An Aisle Seat Theater Review PICK! Astounding “Mother of the Maid” at Marin Theatre Company by Barry Willis

Isabelle Arc (Sherman Fracher) and her daughter, Joan Arc (Rosie Hallett)
Photo: Kevin Berne

A mother’s love has seldom been as brilliantly or movingly depicted as it is in Jane Anderson’s “Mother of the Maid,” at Marin Theatre Company through December 15.

Directed by Jasson Minadakis, it’s a story of a mother’s devotion to one of history’s most famous and most controversial figures. Joan of Arc had a short life: she was only 17 when she led the French army against the English during the last gasp of the Hundred Years War, and was only 19 when she was burned at the stake as a heretic. Her parents endured it all—Joan’s recurring visions, irrepressible spirit, indomitable purpose, and tragic end. Her father Jacques (played by the always rock-solid Scott Coopwood) witnessed her execution and suffered psychosomatic blindness a result, and is said to have died of grief shortly thereafter.

While it’s Joan’s trajectory that propels the piece, it’s really the story of her mother Isabelle (the astounding Sherman Fracher) whose devotion is so strong that she not only bathes and comforts her daughter on the morning of her execution but in the decades after, pursues clearing her name, taking her case all the way to the Pope in Rome. Joan of Arc was ultimately exonerated of heresy and declared a saint, in large part due to Isabelle’s persistence.

Isabelle (Sherman Fracher) sees Joan (Rosie Hallett) for the first time in months.
Photo: Kevin Berne.

The Church permeated every aspect of life in the Middle Ages in Europe—business, finance, government, military, and private family affairs. It was an age of superstition and savagery—despite the Biblical commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” with Church approval, governments small and large squandered economic and human resources on one pointless war after another—a tradition that continued right into the modern era. Illiterate sheepherders, the Arc family had seen their friends and neighbors, the Lebecs, hacked to death by the English.

…as near-perfect a production as we may ever see on a Bay Area stage.

From early adolescence, Joan (Rosie Hallett) had visions of visitations from St. Catherine that instilled in her a deep conviction that her purpose was to lead France to liberty—a belief shared by local clergyman Father Gilbert (Robert Sicular), who pleads her case with church officials. Father Gilbert is a kind-hearted go-between, and Isabelle respects him. Jacques is more a hardened realist but knows better than to argue points of theology or to question authority. Joan’s brother Pierre (Brennan Pickman-Thoon) is a teenager enamored with playing soldier—he couldn’t be prouder of his armor and his sword, and is Joan’s companion in battle, which we do not see enacted onstage.

Joan (Rosie Hallett) dictates a letter while her parents, Isabelle (Sherman Fracher) and Jacques Arc (Scott Coopwood), observe.
Photo: Kevin Berne.

Except for the opening scene—in the Arc home, implied by a structure of rough open timbers—all of the action takes place on a dauntingly beautiful set by Sean Fanning, a collection of floating Gothic arches that serves as Church, palace, and prison, made ethereal or oppressive by Chris Lundahl’s exquisite lighting. Marin Theatre Company regular Liz Sklar does a fine turn as a lady of the court, who befriends Joan (and subsequently, Isabelle) and wins her favor with the Dauphin, future King Charles VII of France. Isabelle’s visit to court involved walking three hundred miles over rough terrain, a journey she undertook multiple times. Fancher conveys Isabelle’s exhaustion and inexhaustible devotion as if they are simply what any mother would endure for her daughter.

Anderson’s use of modern dialect is an act of genius. The Arc family speaks in a sort of hybrid Irish/Minnesota accent, while the clergy and ‘noble folk’ speak more formally. The dialog might have been delivered in a sort of pseudo-Shakespearean with French accents, but putting it in modern language makes the whole story more immediate, more real, and more applicable to our own time. 600 years after Joan of Arc, superstition and savagery are still the rule.

“Mother of the Maid” is a heartbreaking piece of theater. A mother’s devotion to her children is one of the fundamental forces of human existence. MTC deserves high praise for bringing it to the forefront of our consciousness. It’s simply brilliant—as near-perfect a production as we may ever see on a Bay Area stage.

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.

 

ProductionMother of the Maid
Written byJane Anderson
Directed byJasson Minadakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec 15th
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!

An Aisle Seat Review! “Champions of Magic” an Astounding Show at the Golden Gate by Barry Willis

For the next few days, Bay Area theater fans have a rare opportunity to see the UK-based international touring show “Champions of Magic,” with twice-per-day performances through Dec. 1 at San Francisco’s downtown Golden Gate Theatre.

Five world-class illusionists and one aerialist/contortionist prove that classic theatrical magic is alive and well, with acts that include a mind-reader, a sleight-of-hand performer, an escape artist, and illusionists Strange & Young, who make people including themselves disappear and reappear instantly in ways that absolutely baffle and confound the audience.

Champions … is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families.

Aided by willing audience members, some little children, the sleight-of-hand artist gets an amazing amount of mileage from a Five of Clubs pulled from her deck, cut-and-torn paper, and various ordinary objects including rubber bands. Audience volunteers also propel the mind-reader, who on opening night correctly guessed names and relationships of random people pulled onstage. He also identified one woman as a Navy veteran and former presidential guard, without any apparent prior knowledge. How this is possible will keep you wondering long after the show is over.

The escape artist revives some of Houdini’s best tricks, including getting out of a straitjacket while submerged in a tank of water locked from the outside, a performance guaranteed to induce anxiety in anyone with a hint of claustrophobia. Strange & Young offer plenty of comedic patter as they leap about with a dynamic, quick-moving illusionist spectacle worthy of Las Vegas.

“Champions of Magic,” in fact, is the nearest thing to Las Vegas currently running in San Francisco, save the Cirque de Soleil production of “Amaluna” that runs into January. “Champions” is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families. The show’s run is short and if opening night is a good indicator, tickets may be in short supply. If dazzling spectacles appeal to you, do not miss this show.

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

 

“Champions of Magic” International Touring Show

  • Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco
  • Two shows daily through Dec. 1
  • Tickets: $59.99 to $169.99
  • Info: broadwaysf.com

Ratings:

  • Overall: 5 of 5
  • Performance: 5 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 5 of 5

An Aisle Seat Review Theater Review: Big Sprawling “Oliver!” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Sold to the Undertaker – photo by Eric Chazankin

London in Charles Dickens’s time must have been close to hell on earth, choked with pollution, poverty, homelessness, and crime. “Oliver Twist,” the author’s second novel, depicts all this quite vividly. So does “Oliver!” the 1960 musical adaptation by Lionel Bart, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through December 15.

The show’s requirement of many children in the cast prompts theater companies to present it in the hope of generating substantial ticket sales—all those kids have parents, relatives, and friends who must attend. But despite its huge popularity, it’s not a feel-good extravaganza like “Annie.” It’s a grim portrait of a poor orphan boy (Cecilia Brenner and Gus Jordan, in alternating performances) doing his best to survive in unbelievably adverse circumstance.

This includes falling in with a group of scuzzy adolescent hoodlums led by an old hustler named Fagin (David Yen), who fences their stolen goods in exchange for providing them a bit of safety and mentorship, aided by his youthful apprentice The Artful Dodger (Mario Herrera). These small-time criminals are in turn under the thumb of a really serious criminal named Bill Sykes (the imposing Zachary Hasbany), a malevolent force who doesn’t hesitate to kill people who displease him or get in his way.

…the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing…

Survival is the primary plot, but there are some compelling secondary plots too, including love affairs among the adults—especially between the doomed, pathetically mistreated Nancy (Brittany Law) and the dastardly Sikes. There’s also a meandering subplot about the hunt for Oliver’s family of origin that’s resolved near the end, as is Fagin’s reconsideration of his disreputable career.

Cecilia Brenner as Oliver-Mario Herrera as Dodger-photo by Eric Chazankin

6th Street’s show has a huge cast—it’s in many ways an all-star gathering of North Bay theatrical talent, who make substantial contributions to its success under director Patrick Nims. The set by Sam Transleau is equally huge, occupying the entirety of the big stage in the G.K. Hardt theater, save the space backstage where Ginger Beavers leads an excellent seven-piece band.

There’s some inexplicable gender-bending in the adult casting, but most of the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing (choreography by Joseph Favalora).

Oliver’s personal triumph is uplifting, and Fagin’s repentance satisfying, but the real appeal of the show—and perhaps, the reason for its enduring popularity—is the number of great songs in it. Many of them broke out as pop and jazz standards—especially Nancy’s heartbreaking showcase number, “As Long As He Needs Me.” The music alone recommends this show, while the rest of it works with admirable effort in every direction to sustain that level.

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

 

ProductionOliver!
Written byLionel Bart
Directed byPatrick Nims
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough December 15th
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
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

AN ASR THEATER REVIEW: “Sovereignty” a History Lesson Well Served at MTC – by Barry Willis

The signing of the Treaty of New Echota (L-R: Elizabeth Frances, Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa, Robert I. Mesa). Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

The displacement of conquered people is pretty much the history of the human race. So is the disregard of treaties by conquerors. Most historical retellings vary only in the degree of dishonesty and savagery depicted of conquerors toward the conquered—a degree that depends largely on which side the tale comes from. History is told by the victors, as the old adage has it.

At Marin Theatre Company through October 20, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Sovereignty” examines in detail the legal and illegal wranglings of 1832 that resulted in the forced migration of the Cherokee people from Georgia to Oklahoma (the infamous “trail of tears”). White settlers supported by President Andrew Jackson were making incursions into the Cherokee Nation, in violation of a treaty that gave the Cherokee jurisdiction over their land and all that took place on it. In Worchester v. Georgia the US Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall upheld native sovereignty, a decision defied by Jackson and his loyal US Congress. (Any resemblances between Jackson’s erratic antics and those of the current occupant of the White House are purely intentional.)

Sarah Bird Northrup (Ella Dershowitz) and John Ridge (Robert I. Mesa) make plans for their future. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

As told by Nagle, Cherokee legal scholars John Ridge (Robert J. Mesa) and Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) worked within the court system to assert the rights of their people, but were considered traitors by more militant Cherokee leaders, such as John Ross (Jake Waid), who favored armed conflict as the only way to insure their survival—or in Ridge’s view, their total destruction. Mutual distrust  between their descendants continues into the present, when a brilliant lawyer named Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) seeks a position with the office of Cherokee Attorney General Jim Ross. As a member of a rival clan, Polson conceals her family identity until well after she’s landed the job.

Acting and pacing are both first-rate…

The issue of clan identity and inherited guilt is a running theme throughout the play. It’s a common story—people in many cultures are often deemed responsible for the actions of their ancestors—but Nagle doesn’t delve into its illogic. And she acknowledges with barely a nod that the Cherokee were slave owners. Instead she focuses on the outrageously illegal actions of Jackson and his ilk, and on more recent events, such as the 1978 Supreme Court decision Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which largely voided the benefits of Worchester v. Georgia, including eliminating the rights of native people to prosecute criminal acts by non-natives. In her notes in the playbill, Nagle mentions that attacks against natives by non-natives have risen horrendously since then—especially attacks against native women. Oliphant, in her view, was vindication of Jackson 140 years later.

Polson, her lead character, is a seeker of justice, in particular, one seeking enforcement of the Obama administration’s Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that will restore some protection to native women—an argument she makes forcefully to the US Supreme Court in the play’s closing scene. Elizabeth Frances is at the height of her theatrical powers here. It’s a tremendous bit of theater with a resounding message, strongly directed by MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis.

Flora Ridge (Ella Dershowitz) and Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) reconnect in the family graveyard. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

Acting and pacing are both first-rate in this piece, written by a native American and featuring several native actors. The past and present intersect almost seamlessly and sometimes confusingly, the two periods often distinguished only by the position of a long table on stage or by the costumes worn by actors.

The blending of the past and present is a dramatic structure to reinforce the concept of how much the present resembles the past. This sort of blending is also applied to the character of Ben O’Connor (Craig Marker, who also plays Andrew Jackson) a white detective who, early in the first act, leaps to the defense of Polson’s brother Watie (Kholan Studi) when he’s accosted by a drunken redneck (Scott Coopwood, superb in several roles). Ben is incensed by the redneck’s blatant racism, and exhibits admirable bravery in dealing with him. Shortly thereafter he charmingly asks Sarah Polson to marry him, and she agrees, but as soon as he’s downed a couple of drinks he becomes an insufferably small-minded racist jackass himself.

It’s a convenient plot device but doesn’t ring true, and provokes related questions such as why a whip-smart lawyer like Sarah Polson can’t perceive that her fiancée isn’t trustworthy. Such limitations in the script prevent “Sovereignty” from earning unlimited praise. Nonetheless, it’s a very good effort by a talented cast, presented as compellingly as possible—a history lesson well served.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionMother of the Maid
Written byJane Anderson
Directed byJasson Minadakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec 15th
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!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Merman’s Apprentice” Delights at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Sutherland and Innocenti-Beem light up the stage in “Merman’s Apprentice” (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

A young girl with stars in her eyes goes on the trip of a lifetime, and takes the audience with her, in “Merman’s Apprentice,” at Sonoma Arts Live through October 13.

It’s New York, 1970. Broadway legend Ethel Merman (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) is enjoying the zenith of her long career when into her life comes Muriel Plakenstein (Emma Sutherland), a 12-year-old runaway whose big dream is to be a Broadway star like Merman, her idol. Muriel happens to know everything about Ethel Merman, including every song she ever sang and obscure details of shows that ran decades earlier. An obsessive who will find fulfillment only in absorbing everything-Mermanesque, Muriel gets her wish, and in doing so fills a huge gap in Merman’s life. 

The cast of Merman’s Apprentice (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

The adult woman and the runaway form an almost-instant bond, reinforced early in the first act by the joyfully infectious song “Chums,” one that sets the emotional tone for the entire production. Innocenti-Beem is amazing as mentor/fairy godmother to a goofy talented girl with single-minded devotion toward becoming the next Ethel, as is 17-year-old Sutherland in conveying the innocence, enthusiasm, and vulnerability of adolescence. Playing younger is difficult for all performers, and Sutherland does it perfectly. As the story progresses, Muriel meets legendary musical theater impresario David Merrick (Patrick Barr), enjoys performances at the St. James Theatre, and dinners-and-drinkfests at Sardi’s. She also becomes Merman’s permanent house guest. Stars in her eyes, indeed.

Part fable, part fairy tale, and all heart, . . . a show that will delight theater fans of all varieties and ages.”

Playwright and lyricist Stephen Cole was a close friend of the real Ethel Merman in her later years and captures her signature snappy repartee perfectly. Innocenti-Beem, a huge-voiced stalwart of North Bay musical theater, has often been compared to Merman, including her penchant for improvisational off-color humor. When Cole met Innocenti-Beem for the weeks-long refinement process that rendered this show, he declared her “more Ethel than Ethel was,” echoing what local critics have been saying for years. She soars in “Listen to the Trumpet Call” late in the first act. One of Innocenti-Beem’s “Apprentice” costumes is the spectacular red dress she wore in a recent production of “Hello, Dolly,” a Merman signature role. 

Cole’s musical collaborator David Evans has cooked up a couple dozen tunes that evoke the glory days of big brash Broadway musicals. “Apprentice” is set in 1970 but it references an earlier, more innocent age—there’s no hint of the Vietnam War or the growing protest movement, nor of the era’s incendiary black radicalism. It’s as if 1955 were forever trapped in amber, but the music is tremendous, delivered by an ace seven-piece band under the direction of Sherrill Peterson. The songs all clearly reference blockbuster show tunes from the 1930s into the ‘60s. The finale seems to quote “Comedy Tonight,” the lead song from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” 

Holsworth and O’Brien as Mom and Pop (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

Directors Larry Williams and Jaime Weisen Love have done something magical in bringing a production of this scale to the Rotary Stage. The large ensemble does an admirable job with Lissa Ferreira’s choreography on an impressive set by Gary Gonser, now recovering from a recent medical emergency. (Get healthy, Gary!) Sean O’Brien and Julia Holsworth are outstanding among the ensemble in their roles of Pop and Mom, respectively. Holsworth’s flat-footed shuffle is especially funny. The only real quibble with this world premiere is that the first act may be a bit overlong and the second act too short. It’s as if the second act needs one more song to balance the production. Cole and Evans can certainly supply this before the show goes to Broadway, as seems inevitable.

“Merman’s Apprentice” is a huge unabashed exercise in nostalgia. Part fable, part fairy tale, and all heart, it’s a show that will delight theater fans of all varieties and ages. The show and its stars are destined for much broader horizons, so catch it while you can.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionMerman's Apprentice
Written byBook and Lyrics by Stephen Cole; Music by David Evans
Directed byJaime Weiser Love and Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThrough October 13th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone(866) 710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Dated but Relevant “Top Girls” Opens ACT Season – by Barry Willis

Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), Dull Gret (Summer Brown), Marlene (Michelle Beck), Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), and Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal) recount their life stories at a dinner party in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls performing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater now through October 13, 2019.

Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” hasn’t been performed in the Bay Area in a long time. It’s been revived as the season opener at American Conservatory Theater, directed by Tamilla Woodard and running through October 13.

About a hard-charging female executive angling to move up the management ladder, the 37-year- old play has lost none of its relevance in the intervening decades, as is made dismayingly clear in several essays-with-statistics in “Words on Plays,” the fascinating booklet that accompanies the show’s playbill. Women still lag behind men in compensation and positions of authority. There’s nothing revelatory in that, but the piece has nonetheless acquired a bit of tarnish over the years.

Director Woodard pulls wonderfully committed performances from her eight-member cast…

At its core, “Top Girls” is a simple tale of a British career woman named Marlene (Michelle Beck), running from the limited opportunities of her working-class origins and pouring all her considerable energy into the pursuit of corporate power. Set in the early 1980s—the play debuted in ’82—it depicts Marlene maneuvering for an executive position even if it means displacing a male colleague who’s the sole support for his family of four. A Thatcherite, Marlene believes in meritocracy – the idea that the cream of society rises to the top – and dismisses the entitlement mentality of leftists and union workers.

Nell (Summer Brown) and Win (Rosie Hallett) arrive to work at the Top Girls Employment Agency in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls performing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater now through October 13, 2019.

As a manager in a busy employment agency, Marlene doesn’t gladly suffer fools. Her interviews with job-seekers are brusque, bordering on insulting, and she doesn’t hesitate to dominate her office-mates. They are not friends. But suffer she does, as we learn in the second act—from the slights she has showered on her family and the personal sacrifices she’s made seeking power in a man’s world. She doesn’t really have a life outside work.

The opening scene could be interpreted as evidence of Marlene’s suffering, and by extension, the suffering of all ambitious women. It’s a comically nightmarish dinner party featuring notable women fictional and historical: 19th-century adventurer Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal); Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), an 11th-century exile from the Japanese Imperial Court; the legendary Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), thought to have reigned during the Middle Ages in the guise of a man; and Dull Gret (Summer Brown), a fearsome warrior immortalized by Brueghel. All bucked the patriarchy; the scene offers each an opportunity to tell her story. Each recitation adds fuel to Marlene’s furious purpose. It also allows all of them to riff simultaneously in multiple accents, an effect that’s literally a fugue of howling madwomen.

We get that they’re angry, even centuries after the fact, but from the audience’s point of view the scene is too long, consuming most of the first act. Here and there in the cacophony we understand a phrase or two, but for the most part, it’s as comprehensible as a long night of Dada poetry.

An esteemed British playwright, Churchill is no respecter of traditional temporal narrative or dramatic structure. The dinner scene—an exercise in art for art’s sake—is followed by an introduction to the employment service where Marlene works, and that, by a scene of two girls at play in a backyard—Kit (Lily D. Harris) and Angie (Gabriella Momah). The first act closes leaving viewers wondering how all this ties together.

 Michelle Beck and Monique Hafen at work at ACT.

The second act is both rebuttal to and redemption for the excesses of the first. In a scene of gut-wrenching earnestness, Marlene has a heart-to-heart with her sister Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe) in her kitchen, where we learn the roots of Marlene’s driving ambition and the nature of her relationship to her worshipful, enthusiastic, but dim-witted niece Angie. The final scene takes place a year before the preceding one, but makes solid dramatic sense.

The play’s difficulties and pretensions are offset by superb acting by a cast of eight women, all save Beck and Momah in dual roles. Performances range from good to exemplary, including Hallett as Win and Brown as Nell, two different but dynamically balanced office workers whose arch banter spices their otherwise tedious workdays. Harris is youngest-appearing of the cast—she looks to be in her late teens—and mid-way through the second act she does a fantastically funny turn as a job-seeker named Shona pretending to be much older.

Shona bluffs with enormous chutzpah and an increasingly absurd litany of business buzzwords during her interview with Nell. She doesn’t know much and the more she talks the more it shows, an expertly rendered comedic sketch that provoked spontaneous applause on opening night.

Aided by Barbara Samuels’s elegant lighting, set designer Nina Ball achieves something remarkable with “Top Girls”—an austere set evoking the coldness of the business world, and another one quite warm and cozy as Joyce’s home. The emergence of Joyce’s residence from far back to stage front is a marvelous effect.

Director Woodard pulls wonderfully committed performances from her eight-member cast, but the standout for this reviewer is Gabriella Momah as the lovable, sweet-natured but intellectually limited Shona. She’s an absolute delight, a bright ray of sunshine in this darkly-tinted story.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionTop Girls
Written byCaryl Churchil
Directed byTamilla Woodard
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Oct 13th
Production AddressAmerican Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 834-3200
Tickets$25 – $102
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An AISLE SEAT REVIEW! “Gypsy” a mixed bag at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

In “Gypsy,” the ultimate stage mother from hell comes roaring to life four times per week through October 20 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse.

Broadway veteran Kathy Fitzgerald stars as Mama Rose, a thrice-divorced mother with two daughters, struggling to make a go of it on the waning Vaudeville circuit. With a gaggle of boy dancers, they manage to survive with an incredibly hokey act—so hokey, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that people actually paid good money to see it.

Carmen Mitchell works as Gypsy Rose Lee.

Rose is both the embodiment of never-say-die positive thinking and parental oppression, browbeating daughters June (Melody Payne) and Louise (Carmen Mitchell, excellent) into submission and forcing them to perform beyond their capacity — a syndrome that ultimately leads to June running off to find her own life with her new husband. Theater agent Herbie (Roger Michelson) tries desperately to become Mama Rose’s final husband, to no avail.

Near the end of the Vaudeville period, an inevitability denied to the last by her mother, Louise transforms from caterpillar to butterfly—and ultimately, into pop culture superstar Gypsy Rose Lee—after a life-changing experience with strippers in a Kansas City burlesque house. Her emergence into stardom is the bright light at the end of the story’s dark tunnel, one camouflaged by some of the most upbeat music ever composed.

There are … substantial talents in this show…

A collaboration by theater legends Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, this more-or-less true story of perseverance and survival could make the most curmudgeonly cynic leave the theater whistling a happy tune. The show is jam-packed with gems from the American songbook, among them “Small World,” “Some People,” “Mr. Goldstone,” “Together, Wherever We Go,” “Let Me Entertain You,” and of course the deathless “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

On leave from a production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Fitzgerald is a big draw—opening weekend was nearly sold-out. She’s an impassioned actor and a good singer with an odd habit of getting into a Sumo wrestler’s half-squat stance to launch big efforts. There are other substantial talents in this show as well, in particular the trio who appear as strippers—Elaine Jennings, Lillian Myers, and Tracy Hinman, all of whom tackle multiple roles. Zach Frangos is confident and appealing as Tulsa, and his dancing is superb. The early scenes feature a gaggle of cute kids, always a reliable strategy for selling tickets.

Gypsy cast at work in finale at 6th Street.

Opening weekend, the band under Paul Smith’s direction hit a dismaying number of sour notes, something that can only be interpreted as intentional in keeping with the low-rent venues where Mama Rose & Company are performing. A tall fellow, Smith tends to stand as he leads the band, and his bobbing head is a real distraction from the upper seats. Joseph Favolora’s choreography is compelling, and Pamela Johnson’s costumes are stunning. There doesn’t appear to have been much left in the production budget for sets, and Jason Jamerson did his best with what he had, resulting in the bare basics. This was the same issue that undermined 6th Street’s production of “La Cage aux Folles.”

This “Gypsy” is certainly enjoyable—how can anyone not love the music?—but, neither over-the-top nor over-the-moon, it’s far from a sumptuous production of this classic.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionGypsy
Written byArthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim
Directed byJared Sakren
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Oct 20th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35 – $46
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! “Body Awareness” a Hit at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Body Awareness Week becomes a long hard slog for a psychology professor at a small Vermont college, in Annie Baker’s brilliant, sweet comedy at Main Stage West through September 22.

Lydia Revelos stars as Phyllis, the professor with ultra-orthodox feminist convictions, who first organized the event as “Eating Disorders Week” but expanded it to include dance performances by troupes from across the globe, and seminars on personal and social perceptions about the human body—in particular, the female body. This emphasis includes an exhibition of photos of nude women of all ages, done by a straight male photographer.

The photos, their subjects, and most of all the photographer’s gender, enrage her and cause upheaval with her lesbian partner Joyce (Nancy Prebilich), a high school teacher whose almost-adult son Jared is “on the Asperger’s spectrum” as it’s trendy to say. Jared (Elijah Pinkham) is a self-described “auto didact” obsessed with word origins—he aspires to be a lexicographer—and sex with girls, which he has never experienced. His awkward social skills exasperate his mother and her partner, get him fired from his minimum-wage job at McDonald’s, and nearly land him in jail when he does something incredibly inappropriate with a girl he’s just met.

Main Stage West company principal Elizabeth Craven perfectly captures life in small-town Vermont…

Domestic disruption grows exponentially with the appearance of photographer Frank (Zachary Tendick), a surprise guest in their home for the week. Phyllis can’t stand him nor what he does as an artist—the “male gaze” being the equivalent of an assault, in her view—nor can she understand why women flock to him to be immortalized in photos. She has rigid ideas about how women should present themselves. Joyce, on the other hand, finds him charming, likes his art, and welcomes him as a mentor to Jared.

Pinkham, Revelos, Prebilich, and Tendick at work for MSW.

The four characters form a tight pulsating web that in just under two hours examines self-concept, identity, commitment, family, and personal and artistic freedom. Playwright Baker—known for skewering Vermont’s politically correct culture—treats all of this with a fine blend of disdain, humor, and sympathy.

Prebilich and Revelos at work in “Body Awareness”

Directors John Shillington and Janine Sternlieb get marvelous performances from all four performers. Revelos and Prebilich are exceptional in exploring the breadth of their characters’ emotional lives, while Pinkham does a wonderful job in a role that more-or-less repeats one he did in last year’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” Tendick, in his first appearance on stage, anchors the whole affair with a surprising amount of gravitas.

With her set design and costumes, Main Stage West company principal Elizabeth Craven perfectly captures life in small-town Vermont. She also happens to have directed the astounding “Eureka Day,” running concurrently with “Body Awareness.”

The two shows’ related themes make them an ideal pair for back-to-back viewing. If there were such a thing as a perfectly-matched theatrical double feature they’d be it. Both provide plenty of laughs and plenty to ponder once the laughter fades.

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionBody Awareness
Written byAnnie Baker
Directed byJohn Shillington and Janine Sternlieb
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Sept. 22nd
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$0 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Big Silly Fun in Cinnabar’s “Little Shop of Horrors” – by Barry Willis

Photo by Vero Kherian.

Roger Corman’s 1960 low-budget comedy/horror flick “The Little Shop of Horrors” is a classic of the genre. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was a staple of late-night TV, inspiring an adaptation as a stage musical by Howard Ashman, with music by Alan Menken.

It’s been in continual production somewhere since it debuted in 1982, for good reasons. The story is cheesy, the characters are as broadly drawn as possible, and the music is absolutely infectious—think “Rocky Horror Show” meets “Grease.” Cinnabar’s current production of “Little Shop” is a tremendously high-energy treatment of this All-American classic, directed by Nathan Cummings and choreographed by Bridget Codoni, running through September 22.

The little shop is Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, a failing retail business in a decrepit part of the city. Proprietor Mr. Mushnik (played with palpable fatigue and despair by Michael Van Why) prays for a miracle to keep his doors open. His hoped-for miracle appears when needed most— in the form of a carnivorous plant developed by Mushnik’s nerdy assistant Seymour Krelborn (Equity actor Michael McGurk).

Since its intro in 1982, American audiences can’t get enough schlocky story telling entertainment…

The presence of the plant in the shop generates astounding public interest for reasons that no one questions. Seymour names the plant “Audrey II” in honor of his co-worker Audrey (Sidney Raey-Gonzales), a sweetly reticent girl in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Dr. Orin Scrivello (Keith Baker, superb in multiple roles).

 

Seymour discovers by accident that the plant thrives on human flesh and blood — and that it speaks, demanding to be fed. Each feeding causes huge spurts in the plant’s aggressiveness and size—it goes from a “strange and interesting” thing in a small pot in the shop’s window to an enormous all-consuming monster that can devour a human in one gulp.

Mushnik’s business enjoys phenomenal growth in direct proportion to the plant’s, from selling a handful of posies each day to supplying all the flowers for the Rose Bowl Parade. Seymour undergoes a similar transition, from perpetually unnoticed back-room nobody to pop star, winning Audrey in the process. Her botanical namesake has solved multiple problems, but as in all monster lore — indeed, as in much of human life — the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Audrey II (voiced by Michelle Pagano, puppetry by Zane Walters — both excellent) becomes a massive problem. Solving it becomes Seymour’s new challenge.

Micheal McGurk as Seymour. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

The show’s patently ridiculous dramatic arc is further exaggerated by plenty of upbeat pop music, beautifully sung by Raey-Gonzales, McGurk, Baker, and the “doo-wop girls”: Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon (Selena Elize Flores, Aja Gianola-Norris, and Olivia Newbold, respectively). The trio’s harmonies are marvelous; the three are equally entertaining whether dolled up as an early ’60s girl group or in grunge mode as street urchins, and they nail the choreography. “Somewhere That’s Green,” a sweet invocation of idealized 1950s’ suburban living, is delivered with shimmering conviction by Raey-Gonzales. It’s the emotional high point of the first act.

The Doo-Wop Girls and Dr Scrivello. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Baker clearly relishes going over the top as the hyper-caffeinated, charming-but-evil Dr. Scrivello. The ultra-kinetic McGurk is absolutely in his element as Seymour. Raey-Gonzales is commanding as Audrey, with a Brooklyn accent that never falters, even when she’s singing.

Peter Q. Parish has conjured a facile set serving as florist shop and city street, needing only a few brief changes from scene to scene. Their brevity helps propel this quick-moving musical—less than two hours including a fifteen-minute intermission. Hilarious and enthralling from beginning to end, this “Little Shop of Horrors” is an entertainment bargain certain to sell out fast. It’s simply big silly fun, fabulously well done.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionLittle Shop of Horrors
Written byWritten by Howard Ashman, from the screenplay by Charles Griffith
Directed byDirected by Nathan Cummings.

Assisted by Cecelia Hamilton.
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Sept. 22nd
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
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! “Cabaret” a Bawdy Cautionary Tale at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

The Kit Kat dancers at SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Every summer, San Francisco Playhouse revives a classic musical and runs it all season long. It’s a brilliant marketing ploy leveraging Union Square tourist traffic, one that gives company principals a breather to prepare for an intense fall/winter schedule. The company’s current offering is a splendid take on Kander and Ebbs’s “Cabaret,” through September 14.

It’s one of several iterations of “Cabaret” to pop up recently in the Bay Area, thanks to the Trump presidency and its supporters. SFP’s bawdy effort is both wonderfully entertaining and horrifically startling—a cautionary tale about the rise of pure evil among seemingly nice friendly people, such as Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn, Jr.), the charming German businessman who befriends American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) on a train ride into Berlin.

Cate Heyman as Sally Bowles works SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Ludwig introduces Bradshaw to Fraulein Schneider (Jennie Brick), proprietress of a rooming house where he soon takes up residence, and to the Kit Kat Klub, the cabaret of the show’s title. There he meets many denizens of Berlin’s cultural underworld, including the fetching Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman), a flighty British singer with whom he’s soon head over heels and sharing a room, both to his regret.

…if you haven’t seen it, make it a priority. If you have, it’s worth revisiting.

Many of the songs in this show made it into the pop repertoire, thanks to the commercial success of the 1972 movie: “Wilkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Maybe This Time,” “Cabaret,” “Money,” and “Married,” a lovely duet performed by Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell), the fruit seller to whom Schneider gets engaged, both of them in late middle age. It’s a lilting note of hope in a show that’s ultimately and intentionally a very bitter pill buried in a thick coating of sugar. Herr Schultz is in deep denial about the rising tide of anti-Semitism, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first. Schneider knows better, and so does Bradshaw.

Jennie Brick and Louis Parnell as Schneider and Schultz. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

But the sugar is sweet and seductive. The Kit Kat Klub’s Master of Ceremonies is convincingly portrayed by John Paul Gonzalez, whose high-energy genderbending is the motive force behind most of the show’s many song-and-dance numbers (choreography by Nicole Helfer), performed by a tremendous ensemble, with music from an ace band under the direction of Dave Dobrusky.

Susi Damilano’s dynamic stage direction is first-rate, as is Jacquelyn Scott’s set design, but what sets this “Cabaret” apart from other very good productions is Cate Hayman as Sally Bowles. A theater student at Carnegie Mellon University (as is Atticus Shaindlin), Heyman brings a depth to her character that other performers have missed. Sally Bowles is usually portrayed as an annoying self-centered airhead, and Heyman encompasses that, but her Sally has an implied backstory that makes her much more substantial than most. Heyman is the best Sally Bowles this reviewer has ever seen.

Also superb is Abby Haug as Fraulien Kost, a resident at Fraulien Schneider’s who earns her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Haug and Heyman will prove justification for many ticket buyers. “Cabaret” at SF Playhouse runs a couple more weeks—if you haven’t seen it, make it a priority. If you have, it’s worth revisiting.

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byWritten by Joe Masteroff

Music by John Kander and Fred Eb
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Sept. 14th
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
Overall4.5/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Stacy Ross Shines in “Year of Magical Thinking” – by Barry Willis

Stacy Ross at work at the Aurora Theatre. Photo courtesy Aurora Theatre Co

Anyone who’s read Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” might wonder how anyone could turn the book into a play. The answer is that only the author could do it, or at least, do it right. Prolific essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, Didion accomplishes the seemingly impossible in her one-woman/one-act play at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, through July 28.

On a stage and backdrop of what appear to be huge Travertine slabs (set by Kent Dorsey) Stacy Ross shines as she relates Didion’s horrific, heartbreaking tale of suddenly losing her husband and collaborator, writer John Gregory Dunne, while their adopted daughter was in a coma. Among the very best actors in the Bay Area, Ross fully inhabits the story without attempting to be Didion—an astute decision by her and director Nancy Carlin. Ross and Didion are as physically unlike as possible.

…brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life…

No one is ever prepared for a sudden loss, of course, and the shock of it is the running theme throughout the production’s ninety well-paced minutes. Ross opens with a recitation lifted almost verbatim from the book’s first chapter—about how Dunne collapsed as the author was preparing dinner, the arrival of paramedics, a panicky trip to the emergency room, and the inevitable aftermath. Even in shock and overwhelmed by sorrow, Didion can’t help injecting self-deprecating humor and ironic observation—she stands in line with insurance card in hand, because it seems the proper thing to do, and in the ER, she’s introduced to her husband’s momentary physician, whom she can’t resist describing as “a pre-teen in a white lab coat.”

The social circumstances of death get full vetting, brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life in Malibu and New York. But it’s the interior monolog that’s most compelling—an examination of pretending to go about the daily business of life while knowingly indulging in self-deception and compulsive rituals in the secret hope that all that’s happened can somehow be altered—the “magical thinking” of the title.

This solo production is an understated masterful performance that seamlessly blends lecture, confession, and conversation. In her book and play, Didion eloquently managed to encompass all of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous stages of dying—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—stages that apply not only to the terminally ill but to their survivors. Stacy Ross is brilliant in conveying a narrative whose subject will inevitably touch all of us.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionYear of Magical Thinking
Written byJoan Didion
Directed byNancy Carlin
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$49 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Drumming With Anubis” Wildly Entertaining at Left Edge Theatre – by Barry Willis

Mark Bradbury (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

In the galaxy of theater, the convergence of brilliant concept and brilliant execution occurs all too rarely. When it does, it’s a thing of beauty and wonder and a cause for celebration, like a solar eclipse or a blue moon.

At Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through June 30, David Templeton’s “Drumming With Anubis” is all this and more. A poignant, hilarious exercise in magical realism, it finds a group of middle-aged geeks camped out on the edge of the desert, there for a weekend of male empowerment, macho drumming, personal confessions, and recollections about the glory days of head-banging heavy metal rock. Founded by a recently departed drummer named Joshua Tree, the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society has gathered in part to lay Josh’s ashes to rest, and to welcome a new member to its fold—a mysterious and reticent fellow they call simply “New Bitch” (Mark Bradbury).

The similarity to the new recruit’s nickname and the name of the Eqyptian god of death and mummification is no coincidence, of course, and the connection becomes increasingly clear as the story moves on—something it does with panache and superb pacing under the direction of David L. Yen, who somehow managed to balance rehearsals and performances of the excellent “Faceless” at 6th Street Playhouse with rehearsals of “Drumming.”

. . . the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.”

Pallaziol, Sholley, Martinez, and Schloemp (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Yen may have gone without sleep for weeks while doing this, but the results are exemplary—a very funny production delicately seasoned with moments of profound personal truth. Chris Schloemp stars as the group’s leader, a kilt-wearing electrical contractor named “Chick” who as a not-quite-successful drummer has lived a large part of his life in Josh’s shadow. Anthony Martinez is his sidekick “Bull,” a gruff-voiced barbeque entrepreneur given to dressing like a Harley rider, but a man with deep insecurities about his masculinity. Then there’s “Stingray” (Richard Pallaziol), a twice-divorced alcoholic struggling to hang onto his third wife and his job as a manager of multiple sporting goods stores. Keeper of the group’s rules is Neil (Equity actor Nick Sholley), a “professor of pop culture” with failing knees, who has never recovered from the loss of his lover Alex. Altogether, they are an incredibly talented and superbly-balanced group of performers.

Miller and Martinez (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

The campers poke fun at their own and each other’s foibles, punctuating each heartfelt revelation or silly joke (revealing any would be unfair to playwright and patrons) with drum riffs and chants of “Balls deep!” while mourning the loss of their founder. Into their midst comes Nicky Tree (the feisty Ivy Rose Miller), Josh’s young widow, seeking not only her husband’s pilfered ashes but some substantial psychological restitution from the ragtag assemblage. How she gets it and what they get in return—both as individuals and as a group—is the driving force of the play’s second act, amplified by a continually-more-assertive Anubis. It’s a powerhouse combination of tremendous writing, acting, and direction, all of it on a delightfully plausible set by Argo Thompson, with gorgeous background projections by Schloemp.

Prolific journalist, critic, playwright, and North Bay national treasure, Templeton with this project has ventured out of the autobiographical mode that characterizes most of his prior work. It’s a fantastically successful effort carried out by a troupe of artists who truly understand and embrace his vision. You’ll howl with laughter but moments later may find yourself wiping tears away—an emotional rollercoaster that’s both thrilling ride and rock-solid reward. “Drumming With Anubis” may be the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionDrumming With Anubis
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byDavid L. Yen
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 30th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “Cabaret” a Solid Bet at Napa’s Lucky Penny – by Barry Willis

 

Ashley Garlick (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The current American political climate has had some predictable consequences. Among them: a spate of theatrical revivals of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret,” a musical now in its 53rd year. The latest North Bay version runs at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through June 16th.

The 1972 movie firmly established the show in pop culture—many people know the songs without understanding that the show itself isn’t a lightweight romp through the decadent underworld of Weimar Republic Berlin. The story’s time frame isn’t specific, but encompasses the rise of the Nazi party and increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. We often forget that the Nazi party was democratically elected, having gained popularity slowly but persistently throughout the late 1920s. By 1933 it was the most powerful political party in Germany. The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.

Directed by Ken Sonkin, this “Cabaret” is presented in shades of gray—except for the Nazi armbands, costumes by Rebecca Valentino are all black/white/gray. Lighting designer April George bathes the stage in flat yellowish light that gives the whole affair a grainy film-noir look. It’s an evocative effect but one that left this reviewer longing for more dramatic lighting, something that comes only late in the final act.

The core plot revolves around an itinerant American novelist, Cliff Bradshaw (a youngish Ryan Hook) befriended by German businessman Ernst Ludwig (F. James Raasch) on a train ride into Berlin. Ludwig knows the city intimately, and introduces Bradshaw to the Kit Kat Klub (the cabaret of the show’s title) and to Fraulein Schneider (Karen Pinomaki), proprietor of a rooming house where he takes up residence. At the club he meets a self-centered British songbird named Sally Bowles (a spirited Ashley Garlick). The two of them are soon deeply if contentiously involved.

Tim Setzer and Karen Pinomaki (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

A secondary love story involves Fraulein Schneider and fruit seller Herr Schultz (Tim Setzer), both of them in late middle age and deeply in love. The relationship between Bradshaw and Bowles is interestingly rocky and ultimately sort of pointless, but it’s the fate of Schneider and Schultz that hooks the audience. One of only three characters in the play who comprehend the inevitability of the approaching storm—the other two are Bradshaw and Ludwig—Schneider backs out of a late-in-life wedding, hoping to survive by “flying under the radar,” as we might say today. As stage director Michael Ross pointed out on opening night, Schneider and Shultz are the pair you’re rooting for. Setzer and Pinomaki are at the height of their considerable theatrical powers in conveying the sweetness and hopelessness of their characters’ relationship. The two are absolutely wonderful in this production.

The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.”

Denial of the obvious is a strong theme. As the tale progresses, 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. Raasch is superb 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 hooked on 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. Setzer is magnificent in his portrayal of a kind-hearted man blinded by delusional hope.

Kirstin Pieschke and Brian Watson (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The show-within-a-show is the burlesque in the Kit Kat Klub, stunningly produced and performed by its Emcee (Brian Watson, the cast’s only Equity actor). Watson is spectacular throughout, as is the live music from a strong four-piece band led by Craig Burdette. Barry Martin is excellent in several minor roles—as Max, the club’s owner; as an inspector on the Berlin-Paris train; and as a Nazi officer. Andrea Dennison-Laufer is very good as Fraulein Kost, a resident of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house, who makes her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Staci Ariaga’s choreography is entertaining without being too difficult for the assorted Kit Kat girls, and boys.

Opening night was marred by too much stage smoke and sound effects that overwhelmed dialog—problems that we were assured would be corrected immediately. Fifty-some years after its debut, not much about this show will seem shocking other than its message. Unique to this production is a final dismissal to Nazi madness: the cast tossing their swastika-emblazoned armbands on the floor like so much trash. It’s a great directorial decision, and a really satisfying gesture—one performed with silent conviction that no words could emulate.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byMusic by John Kander and Fred Ebb; Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed byKen Sonkin; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough June 16th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Cinderella” Delights at Spreckels – by Barry Willis

Law and Graham (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Move over, Disney.

An ancient fairy tale gets a modern reworking in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, through May 26. Classicists will be relieved to learn that the story’s essential elements are still intact: a poor abused girl who dreams of a better life, her domineering stepmother and two nasty stepsisters, a magical fairy godmother, a smitten prince, and the promise of miraculous transformations.

Cinderella’s hope of exchanging her rags for the gowns of a princess is an expression of a persistent human dream, very much like the popular urge to buy lottery tickets week after week despite astronomical odds against winning.

In Cinderella’s case, she actually succeeds—she finds Mr. Right, he finds her, and after much travail they live happily ever after. It’s a timeless story—the basis of almost every piece of “chick lit” ever written. The plain yellow pumpkin still becomes a golden carriage, but Douglas Carter Beane’s version adds a new character and subplot in an attempt to make the story more contemporary: a radical firebrand named Jean-Michel (Michael Coury Murdock), who seeks social justice and economic opportunity for everyone. Instead of having his head lopped off instantly, as would happen in most real threats to ruling class hegemony, he succeeds not only in winning the hand of a mean stepsister (converting her to a decent person in the process) but in getting the prince to agree to sweeping changes to his kingdom. Cinderella wins the man and life of her dreams and her entire society gets to go along for the ride. Participation trophies for all!

Cinderella ensemble (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Director Sheri Lee Miller’s huge cast does a great job conveying the story—one with a 7:00 p.m. evening curtain time in anticipation that hordes of kids will fill the large theater. Brittany Law is marvelous as “Ella” the household maid renamed “Cinderella” by Madame (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) for the dirty work she tirelessly performs. Shawna Eiermann and ScharyPearl Fugitt are excellent as stepsisters Gabrielle and Charlotte, respectively, bringing more nuance to their characters than expected or required. Innocenti-Beem’s Madame takes delight in tormenting poor Cinderella, but has moments of surprising gentility and humor. Musical theater veteran Innocenti-Beem is likely the best singer in the cast but her role limits her to only a few lines of music. Her physical comedy and sense of timing are impeccable.

. . . excellent . . . superb family fare . . .”

Zachary Hasbany is superb as “Prince Topher”—the character’s name another nod to contemporaneity—with a good singing voice and fine sense of movement. The prince—a big guy himself—swings a giant sword in slaying a giant dragon (offstage) but the horse he rides is comically undersized. It’s one of few glitches in the otherwise excellent production. The worst is the huge suspension of disbelief required of the audience when Cinderella goes barefaced to the masked ball where the prince falls for her. Later when scouring the realm for her, he can’t recognize her until her foot fits the shoe she didn’t lose but intentionally gave to him. These twists on the original story aren’t improvements.

Larry Williams is gleefully evil as the conniving Sebastian, the prince’s minister, a sort of fairytale Rasputin, and Sean O’Brien matches him as Lord Pinkleton, another royal court sycophant. A gifted singer, O’Brien has a couple of breakout moments in the show’s many musical numbers. A high point is “Impossible” late in the first act, in which the ragged Marie (Mary Gannon Graham) is transformed into a fairy godmother who in turn transforms mice into liveried footmen, a pumpkin into a carriage, and Cinderella into a potential princess. Graham beautifully channels Billie Burke (Glinda the Good from “The Wizard of Oz”) in this bit, a duet of “Impossible” with Law, and the transformation is one of the show’s great illusions. Many times nominated for critical awards, choreographer Michella Snider is at her best. Group and individual dances and movements are delightful and take full advantage of the theater’s big stage and clear sight lines.

Set design by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen is gorgeous and facile, enabling quick set changes that keep the show moving briskly. Chris Schloemp’s huge colorful projections are stunning. Pamela Johnson’s and Chelsa Lindam’s costumes are gorgeous. Music director Paul Smith’s orchestra—in the pit, stage front—sounds tremendous. What’s not to like? All things considered, this “Cinderella” is excellent. Appropriate for all audiences, of course, it’s superb family fare that won’t require parents to do a lot of explaining when they get home—except for the fact that the “golden carriage” isn’t yellow. For that, you can simply say “It’s white gold.”

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionCinderella
Written byBook and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
Music by Richard Rodgers
Additional material by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed bySheri Lee Miller; Music Directed by Paul Smith
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough May 26th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$18 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Solid, Mostly Rewarding Effort in 6th Street’s “Mockingbird”– by Barry Willis

Jourdan Olivier-Verdé as Tom Robinson (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

A disabled black man accused of attempting to rape a white girl is defended by small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch in the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” through May 19 at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa.

It’s the midst of a long hot summer in 1935, and Finch’s pursuit of justice puts himself and his family at risk—something he accepts despite inevitable personal and social consequences. Directed by Marty Pistone, Christopher Sergal’s 1990 stage adaptation of the classic Harper Lee novel is conveyed as a closely-related collection of reminiscences by Atticus’s adult daughter Jean Louise Finch (Ellen Rawley).

Since its debut in 1960, Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has never gone out of print, and for decades has been required reading in many high schools in the US. Based on incidents that took place in her hometown and elsewhere in the South not only in the 1930’s, but much later, it depicts circumstances unique to the time and place but also regrettably universal. The evidence against the accused man, Tom Robinson (Jourdan Olivier-Verdé) is flimsy at best, but Finch’s unassailable logic and conviction are insufficient to overcome the racist hysteria infecting the townspeople of Maycomb.

Robinson’s fate is disturbing—one that Atticus Finch (Jeff Coté) can see coming but is powerless to prevent. His dismay is shared by the town’s sheriff, Heck Tate (Tom Glynn), with whom he is amicable, even friendly. Finch is a disheveled moralist, whose rumpled suit and fatigued demeanor belie his intelligence and commitment to justice. Tate, on the other hand, is a pragmatist whose sense of justice has been leavened by the necessities of keeping a town running smoothly. His pragmatism is shared by Judge Taylor (Alan Kaplan), the cigar-chomping realist presiding over the Robinson trial. An odd bit of set design has the judge sitting behind a comically small bench, almost a cartoon parody. Surely set designer Alayna Klein could find something more imposing and appropriate.

Jeff Coté as Atticus Finch (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

A secondary plot involves Finch’s children—a boy, Jem (Mario Giani Herrera), his younger sister “Scout” (Cecilia Brenner, confident and spunky), and their friend Dill (the exuberant Liev Bruce-Low)—and their fascination with a scary reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley (Conor Woods, also this production’s technical diretor), and their desire to understand the events taking place around them. They never see Boo outside, but he communicates with the children by leaving mysterious gifts in the hollow of a tree. Late in the story, the fearsome creature lurking in a dark house emerges as an avenging angel.

. . . a gospel choir . . . opens and closes the show . . .”

The whole affair takes place on the front porch and in the yard of the Finch house, transformed with a few props into the Maycomb court house, and at the homes of nearby neighbors—all of it beautifully realized by Klein. In an unusually creative twist, the town’s black residents are also a gospel choir. Their glorious music opens and closes the show, and is used as transition between key scenes. Nicholas Augusta, who plays Reverend Sykes, mentioned after the opening performance that “Hold On” is a venerable spiritual, but that other songs were composed for the show by music director Branise McKenzie, aided by her singers. The addition of these singers to this classic production is a wonderful touch. Lighting by April George contributes greatly to the overall feel of the show.

Ensemble Choir (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Pistone’s cast is generally very good, with standout performances by Val Sinkler as Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper; Caitlin Strom-Martin as supposed victim Mayella Ewell; and Mike Pavone as the insufferably ignorant redneck drunk Bob Ewell, Mayella’s father. Ella Jones is also excellent as Tom Robinson’s young daughter. Inexplicably, the show’s only Equity actor, Jeff Coté, seems less than fully committed to the lead role.

The language and attitudes in this production are authentic and haven’t been sanitized for the sake of political correctness. Without explicit polemics, “To Kill a Mockingbird” elucidates the eternal conflict between human rationality and ignorance. The production at 6th Street is a good reminder of how important it is to continue promoting knowledge of that conflict.

ASR Senior 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

 

ProductionTo Kill a Mockingbird
Written byBook by Harper Lee
Adapted by Christopher Sergal
Directed byMarty Pistone
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
G.K. Hardt Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Astounding, Shocking Realism in “The Jungle” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Jonathan Nyati and Ben Turner (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

A crisis in a refugee camp comes roaring to life each night in “The Jungle,” at The Curran through May 19. San Francisco is the third stop for this astounding international touring production, which originated in London and then moved to New York.

Conceived and written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, “The Jungle” has won universal acclaim. The co-playwrights lived in the sprawling multi-ethnic refugee camp in Calais, France during its peak, 2015-2016, when its approximately 8000 residents lived peaceably if contentiously with each other while enduring continual harassment from French authorities. The production is a full-immersion experience that puts most of the audience in the midst of a large shantytown café — called “Salar’s Restaurant” or the “Afghan Café”— that served as a community center for the camp. The high-intensity story encompasses the final few months of the camp’s  existence, before it was destroyed by French police in October 2016.

Arya Rose Lohmor and Ammar Haj Ahmad (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

The elegant interior of the recently renovated Curran has been converted to a plywood-and-rough-framing temporary structure where the audience sits on hard wooden benches, sipping fragrant tea while arguments rage among the camp’s residents about what to do in the face of increasing pressure from French authorities. Several British aid workers try their best to help, to intervene, and in some cases, to transport refugees across the channel to Kent — a horrendously frustrating and occasionally comic effort for everyone involved. Two dozen impassioned actors wander among the audience, murmuring and shouting at each other in English, French, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish, and several African languages as the crisis builds, reinforced by real news clips on television sets placed here and there around the café (video design by Duncan McLean and Tristan Shepherd).

…the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.”

A huge extended table serves as a thrust stage where most of the drama and a few moments of levity and hope take place — including several confrontations with haughty French officials and condescending police — interspersed with tales of unbelievable hardships endured by refugees from throughout the Middle East and Africa in their quest for a better life away from the violence of their homelands. Among these are stories of leaving behind all they owned, knew, and loved, walking thousands of miles, enduring kidnappings, torture, and extortion, and embarking on perilous attempts to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded inflatable rubber boats or being packed by the hundreds into leaky ships with little chance of reaching their destinations. Such a tale is told in an unwavering voice by a clear-eyed Sudanese boy named Okot (John Pfumojena).

Ammar Haj Ahmad and John Pfumojena (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

What these refugees endure in their quest for peace and freedom is horrific, as is their cold reception by Europeans. French duplicity gets deserved exposure as politicians pay lip service to human rights while planning to eliminate the camp. Despite its self-image as a nation of asylum, France does not have a glowing history in support of human rights — Haiti’s crushing poverty, for example, is the result of terms imposed by France when the island nation sought independence.

The show’s denouement is among the most shattering you are likely ever to experience in any theater. Its hyper-realism will shock you to the core and at the very least make you reconsider our own refugee crisis. “The Jungle” may be the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionThe Jungle
Written byJoe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed byStephen Daldry and Justin Martin
Producing CompanySonia Friedman Productions with Tom Kirdahy present the Good Chance Theatre, National Theatre and Young Vic production
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressThe Curran
445 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone(415) 358-1220
Tickets$25 – $165
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Good and Evil Entwined in “Heathen Valley” at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Bordi and Craven (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Missionary zeal improves life in an isolated mountain community, with unanticipated personal and social consequences in Romulus Linney’s “Heathen Valley,” directed by Elizabeth and John Craven, at Main Stage West in Sebastopol through April 14.

Set in North Carolina in the 1840s, the story’s central character is an illiterate church janitor named Starns (Kevin Bordi, brilliant), recently released from prison after serving ten years on a manslaughter charge. He wants to make something better of his life and begins a program of late-in-life education as an acolyte to the kindly Bishop Ames (John Craven). Adamant about saving souls, the Bishop enlists his help in an expedition into a hidden valley in the mountains, an area so remote it’s called “the land that God forgot.”

…conveyed with stunning conviction…”

Ames, Starns, and an orphan boy named Billy (Jereme Anglin, also the show’s narrator) embark on a trek that lands them in a community so inbred that marriage between siblings is considered normal, and so economically backward that scratching a few potatoes from the ground is considered a good harvest—fertile territory for Christian reformers. Ames installs Starns as his pastor in the valley. The former illiterate rises to his new responsibility, and having become fond of St. Augustine, preaches a gospel of kindness and understanding. He also helps his flock with practical matters such as improving their agricultural yields and teaching them that it’s best not to mate with close relatives.

Starns’s role in lifting up a blighted community is his personal salvation, one that he assumes with great dignity and purpose. The valley’s people—represented by Juba (mollie boice, perfectly cast), a wise old mountain midwife; Harlan (Elijah Pinkham), an ignorant, volatile hick; and Cora (Miranda Jane Williams), his not-quite-so-ignorant mate—prosper under his tutelage. Starns grows proud of what they achieve together even as his exhausting work takes a toll on his health. This story is conveyed with stunning conviction on a simple set that serves as church, village, and field, with backdrops that evoke the Great Smoky Mountains.

The cast of “Heathen Valley” at Main Stage West (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

While over several years Starns has led his flock out of the muck, the visiting Bishop has taken a more orthodox turn. He comes back to the valley not at all pleased with its simple abundance, happiness, and social order. His only concerns are piety and pious behavior. He’s become a religious conservative, insisting that valley residents wear cassocks (black robes such as worn by Greek Orthodox priests) and stop being so happy. They rebel, permitting only their children to wear dour outfits that make them look “like a bunch of damned crows.” Ames’s defeat cuts him to the core; John Craven portrays that defeat as a personal crucifixion.

The characters in “Heathen Valley” have complex intersecting arcs, and all are portrayed exquisitely, accompanied by mountain music almost too perfect (sound design by Doug Faxon). Linney’s deeply nuanced piece could not have had a better presentation than what’s currently running at Main Stage West. The playwright grew up in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee and was notoriously dismissive of hillbilly stereotypes, but here he brings them each to life: incest, ignorance, witchcraft, and all. He was also deeply aware of the inherent wisdom in primitive people. Even the moronic Harlan recognizes that religious conversion is simply an exercise in swapping one superstition for another. No amount of preaching will ever convince him that virgins can have babies.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionHeathen Valley
Written byRomulus Linney
Directed byElizabeth and John Craven
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough April 14th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “A Perfect Ganesh” Imperfectly Rendered at Cinnabar – by Barry Willis

Two upper-middle-class middle-aged women find that a journey through India turns their contentious relationship into something deeper and more rewarding in “A Perfect Ganesh,” directed by Michael Fontaine at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater through April 14.

Terence McNally’s AIDS-era story has huge potential to be both heart-rending and heart-warming, a potential that’s sadly under-exploited in this flat, lugubrious production. The two women, Margaret Civil (Laura Jorgensen), and Katharine Brynne (Elly Lichenstein), alter their usual holiday plans for an adventure in India, an undertaking that prompts anxiety in both of them, heightened by an opening-scene mishap with their airline tickets that threatens to make them miserable. Watching over them is Ganesha (Heren Patel), god of luck and opportunity, the travelers’ unseen companion. He appears at each critical moment in the story, guiding and helping but never intruding. The title refers to Katharine’s incessant search for a keepsake figurine, one of many behaviors that annoy Margaret.

Civil is cranky and demanding; Brynne forgetful, eagerly curious. They know each from their social circle in an uppercrust part of Connecticut, not really close when first introduced to us, but reasonably comfortable with each other. Their constant bickering belies their friendship, whose evolution is the play’s dramatic arc. It’s an arc that goes far—the two become close after several revelations of private tragedies and sharings of personal truth—but not very high. The dramatic peaks and valleys that might have given this story emotional texture have mostly been leveled and filled. Both actresses are veterans of long experience, so this squashing of emotional dynamics can only be interpreted as a directorial decision.

…as arduous as a train ride through India.”

Heren Patel is competent as the elephant-headed god, with an amiable, sometimes comedic delivery. His movements are elegant and fluid but his elephant headpiece interferes with the clarity of his speech. It’s not clear if some of his funny bits are intentional, such as Ganesha’s appearance to the travelers in the form of a Japanese tourist with an almost Italian accent.

The show’s saving grace is John Browning, who confidently plays all the male characters referred to by Margaret and Katharine—suitor, husband, son, and more. He also appears as many incidental characters—ticket agent, porter, guide—completely changing character with only slight changes in costume.

The music by Christopher and Marni Ris is compelling, but the stagecraft is slow and noisy as large pieces get shoved about and huge curtains pulled back and forth. The playbill lists running time at two and a quarter hours, but on opening weekend it was closer to three, or seemed like it. Like any foreign journey, “A Perfect Ganesh” offers experiences and insights available no other way, but getting to them is likely to feel as arduous as a train ride through India.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionA Perfect Ganesh
Written byTerrence McNally
Directed byMichael Fontaine
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough April 14th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$28 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2.5/5
Performance3/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Great Acting Can’t Overcome Script in “The Revolutionists” – by Barry Willis

The French Revolution was a bloody mess. That’s putting it in the mildest possible terms. The country’s 18th century bankruptcy and crushing poverty led to an uprising that in turn became the Reign of Terror in which many thousands of real and imaginary enemies of the new state were imprisoned and killed. A civil war was a strong possibility.

At the same time, surrounding countries fearing that anti-royalty sentiment would spread, and seeing many opportunities in a weakened France, sought to conquer the bourgeoning democracy. This set the stage for the rise of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, one of history’s most egomaniacal and brutal dictators.

Almost 17,000 people were executed during the peak year of the Reign of Terror, from summer 1793 to summer 1794—an average of 45 per day, a sustained orgy of head-chopping. Many executions took place in Paris; the guillotine was a popular form of entertainment. All this to establish a new form of government and economy based on the slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (freedom, equality, brotherhood)—high ideals riddled with hypocrisy, as playwright Lauren Gunderson makes clear in “The Revolutionists,” in the studio theater at 6th Street Playhouse through April 7.

Flores and Revelos (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Gunderson places one fictional and three historical figures into her theatrical caldron then applies heat to see what will happen, with mixed results. The primary figure is writer and political activist Olympe de Gourges (Equity actress Tara Howley Hudson), a champion of the rights of women and minorities and an outspoken critic of the Reign of Terror who went to the guillotine on November 3, 1793. Two strong secondary characters are Marie Antoinette (Lydia Revelos, fantastic), whose lavish spending was widely believed to be the cause of France’s massive financial problems, and Charlotte Corday (Chandler Parrott-Thomas), who assassinated revolutionary firebrand Jean-Paul Marat and was beheaded four days later. The fourth figure is Marianne Angelle (Serena Elize Flores), a fictional character who advocates for the rights of women and oppressed minorities. “How about liberté, égalité, sororité?” she asks.

…compellingly rendered and superbly well performed, but… doesn’t overcome the script’s fundamental difficulties.” 

Both stagecraft and acting are first-rate under the direction of Lennie Dean, especially by Hudson and Revelos, but this adventure into “metatheater” is seriously overwrought, the kind of play that might be more at home as a graduate effort by an art school drama club. The characters interact with each other—only experts in French history could state whether any of them actually met—and with their audience, smothered with abstruse intellectualisms as only the French can spin them, and arcane (for Americans, anyway) historical references. Ultimately, we learn that the whole convoluted affair is something bubbling in Olympe de Gourges’s soon-to-be-detached head, as she struggles to do something with enduring impact in her last few days—a dramatic structure very much like the film “Jacob’s Ladder,” where the final reveal is that the foregoing story has taken place in a dying soldier’s mind.

“The Revolutionists” is compellingly rendered and superbly well performed, but the excellence of the performance doesn’t overcome the script’s fundamental difficulties. It’s a prickly but rewarding show for those with theatrical fortitude and better-than-average understanding of both history and its presentation as entertainment. The Thursday April 4 performance features a talkback after the show, recommended.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionThe Revolutionists
Written byLauren Gunderson
Directed byLennie Dean
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough April 7th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Bingo, the Musical” Offers Great Silly Fun – by Barry Willis

Through April 7, the intimate stage at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions is transformed into a VFW bingo hall where three women brave the elements to vie for power, glory—and maybe a handful of petty cash—in a raucous production of “Bingo, the Winning Musical.”

The friends, Vern, Honey and Patsy, dead-serious Bingo fanatics all, converge to compete on the fifteenth anniversary of Vern’s split with her former friend Bernice (Jennifer Brookman), an event so traumatic that the two have never reconciled. It’s an injustice that Bernice’s daughter Alison (Pilar Gonzalez) is determined to make right.

Lundstrom, Innocenti Beem, and Rider (Photo courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

Outlandish challenges—“I’m a professional bingo player!” shouts Vern (the irrepressible Daniela Innocenti Beem)—an attempted seduction of the game’s number caller Sam (Tim Setzer) by the flirtatious Honey (Shannon Rider), and the invocation of spirits, talismans, and good-luck charms by the addled Patsy (Sarah Lundstrom) are only part of the fun, all watched over by Minnie (Karen Pinomaki), a mischievous sprite who manages the hall, an authentic recreation of such places found in almost every town in America. Lucky Penny’s set includes a real numbers board, a rotating hopper to randomize the balls, and bingo cards for each member of the audience, encouraged to play along at least three times in the course of the show. Napa just happens to be home base for a major distributor of bingo equipment. Who knew?

Infectiously energetic… great silly lightweight fun…”

Add to this some spectacular singing in ensemble numbers such as “Girls Night Out,” “Anyone Can Play Bingo,” “I  Still Believe in You,” “Under My Wing,” and “Ratched’s Lament.” Solo numbers are also superb (music direction by Craig Burdette), including “I’ve Made Up My Mind” (Alison), “Patsy’s Flashback,” “Swell” (Vern), and “Gentleman Caller” (Honey). Where else can you see a “straightjacket ballet” (choreography by Staci Arriaga and Taylor Bartolucci) in which bingo gals go all out like a bunch of lunatics recently released from the asylum? Does bingo make its players crazy or are they a little bit that way from the start?

Infectiously energetic, “Bingo, the Winning Musical” doesn’t offer profound messages or cosmic revelations, but—perhaps more appealing—it does ultimately set aside the petty resentments that infect us all in favor of enduring friendship among charmingly ordinary people. Tickets are money well spent on a couple hours of great silly lightweight fun with the added benefit of a potential sweep of “blackout” or “crazy snakes.” You can’t win if you don’t play.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionBingo, the Winning Musical
Written byMichael Heitzman, Ilene Reid and David Holcenberg
Directed byTaylor Bartolucci; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough April 7th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Rollicking “Million Dollar Quartet” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

In recent years the jukebox musical has become a staple of American theater, in which a collection of great songs gets tied together with a plausible narrative and dramatic arc. “Million Dollar Quartet” fits snugly into this tradition, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street playhouse through March 24.

A fictionalized account of a real event—an evening in early December, 1956, when Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley converged and performed at Sun Studios in Memphis—the show is a rousing piece of Americana and a tour de force of iconic early rock ’n’ roll. An amalgam of African-American blues and gospel and white Southern folk music, rock emerged in the postwar period, giving voice to a new generation and shocking the cultural establishment both in the United States and Europe. Its pervasive effects continue to this day.

…a rousing piece of Americana and a tour de force of iconic early rock ’n’ roll… do not miss this show.”

Directed by Bay Area theater veteran Michael Ray Wisely, who has performed in and directed other productions of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the 6th Street show features two performers from the national touring production—Daniel Durston as Elvis and Steve Lasiter as Johnny Cash. Sonoma County actor/musician Jake Turner is superb as Carl Perkins, as is his guitar playing, and music director Nick Kenrick is astounding as the frenetic Jerry Lee Lewis.

(Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Samantha Arden does a lovely turn as Dyanne, Elvis’s girlfriend, while Benjamin Stowe anchors the whole affair as Sam Phillips, the producer/recording engineer widely acknowledged as the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” And let’s not forget drummer Nick Ambrosino and bassist Shovanny Delgado Carillo, who provide infectious drive to the music of the four ersatz superstars. Conor Woods’s adaptation of the original set design is substantial, compelling, and versatile.

The song list includes a couple dozen classics from the early 1950s, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’,“ all of them stunningly rendered. This reviewer saw the national touring production, and 6th Street’s is just as good. If you’re a fan of that era, do not miss this show. Even if you’re only mildly fond of early rock, it’s still a really fun way to spend an evening.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionMillion Dollar Quartet
Written byColin Escott & Floyd Mutrux
Directed byMichael Ray Wisely; Music Directed by Nick Kenrick
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough March 24th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$40 – $48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Hello, Dolly!” An Eye-popping Extravaganza at the Golden Gate Theatre – by Barry Willis

A multiple Tony winner and perennial favorite since its 1964 debut, “Hello, Dolly!” was for decades a star vehicle for recently departed Carol Channing, the performer most associated with the lead role of yenta and all-around advice giver Dolly Gallagher Levi.

The legendary Betty Buckley handles the lead with aplomb in the sumptuous national touring show, at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre through mid-March. In other productions, Dolly has been inhabited by Bette Midler and other top talents. Ms. Buckley manages to make the character her own without referencing any of the other stars that have taken it on, a major achievement in its own right.

…an absolute extravaganza… nearly everything about this show is incredibly good.”

Backed by what appears to be an unlimited budget, the show is one of the biggest spectacles to land in San Francisco in several years. The capacious Golden Gate is its ideal venue. The show is an absolute extravaganza, from stunning backdrops, costumes, and sets to the supreme talents of a huge cast, including Lewis J. Stadlen as Horace Vandergelder, the wealthy merchant and target of Dolly’s matrimonial intentions. Among the secondary cast, Nic Rouleau is a standout as the lovelorn Cornelius Hackl, one of Vandergelden’s underpaid and underappreciated employees.

Partial ensemble (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

As townspeople, waiters, and other characters, approximately 30 performers do everything from simple walk-on bits to astoundingly athletic dance numbers—all of it appearing nearly effortless, and the show moves along with grace, precision, and enormous energy. There are no weak links in this production—in fact, the only weak link, and it’s a stretch to say this, may be Ms. Buckley herself, because nearly everything about this show is incredibly good. If she’s the weak link, it’s a strong, supple one.

“Hello, Dolly!” is a lightweight musical set around the turn of the 19th century, with some great songs in mid-20th century style—not merely the title song, but others including the heart-rending “Before the Parade Passes By.” Adhering to a time-honored plot device of the matrimonially-minded seeking partners with money, the show has been unfairly criticized for lacking relevance to modern audiences—sold-out performances at the thousand-seat Golden Gate to the contrary. If you have a hankering for a classic Broadway musical the way it was intended to be seen, this is the show for you.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionHello, Dolly!
Written byBook by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed byJerry Zaks
Producing CompanyNational Touring Production
Production DatesThrough March 17th
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.shnsf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$56 – $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Stunning “After Miss Julie” at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Trouble brews as a flighty heiress cavorts with her head servant in “After Miss Julie,” Patrick Marber’s adaptation of the August Strindberg classic, at Main Stage West through March 3.

Reset in an English country manor at the close of World War II, with the Labor Party about to win the national election and disrupt traditional social structures, the play features Jennifer Coté as Christine, a loyal scullery maid; Sam Coughlin as John, her fiancé and the manor’s head servant; and Ilana Niernberger as Miss Julie, the heiress who can’t resist defying class restrictions by seducing him. All the action plays out in the manor’s cramped downstairs kitchen, while a wild celebration swirls about outside.

Jointly directed by Elizabeth Craven and David Lear, who also did the set design, this brilliantly staged and performed piece is the antidote to the poison that is Strindberg’s much-praised “Creditors,” extended to March 3 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Both plays were written in 1888, and both are about the power dynamic inherent in sexual triangles—strong superficial resemblances, but “After Miss Julie” actually has uplifting moments and an ambiguous ending that proves to be far more nuanced and far more satisfying than the abrupt finality of “Creditors.”

…a stunning, perfectly paced pas de deux… that will keep you on edge right to the end…”

Coughlin and Niernberger (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Coté is excellent in her role as the determined, hard-working Christine, while Coughlin and Niernberger are astounding in their portrayal of a pair of hopelessly attracted lovers deep in the throes of an intractable dominant/submissive relationship. Julie relishes lording it over John, issuing orders that as her lover and employee he must obey. She then immediately demands that he issue orders to her in return and he complies, despite knowing how wrong it all is. With class distinctions amplified by differences in dialect, it’s a stunning, perfectly paced pas de deux—quite literally, with white-hot choreography by Dana Seghesio—that will keep you on edge right to the end, and will give you plenty to ponder for days after.

Sound designer Matthew Eben Jones has selected some wonderful music from the WWII era that perfectly establishes the play’s time frame, and Missy Weaver’s moody subdued lighting works marvelously to reinforce every scene. Running time is about 90 minutes. Opening night featured a short intermission; it wasn’t clear if MSW would keep it or not for the duration of the show. In either case it’s a fantastically good production, among the best in a series of superb productions by Sebastopol’s quirky troupe. In its few short years, Main Stage West has become one of the North Bay’s leading theatre companies. “After Miss Julie” proves why.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionAfter Miss Julie
Written byPatrick Marber
Directed byElizabeth Craven and David Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough March 3rd
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Unpleasant “Creditors” at Aurora Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Nothing kills one’s ardor more quickly than hearing this from a partner: “We have to talk.”

That pretty much sums up this reviewer’s take on August Strindberg’s “Creditors,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company through February 24. Written in 1888, the then-scandalous play examines the relationships of two men, Adolph and Gustav (Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Jonathan Rhys Williams, respectively) and one woman, Tekla (Rebecca Dines). Adolph is a self-doubting artist with unspecified neurological problems that manifest in spastic mannerisms and ambulatory difficulties. Gustav is a new friend talking him through an artistic identity crisis—should he pursue painting or sculpture?—while  fanning the flames of doubt in him about his wife Tekla, who as we discover later, is Gustav’s ex-wife.

The initial exchange between the two men goes on for maybe twenty minutes—it feels like hours of manipulative psychobabble—until at some point Tekla appears, an independent, free-spirited novelist who has published a book with a central character based on Gustav. She’s been gone a week, approximately as long as Gustav has known Adolph, and has come back to flirt with her own husband while her ex lurks unseen to hear everything they say. There is nothing about the two men that is at all appealing—Adolph is a cringing neurotic and Gustav, a master schemer. It’s hard to imagine what attracts Tekla to either of them. It isn’t money, despite the play’s title.

…the actors are excellent playing despicable characters…”

Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Rebecca Dines

Tekla is the prototype of a new kind of woman emerging in Western culture at the time—assertive, confident, uninhibited. She can entertain the concept of loving more than one person while the two men cannot. (Strindberg must have thought his character was unique; he accused Henrik Ibsen of plagiarism in making Hedda Gabler a similar type. Certainly Tekla and Hedda cannot have been the only free-spirited women in fin de siècle Scandinavia.) Tekla flirts and spars with Adolph until he leaves in a huff, whereupon Gustav enters and attempts a seduction. Tekla almost takes the bait then thinks better of it, and to cut to the chase, Adolph comes back in and dies of an epileptic seizure. That’s a wrap.

In the week since it opened, “Creditors” has been gushed about by a score of critics, many of whom, it must be assumed, are classicists. And while it’s always unfair to judge the art of the past through the lens of the present, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s so gush-worthy. The story is horrible, but directed by Barbara Damashek, the actors are excellent playing despicable characters—two men suffering from terminal cases of emotional hemorrhoids, and a woman who can’t be trusted. It’s ninety minutes of late 19th century European navel-gazing, a repellent talkathon in which almost nothing happens other than the malicious destruction of the weakest character.

The fact that something is old doesn’t make it valuable or worth reviving. As David Foster Wallace put it in another context, this play is “a supposedly fun thing I will never do again.”

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionCreditors
Written byAugust Strindberg
Directed byBarbara Damashek
Producing CompanyAurora Theatre Co.
Production DatesThrough February 24th
Production AddressAurora Theatre Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone(510) 843-4822
Tickets$49
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! A Solid “Streetcar Named Desire” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is among the most popular recurring productions in regional theater, with a couple of bucket-list roles for ambitious actors: the loutish Stanley Kowalski and his wilting-flower sister-in-law Blanche DuBois. The current revival of this favorite play runs in the studio theater at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 17.

Directed by Phoebe Moyer, Ariel Zuckerman and Juliet Noonan do justice to these difficult parts, aided by superb supporting performances from Melissa Claire as Blanche’s pregnant sister Stella, and Edward McCloud as Mitch, Stanley’s bowling-and-poker pal who falls under Blanche’s spell. With a consistently bland mid-south accent and palpable emotional tenderness, Claire is rock-solid as the long-suffering sister, moving from joy at being reunited with Blanche to despair at having to get her removed from the cramped flat she shares with Stanley. McCloud also has a complicated path to traverse as Stanley’s army buddy who asserts himself enough to pursue Blanche, only to have his hopes dashed by plausible tales about her scandalous behavior back in Laurel, Mississippi.

…compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.”

Zuckerman and Noonan (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Zuckerman apparently relishes his part as the savage Stanley, and in many scenes seems to be channeling Marlon Brando, whose portrayal of Stanley in the film version has forever affected those who followed. Zuckerman even looks like the young Brando, and some of his postures are eerily like the film actor’s. He’s also in great athletic shape, much more impressive than Brando in his youth.

Juliet Noonan has the unenviable task of carrying the bulk of the drama—like Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Blanche DuBois is among the most demanding roles in 20th century American theater, perhaps the female equivalent of Hamlet, and Noonan gets it about ninety percent right. Her physical gestures are evocative, and her timing excellent, but she falls in and out of her Mississippi plantation accent. With moments of true pathos, she beautifully conveys Blanche’s self-delusion and persistent manipulation of those around her.

Matt Farrell and Laura Downing-Lee are very good as Steve and Eunice, who live upstairs from Stella and Stanley and provide Stella with comfort when Stanley rages. A full-size spiral staircase leads to their unseen apartment, an amazing bit of set design in 6th Street’s compact studio theater. While not the best production this reviewer has seen, this “Streetcar” generates plenty of compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionA Streetcar Named Desire
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byPhoebe Moyer
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 17th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

An AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! August Wilson Brought to Life in “How I Learned What I Learned” – by Barry Willis

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and national treasure August Wilson was taken from us too soon, in 2005 at 60 years of age. A self-taught high school dropout who authored dozens of plays—among them, “Fences,” “Gem of the Ocean,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Jitney,” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”—the prolific Wilson accumulated many honors and awards. What he might have achieved had he lived longer is the stuff of speculation, but what he accomplished is astounding, the real meaning of “a lasting legacy.”

‘How I Learned What I Learned’ is a couple of the most rewarding hours you’re likely to have in a theater this year…

Through February 3, Marin Theatre Company is presenting Wilson’s autobiographical one-man play “How I Learned What I Learned” starring veteran actor Steven Anthony Jones, directed with great sensitivity by Margo Hall.

Steven Anthony Jones as August Wilson.

Anchored in Wilson’s upbringing in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the performance is a seamless blend of reminiscence, historical fact, observation, and sermon, much of it a mix of personal anecdotes that range from exceedingly tender—a grade-school epiphany when he kisses the girl of his dreams—to absolutely horrific. He was a close-up witness of a murder provoked by an insult.

Jones’s monologue covers an astounding amount of time and material—from Wilson’s childhood in Pittsburgh to his adult years in St. Paul and Seattle—all of it conveyed with insightful wit and the intimate, avuncular wisdom of a wily old preacher.

Steven Anthony Jones working at MTC.

A cooperative production with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Ubuntu Theater Project—the show moves sequentially to those two venues when it leaves MTC—“How I Learned What I Learned” is a couple of the most rewarding hours you’re likely to have in a theater this year.

 

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

 

Production“How I Learned What I Learned”
Written byBy August Wilson
Directed byDirected by Margo Hall
Producing CompanyMarin Theater Company (MTC)
Production DatesThru Feb 3rd.
Production AddressMarin Theater Co.
397 Miller Ave.
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone415.388.5200
Tickets$25 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW! “Moon Over Buffalo” Shines at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

An erratic sword-swinging scene that opens “Moon Over Buffalo” only hints at the wildness to come in Ken Ludwig’s “Moon Over Buffalo,” at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 3.

A master of the American door-slamming farce, Ludwig’s output includes theater-world classics such as “Crazy for You” and “Lend Me a Tenor.” Filling out the triumvirate is “Moon Over Buffalo,” about an acting family doing repertory performances of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” in Buffalo, NY in 1953.

Patriarch George Hay (Dodds Delzell) is a theater careerist who’s very dismissive of the film industry, despite a phone call from legendary director Frank Capra, saying he’s considering George and his wife Charlotte (Madeleine Ashe) as replacements for Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson in a production of “Twilight of the Scarlet Pimpernel.” It’s possibly a dream come true for Charlotte, who longs for a life more glamorous than that of iterant actors.

‘Moon Over Buffalo’ has more romantic complexities than a Shakespearean comedy…

Helter-skelter antics by their associates, confusion about which play they are performing, and the lure of a career breakthrough, compounded by George’s appetite for prodigious amounts of alcohol make for some riotous comedy. George drinks until he can barely stand—in some instances, he can’t—and mixes and muddles his roles in the two very unlike shows while Charlotte and their daughter Rosalind (Chandler Parrott-Thomas) try to cover for him. Add to this a hearing-impaired grandmother (Shirley Nilsen Hall), a hyperactive TV weatherman (Erik Weiss), a lovesick attorney (Joe Winkler), a company manager desperately trying to keep the Hays on track (Robert Nelson), and a young actress impregnated by George (Victoria Saitz).

L-R: Dodds Delzell, Robert Nelson, Chandler Parrott-Thomas, Shirley Nilsen Hall, Madeleine Ashe in “Moon Over Buffalo”

All of this comes to a frothy head in the second act, on a substantial set by Jason Jamerson—it has to be with all the wrestling, drunken gymnastics, and door-slamming—under the guiding hand of director Carl Jordan.

Despite the sword-swinging, there’s a surfeit of exposition in the first act that makes the whole affair a bit slow to gain altitude, and some anachronisms in the dialog and props, but the second-act payoff is worth the wait. Delzell is perfectly cast as the out-of-control Hay—at one point he perfectly casts himself into the orchestra pit—and Parrott-Thomas is brilliant as the long-suffering daughter who does everything and more to save her family’s careers and the show they’re putting on.

“Moon Over Buffalo” has more romantic complexities than a Shakespearean comedy, and is riddled with theater-insider references (there are hints in the playbill). Astute audience members may recognize entire scenes that have been lifted into television sitcoms, movies, and other plays. The multiple second-chance ending is icing on a cake of simply great silly fun.

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

 

ProductionMoon Over Buffalo
Written byKen Ludwig
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Feb 3rd
Production AddressSixth Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$20 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK? --------

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Templeton’s Sweet “Polar Bears” a Must-see Christmas Show – by Barry Willis

This time of year, we are inundated with multiple choices of winter holiday-theme productions. There are at least several presentations of “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol,” not to mention marathon broadcasts of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story”—all worthy, heartwarming ways to enrich the season.

Add to this list David Templeton’s “Polar Bears,” one man’s tale about how far he was willing to go to extend his children’s belief in Santa Claus in the wake of their mother’s death. Performed by veteran actor Chris Schloemp, this “true story about a very big lie” is a lovely mix of tragedy, comedy, and detached self-deprecating observation that will keep you enthralled throughout its approximately 90 minutes.

Prolific journalist, critic, and playwright Templeton is a North Bay treasure, with several productions to his credit in addition to his annual “Twisted Christmas,” a grab-bag of performances and stories that played recently to a nearly full house at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Templeton’s style is similar to Jean Shepherd, the great chronicler of Americana whose 1966 book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” included the basis of “A Christmas Story.”

…’Polar Bears’… will keep you enthralled…

Templeton directs Schloemp on a set of stored Christmas paraphernalia, much of it cleverly doing double- or triple-duty to illustrate the piece. Easing your children out of treasured fantasies can be an ordeal for any parent. As told by Templeton and Schloemp, it’s also a sweet expression of love.

“Polar Bears” completes its run at the Belrose Theatre in San Rafael December 15, and will be reprised in a one-night-only performance at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa, Sunday December 23, at 7:00 p.m.

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

ProductionPolar Bears
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byDavid Templeton
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theater Co.
Production DatesSunday, December 23, 2018 7:00 p.m.
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone707-546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Dear Evan Hansen” a Millennial Spectacle at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Multiple Tony Award winner “Dear Evan Hansen” has finally landed in San Francisco, after a legal tussle between the Curran’s Carole Shorenstein Hays and her former partners The Nederlander Organization. Much-anticipated, the show lives up to its reputation, with excellent performances and stunning stagecraft that make this first Millennial musical an immersive experience.

At its core a simple story about a withdrawn, socially inept high-school boy (Ben Levi Ross, most performances) whose gift for writing has good and bad repercussions, the show is also about family relations—the lead character lives with his single mom Heidi (Jerssica Phillips), who works tirelessly to improve herself and the life of her son, while having little time to interact with him.

It’s also about the intensity of life lived via social media as experienced by young people. Covering the entire stage for much of the show’s two-and-a-half hours, Peter Nigrini’s astounding projections go a long way toward conveying just how intense, immediate, and all-consuming such life can be. The music—also award-winning—is brash, loud, and louder, with only a couple of tender moments. Most of the songs in the first act are shouted more than sung.

Evan Hansen’s distraught classmate Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith) mentions feeling suicidal and ultimately kills himself. Evan’s fictitious email exchanges with Connor gain notoriety and even provide some comfort for Connor’s parents Larry and Cynthia (Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll) and sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna), who falls for Evan, if only briefly.

Phoebe Koyabe does a fine job as Alana Beck, one of Evan’s classmates and a self-appointed busybody who both encourages his subterfuge and later exposes it. Jared Goldsmith appears as Jared Kleinman, an obnoxious classmate and possibly Evan’s only friend.

…the extraordinary level of stagecraft supporting it make ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ quite a justifiable ticket purchase…

The show’s production values are exceptional, but in style it bears a striking resemblance to “Next to Normal,” possibly the worst musical ever conceived. The resemblance is no accident; both shows were helmed by Micheal Greif. Stripped of its glitz, the story would make ideal material for a Hallmark or Lifetime made-for-TV movie.

There are two moments that could use a rewrite: one is the scene where Larry, in surrogate father mode, shows Evan how to break in a baseball glove, something that in a film would be conveyed with a couple of soft-focus shots, but here it demands an entire song (“To Break in a Glove”). The other false moment comes when Larry and Cynthia attempt to befriend Evan’s mother, offering to fund his college education with money they have saved for Connor’s. Instead of being appreciative, Heidi gets incensed and insists that he’ll go to community college until she can afford to send him someplace better.

It’s mostly an exercise in psychological torture for poor Evan, but his misguided efforts—aided by Alana and Zoe—have an unpredictable and somewhat upbeat payoff, even if it isn’t happy-ever-after. “Dear Evan Hansen” is an emotionally exhausting production—not necessarily for the audience, but certainly for the performers, with nine shows per week. Their commitment to the show and the extraordinary level of stagecraft supporting it make “Dear Evan Hansen” quite a justifiable ticket purchase.

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

 

Production“Dear Evan Hansen”
Written byWritten by Steven Levenson,

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byMichael Greif
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesDecember 30th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$99 – $325
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?------

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Annie” a Winner at 6th Street Playhouse by Barry Willis

An unexpected benefactor saves a spunky orphan girl from a life of drudgery in the classic musical “Annie,” at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, through December 22.

Based on the Depression-era comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” this Michael Fontaine-helmed production features two separate casts of adolescent girls (at least, they appear to be adolescents) and an adult cast of North Bay theater veterans—Larry Williams as Daddy Warbucks, Daniela Innocenti-Beem as orphanage matron Miss Hannnigan, Jeff Coté as schemer Rooster Hannigan, Lydia Revelos as Rooster’s companion Lily St. Regis, Steve Thorpe as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Trevor Hoffman as radio announcer Burt Healy, Morgan Harrington as Grace, assistant to Daddy Warbucks, and Dwayne Stincelli as Drake, head of the Warbucks household.

“Annie” will always be a relevant show…

On a versatile set by Jeff Thomson—with quick changes, it serves variously as orphanage, city streets, the Warbucks mansion, the White House, and a radio station studio—the show features many great and widely beloved songs, including “Hard Knock Life,” “Tomorrow,” “Easy Street,” and “I Don’t Need Anything but You.” Who have hearts so cold that they can’t be moved by a dozen scruffy orphan girls scrubbing the floor and singing away? Or a red-haired kid—Alina Kingwill Peterson on opening night—giving her big voice to a great anthem of hope? Let’s not forget Sandy, her fluffy pooch, who can’t seem to find her marks but prompts gushes from the audience.

Larry Williams brings believable gravitas to the role of Daddy Warbucks, including decent song-and-dance skills. Morgan Harrington is appealing as Warbucks’s assistant, with a soaring soprano voice that dominates every ensemble piece she’s in. Jeff Coté and Lydia Revelos are amusing as a pair of bottom-rung hustlers, and do some marvelous ensemble work with Dani Innocenti-Beem, especially in the crowd-pleasing “Easy Street.” Innocenti-Beem is clearly the audience favorite as the tippling harridan who can’t stand the kids she supervises. Her offhand comedic bits add spice to a deliciously convincing portrayal of the mean bitch you love to hate.

Dale Camden—a talented actor seen not enough recently on North Bay stages—has a hilarious breakout moment of song and dance as a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet. And Trevor Hoffman is delightful as butter-voiced radio personality Burt Healy.

There are many obvious parallels between our own time and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although unemployment today is at an all-time low, we are still plagued with homelessness—homeless encampments were called “Hoovervilles” in the ‘30s, in honor of the president who ushered in the Depression—and disparity between rich and poor is as severe as ever.

“Annie” will always be a relevant show, and with its upbeat message, always a popular salve for our social malaise.

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

 

ProductionMoon Over Buffalo
Written byKen Ludwig
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Feb 3rd
Production AddressSixth Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$20 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK? --------

*** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! *** “The House of Yes” Sheer Genius at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Received wisdom has it that a plagiarist copies from one; a genius imitates many. By that standard, playwright Wendy Macleod’s genius rating must be off the chart. In her incisive and savagely funny “The House of Yes,” at Main Stage West in Sebatopol through December 16, are echoes of Chekov, Ibsen, Beckett, and Albee, yet the play is wholly original. A depiction of perhaps the ultimate dysfunctional family, it’s one of the most amazing carnival rides ever undertaken though the dark side of familial relations.

In upper-crust McLean, Virginia (a suburb of Washington, DC) all appears normal in the Pascal home, near the Kennedy residence. Presided over by a bejeweled and perpetually plastered matriarch (Laura Jorgensen), the indolent Pascals have little to do other than drink and snipe at each other. We meet younger son Anthony (Elijah Pinkham), an Ivy League dropout with a lackadaisical Jimmy Stewart demeanor, and his older sister “Jackie-O” (Sharia Pierce), so called because of her obsession with the former First Lady, in particular the former First Lady on the day of her husband’s assassination.

Everything about this production is perfection…

Jackie-O’s personal problems—irrational outbursts, mania, depression, and a pharmacy’s worth of prescription drugs—are the primary focus for Anthony and his mother. Hyperactive with no internal filter, Jackie-O can and will say almost anything, much of it stupendously funny.

It’s a long-running family soap opera, but a minor symptom of a much deeper malaise, as we learn when her twin brother Marty (Sam Coughlin) comes home with his fiancée Lesly (Ilana Nierberger), a sweet and seemingly well-balanced girl from Pennsylvania. She soon realizes that she’s in over her head—way over her head—as Jackie-O reveals that she and Marty have enjoyed a special relationship since they were “in the womb,” one that has continued unabated right into adulthood and that nothing will ever break. Lesly also caves into an inept seduction by Anthony, an act she immediately regrets.

As all this unfolds, we learn that the unseen and presumably departed Mr. Pascal contributed only his fortune to the family, and that his wife was so busy bed-hopping that she isn’t sure who fathered her children.

That’s merely a plot outline. What happens in developing it is so wildly unpredictable and outrageously funny that revealing more would do a disservice to potential ticket buyers.

Everything about this production is perfection: Elizabeth Craven’s stunning set design—stark black-and-white hyper-modern art—and Missy Weaver’s moody lighting,  are a perfect complement to Macleod’s deeply disturbing comedy—one accurately described by MSW’s John Craven as “funny until it isn’t funny anymore.” Performances range from subdued to over-the-top, but always appropriate and perfectly timed.

“The House of Yes” is easily one of the best productions in the North Bay this year, the sort of rabbit hole that theatergoers venture into all too rarely. It’s exhilarating, shocking, hilarious, and deadly—a ten-star show on a five-star scale. Simply brilliant.

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

ProductionSwallow
Written byStef Smith
Directed byMissy Weave
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Jan 27th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone707.823.0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Cirque du Soleil’s Amazing “Volta” at AT&T Park – by Barry Willis

Calling a Cirque du Soleil production “a spectacle” is a bit like calling the Grand Canyon “a big ravine.” Reviewers’ standard superlatives—“tremendous,” “incredible,” “fantastic,” etc—fall far short of describing the scope of talents and risks taken in a typical Cirque show.

“Volta” is the 19th Cirque production to visit San Francisco. At AT&T Park through February 3, the show follows company protocol in avoiding the use and exploitation of animals, but once it gets underway no one in the audience will care that there’s nary a lion or tiger in sight. The dramatic setup is a loosely-organized talent competition—the “Mr. Wow Show”—that somewhat spoofs TV programs such as “America’s Got Talent.”

The talent-show thread gets inexplicably lost somewhere before intermission. No problem: the assorted acts that make up “Volta” are so amazing that there’s no need for dramatic structure. World-class acrobats, tumblers, trampolinists, BMX cyclists, ballet dancers, and more rollout onto the large stage in succession so rapid that at times several acts overlap one another.

“Volta” is a show with appeal for everyone who appreciates the extremes that humans can achieve…

It’s been noted that Cirque du Soleil is where former college gymnasts go to extend their careers. Their abilities and confidence pay homage to long years of training. It’s easy to understand how someone becomes an expert on the unicycle or the trampoline, but there is one act in “Volta” that provokes bafflement: Where does one learn to be a hair suspension aerialist? In “Mirage,” Brazil’s Danila Bim does a riveting aerial dance far above the stage floor, suspended only by her hair, pulled up into a tight braid connected to a cable in the apex of the big top. Her act isn’t the most dynamic—the trampolinists, tumblers, and stunt cyclists have the edge there—but it’s certainly the most beautiful and the most exotic. A perfect blend of intention, strength, and serenity, “Mirage” is ideally positioned as the high point of Act 2.

Traditional circus arts aren’t ignored in “Volta”—there is plenty of clowning, although never a small car unpacking two dozen unseen passengers. The audience also gets to see a scary performance on the “Swiss rings”—a swinging version of the still rings in men’s gymnastics. Also called the “flying rings,” the apparatus was once part of Olympic competition and now has very few adherents outside the circus. Keep an eye on the catwalk from which the rings are suspended. It sways quite a bit when the performers swing out over the edge of the stage.

There are many close calls in “Volta,” particularly in the closing segment with what seems like a dozen bike riders performing tricks simultaneously. The danger is part of the thrill for the audience—and presumably, part of the appeal for the performers—but given its seemingly high potential for disaster, Cirque du Soleil has a low injury rate. “Volta” is a show with appeal for everyone who appreciates the extremes that humans can achieve even if for no higher purpose than sheer exhilaration and the satisfaction of knowing that they can do things that few others can equal.

“Volta” runs through February 3 in San Francisco, then moves to San Jose through March 24. It’s an astounding production. With two shows per day on many dates, there is certainly one that will fit in your busy winter holiday schedule. Don’t miss it.

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

 

ProductionVolta
Written byCirque du Soleil
Directed byCirque du Soleil
Producing CompanyCirque du Soleil
Production DatesThru Feb. 3rd, 2019
Production AddressAT&T Park
24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.cirquedusoleil.com/volta
Telephone
Tickets$54.00 and up
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
ScriptN/A
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?

*** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK *** High-Energy “Crazy for You” at San Francisco’s Alcazar by Barry Willis

Bay Area Musicals has opened its fourth season with a tremendously energetic production of “Crazy for You” at the beautiful Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco, through December 16.

On a stunningly versatile set by Kuo-Hao Lo, the Ken Ludwig/Mike Ockrent reworking of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney song-and-dance film “Girl Crazy” features music by George and Ira Gershwin, including many tunes that long ago entered the Great American Songbook as pop and jazz standards: “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Naughty Baby,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It”—all backed by a superb seven-piece backstage band.

It’s all good fun in this quick-paced two-hour musical, with ensemble work that borders on astounding.

The setup is a classic boy-meets-girl scenario in which Bobby, the boy, (Conor DeVoe) avoids his wealthy but overbearing fiancé Irene (Morgan Peters) by leaving New York on his mother’s orders to take over a defunct theater in a small Nevada town. There he meets Polly (Danielle Altizio), the toughest gal in the West, and the daughter of the theater’s owner. Subverting his mother’s wishes, they hatch a plan to revive the theater, leveraging the hitherto untapped talents of the local layabouts as well as a bevy of dancing girls from the Zangler Follies, who miraculously descend on the town in time to put on a spectacular show. The storyline includes more happenstance love affairs than a Shakespearean comedy, at least one protracted bit of mistaken identity, and a happy-ever-after ending.

The cast of “Crazy for You” at work, Alcazar Theater, San Francisco.

It’s all good fun in this quick-paced two-hour musical, with ensemble work that borders on astounding. There’s some fine comic acting and plenty of great dancing, especially an abundance of tap (choreography by Matthew McCoy and Danielle Cheiken, who include much of Susan Stroman’s Broadway original). The performers’ singing isn’t quite up to their high level of dancing, but with the backing of a great band it’s adequate to keep the show rolling along while doing justice to the Gershwins’ marvelous music.

The renovated structure housing the Alcazar is a star in its own right, with an ornate exterior that belies the austerity of a simple white interior festooned with modern and contemporary art. It’s as if the theater resides inside an upscale gallery. Art fans and those with an eye for interior design will be as smitten with the Alcazar as ticketholders will be with “Crazy for You.” It’s a real crowd pleaser.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionCrazy for You
Written byMusic and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin

Book by Ken Ludwig
Directed byMatthew McCoy
Producing CompanyBay Area Musicals
Production DatesThru December 16th
Production AddressAlcazar Theatre
650 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.bamsf.org
Telephone415-340-2207
Tickets$35-$65
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

**** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK **** “The Addams Family – A New Musical” Dazzles at Spreckels Performing Arts Center – by Barry Willis

Charles Addams’s “altogether spooky” Addams Family has been deeply ingrained in American culture since the debut of the 1960s television sitcom—so deeply ingrained and so successful that it spawned an imitator TV series (“The Munsters”), at least two movies, and at least one musical. A tremendous version of this last venture runs through October 28 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.

In the musical, the family—Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Grandma, Pugsley, and their butler Lurch—are all as we recall them, but daughter Wednesday (Emma LeFever) has become a cranky self-directed teenager. Worse, she has fallen for a straight, normal boy, much to the dismay and disapproval of her family. This classic setup-with-a-twist is rife with conflict, exploited to the max in every scene, song, and dance.

“Addams Family, a New Musical” is a dazzling bit of theater.

Director Carl Jordan gets wonderful performances from the large cast, especially from Peter T. Downey as irrepressible patriarch Gomez, and from Serena Elize Flores as his slinky seductive wife Mortica. The frenetic Erik Weiss is his over-the-top best as Uncle Fester, also serving as the show’s narrator.

Serena Flores and Peter Downey as Mortica and Gomez – Photo by Jeff Thomas

Mario Herrera is a total surprise as Pugsley, Wednesday’s withdrawn younger brother. Herrera stuns when he steps out of the shadows for his big solo song. Cooper Bennet gives a very natural and sympathetic interpretation of the character of Lucas Beineke, Wednesday’s boyfriend. Larry Williams and Morgan Harrington are equally good as his parents Mal and Alice, with a couple of breakout moments of musical comedy.

Emma LeFever at work as Wednesday – Photo by Jeff Thomas

Elizabeth Bazzano’s and Eddy Hansen’s gorgeously ornate set occupies the entirety of the big stage, matched in its aspirations by Pamela J. Johnson’s costumes and Michella Snider’s choreography. In the cast are also a dozen or so “ancestors” (as they are called in the program)—a chorus of extras who embody spirits and other unworldly creatures associated with the Addams. They’re all very effective and mostly delightful to watch.

Lucas Sherman’s superb eleven-piece orchestra drives the show, most of it conveyed by beautifully delivered song.

The core conflict — Will Gomez and Mortica accept Wednesday’s love for a boy from the wrong side of the graveyard? — carries the first act aloft. It’s like watching a magnificent hot-air balloon rise to a great height—imagine the penultimate scene in “The Wizard of Oz”—while the second act is like watching that same balloon settle slowly back to earth, a rise-and-fall written into the script. Even if the ultimate settling doesn’t make you leave the theater with a song in your heart, in total “Addams Family, a New Musical” is a dazzling bit of theater.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionThe Addams Family – A New Musical
Written byWritten by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice

Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThru Oct. 28th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center

5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone707-588-3400
Tickets$18-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! — Delightful “Hello, Dolly” at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Michael Stewart’s and Jerry Herman’s classic American musical “Hello, Dolly” is enjoying a delightful revival at Sonoma Arts Live in the town of Sonoma, through October 21.

Starring Dani Innocenti-Beem as Dolly Gallagher Levi, the widowed yenta suprema of New York City and environs, the show is a feel-good piece of Americana. In some ways “Dolly” is the companion piece to Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man”—the two are set in the same era and share the sort of gentle humor that pokes fun at characters and circumstances without subjecting them to vicious ridicule.

Dani Innocenti-Beem at work as Dolly.

Dolly is the story’s fairy godmother character—she propels all the action with constant well-intended intervention in the affairs of others, but doesn’t have much of a character arc of her own. The lead role gives Innocenti-Beem many of the show’s best songs—including the heart-rending “Before the Parade Passes By”—and most of its funny lines, at least a few of them ad-libs on the part of the irrepressibly funny actress-singer.

Overall, this “Dolly” is beautifully done, with enormous energy from the cast and spectacular costumes…

The charming Tim Setzer shines in the role of Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy merchant in need of a wife. Dolly’s persuasive powers convince him that his quest will be fulfilled in New York, and when he goes into the city from Yonkers his two inept clerks Cornelius and Barnaby (Michael Scott Wells and Lorenzo Alviso, respectively) follow him. In the city, the penniless fools pretend to be rich in the hope of meeting girls.

Much comic confusion ensues but thanks to Dolly they get their wish—a hat shop owner named Irene Molloy (Danielle DeBow) and her assistant Minnie (ScharyPearl Fugitt). So does Vandergelder, who ultimately lands not the widowed heiress he had anticipated, but the matchmaker herself.

The cast of “Hello Dolly” at work.

With a huge nineteen-member cast, the show is both romantic comedy with multiple couplings and a comedic free-for-all with plenty of big production numbers that may not do much to propel the plot but offer plenty of entertainment value. Late in the show, real-life husband-and-wife Wells and DeBow perform a sweet duet made more meaningful by their obvious love for each other. It’s a moment that will prompt tears from even the most cynical viewers.

Overall, this “Dolly” is beautifully done, with enormous energy from the cast and spectacular costumes by Janis Snyder. Opening night was marred by technical glitches with the sound. We’ve been assured by multiple sources that these problems have been solved, and that the results are exemplary. Why this wasn’t done during technical rehearsals is a mystery, but it’s good to know that for the remainder of its run this show will be delivered at the high level it deserves.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionMy Fair Lady!
Written byBook by Alan Jay Lerner. Music and Lyrics by Lerner & Frederick Loewe.
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

**** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK **** “Oslo” a Tour-de-force at Marin Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Marin Theatre Company has extended through October 28 its stunning production of “Oslo,” directed by MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis.

A west coast premiere of J.T. Rogers’s Tony Award winner, MTC’s production is an all-star effort revealing the backstory of 1993’s Oslo Accords that offered hope of lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. In a heartbreaking coda, “Oslo” also brings that portentous development into the present, with a recitation of what became of those involved in the discussions, and of many tragic events that followed, scuttling the promise of the agreement.

It’s a consistently riveting drama despite its nearly three-hour length. Imagine a PBS historical mini-series compressed into one evening. The core story centers on Norwegian husband-and-wife team Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul (Mark Anderson Phillips and Erica Sullivan, both excellent), who work behind the scenes to get Israelis and Palestinians to begin talking. Rod-Larsen is an advocate of “gradualism,” getting representatives of the two sides to recognize their common humanity through personal small talk that later leads to serious negotiation.

Everything about this show is top-rung: script, performance, pacing, set, sound, lighting..

In the historically accurate retelling, Mona Juul is actually a member of the Norwegian foreign service, but Rod-Larsen has no official standing, and what they do has only the most reluctant approval from her top boss, Johan Jorgen Holst (Charles Shaw Robinson), all of it kept secret, especially from meddling Americans. The larger story is the tentative and contentious discussions, first between Palestine Liberation Organization officials Ahmed Qurie (J. Paul Nicholas) and Hassan Asfour (Ashkon Devaran) and two Israeli economics professors, who have no official status.

PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (J. Paul Nicholas, left) speaks with Israeli Director-General of the Foreign Ministry Uri Savir (Paris Hunter Paul) while Norwegian mediators Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan) look on.
Photo: Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company

This segues into negotiations with real Israeli heavyweights, lawyer Joel Singer (Peter James Myers) and Uri Savir (Paris Hunter Paul), negotiations that range from friendly and familial to near-fistfights. Throughout it all, Rod-Larsen works to keep them all on track, exercising an incredible amount of self-control and diplomatic skill, an astounding job of acting by Phillips.

Erica Sullivan steps out of character at many points in the story to address the audience directly, describing what has happened between scenes or at locations unseen by the audience. She has rock-solid temperament throughout, both in and out of character.

Norwegian mediators Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan, left) and husband Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips) speak with Israel and the PLO.
Photo: Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company

Veteran actress Marcia Pizzo appears in several roles, including as a member of the Norwegian diplomatic corps and as the sweetly beguiling Toril Grandpal, whose waffles seduce everyone at the negotiating table.

Sean Fanning’s deceptively simple set is perfect as the several locations in which the story plays out—a hotel in Oslo, offices in Tel Aviv and Tunis—with an unexpected reveal as a light snow storm through which Qurie and Savir stroll in a moment approaching friendship. Everything about this show is top-rung: script, performance, pacing, set, sound, lighting. Best of all is that it gives the audience plenty of substance to mull over in the days following a performance. “Oslo” is a show that should be on every serious theatergoer’s must-see list for the month of October.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

Production“How I Learned What I Learned”
Written byBy August Wilson
Directed byDirected by Margo Hall
Producing CompanyMarin Theater Company (MTC)
Production DatesThru Feb 3rd.
Production AddressMarin Theater Co.
397 Miller Ave.
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone415.388.5200
Tickets$25 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Sweet, Evocative “Detroit ‘67” at Aurora Theatre – by Barry Willis

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company has yet another winner on its hands with playwright Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67,” extended through October 7.

A sad, sweet, and thought-provoking story set in Detroit during the riots and fires that engulfed that city in 1967, the Darryl V. Jones-directed play centers on sister and brother Chelle and Lank (Halili Knox and Rafael Jordan, respectively), who share a home left to them by hard-working parents.

As a way of earning extra money, they host dance parties in their basement, beautifully realized by scenic designer Richard Olmstead. The entire affair plays out in this basement, but the turmoil outside is almost constantly apparent. Much to Chelle’s annoyance, Lank has bigger plans than neighborhood parties. He wants to buy a bar in partnership with his friend Sly (Myers Clark), a desire thwarted at every turn by missed opportunities, bureaucratic obstacles, and brutal police. Chelle’s friend Bunny (Akilah A. Walker) spends plenty of time hanging out in the basement, dancing, flirting, and offering acerbic commentary on everything that transpires.

This perfectly-paced show is an exemplar of superb ensemble work…

Into the mix comes Caroline (Emily Radosevich), a white girl found wandering in the streets by Lank and Sly. She’s suffered a beating, and they let her recover in the basement, but her presence during incendiary racial circumstances raises the danger for all of them. Over the course of a few days, Chelle and Lank work to resolve their differences, Lank and Sly almost succeed with their business plan, and Caroline more-or-less recovers. The beautiful and flirtatious Bunny doesn’t contribute much to the advancement of the plot, but instead serves as an audience point-of-view character who anchors every scene she’s in.

From left, Halili Knox, Myers Clark, Emily Radosevich, Rafael Jordan and Akilah A.Walker at work in “Detroit ’67”

“Detroit ‘67” has been unfairly criticized for lacking original plot elements. To that, one might counter that there are precious few original plots—in fact, some script gurus insist that there are only a handful. Certainly, there’s plenty of familiarity in sibling disagreement and in two guys trying to start a business under adverse circumstances.

While the script could use a judicious edit, it’s totally believable, and gorgeously presented. This perfectly-paced show is an exemplar of superb ensemble work, plus some astounding sound design by Cliff Caruthers. There are moments of heartbreaking beauty—in particular, the closing scene where Chelle dances to a favorite Motown hit as the lights slowly fade. Live drama doesn’t get any more evocative than that.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionYear of Magical Thinking
Written byJoan Didion
Directed byNancy Carlin
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$49 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! ASR Theatre Review: Marvelous “Hedwig” by Ray of Light – by Barry WIllis

John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” may be the greatest rock musical ever conceived. No matter how you rank them, it’s certainly among the top five. Ray of Light has launched a really engaging production of this fantastic comedic redemption story about an East German rocker whose botched gender-reassignment surgery prompts personal and professional crises.

At the Victoria Theatre in the Mission district through October 6, the production features Coleton Schmitto in the lead role, with Maya Michal Sherer as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s aide-de-camp, fellow performer, and sometimes lover. Hedwig’s band, the Angry Inch—its name derived from what was left by Hedwig’s incompetent surgeon—includes Steven Bolinger on keyboard and guitar, Lysol Tony-Romeo on bass, Diogo Zavadzki on guitar, and David Walker on drums. The group is very well balanced and just loose enough to give this show a semi-inebriated improvisational feel.

…this “Hedwig” is refreshingly street-funky…

Peet Cocke’s rough set perfectly complements the shabby old Victoria, giving it the air of both dive bar and low-budget arena. Schmitto dominates the stage throughout the non-stop ninety-minute show, spouting a litany of ironic one-liners and managing all of his character’s dance moves and gymnastics without being visibly hindered by stiletto heeled boots. Sherer scrambles to sing and draw projected transparencies at the same time. It’s quite a juggling act.

“Hedwig” with Coleton Schmitto.

The pair sing with power and conviction, although the sound on opening night was so unbalanced that during opening scenes, the bass and drums overwhelmed the vocals. This technical glitch was corrected later in the show and presumably won’t be an issue for the duration of its run. Stephen Trask’s music, of course, runs the gamut from incendiary punk (“Angry Inch”) to pop humor (“Sugar Daddy”) to deeply personal (“Wig in a Box”) to hauntingly sentimental (“The Origin of Love,” “Wicked Little Town”)—all of it beautifully performed.

Not an ultra-polished Broadway production, this “Hedwig” is refreshingly street-funky, refined enough for musical theater elitists but grungy enough that cultists will come back for repeat performances. Hardcore fans will regret missing it.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionHedwig and The Angry Inch
Written byMusic: Stephen Trask.
Lyrics: Stephen Trask.
Book: John Cameron Mitchell
Directed bySailor Galaviz
Producing CompanyRay of Light Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Oct. 6th.
Production AddressVictoria Theatre
2961 16th St.
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.rayof lighttheatre.com
TelephoneN/A
Tickets$35-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! ASR Theater Review: Promising but Uneven “Demos Kratos Theatro” – by Barry WIllis

Political humor takes both expected and unexpected turns in Utopia Theatre Project’s “Demos Kratos Theatro,” at San Francisco’s PianoFight bar and theater, through October 6.

Its title Greek for “People Power Theater,” this collection of short plays and comedic sketches includes plenty of predictable anti-Trump/anti-Republican polemics. Musician Lauren Mayer appears repeatedly with songs whose lyrics are sometimes clever and sometimes entirely too obvious, such as “voter fraud is a fraud.”

There’s one piece, “Daughters of Ocean,” by Carol S. Lashof, that’s either too obscure or not quite fully developed, but two others are excellent, especially “The Polling Place,” Kenneth Heaton’s two-actor sketch about a voter trying her earnest best to participate in democracy in the face of increasingly impossible requirements. Directed by Mary Ann Rogers, veteran professional actor Richard Farrell is superb as a no-nonsense worker enforcing the rules at a polling station. Alicia Stamps is his match as a would-be voter baffled by the obstacle course she must overcome simply to cast a ballot.

Amelia Adams … a trained clown with deep experience in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition … engages the audience fully and never falters.

Another great sketch is Cleavon Smith’s “On the Precipice.” Directed by Melanie Bandera-Hess, the piece features three stoners (Lorenzo Angelo Gonzales, Howard Johnson Jr., and Tesia Bell) who appear ready to do their citizens’ duty until their motivation gets derailed by too much weed. The show’s only piece with a personal responsibility theme, “On the Precipice” is a humorous cautionary tale that should be taken to heart by a wide swath of the politically disenchanted.

The Demos Kratos Theatro cast.

The high point of “Demos Kratos Theatro” is Amelia Adams’s recurring appearances as campaigning politician Sal Monella—a sleazeball self-promoter from New Jersey by way of Chicago. A trained clown with deep experience in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition, Adams engages the audience fully and never falters even at moments when it’s clear she’s improvising. Her hilarious act alone is worth the trip to Taylor Street.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionDêmos Krátos Theátro: Plays By and For the People
Written byVarious
Directed byVarious
Producing CompanyUtopia Theatre Project
Production DatesThru Oct. 6th on selected dates.
Production AddressPianoFight
144 Taylor St.
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttp://www.utopiatheatreproject.com
TelephoneN/A
Tickets$12.50 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft2.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!---

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Brilliant, Incisive “Savage Wealth” at Main Stage West – by Barry WIllis

Sebastopol’s Main Stage West new season is off to a roaring start with “Savage Wealth,” a world premiere of Bob Duxbury’s brilliant, incisive comedy.

In it, very unlike brothers Gabe and Todd (Matt Cadigan and Peter T. Downey) scheme to sell their family home with a view of Lake Tahoe but encounter unanticipated complications with their neighbor and childhood friend Beenie (Ilana Niernberger, in a fantastic performance), who owns the vacant lot immediately in front of the brothers’ home.

…a rarity, especially for a community theater troupe: a brilliant script brilliantly performed…

Todd is a hard-charging and deeply cynical political consultant and lobbyist, while Gabe is a contemplative unemployed slacker. Trustfunder Beenie spends her time flitting from ashram to spa to spiritual retreat and has an extensive repertoire of New Age practices that she unleashes on the brothers, in a not-fully-thought-out attempt to resolve their disputes and to get her own needs met. Roxbury’s script hits all the right notes, with plenty of potshots at a particularly Northern California style of pretension.

Director John Shillington extracts hilarious ensemble work from this talented trio. “Savage Wealth” is a rarity, especially for a community theater troupe: a brilliant script brilliantly performed. The short run—the show closes on September 16—does it a disservice.

 

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionSwallow
Written byStef Smith
Directed byMissy Weave
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Jan 27th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone707.823.0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Blood Money Roils Family in “All My Sons” – By Barry Willis

The cast at work in “All My Sons”

We can’t escape the consequences of our actions. Nor can our family and friends. That’s the theme of Arthur Miller’s 1947 “All My Sons,” at Role Players Ensemble in Danville through September 16. Directed by Patrick Russell, it’s the company’s first production of the season.

The play appeared less than two years after the end of the great war. Based on a true story, it examines the private aftermath of a manufacturer having knowingly shipped defective cylinder heads for use in P-40 fighter planes. Many of the defective assemblies were installed; some P-40s crashed as a result, killing their pilots.

The manufacturer in Miller’s fictional treatment is Joe Keller (Christian Phillips), a likable, garrulous middle-aged family man whose idealistic son Chris (Dean Koya) has come home from the war to work at his father’s plant. Larry, the other Keller son and an Army Air Force pilot, has been listed as missing in action for more than three years. His mother Kate (Bonnie DeChant) fervently believes that Larry will be found alive and will one day return — a belief reinforced by a helpful neighbor named Frank (Nick Mandrachia), an amateur astrologer who fuels her conviction that Larry can’t be dead because the day he failed to return to base was his “favorable day.”

Joe Keller as played by Christian Phillips

Set in an idyllic small town in Ohio, the action plays out in the course of a single day in the backyard of the Keller home, nicely realized by set designer Robert “Bo” Golden. The backstory is that Steve Deever, the Kellers’ former next-door neighbor and Joe Keller’s production manager, is in prison, having been convicted of approving and shipping defective engine parts. Joe managed to escape serious punishment by pleading no knowledge of the affair, but a nagging cloud of guilt and doubt has hung over the Keller household ever since the investigation.

Steve’s daughter Annie (Marie-Claire Erdynast, in a rock-solid performance) has returned to town to announce her engagement to Chris, one vehemently opposed by his mother because Annie was Larry’s girlfriend. Samuel Tomfohr appears as the well-intentioned neighborhood doctor Jim Bayless; Susan Monson is strong and confident as his avaricious wife Sue. Gabriel A. Ross appears late in the show as George, Steve’s son and a recently minted lawyer. Danielle Tortolani does a nice turn as Lydia, the winsome neighbor.

Miller’s script is a volatile blend of moral ambiguity and social/familial responsibilities…

Phillips gives his character a weary belligerence not normally emphasized in other productions of this classic, while DeChant presents Kate as a desperate hysteric. Ross’s George has some stiffness about him, while Tomfohr’s Dr. Bayless is easy-going and natural. Monson’s extensive professional training is fully in evidence—with superb mastery of inflection, diction, and projection, she has the best voice in the cast. She deserves bigger roles, but does tremendous work with what she’s given here.

Miller’s script is a volatile blend of moral ambiguity and social/familial responsibilities—a blend well served by a mostly expert cast. All the actors have a strong grasp of their characters and lines (no bobbles on opening weekend) but the opening act was slow to get airborne. Eliminating the dead air would help launch the story. Fortunately the pace picks up substantially in the second and third acts and leads to a satisfying if demoralizing resolution.

In October, Role Players will follow this show with “Other Desert Cities,” a more recent story about a long-suppressed family secret. What an interesting pairing that will be.

 

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

 

 

ProductionAll My Sons
Written byArthur Miller
Directed byPatrick Russell
Producing CompanyRole Players Ensemble
Production DatesThru Sept. 16th
Production AddressRole Players Ensemble
233 Front Street
Danville, CA 94526
Websitewww.roleplayersensemble.com
Telephone925.820.1278
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!---

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Sunday in the Park with George” is a Winner at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Every summer, San Francisco Playhouse puts on a classic musical that runs from late June or early July into September. A hugely successful business model, the strategy takes advantage of tourist traffic in the city’s downtown Union Square area.

The current offering, James Lapine’s and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” has been so successful that the Playhouse has had to add performances to accommodate demand.  Now halfway through its run, the show is popular for good reasons—among them, superb performances and stunning stagecraft.

…a  beautifully rendered and performed Broadway classic that deserves all the attention it’s getting…

In many ways award-winning director Bill English’s magnum opus, “Sunday in the Park” has amazing sets (also by English) and immersive projections by Theodore J.H. Hulsker that bring the paintings of George Seurat to life, as well as the island in the Seine immortalized in his most famous creation.

The first act’s story focuses on Seurat (John Bambery) and his obsession with 18th century discoveries in optics—in particular, the fact that two closely-spaced unlike colors seen at a distance appear to the eye as a third color. Red and blue appear as lavender, for example.

George (John Bambery) at work on his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Photo courtesy of SF Playhouse.

His pointillist technique was enormously time-consuming, leaving little margin for the proper treatment of his lover/model/muse Dot (Nanci Zoppi, who steals the show).  Zoppi also appears in the second act as Marie, Dot’s daughter, and Bambery is Seurat’s American grandson, also named George, and also an artist. There is some disagreement between Marie and this new George about his exact lineage, and about the direction of his art. The second act spoofs the 1970s art world, but the first act seems to take the artist’s struggle quite seriously.

There are no weak links in the large cast—they range from good to exemplary—but standouts include Maureen McVerry as the Old Lady in Act 1 and as modern art maven Blair Daniels in Act 2, and Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Louis.

George (John Bambery) shares a moment with the Old Lady (Maureen McVerry.) Photo courtesy of SF Playhouse.

The creative team is similarly of high caliber, particularly choreographer Kimberly Richards, costumer Abra Berman, and lighting designer Michael Oesch.

The cast of ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ take their positions in Georges Seurat’s famous painting. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse.

“Sunday in the Park” is an absolute spectacle. Sondheim’s music may give some visitors pause—it rarely rises to the level of recognizable melody, and unfortunately, the composer may have exhausted his considerable lyrical abilities in collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story.”

From the same era that gave us “Company” and “Sweeney Todd,” this show tends toward the atonal and repetitive, but it’s nonetheless a  beautifully rendered and performed Broadway classic that deserves all the attention it’s getting.

 

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionYou Mean to Do Me Harm
Written byChristopher Chen
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Nov. 3rd
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
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

 

An ASR Theater Review! “The Tasting Room” Hilarious at Lucky Penny – by Barry Willis

 The owners of a down-on-its-luck family winery panic while awaiting the appearance of a feared critic in “The Tasting Room,” at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through August 12.

Taylor Bartolucci and Danielle DeBow star as sisters Rebecca and Emily Lusch (“loosh”), proprietors of the Lusch Family Winery, a fictional establishment in the Napa Valley. Their lackadaisical morning routine is interrupted by the appearance of Sid Taylor (Michael Scott Wells), a scout for a publication called “The Wine Fanatic,” home of dreaded curmudgeon Elbert Fleeman (Michael TRoss), a critic who has consistently underrated Lusch products and may have some secret knowledge about the winery’s history.

Playwright and director Barry Martin is confidently understated as cynical salesman and “wine educator” Tony Spicolli, and Tim Setzer has a brilliant cameo as a wine-country tourist trying to cover the entire valley in a few short days. Drawing on plot elements from sources as diverse as “Rattatouie,” “Waiting for Guffman,” and “Bottle Shock,” the show is a quick-paced farce in which almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong. All the action plays out in a simply-conceived natural wood tasting room (set design also by Martin), with little need for set or prop changes.

‘The Tasting Room’ … works perfectly as a stand-alone show.

Bartolucci has the lion’s share of funny lines, most delivered with inebriated weariness—as in her dismissal of the tourist as “a guy who probably does a podcast out of his cellar.” DeBow plays it mostly straight as her strictly-business sibling, as does Ross, who comes in late in the second act to taste randomized samples. Martin has a lot of fun exploiting his character’s dislike for customers, punctuated by frequent trips to the bathroom, a result of gastronomic indiscretion. Michael Scott Wells portrays Sid Taylor as a cringing nebbish who lives in his boss’s shadow, and has surprisingly little interest in wine. He is, however, very interested in Emily, and this secondary plot helps lift the production in spots where the primary plot sags. There isn’t much of that, and this show largely sails along brilliantly.

“The Tasting Room” has room for refinement and the addition of other characters and plot elements—it’s very much like an energetic pilot episode for a promising sitcom, but works perfectly as a stand-alone show. With frequent moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, it’s a wine country insider production with appeal broad enough for everyone.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionThe Tasting Room
Written byBarry Martin
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough August 12th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$22-$32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

An ASR Theater Review! Stunning, Perfect “Always, Patsy Cline” at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Patsy Cline’s meteoric career encompassed many firsts: first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, first to tour as a lead act, first to headline in Las Vegas, first female country singer to perform at Carnegie Hall.

This all happened within the short span of six years: from her debut in 1957 until her 1963 death in an airplane crash at the age of 30. We can only speculate about what she might have achieved had she survived. Even so, her glorious honey-toned voice and prodigious output of classic country and popular songs earned her permanence in the pantheon of American music.

She has been widely imitated but never equaled, but Danielle DeBow gets as close as is perhaps humanly possible in “Always, Patsy Cline” at Sonoma Arts Live through July 29. A play-with-music about Cline’s enduring friendship with a fan named Louise Seger (the fantastic Karen Pinomaki), the story follows from their meeting at a honky-tonk club in Houston, through Cline’s career until her untimely death at the age of thirty.

“Always, Patsy Cline” is as near-perfect a production as can be imagined. It’s an absolute must-see.

Playwright Ted Swindley developed the piece from letters between the two. In that sense it is the truest of true stories and an abiding celebration of the power of deep friendship. It’s also hilariously funny. The intensely animated Pinomaki is absolutely convincing as both rabid fan and self-deprecating Texan.

Danielle DeBow at work as Patsy Cline.

She propels the narrative while DeBow melts the audience with Cline’s heart-wrenching songs, backed by the superb onstage Bodacious Bobcat Band and a four-man group appearing as The Jordanaires, legendary background singers who performed with Elvis Presley, among others. The ideally-cast and totally harmonious foursome include stage veterans Sean O”Brien, F. James Raasch, Michael Scott Wells, and Ted von Pohle.

Director Michael Ross (who also handled costume design and shared set design with Theo Bridant) has put together a show that is far beyond the very high level of performance that Bay Area theater fans have grown to expect. The pity is that it closes after an unjustifiably short run. With the wine country tourist season in full flower, this show could run all summer long to sold-out houses. It’s that good.

‘Always, Patsy Cline’ is as near-perfect a production as can be imagined. It’s an absolute must-see.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle.

 

ProductionMy Fair Lady!
Written byBook by Alan Jay Lerner. Music and Lyrics by Lerner & Frederick Loewe.
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An ASR Theater Review! Delightful “Soft Power” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Cultural appropriation gets turned upside down in David Henry Hwang’s “Soft Power,” through July 8 at San Francisco’s Curran.

China is clearly on its way toward being the dominant economic force in the 21st century. Its cultural influence isn’t yet on par with its industrial and financial power, but there seems little doubt that its ascendency is inevitable. Directed by Leigh Silverman, the fantastically entertaining “Soft Power” imagines a near future when Chinese film, TV, and theater borrow heavily and indiscriminately from standard tropes of 20th-century American popular culture. The title is code for a nation’s global cultural influence.

Hwang opens the piece with a meeting between himself (played by Francis Hue), a successful screenwriter, and Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), an executive with “Dragon Media” sent to Hollywood to recruit talent for productions for the Chinese domestic market. Xing’s comprehension of English is excellent but he needs help with idioms and cultural details. His slight Chinese accent gradually disappears as the story moves forward in time, an indication that he’s become fully assimilated.

Alyse Alan Louis (center), working in ‘Soft Power’ at the Curran. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

A classic Hollywood trope involves his much younger starlet girlfriend Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis, a fantastically talented singer who also does a superb impression of Hillary Clinton in one of the core story’s many tangents.)

The ambitious but somewhat out-of-control script covers everything from America’s love affair with firearms to the venomous 2016 presidential election and its aftermath to typical American/European stereotypes of Asians in such beloved shows as “The King and I” and similar huge-scale theatrical productions.

Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is especially delicious, riffing on classics like “Billy the Kid” and “Oklahoma.” Watching nearly two dozen mostly Asian performers hamming it up in blonde wigs and mid-South accents is a scream.

‘Soft Power’ is a wildly entertaining celebration…

The script leaps forward to a televised discussion among Chinese cultural intellectuals about the “invention of new theatrical forms” combining speech, song, and dance. Stagecraft is superb, immersive, and at times almost overwhelming.

This is a hilarious must-see production for anyone interested in the future, in the abysmal state of American politics or in an alternate take on the stupidly contentious issue of cultural appropriation. Should Anglo women be driven out of business for making and selling tacos and burritos? Is it fair that white college girls get harassed by their Hispanic sisters for wearing hoop earrings? These questions aren’t hypothetical; both have happened recently.

A visit to McDonald’s, a fine eatery, in ‘Soft Power.’
Photo by Craig Schwartz

The bottom line is that humans copy everything they like—food, fashion, music, art, language, technology. “Soft Power” is a wildly entertaining celebration of this eternal truth. It’s a genius production whose short three-week run does it an unintentional  disservice.

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer 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

 

 

Production“Dear Evan Hansen”
Written byWritten by Steven Levenson,

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byMichael Greif
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesDecember 30th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$99 – $325
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?------

 

An ASR Theater Review! Bold, Incisive “Dry Powder” at Aurora Theatre – by Barry Willis

One devilish deal leads to the next in Sarah Burgess’s incisive “Dry Powder,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, through July 22.

Directed by Jennifer King, this Bay Area premiere is a dark comedy that peers into the often impenetrable world of private equity—a niche of the financial world where companies are bought, sold, merged, or dismembered in pursuit of mind-blowing profits.

A high-stakes game with enormous potential for victory and defeat, and enormous potential to affect countless people, private equity is little understood by ordinary citizens except as a scapegoat for all that might and can go wrong on the grand economic scale. The show’s title refers to working capital—money in reserve, the industry’s primary tool.

Bay Area stalwart Aldo Billingsly, along with Jeremy Kahn, in ‘Dry Powder’ at Aurora Theater

Bay Area theater veteran Aldo Billingsly is brilliant as Rick, the volatile founder of a private equity firm that’s recoiling from some very bad press about his lavish wedding party in the aftermath of a buyout that threw thousands of people out of work.

Junior partners Seth (Jeremy Kahn) and Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown) bring him potential deals, treatments for deals, financial projections for various scenarios, personal advice, and insider opinions about the probable public relations consequences of their deals—in this case, a proposed buyout of an American luggage maker with more than 500 employees.

Emily Jeanne Brown at work as Jenny, in ‘Dry Powder’

It’s a deal that Seth has been nursing for months, in the process forming a strong bond with Jeff (Kevin Kemp), co-owner of the target company. The two have such a pronounced “bromance” that Jeff is actually excited about the possibility of reviving the brand and re-jiggering its business model to create a whole new market for personalized luggage.

A math-whiz elitist with zero empathy for working people, Jenny dismisses Jeff’s ideas as feel-good nonsense and presents an alternate plan to buy the company, spin off its assets, and send production offshore—a plan with a larger potential upside but horrible social consequences. Numbers are all that matter to Jenny. The fact that this will render 500 people jobless is of no concern to her—”It’s their responsibility to learn how to do something else,” she flatly states.

Hilarious and horrific, ‘Dry Powder’ is a quickie tour of one of the outer rings of hell…

Therein lies the moral struggle in Rick’s office, depicted with superb energy and conviction on the Aurora’s simple, all-white thrust stage (set by Tanya Oellana, lights by Kurt Landisman, sound by James Ard). Jenny and Seth battle like adolescent brother and sister—much of it side-splittingly funny—and Rick alternately takes their counsel or reins them in. A couple of plot twists near the end drive home the Faustian nature of their business, including a desperate alliance with a Hong Kong financier so corrupt that he’s lost his Chinese citizenship.

Hilarious and horrific, “Dry Powder” is a quickie tour of one of the outer rings of hell—if you believe the old adage that the love of money is the root of all evil. In Berkeley, the message will certainly find an eager audience, who may be dismayed at the verity of another old adage: Everyone has a price.

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer 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

 

 

ProductionYear of Magical Thinking
Written byJoan Didion
Directed byNancy Carlin
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$49 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

 

An ASR Theater Review! Spectacular Transcendence Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

“Stairway to Paradise” at Transcendence Theater Company

The old adage has it that the difference between good and great is enormous. That enormity is totally apparent in “Stairway to Paradise,” the current production by Transcendence Theatre Company, at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, through July 1.

Now in its seventh year, Transcendence doesn’t deliver traditional drama, comedy or musical productions but instead offers stellar revues of music and dance by dozens of Broadway professionals, whose youth is belied by their skill, confidence, and commanding stage presence. “Stairway” is a collection of uplifting songs from Broadway classics with a few enduring pop hits thrown in for variety. The performances range from stunning solo efforts to duets, trios, and full ensemble pieces that will make you glad to be alive.

Some of the performances have a charmingly improvisational characteristic—an intimate, almost throwaway feel—but there is a daunting amount of rehearsal behind each Transcendence production. Each piece segues seamlessly into the next, backed by the rock-solid and solidly-rocking Transcendence band. Comedic intervals include a spoof on a TV game show that may involve volunteers from the audience.

The venue in the park’s stone ruins couldn’t be more accommodating. Ticketholders can enjoy picnicking from 5 p.m. onward until the show begins at 8, on a roughly constructed but perfectly serviceable stage set against the Sonoma hills.

Transcendence Theatre Company is the summer’s North Bay musical destination.

Transcendence does winter holiday shows indoors—last season’s were at the Marin Veterans Auditorium in San Rafael and the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa—and a series of summer shows at Jack London. “Stairway to Paradise” runs through July 1, to be followed by “Fantastical Family Night” July 13 & 14; “Shall We Dance” August 3 – 19; and “Gala Celebration” September 7 – 9.

Transcendence Theatre Company is the summer’s North Bay musical destination. Ordering tickets well in advance is highly recommended. These shows sell out quickly, and with good reason: the world is in dire need of the kind of positive energy that Transcendence serves up at every show.

 

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer 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

 

 

Transcendence Theatre Company presents

“Stairway to Paradise”

Through July 1: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Jack London State Historic Park  Glen Ellen, CA

Tickets: $45 – $145 (single, reserved seating); Group discounts available Info: 877-424-1414 ext. 1,

www.BestNightEver.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

 

An ASR Theater Review! Amazing, Wonderful “Walk on the Moon” at ACT – by Barry Willis

“A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

1969 was a pivotal year in the United States. The Vietnam War was approaching its peak, as was opposition to it at home. The civil rights and women’s movements grew more intense by the week. In late July, the first astronaut walked on the moon, and shortly thereafter a half-million music fans showed up at a farm near Woodstock, NY, for what would be the defining cultural moment of the decade.

All of this figures into “A Walk on the Moon,” at ACT through July 1. It’s a beguiling tale of a Jewish housewife’s late-in-life coming of age through an accidental encounter with a hippie peddler. Katie Brayben stars as Pearl Kantrowitz, a young mother from Flatbush, whose family traditionally spends a few idyllic summer weeks at a resort in the Catskills with friends and neighbors, all of whom, save Pearl’s rebellious adolescent daughter Alison (Brigid O’Brien), are still very much in the 1950s.

Marty and Pearl – Jonah Platt and Katie Brayben in “A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

Pearl’s TV-repairman husband Marty (Jonah Platt) can’t stay with them as much as he would prefer because business is booming at the repair shop where he works , in anticipation of the moon landing. Pearl spends idle moments hanging out with Walker (Zak Resnick), a local free spirit who sells blouses out of his camper van. Their friendship blossoms and culminates in a psychedelic adventure during the music festival, mirroring a less-intense affair that Alison has with a charming guitar-playing boy named Ross (Nick Sacks).

The story covers a short period in social history but a huge episode in Pearl’s life. She was, as she describes it, almost a child bride—one who went from high school to motherhood with no developmental period in between. Walker, and the ideas he shares with her, are Pearl’s forbidden fruit, and like Eve in Genesis Chapter 3, her eyes are opened.

Pearl and Walker – Katie Brayben and Zak Resnick at ACT

The verdant setting of the “bungalow colony” feels almost like Eden as realized by scenic designer Donyale Werle, and Tal Yarden’s astoundingly immersive projections go a long way toward encompassing the heady events of the late 1960s. Stagecraft at ACT is almost always beyond reproach, but this production is among the company’s most spectacular. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

“A Walk on the Moon’ is a flawless, must-see production.

Developed by Pamela Gray from the 1990s movie of the same name, “A Walk on the Moon” beautifully evokes a period whose effects still resonate almost fifty years later. The music by Paul Scott Goodman, with additional lyrics by Gray, gets the ‘60s feel just right while sounding totally contemporary. The entire cast is superb but Brayben takes her performance completely over the moon (sorry) with all-consuming dramatic conviction, fantastic dancing, and stunning vocals. It’s one of the most complete and fully engaged performances you’re likely to see this year.

“A Walk on the Moon” is a flawless, must-see production. Its only drawback is that it isn’t running all summer.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

Barry Willis is ASR’s Theater Section Editor and a Sr. Contributor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also 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

 

 

 

“A Walk on the Moon” by Pamela Gray; Music by Paul Scott Goodman; Directed by Sheryl Kaller

Through July 1: Tuesday– Saturday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, 2 p.m.

American Conservatory Theater  Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA

Tickets: $15 – $110

Info: 415-749-2228, act-sf.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

An ASR Theater Review! Pointless, Misguided “Straight White Men” at Marin Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Straight White Men at Marin Theater Company

A Christmas holiday family reunion goes off the rails in Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men” at Marin Theatre Company, through July 8.

Directed by Morgan Gould, the one-act production has brothers Jake and Drew (Seann Gallagher and Christian Haines) converge on their family home to celebrate with brother Matt (Ryan Tasker) and father Ed (James Carpenter). In their 30s and 40s, the brothers immediately revert to middle-school antics when they get together. Some of this is funny, in the way that adults behaving like children can be funny, but most of it goes on too long. There are some comedic bits that are truly brilliant, such as Matt vacuuming the floor with great dignity, the brothers vamping like runway models in their new Christmas pajamas, or their extended faux-improv on the theme song from “Oklahoma” that emphasizes racial superiority and Nazi madness.

Scant comedy mostly provides a smokescreen for the lack of substance in Lee’s script, a thinly veiled attack on the pretenses and privileges of heterosexual Caucasian males. The brothers and father are all not merely straight white men, but the worst of their kind, liberal straight white men—those who pretend to be allies of the oppressed but are actually enemies.

Cast of “Straight White Men” at MTC

Ed is a retired engineer who runs his own social-good foundation; Jake is a banker whose kids “are half-black;” Drew is a novelist and tenured professor; the under-employed Matt spent ten years working toward a doctorate at Stanford, including a year in Ghana, as he describes it, “teaching things I didn’t understand to people who didn’t want to learn them.” To beat the audience over the head with their hypocrisy, Lee has them play a board game called “Privilege” designed by their departed mother.

The core of the drama is Matt’s depressed, rudderless existence. He’s overeducated, doing menial work and living with his father, whom he helps with chores and household maintenance. He carries a crushing load of student debt accumulated from a decade in pursuit of his dead-end Ph.D., and lacks the confidence to engage in conversation in a job interview. Brother Jake coaches him on how to do this, then brother Drew tries to help him with some feel-good therapy, telling him if he doesn’t follow through, their relationship is over. Ed whips out his checkbook and in a stunning act of generosity, offers to clear Matt’s debts. Then he boots him out. The end.

Where is the second act that resolves the can of worms that’s opened in the first? The whole production is just an arbitrary unflattering snapshot of some ordinary people. The essence of “Straight White Men” is little more than a few somewhat-related ideas looking for a structure. Despite the praise heaped upon playwright Lee in the program (and elsewhere), the story comes off as a half-baked work-in-progress. How it arrived at a major Equity house is baffling and unbelievable, but the acting is excellent—James Carpenter is our local national treasure; Ryan Tasker is terrific—and the set design by Lucciana Stecconi is wonderful.

The huge unanswered question provoked by “Straight White Men:” What is the point of all this? The script has no character arc and almost no dramatic arc. Second unanswered question: What is the point of the framing device of the two observers (“Person in Charge 1” and “2”)?  Person in Charge 2 (Arianna Evans) is a malevolent punk princess who glowers at the audience from stage left or right, looking as if she might inflict serious damage from her leather-clad fists should anyone dare to speak. Then there’s Person in Charge 1 (J Jha), a bearded representative of the gender-fluid community, who flits around in a lurex hoodie during fifteen minutes of deafening, screechy electro-thump as the audience finds their seats. It’s a lot to ask of paying customers, who are then treated to a lecture on the trendy misuse of personal pronouns and possessive adjectives, in particular, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun applied to individuals with multiple gender identities. How any of this relates to the story of the depicted family is a mystery.

Final question: What if an equivalent play were written by a straight white male about four Asian women, exploiting every conceivable stereotype? Critics would vilify it. Protesters would be lined up around the theater and down the block. They might even succeed in shutting down the production. Today straight white males are the only ethnic group that can be ridiculed with impunity. Keep that in mind when you sit down to endure your next sermon on political correctness.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

Barry Willis is ASR’s Theater Section Editor and a Sr. Contributor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also 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

 

 

 

“Straight White Men” by Young Jean Lee, directed by Morgan Gould

Through July 8: Tues-Sun, 7:30 p.m

Marin Theatre Company  397 Miller Avenue Mill Valley, CA  94941

Tickets: $22 – $60

Info: 415-388-5208, www.marintheatre.org

Rating: Two out of Five Stars

ASR Theater Review! Lucky Penny Has a Winner for Everyone With “Hands on a Hardbody” – by Barry Willis

“Hands on a Hardbody” at Lucky Penny

Down-on-their-luck Texans test their endurance to win a new Nissan pickup truck in an auto dealer’s publicity stunt. This may not sound like a solid basis for an uplifting comedic musical, but it works beautifully in “Hands on a Hardbody,” at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa, through June 17.

A real-life situation that may have originated at Jack King’s Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, in the early 1990s, the contest required competitors to keep at least one hand on the truck at all times, except for intermittent 15-minute breaks for water, food, and restroom visits—no lying down, and no sleeping. Losing contact with the truck meant disqualification from the competition—something easy to do as excitement, dehydration, fatigue, numbness, sleep deprivation, and hallucinations all take their toll. King’s dealership ran the contest annually for 13 years—one that was widely imitated throughout the country—and was the subject of a 1995 documentary film, which inspired the musical; book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, lyrics by Amanda Green.

With “Hands on a Hardbody,” Lucky Penny has a winner for everyone—cast, crew, and audience alike.

A gleaming red truck occupies center stage in Lucky Penny’s horseshoe-shaped arena, with assorted competitors surrounding it, sometimes marching around it and sometimes pushing it around. “If I Had This Truck” is one of the most heartfelt songs of wistful hope that’s ever been sung, and Staci Arriaga’s incredibly clever choreography has them adhere to the rules—one hand in contact at all times—although in a couple of instances they cheat by stepping into the truck’s bed for extended improvisations. The four-piece band under the direction of Craig Burdette is excellent, rocking the house from above stage right.

Director Taylor Bartolucci gets astoundingly great performances from her 15-member ensemble, one with no weak links. Standouts include Daniela Innocenti-Beem as Norma Valverde, a true-believer Christian certain that God intends her to have that truck, Brian Watson as Benny Perkins, a hard-core badass with a sad past; and Alex Gomez as Jesus Pena, who needs it to pay for veterinary school. Barry Martin is especially convincing as J.D. Drew, an easygoing good-ole-boy whose industrial accident has cost him his job and benefits. Shannon Rider is excellent as his exhausted but ever-supportive wife Ginny.

With “Hands on a Hardbody,” Lucky Penny has a winner for everyone—cast, crew, and audience alike. It’s a shame that it doesn’t run longer.

ASR Theater Section Editor and Sr. Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“Hands on a Hardbody”

Through June 17: 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Lucky Penny Productions – 1758 Industrial Way   Community Arts Center, Napa

Tickets: $28 – $39 Info: 707-266-6305, www.luckypennynapa.com

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

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ASR Capsule Theater Review! NTC’s “Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain” – By Barry Willis

“Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain” at NTC

Playwright Mark Dunn went to the UT Austin. His time in Texas taught him much about how Southern women relate to each other.  At Novato Theater Company through June 10, his “Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain” is a comedy about bank tellers who meet each morning in the break room of a branch bank in Oxford, Mississippi to share the latest episodes of their personal soap operas—episodes that invariably involve men and the problems they cause.

Hande Gokbas plays head teller Lorene, who scarcely tolerates her co-workers’ tardiness and inattention to work until she meets a promising potential mate herself. Meanwhile the other tellers—Jenny (Lindsay John), Twyla (Janelle Ponte), Betina (Jayme Catalano), and Delores (Sandi V. Weldon)—engage nonstop with problems as minor as personal disagreements and as serious as divorce and death, talk of which is a mix of deadpan discussion and provocative pronouncement delivered in plausible accents.

With “Five Tellers,” Dunn follows a foolproof time-honored strategy for comedy: put very different characters in a pressure cooker, and slowly turn up the heat.  It always worked for Neil Simon, and under the direction of Anna Smith, the gambit works nicely here too. This well-paced companion piece to “Steel Magnolias” offers plenty of laughs and an upbeat conclusion that will make you happy you bought a ticket.

ASR Senior 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

 

“Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain” by Novato Theater Company at NTC Playhouse, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato

Through June 10; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.

Tickets: $15 – $27

Info: 1-855-682-8491, www.novatotheatercompany.org

Rating: Three-and-a-half Out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Marin Shakespeare’s Chilling, Morose “Hamlet” – by Barry Willis

 

Nate Currier as Hamlet photo by Scott London

Four hundred-plus years after its debut, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” still has a lot to teach us about avarice, ambition, betrayal, and revenge. Based on stories and legends reaching far back into the dim recesses of time—the Wikipedia entry is an excellent resource—“Hamlet” is among Shakespeare’s most enduring and popular tragedies.

In it, a brooding young prince comes home from college to discover that his father has been murdered by his uncle Claudius, who has married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and usurped the throne. Wracked with self-doubt, Hamlet plots revenge while the guilt-ridden Claudius conspires to send him away, perhaps permanently. The outcome isn’t pretty.

Directed by Robert Currier, Marin Shakespeare Company’s modern-dress outdoor production intentionally leverages the palace intrigue and manipulation of fact that occupy so much of our daily news coverage. The stark set by Jackson Currier evokes the bombed-out remains of Baghdad or Aleppo, while newly-crowned King Claudius (Rod Gnapp) resembles Vladimir Putin, with an entourage that includes his verbose, obsequious, and ever-present minister Polonius (Steve Price, excellent), Polonius’s son and daughter Laertes and Ophelia (Hunter Scott MacNair and Talia Friedenberg, respectively) and Queen Gertrude (Arwen Anderson), a glamour-puss with little to say but, as prominent arm candy, much to contribute to Claudius’s attempts to legitimize himself. The guards at Castle Elsinore carry automatic weapons, not spears; Hamlet dispatches the spying Polonius with a silencer-equipped pistol, not a dagger.

As the tormented prince, Nate Currier brings a pronounced sense of the contemporaneous to his role without pandering to the present. He’s also the right age for the part, one sometimes attempted by middle-aged actors in a thirst to tackle one of the greatest characters ever written—a not-uncommon theatrical trope as absurd as having Madame Butterfly sung by a heavyweight matron. Arwen Anderson doesn’t look old enough to be completely believable as Hamlet’s mother—his super-model stepmom, maybe, but Gertrude may have been a child bride.

Barry Kraft is superb in multiple roles—as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, as the “First Player” of the theatrical troupe that Hamlet hires for a court performance—and he absolutely shines as the gravedigger, the show’s one bit of comic relief before the final bloodbath. It’s one of the juiciest cameos in all of Shakespeare.

Ophelia feels the pain – photo by Jay Yamada

Talia Friedenberg lends strong vocal talent and a refreshing lack of inhibition to the part of whacked-out Ophelia, while MacNair gives Laertes a resounding sense of decency in a cesspool of backstabbing. Brennan Pickman-Thoon is rock-solid as Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio.

Looking over “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Richard II,” and the Bard’s other plays depicting madness and criminality among the nobility, one might conclude that Shakespeare didn’t have much respect for the ruling class. Human nature will never change. “Hamlet” goes a long way in showing us how if not exactly why. This production runs just about three hours with intermission. The outdoor setting can be chilly at night, while afternoons can be sweltering. Come prepared.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“Hamlet” by Marin Shakespeare Company

Through July 8: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees 4 p.m.

Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University, San Rafael, CA

Tickets: $10 – $38 Info: 415-499-4488, www.marinshakespeare.org

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Incisive, Hilarious “Entomologist’s Love Story” at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

SF Playhouse: An Entomologist’s Love Story

“Neoteny” is a scientific term for the persistence of immature characteristics in mature organisms: adult dogs with the look and behavior of puppies, for example. By extension, it could be applied to a large swath of the thirty-something population, many of whom seem to have reached their limit of social development in middle school.

It’s also a strong sub-theme in “An Entomologist’s Love Story,” at San Francisco Playhouse through June 23. Expertly directed by Giovanna Sardelli, Melissa Ross’s tight, insightful script examines the relationship of Betty and Jeff (Lori Prince and Lucas Verbrugghe), two doctoral candidates who work together in the entomology department of the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

SF Playhouse: Lucas Verbrugghe and Lori Prince

Briefly lovers during their undergrad days, the two now enjoy a playful relationship like teenage brother and sister. Their nerdy banter is the source of much of Ross’s comedy—much of it true-to-life proof that “thirty is the new thirteen.” Betty is an expert on the mating behaviors of insects—the play is bracketed by her lectures on the subject—but is obsessed with the mating behaviors of humans, an activity with which she has had much experience but no longterm success. She clings to Jeff, who clearly wants to move on, but doesn’t know how.

Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll, right) shows an insect specimen to Jeff (Lucas Verbrugghe).

Then one day he meets Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll), a young woman geekier by far than he and Betty combined, and soon he knows she’s the girl for him. How to break away from Betty is his challenge, and dealing with that is hers. Then life throws her a curve ball in the form of an intellectual janitor named Andy (Will Springhorn, Jr.), who’s attended her lectures and has read “War and Peace” in its entirety.

It’s a spare, beautifully structured plot without a hint of fluff. Every line and every action propel the story toward its lovely uplifting conclusion, all of it conveyed on a spectacular set—both interior and exterior of the museum—by Nina Ball, one of the Bay Area’s most gifted and adventurous set designers. This show’s scientific setting and dissection of the personal lives of realistic scientists make it an excellent follow-up to “The Effect,” with its theme of love and research. And love-among-the-nerds makes it a superb companion piece to “Tinderella,” running through May 26 at Custom Made Theatre, in SF Playhouse’s former home on Sutter Street. Hilarious and hopeful, “An Entomologist’s Love Story” is a sweet antidote for what ails us.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“An Entomologist’s Love Story”

San Francisco Playhouse

Through June 23, 2018

420 Post Street, San Francisco

(Second floor of the Kensington Hotel)

Tickets: $30-$100 Info: www.sfplayhouse.org

Rating: 4 1/2 Out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Fascinating, Chilling “Marjorie Prime” at MTC – by Barry Willis

 

MTC: Marjorie Prime

Humanoid artificial intelligence is a long-running popular theme in science fiction, comic books, movies and TV shows—and a burgeoning reality. Major technology companies have already demonstrated believable prototypes. Cyborgs, androids, replicants—call them what you will—they are an inevitability, but theater pieces about them have been glaringly absent from the live performance stage.

That all changes with “Marjorie Prime,” Jordan Harrison’s incisive one-act, in which cyborgs (called “primes”) are therapeutic tools to help people deal with loss—of loved ones, or with memory. At Marin Theatre Company through May 27, the play is set in the near future—lead character Marjorie is an 86-year-old born in 1977—and imagines helpful, realistic androids that take on the appearance, personalities, and mannerisms of the departed. Marjorie (the fantastic Joy Carlin) is a faltering widow whose “prime” is a replica of her husband Walter as a thirty-something young man, portrayed with grace and stealth by Tommy Gorrebeck. Walter Prime provides companionship and fills in the blanks for Marjorie as she reminisces about the past. In doing so, he helps to make the past better for her than it actually may have been. When not engaged, he becomes silent and motionless, very much the way Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri reside in the background, waiting to be summoned.

Marjorie is a burden for her daughter Tess (Julie Eccles) and son-in-law Jon (Anthony Fusco), who provide her care. Their sometimes contentious relationship is also wrought with a problematic past and as the story progresses each of them gains or is replaced by his or her own prime, whose personalities evolve as they gain information. The spare dialog runs the gamut from nonsequitor to profound insight and spans the emotional spectrum from despair to hilarity. Marjorie confounds Tess and Jon with archaic references to a rock band called “ZZ Topp,” which they have never heard of, and quotes a Beyoncé song to their bafflement.

It’s a brilliant concept, and a brilliant script—a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist—superbly delivered by four supremely talented actors under the direction of Ken Rus Schmoll, on a simple modernistic set by Kimie Nishikawa, the passage of time conveyed by a few prop changes and some beautiful projections of summer sky and falling snow. “Marjorie Prime” is a stunning, thought-provoking bit of theater that deserves a sold-out house for each performance. It’s that good.

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

 

“Marjorie Prime”

Marin Theatre Company  397 Miller Ave.  Mill Valley CA 94941

Through May 27, 2018

Tickets: $10 – $44

Info: 415-388-5208 www.marintheatre.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Classic Musical Comedy: “La Cage aux Folles” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

 

La Cage aux Folles at 6th Street

 

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse has revived the ever-popular classic musical comedy “La Cage aux Folles,” at the G.K. Hardt Theatre through May 20.

A Harvey Fierstein/Jerry Herman collaboration, this engaging piece about a nontraditional French Riviera family confronting a hyper-traditional one was a long-running Broadway hit, and has made the rounds of regional theater companies ever since. The story of a gay male couple—one a drag performer, the other the owner of the drag club—and their straight son, it was made into two hit movies, and was the basis for the more recent “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” set in Florida’s Gulf Coast, known to Southerners as “the Redneck Riviera.”

In the original, the couple must pretend to be straight in order to please their son’s future father-in-law, an ultraconservative reformist politician. Potential disaster for this politician ensues if he is found cavorting with “degenerates;” comedy issues forth as it often does when characters must unwillingly pretend to be other than what they are.

The show feels in some ways as quaintly innocent as the French romantic comedy “Boeing Boeing.” It’s no longer as outrageous as it was when it debuted, but its core issues make it still current. 6th Street’s production features Michael Conte as drag star “Zaza” and Anthony Martinez as nightclub owner Georges—both of them excellent, with Conte the standout as the petulant gender-bent performer. Lorenzo Alviso does a nice turn as their son Jean-Michel, and choreographer Joseph Favalora is a scream as their houseboy/housemaid Jacob. Michael Fontaine is very good as the reformist politician Dindon, whose election campaign is based on sweeping the Riviera clean of people like Zaza and Georges. Mo McElroy is solid in a cameo as restaurant owner Jacqueline, whose scheming could be Dindon’s undoing.

The show is anchored by a great band “in the pit” helmed by music director Ginger Beavers, and a team of flamboyant showgirls—not all of them organic—called “Les Cagelles.” Most forbidding among them is “Hanna from Hamburg” a whip-cracking redhead with the muscularity of an Olympic wrestler. A show that usually benefits from a lush set design, “La Cage” moves along briskly with an unusual minimalist set by Sam Transleau. It’s a fun outing that should be on the must-see list for North Bay theater fans.

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“La Cage aux Folles”

Directed by Russell Kaltschmidt

6th Street Playhouse

G.K. Hardt Theatre

52 W. 6th Street Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Tickets: $22 – $38

Info: 707- 523-4185, www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

Rating:  Four out of Five Stars.

 

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ASR Theater Review! Loose Cannon — ACT’s “Father Comes Home from the Wars” – by Barry Willis

A great old joke has it that “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” The same might be said about Civil War epic “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” directed by Liz Diamond, at American Conservatory Theater through May 20.

The committee in question is playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, an artist so deeply in love with her own voice that she can’t figure out what material fits and what needs to be jettisoned. She includes it all, like William Faulkner delivering to his editor his magnum opus in a wheelbarrow.

Unlike Faulkner, Parks didn’t have a ruthless editor to shape her material into something compelling. She instead offers a sprawling amalgam of history and personal quest that attempts to be both drama and comedy but ultimately succeeds as neither. The story at its core is quite simple: a slave named Hero (James Udom, superb) elects to serve as valet to his “boss master,” a Confederate colonel (Dan Hiatt) who has answered the call of duty and is headed to the war. Hero wonders if he should go or not, to the point of almost cutting off his own foot to render himself unfit, a fate that has already befallen his friend Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez). He’s also reluctant to say goodbye to his love Penny (Eboni Flowers) and other members of his community, but the lure of adventure, the intoxication of wearing a uniform, and the promise of freedom at the end of his servitude overwhelm his better judgment and off he goes. There are mentions of Hero’s dog Odyssey, who has run off, but we never see him.

James Udom

“Father Comes Home” follows a traditional three-act structure, with enough characters and plot devices to fill a two-season PBS series. In the first act, we meet Hero and other members of his community, their shabby housing represented by the rusty façade of a corrugated metal shack. (Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez.) This introduction, itself introduced by a mellifluous guitar-playing musician (Martin Luther McCoy, excellent), consumes the better part of an hour and segues directly into Act II, which finds Hero, the Colonel, and a wounded-and-captured Union soldier (Tom Pecinka) camped out in a forest within earshot of battle but safely away from it, the damage of war and the forest where they’re hiding represented by huge upended I-beams, more 1945 Berlin than 1865 Appomattox.

The Colonel preens, drinks, and rants, and during lulls in encroaching cannon fire, the three of them engage in a free-wheeling discussion of personal and social freedom, identity, status, value, ownership, man, god, law, and destiny. This act is exceptionally well done by three skilled actors and were it fully fleshed out might prove to be a satisfying resolution to the questions raised in Act I. Or not—the playwright might have her characters ask these questions and leave them for the audience to ponder.

Act III opens with the rusty shack superimposed on the remnants of war, with three runaway slaves cowering on its porch. Over the hill comes what appears to be a crazy homeless person in a wooly bathrobe, flitting about, flipping his hair and gushing about the fates of Hero and the Colonel. A new character introduced in the last act—Parks clearly disregards the laws of drama here—and one who had many in the opening night audience mumbling “WTF?” This crazy homeless person proves to be Odyssey, Hero’s missing dog, who has followed his master, at a distance, to the war and back and has come home to tell the tale. He’s comic relief, like the gravedigger in “Hamlet.”

Greg Wallace

A talking dog. We are now solidly in Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit territory.

Odyssey (ACT veteran Gregory Wallace) spins an elaborate tale, provoking many laughs, and informs the community that Hero isn’t dead as they believed, but in fact survived and is coming home. And Hero does just that, arriving with gifts for Homer and Penny, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that he has copied by hand but never reads aloud. Their reunion is warm and reassuring until Hero lashes out wildly with his knife, slashing at the runaways, his friend Homer, and everyone near him. There is neither justification nor explanation for this outburst. Then he calms down to tell Penny that he has a wife on the way, and it isn’t her. The end, more or less.

Its stagecraft is very good, but “Father Comes Home” is lengthy (three hours), ponderous, and baffling. Parks has worked historical facts into fantasies that never fully take flight. Hero’s journey is an arduous one, especially for the audience, some of whom left at intermission. That may have made for a more fulfilling evening at the theater.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“Father Comes Home from the Wars” by Suzan-Lori Parks

Directed by Liz Diamond

American Conservatory Theater

Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street San Francisco

Tickets: $15 – $110 Info: www.act-sf.org

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

 

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ASR Theater Review! Outrageously Great Fun; “Head Over Heels” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

 

San Francisco’s Curran Theater is the last stop before Broadway for “Head Over Heels,” the delightful new musical featuring the songs of 1980s girl group the Go-Go’s.

Reputedly the most successful female pop group of all time, the Go-Go’s helped define the decade with a long run of infectious tunes, given new life in this stupendously quirky production. The opening scene is a fantastically well-done ensemble performance of “We Got the Beat” under a proscenium arch emblazoned with the faux-Latin slogan “Habemus Percussivo.”

Developed by Jeff Whitty from “The Arcadia” by Sir Philip Sidney, adapted by James Magurder, and directed by Michael Mayer, “Head Over Heels” is a pseudo-Shakespearean romantic comedy about a royal family seeking to prevent a prophecy of doom. This involves a troublesome journey to Bohemia, foreboding appearances by a transgendered oracle, mistaken identities, gender-fluid coupling, class-defying hookups, a self-doubting monarch, and some of the most spectacularly whimsical sets ever conceived—all of it propelled by the Go-Go’s great thumping pop-rock, done live by an ace all-female band above and behind the stage. Spencer Liff’s choreography is superb right from the opening drum whack.

Head Over Heels: A New Musical

The story concerns Basilius, the King of Arcadia (Jeremy Kushnier) and his wife, Queen Gynecia (Rachael York) who are seeking a proper marriage partner for their eldest daughter Pamela (Bonnie Milligan). Pamela’s little journey of self-discovery includes the realization that she isn’t all that interested in men, but her sister Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) is—especially Musidorus (Andrew Durand), a handsome shepherd boy with an exaggeratedly Shakespearean manner of speech. His speech is so ornate that at moments the other characters—no elocutionary slouches themselves—interrupt him and demand that he “speak English.”

Class distinctions prevent any immediate linkup between Musidorus and Philoclea. Disguising himself as “Cleophila,” an Amazon warrior woman in Roman armor and a fluffy blonde wig, he joins the travelling party and is soon the object of affection for the king himself. The Queen has a wandering eye, too. Central to the plot is the budding love affair between the marvelously comical Pamela and her maidservant Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), who also happens to be the daughter of the king’s goofy viceroy Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins). Anchoring the production, Jones is wonderfully confident in her role, and a tremendous singer, as proven during Mopsa’s contemplative visit to the island of Lesbos, where she gives the song “Vacation” a whole new meaning.

Kushier does likewise with “Lust to Love,” reinterpreted late in the saga as a revenge song during a sword fight between the king and Musidorus. No worries! Everyone lives—and loves—happily ever after.

Head Over Heels: Peppermint

Arianne Phillips’s costumes, Kevin Adams’s lighting, Andrew Lazarow’s projections, Kai Harada’s sound, and Julian Crouch’s set design all make huge contributions to the wild success that is “Head Over Heels.” The primary actors are superb, as are the ensemble, all of them veterans of multiple big-time musicals. The result is a stunning powerhouse performance that brought the opening night crowd to its feet in sustained appreciation—a crowd, it must be mentioned, younger and more boisterous than typically fills San Francisco’s big theaters, and one that lingered for the after-party in the lobby, enjoying the music of the B-52s, Talking Heads, Devo, and many other contemporaries of the Go-Go’s.

“Head Over Heels” is simply an outrageously over-the-top good time. It may be the most fun you will ever have in a theater.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

What: “Head Over Heels,” the Go-Go’s Musical.

130 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission

Where: The Curran Theater, 455 Geary St., San Francisco, CA 94102

When: Through May 6, 2018.

Tickets: $29-$175

Info: 415-358-1220, SFCURRAN.com

Rating: Five Out of Five Stars

 

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ASR Theatre Review! Quirky, Fascinating “Wolves” at MTC – by Barry Willis

 

A high-performing athletic team is very much a family, with all the closeness, cohesion, and dysfunctionality that “family” implies.

“The Wolves,” at Marin Theatre Company through April 8, is about one such family—a girls’ soccer team angling for a national championship. We never see them compete. Instead, all the action plays out before each game, on an indoor practice field where they train and rib each other about everything from typical teenage interests—parents, boyfriends, school—to issues they only partly understand, such as world geography and historical events.

Playwright Sarah Delappe has an expert’s ear for teen patois—her girls stammer and stall for time by inserting “like” in every other phrase, in near-universal rising intonation. She also has an intimate knowledge of athletes’ rough-and-tumble camaraderie—there are plenty of “f-bombs” hurled, none intended to harm, and the players, identified only by the numbers on their jerseys, often call each other “dude.” There’s a surplus of this stuff in the opening scene, which almost comes off as an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch, but the storyline takes a somber turn with the appearance of a talented new teammate claiming never to have played organized “football,” followed by a potentially career-ending knee injury to the Wolves’ star striker.

It gets more serious still with a tragedy that befalls the team, threatening to derail all their hard work, but they quite believably close ranks, more united than ever. It’s a beautiful moment about the empowering potential of loyalty and friendship.

Director Morgan Green coaxes excellent performances out of her ten-woman cast, all of them stage veterans and for the most part young enough to pass as high-schoolers. Of particular note are Portland Thomas as #11, with an amazingly relaxed and natural performance, and the energetic Sango Tajima as team captain #25, who pushes her comrades with a drill instructor’s grit and the shouting of almost comical slogans like “Teamwork makes the dream work!” Liz Sklar is outstanding in a cameo as the distraught Soccer Mom.

Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission, “The Wolves” is a captivating production and an unusual undertaking for Marin Theatre Company, which will host a final-day performance by the troupe’s understudies, most of them real high-school girls from Marin County. Their nickname: the “Wolf Pups.”

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“The Wolves” by Sarah Delappe

Through April 15, 2018

Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, CA 94941

Tickets: $10 – $49 Info: 415-388-5208, boxoffice@marintheatre.org

Rating: Three-and-a-Half out of Five Stars

 

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ASR Theater Review! Tremendous “Ladies of Broadway” – by Barry Willis

Transcendence Theatre Company specializes in big-production mashups of classic Broadway musicals. The group’s spectacular “Broadway Under the Stars” has been a wine country summer destination for several years.

A recent addition to the Transcendence repertoire is “The Ladies of Broadway,” running the weekends of March 17-18 at the Marin Veterans Auditorium and March 24-25 at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa. It’s a showcase for seven hyper-talented female veterans of Broadway musicals, with backing by a huge and huge-sounding theater band.

Neither a classic musical nor a classic revue of showtunes, its premise is a loosely-connected story in which each performer relates her aspirations, travails, and successes in landing leading roles in big long-running musicals: Momma Mia, An American in Paris, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, We Will Rock You, Motown the Musical, and Wicked among them. There are also plenty of references to older blockbusters, including the works of Stephen Sondheim and Bob Fosse.

Every one of these young women is a double- or triple-threat, meaning they can sing, act, dance, and in some cases, play instruments or do gymnastics. All of them have fantastic stage presence, perfect comic timing, enormous huge vocal range, perfect pitch, and the ability to rattle the back wall of an auditorium without the use of microphones. Their solos are wonderful and their harmonies exquisite.

The show is a fast-moving feast of upbeat tunes, self-deprecating humor and quick-change antics that brings the audience to its feet not only at the show’s close but at intermission as well.

“Ladies of Broadway” is one of the most stunning assemblages of talent you will see on one stage this year—two hours of tremendous fun and an entertainment bargain. Don’t miss it!

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

“The Ladies of Broadway” by Transcendence Theatre Company

March 24-25

Luther Burbank Center for the Arts

Tickets: $39 – $139 Info: 877-424-1414, www.BestNightEver.org

Rating:  Five out of Five Stars

 

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****     

 

ASR Theater Review! Superb “By the Water” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center – by Barry Willis

 

A community devastated by a natural disaster is the setting for Sharyn Rothstein’s gritty family drama “By the Water,” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, through April 8. Directed by Carl Jordan, the production is exceptionally appropriate in the wake of last fall’s fires that swept through Sonoma and Napa counties.

Six years ago, Hurricane Sandy wreaked massive destruction throughout the East Coast. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed and many more dwellings were left uninhabitable. Mike Pavone and Mary Gannon Graham portray Marty and Mary Murphy, a middle-aged couple living in what remains of one such home, in a neighborhood where they raised two sons to adulthood and where they knew all their neighbors. The extreme likelihood of another massive storm has prompted a government program to level the whole area after buying out everyone who lived there. Marty is opposed to the buyout and adamant about rebuilding his home and neighborhood, and has launched a mostly one-man crusade to get his neighbors on-board.

The buyout offer is viewed by many as a godsend—especially by the Murphys’ friends Andrea and Philip (Madeleine Ashe and Clark Miller)—but Marty persists, alienating those he cares about most, including his devout Catholic wife and his son Sal (Mark Bradbury) a quiet supporter of his parents and wayward brother Brian (Jared N. Wright), recently released from prison and doing his best to stay clean—an effort reinforced by rekindled affection for his friend Emily (Katie Kelley).

Marty’s motivation for his rebuilding crusade is a mix of attachment to a lost way of life and a hidden personal agenda that’s pried out of him in a heartrending revelation. The script and cast are uniformly excellent, believable in everything from their slightest gestures to their accurate Staten Island accents. A strong but sensitive director, Jordan excels at casting, and here he has assembled a ideal team who perfectly blend their characters’ interwoven histories and explicit interactions. The whole affair plays out in what’s left of the Murphy home—damp, moldy, stripped-to-the-studs, and open to the elements—a grimly effective set by Eddy Hansen, who also designed the lighting.

The story has many parallels to “Death of a Salesman”—a failed businessman with personal secrets, a long-suffering wife, sons with problems, a neighborhood in transition, loyal neighbors—but has uplifting elements that “Salesman” lacks: moments of warm humor, and a resolution implying all that’s possible through forgiveness, loyalty, and love. It’s a wonderful redemption story, certainly the best production currently running in the North Bay. “By the Water” isn’t magical realism but something better: realistic magic.

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle.

 

“By the Water” Directed by Carl Jordan

Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Studio Theatre

5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park, CA

Tickets: $28

Info: 707-588-3400 www.ci.rohnertpark.ca.us/city_hall/departments/spreckels_performing_arts_center/

Rating: Five Stars — Out of Five Stars

 

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Main Stage West’s Compelling “Blackbird” – by Barry Willis

You can’t escape your past.  In David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” an industrial production manager named Ray (John Shillington) discovers this late one day when a young woman named Una (Sharia Pierce) shows up unannounced at his workplace.

In their awkward protracted reunion we learn that she was his lover at the tender age of twelve, when he was approximately forty. A scandal consumed him and the town he lived in, to the extent that he vanished, changed his name, and tried to put it all behind him.

But perhaps by accident, now-adult Una has discovered his new identity and location and has driven hundreds of miles to try to resolve all that was left dangling—a massive shared bundle of guilt, shame, obsession, and still-smoldering attraction that bursts into flames at least once in their brief meeting. No resolution is possible, but the script and the two talented actors cover huge emotional territory in the eighty minutes they spend together in the grimy confines of a disheveled break room (set design by David Lear, who also directed).

Intentionally stilted exposition makes the plot a bit slow to roll out, but once it does, it gains unstoppable momentum. Pierce and Shillington give a fiercely passionate performance of two people linked by irresistible but doomed attraction, frightening in its depth but illuminated by moments of levity. “Blackbird’s” dark realism will startle you and give you plenty to think about when you’ve left the theater.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“Blackbird” by David Harrower

Through April 7th

Main Stage West  104 North Main Street  Sebastopol, CA 95472

Tickets: $15-$30 Info: 707-823-0177

Contact@mainstagewest.com

Rating: Three-and-a-half Stars

 

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Exuberant Romp — “Mystery of Edwin Drood” from Marin Onstage – by Barry Willis

At San Rafael’s Belrose Theatre through March 31 and directed by Patrick Nims, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is an exuberant romp of a musical. Based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, the show features eleven performers, all but two of them women, and approximately two dozen clever songs, all written by Rupert Holmes (of “The Pina Colada Song” fame), who also authored the book, lyrics, and musical arrangements.

Set in England in 1870, the complicated story—really too complicated to follow closely—involves the disappearance of Drood (Madison Scarborough), a dastardly act perhaps attributable to his romantic rival John Jasper (Andre Amarotico, excellent). The culprit may just as easily be any one of multiple characters who mingle with the audience before the show officially begins. That’s the mystery, and as the show progresses plenty of hints get dropped about which one may be the guilty party, so that the audience can vote near the end.

There are supposedly multiple endings written and rehearsed for each potential outcome, but it’s also possible that time constraints dictate a fixed outcome. In either case, the show sails along quickly and the audience has a jolly time participating. It’s very much “murder mystery dinner theater” without the dinner.

The women playing most of the characters are members of the fictional Music Hall Royale, “a ladies’ theatrical society,” we are frequently reminded by the Royale’s Chairman, played brilliantly but understatedly by Jill Wagoner. Their characters are mostly men—hence the onstage prevalence of 19th century male drag—but not all: one of the most feminine is also one of the most untrustworthy, Princess Puffer (Paula Gianetti at her over-the-top best), an opium dealer and on opening night, winner of the most votes as the likely murderess. The approximately two dozen songs that propel the show are energetically and engagingly performed (music direction by Daniel Savio, choreography by Kate Kenyon) even if they aren’t very memorable.

Set designer Gary Gonser worked his tail off to create a versatile quick-change environment and a batch of sight gags that function perfectly in the small space of the Belrose. Wagoner, as mentioned, is brilliant, and her castmates aren’t far behind. A young talent worth watching is Jack Covert as Master Nick Cricker, Jr., who introduces the show and here and there helps kick it along. Covert is an eighth grader with already formidable theatrical skills and one who will go far in the business if he sticks with it.

“Drood,” as it is usually called in theatrical circles, is a ludicrous lighthearted romp with much to recommend it. Put your serious business on hold and have fun at the theater.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” by Marin Onstage

The Belrose Theatre, 1415 5th Avenue, San Rafael, through March 31.

Tickets: $12-$27

Info: 415-290-1433 www.marinonstage.com

Rating: Three-and-a-half-stars

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

 

ASR Theater Review! Quirky, Charming “Tenderly” at Napa’s Lucky Penny — by Barry Willis

Pop singer and sometimes actress Rosemary Clooney was among an endless procession of performers and celebrities with a complex of personal and professional problems (depression, marital discord, drug addiction) exacerbated by changing public tastes, waning popularity, and financial distress. Her career spanned the post-WWII era into the late 1960s, and resumed in the late 1970s when she reinvented herself as a jazz vocalist and nostalgia act.

Directed by Dyan McBride, “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical,” at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa through March 11, picks up her story at the moment in 1968 when after a breakdown she reluctantly goes under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Victor Monke (Barry Martin). How she got there—from her origin in a small Kentucky town to international fame as a Hollywood icon with a series of unreliable high-profile husbands—is told in flashback, punctuated with very good performances of her most popular songs, such as “Hey There,” “I Remember You,” “Mambo Italiano,” “Sway,” and the show’s title song, backed by a solid instrumental trio led by Music Director Craig Burdette.

Lucky Penny Artistic Director Taylor Bartolucci gives a spirited portrayal of Clooney, masking her character’s ambition with a disarming amount of small-town self-disparagement. Bartolucci the actress nails the accent, attitude, and mannerisms while Bartolucci the singer does likewise with the songs’ melodies and phrasing, even though her irrepressible and totally enjoyable vibrato makes her singing only an approximation of Clooney’s.

The company’s Managing Director Barry Martin is excellent as the understanding but gently persistent Dr. Monke. Martin takes on multiple roles with only small changes in prop or costume, including Clooney’s mother, sister, and brother; her twice-husband Jose Ferrer, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby. His mellifluous baritone is especially suited to the Crosby bit, and he employs it beautifully in a duet with Bartolucci.

The elegant compact set serves as medical office/hospital, the Clooney home, and several performance venues, with changes mostly provided by April George’s lighting. This combined with Martin’s instant morphing from one character to another keeps “Tenderly” moving along briskly. The show is especially appealing for fans from Clooney’s era but should also prove entertaining for younger ones eager to learn more about her. Best of all, it ends on an uplifting note with the late-career Clooney in full command of her life both onstage and off. Be thankful she didn’t take a desperate early exit the way so many have.

ASR Senior 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.

 “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical”

Through March 11, 2018

Lucky Penny Productions

Community Arts Center, 1758 Industrial Way, Napa, CA 94558

Info: www.luckypennynapa.com, 707-266-6305

 

Rating: Three-and-a-half-stars

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! A Tremendous “Equus” at 6th Street Playhouse — by Barry Willis

 

Passion, religion, sexual fixation, and the concept of normalcy all get fully examined in Peter Shaffer’s multiple award-winning “Equus,” at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 25. In it, a disillusioned child psychiatrist treats a severely uncommunicative teenage boy who has mutilated some horses after a pair of back-to-back personal traumas. The overworked Dr. Dysart (Craig A. Miller) reluctantly takes on the case of Alan Strang (Ryan Severt) at the insistence of magistrate Hesther Salomon (Tara Howley), who tells him she has never encountered such a shocking case.

When Dysert first meets the nearly mute Alan, the boy can recite only snippets of commercial jingles from television. Dysart discovers that he was primed for both trauma and asocial behavior by a religious fanatic mother (Juliet Noonan) and a cold undemonstrative father (John Shillington). Alan’s eventual “cure” will give him an acceptably boring existence while depriving him of the deep meaning he finds in his self-constructed personal religion. Dysert despises this necessary compromise and realizes that in the process of treating Alan, he is assuming much of the boy’s karmic burden.

It’s a powerful tale that’s as relevant today as it was when it debuted in 1973, a fact that prompted 6th Street artistic director Miller to produce it. His instinct was perfect. This production is one of a current crop of hyper-relevant shows running in North Bay theaters, and one of the best. Strongly but sensitively directed by Lennie Dean, “Equus” benefits from tremendous performances in major roles (Miller, Severt, Noonan) plus superb ensemble work by actors in multiple secondary roles. Outstanding here is Chandler Parrott-Thomas, who plays Jill, a free-spirited girl who recruits Alan to work at a stable, and later attempts unsuccessfully to seduce him, with unexpectedly disastrous results.

Conor Woods’s deceptively simple, utilitarian set works wonderfully in helping the production move along quickly with minimum changes. Slow-to-launch exposition initially hampers the first act, which soon gains momentum sufficient to get airborne. After that it sails along gloriously. The only other drawback is some unevenness with the British accents. The play originated in the UK, but the story isn’t inherently British. It would work just as well in the American idiom.

These are exceedingly small quibbles, of course. “Equus” is a gripping, superbly well-rendered tale that will haunt you long after leaving the theater. Emphatically recommended for theatergoers who may have seen it long ago, as well as for those who’ve never had the opportunity. It’s a revelation.

Rating: Four-and-a-half out of Five Stars

 

Barry Willis is Senior Editor at Aisle Seat Review, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and President of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” directed by Lennie Dean

Studio Theater, 6th Street Playhouse

52 W 6th St, Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Through February 25, 2018 Info: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

 

ASR Theater Review! Compelling, Baffling “Buried Child” Unearthed at Main Stage West — by Barry Willis

Be glad that the prolific Sam Shepard worked out his issues through writing rather than by spraying a shopping mall with an automatic weapon. His stuff is as dark and forbidding as a cemetery on a cold December night.

Ably directed by Elizabeth Craven, “Buried Child,” at Main Stage West in Sebastopol through February 25, is a baffling portrait of the ultimate dysfunctional family. Set in an Illinois farmhouse, it opens with a cantankerous exchange between family patriarch Dodge (John Craven) and his unseen harridan wife Halie (Laura Jorgensen), whose shouted responses intermittently remind him of God’s bounty and the mercies of Jesus. Dodge is in ill health, unable to rise from the ratty sofa on which he lies, but is sufficiently motivated to nip from a hidden bottle, smoke one cigarette after another, and ramble on semi-coherently.

Enter Tilden (Keith Baker), a monosyllabic moron, with an armload of freshly picked corn. He’s presumably the son of Dodge and Halie, although that’s never made explicit, as is Bradley (Eric Burke), another developmentally challenged offspring with a missing leg. Bradley does a savage job of cutting his sleeping father’s hair then spends the remainder of his time onstage hiding under blankets and spouting argumentative comments. At some point a younger member of the clan shows up: Vince (Sam Coughlin). None of his relatives recognize or acknowledge him even though he repeatedly badgers them to do so. Vince’s girlfriend Shelly (Ivy Rose Miller) is the only one who’s rational enough to begin to make sense of what’s going on, but as the audience’s point-of-view character, she’s as mystified as we are.

Vince leaves for a couple of days. Nobody notices. Tilden harvests fresh carrots from the presumably fallow farm. Halie appears with local minister Father Dewis (Dwayne Stincelli) in tow, the two of them sharing a flask and apparently in the full flower of a forbidden affair. There are some erratic tangential comments about proper Christian behavior. Vince returns, drunk and raging. The family argues about another son who may or may not have been real. Dodge reveals a long-suppressed secret. Shelly leaves. The end.

There’s not a clue in any of this as to what it’s all about, other than the meanness and arbitrary meaninglessness of life, and bottomless darkness lurking beneath the surface. Imagine American redneck angst scrutinized by Pinter or Beckett.

The playbill puts the script’s time at 1978, but it feels much earlier—the 1930s or ’50s perhaps. The disjointed storyline isn’t far from an episode of the Cartoon Network’s “Squidbillies;” the aesthetic is right out of “The Twilight Zone.”

“Buried Child” is solidly presented by a cast of talented veteran actors, and at the very least is damned interesting even if we learn nothing—a theatrical curiosity, if you will.

Some theatergoers may even interpret it as comedy. At slightly under two hours running time it won’t make you wish you had somewhere else to be. Just don’t expect to come away with new insight or understanding about rural life or family dynamics. You won’t, other than having experienced, as the director’s notes remind us, an authentic modern American classic.

 

Barry Willis is a Senior Writer/Editor for Aisle Seat Review. He is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child”

Through February 25, 2018

Main Stage West 104 North Main Street Sebastopol CA 95472 www.mainstagewest.com 707-823-0177

Rating: Three-and-a-half out of five stars.

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

ASR Theater Review! Supremely Good “Disgraced” at Left Edge Theater — by Barry Willis

A celebratory dinner party goes horribly awry in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa, through February 18. In it, ostensibly upscale intelligent people provoke each other just enough to reveal ancient ethnic hatreds lurking just beneath the veneer of civility.

The controversial script won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Tightly directed by Phoebe Moyer, who in her director’s notes mentions having felt “uncomfortable, frightened, and ultimately moved,” when she first read it, the play explores interconnected contemporary issues of, as Moyer puts it, “religion, capitalism, tribalism, race, tradition, infidelity, loyalty, politics, and the role of the artist” with amazing efficiency thanks to Akhtar’s authorial elegance and the cast’s tremendous ensemble work.

Ilana Niernberger stars as Emily, an artist whose work has begun to appropriate Islamic imagery. Her partner Amir (Jared N. Wright) is a hard-working lawyer seeking to make partner in his law firm, but held back by the Indian/Pakistani ethnicity he has long tried to minimize. Amir’s nephew (Adrian Causor) has gone so far in rejecting his Islamic roots that he’s legally changed his name to “Abe Jensen,” explaining to his uncle that by doing so he has almost completely eliminated feeling any sort of discrimination. Mike Shaeffer plays a self-important art curator named Isaac, planning a big exhibit of artists exploring various spiritual traditions. Jory (Jazmine Pierce), his young wife or girlfriend—it’s not clear which—is a lawyer in Amir’s firm, a fact that late in the play drives home the final nail in the coffin of Amir’s professional aspirations.

A bubbling cauldron of complex relationships and thorny issues, “Disgraced” is one of the most dynamic and relevant plays to appear in the North Bay in many months. There is not a moment or gesture wasted in its quick-moving ninety minutes. The acting is as stunning as the script is provocative. The whole affair will leave you gasping for breath at its sheer intellectual and artistic intensity.

“Disgraced” is one of the most compelling scripts to come along in a very long time. The Left Edge production is its perfect realization. Don’t be surprised, if days later, you’re still pondering what it plants in you. That’s the intent of the playwright, director, and cast, and they all succeed beautifully.

 

Barry Willis is a Senior Editor/Writer for Aisle Seat Review, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC).

 

 

Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced”

Through February 18, 2018

Left Edge Theatre, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road Santa Rosa CA 95403

www.leftedgetheatre.com

707-546-3600

Rating: Five out of five stars. 

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Uneven but Enjoyable: Gurney’s “Dining Room” at Sonoma Arts Live — by Barry Willis

A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” is an insider’s gentle spoof of upper-middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) of the northeastern United States, the dominant culture in this country throughout the 20th century. Morals, assumptions, beliefs, values, and behaviors all get fully and sometimes hilariously examined in the play’s two hours, the entirety of which takes place in the dining room of one stately home, in overlapping scenes that span several generations and decades.

It’s also a challenging exercise for actors required to play characters of wildly divergent ages: older actors portraying children, for example, or younger ones playing the elderly.

This can be a bit of a stretch, as proven in the current production at Sonoma Arts Live, directed by Joey Hoeber. With six actors playing multiple roles, some are convincing and others not so, to the extent that it may be uncomfortable to watch. Veteran actor Kit Grimm is at his finest portraying a couple of curmudgeonly grandfathers, but not believable as a six-year-old at a birthday party. Trevor Hoffman is outstanding playing an almost age-appropriate teenager, while Rhonda Guaraglia is not. She’s much better as Aunt Harriet, showing her college-age son what proper dining etiquette and paraphernalia are all about.

The dining room in question is elegantly and convincingly recreated on a raised stage by set designer Bruce Lackovic, and well used by a parade of faux New Englanders including a pushy realtor, a philandering married couple, a Boston handyman, a Freudian psychiatrist, an architect, and parents and children of all ages. The opening act at SAL is marred by some unevenness but redeemed by a smoothly performed and heartwarming second act.

“The Dining Room” is more than a gentle spoof. It’s also a love song and fond farewell to a way of life slowly but inexorably vanishing. In this, the Sonoma Arts cast succeeds in getting it right.

 

Barry Willis is a Senior Writer/Editor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room,” directed by Joey Hoeber
Through February 4, 2018
Sonoma Arts Live
Rotary Stage, Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street
Sonoma CA 95476
Info: sonomaartslive.org Tel: 866-710-8942

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Dynamic, Compelling “Skeleton Crew” at Marin Theatre Co. — by Barry Willis

The spirit of August Wilson hovers everywhere in Dominique Morriseau’s gritty “Skeleton Crew” at Marin Theatre Company, in cooperation with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

In a Detroit stamping plant in the midst of the 2008 recession, four black auto production workers struggle to survive and to do the right thing in desperate economic circumstances. Highly skilled and valued employees, they are nonetheless at risk of being downsized as plant management tries to cut costs. Supervisor Reggie (Lance Gardner, superb) walks a tight stressful line between keeping workers productive and bosses happy. Faye (the irrepressible Margo Hall), senior worker and union representative, seeks justice for her comrades and for herself as the downsizing points toward a potential plant closing. Several months pregnant, Shanita (Tristan Cunningham) hopes to hang on to her job for the medical benefits, while Dez (Christian Thompson) hopes only to keep his long enough so that he can open his own auto shop.

As in many of Wilson’s plays, the four characters strive against external obstacles while being hampered by many of their own making. Faye, for example, has a gambling problem that has made her lose her home, while Dez carries a handgun in and out of the plant in clear violation of company rules, not with intent to commit a crime but simply to protect himself from criminals lurking in the neighborhood. Most complex of all is Reggie’s situation: a confrontational relationship with Dez, a familial relationship with Faye, and his own family, home, and career to consider.

Plus the plant is plagued by ongoing thefts that potentially implicate everyone. It’s a pressure cooker portrayed with great passion and conviction by four Equity actors under the direction of Jade King Carroll. It all plays out in one of the plant’s break rooms, grimly realized by scenic designer Ed Haynes. A brilliant combination of stark video projections by Mike Post from the opposite side of the break room’s windows, and a heavy soundtrack by Karin Greybash, convey heavy industrial activity in the bustling noisy plant.

“Skeleton Crew” charges along like a runaway train toward its sudden but not unexpected conclusion. We need not step into the factory to understand what goes on there, nor do we need to step outside to understand what the workers face when they leave. Many in the audience will arrive with little experience of the brutal circumstances endured by industrial workers, but all will leave with increased sympathy and understanding.

 

Barry Willis is a Senior Contributor/Editor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

“Skeleton Crew” by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Jade King Carroll.
Through February 18, 2018
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA 94941-2885
info: www.marintheatre.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****