jackson

Act II takes place in a warehouse where the nefarious Professor Moriarty (Michel B. Harris) outlines his plans to mastermind another theft from Lillie. It’s this act that gives Tamar Cohn a chance to shine as Lillie’s supposed maidservant. Cohn’s acting chops are superb. Professor Moriarty’s hired thug (Joseph Alvarado) also turns in a terrific performance as a fumbling dumbbell. Alvarado doubles up his roles in a cameo as the regal emissary to the Queen, a convincing switch of characters.

“Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily” runs 2 hours and 20 minutes. The second act could be tightened up, as several of the scenes were prolonged. The playwright delivers an ending, actually several endings, which seem less than believable, but then it’s a fictional work after all.

The show delivers pure escape entertainment, mingling fictional with actual people of history. It’s an enjoyable night out, especially filled with surprises and a real sword fight.

Covid Protocols: In keeping with public health protocols, Ross Valley Players note that all actors, stage crew, and volunteers are fully vaccinated. Audience attendees are required to show ID and proof of full vaccinations at the door. Masks must be worn at all times inside the theatre.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionSherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily
Written byKatie Forgette
Directed byPhoebe Moyer
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru February 20th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415. 383-1100
Tickets$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Band’s Visit” a Revelation at the Golden Gate Theatre

By Barry Willis

A mistaken destination leads to a night of small-scale magic for some Egyptian musicians and their accidental Israeli hosts in “The Band’s Visit,” at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre through February 6.

It also leads to a night of big-time magic for theatergoers willing to brave the pandemic. Like every other socially responsible venue, the Golden Gate is adamant about checking vax status for all attendees and requiring masks during the show’s no-intermission 105 minutes.

This production is a risk worth taking: a simple story about ordinary people that rises far above the ordinary through a seamless blend of great writing, great music, great acting, and great stagecraft—among the many reasons why the show ran seemingly forever on Broadway and garnered 10 Tony awards.

You’ll leave the theater overjoyed for having been there but longing for more.

The time is 1996, forty-eight years after the Arab-Israeli War, a conflict not forgotten by either side. The setup is the arrival in a small Israeli desert town of the eight-member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Resplendent in pale blue uniforms, they’ve come to the wrong town due to misunderstanding its name—Bet Hatikva, not Petah Tikva, where they’re scheduled to perform at the Arab Cultural Center. There’s no bus to take them to their proper destination until the next day, and there’s no hotel in Bet Hatikva either, so they must rely on friendly locals for the night. In the process, potential adversaries get to know each other and discover that the same problems bedevil everyone regardless of religion or nationality.

Janet Dacal (left) and Sasson Gabay in “The Band’s Visit,” which tours to BroadwaySF’s Golden Gate Theatre.

Apart from the original mistake that launches the story, writer Itamar Moses doesn’t mine the obvious comedic ore of language barrier. Instead the Egyptians speak Arabic with each other, the Israeli speak Hebrew, and the two rely on heavily-accented and sometimes clumsy English as their lingua franca—all of it perfectly understandable to an American audience.

Set designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Tyler Micoleeau do their utmost to convey life in a dead-end town—both the heat and the hopelessness. (Cue the song “Welcome to Nowhere.”) The designers’ work, like the overall production itself, has rough-around-the-edges qualities that reinforce an abiding sense of realism. We may never visit the Negev Desert, but we certainly get a lingering taste.

The production’s realism is leavened with intervals of sheer magic—the band itself has moments of rehearsal that have the audience clamoring for more, and some of the songs are genius. Café owner Dina (Janet Dacal) befriends bandleader Twefiq (Sasson Gabay)—derisively called “the General” by a couple of Bet Hatikva locals—and sitting at a small table, she confesses how much she loved watching Egyptian movies on TV when she was young, a prelude to “Omar Sharif,” one of the show’s breakout hits. Twefiq in turn confesses his everlasting sorrow at losing his son and wife. Sweetness counterbalanced with regret tinged with hope—“The Band’s Visit” may have some of the most complex emotional undercurrents of any contemporary musical.

Janet Dacal and Sasson Gabay 2 — Photo by Evan Zimmerman, Broadway SF

But it has moments of levity, too—Joe Joseph is outstanding as the seductive trumpeter Haled, who knows everything about his hero Chet Baker, right down to playing his riffs and singing in his voice. Joshua Grosso has the pitiable role of “Telephone Guy,” a Bet Hatikva resident who stands vigil all night at a pay phone hoping his former girlfriend will call. The Israelis and Egyptians discover commonality in their love of many kinds of music—Arabic, Klezmer, American jazz, while the seductive lure of the oud, cello, and clarinet continually remind us of the band’s reason for being.

Morning comes as it inevitably must, and the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra must say farewell to new friends. That we don’t get to enjoy their full concert is the show’s only disappointment. You’ll leave the theater overjoyed for having been there but longing for more.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Band’s Visit
Written byItamar Moses Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed & Choreographed byDirected by David Cromer Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
Producing CompanyBroadway SF
Production DatesThrough February 6, 2022
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 749-1799
Tickets$56 - $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Choreography5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

Happy New Year from Aisle Seat Review! | From Team ASR

As the new year dawns, Aisle Seat Review thanks all of our loyal readers—and all of the many theater companies that invite us to their productions month after month despite the fact that we don’t always praise their work.

Our intention is always to deliver honest appraisals with a goal of improving the theatrical experience for everyone involved—performers, technical crews, and audiences alike.

Like the year before it, 2021 was a rough period for the theater community, but we have emerged from months of lockdown stronger and more energetic than ever. ASR looks forward to a healthier, happier season with expanded coverage, including an enticing potential rollout of new regional editions.

If it’s theatrically significant, you’ll see it here–and we’ll see you at the show!

Happy New Year!

Editorial Team ASR:

  • Kris Neely, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
  • Barry Willis, ASR NorCal Executive Editor
  • Nicole Singley, ASR NorCal Senior Contributing Writer/Editor
  • Cari Lynn Pace, ASR NorCal Contributing Writer 
  • Victor Cordell, ASR NorCal Contributing Writer/Editor
  • Team ASR (technical review staff)

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An ASR Pick! Center Rep Delivers a Sumptuous “Christmas Carol” — by Barry Willis

Kerri Shawn and Michael Ray Wisely (Photo courtesy of Center Rep)

The holiday spirit can’t get any brighter or more uplifting than the one inhabiting Center Repertory Company’s “A Christmas Carol,” at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through December 23.

A sumptuous large-scale production on one of the biggest stages in the Bay Area, this almost-a-musical update to the Charles Dickens classic is Broadway-quality, with a huge and hugely talented cast of approximately thirty actors/singers/dancers, and with spectacular scenic effects in what is arguably one of the premier physical theaters in Northern California. Center Rep is deeply endowed.

Why almost-a-musical? Productions of this enduring story always feature traditional Christmas carols—in fact, they’re among the many holiday irritants that provoke the wrath of miserable old miser Ebenezer Scrooge—but in this one, director Scott Denison and music director Michael Patrick Wiles have chosen to include a vocal quartet whose harmonies serve to underscore the drama, not to comment on it as in a Greek tragedy, but to deepen the emotional impact of key scenes. 

Jeff Draper as Marley

It’s a wonderfully effective gambit, as wonderful in its own way as is the towering set by Kelly James Tighe that serves as Scrooge’s office and home, as London streets, and as the netherworld from which emerge the ghost of Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley (Jeff Draper), and the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future (Kerri Shawn, Jerry Lee, and Scott Maraj, respectively). Shawn and Lee are especially delightful—Shawn with gorgeous voice and glittering gown, flitting about as she leads Scrooge through a return to his youth, Lee with boisterous good humor and infectious dynamics as he shows the cranky old bachelor how his relatives and employees celebrate the holiday. Maraj is silently malevolent as the giant specter of Christmas Future—“wardrobe engineering” by Thomas Judd.

The Cratchit family is portrayed with great sensitivity—Michael Patrick Wiles as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s loyal and long-suffering clerk; Addison Au as his wife Belinda; William Foon as Tiny Tim; and a passel of sisters and brothers too numerous to name. Michael Barrett Austin does a convincing turn as Fred, Scrooge’s well-meaning nephew.

. . . as near-perfect a production of “A Christmas Carol” as you may ever hope to see . . . “

Michael Patrick Wiles and William Foon (Photo courtesy of Center Rep)

As in other productions, Scrooge’s viewing of the Fezziwigs’ annual party is a highlight of the first act, with wild dancing (choreography by Jennifer Perry) and frenetic comic acting by Michael McCarty and Jeanine Perasso as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. It’s a beautifully portrayed pivotal moment in which Scrooge (Michael Ray Wisely, brilliant) begins to comprehend all that he’s lost in his single-minded pursuit of profits, but it takes much more than that to provoke an epiphany that converts him from despised capitalist oppressor to beatific benefactor. Visions of his own demise, the plundering of his possessions, dismissive sentiments among those who knew him, and ultimately, the loss of Tiny Tim, all combine to overwhelm him to change. 

All these plot points are stunningly conveyed in a production that’s both heartfelt traditional drama and techno-spectacular. 

Opening night was marred by a couple of minor glitches—voices inaudible during the opening scene (quickly corrected), and onstage voices competing with the unseen narrator. The populous streets of London aren’t as bustling as they might be, and some of the spectacle may be too much for very young children, of whom there were many on opening night, but no hysterical crying was heard from the audience in the capacious Hoffman Theatre.

Apart from these quibbles, this is as near-perfect a production of “A Christmas Carol” as you may ever hope to see. With a ground-floor art gallery open before the show, and a delectable assortment of restaurants nearby, the Lesher Center for the Arts is a tremendous destination, reachable by BART or an easy jaunt on Highway 24. However you get there, you’ll be glad you did.

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

 

ProductionA Christmas Carol
Written byCharles Dickens, adapted by Cynthia Caywood and Richard L. James
Directed & Choreographed byDirected by Scott Denison; Choreographed by Jennifer Perry
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThrough December 23rd, 2021
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$33-$50
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An ASR Pick! Transcendence’s Broadway Holiday Spectacular Offers an Evening of Magic at Belos Cavalos — by Nicole Singley

L to R: Edward Juvier, David R. Gordon, Maria Bilbao, Arielle Crosby, and Lori Haley Fox (Photo by Rob Martel)

It’s that time of the year again, and Transcendence Theatre Company has cooked up something special sure to put you in the spirit. Their Broadway Holiday Spectacular is back, and this season, it’s better than ever. Featuring a talented troupe of artists from all over the country – including many familiar faces, and some exciting new additions to the Transcendence family, too – it’s a high-energy night full of festive, foot-tapping fun for folks of all ages. Be sure to catch it while you can, before the show’s two-week run ends on December 12th.

Returning audiences will recognize all the traditional elements of a night spent with Transcendence – fresh and funny renditions of favorite tunes and classic carols, a live band and dazzling choreography, and of course, a pre-show party complete with food and wine from local vendors. But this year, the fun has moved under the big tent at Belos Cavalos, a charming equestrian estate tucked away in the hills of Kenwood, where guests will enjoy the chance to mingle with horses and goats during intermission, and gather around tables in lieu of standard theater seating.

On the program are a number of fan-favorites from previous years, including a clever play on Madonna’s “Vogue” paying homage to Rudolph of reindeer fame, and a silly song about making fruitcake set to the tune of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” performed capably by Transcendence newcomer Edward Juvier. There are some fun surprises, too, including two four-legged guest-stars, and a creative take on “12 Days of Christmas” inviting audience members to help with the countdown.

If you’ve never experienced a Transcendence show, make this the first of many.”

Top row: Bebe Browning, Marissa Barragán, Edward Juvier, Kyle Kemph; Bottom row: Luther Brooks IV, Preston Truman Boyd, Drew Elhamalawy (Photo by Rob Martel)

Lori Haley Fox is quirky and endearing as Mrs. Claus, who serves as our narrator throughout the evening, and Preston Truman Boyd is our flannel-clad Santa, loosely framing the musical acts within an uplifting story about family, friendship, and love. Behind them onstage, the live band really rocks, and bassist Lynn Keller even joins performer David Morgan for a cute number about Chanukah, together lamenting the limited greeting card options available at the local drugstore.

There are, of course, some slower heartfelt pieces in the mix, including a haunting rendition of “O Holy Night” performed by Kyle Kemph, whose voice is so clear and bright it gave me chills, and Arielle Crosby, whose talent alone is worth the price of admission. The pair team up again for an equally moving performance of beloved Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston duet “When You Believe.” Maria Bilbao nearly steals the show with a spine-tingling version of “Please Come Home for Christmas.” She makes it sound effortless, and the high notes brought actual tears to my eyes.

Top row: Bebe Browning, Drew Elhamalawy; Bottom row: Maria Bilbao, David R. Gordon, Kristin Piro; Front: Arielle Crosby (Photo by Rob Martel)

The entire cast is immensely talented, so much so that it almost feels unfair to single anyone out. But I’d be remiss not to also mention Transcendence newcomer Luther Brooks IV, who charms with his sparkling smile and evident dance skills. Be sure to keep an eye on him during some of the big ensemble numbers. Choreographers Matthew Steffens and Marissa Barragán have worked some magic on stage, making the show as fun to watch as it is to hear and sing along to. (Did I mention there are tiny goats in diapers?)

If you’ve never experienced a Transcendence show, make this the first of many. And if you’re a repeat visitor, you’ll be happy you didn’t miss out on this one. Plan to get there early and meet the horses, take selfies with goats, and wine and dine with friends before the show. Bring layers, too – the heated tent felt a bit chilly as the night cooled down. Even so, you’re sure to leave feeling full of warmth and holiday cheer.

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.

 

ProductionBroadway Holiday Spectacular 2021
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byMatthew Steffens
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough December 12th, 2021
Production AddressBelos Cavalos
687 Campagna Lane
Kenwood, CA 95452
Websitebestnightever.org
or
ttcsonoma.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$149
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Choreography4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR Theater Review — “A Napa Valley Christmas Carol” It’s the Most Wine-derful Show of the Year — by Cari Lynn Pace

Photos courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions.

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a winter holiday evergreen, one that appears onstage and onscreen everywhere in the English-speaking world this time of year.

There have been innumerable spinoffs and interpretations of the classic tale. Now in its inaugural run, “A Napa Valley Christmas Carol” is a rare musical leveraging Dickens’ basic plot, updated to the present with delightfully quirky characters, and many memorable pop tunes, playing now at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa, through December 19.

Writer/director Barry Martin and composer Rob Broadhurst are the creative team behind this fast-moving show, a brash and funny take on Dickens’s enduring tale of misery, remorse, and redemption, set in the wine country with contemporary dialog and local references.

Setup: Late on Christmas Eve in the Yuge Winery’s sparse boardroom, three employees struggle to create names for a dozen new labels. Casting by Lucky Penny’s Artistic Director Taylor Bartolucci is spot-on: the dynamic Dennis O’Brien as Buddy Wise, the worldly-wise Daniela Innocenti Beem as Sally Angell, and the surprisingly subtle Matt Davis as Joe Patchett. The three are Yuge Winery’s marketing team, brainstorming daft ideas before settling on the implausible label “Llama for Your Mama.” The absurd but catchy name launches the first of Broadhurst’s many fantastically goofy songs—“Llama for Your Mama/Drink it in pajamas/Serve it to Obama/Maybe add a comma.”

“It’s a brash and funny take on Dickens’s classic tale, set in the wine country with contemporary dialog and local references.”

Tired and punchy with more labels to design, they’re ready to quit for the night when the boss shows up. What a treat to see Tim Setzer enter as the cranky Alexander Yuge, the winery’s co-founder and owner. He sings and sneers about the Christmas spirit as “Sentimental Schlock” then orders his employees to discard gifts from clients he dismisses as “idiots” begging for his business. He has little patience for inept employees, pandering associates, or frivolous holidays. Like the character that inspired him, he has little patience for anything other than profits.

“Dakota Dwyer plays their little son Frankie, so adorable he unintentionally upstages every scene.”

Joe Patchett happens to be Yuge’s loyal undercompensated nephew. At the Patchett home, the Christmas spirit is in full swing, on a bright and colorful set by Brian Watson. Joe’s wife Mary, played by Kirstin Pieschke with a spirit of resignation belied by a lovely soprano voice, is depressed about their son’s unknown and worsening ailment, and the lack of money to care for him. Eight-year-old Dakota Dwyer plays their little son Frankie, so adorable he unintentionally upstages every scene.

Photos courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions.

While Mom dutifully sets out snacks, Sally and Buddy arrive to join the celebration. Teenage daughter Goldie (perfectly cast Cecilia Brenner) joins the group in conversation and song. Brenner gets a real chance to shine in Act II, when she appears as the Ghost of Christmas Future in full Goth regalia—a superb directorial choice with its symbolism of youth vs. advancing age.

In his office, Yuge goes on a bender with a bottle of scotch. His ex-wife and former business partner Vivian (beautifully portrayed by Karen Pinomaki) visits to admonish him that it’s not too late to change his miserly manner. She admits she has cancer, but Yuge thinks it’s a ploy for more alimony. She insists she just wants him to change for his own good. Yuge chases her away.

His phone announces three unscheduled appointments before morning, closely tracking Dickens’ original story. Lights and fog whirl around as a righteous 1990s grunge rocker, in requisite torn flannel shirt, appears as the Ghost of Christmas Past (Dennis O’Brien). Yuge is deeply skeptical as Vivian reappears in a scene from their happy past. He argues that there was no love from her, only a quest for power and wealth..

The fog swirls again, revealing the Ghost of Christmas Present in the form of svelte wise-cracking Daniela Innocenti-Beem. Beem’s performance is hilarious, a true highlight of Act II. In a show-stopping song, she urges Yuge and the others to “Live it up!” She admonishes him to remember that “Each day is a gift—that’s why it’s called the present.” Her parting shot delivered over-the-shoulder: “Every choice has a consequence”—advice that Yuge ignores.

Photo courtesy Luck Penny Productions.

The Ghost of Christmas Future (Cecilia Brenner) arrives, and shows Yuge a vision of Joe’s family a few years hence, mourning the loss of their little son, again tracking Dickens’ original. She reminds him that it’s his grandnephew who has gone. A gravestone mysteriously appears, bringing Yuge to his knees when he realizes that once he is dead, there will be no legacy by which he might be remembered. It’s his life-changing epiphany, an entirely predictable but dramatically essential moment that propels the story toward its uplifting conclusion.

Setzer is incredibly dynamic and convincing as the sour miser turned benefactor—for family, employees, and community alike. His castmates equal him in their total commitment to bringing this wonderful production to life. Ignore any “bah humbug” bias about yet another “Christmas Carol.” Even the most jaded theater sophisticates will be delighted with this new show.

Note: Seats in this small theater surround the stage on three sides. Audience must prove vaccination and wear masks during the show. Wine available.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionA Napa Valley Christmas Carol
Written byBarry Martin, Music and Lyrics by Rob Broadhurst
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru December 19th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$25
$37 (Senior)
$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR PICKS! Sonoma Arts Live Delivers a Twin-Serving Holiday Treat — by Barry Willis

 

This time of year, theater companies can be counted on to offer up plenty of predictable Christmas classics.

Sonoma Arts Live has taken a contrarian tact with two similarly-themed shows directed by Michael Ross: “Plaid Tidings” and “Winter Wonderettes.” Performed on alternating dates, they’re both delightful tributes to the ubiquitous four-member vocal troupes of the 1950s and ‘60s.

The first, developed by Stuart Ross from the original “Forever Plaid” by James Raitt, features a male quartet that suffered an abrupt departure in an auto accident but who have been reincarnated for the holidays.

Photo by James Carr

Named for their trademark plaid jackets, the four crooners may enjoy an extension of their reincarnation if they perform well enough—quite a motivation, one that propels them through two high-energy hours of comedic antics, impressive dancing, and tremendous vocalizing. Trevor Hoffman, Andrew Smith, Scottie Woodard, and Brian Watson appear respectively as Jinx, Frankie, Sparky, and Smudge.

…Best bet: See both productions back-to-back.

The second show features a girl group in matching swirly skirts performing at the 1968 Harper’s Hardware holiday bash in Springfield, Ohio. Created by Roger Bean, “Winter Wonderettes” is a more tightly focused production compared to the somewhat improvisational feel of “Forever Plaid.”

Photo by James Carr

Julianne Bradbury, Sarah Lundstrom, Maeve Smith, and Jenny Veilleux are all convincing and very funny in the roles of Cindy Lou, Betty Jean, Suzy, and Missy, respectively, all of them with lovely voices and great comic timing. Both casts are very well balanced—as actors, dancers, and singers—backed by a solid band under the direction of Sherrill Peterson.

Scottie Woodard served as choreographer for both shows—“Plaid Tidings” being the more reckless of the two, in keeping with the male tradition of risk-taking for its own sake. “Wonderettes,” by contrast, offers a more demure presentation but one that’s more satisfying musically.

Both shows make the most of a simple set on the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall. While “Wonderettes” is more structurally complete and better rehearsed, “Plaid Tidings” has an untamed quality that makes it equally compelling.

Best bet: See both productions back-to-back. An ideal performance would feature both groups onstage together. That’s not likely to happen, but we can dream, can’t we?

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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

 

Production“Plaid Tidings” and “Winter Wonderettes”
Written byStuart Ross/James Raitt and Roger Bean
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production Datesthru December 19th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$28 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An ASR Theater Review: “Late” a Baffling Production at Main Stage West — by Barry Willis

 

Main Stage West has an enviable record of expertly-selected and beautifully-performed productions. In recent memory are astounding, gorgeously-rendered shows such as “The House of Yes,” “Lungs,” “Blackbird,” “After Miss Julie,” and “Heathen Valley,” all of them given glowing reviews here.

Against this impressive background, there’s little to explain the oddity that is “Late, A Cowboy Song,” in the cozy theater on Sebastopol’s Main Street through December 18. Reputedly one of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s early efforts, “Late” features three North Bay talents, under the direction of Missy Weaver, trying to make something significant from what’s not much more than a collection of semi-related sketches from Ruhl’s notebook.

…there’s nothing funny about it, other than the fact that an MSW play-reading committee decided it was worth developing.

A description lifted from the MSW site: Mary, always late and always married, meets a lady cowboy outside the city limits of Pittsburgh who teaches her how to ride a horse. Mary’s husband, Crick, buys a painting with the last of their savings. Mary and Crick have a baby, but they can’t decide on the baby’s name, or the baby’s gender. A story of one woman’s education and her search to find true love outside the box.

More: Crick (Jeff Coté) is an unemployed stay-at-home husband who cooks for Mary (Sharia Pierce)—even though she seldom comes home for dinner on time—flirts and bickers with her, and finally caves into her demands that he get a job. Their relationship is pointless, their finances are thin, and their living conditions are rough. Mary finds solace with a friend named Red (Nancy Prebilich), a self-styled guitar-playing, horse-riding “lady cowboy.” Having a baby only compounds the problems in her marriage, and Mary ultimately rides off into the western Pennsylvania sunset with Red. The end.

I am not giving too much away by revealing this. Not a single problem In the Crick-and-Mary household gets solved and there’s not enough in Mary’s pleasant encounters with Red to justify abandoning her marriage, but that’s the tale as delivered. Somewhere I saw a promotional blurb hyping the show as “a comedy” but there’s nothing funny about it, other than the fact that an MSW play-reading committee decided it was worth developing. Mostly it’s a lot of bickering, confusion, and alienation punctuated by a few tender moments until it all comes to a merciful halt.

 

The dramatic arc of “Late” is shallow at best, and Mary has the only discernible character arc. Sarah Ruhl can be a tremendously engaging playwright who favors throwing in bits of magical realism—see for example, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” that played recently to full houses at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre. “Late” attempts magical realism too—set designer David Lear’s horse being the best example.

Coté, Pierce, and Preblich try mightily with what they’ve been given, but saturation irony simply isn’t a strong enough foundation on which to build a play that will sustain an audience through ninety non-stop minutes. Ruhl has penned many compelling plays. Regrettably, “Late, A Cowboy Song” isn’t one of them.

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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

 

ProductionOne Flea Spare
Written byNaomi Wallace
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru April 30th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!-----

An ASR Pick! “The Wickhams” Delights with Warmth and Wit at Spreckels — by Nicole Singley

Leonhart and Lichirie working at Spreckles.

Those in search of some heartwarming fare this holiday season will find it at Spreckels, where “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” is scheduled to grace the intimate Condiotti Studio Theatre stage through December 12th. Second in a three-part series, “The Wickhams” is a sequel to Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, though theatergoers need not have seen part one – nor have read the original novel – to understand and enjoy the show. Acclaimed duo Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have penned a delightful and clever continuation to one of the literary world’s most famous love stories, brimming with enough wisdom, wit, and charm to have been written by Austen herself.

…I can’t think of a better way to start the holiday season.

As those who attended may fondly recall, Spreckels staged a memorably top-notch production of part one in the series, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” in November of 2019. “Miss Bennet” takes place on the ground floor of the Darcys’ estate, where the newlyweds are hosting the entire Bennet clan for Christmas festivities. In part two, however, we venture downstairs to see what’s happening in the servants’ quarters while the family gathering unfolds above. Amid the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations, the late-night arrival of an uninvited guest threatens to throw the household into chaos. Cue the comedic mishaps, delicious drama, and sweet romance in this uplifting tale of family and love, forgiveness and redemption.

Sheila Lichirie delivers a stellar performance as head housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, who is equal parts sharp-tongued censure and quick-witted wisdom, with just enough warmth peeking through the cracks in her all-business exterior. Sam Coughlin is equally exceptional as notorious scoundrel George Wickham, whose drunken stumbling and slick overtures to the new maid would be enough to make one’s skin crawl if he weren’t so hilarious and strangely charming. Coughlin has mastered the appropriate body language and facial expressions to really sell his character.

Cohan and Coughlin at work in “The Wickhams”

Though Lichirie and Coughlin are the standouts, their companions are excellent, too. Kimberley Cohan makes a wonderfully lively and sympathetic Lydia Wickham, whose naivety is more endearing than annoying. Dale Leonhart’s Cassie, the ambitious new housemaid, is deliciously sassy, spirited, whip-smart, and self-assured. Silas Vaughn is eager and earnest as love-struck footman Brian, and delivers an enjoyably energetic performance. Allie Nordby – who was phenomenal as eldest Bennet sister, Jane, in the 2019 production – brings an irresistible sweetness and sincerity to her character that makes her impossible not to love, though lacking in some of the headstrong passion and playfulness I secretly crave in an Elizabeth Darcy. Perhaps what’s missing is convincing chemistry with her beau.

Coughlin, Nordby, and Guo work at scene of “The Wickhams” at Spreckle’s Performing Arts Center.

Byron Guo’s Fitzwilliam Darcy is appropriately stately and reserved, but perhaps just a touch too stiff, with his arms often glued to his sides. He does some effective things with his intonation and facial expressions, but his scenes with Nordby feel somewhat forced, and I kept hoping to see him loosen up a bit. Mr. Darcy isn’t supposed to be overly effusive or unrestrained, of course, but part of his charm is the way he softens in Elizabeth’s presence. Guo is more convincing as a charitable host and consummate gentleman than a newlywed man in love, though a few more performances may help him ease into the role. Despite these minor criticisms, it’s clear this is a very talented ensemble, and the show is entirely diverting.

Director Emily Cornelius has paced the production beautifully. Laughs land where they should, there are no lulls in the action, and the sweeter, softer moments don’t feel rushed. The impact is greatly enhanced by Elizabeth Bazzano’s handsome set, tempting us to gather around the kitchen table to help with holiday preparations, or cozy up by the glowing fire. The build quality and attention to detail are impressive, with doors that open to a realistic looking room and hallway, and an abundance of props that make the space feel like a real home. Costume designer Donnie Frank deserves recognition, too, for aptly chosen attire and some seriously stunning pieces. (Where can I find Lydia’s fabulous evening dress and nightgown?)

Whether you’re an Austen fan or just a fan of good theater, be sure to catch “The Wickhams.” With a hearty dose of warmth and wit that’s sure to leave you in a brighter mood, I can’t think of a better way to start the holiday season.

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Nicole Singley

Sr. Contributing Writer/Editor, AisleSeatReview.com

Member, American Theatre Critics Association

Member, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Member, Marquee Theater Journalists Association

ProductionThe Wickhams
Written byLauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed byEmily Cornelius
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough December 12th, 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR Theater Review: “Father/Daughter” a Muddle at Aurora Theatre — by Barry Willis

Two talented actors do their best to breathe life into the world premier of Kait Kerrigan’s “Father/Daughter,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, through Sunday December 12.

Recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, “Father/Daughter” opens with a divorced chemistry teacher named Baldwin (William Thomas Hodgson) meeting a young woman named Risa (Sam Jackson) in a pickup bar. It’s a tentative and prickly introduction for both, one that doesn’t seem to have much potential, especially for Risa, but a relationship emerges. Nearly two hours later, we are 20 years into the future, with Baldwin having a heart-to-heart discussion about marriage with his adult daughter Miranda, also played by Jackson.

Between these two bookends is a lengthy meandering slog through thorny modern family relationships. Hodgson also plays the part of Louis, who is either Baldwin’s father or Risa’s father. It’s not clear which—a confusion amplified by Kerrigan’s clumsy attempt at blending characters and shifting time.

The…well-performed dance break, about twenty minutes in, is a welcome relief….

Many plays employ actors in multiple roles, but for this to work their characters must be clearly differentiated—not the case in “Father/Daughter.” Risa and Miranda look and sound identical, as do Baldwin and Louis. Plus there are scant dramatic shifts to indicate which characters Hodgson and Jackson are playing. This may be intentional on the part of the playwright, to show how human behavior doesn’t really change from one generation to the next, or it may be the fault of director M. Graham Smith in not encouraging more differentiation from his cast.

The net effect on the audience is something like bobbing about in a rudderless boat: we don’t know where we are other than knowing we’re going nowhere.

Sam Jackson and William Thomas Hodgson in Kait Kerrigan’s Father/Daughter, directed by M. Graham Smith. Photo by Kevin Berne.

There’s no serious goal for either Risa or Baldwin, other than trying to make some sort of sense of their lives individually and together. There’s nothing illuminating about any of their interactions, but somehow they muddle through, which seems to be the only point of the tale. The production comes off like a condensed version of years of family counseling—lots and lots of talk, not much action, and ongoing personal and interpersonal problems that will never be resolved. The dramatically pointless but well-performed dance break, about twenty minutes in, is a welcome relief from interminable self-absorbed conversation.

Kerrigan’s script is a moribund low-stakes/low-amplitude  exercise in art for art’s sake. We can see what she’s trying and failing to achieve, but she could do it better by revising the script, perhaps under the tutelage of Mark St. Germain, whose “Dancing Lessons” is a master class in two-actor romances.

Photo by Kevin Berne.

“Father/Daughter” has implied potential but even actors at the expert level of Hodgson and Jackson can’t make it fly. Kate Boyd’s elegant set offsets the dramatic boredom to some extent, as does Cliff Caruthers’ evocative sound design. Takeaway: potential ticket buyers should be wary of obscure new plays with no intermission. There’s a reason why they’re presented that way.

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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

 

ProductionFather/Daughter
Written byKate Kerrigan
Directed byM. Graham Smith
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Dec 12th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$20 – $78