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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ProductionMystic Pizza
Written byBook by Sandy Rustin

Story and characters by Amy Holden Jones

(Based on the MGM motion picture)

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

Freda Payne. Photos supplied by Jon Finck

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

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

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

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

Kenny Washington. Photos supplied by Jon Finck.

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

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

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

 

 

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

… Hilarious as it is insightful …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ “Sylvia” Shines at Sonoma Arts Live

By Barry Willis

A rambunctious dog drives a wedge between a couple of empty-nesters in Sylvia at Sonoma Arts Live through February 18.

Melody Payne delights and astounds as the lovable stray dog whose name gives the title to A.R. Gurney’s sweet story. David Shirk is perfectly cast as Greg, a middle-aged middle-manager who’s grown dissatisfied with his job and has begun taking unauthorized leave from work to bask in the sun in New York’s Central Park.

… Sylvia … It’s simply brilliant…

That’s where he meets Sylvia. It’s love at first sight for both of them. It’s also where he meets Tom (Mike Pavone), a gruff-voiced and opinionated dog lover whose big bruiser “Bowser” is Sylvia’s object of affection. As they watch their dogs cavort, Tom dispenses advice to Greg, much of it applicable to Greg’s marriage to Kate (Jill Zimmerman), an English teacher who hopes to enlighten inner-city students with Shakespeare by comparing his work to rap. Kate’s reached a breakthrough in her career. With kids grown and out of the house, she’s ready for the next stage in life—one that does not include the encumbrance of caring for a dog.

Jill Zimmerman, Melody Payne in Sonoma Arts Live’s “Sylvia”, February 2-18. Photos credit Miller Oberlin

Greg campaigns mightily for Sylvia—whom Kate dismissively calls “Saliva”—and ponders his future while Kate considers hers. Sylvia slowly but inevitably wins her over through sheer enthusiasm—repeated with outrageous comic energy by Payne as she sniffs, romps, growls, humps, and gives voice to everything we imagine that a dog might say if gifted with speech.

Payne’s ultra-high-energy performance absolutely carries this uproarious comedy. She’s simultaneously perfectly on the mark, on time, and precise in her movements while conveying a delightful lack of inhibition. Shirk wisely plays Greg as understated and hopeful if a bit morose—a masterful encompassing of character. Zimmerman, winner of a Critics Circle award for her performance in August: Osage County, is tremendous as the self-centered wife who resents an intrusion into what she had imagined as her personal renaissance.

Pavone is superb in multiple roles—not merely as a NYC tough guy, but as Phyllis, a kleptomaniac socialite, and as Leslie, an androgynous psychotherapist. Costume designer Kate Leland makes a serious contribution, not merely with humans—Phyllis is a scream—but especially with her depictions of Sylvia as both scruffy stray and pampered house pet.

 

Mike Pavone, David Shirk at SAL. Photos credit Miller Oberlin

Following last summer’s tour-de-force Dinner with Friends, director Carl Jordan has another hit. He takes this one in unexpected directions with musical interludes that other productions have never explored. Over the years, this reviewer has seen several iterations of Sylvia. SAL’s is orders of magnitude better than all of them — combined. It’s a riotous, wonderfully uplifting story and an absolute must-see for dog lovers—or for anyone who’s ever made an impetuous decision that proved enormously rewarding.

Don’t let Sylvia get away. It’s simply brilliant.

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

 

ProductionSylvia
Written byA.R. Gurney
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru Feb 18th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Cirque du Soleil Astounds with “Kooza” at PacBell Park

By Barry Willis

Miracles and madness are on full display with Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza at San Francisco’s PacBell Park through March 17.

The Montreal-based contemporary circus troupe’s first visit to the Bay Area since 2019 is a revelation in a huge tent outside PacBell Park. The Cirque complex actually occupies one large square block (“Lot 1”) on the edge of the bay, immediately across the street from Atwater’s.

Fans who arrive early can enjoy entertainment by wandering clowns, a pair of very well-balanced stilt-walking girls, and a wonderful four-piece band playing extended riffs on familiar jazz standards—“Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Caravan” among them. Another benefit to early arrival is ease of parking.

… There’s something for everyone in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza …

The real show, of course, happens in the big tent. Formed decades ago with the intent of modernizing the circus, Cirque du Soleil has proven to be a worldwide success, with multiple touring shows, and two or three in constant production in Las Vegas. Many of the troupe’s acts have roots in traditional circus acts, but there are no animals. That was one of the founders’ intentions. Those with qualms about abused animals can set their misgivings aside. The only potential damage is to Cirque du Soleil performers.

“Silk” is a fierce character with the ability to fly, spin, and swing in all directions in “Zooza”. Picture copyright & courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

All Cirque shows have a theme or through-line to tie diverse acts together. In Kooza, we meet a lackluster clown called “the Innocent” with an uncooperative kite, and another who’s a rowdy clown king with a missing crown and a couple of riotous sidekicks who continually prod the audience.

The search for the crown and its ultimate acquisition by the Innocent is all that connects this huge show’s opening and closing moments, but a through-line isn’t really needed. Every act is a mind-blower, from aerialists and contortionists to hand-balancers and high-flying acrobats. Even while watching in astonishment, viewers must ask themselves how anyone learns to do any of this. Where does one go to school to learn how to do a “five-man high” ???

Twin highwires crisscross diagonally at 15 and 25 feet above the stage in “Kooza”. Picture copyright & courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

Ukrainian unicycle performers Dmytro Dudnyk and Anastasiia Shkandybina blow minds early in the show. Dudnyk rides about the circular stage, picking up his partner and putting her on his head—where she performs several balancing stunts as he continues peddling. She mounts and dismounts, he picks her up and sets her down, all without stopping or losing stability. It all looks so easy—and so impossible.

“Impossible” is the perfect description for just about everything that happens in Kooza. A Spanish/Columbian highwire act appears to have fatal potential, as does a solo performance with aerial silks by Japan’s Mizuki Shinagawa. A trio of ultra-lithe Mongolian girls contort themselves into positions that would send ordinary people to the emergency room. Solo artist Aruna Bataa, also Mongolian, takes the hula hoop into the stratosphere, spinning several of them at once—sometimes in opposite directions. Her closing bit makes a stack of silver hoops look like an oversize Slinky that completely encompasses her.

The “Wheel of Death”—a huge contraption with a spinning wheel at each end, in which actors walk, run, dance, and fly, both inside and out. Picture copyright & courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

Perhaps the most astounding act of all is the “Wheel of Death”—a huge contraption with a spinning wheel at each end, in which Columbians Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Angelo Lyezkysky Rodriguez walk, run, dance, and fly, both inside and out. Then there’s Russian Victor Levoshuk’s handbalancing act, a riff on one of the most ancient circus acts, in which he positions chairs ever higher until he’s nearly at the top of the big tent and balancing motionless on the whole stack. The crowd-pleasing finale is a multi-national teeterboard act that sends acrobats end-over-end high in the air to safe landings back on earth.

Between all of these acts are comic interludes, audience participation bits, ensemble dances, and fantastic performances by an onstage band, whose drummer Eden Bahar from Israel enjoys a tremendous solo.

There’s something for everyone in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. An astounding blend of art and athleticism, it’s also an enlightening metaphor about the potential of multi-national cooperation.

Kooza runs at PacBell Park through March 17, then moves to San Jose’s Santa Clara Fairgrounds for a one-month run April 18 – May 26. It’s by far the most amazing thing you will see this year.

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

 

ProductionKooza
Written byCirque du Soleil
Directed byCirque du Soleil
Producing CompanyCirque du Soleil
Production DatesSF: Through March 17

San Jose: April 18 – May 19
Production AddressLot 1, PacBell Park, San Francisco (through March 17)

Santa Clara Fairgrounds (April 18 – May 26)
Website
www.cirquedusoleil.com/kooza
Telephone
Tickets
Variable – see website for times and prices
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ CenterREP’s Lovely “Every Brilliant Thing”

By Barry Willis

William Thomas Hogsdon delivers a wonderful presentation of Every Brilliant Thing at the Lesher Center for the Arts’ Vukasin Theatre through January 28.

The approximately 90-minute/no intermission show features prolific actor/director/teacher Hogsdon as the unnamed narrator of a coming-of-age story spanning three decades—from the time he was seven years old and began compiling his list of “every brilliant thing,” to his divorce from his college sweetheart in his mid-thirties.

The Narrator (William Thomas Hodgson) takes the audience on a journey through life’s most remarkable moments in “Every Brilliant Thing,” performing January 6-18 at Lesher Center for the Arts. Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

Co-written by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, the tale launches with the first attempted suicide by the narrator’s mother—am event that recurred over the years until she finally succeeded, when the list of brilliant things had grown to thousands of entries. All of them are numbered, and stage assistants give notes to the audience so that they can shout out words when Hogsdon mentions a number—for example, 316: “Jerry Rice,” or 123,321: “palindromes.”

Every Brilliant Thing is a wonderful exercise in audience participation …

He also recruits willing attendees to play various roles as the story unfolds. On opening night, one woman agreed to play a veterinarian euthanizing a treasured dog named “Charles Barkley.” Another stepped up from the front row to take the role of the narrator’s first love, a woman he met in college and ultimately married. A tall man in the third row volunteered to play his father delivering a heartfelt speech at the wedding—an astoundingly convincing bit that Hogsdon described post-performance as completely improvisational.

The Narrator (William Thomas Hodgson) includes an audience member in the celebration of life’s most remarkable moments in “Every Brilliant Thing.” Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

Personal triumph and family tragedy are expertly and delicately woven throughout this engaging tale, made more engaging by Hogsdon’s ability to manage the crowd. A mostly-solo effort, Every Brilliant Thing is a wonderful exercise in audience participation. It’s a near-perfect balance of drama, humor, observation, and poignant personal narrative, with two performances per day on Saturdays and Sundays.

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

 

ProductionEvery Brilliant Thing
Written byDuncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe
Directed byJeffrey Lo
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru January 28, 2024
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$35-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ ACT’s “A Christmas Carol” Still Rules

By Barry Willis

The greatest redemption story in the English language is still going strong at the American Conservatory Theater in The City, through December 24.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has riveted readers, film fans, and theatergoers for many decades. ACT’s annual extravaganza is hugely satisfying, as it has been in its current configuration for 17 years. The sumptuous Carey Perloff/Paul Walsh production is scheduled for retirement after this season, to be replaced by a new one next year, according to ACT Executive Director Jennifer Bielstein.

 … hugely satisfying …

Details about the new version aren’t available, but those who wish to see the classic that has inspired many imitators have the remaining week to get a full helping of Christmas uplift.

The company of ACT’s “A CHRISTMAS CAROL” at work. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

James Carpenter alternates with Anthony Fusco in the lead role of curmudgeonly miser Ebenezer Scrooge—a role that both actors were born to play. (Ditto for Patrick Stewart in one of many film versions. Stewart may be the best Scrooge ever to sully the silver screen.) Sharon Lockwood is delightfully astounding as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper. She also has a cameo as the energetic Mrs. Fezziwig, wife of young Scrooge’s first employer.

The cast is universally excellent—we’d expect nothing less from ACT—with Jomar Tagatac as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s oppressed clerk, B Noel Thomas as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Catherine Castellanos as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Brian Herndon shines as Fezziwig, and Dan Hiatt is a malevolent reminder of accumulated karma as the ghost of Scrooge’s departed partner Jacob Marley.

Dan Hiatt (L) and Anthony Fusco (R). Photo credit: Kevin Berne

There’s a gaggle of charming children, and enough Londoners to fill the wide stage of the Toni Rembe theater—all of them in plausibly authentic 19th century costumes by Beaver Bauer.

Music by Karl Lundeberg (directed by Daniel Feyer) is wonderfully dynamic, and Val Caniparoli’s choreography is dazzling. John Arnone’s set design has been scaled back from previous elaborate productions but is still effectively versatile and immersive.

Anthony Fusco (L) and Piera Tamer (r) in “A Christmas Carol” at ACT in The City. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Those who have seen multiple productions of ACT’s A Christmas Carol may be slightly disappointed that this year’s offering doesn’t reach the astronomical heights of last year’s, but it’s nonetheless an immensely satisfying show.

This show is pretty much a requirement for those in need of high-quality holiday cheer, which is to say, all of us. Tickets for the final few performances are disappearing fast. Grab them while you can!

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

 

ProductionA Christmas Carol
Written byCharles Dickens - adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Wals
Directed by
Choreographed by
Peter J. Kuo
Val Caniparoli
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Dec 24th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$15 – $167
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Lucky Penny Rocks The House With “Trailer Park Christmas Musical”

By Barry Willis

Welcome back to Armadillo Acres, North Florida’s premiere residential destination. Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions ushers in the holiday season with The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, through December 17.

Familiar characters return from last summer’s kitsch extravaganza: trailer park trash-ettes Pickles, Linoleum, and Bad Ass Betty (Kristin Pieschke, Shannon Rider, and Sara Lundstrom, respectively).

“The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical” cast are rockin’ it, y’all! Photo credit Kurt Gonsalves/KMG Design.

Two other cast members from that show return in new roles: Taylor Bartolucci as Darlene Seward, a Christmas-hating curmudgeon, and Skyler King as Rufus, the trailer park’s well-intentioned but goofy handyman, who’s annoyed Darlene by installing a community Christmas tree too close to her abode.

 … There’s a whole lot of trouble brewing in the trailer park as Christmas approaches …

We also get to enjoy some authentic redneck antics from Jackie Boudreaux (director Barry Martin), the cowboy-hatted owner of a pancake house called “Stax” pandering to lustful locals. The eatery employs Armadillo Acres girls as waitresses, who call it “IHOP meets Hooters.” They also delight in tormenting Darlene by pronouncing her family name as “C-word.”

The play’s director, Barry Martin as cowboy-hatted Jackie Boudreaux, at work. Photo credit Kurt Gonsalves/KMG Design.

Darlene is contentious with her trailer-mates from the beginning, but an electric shock prompts a twelve-day case of amnesia, during which time she forgets that she hates the holidays. And Linoleum has almost forgotten her husband Earl, a convicted killer executed by the state of Florida (he was on death row when we last checked in). She now wears dangling from her neck an amulet containing some of his ashes, but she’s clearly ready to move on.

There’s a whole lot of trouble brewing in the trailer park as Christmas approaches, most of it propelled by a hard-rocking band led by Debra Chambliss in an alcove above the stage. David Nehls’ infectious music spans rock and country genres—the cast are all superb singers—with many tunes echoing classic bad-taste musical comedies such as Little Shop of Horrors. Bartolucci’s tacky costumes are outrageous fun, as is the frenetic choreography by Alex Gomez.

Good times and great music in Napa! Photo credit Kurt Gonsalves/KMG Design.

No Christmas-theme production would be complete without references to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Betsy Kelso’s script doesn’t disappoint. Trailer Park includes ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future; an aggressive nay-sayer, and a mean-spirited capitalist oppressor (Boudreaux) who threatens to bulldoze the entire complex on Christmas Eve so he can build a megastore in its place.

      • Will disaster be averted?
      • Will Armadillo Acres survive?
      • Will its residents return to more-or-less peaceful coexistence?

The outcome won’t be revealed here! For that you’ll have to get one of the few remaining tickets. The December 17 closing performance of The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical is “100% sold out” according to Barry Martin, so hurry up and grab what’s left.

You’ll be glad you did.

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

 

ProductionThe Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical
Written byBetsy Kelso
Music & LyricsDavid Nehls
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru June 24th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$22-$45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR THEATER ~~ SAL’s “Nuncrackers” a Holiday Crack-Up

By Barry Willis

Merriment is always appropriate at holiday time. It doesn’t get any merrier than Nuncrackers – The Nunsense Christmas Musical at Sonoma Arts Live through December 17.

Welcome to the basement of the Mt. Saint Helen’s convent in Hoboken, New Jersey, where four nuns and one priest do their best to put on a Christmas-theme extravaganza for a local public-access TV channel. Among many iterations of Dan Goggins’ immensely popular “Nunsense” comedies—a franchise now nearly forty years old—this one takes many potshots at church traditions, most of them landing with resounding hilarity as five adults (and four charming students) dance, sing, and goof endlessly with each other and the audience.

 … a holiday crack-up …

Izaak Heath is a standout as Father Virgil, given the unenviable task of managing an outrageously amateurish church-basement production featuring Goggin’s recurring sisterhood—Sister Robert Anne (Dani Innocenti-Beem), Sister Mary Amnesia (Maeve Smith), Mother Superior (Libby Oberlin) and sister Hubert (Emma Sutherland). Propelled by onstage keyboardist/music director John Partridge, the quintet hams it up in plausibly authentic attire—if you overlook baseball caps worn sideways over habits and brightly-colored Converse high-tops under them, which make Lissa Ferreira’s outlandish choreography all the goofier.

The cast of “Nuncrackers” at Sonoma Arts Live. Photo credit Miller Oberlin.

Father Virgil displays infinite patience riding herd on his sisterly soul-mates, and even tackles a Julia Child-style holiday cooking show, complete with a few too many nips from the brandy bottle. With impeccable comic timing and complete lack of inhibition, the sisters run rampant over the modestly-scaled stage in Andrews Hall, making each scene a riot unto itself while paving the way for the next one. Imagine clever but sometimes hokey comedy sketches strung end-to-end over approximately two hours and you have some idea of the treats this show offers.

Directed by theater veteran Andrew Smith, it’s a delightfully well-paced rib-tickling production. Queen bee of North Bay musical comedy and a reliable fountain of throwaway improv, Innocenti-Beem is perfectly in her element as Sister Robert Anne, a role she’s taken on several times. Maeve Smith displays a previously unnoticed—at least, locally—penchant for comedy, giving Sister Amnesia a beguiling impishness. She also looks a bit like B52s chanteuse Kate Pierson in her prime, minus the giant beehive hairdo. Libby Oberlin brings faux-seriousness to the part of Mother Superior, while Emma Sutherland anchors the entire production.

The kids are alright in “Nuncrackers” at Sonoma Arts Live. Photo credit Miller Oberlin.

The show’s ultra-competent performers are more than aided by four sweetly innocent student actors—Vivian Haraszthy, Autumn Terradista, Raina Gibbs, and Fiona Smith, who happens to be the daughter of Andrew and Maeve. In their several appearances onstage—especially their spoof ballet—they manage to charm the socks off the audience. Who can say “no” to a gaggle of cute kids?

What can go awry will go awry: that’s an essential tenet of comedy, one that Sonoma Arts Live consistently brings to life on the Rotary Stage. Much more than a family act, Nuncrackers is a holiday crack-up and a great way to ease into a season of too much eggnog, too many glad tidings, and too many fruitcakes destined to become petrified artifacts of good intentions. Happy Holidays!

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

 

ProductionNuncrackers
Written byDan Goggin
Directed byAndrew Smith
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru Dec 17th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ MTC’s Amazing “Dragon Lady”

By Barry Willis

Sara Porkalob’s tribute to her grandmother is an exceptional theatrical adventure at Marin Theatre Company through December 17.

Part biography, part autobiography, part cabaret musical, and part comedy, Dragon Lady is a solo tour-de-force. Written and performed by Porkalob, with wonderful instrumental backing by three members of state of Washington-based band Hot Damn Scandal, the tale spans most of the life of Maria Senora Porkalob, the playwright/performer’s matrilineal predecessor and a first-generation Filipina immigrant.

 … Dragon Lady is … a superb evening spent in the theater! …

An astounding actor and voice talent, the hyperkenetic Porkabob recites the two-hour tale almost entirely in the first person, embodying characters as diverse as a Manila gangster, a heartless proprietress of a nightclub catering to hordes of drunken American sailors, her own mother (also named Maria), several children, and some residents of a trailer park where the Porkalob clan lived.

Sara Porkalob in “Dragon Lady”, written and performed by Sara Porkalob, at Marin Theatre Company in association with Center REP. Photo: MTC/Kevin Berne.

She achieves all of this with seemingly no effort, moving from one character to the next with only a shift in intonation and body posture. She also manages to occupy the entirety of MTC’s abundant stage, transformed by set designer Randy Wong-Westbrooke into an extravagance of bordello-like red velveteen. Brilliantly directed by Andrew Russell, it’s a dazzling magic show.

The first act provides all the background: grandmother Maria as a young woman doing janitorial work in a Manila nightclub, who gets boosted onto the stage after being heard singing at work. The cabaret aspect comes on strong as Porkalob sings a mashup of “Sway” and “A City Where it Never Rains.” She’s a wonderfully evocative singer, gliding easily from contralto to alto. She engages the audience at every turn, including a couple of comedic forays into the audience. The minimal three-piece band (Pete Irving, guitar and vocals; Mickey Stylin, bass; and Jimmy Austin, trombone) are the perfect complement.

Set for “Dragon Lady” at MTC.

The horrendous part of grandma Maria’s story: she witnessed the torture and murder of her own father at the hands of Manila gangsters, one of whom fathered her daughter in a forced mating. She later came to the States as the wife of a smitten US sailor. That relationship didn’t last long, but somehow she managed to keep her family afloat even when it required days or weeks away from home, leaving her namesake daughter to care for herself and five kids. Other than the mention of Maria Jr.’s biological father and grandma’s unfaithful bridegroom, there’s no explanation of the parentage of kids Sara, Charlie, Junior, AnneMarie, and infant Lilly. It’s as if they all popped out of the womb of their own accord. This reviewer thought this a huge omission in an otherwise compelling family story.

The second act is mostly a retelling of life in the trailer park, including a somewhat overly-long bit about siblings Charlie and Junior in pilfered Boy Scout uniforms, going door-to-door with a wagon, collecting food for “the needy.” Porkalob’s channeling of the kids and their “donors” is priceless. She closes the performance as strongly as she opens, with a brilliant mashup of “Love for Sale” and “Holding out for a Hero,” and ending with the most-appropriate “Trouble is a Family Trait.”

Jazz ensemble members of Hot Damn Scandal in “Dragon Lady” at MTC. Photo: MTC/Kevin Berne.

One-third of a trilogy about her immigrant family’s struggles, Dragon Lady is an inspiring, vastly entertaining survival yarn and a master class in solo storytelling. It’s a superb evening spent in the theater.

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

 

ProductionDragon Lady
Written BySara Porkalob
Directed byAndrew Russell
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec. 17, 2023
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$43-$70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “Geogia McBride” Amuses at CenterREP

By Barry Willis

Down on his luck, a scrappy Elvis impersonator reinvents himself as a drag queen at a Gulf Coast dive bar in The Legend of Georgia McBride, CenterREP’s November production.

A recurring Bay Area favorite, Georgia McBride pops up locally a couple times per year. The current production in Walnut Creek’s Margaret Lesher Theatre is as good as most such efforts, without reaching the uproarious heights of absurdity achieved by some.

 … “The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a good bet for a fun night out …

Set in Cleo’s, a sleazy joint in Panama City Beach, Florida, the show stars Joe Ayers as Casey, a good-natured part-time roofer by day and a not-so-successful Elvis impersonator by night. He’s just bounced the monthly rent check in favor of buying a new Las Vegas-style jumpsuit, an expenditure that dismays his wife Jo (Sundiata Ayinde), who can’t deal with a potential eviction on top of her newly discovered pregnancy.

Casey reassures her that he’s made a smart investment, one that will bring more customers into Cleo’s. It’s a pipe dream at best. As it sits, Casey isn’t earning enough at the bar to cover his 80-mile round-trip commute, and his high school pal Jason (Jed Parsario) — who’s also his landlord and sometimes employer — leans on him persistently to pay his bills. Furthermore, Cleo’s owner Eddie (Alan Coyne) has threatened to cancel his performances because they simply aren’t attracting paying customers.

Georgia (Joe Ayers), Tracy (J.A. Valentine), and Rexy (Jed Parsario) put on a show in Center Rep’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride”. Photo: Kevin Berne

Casey’s in a multi-pronged pinch, but to his rescue come two itinerant drag queens — Miss Tracy Mills (J.A. Valentine) and her bedraggled friend Rexy Nervosa (also Parsario). An equal opportunities employer for inebriants of all kinds, Rexy is too hammered to perform, but Tracy has enough practicality and good business sense to leverage an opportunity.

Against his will, and with Eddie’s grudging agreement, she converts Casey to “Georgia McBride.” Casey has an aw-shucks sort of embarrassment his first time onstage in a wig and dress, but slowly warms to the new role—especially when Cleo’s becomes the hottest nightspot on the beach. He’s then faced with hiding the new source of much-needed income from Jo, who harbors many doubts about what he’s doing, and when she discovers what it is, believes that he’s gone gay.

Eddie (Alan Coyne) and Tracy (J.A. Valentine) are disappointed as Rexy (Jed Parsario) stumbles in late and Casey (Joe Ayers) watches in Center Rep’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride,”
thru Nov 26th at Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek. Photo: Kevin Berne

Trading one set of problems for another is always a great comedic setup, and this Georgia McBride doesn’t disappoint. Performances are very good in the sumptuous Lesher Theatre—especially the confident Valentine, the subtle Ayinde, and the outrageous Coyne. Ayers has a sort of innocent schoolboy charm, while Valentine is a take-charge veteran. The only Equity actor in the cast, Parsario encompasses everything from a beer-swilling redneck to a completely plastered flat-on-her-face drag queen. Stagecraft is more than adequate but not dazzling.

Tracy (J.A. Valentine), Georgia (Joe Ayers), and Rexy (Jed Parsario) put on a show at Center Rep.
Photo: Kevin Berne

Interestingly, the music played in the many lip-synching scenes has been different in all the productions this reviewer has seen. Apparently, playwright Lopez didn’t instruct directors about that. Musical variations contribute much to keeping the show feeling fresh. On opening night, pacing and timing issues interfered with landing some of the humor, with which the script is deeply endowed. That’s an issue easily solved with a couple more performances. Sweet and endearing, The Legend of Georgia McBride is a good bet for a fun night out.

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

 

ProductionThe Legend of Georgia McBride
Written byMatthew Lopez
Directed byElizabeth Carter
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru Nov 26th
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$45-$70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

PICK! ASR Film ~~ “Stop Making Sense” Still Rules

By Barry Willis

Approximately forty years after its first release, Stop Making Sense is back, to near-universal acclaim. Jonathan Demme’s ultimate concert film chronicles art-rock band Talking Heads at the height of their frenetic creativity.

Pieced together from several performances at the same venue, the film famously opens with lead singer/band founder David Byrne solo on stage, accompanying himself on guitar with rhythm supplied by a boom box. Various band members appear one-by-one—bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, percussionist Steve Scales, guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison, guitarist Alex Weir, and singers/dancers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt.

Stop Making Sense is a must-see…

As they appear, black-clad stage hands carefully assemble the set. It’s one of many moments of cinematic brilliance—matched by the musical and performance brilliance of one of the quirkiest and most talented bands of the late 20th century.

The amazing Talking Heads in their “Must See” movie! — Barry Willis

Talking Heads were unlike any group before or since. In an era of poseurs and pretentions, they delivered powerful commentary on everything in contemporary life, drawing from sources as diverse as snake-handling Pentecostal religious practices, black gospel traditions, and ongoing social problems such as the worldwide fear of nuclear annihilation that permeated the Reagan-Thatcher-Gorbachev period. Talking Heads’ music was—and is—both celebratory and cautionary.

The film has been re-released several times since its debut, but the latest stands far above its predecessors. Newly remastered, its visual impact features superior color saturation, focus, and detail. Supervised by Talking Heads original member Jerry Harrison, the discrete 7.1-channel 24 Bit/48Khz Dolby Atmos soundtrack is crisp, punchy, and completely engaging without any of the annoying artifacts often inserted into remasterings by engineers eager to put their personal stamp on iconic recordings.

Director Jonathan Demme passed away in April, 2017. He did not live to see his magnum opus lovingly honored as it is in this new release, essential viewing for film fans and rock music aficionados alike.

Now playing at a cinema near you, Stop Making Sense is a must-see.

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

 

Production  —  Stop Making Sense

Developed by  —  Talking Heads/Jonathan Demme

Directed by  —  Jonathan Demme

Rating  —  4.75 of 5. PICK!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Berkeley Rep’s Astounding, Confounding “Bulrusher”

By Barry Willis

Magical realism, a small-town soap opera, and the need for identity all combine in Eisa Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-finalist Bulrusher, at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through Dec. 3. Davis also composed the show’s original music.

Directed by Nicole A. Watson, Jordan Tyson stars as the show’s eponymous “Bulrusher,” a mixed-race foundling so named because she was discovered as an infant floating in the bulrushes of the Navarro River near the Northern California town of Boonville. Raised by a single male schoolteacher named Schoolch (Jamie LaVerdiere), she’s been gifted with magical clairvoyant powers. Bulrusher can see images of the future through the medium of water.

…There’s enough material in Davis’ story to supply a year’s worth of Lifetime TV episodes…

Most of the tale plays out on an elaborate two-level set by Lawrence E. Moten III, elaborated by superb projections by Katherine Freer and lighting by Sherrice Mojgani. The central locale is a brothel operated by hard-to-the-core Madame (Shyla Lefner) and patronized by Schoolch and a local handyman named Logger (Jeorge Bennett Watson).

Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger), Shyla Lefner (Madame), Jamie LaVerdiere (Schoolch), and Rob Kellogg (Boy) in Eisa Davis’ lyrical coming-of-age story, “Bulrusher”, performing at Berkeley Rep October 27 – December 3, 2023. Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

Another frequent visitor is a guitar-playing young man called Boy (Rob Kellogg) who relentlessly pursues Bulrusher despite her aggressive disinterest. Out front of the stage is a small but convincingly realistic stream that serves as the river,  visited often by Bulrusher as a source of solace.

The playbill states the era as 1955—those who haven’t read it would more likely have pegged the time as twenty years earlier. The residents sometimes default to a local dialect called “Boontling,” developed in the 1880s and now almost extinct. It sounds like English but doesn’t register with non-speakers: “harping the ling” means “speaking the language” in Boontling. The only clue to the timeframe is an offhand comment by Boy to Logger that he “missed the Korean draft.” Otherwise we wouldn’t know.

Cyndii Johnson (Vera), Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger), and Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher) at work in “Bulrusher”. Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

The home-schooled Bulrusher earns a decent living buying and selling fruit. One rainy night she encounters a lone woman on the road, gives her a ride, and a place to stay. The woman is Vera (Cyndii Johnson), broke and far from her home in Birmingham, Alabama. On orders from her mother, she’s on her way to visit her uncle Logger. Vera is the first black woman Bulrusher has ever encountered, and the two become fast friends. The development of their friendship is among the play’s many endearing subplots. Another less endearing is Madame’s constant threat to sell her property and move away. A third that continually runs in the background is the mysterious identity of Bulrusher’s parents.

Rob Kellogg (Boy) and Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher) in Eisa Davis’ “Bulrusher”, at Berkeley Rep Oct 27 – Dec 3, 2023. Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

It’s a complicated task for the show’s all-Equity cast, but they rise to the challenge most compellingly. Tyson is especially astounding, with several long monologs that are gorgeous sustained poems. Her interactions with Johnson, LaVerdierre, and Watson are all tremendous. Her closing confrontation with Lefner as Madame unveils the unspoken secret propelling the whole story.

There’s enough material in Davis’ story to supply a year’s worth of Lifetime TV episodes. At nearly three hours, the script at times feels over-long and in need of an edit, but who would know where to start on a project of that scale? Even so, it’s a tremendous night at the theater—a heartfelt celebration of one spunky girl who finds home at last.

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

 

ProductionBushrunner
Written by Eisa Davis
Directed by Nicole A. Watson
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru Dec 3rd
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Tickets$22.50-$134
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.0/5
Stagecraft4.0/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Poignant, Powerful “Without You” at the Curran

By Barry Willis

Love, loss, and acceptance all figure into Anthony Rapp’s solo musical Without You at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre.

Rapp’s show encompasses his first professional audition—a performance of REM’s “Losing My Religion,” reprised as the opener in this moving retrospective. The audition landed him a role in the off-Broadway debut of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, the AIDS-era reworking of Puccinni’s La Boheme, and in the larger long-running production.

Without You is a wonderful show…

Larson died of an aneurism the night before his show opened. Rapp works that tragedy into his narrative and song selections, plus his loving relationship with his mother, who slowly came around to accepting his gay identity. His relationships with other members of his family are also depicted with fondness.

There’s no bitterness or rancor in anything he conveys. Backed by a superb onstage band, Rapp proves to be a compelling raconteur and singer. His penultimate song is a howl of anguish, but his closing number is one of universal love.

At 95 minutes—with no intermission—Without You is a wonderful show with an inexplicably short four-day run, closing Sunday October 22. Opening night was a near sellout—ticket buyers should jump on the remaining opportunity.

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

 

ProductionWithout You
Written byAnthony Rapp
Directed bySteven Maler
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Oct 28th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$49-$160
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Horrific and Hilarious “Ideation” at Left Edge Theatre

By Barry Willis

Competing doomsday scenarios form the basis of Aaron Loeb’s incisive and hilarious Ideation, at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through October 28.

One part Dr. Strangelove and one part No Exit, the tale features a group of high-level consultants struggling to work up proposals to dispose of millions of people while arousing as little attention as possible. Three of them—Brock (Mike Pavone), Ted (Justin Thompson), and Dr. Min Le (Phi Tran) arrive at company headquarters, jet-lagged from a month-long scam in Crete.

… they realize that they have stepped into some extremely deep doo-doo from which there may be no escape…

They meet their supervisor Hannah (Gina Alvarado) in a conference room, where they learn that they have exactly ninety minutes to produce a plan for their CEO, a disembodied voice called J.D. Annoyed by the presence of a young intern named “Scooter” (Lauren DePass), they’re slow to get to work until the interloper leaves the room.

Phi Tran (Min), Gina Alvarado (Hannah), and Mike Pavone (Brock) in “Ideation.”

Adroitly directed by David L. Yen, the tale is slow to launch for the same reason: the Scooter distraction wastes a good ten minutes until the core group feels comfortable enough to start “ideating”—generating concepts that may or may not work in a world theoretically threatened with a virus that could wipe out the entire human species.

Choking back their fundamental revulsion, the consultants come up with concepts such as “liquidation centers,” “disposal sites,” “self-service mass graves,” “acid pits that can melt bone,” and problems dispersing large quantities of “biosludge” once the victims are dead.

Phi Tran (Min) and Gina Alvarado (Hannah) in “Ideation” by Aaron Loeb

They willingly accept the conceptual challenge as a more-or-less academic exercise, assigning the nuts-and-bolts design to Dr. Le, owner of both a Harvard MBA and an engineering degree from Georgia Tech. A subplot involves an office romance between him and Hannah that could scuttle her comfortable upper-middleclass life, but the bulk of the comedy is the escalation of absurdly horrific proposals and rising personal tensions as deadline approaches. Ted and Brock even engage in a quite realistic shoving match as their frustrations build.

Justin Thompson (Ted), and Mike Pavone (Brock) at work.

It’s all quite funny until the consultants figure out that they themselves may be disposable, or that they are competing against other groups, all of whom may be at risk for extermination. At that point they realize that they have stepped into some extremely deep doo-doo from which there may be no escape. From a slow launch, the play rises like fireworks exploding on the Fourth of July.

Written pre-pandemic in 2013, Ideation was originally produced at SF Playhouse to rave reviews. That show’s cast went to New York with it, where it ran for a month. Among the best contemporary comedies, it’s a prescient piece of theater.

The current show at the cavernous California benefits from new raked seating near the stage, but is marred by an adjacent music club whose thumping bass and drums force the actors to shout over the noise. For that reason, ticket-buyers are encouraged to attend a Saturday matinee. Left Edge is producing the show on Thursday and Friday evenings at 7:30 and on Saturdays at 1 p.m.—no Saturday evening or Sunday performances.

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

 

ProductionIdeation
Written byAaron Loeb
Directed by David L. Yen
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre Co.
Production DatesThrough October 28th
Production AddressThe California
528 7th Street
Santa Rosa CA 95401
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 664-7529
Tickets$20-$29
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.75/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ProductionPOTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive
Written by
Selina Fillinger
Directed byAnnie Tippe
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough Oct 22nd
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$37 - $134
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5.0
Performance4.5/5.0
Script4.5/5.0
Stagecraft4.5/5.0
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

..an exhilarating, uplifting celebration of life …

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s bedrock stuff.

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

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

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

 

ProductionCrowns
Written byRegina Taylor
Directed byDelicia Turner Sonnenberg
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru Oct 6th
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$45-$70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR Theater ~~ TTC Enchants at Beltane Ranch

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clustered openings make this difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

…an incredibly clever and charming production…

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

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

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

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

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

 

ProductionMy (Unauthorized) Hallmark Movie Musical
Written byEloise Coopersmith

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

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

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ “A Chorus Line” Shines at SF Playhouse

By George Maguire and Barry Willis

Early each summer, San Franciso Playhouse launches a classic musical that runs well into September—a genius strategy leveraging Union Square tourist traffic. This year’s offering is a brilliant production of A Chorus Line, directed by Bill English and choreographed by Nicole Helfer.

Background: In 1975, word on the street in New York City was “get to the Public Theatre and see the workshop of a new musical called A Chorus Line!” The show opened to standing-room-only on April 14, closed on July 13, and opened 12 days later on Broadway at the Shubert Theater, becoming (until Cats) the longest-running musical in Broadway history. It’s hard to imagine that A Chorus Line appeared the same year as Fosse’s Chicago and Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures. A Chorus Line swept the Tony Awards, leaving Chicago empty-handed until the revival put together by Ann Reinking.

Dancers pin their hopes on winning a role in “A Chorus Line,” presented by San Francisco Playhouse June 22 – September 9th.

Based on Michael Bennett’s conversations with Broadway dancers, the story centers on their careers, hopes, dreams, frustrations, and possible longevity during a wildly vacillating time for Broadway musicals. At these initial meetings, Bennet knew he had something remarkable to tell. The team of writers Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood, lyricist Ed Kleban, composer Marvin Hamlisch, and co-choreographer Bob Avian yielded one of the most revolutionary musicals of all time, a conceptual breakthrough when it first appeared.

Dancers strut their stuff in SF Playhouse’s “A Chorus Line,” performing June 22 – September 9th in The City.

A Chorus Line conveys multiple stories about a corps of dancers seeking spots in a touring production. A couple of them are so young that they have yet to land their first serious gigs. At the other end of the spectrum are veterans feeling the inevitable pressures of age. In between are those with personal issues that could affect their careers — the responsibilities of parenthood, for example, or long-running guilt over being gay (this was the early ‘70s), or a drug habit, or a tone-deaf singing voice. Anything that might derail the touring production for which they are auditioning is cause for anxiety for them and the show’s director. There are ongoing and sometimes overly broad hints about fleeting friendships and petty jealousies among the dancers.

. . . A Chorus Line is every actor’s story, whether professional or community theater. “I Hope I Get It” . . .

Overseeing them all is a stern but not unsympathetic taskmaster named Zach (Keith Pinto), choreographer of the show-to-be. Zach talks to them in turn as he puts them through their paces, sometimes barking like a Marine Corps drill instructor and at other times almost whispering like a trusted friend.

Zach (center – Keith Pinto) instructs dancers auditioning in San Francisco Playhouse’s “A Chorus Line”.

Zach came up through the ranks and understands their plight, but he also has a high-pressure job to do. Pinto manages this conflict like a high-wire artist, in a riveting performance.

GM: Wasn’t it great to see the SF Playhouse stage filled with some of the finest musical theater talent in SF?

BW: Absolutely. We are lucky to live in such a talent-rich part of the world—talent across all the arts, not merely theater. This production features some of the Bay Area’s best.

GM: Bill English’s direction really highlights the uniqueness in each role as their stories unfold, and Nicole Helfer’s choreography hits a balance of distinction for each. Her ensemble numbers are remarkable.

BW: Nicole is a wonderful choreographer and an excellent director. She filled both duties exceptionally well with her fine production of She Loves Me at RVP recently. This Chorus Line is the first time I can recall seeing her onstage.

I thought she brought a superb blend of self-doubt, vulnerability, determination, and mastery of the craft to the role of Cassie, the show-to-be’s potential lead dancer, Zach’s former girlfriend, and an almost-over-the-hill veteran who hopes to land just one more glorious role before resigning herself to the post-career Siberia of teaching. Nicole’s solo “The Music and the Mirror” is marvelous.

GM: I loved the surprises of newer emerging talents like Chachi Delgado’s as Richie in “Gimme The Ball” and Tony Conaty as Mike in “I Can Do That.”

BW: They’re both great performers. Conaty is amazingly dynamic, but Delgado is in a league of his own in this production—the epitome of innate athleticism, effortless grace, and deep confidence.

GM: Great to see the husband and wife team of Keith Pinto and Alison Ewing perform so well as Zach and Sheila.

BW: Absolutely. Their real-world relationship in some ways reflects a couple of the show’s secondary themes.

GM: Chorus Line never needs a set as such—the tall mirrors at the back of the stage evoke the 52nd & Broadway dance studio where the original actually took place. Michael Oesch’s lighting design brought us focus, and his finale lights are stunning!

BW: Michael made incalculable contributions to the success of this production. During the post-show meet-and-greet he mentioned having basically lived at the Playhouse for the last two weeks before opening.

GM: A Chorus Line delves into the personal and professional torment that is the life of all artists. 1975 was my time in NYC, Barry. I stopped auditioning for Broadway choruses when I was at the very end of the final ten for Shenandoah. Choreographer Bob Tucker asked me (like Zach does) in front of everyone “Why aren’t you taking dance classes?”

I had not taken dance classes to sharpen my skills. I mumbled some lame excuse, walked out with my head down—crying on Broadway!—then said to myself, “Well, maybe I can do Shakespeare!” The rest, dear hearts, is history.

A Chorus Line is among the greatest productions ever about the lives of desperate artists, willing to make almost any sacrifice for their moment under the bright lights. It’s simultaneously personal, painful, and exhilarating—and Dave Dobrusky’s backstage band is terrific! This SF Playhouse production is a must-see event.

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

 

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

 

ProductionA Chorus Line
Written byJames Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante/music by Marvin Hamlisch/lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru Sept 9th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5.0/5
Stagecraft4.0/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Over the Rainbow: “Wizard of Oz” Rocks at ACT

By Barry Willis

The Emerald City meets Beach Blanket Babylon in ACT’s gloriously goofy The Wizard of Oz, running through June 25.

The wild production adheres closely to the beloved original, including story and songs, but it’s as far removed from a 1940s Saturday afternoon movie matinee as you can imagine—a hilariously gender-bending extravaganza just perfect for Pride Month in San Francisco.

…ACT’s Wizard of Oz is an amazing and marvelous spectacle…

With her brilliantly-conceived puppet dog Toto never far away, Chanel Tilghman stars as the lonely, spunky Dorothy, swept away by a tornado from her prairie home to the magical Land of Oz. Gifted with an innocent look, a relaxed stage presence, and a lovely singing voice, Tilghman delights as the naïve but adventurous Kansas schoolgirl.

Cathleen Riddley (Zeke) and Chanel Tilghman (Dorothy) in “The Wizard of Oz”, at ACT in The City. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

Also wonderful are the three friends she meets on her way to visit the Great Oz: the Straw Man, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion (loose-limbed Danny Scheie, self-contained Darryl V. Jones, and pugnacious Cathleen Ridley, respectively.)

Add to this list of huge talents Ada Westfall as the pontificating Professor Marvel/Wizard, Courtney Walsh as the Wicked Witch of the West and Katrina Lauren McGraw as Glinda the Good. Walsh oozes evil from several spots in the theater, much to the delight of the audience, and McGraw absolutely shines as Glinda. Ebullient and comical, McGraw was outstanding as Maria in last year’s production of The Sound of Music at Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre. Not to be overlooked are the supremely talented cello-playing El Beh in multiple roles, and Travis Santell Rowland as a glittery whirling dervish wreaking havoc in both Kansas and Oz.

(Top) Katrina Lauren McGraw (Glinda), (Bottom) Chanel Tilghman (Dorothy), and (Background) Beth Wilmurt in “The Wizard of Oz”, now through Sunday, June 25, 2023. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

This Wizard benefits greatly from solid direction and inventive choreography by Sam Pinkleton, but what takes it into the stratosphere of comedy and campy nostalgia are costumes and set design by David Zinn. The set is a psychedelic riot of every imaginable tacky thing, as if the entire contents of a Party City store were expanded to gigantic proportions and scattered at random across the stage. The closing scene is a bit baffling, wherein all the characters appear on stage dressed as Dorothy in prairie garb but it doesn’t detract from the show’s joyous impact.

ACT’s Wizard of Oz is an amazing and marvelous spectacle, very much in keeping with San Francisco’s long tradition of outrageous theatricality—The Cockettes, The Thrillpeddlers, The Tubes, and as mentioned, Beach Blanket Babylon. It’s also a production that would probably be illegal in Florida, Texas, and other less-enlightened parts of the world. Be glad we live where we do.

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

 

ProductionWizard of Oz
Written byL. Frank Baum

Music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg
Directed bySam Pinkleton
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThru June 25th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 – $110
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ CenterREP’s High-energy “In the Heights”

By Barry Willis

Before there was Hamilton, there was In the Heights, the first hugely successful musical with lyrics and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, with book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. The song-and-dance extravaganza runs at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts through June 24.

Essentially a celebration of life in the barrio of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, the simple drama centers around Nina Rosario (Cristina Hernandez ) a young woman who’s returned to the neighborhood after her first year at Stanford University, an experience not entirely to her liking.

Nina (Cristina Hernandez) reflects on her struggles to make her dreams come true in Center Repertory Company’s “In the Heights,” performing May 27 – June 24 at Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Her family runs Rosario’s taxi and car service, the neighborhood’s largest employer; her would-be boyfriend Benny (Dave J. Abrams) hopes to become both the company’s chief dispatcher and perhaps, a member of the Rosario family, a doubtful possibility in the eyes of her parents Camila and Kevin (Natalie Amaya and Noel Anthony, respectively). The Rosarios also wrestle with the implications of selling the business to fund more Stanford for Nina, an eventuality that could disrupt the social structure of the neighborhood.

…a dazzling spectacle and a really satisfying performance…

The show’s large cast makes great use of the Margaret Lesher Theatre’s wide stage, dressed to the two-level max by scenic designer Leah Ramillano with very effective aid by lighting designer Wen-Ling Liao.

The residents of Washington Heights hit the club in Center Repertory Company’s “In the Heights,” performing May 27 – June 24 at Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Choreographer Sara Templeton puts her dancers through one exhaustive exercise after another, propelled by a tremendous backstage band led by Nicolas Perez. The band’s unnamed drummer works his tail off throughout the show with an unbelievably dynamic performance that sustains both performers and audience alike.

The first act is especially bombastic. And there’s the rub. Miranda throws in some rap, and some Spanish rap, but in keeping with the popular trend in musical theater, his songs lack melody. Most of the cast shouts at the audience, and many lyrics are somewhat masked by the band and/or sound effects. Spoken dialog is all clear and convincingly delivered, including several scenes that comically exploit differences in regional and national dialects among native speakers of Spanish.

Usnavi (Míchel Alejandro Castillo), Benny (Dave Abrams), and the citizens of Washington Heights dance in the streets in Center Repertory Company’s “In the Heights,” performing May 27 – June 24 at Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

The show is rampant with talent—not only the leads but many of the minor characters too. Alex Alvarez is superb and hilarious as “Piragua Guy,” who pushes his icy-drink cart all over the neighborhood. Michelle Navarrete is especially charming as Abuela Claudia, the barrio’s all-purpose grandmother and source of reassurance.

After its success on Broadway, In the Heights went into syndication among regional theater troupes. The sumptuous Lesher Center and CenterREP’s aspirational production are as close as you’re likely to come to the original. It’s a dazzling spectacle and a really satisfying performance.

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

 

ProductionInto the Heights
Written byQuiara Alegria Hudes

Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by
Nicholas C. Avila
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru June 24th
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$45-$70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Trashy Treasure: Lucky Penny’s “The Great American Trailer Park Musical”

By Barry Willis

The vast underbelly of American culture gets hilariously gutted in The Great American Trailer Park Musical at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through June 24.

Welcome to Armadillo Acres, a mobile home community in the town of Starke, Florida, a place where cheap beer, flimsy housing, and low-budget/low IQ entertainment combine in a toxic froth, where all things inconceivably tacky are a way of life.

…another Lucky Penny winner that could easily play to sold-out houses all summer long…

Lucky Penny’s10th anniversary of a production first staged in 2012 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse, this Trailer Park features five original cast members. Comic genius Daniela Innocenti-Beem shines as “Bad Ass Betty,” mother hen to a brood of spunky but unlucky residents, including the agoraphobic Jeannie (Julianne Bradbury) who struggles mightily to step outside her door; Jeannie’s toll-taker husband Norbert (Mark Bradbury, an astounding theatrical chameleon); Pickles (Kirstin Pieschke), suffering from “hysterical pregnancy;” and the lusty Linoleum (Shannon Rider), whose husband is on death row in a Florida penitentiary.

His ultimate fate hasn’t diminished her enthusiasm for life’s fundamental pleasures—she coos with delight when retrieving her latest copy of “North Florida Prison Wife Digest” with a feature story about spicing up conjugal visits.

“The Great American Trailer Park” Musical ensemble at work.

Into their midst comes a fetching stripper named Pippi (Taylor Bartolucci) who immediately arouses the attention of Norbert—and the suspicions of female neighbors. Later we meet the gun-waving, Magic Marker-sniffing redneck Duke (Skyler King), Pippi’s volatile estranged husband who’s tracked her down with the intention of reclaiming what he thinks is his. A marvelous plot twist involving Jeannie and Norbert won’t be revealed here!

Backed by Justin Pyle’s hard-driving four-piece band high above stage right, the show is a wild celebration of life on the other side of the tracks—the subject of the first song-and-dance production. Composer David Nehls’ songs are upbeat, engaging, and unlike in many contemporary musicals, have actual melodies that propel really clever lyrics right into the hearts of a very receptive audience. Most songs—not all—are delivered by the trio of Betty, Linoleum, and Pickles in a pastiche that recalls the doo-wop girls of Little Shop of Horrors. Staci Arriaga’s intentionally goofy choreography is the perfect reinforcement.

Act One closes with Jeannie’s dream sequence—a spoof of Jerry Springer-type televised fare to which she’s addicted. Innocenti-Beem is ideal as the host of the show-within-a-show. The song “The Great American TV Show” manages in short order to skewer everything not otherwise included in the all-encompassing script by Betsy Kelso.

Act Two opens with “Flushed Down the Pipes,” a fatalistic anthem that segues into “Storm’s A-Brewin’ “—an acknowledgement of Florida reality, where there’s a massive electrical storm nearly every afternoon. True fact (a Midwestern phrase also spoken in Florida): the state has the nation’s highest rate of lightning deaths, most of which take place on golf courses—proof that residents of America’s dangling appendage are too dim to come in out of the rain…

(L-to-R) Innocenti-Beem, Pieschke, Rider, J. Bradbury at work at Lucky Penny Productions.

Director/set designer Barry Martin has concocted both a perfectly wince-inducing neighborhood and a lively bunch of twisted residents to fill it, with antics that will have you laughing for days. Martin confessed post-show that having grown up in the Ozarks, he’s on especially intimate terms with the show’s characters.

For those who can’t get enough home-grown lowbrow culture, some of the show’s essential themes also figure into The Legend of Georgia McBride and the regrettably too-short TBS series Claws.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical is scheduled for a Christmas season revival this year, and tickets are disappearing quickly. They’re also selling briskly for the current production—we can only hope that it enjoys an extended run. It’s another Lucky Penny winner that could easily play to sold-out houses all summer long.

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

 

ProductionThe Great American Trailer Park Musical
Written byBetsy Kelso
Music & LyricsDavid Nehls
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru June 24th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$33-$43
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Dinner With Friends” a Stunner at SAL

By Barry Willis

Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends is a must-see for fans of serious theater. The four-actor drama at Sonoma Arts Live runs through June 18.

An examination of the nature and limits of friendship, trust, love, and commitment, the play opens on a dinner party with three friends—married couple Karen and Gabe (Illana Niernberger and John Browning, respectively) and Beth (Katie Kelley), who tearfully and quite unexpectedly confesses an impending divorce from her lawyer husband Tom (Jimmy Gagarin), Gabe’s best friend since college.

… proof of the extremely high quality of theater in the North Bay…

Act One is told in real time—the two couples are in their late 30s, with two kids each, who are away in another part of the house watching a movie. We hear the kids in the distance but never meet them. The four adults have a long history together, including weekends and summer vacations spent together.

Act Two opens with a flashback to post-college days, at a summer vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard, where Beth meets Tom, in a reasonably short scene that establishes the background, followed by some fast-forward scenes that take us beyond the divorce, to Beth’s new relationship with a man named David, and Tom’s new relationship with a travel agent named Nancy. Like the children, David and Nancy never appear other than by mention. The total time scale of Dinner with Friends may encompass 25 years or more, a long period in the history of four close friends.

This performance by some of the North Bay’s top talents is a tour-de-force of dramatic acting. Pacing under the astute direction of Carl Jordan couldn’t be better. Katie Kelley is especially astounding, with a vulnerability and emotional range that may shock some viewers. She hasn’t cut loose this passionately since her appearance as the reticent Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie at 6th Street Playhouse, directed by Craig Miller some years ago. Niernberger’s character doesn’t have such volatile emotions, but provides a perfect anchor as the more grounded of the two friends.

Marguiles knows his characters intimately, depicting them with equal parts social charm and pretentiousness. They’re all seriously effusive foodies and oenophiles who can’t stop gushing about what they’ve cooked, eaten, and drunk—Gabe works as a food writer—and they all share a propensity for over-analyzing everything they discuss.

Marguiles has drawn his characters expertly: basically, as overly-educated specimens of the pampered class, not entirely likeable but not so self-involved as to be totally annoying. Years ago they might have been derisively called “yuppies.”Kate Leland’s costumes couldn’t be more appropriate.

Director Jordan manages to maintain a somewhat unsteady equilibrium throughout the production. It’s an exquisite balancing act. He and fellow designer Gary Gonser have worked up a most compelling set, using the high stage at Rotary Hall as the home of Karen and Gabe, and as the Martha’s Vineyard site, while below it, at floor level, is a bed that’s the scene of a confrontation between Beth and Tom whose volatility becomes an exercise in rage-induced lovemaking. This very realistic depiction happens within arms’ length of the audience in the front row.

There are some echoes of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Marguiles’ script–the four characters are enormously self-involved and they drink continuously throughout the drama, although unlike in Virginia Woolf?, not to the point of incoherency or vomiting.

The second act includes two lengthy heart-to-heart conversations, one between Karen and Beth, followed immediately by a mirroring conversation between Tom and Gabe. Both of these scenes go on far longer than needed, and might work better as point/counterpoint than the way the author intended, but that’s a minor quibble.

Dinner with Friends is an important production. It’s a superbly well-crafted drama, and glorious proof of the extremely high quality of theater in the North Bay–actors, directors, and technical talents included. With this production, as with The Drowsy Chaperone, Sonoma Art Live has established itself as one of the Bay Area’s premier theater companies.

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

 

ProductionDinner With Friends
Written byDonald Margulies
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesJune 2-18, 2023
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Lucky Penny’s Lovely “Silent Sky”

By Barry Willis

Imagine toiling away for years squinting at black-and-white photographic plates of the night sky and trying to track changes that might provide clues to the nature of the universe. That’s what pioneering mathematician/astronomer Henrietta Leavitt did at Harvard University Observatory for approximately twenty years until she was finally allowed to look through the telescope.

Her obsession with astronomy led to a major breakthrough in human understanding of the universe, lovingly depicted in Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky at Lucky Penny Productions through May 7.

… a lovely heart-warming production…

Taking place primarily at Harvard University Observatory in the early 1900s, the story portrays Henrietta Leavitt’s success in astronomy through sheer enthusiasm and determination, despite having hearing impairment, assorted medical issues, family strife, and at least one romantic disaster. She faced opposition by the scientific establishment of the era — men who refused to accept that a young woman hired to analyze photographic plates of the night sky could be so insightful.

While this may sound like a polemical piece with appeal only to ardent feminists or students of the history of science, it’s actually a fantastically compelling story based very much on real people and real events, with appeal to a broad audience.

Gunderson wrote Silent Sky on commission for Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory company. It debuted at the 2011 Pacific Playwrights Festival and has been performed often since. Lucky Penny’s production is among the best of several that this critic has seen.

Heather Buck at work.

Heather Buck brings an engaging blend of insistence and vulnerability to the character of Henrietta, only the third woman to be hired by the Harvard Observatory to do computational tasks. Even though she insisted from the beginning that her profession was “astronomer,” Leavitt labored for many years until she was permitted to look through the observatory’s telescope, after her contributions to the field had become incontrovertible.

Wearing a bulky all-acoustic hearing aid, Buck delivers Henrietta’s lines emphatically in keeping with her character’s hearing impairment. It’s a nicely consistent bit of verisimilitude, unlike Gunderson’s use of contemporary idioms, which may lend the drama immediacy for modern audiences but sound badly inauthentic to those with an ear for such things. For example, early in the play, Henrietta’s research associate Annie Cannon instructs Henrietta to “input data” into a paper log book. Later, trying to explain to her sister Margaret (Andrea Dennison-Laufer) her relationship with her supervisor Peter Shaw (Dennis O’Brien), Henrietta says “It’s complicated.” Both of these phrases, and some others scattered throughout the script, are recent and not something that anyone would have said one hundred years ago.

Williamina Fleming and Annie Cannon in “Silent Sky” as depicted by Titian Lish and LC Arisman respectively.

Henrietta’s feisty, opinionated colleagues and mentors Williamina Fleming and Annie Cannon are brought to roaring life by Titian Lish and LC Arisman, respectively. A secondary but important plot has Annie campaigning for women’s right to vote. Late in the show she shocks her colleagues not only by sporting her suffragette sash, but by actually wearing pants.

Dennison-Laufer brings an understated complexity to the role of Margaret Leavitt, Henrietta’s long-suffering and somewhat manipulative sister who’s been left to care for their ailing preacher father back in Wisconsin. Dennis O’Brien, known for outrageous antics in other shows, is fantastically subtle as Shaw, a research administrator who vacillates between disdainful distance and emotional neediness in his relationship with Henrietta. The budding but blunted love affair between the two awkward scientists is enacted with elegant sensitivity.

Dennis O’Brien as Shaw dancing with Heather Buck in “Silent Sky”.

Barry Martin’s simple evocative set creates ample impressions of the interior of the observatory, a Wisconsin farmhouse, a ship at sea and other locations, with minimal prop changes. The backdrop of the night sky is especially effective. Barbara McFadden’s costumes are period-appropriate and somewhat frumpy, as might be expected of academics toiling away a century ago.

Some information about the play describes it as being about “the first female astronomers.” It’s clearly about the first female American astronomers, but certainly not the absolute first. Curious stargazers may wish to check out the 2009 film Agora, starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria, the Egyptian philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who discovered elliptical orbits 2,000 years before Johannes Kepler.

Adroitly directed by Dyan McBride, Lucky Penny’s Silent Sky is a lovely heart-warming production. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never regard the stars the same way again.

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

 

ProductionSilent Sky
Written byLauren Gunderson
Directed byDyan McBride
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru May 7th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$26-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Other Voices…

"Overall, "Silent Sky" is a fast-moving two hours of theater that anyone who loves astronomy or the history of science will enjoy."
"Physics Today" website
"...Lauren Gunderson’s touching, poignant “Silent Sky”...is deeply affecting, important and relevant for many reasons..."
Our Quad Cities
"...Although "Silent Sky" deals with matters of science and math, which may sound off-putting to some, it’s nevertheless instantly accessible..."
Sarasota Magazine
"...In Lauren Gunderson's "Silent Sky," Leavitt's story unfolds with a beauty and complexity worthy of the skies she mapped..."
Chicago Sun Times -- (they rated the play "Highly Recommended.")

ASR Theater ~~ “Tiger Style” Delights at Cinnabar

By Barry Willis

High-achieving siblings confront their parents and embark on an ill-fated adventure to connect with their Chinese heritage in Mike Lew’s Tiger Style. The comedy runs at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theatre through April 23.

Bryon Guo stars as computer expert Albert Chen; Carissa Ratanaphany appears opposite him as Albert’s sister Jennifer, an oncologist who plowed through Harvard University’s undergrad program in only three years. Having been driven hard by their parents their entire lives–including relentless practice on the cello for him and the piano for her–the pair hatch a plan to air their grievances at a family dinner with mom and dad (Regielen Padua, and Thomas Nguyen, respectively). Their parents are also high achievers–the father’s an engineer and the mother, a faculty member at UCLA.

…The performers in this show are tremendous, and tremendously funny…

Albert does the work of three or four programmers at his tech job, while getting scant credit for it. Jennifer is on staff at a major hospital but her personal life is a mess. She lives with a perpetually broke slacker boyfriend named Reggie (Kyle Goldman) whose sole interest seems to be installing car stereo systems. Goldman also appears as “Rus the Bus,” Albert’s goofy office colleague who gets promoted over Albert on the basis of his assertive personality alone. He also appears late in the production as an obnoxiously overbearing US Customs agent.

The siblings plan to confront mom and dad over their oppressive childhood doesn’t go well, and is the main thrust of the comedy’s first act, in which they also realize how detached they are from their Chinese roots.

Carissa Ratanaphanyarat (left), Thomas Nguyen (center), Byron Guo (right) in “Tiger Style”.

To correct this, they decide to abandon their lives in America and journey to mainland China, where their only contact is their somewhat remote relative “Cousin Chen” (also Padua), who does her best to guide them in the strange, overcrowded country. A series of mishaps gets them arrested and thrown into an interrogation center overseen by the malevolent Gen. Tso (also Nguyen). They don’t speak a word of Chinese but somehow are seen as spies or foreign agents. All of this transpires on a simple set by Jeffrey Cook that’s little more than flat panels that slide back and forth into place, enabling rapid set changes.

Thomas Nguyen (left), Regielyn Padua (right) at Cinnabar Theater.

Will Albert and Jennifer be able to escape? Will they ever return to America? The performers in this show are tremendous, and tremendously funny. Well-directed by M. Graham Smith, Tiger Style deftly manages to compress immigrants’ history, the Asian work ethic, childhood deprivations, personal aspirations, private misgivings, and cultural misunderstandings into a quick-moving comedy of errors.

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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

 

 

ProductionTiger Style
Written byMike Lew
Directed byM. Graham Smith
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Apr 23rd
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$30 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

ASR Theater ~~ Funny, Poignant “English” at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

A 2008 Iranian class in English as a foreign language is the setting for a comedic examination of individual and cultural identity, at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, through May 7.

In the West Coast premiere of Sanaz Toossi’s English, four adult students of varying ages try the patience of teacher Marjan (Sahar Bibiyan) as they attempt to reach some degree of conversational competence and hope to sort out personal problems in the process.

…a delightful, emotionally engaging production…

The youngest one, Goli (Christine Mirzayan), never states her reasons for wanting to pass the national test for competence in English, but she has a jolly time working toward it. Elham (Mehry Eslaminia) hopes to go to medical school in Australia. Omid (Amir Malaklou), the sole male in the class, proves to be far more adept than he initially appears to be, for reasons that won’t be revealed here. Roya (Sarah Nina Hayon) the oldest of the bunch, is tackling the language so she can speak with her Canadian granddaughter.

Mehry Eslaminia (Elham) and Christine Mirzayan (Goli) in the West Coast premiere of Sanaz Toossi’s “English”, performing now through May 7, 2023 at Berkeley Rep. Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

Language barriers are among the richest tropes in comedy, and director Mina Morita mines many of them, from inept halting grammar and limited vocabularies to beginners’ blunders. Despite their teacher’s insistence that they speak only English in class, reinforced by a huge “ENGLISH ONLY” statement on the classroom’s dry-erasable board, in frustration they resort to their native Farsi, translated into perfectly articulate English. Thickly accented pidgin English conveys what they are trying to say in the new language. This bit of stagecraft may confuse some viewers.

The performance is lovely, if a bit slow in places. The cast is convincing throughout and laugh-out-loud funny at moments that segue into real angst. Like many current comedies, English transitions from hilarity to poignancy, such as in a scene late in the play when Omid and Marjan share a connection that won’t go anywhere beyond the classroom, but it’s one felt by the entire audience. Roya’s character arc is left dangling—a pity, because we would like to learn more about her. That’s also true to a certain extent about Elham.

Amir Malaklou (Omid) and Sahar Bibiyan (Marjan) in the West Coast premiere of Sanaz Toossi’s “English”. Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

English is a delightful, emotionally engaging production that may have special appeal to those interested in linguistics and cultural identity. Those who delight in the comedic potential of mangled language may also enjoy David Ives’ short play The Universal Language (part of his All in the Timing collection) and David Sedaris’ wonderful novel Me Talk Pretty One Day.

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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

 

 

ProductionEnglish
Written by
Sanaz Toossi
Directed byMina Morita
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough May 7th
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$43 - $119
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

Other Voices…

"...Both contemplative and comic, it nails every opportunity for big laughs as its English-learning characters struggle with accents and idioms. But the laughter provides cover for the deeper idea that their struggle is not just linguistic..."The New York Times
"...Personalities will emerge, relationships will form, secrets will be revealed. Some of the students will succeed and others will fall by the wayside.

All of this happens but, at the same time, the play is not predictable, thanks to Toossi’s subtle writing and profound observations about the ways in which language shapes identity, experience and a sense of belonging in the world..."
Toronto Star
"...Language in “English” becomes the scapegoat for everything that’s wrong with us, the true reason for all our best qualities. If we’re rude or loud or dumb, soft or smart or charming, it might all just be the language we’re speaking, along with all its attendant norms and foibles..."San Francisco Chronicle

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Cambodian Rock Band” a Must-See at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

Human history is an appalling parade of atrocities. Warfare is among the worst recurring nightmares, but perhaps even worse are purges within one nationality or ethnicity when large swaths of the population are swept up in an insane movement to create a new society.

That’s exactly what happened in Cambodia in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge took over the country, hell-bent on eliminating the past, to such an extent that they called the date of their takeover “Year Zero.” And as always happens when zealots gain control, they rounded up Cambodian intellectuals, academics, trained professionals, artists, and musicians with the intent of eliminating them.

Inspired by the communist takeover of Indonesia in 1965 and the Chinese cultural revolution—the “Great Leap Forward”—the zealotry of the Khmer Rouge was so extreme that anyone with knowledge of a foreign language, or even wearing eyeglasses, was suspected of being a subversive and a class enemy. Approximately 25% of Cambodian’s population perished in what was called the “Super Great Leap Forward”—a genocide perpetuated by their own countrymen.

…superb actors, dancers, and musicians—a stunning assortment of stage talents…

That’s the background of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through April 2. The interlocking core stories include a musician named Chum (Joseph Ngo) held in the notorious S-21 prison—really an extermination center where of approximately 20,000 prisoners, only seven or eight survived—and his return in 2008 to see his American daughter Neary (Geena Quintos), there working with a multi-national investigative group. There are also tangential references to ethnic animosities among Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Thai people.

The depiction of life in S-21 is lengthy and grim (set by Takeshi Kata) but book-ended by upbeat rock music, much of it derived from L.A. band Dengue Fever. The show opens in the mid 1970s with Chum’s band finishing their first album in a studio in the capital city of Phnom Penh, an effort that runs so late that they can’t escape approaching Khmer Rouge troops.

The band at work in “Cambodian Rock Band” at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Berkeley Rep.

It closes with a rousing performance in the present by the same band—Ngo on guitar, Moses Villarama on bass, Jane Lui on keyboard and backing vocals, Geena Quintos on lead vocals, and Abraham Kim on drums.

They’re all superb actors, dancers, and musicians—a stunning assortment of stage talents. Prolific actor Francis Jue is outstanding as the MC, narrator, hyper-kinetic lead performer, and as the despicable head of S-21.

Francis Jue at work at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Berkeley Rep

The net effect for an audience is that Cambodian Rock Band is a sugar-coated historical horror story—the sugar coating being the opening and closing rock performances that help viewers forget their immersion in misery. Yee’s beautifully conceived and realized message is that art and music have power to transcend savagery.

We can only hope.

There’s widespread belief that Cambodian Rock Band originated at Berkeley Rep. In fact, the show has been performed many times over the past four years. Ngo and Villarama have performed in several productions. The set at the Roda Theatre was built at Berkeley Rep and will travel when the show goes on tour. However that plays out, Cambodian Rock Band is a fantastic spectacle and one of the most compelling productions so far this year.

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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

 

 

ProductionCambodian Rock Band
Written by
Lauren Yee
Directed byChay Yew
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough Apr 2nd, 2023
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$49 - $123
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Incomplete History Lesson: “Justice: A New Musical” at MTC

By Barry Willis

Power outages caused by high winds threatened to scuttle the press opener of Justice: A New Musical at Marin Theatre Company this past Tuesday Feb. 21. MTC officials were almost ready to reschedule when the power returned after the opening scene. It was stressful for cast, crew, and audience alike but good luck prevailed.

Ably directed by Ashley Rodbro, the production is the latest from prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson, author of the wonderful Silent Sky among many other works, and MTC’s playwright-in-residence.

…Gunderson’s tale is an engaging one…

Justice tells the tale of the first three female Supreme Court justices. A musical without choreography (book by Gunderson, lyrics by Kait Kerrigan, music by Bree Lowdermilk), it begins with Sandra Day O’Connor’s ascension to the high court in 1981, followed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993 and later, Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Latina justice.

Stephanie Prentice nails the role of Sotomayor and narrates much of the story, primarily conveyed in operetta fashion through song. Karen Murphy embodies O’Connor’s reticent Republican/Episcopalian personality, and Lynda DiVito is perfectly cast as the diminutive intellectual powerhouse Ginsburg. All three are in fine voice with Lowdermilk’s difficult music. DiVito and Prentice are especially strong singers.

Gunderson’s tale is an engaging one, particularly in its depiction of the gracious mentorship shown by O’Connor to Ginsburg despite their political and philosophical differences. They are united in their womanhood, the bond made stronger by mutual understanding of their responsibilities as wives. Some of this is conveyed by tangential material about their private lives, including, as time moves on, their husbands’ medical issues and ultimately, their own. Supreme Court justices enjoy lifetime appointments and have no mandatory retirement age. Many have left the court only when medical conditions dictated that they do so.

(L-R) Lynda DiVito (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), Stephanie Prentice (Sonia Sotomayor), and Karen Murphy (Sandra Day O’Connor) in “Justice: A New Musical” performing now through March 12, 2023 at Marin Theatre Co. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Lowdermilk’s music adheres strongly to current fashion in musical theater: bombastic and almost atonal. It will sound familiar to anyone who’s seen Next to Normal or Mean Girls – but there’s not a memorable melody in the show. Most of the songs are insistent forthright feminist anthems shouted at the audience, a receptive one at the press opener. Ticket-buyers expecting melodious uplift of the West Side Story or My Fair Lady variety will be hugely disappointed.

Ostensibly about the first three women on the Supreme Court, the story extends into the present with a veiled reference to an unnamed woman appointed to the court by the 45th president, and a cheerleading mention of Ketanji Brown Jackson that drew an enthusiastic response from the MTC crowd. The unnamed woman was Amy Coney Barrett, intentionally left out of the narrative because of her ultra-conservative politics. Also ignored is Elena Kagan. A story about the rise of female judicial superstars should certainly include them, regardless of how the play’s authors feel about them.

Justice: A New Musical is thus a skewed, incomplete history. If Gunderson and company had contained the narrative to O’Connor, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor—three sisters in judicial robes—that would have been acceptable, but bringing it into the present while ignoring two significant female justices is problematic.

Karen Murphy (Sandra Day O’Connor) and Lynda DiVito (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) at work in “Justice: A New Musical”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

An outstanding feature of this show is the justices’ civility—and even mutual affection—regardless of differing philosophies and legal interpretations, and the deep friendship shared by Ginsburg and her high court opponent Antonin Scalia.

Ginsburg and Scalia were on opposite sides of almost every issue that came before the court, but they had abiding love and respect for each other despite their differences. That is a lesson for all of us.

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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

 

 

ProductionJustice: A New Musical
Book -- Lyrics -- MusicLauren Gunderson -- Kait Kerrigan -- Bree Lowdermilk
Directed byAshley Rodbro
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Mar 12th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$25.50– $60,50
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Compelling “Headlands” at ACT

By Barry Willis

An unsolved murder, a family mystery, and a personal existential crisis all combine in Christopher Chen’s The Headlands at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theatre through March 5.

Phil Wong stars as Henry, a self-described “thirty-something San Francisco native who works in tech.” Wong is confident and convincing, serving as the show’s narrator and principal character.

Sam Jackson (Jess) and Phil Wong (Henry) in the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s “The Headlands”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

He comes onstage under full house lights, with the relaxed demeanor of a standup comedian, and introduces himself and the play’s primary backstory: the unsolved murder of Henry’s father George (Johnny M. Wu) some 20 years earlier, a deeply traumatic event in Henry’s young life.

…worthy of a full thumbs-up recommendation…

Part memory play, part who-done-it, Henry’s tale moves back and forth in time, from his parents’ first meeting, to his pre-teen years when he and his dad would go hiking in the Marin Headlands, to the present, where he deals with his aging mother Leena (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), his girlfriend Jess (Sam Jackson), and his estranged older brother Tom (Jomar Tagatac), given up for adoption before Henry was born.

Other superb cast members include Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as the younger Leena, and Bay Area theater veteran Charles Shaw Robinson in dual roles as Walter, George’s business partner, and as a San Francisco police detective. A brilliant bit of direction by ACT artistic director Pam MacKinnon and a brilliant bit of acting is George’s accent—early in the show, when he is a teenage immigrant and his future wife’s suitor, his pronunciation is thick, but later, as an adult, he’s become fully fluent and speaks a natural American dialect.

Keiko Shimosato Carreiro (Pat) and Phil Wong (Henry) in “The Headlands” performing at A.C.T. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

The Headlands is a compelling story, made more compelling by Alexander V. Nichols’ combined set and projection designs. Nichols is the offstage superstar of this production. His elegant rotating set is a translucent lath-and-plaster construction that when illuminated with projections gives a ghostly appearance to everything from a Sunset district family home to a headlands hiking trail to San Rafael’s Canal district to the apartment shared by Henry and Jess.

Toward the tale’s conclusion, a slow, over-long scene between these two is the only dramatic road bump in an otherwise very good production. A judicious edit there, and in a couple other spots in the dialog would lift this show from “very good” to “great.” It’s worthy of a full thumbs-up recommendation, regardless.

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

 

 

ProductionThe Headlands
Written byChristopher Chen
Directed byPam Mackinnon
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThru March 5th, 2023
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 – $112
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Vivian Vance Comes to Life in “Sidekicked” at Sonoma Arts Live

By Barry Willis

Playing perpetual “second banana” to a superstar is a theatrical version of purgatory. In the tale of Vivian Vance, co-star of the long-running 1950s TV series I Love Lucy and its sequel, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, it’s also a recurring personal reminder that she’s gone as far as she will ever go in the shadow of comedic legend Lucille Ball.

Vance was a comedic genius in her own right—and an early advocate for people suffering from mental problems, in an era when even acknowledging such problems was a grave social error. Libby Oberlin delivers all this and more in her solo show Sidekicked written by Kim Powers, and directed by Michael Ross at Sonoma Arts Live through February 19.

Sidekicked moves along at a surprising clip…

Last seen at SAL as opera diva Maria Callas in Master Class, Oberlin is a confident performer who brings Vance to life with gusto and a palpable dose of self-deprecation.

She relates her subject’s frequent confusion—she wrote her name and address on a slip of paper and tucked it into her handbag each morning before she went out, in case she forgot who she was or where she lived. Vance endured several disastrous marriages, and chafed at the role for which she is fondly remembered, as Lucy’s neighbor Ethyl Mertz, Lucy’s frequent co-conspirator in the absurd hijinks that propelled each episode of the original series.

Vance also endured the continual bickering between Lucille Ball and her husband, director/producer/actor/band leader Desi Arnaz, and suffered mightily being cast as the wife of a man “at least 25 years older,” Fred Mertz, played by William Frawley. Powers’ script is clearly intended for an audience familiar with all the characters—and their backstories too—as Oberlin digresses into revisiting many of the show’s often hilarious setups and backstage battles.

Sidekicked moves along at a surprising clip given the constraints put on a solo performer, and provides plenty of amusement not only for a generation that saw it all unfold the first time. It’s also a show with appeal for theater and entertainment geeks who relish digging the dirt about some of Hollywood’s famous names—first, second, and third tier alike

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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

 

 

ProductionSidekicked
Written byKim Powers
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru Feb. 19th, 2023
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

ASR Theater ~~ “Little Shop” Almost Hits The Mark at 6th Street

By Barry Willis

The comic musical Little Shop of Horrors is both a cult favorite for its fans and a recurring production among community theater troupes here in the Bay Area. We can count on five or six such shows each year. The latest one is running at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa — and has been EXTENDED through Feb. 26th!

A down-on-its luck skid row flower shop needs a boost, and that’s what it gets when amateur botanist Seymour Krelborn (Noah Sternhill) breeds a carnivorous plant that thrives on human blood and tissue.

Little Shop of Horrors—Seymour and Audrey at work.

Named after his shopmate Audrey (Gillian Eichenberger), the plant grows bigger and more voracious daily, attracting a tremendous amount of media attention, and lots of paying customers into Mushnik’s Flower Shop (proprietor played by Dan Schwager).

This Little Shop of Horrors is an ambitious, amusing show…

It’s a mixed blessing for Mushnik, Audrey, and Seymour as they are soon overwhelmed with orders, including supplying all the flowers for the annual Rose Bowl parade. Audrey also wriggles out of a creepy relationship with a sadistic dentist named Orin Scrivello, played by Robert Nelson as a sort of Halloween Elvis impersonator.

Much of the story is propelled by the song-and-dance trio “the doo-wop girls” Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon (Aja Gianola-Norris, Serena Elize, and Chiyako Delores, respectively). Gianola-Norris directed the show, and Elize handled the choreography. The show’s singers are delightful, especially Audrey in the breakout hit “Somewhere That’s Green.”

“The Trio” in “Little Shop of Horrors” at 6th St.

This Little Shop of Horrors is an ambitious, amusing show with an impressive set by Luca Catanzaro, and a great band led by Lucas Sherman, but it’s hampered by awkward timing and a surplus of dead air—issues likely to be ironed out as the production rolls toward its final date of February 26. So grab your significant other and go see this campy classic.

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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

 

 

ProductionLittle Shop of Horrors
Written by / Book byAlan Menken / Howard Ashman
Directed by / Music Direction byAja Gianola-Norris / Lucas Sherman
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThru Feb 19th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35-$43
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Clyde’s” a Rambunctious, Enlightening Ride at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

Four parolees do their best to thrive under an oppressive boss in Clyde’s, at Berkeley Rep through February 26.

Or at least, we believe they’re parolees—that bit of info is never made clear in Lynn Nottage’s brilliant scathing comedy. They’ve all done time behind bars, and they’re determined not to go back. They’re also determined to keep their low-wage jobs in the kitchen of a roadside diner, knowing how limited are employment opportunities for ex-cons.

Their boss knows that too.

A former convict herself, Clyde (April Nixon) lords it over her workers, making sure at every turn that they understand how tenuous their situation is. A voluptuous, wise-cracking beauty, Clyde appears at random at the kitchen’s pickup window or waltzes in unannounced to strike fear in the hearts of her underlings, in each scene sporting a wig more glamorous than the last and strutting her stuff in dazzling apparel. (Wigs by Megan Ellis, costumes by Karen Perry.)

…an incredibly uplifting and uproarious tale about hope…

Clyde is a malicious force of nature, the perfect blend of wicked witch and evil stepmother. Nixon clearly relishes her astounding role, one hugely appreciated by a full house at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre during the Wednesday Jan. 25 press opener.

Louis Reyes McWilliams as Jason and April Nixon as Clyde in Lynn Nottage’s Tony Award-nominated play Clyde’s at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

But Nixon’s not the only astounding member of this well-balanced cast. Three of them are thirty-somethings whose characters are serious about improving their lives and staying out of trouble. We don’t learn what Raphael (Wesley Guimaraes) or Letticia (Cyndii Johnson) did to land in jail, but new worker Jason confesses that he was convicted of assault after losing a union manufacturing job to “scabs.” To Letticia’s inquiry about the gang tattoos on his arms, face, and neck, he replies “I was trying to survive.”

The fourth member of Clyde’s kitchen crew is line cook Montrellous (Harold Surratt) an older gentleman with a sadhu’s demeanor. The anchor character in this quick-moving story, he’s very much the embodiment of an Old Testament prophet, bringing wisdom and enlightenment to a younger generation, the focus being his quest to create the perfect sandwich.

April Nixon as Clyde and Harold Surratt as Montrellous in Lynn Nottage’s Tony Award-nominated play Clyde’s at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The quest for the perfect sandwich, in fact, becomes both a metaphor for the kitchen workers to improve their lives and their self-esteem, and a competitive sport they undertake to impress each other and perhaps, their mean-to-the-core boss.

A subplot involves Raphael’s infatuation with Letticia, one that goes nowhere, despite his offers of flowers and chocolates and date invitations. It would be unfair to give away much of the bright (and dark) comedy in this lovely production, but a heartbreaking moment occurs when Montrellous confesses that he went to prison not for a crime he committed but for a moment of altruism. The embodiment of gravitas, Surratt is brilliant in the role.

Louis Reyes McWilliams as Jason and Cyndii Johnson as Letitia in Lynn Nottage’s Tony Award-nominated play Clyde’s at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Director Taylor Reynolds gets fabulous performances from her entire cast on designer Wilson Chin’s hyper-real set.

Lynn Nottage is on her way to becoming a national treasure. She has a wonderful ear and eye for the woes of the underclass, and a fantastic ability to mine deep emotional conflicts in her characters. In her poignant Intimate Apparel, set a century ago, a young black seamstress falls in love with a Jewish fabric merchant, an attraction he feels equally but which they both know is hopeless.

There’s deep truth in this production too, but no doom in Clyde’s. In fact, it’s an incredibly uplifting and uproarious tale about hope in the face of hopelessness. As Julie Andrews put it so succinctly in Mary Poppins — a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

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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

 

 

ProductionClyde's
Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Taylor Reynolds
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough Feb 26th
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Tickets$30 - $135
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “Daddy Long Legs” an Enjoyable Diversion at Cinnabar

By Barry Willis

A century-old Cinderella story comes to life at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater through January 22.

Sixteen years after its initial development in Ventura County, John Caird and Paul Gordon’s musical version of Jean Webster’s novel Daddy Long Legs has proven to be enduringly popular, especially among community theater troupes.

Daddy Long Legs is a production with appeal for fans of musical theater and of spunky-girl romances…

Cinnabar’s production features real-life husband-and-wife team Zachary Hasbany as young philanthropist Jervis Pendleton, and Brittany Law Hasbany as Jerusha Abbott, the oldest resident of an orphanage called the John Grier Home. The early-20th-century setup is that Jerusha has attracted his interest via her amusing descriptions of life at the orphanage. He offers to support her through college on the condition that she send monthly letters describing her progress, without expecting any replies.

Jerusha doesn’t know his identity—her letters go to an unknown benefactor called “Mr. Smith,” whom she nicknames “Daddy Long Legs” from having seen a fleeting shadow. The story spans Jerusha’s years in college, and her summers, told mostly in song—both performers are accomplished actors with fine voices—with some monologues to fill in the blanks for the audience.

Daddy Long Legs – Hasbany pair at work

As she matures, Jerusha develops a stronger sense of self, and hones her literary skills. In the course of her one-way communications with Jervis, he becomes enamored with her and arranges a meeting without revealing that he is Mr. Smith/Daddy Long Legs. They go hiking together, discover that they have acquaintances in common, and generally hit it off. He wrestles with his growing infatuation while she grows more independent. There’s a moment of truth ahead, one visible miles away.

And that’s the problem with Daddy Long Legs. Playwriting gurus say that for the sake of entertainment, audiences will make one or two huge leaps of faith to stick with the story, but this one was a leap too far for this reviewer. Jerusha becomes a successful novelist and ultimately lands her Prince Charming, but it’s not at all believable that after spending so much time with him, she doesn’t know his identity.

It’s like one of those masquerade ball scenes where the guests can see almost all of the other guests’ faces and converse in their normal voices but still pretend that they are strangers.

Director Elly Lichenstein gets lovely performances from the Hasbanys, and music director Mary Chun does likewise with the score—piano by Brett Strader—even though most of the songs sound very much alike.

Daddy Long Legs is a production with appeal for fans of musical theater and of spunky-girl romances, but potential ticket buyers are encouraged to read the Wikipedia plot synopsis before coming to the theater.

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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

 

 

ProductionDaddy Long Legs
Written byJean Webster - adapted by John Caird and Paul Gordon
Directed byElly Lichenstein
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Jan 22nd
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Sumptuous “A Christmas Carol” Returns to ACT

By Barry Willis

A fabulous San Francisco tradition has returned after a three-year absence.

Perhaps the greatest redemption story in the English language, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is back at the American Conservatory Theatre, and what a welcome it’s receiving. The show runs through December 24 at the Toni Rembe Theatre on Geary Street (formerly the Geary Theatre).

The sumptuous, big-scale production stars James Carpenter as the dour miser Ebenezer Scrooge.

James Carpenter (Scrooge).

Without question one of the Bay Area’s top acting talents, Carpenter is at his peak in his signature role, one he shares with Anthony Fusco in alternating performances. Fusco is also a supremely talented actor who should bring an unusual interpretation to one of the most hated, most amusing, and ultimately most loved characters in the theatrical repertoire.

Directed by Peter J. Kuo, riffing somewhat on Carey Perloff’s original concept, this Christmas Carol is a joy to behold, with a huge cast of 40 performers including many children, but also many veteran actors (most in multiple roles) such as Sharon Lockwood, Jomar Tagatac, Howard Swain, and Brian Herndon. Lockwood absolutely shines as Mrs. Dilbert, Scrooge’s bitter housekeeper, and also as the lighthearted Mrs. Fezziwig, wife of Scrooge’s first employer.

…A theatrical and spiritual uplift unlike any other…

Dan Hiatt is fantastic as the ghost of Scrooge’s business partner Jacob Marley, who appears early in the tale to warn Scrooge that it’s not too late to change his evil ways.

Dan Hiatt (Ghost of Jacob Marley) in A.C.T.’s celebrated production of the Charles Dickens’ classic tale.

Burdened with the accumulated heavy karma of his earthly misdeeds, he rattles his fetters and intones “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link and yard by yard . . . ” — one of the most potent warnings ever issued by a character on stage, and one that establishes the high-stakes drama to come.

The production sails along with astounding effects. The Ghost of Christmas Past (the glamorous B Noel Thomas) appears to Scrooge floating above him on a celestial swing (scenic designer John Arnone). Scrooge’s office is up a flight of stairs that he climbs repeatedly to lord it over his underpaid and oppressed clerk Bob Cratchit (Jomar Tagatac). Emily Newsome brings a charming sensitivity to the role of Belle, Scrooge’s first love, cast aside by his single-minded pursuit of money.

The cast of A.C.T.’s celebrated production of the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, playing at the Toni Rembe Theater (formerly the Geary Theater) in The City.

This Christmas Carol revives much of the tremendous theatricality that has long been part of ACT’s annual holiday offering. The stagecraft is spectacular and the music and dancing totally delightful. Composer Karl Lundeberg and choreographer Val Caniparoli deserve accolades for their contributions, as do lighting designer Nancy Schertler and sound designer Jake Rodriguez. The show is a brilliant team effort by a huge array of inspired experts.

A theatrical and spiritual uplift unlike any other, ACT’s A Christmas Carol is a wonderful holiday tradition suitable for all ages.

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

 

 

ProductionA Christmas Carol
Written byCharles Dickens - adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Wals
Directed by
Choreographed by
Peter J. Kuo
Val Caniparoli
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Dec 24th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$15 – $140
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

Solona Husband at work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

…the #1 R&B group of all time”…

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

…one of the best celebrations of life imaginable…

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

Vivien Straus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

…inexplicability can…be quite entertaining…

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Eric Chazankin.

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

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

…a compelling musical drama with moments of great hilarity…

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

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

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

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byMusic by John Kander and Fred Ebb

Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed byJared Sakren

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

…an amusing and well-done cautionary tale….

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

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

Diffenderfer and Baker at work. Photo by Jeff Thomas

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…Director Fish’s conceptual conceits sink this show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

San Francisco has a long strong history of audacious theatricality.

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

R2D2 and dancer. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Empire Strips dancers. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

Rolston’s neurotic but hugely entertaining characters succeed beautifully…

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

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

Kevin Rolston at work at Magic Theater.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

Central Works has a tradition of performing new plays…

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

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

Mary Ann Rodgers as Celia, Anna Maria Luera as Lourdes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

Mark Bradbury as Franklin Hart

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

The cast at work at 6th Street

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

Suprise!

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Production9-to-5 The Musical
Written byPatricia Resnick / Music and lyrics by Dolly Parton
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough June 26, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$32 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

Brilliantly written, brilliantly directed, and brilliantly performed…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denmo Ibrahim as Bella. Photo by Kevin Berne

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ensemble cast dancing. Photo by: Robin Jackson.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Production"Hello, Dolly"
Written byMichael Stewart – Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanyThe Mountain Play Association
Production DatesThrough June 19th, 2022
Production AddressCushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mount Tamalpais State Park, Mill Valley
Websitemountainplay.org
Telephone415-383-1100
Tickets$25 - $185
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ A North Bay Spectacle: “Matilda – The Musical”

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matilda and Trunchbull at work.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionMatilda - The Musical
Written byDennis Kelly – Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough May 22, 2022
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Fun Home” is a Solid Bet at the Gateway Theater

By Barry Willis

Despite at least one very dark plot element and an abrupt tragic ending, 42nd Street Moon’s musical “Fun Home” fills its 95 minutes with uplifting and delightful song-and-dance. At the Gateway Theatre on Jackson Street in the city’s financial district, the show closes its three-week run this Sunday, May 8.

A lesbian coming-of-age story derived from cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, the show features the adult Alison (Rinobeth Apostol) in her studio, overseeing her past unfolding before her as she scribbles and scrawls—a theatrical replay of her creation of the novel. Scenic designer Mark Mendelson cleverly places her in a sort of god-like position where she can observe all that’s transpired to make her what she is. Apostol is a confident and compelling actor, onstage throughout the show, sometimes fully engaged with her castmates and sometimes merely a somewhat detached observer.

Central to the story is Alison’s sexual awakening, and her relationship with her father Bruce (Jason Vesely), an English teacher, home renovator, and funeral home director—quite an imposing set of skills—and a closeted gay man given to frequent flings that distress his wife Helen (Jennifer Boesing).

Grown Alison watches as her younger self, “Small Alison” (McKenna Rose) cavorts with her brothers John and Christian (Keenan Moran and Royal Mickens, respectively), and is especially attentive to “Medium Alison” (Teresa Attridge), the college-age version of herself who wonders about lesbianism before finally giving it a go with classmate Joan (Sophia Alawi).

The cast, stagecraft, lighting and sound are all very good….

New for this reviewer, Attridge is an astounding performer whose rendition of “Changing My Major” celebrates Alison’s embrace of her sexuality and her deep love affair with Joan. It’s the high point of the first act and quite possibly the high point of the entire production—a simply off-the-chart performance, among many that almost reach that level. Musical theater veteran Dave Dubrusky leads a small ensemble that perfectly backs the show’s many great songs, reinforced by Natalie Greene’s high-energy au courant choreography.

The cast, stagecraft, lighting and sound are all very good—a rare production with no glitches to grumble about. Directed by Tracy Ward, “Fun Home” is a solid bet for those seeking entertainment with a plausible modern through-line.

42nd Street Moon’s publicity hypes it as “a Bay Area regional premiere” but the show has played at least twice in the Bay Area, first at the Curran in January 2017 then again in October 2018 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. It’s a popular show. This one runs 95 minutes, no intermission. Expect a couple of other local productions within the coming year.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionFun Home
Written byLisa Kron
Directed byTracy Ward
Producing Company42nd Street Moon
Production DatesThru May 8th
Production AddressThe Gateway Theatre

176 Jackson Street San Francisco, CA
Website42ndstmoon.org/
Telephone(415) 255-8207
Tickets$45 – $79
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

ASR Theater ~~ SAL’s “Grossingers” a Nostalgic Romp

 By Barry Willis

The Catskills mountain region in upstate New York made substantial contributions to American culture throughout most of the 20th century. Many legendary comedians and musicians worked “Borsht Belt” resorts such as the one brought to life by Sonoma Arts Live with its new production of the Stephen Cole musical “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s.” Cole is the show’s librettist/lyricist; the music is by Claibe Richardson with additional lyrics by Ronny Graham.

Dani Innocenti-Beem (r) wowing her scene partner!

Dani Innocenti-Beem solidly anchors the show as the entrepreneurial singer/comedienne Jennie Grossinger, who almost single-handedly converted what had been a rundown farmhouse into one of the most recognized and desirable vacation destinations in the eastern U.S. In a short silver-gray wig, she commands the stage whether singing, dancing, or riffing on the circumstances around her.

Larry Williams, the show’s co-director with Jaime Love, is also formidable as Sheldon Seltzer, the resort’s announcer/master of ceremonies/fallback comedian. He’s heavy on Henny Youngman-style wisecracks such as “Take my wife. She runs after the garbage truck shouting ‘Am I late for the trash?’ The driver shouts back, ‘No, jump in.’”

…a delightful morsel of musical theater….

Innocenti-Beem and Williams are both gifted and confident comedic performers. Their appearance together on the same stage guarantees a good time for the audience—whether the comedy is intentional or not, as happened on opening night with a balky curtain. The pair covered so well that most folks in the nearly sold-out house believed the curtain glitch was built into the script. It wasn’t, but perhaps Stephen Cole should consider making it so. The perfectly-timed incident certainly seemed like something that might have happened infrequently at Grossinger’s, and it provoked plenty of laughter.

The substantially-constructed first act is a decade-by-decade revisiting of the history of Grossinger’s, from its 1904 origins through the 1960s. Musical director Sherrill Peterson and her band provide excellent backing for the all-singing/all-dancing Grossinger clan: Dan Schwager as patriarch “Papa,” David Shirk as Jennie’s mate Harry, and HarriettePearl Fugit and Tommy Lassiter as Grossinger offspring Elaine and Paul, respectively.

HarriettePearl Fugit (r) at Sonoma Arts Live.

With its compelling and perfectly paced scene-by-scene through-line, the show’s opening act induces strong anticipation in the audience, who come back from intermission expecting a big payoff. The second act doesn’t fulfill this expectation. It feels under-developed, as if some story elements were left dangling or cut without consideration for how this might affect the entire production.

The result is that the show seems to end abruptly, frustratingly so for the audience, as our very entertaining history tour of Grossinger’s doesn’t reach into the 21st century. Act One has a strong dramatic arc sorely missing in the second one. Maybe that will be corrected in the sequel: “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s, Part Two,” but even incomplete, SAL’s show is a delightful morsel of musical theater.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionSaturday Night at Grossinger’s
Written byStephen Cole
Directed byJaime Love and Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesMay 8, 2022
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center 276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Cinnabar’s Delightful “Three Tall Women”

By Barry Willis

Anyone who’s dealt with elderly-parent issues will find much to enjoy in “Three Tall Women” at Cinnabar Theater through April 24.

Laura Jorgensen astounds in Edward Albee’s oddly-constructed two-act play. In the first act, she appears as a resident of an upscale retirement complex, nicely rendered by set designer Brian Watson. She’s engaged in what’s almost a monologue with a caretaker played by Amanda Vitiello, and a law firm representative played by Tiffani Lisieux, who’s there to prompt her to pay attention to mail and messages.

None of the characters have names but are instead designated simply A, B, and C, respectively, by playwright Edward Albee. Best known for skewering American upper-middle-class intelligencia (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Delicate Balance” among his many creations), Albee continued the tradition with 1994’s “Three Tall Women,” minus the blackout drinking common to his earlier works.

Director Michael Fontaine has gotten an excellent performance from this three-woman cast; in other hands, the script might have proven too difficult…

Albee reportedly said that he derived most of his characters’ dialog from listening to his parents’ cocktail parties. It’s as authentic as it can be in this show. Jorgensen riffs continually and brilliantly, confusing past and present, bouncing back and forth between lucidity and incoherence, hilarity and despair. It’s a stunning act of theatrical mastery. She manages her heavy line load adroitly, with only a bit of help from Vitiello and Lisieux.

 

If there are glitches in her recital, they’ll be obvious only to those who know the script word-for-word—Albee included plenty of intentional glitches in her speech, as might be expected from a ninety-something woman talking to a captive audience. As delivered, it’s all quite realistic old-person stream-of-consciousness. Vitiello and Liseux basically function to get her back on track when she goes off the rails, which is often, and often hilarious.

All three reappear in the second act, as the same woman (“A”) at differing ages—92, 52, 26—in a postmortem discussion of her life as they hover over her bed, as insightful in its own way as the long meandering riff that occupies the first act.

Left to right – Amanda Vitiello (B), Tiffani Lisieux (C), Laura Jorgensen (A)

Director Michael Fontaine has gotten an excellent performance from this three-woman cast; in other hands, the script might have proven too difficult. Lisieux was a welcome newcomer for this reviewer, one eager to see what she does next. Vitiello demonstrated a delightful flexibility—playing essentially two characters, neither of them resembling each other or the ditzy Long Island neighbor that she played in “Cry It Out.” And Jorgensen may be the North Bay equivalent of a national treasure. The veteran actress (“House of Yes,” “Ripcord,” many more) is amazing and wonderful in “Three Tall Women.” Her performance alone puts it over the top.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThree Tall Women
Written byEdward Albee
Directed byMichael Fontaine
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough April 24th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

ASR Theater ~~ Thought Provoking — Lucky Penny’s “The How and the Why”

By Barry Willis

Two research biologists have an unexpected encounter in the run-up to a scientific conference in “The How and the Why,” at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through April 24.

Lucky Penny Associate Artist Karen Pinamaki stars as Zelda, a career evolutionary biologist involved in hosting the annual meeting of the National Organization of Research Biologists (NORB). A late applicant named Rachel (Heather Kellogg Baumann) comes to Zelda’s office to plead for a speaking slot at the conference, to defend her hypothesis that human females menstruate as form of protection against sperm cells, which she characterizes as “antigens.”

Her hypothesis has gotten plenty of pushback from the biology establishment, especially from men. She begs Zelda for a speaking slot, despite having reservations about some of her own conclusions and many misgivings about drawing the ire of conference attendees, some of whom have already bashed her for what they perceive as outlandish assumptions.

Lucky Penny deserves praise for producing such a thought-provoking play….

Rachel enjoys some sympathy from Zelda, whose own hypothesis met a similar reception nearly thirty years earlier—in Zelda’s case, the “grandmother hypothesis” speculating that women’s longer lifespans compared to men serve an evolutionary purpose: they are needed to help younger women with child-rearing duties.

The two biologists argue their convictions passionately, but the story isn’t really about science, despite the seeming plausibility of both concepts, and despite the realistically-depicted rampant nitpicking, back-stabbing, petty bickering, and professional jealously that infect the scientific community.

Their real issue is that Rachel is Zelda’s biological daughter, given up for adoption when she was only six days old. She’s now 28, the same age Zelda was when she got pregnant. The moment when she enters Zelda’s office is the first time they’ve met as adults. They are both professional scientists, the epitome of rationality, and they try their best to remain above emotional outbursts, but the emotion comes through despite their efforts to contain it—resentment, betrayal, guilt, feelings of abandonment and diminished self-worth, the whole panoply of negativity that can affect both those given away by their birth parents and those who gave them away.

Karen Pinamaki and HeatherKellogg Baumann at work.

Pinamaki and Baumann tread this emotional minefield with great care and a growing sense of carelessness, which becomes more pronounced as their mutual familiarity improves. Written by TV writer Sarah Treem (“House of Cards” among many other credits) and directed by Dana Nelson Isaacs, it’s an impressive pas de deux performed mostly in Zelda’s office (set design by Taylor Bartolucci and Barry Martin) and later in a Boston dive bar.

The two performers are very well balanced and amazingly dynamic with material that here and there may veer too far in the technical direction for some viewers. But strip out the scientific stuff, expertly woven into Treem’s story, and you have a universal tale of long-estranged mother and daughter reuniting in adulthood and trying to make a go of it from there.

An old adage about science is that it’s very good about explaining how events occur, but not so good about why. This fundamental observation applies not only to hard-core objective reality but also to a whole range of human behaviors. “The How and the Why” is a fascinating examination of two people trying to make sense of something that may not ever be fully understood either by them or by professional therapists. Lucky Penny deserves praise for producing such a thought-provoking play.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe How and the Why
Written bySarah Treem
Directed byDana Nelson Isaacs
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough April 24
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ 6th St’s Stunning “Hank Williams – Lost Highway”

By Barry Willis

The North Bay has been blessed recently with a spate of jukebox musicals, none better than “Hank Williams – Lost Highway” which opened at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse April 1 and has been EXTENDED to May 1st!

Authored by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, and expertly directed by Michael Butler, the show is a big production in every sense of the word—a cast of ten superb performers on the wide stage of the G.K. Hardt theater, with a spectacular set by Butler, Zach Bowlen, and Kristina Dorman, who painted the wonderful giant picture postcard that serves as backdrop.

Steven Lasiter stars as Williams, the doomed country star whose short career put an indelible stamp on American culture. Born with spina bifida, Williams was plagued by pain his entire life, something he tried to ameliorate with prodigious amounts of alcohol and prescription drugs—substances that proved his undoing as a performer and that ultimately ended his life. He died in the back seat of his Cadillac en route to a gig in Ohio—the official medical report cited “heart failure” while noting an alarming level of painkillers and alcohol in his blood. He was only 29 years old.

…an uplifting, life-affirming experience…

The show opens with a somber radio announcement of Williams’ passing, then flashes back to his adolescence in Alabama, where he was mentored by a bluesman named Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, played by real bluesman Levi Lloyd. Payne coached him on guitar, taught him melody and chord progression, and the fundamentals of songwriting, which Williams did entirely by ear. Despite creating dozens of hit songs that became American standards, he never learned to read or write music.

He said often that Payne was his only teacher. Butler emphasizes Payne’s importance by keeping him onstage throughout the show, sometimes in the shadows and sometimes in the spotlight to perform at key moments in the story. His presence also reinforces the fact that black music is both foundation and backbone of 20th-century pop music. Williams blended the blues form with traditional country instrumentation in a way that hooked millions of music fans—heartfelt melodies and simple lyrics evoking universal human desires and problems.

Photography by: Eric Chazankin

His band—the Drifting Cowboys—consists of excellent musicians who have stepped out of their comfort zones to double as actors. Michael Capella appears as Shag, the pedal steel player; guitarist Derek Brooker is Jimmy “Burrhead;” Michael Price is Hoss, the bass player; and Paul Shelansky is Leon, performing on mandolin, fiddle, and slide whistle. They rock the joint through dozens of Williams’ greatest songs, aided by tremendous sound design from Ben Roots.

Peter T. Downey does a fine job as “Pap” Rose, the recording engineer who became Williams’ manager. Jennifer Barnaba is solid as Audrey Williams, and Ellen Rawley is delightful as the unnamed waitress who runs off with Williams. Stage veteran Jill Wagoner is perfectly cast as Mama Lilly, Williams’ mother and his band’s sometimes manager and driver. She absolutely nails every nuance of a hard-working tough-as-nails Depression-era Southern woman.

Photography by: Eric Chazankin

The show encompasses every aspect of Williams’ short life, from country-music boy wonder to Grand Ole Opry superstar to rejected drunk to venerated saint. It’s beautifully paced, even if Butler did confess post-show that he hoped it would move along faster.

“Hank Williams – Lost Highway” is a stunning, essential piece of Americana. Despite the tragedy at its core, it proves to be an uplifting, life-affirming experience. 6th Street deserves accolades not merely for producing it, but for producing it so well.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionLittle Shop of Horrors
Written by / Book byAlan Menken / Howard Ashman
Directed by / Music Direction byAja Gianola-Norris / Lucas Sherman
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThru Feb 19th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35-$43
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Big Hug: Lucky Penny’s “The Marvelous Wonderettes”

By Barry Willis

Through March 13, Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions has a feel-good treat in store for everyone repulsed by war ravaging Ukraine. “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is Roger Bean’s hit jukebox musical featuring 38 pop songs of the 1950s and ‘60s, performed by the cutest—and goofiest—foursome that ever hopped on stage.

The scene is the 1958 Springfield High School prom, where we meet Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy, and Suzy (Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Vida Mae Fernandez, Jenny Veilleux, and Kirstin Pieschke, respectively)—a vocal quartet in the poofiest skirts imaginable, on a kitschy set by Brian Watson, who also did the recent “Amy and the Orphans” at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater. Each of the four performers is a standout in her own way. Together they are delightful!

The The Marvelous Wonderettes at work. Photo courtesy Lucky Penny Productions.

Act One covers many of the best-known songs of the mid-to-late 1950s. Backed by a three-piece band, the girls have a bit of a rough start with The Chordettes’ deathless 1954 pop classic “Mr. Sandman.” Their timing and choreography are off just enough to provoke laughs but not cringes, and they gradually refine their act, dutifully plowing through many other anthems of teenage angst.

“The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a couple of hours of good clean lightweight fun and a welcome escape…

Comical petty jealousies infect both their performance and their between-songs interactions but never to the point where we’re afraid the group might break up. The Wonderettes are catty but loyal: all-for-one and one-for-all despite plenty of sniping. Writer Roger Bean uses the show’s playlist as a framework on which to hang the story of the Wonderettes’ drama with each other—both onstage and off.

The Wonderettes go mod. Photo courtesy Lucky Penny Productions.

Act Two finds the group reunited ten years later, this time in 60’s Mod attire (costumes by Barbara McFadden) and with an updated song list (music direction by Ellen Patterson). Several months pregnant, Suzy is wobbly but manages to be a real trooper even if she has to perform barefoot.

We learn a whole lot about what’s been going on with the girls during their decade after high school, none of it alarming and most of it amusing, such as flirting with “Ritchie,” the technician in the lighting booth. Stage manager Jeff Bristow is the good-natured recipient of such attentions. The girls’ relationships with the men in their lives can be a bit confusing, but don’t let the confusion interfere with your enjoyment of the show. It’s huge fun whether or not you can quote chapter and verse about the back story later.

 

Directed and choreographed by Scottie Woodard, “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a couple of hours of good clean lightweight fun and a welcome escape from the larger world’s insanity.

As Jeff Bristow put it, the show is “a big hug”—exactly what we need now!

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Marvelous Wonderettes
Written byRoger Bean
Directed byScottie Woodard
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru March 13th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$25-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Harry Potter” Comes Roaring Back to the Curran

By Barry Willis

A two-year hiatus hasn’t diminished “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which reopened at San Francisco’s Curran Theater February 24, after a two-week delay due to COVID—after a two-year delay due to COVID.

If anything, the production is more polished and more spectacular than during its aborted run late in December 2019. The new show combines the original’s separate Part One and Part Two in one mind-blowing three-hours-plus production.

Harry Potter (John Skelley) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

The February 24 opening night included a huge rowdy street party before the show with a presentation by San Francisco Mayor London Breed. There is clearly a pent-up desire for live theater among performers and audience alike. Nowhere was this clearer than this show’s opener, from the street party to the entire production. The new production is slated to run through August 31, and is certain to satisfy Potterites of every variety, who may have to horde their shekels to get tickets, ranging from $69 to $229. Discounts are available.

It’s the most spectacular and well-produced show that many of us will ever see…

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” is pretty much a theatrical miracle. Prior to COVID, the large-capacity Curran (nearly 1,700 seats) was closed for a couple of years for massive renovations, only to have some of the new seating and carpeting removed to create a realistic refugee camp for “The Jungle.” Then it was redecorated again, with carpeting and fabric wall coverings embellished with the Hogwarts logo, only to be abruptly closed by the pandemic.

From the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

The new production is incredible, even for those not steeped in Potter lore. It packs in more theatrical illusions than any dozen blockbuster shows in Las Vegas, including characters that step out of seemingly solid walls, or seemingly solid walls that absorb characters the way a sponge draws water, characters that instantly morph into other characters, characters that vanish only to reappear swimming in the sky, characters that emerge and exit through a burning fireplace, ghostly spirits that hover above the audience, and graffiti that somehow appears throughout the theater’s huge ceiling, like a celestial pattern in an observatory.

(L-R) Ginny Potter (Angela Reed), Harry Potter (John Skelley), Professor McGonagall (Shannon Cochran), and Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

Then there’s the amazing choreography of swirling capes and their disappearing owners (Steven Hoggett, movement director). Performers are all first-rate, from the primary characters all the way down to the chorus. There appear to be approximately thirty members in the cast, plus many dozens of specialists in the technical crew.

It’s one whale of a group effort, an amazingly well-polished production on an enormous scale. The imposing set by Christine Jones is amazing both in its audacity and its versatility, subject to instant change despite its size.

Pictured (L–R): Ron Weasley (Steve O’Connell), Hermione Granger (Lily Mojekwu), Rose Granger-Weasley (Folami Williams), James Potter Jr. (William Bednar-Carter), Harry Potter (John Skelley), Ginny Potter (Angela Reed), and Albus Potter (Benjamin Papac) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. — Photo credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The story by J.K.Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany (director of the show) has the now-adult Harry Potter (John Skelley) toiling away as a wizard in the Ministry of Magic, and about to send his son Albus (Benjamin Papac) off to school at his alma mater, where Albus meets Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), a boy his age who’s the son of dark lord Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall).

The two of them form an uneasy but solid friendship and are soon continuing the struggle against the evil Lord Voldemort (Geoffrey Wade) and his offspring. Pivotal roles of Ginny Potter, Hermione Grainger, and Rose Grainger-Weasley are adroitly covered by Angela Reed, Lily Mojekwu, and Folami Williams, respectively. Mojekwu and Williams are especially convincing as mother and daughter.

It’s a wild adventure, but may be too much for very young children. There were no frightened cries from the audience on opening night, even though some of the malevolent spirits haunting the Curran are (youngster) pants-wetting scary.

Casual theatergoers not in the Potter camp would do well to read up on the mythology before the show—a brief synopsis of which is included in the playbill, as well as some fascinating background information that will appeal to hardcore fans.

As we stated when “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” first landed in San Francisco, even those who don’t know Harry Potter from Harry Houdini will be astounded by this production. For true believers, it’s a religious experience. For everyone else, it’s simply the most spectacular and well-produced show that many of us will ever see.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionHarry Potter and the Cursed Child
Written byJ.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byJohn Tiffany
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesThru August 31st
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$69-$229
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Pure Joy: Cinnabar’s “Amy and the Orphans”

By Barry Willis

On rare occasions, an obscure play with an unknown star rocks the theater world.

At Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater through February 20, Lindsey Ferrentino’s “Amy and the Orphans” is exactly that kind of production. In it, a couple of adult siblings named Maggie and Jacob (Mary DeLorenzo and Michael Fontaine, respectively) return to New York for their father’s funeral. They also have a half-baked plan to get their sister Amy (Julie Yeager) to move out of the state-supported home where she has lived for many years and to come reside with one of them.

It’s not clear why Maggie and Jacob wish to do this—they’ve had little contact with Amy for a long time, and no experience caring for her. Perhaps a lingering sense of guilt propels them, and while bickering with each other, they press their case with both Amy and Kathy (Jannely Calmell), her caretaker. The results are heartrending and comical.

“Amy and the Orphans” is one of the freshest things to land at local theaters in years…

A Down’s Syndrome person, Amy has a strong attachment to where she lives, a residence full of her friends. She’s a movie fanatic, watching them constantly on her iPad, and has a job working in a movie theater—a perfect occupation, in that she has memorized every classic line from every iconic film reaching back decades.

Left to right_ Mary DeLorenzo as Maggie, Julie Yeager as Amy. Photography by Victoria Von Thal

It’s a very fulfilling life for her. She doesn’t want to disrupt any of it, but her sister and brother insist that they know what’s best. Blessed with an innocent passion for fairness, Amy argues with impeccable logic about why she should remain where she is, and when rationality fails to convince them, she resorts to small-scale guerrilla tactics, coming close to risking her life in her fight for autonomy.

With a great sense of comic timing and tremendous confidence, Julie Yeager astounds in the lead role. Her wise replies come off with an improvisational immediacy that one might expect from a theatrical veteran of many years. So do her many movie-quoting bits, all done with perfect timing and the original characters’ diction. She’s a wonder to behold, provoking a spontaneous standing ovation from a nearly full house on opening weekend.

DeLorenzo and Fontaine are very good as middle-aged siblings whose differences have never been resolved. Calmell, a young veteran of many North Bay productions, is excellent as Kathy. Gina Alvarado and Justin P. Lopez are enjoyable diversions in a couple of flashback scenes of Sarah and Bobby, the parents of Maggie, Jacob, and Amy.

L-to-R_ Michael Fontaine as Jacob, Mary DeLorenzo as Maggie, Julie Yeager as Amy, Janelly Calmell as Kathy. Photo by V. Von Thal

Director Nathan Cummings has gotten a world-class performance from his cast of six, but most especially from Yeager, an absolute joy. Cinnabar’s whimsical set (by Brian Watson) and goofy props only add to the fun and satisfaction.

“Amy and the Orphans” is one of the freshest things to land at local theaters in years. Continually engaging, uplifting, and at moments downright hilarious, it’s a show that will instill hope and bring you to your feet in celebration.

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

 

ProductionAmy and the Orphans
Written byLindsey Ferrentino
Directed byNathan Cummings
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Feb. 20th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Exquisite Theater: MSW’s “The Glass Menagerie”

By Barry Willis

Main Stage West has rebounded from the confounding “Late, A Cowboy Song” with an exceptional production of the Tennessee Williams classic “The Glass Menagerie.” Expertly directed by Elizabeth Craven, it may be the only production ever done featuring real-life mother-and-daughter as their fictional counterparts.

Williams’ “memory play” takes place in St. Louis, in the late 1930s. A three-member family struggles to survive in the wake of a long-ago departure by an unnamed father and husband, whose portrait and influence loom over everything in the household.

Sheri Lee Miller, Theatre Manager at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, stars as family matriarch Amanda Wingfield, a manipulative and delusional faded Southern belle who smothers her adult children with a seemingly endless recital of recollections and demands. Miller’s daughter Ivy Rose Miller, MSW’s Managing Artistic Director, is understatedly amazing as Amanda’s weepy wallflower daughter Laura. MSW’s Producing Artistic Director Keith Baker turns in a solid performance as Tom Wingfield, Laura’s brother, a would-be poet and adventurer who also serves as the show’s narrator. Newcomer (for this reviewer, at least) Damion Lee Matthews does a more-than-convincing job as Jim, Tom’s associate from the shoe warehouse where they both work.

MSW’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is among the finest this reviewer has ever seen…

The four-member cast is beautifully balanced. MSW’s compact stage is the perfect venue for the Wingfield family’s shabby St. Louis apartment—set design by David Lear and Elizabeth Craven. Missy Weaver’s moody lighting contributes to the Wingfields’ unhappy ambience, and carefully-curated selections of ‘30s-era music help put the story in its proper historical perspective—sound designer not credited in the playbill.

Glass Menagerie – Keith Baker and Damion Lee Matthews

This “Menagerie” is a stunning example of superb ensemble work that sails along at just the right pace, neither too briskly nor too slowly. Matthews exhibits palpable sensitivity as his Jim gets to know Laura, and Ivy Rose plumbs the depths of Laura’s rudderless existence. Baker confidently anchors the whole production, serving as a morose counterbalance to Sheri Lee Miller’s flamboyant and hysterical Amanda.

MSW’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is among the finest this reviewer has ever seen—an exquisite piece of theatrical art that should be on every theatergoer’s must-see list.

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

 

ProductionThe Glass Menagerie
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byElizabeth Craven
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough March 5th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Band’s Visit” a Revelation at the Golden Gate Theatre

By Barry Willis

A mistaken destination leads to a night of small-scale magic for some Egyptian musicians and their accidental Israeli hosts in “The Band’s Visit,” at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre through February 6.

It also leads to a night of big-time magic for theatergoers willing to brave the pandemic. Like every other socially responsible venue, the Golden Gate is adamant about checking vax status for all attendees and requiring masks during the show’s no-intermission 105 minutes.

This production is a risk worth taking: a simple story about ordinary people that rises far above the ordinary through a seamless blend of great writing, great music, great acting, and great stagecraft—among the many reasons why the show ran seemingly forever on Broadway and garnered 10 Tony awards.

You’ll leave the theater overjoyed for having been there but longing for more.

The time is 1996, forty-eight years after the Arab-Israeli War, a conflict not forgotten by either side. The setup is the arrival in a small Israeli desert town of the eight-member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Resplendent in pale blue uniforms, they’ve come to the wrong town due to misunderstanding its name—Bet Hatikva, not Petah Tikva, where they’re scheduled to perform at the Arab Cultural Center. There’s no bus to take them to their proper destination until the next day, and there’s no hotel in Bet Hatikva either, so they must rely on friendly locals for the night. In the process, potential adversaries get to know each other and discover that the same problems bedevil everyone regardless of religion or nationality.

Janet Dacal (left) and Sasson Gabay in “The Band’s Visit,” which tours to BroadwaySF’s Golden Gate Theatre.

Apart from the original mistake that launches the story, writer Itamar Moses doesn’t mine the obvious comedic ore of language barrier. Instead the Egyptians speak Arabic with each other, the Israeli speak Hebrew, and the two rely on heavily-accented and sometimes clumsy English as their lingua franca—all of it perfectly understandable to an American audience.

Set designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Tyler Micoleeau do their utmost to convey life in a dead-end town—both the heat and the hopelessness. (Cue the song “Welcome to Nowhere.”) The designers’ work, like the overall production itself, has rough-around-the-edges qualities that reinforce an abiding sense of realism. We may never visit the Negev Desert, but we certainly get a lingering taste.

The production’s realism is leavened with intervals of sheer magic—the band itself has moments of rehearsal that have the audience clamoring for more, and some of the songs are genius. Café owner Dina (Janet Dacal) befriends bandleader Twefiq (Sasson Gabay)—derisively called “the General” by a couple of Bet Hatikva locals—and sitting at a small table, she confesses how much she loved watching Egyptian movies on TV when she was young, a prelude to “Omar Sharif,” one of the show’s breakout hits. Twefiq in turn confesses his everlasting sorrow at losing his son and wife. Sweetness counterbalanced with regret tinged with hope—“The Band’s Visit” may have some of the most complex emotional undercurrents of any contemporary musical.

Janet Dacal and Sasson Gabay 2 — Photo by Evan Zimmerman, Broadway SF

But it has moments of levity, too—Joe Joseph is outstanding as the seductive trumpeter Haled, who knows everything about his hero Chet Baker, right down to playing his riffs and singing in his voice. Joshua Grosso has the pitiable role of “Telephone Guy,” a Bet Hatikva resident who stands vigil all night at a pay phone hoping his former girlfriend will call. The Israelis and Egyptians discover commonality in their love of many kinds of music—Arabic, Klezmer, American jazz, while the seductive lure of the oud, cello, and clarinet continually remind us of the band’s reason for being.

Morning comes as it inevitably must, and the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra must say farewell to new friends. That we don’t get to enjoy their full concert is the show’s only disappointment. You’ll leave the theater overjoyed for having been there but longing for more.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Band’s Visit
Written byItamar Moses Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed & Choreographed byDirected by David Cromer Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
Producing CompanyBroadway SF
Production DatesThrough February 6, 2022
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 749-1799
Tickets$56 - $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Choreography5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

An ASR Pick! Center Rep Delivers a Sumptuous “Christmas Carol” — by Barry Willis

Kerri Shawn and Michael Ray Wisely (Photo courtesy of Center Rep)

The holiday spirit can’t get any brighter or more uplifting than the one inhabiting Center Repertory Company’s “A Christmas Carol,” at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through December 23.

A sumptuous large-scale production on one of the biggest stages in the Bay Area, this almost-a-musical update to the Charles Dickens classic is Broadway-quality, with a huge and hugely talented cast of approximately thirty actors/singers/dancers, and with spectacular scenic effects in what is arguably one of the premier physical theaters in Northern California. Center Rep is deeply endowed.

Why almost-a-musical? Productions of this enduring story always feature traditional Christmas carols—in fact, they’re among the many holiday irritants that provoke the wrath of miserable old miser Ebenezer Scrooge—but in this one, director Scott Denison and music director Michael Patrick Wiles have chosen to include a vocal quartet whose harmonies serve to underscore the drama, not to comment on it as in a Greek tragedy, but to deepen the emotional impact of key scenes. 

Jeff Draper as Marley

It’s a wonderfully effective gambit, as wonderful in its own way as is the towering set by Kelly James Tighe that serves as Scrooge’s office and home, as London streets, and as the netherworld from which emerge the ghost of Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley (Jeff Draper), and the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future (Kerri Shawn, Jerry Lee, and Scott Maraj, respectively). Shawn and Lee are especially delightful—Shawn with gorgeous voice and glittering gown, flitting about as she leads Scrooge through a return to his youth, Lee with boisterous good humor and infectious dynamics as he shows the cranky old bachelor how his relatives and employees celebrate the holiday. Maraj is silently malevolent as the giant specter of Christmas Future—“wardrobe engineering” by Thomas Judd.

The Cratchit family is portrayed with great sensitivity—Michael Patrick Wiles as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s loyal and long-suffering clerk; Addison Au as his wife Belinda; William Foon as Tiny Tim; and a passel of sisters and brothers too numerous to name. Michael Barrett Austin does a convincing turn as Fred, Scrooge’s well-meaning nephew.

. . . as near-perfect a production of “A Christmas Carol” as you may ever hope to see . . . “

Michael Patrick Wiles and William Foon (Photo courtesy of Center Rep)

As in other productions, Scrooge’s viewing of the Fezziwigs’ annual party is a highlight of the first act, with wild dancing (choreography by Jennifer Perry) and frenetic comic acting by Michael McCarty and Jeanine Perasso as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. It’s a beautifully portrayed pivotal moment in which Scrooge (Michael Ray Wisely, brilliant) begins to comprehend all that he’s lost in his single-minded pursuit of profits, but it takes much more than that to provoke an epiphany that converts him from despised capitalist oppressor to beatific benefactor. Visions of his own demise, the plundering of his possessions, dismissive sentiments among those who knew him, and ultimately, the loss of Tiny Tim, all combine to overwhelm him to change. 

All these plot points are stunningly conveyed in a production that’s both heartfelt traditional drama and techno-spectacular. 

Opening night was marred by a couple of minor glitches—voices inaudible during the opening scene (quickly corrected), and onstage voices competing with the unseen narrator. The populous streets of London aren’t as bustling as they might be, and some of the spectacle may be too much for very young children, of whom there were many on opening night, but no hysterical crying was heard from the audience in the capacious Hoffman Theatre.

Apart from these quibbles, this is as near-perfect a production of “A Christmas Carol” as you may ever hope to see. With a ground-floor art gallery open before the show, and a delectable assortment of restaurants nearby, the Lesher Center for the Arts is a tremendous destination, reachable by BART or an easy jaunt on Highway 24. However you get there, you’ll be glad you did.

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

 

ProductionA Christmas Carol
Written byCharles Dickens, adapted by Cynthia Caywood and Richard L. James
Directed & Choreographed byDirected by Scott Denison; Choreographed by Jennifer Perry
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThrough December 23rd, 2021
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$33-$50
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR PICKS! Sonoma Arts Live Delivers a Twin-Serving Holiday Treat — by Barry Willis

 

This time of year, theater companies can be counted on to offer up plenty of predictable Christmas classics.

Sonoma Arts Live has taken a contrarian tact with two similarly-themed shows directed by Michael Ross: “Plaid Tidings” and “Winter Wonderettes.” Performed on alternating dates, they’re both delightful tributes to the ubiquitous four-member vocal troupes of the 1950s and ‘60s.

The first, developed by Stuart Ross from the original “Forever Plaid” by James Raitt, features a male quartet that suffered an abrupt departure in an auto accident but who have been reincarnated for the holidays.

Photo by James Carr

Named for their trademark plaid jackets, the four crooners may enjoy an extension of their reincarnation if they perform well enough—quite a motivation, one that propels them through two high-energy hours of comedic antics, impressive dancing, and tremendous vocalizing. Trevor Hoffman, Andrew Smith, Scottie Woodard, and Brian Watson appear respectively as Jinx, Frankie, Sparky, and Smudge.

…Best bet: See both productions back-to-back.

The second show features a girl group in matching swirly skirts performing at the 1968 Harper’s Hardware holiday bash in Springfield, Ohio. Created by Roger Bean, “Winter Wonderettes” is a more tightly focused production compared to the somewhat improvisational feel of “Forever Plaid.”

Photo by James Carr

Julianne Bradbury, Sarah Lundstrom, Maeve Smith, and Jenny Veilleux are all convincing and very funny in the roles of Cindy Lou, Betty Jean, Suzy, and Missy, respectively, all of them with lovely voices and great comic timing. Both casts are very well balanced—as actors, dancers, and singers—backed by a solid band under the direction of Sherrill Peterson.

Scottie Woodard served as choreographer for both shows—“Plaid Tidings” being the more reckless of the two, in keeping with the male tradition of risk-taking for its own sake. “Wonderettes,” by contrast, offers a more demure presentation but one that’s more satisfying musically.

Both shows make the most of a simple set on the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall. While “Wonderettes” is more structurally complete and better rehearsed, “Plaid Tidings” has an untamed quality that makes it equally compelling.

Best bet: See both productions back-to-back. An ideal performance would feature both groups onstage together. That’s not likely to happen, but we can dream, can’t we?

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

 

Production“Plaid Tidings” and “Winter Wonderettes”
Written byStuart Ross/James Raitt and Roger Bean
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production Datesthru December 19th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$28 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An ASR Theater Review: “Late” a Baffling Production at Main Stage West — by Barry Willis

 

Main Stage West has an enviable record of expertly-selected and beautifully-performed productions. In recent memory are astounding, gorgeously-rendered shows such as “The House of Yes,” “Lungs,” “Blackbird,” “After Miss Julie,” and “Heathen Valley,” all of them given glowing reviews here.

Against this impressive background, there’s little to explain the oddity that is “Late, A Cowboy Song,” in the cozy theater on Sebastopol’s Main Street through December 18. Reputedly one of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s early efforts, “Late” features three North Bay talents, under the direction of Missy Weaver, trying to make something significant from what’s not much more than a collection of semi-related sketches from Ruhl’s notebook.

…there’s nothing funny about it, other than the fact that an MSW play-reading committee decided it was worth developing.

A description lifted from the MSW site: Mary, always late and always married, meets a lady cowboy outside the city limits of Pittsburgh who teaches her how to ride a horse. Mary’s husband, Crick, buys a painting with the last of their savings. Mary and Crick have a baby, but they can’t decide on the baby’s name, or the baby’s gender. A story of one woman’s education and her search to find true love outside the box.

More: Crick (Jeff Coté) is an unemployed stay-at-home husband who cooks for Mary (Sharia Pierce)—even though she seldom comes home for dinner on time—flirts and bickers with her, and finally caves into her demands that he get a job. Their relationship is pointless, their finances are thin, and their living conditions are rough. Mary finds solace with a friend named Red (Nancy Prebilich), a self-styled guitar-playing, horse-riding “lady cowboy.” Having a baby only compounds the problems in her marriage, and Mary ultimately rides off into the western Pennsylvania sunset with Red. The end.

I am not giving too much away by revealing this. Not a single problem In the Crick-and-Mary household gets solved and there’s not enough in Mary’s pleasant encounters with Red to justify abandoning her marriage, but that’s the tale as delivered. Somewhere I saw a promotional blurb hyping the show as “a comedy” but there’s nothing funny about it, other than the fact that an MSW play-reading committee decided it was worth developing. Mostly it’s a lot of bickering, confusion, and alienation punctuated by a few tender moments until it all comes to a merciful halt.

 

The dramatic arc of “Late” is shallow at best, and Mary has the only discernible character arc. Sarah Ruhl can be a tremendously engaging playwright who favors throwing in bits of magical realism—see for example, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” that played recently to full houses at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre. “Late” attempts magical realism too—set designer David Lear’s horse being the best example.

Coté, Pierce, and Preblich try mightily with what they’ve been given, but saturation irony simply isn’t a strong enough foundation on which to build a play that will sustain an audience through ninety non-stop minutes. Ruhl has penned many compelling plays. Regrettably, “Late, A Cowboy Song” isn’t one of them.

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

 

ProductionOne Flea Spare
Written byNaomi Wallace
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru April 30th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!-----

ASR Theater Review: “Father/Daughter” a Muddle at Aurora Theatre — by Barry Willis

Two talented actors do their best to breathe life into the world premier of Kait Kerrigan’s “Father/Daughter,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, through Sunday December 12.

Recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, “Father/Daughter” opens with a divorced chemistry teacher named Baldwin (William Thomas Hodgson) meeting a young woman named Risa (Sam Jackson) in a pickup bar. It’s a tentative and prickly introduction for both, one that doesn’t seem to have much potential, especially for Risa, but a relationship emerges. Nearly two hours later, we are 20 years into the future, with Baldwin having a heart-to-heart discussion about marriage with his adult daughter Miranda, also played by Jackson.

Between these two bookends is a lengthy meandering slog through thorny modern family relationships. Hodgson also plays the part of Louis, who is either Baldwin’s father or Risa’s father. It’s not clear which—a confusion amplified by Kerrigan’s clumsy attempt at blending characters and shifting time.

The…well-performed dance break, about twenty minutes in, is a welcome relief….

Many plays employ actors in multiple roles, but for this to work their characters must be clearly differentiated—not the case in “Father/Daughter.” Risa and Miranda look and sound identical, as do Baldwin and Louis. Plus there are scant dramatic shifts to indicate which characters Hodgson and Jackson are playing. This may be intentional on the part of the playwright, to show how human behavior doesn’t really change from one generation to the next, or it may be the fault of director M. Graham Smith in not encouraging more differentiation from his cast.

The net effect on the audience is something like bobbing about in a rudderless boat: we don’t know where we are other than knowing we’re going nowhere.

Sam Jackson and William Thomas Hodgson in Kait Kerrigan’s Father/Daughter, directed by M. Graham Smith. Photo by Kevin Berne.

There’s no serious goal for either Risa or Baldwin, other than trying to make some sort of sense of their lives individually and together. There’s nothing illuminating about any of their interactions, but somehow they muddle through, which seems to be the only point of the tale. The production comes off like a condensed version of years of family counseling—lots and lots of talk, not much action, and ongoing personal and interpersonal problems that will never be resolved. The dramatically pointless but well-performed dance break, about twenty minutes in, is a welcome relief from interminable self-absorbed conversation.

Kerrigan’s script is a moribund low-stakes/low-amplitude  exercise in art for art’s sake. We can see what she’s trying and failing to achieve, but she could do it better by revising the script, perhaps under the tutelage of Mark St. Germain, whose “Dancing Lessons” is a master class in two-actor romances.

Photo by Kevin Berne.

“Father/Daughter” has implied potential but even actors at the expert level of Hodgson and Jackson can’t make it fly. Kate Boyd’s elegant set offsets the dramatic boredom to some extent, as does Cliff Caruthers’ evocative sound design. Takeaway: potential ticket buyers should be wary of obscure new plays with no intermission. There’s a reason why they’re presented that way.

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

 

ProductionFather/Daughter
Written byKate Kerrigan
Directed byM. Graham Smith
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Dec 12th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$20 – $78
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2/5
Performance4/5
Script1/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

An ASR PICK! Theatre Review: Left Edge Transcends with Comedic Magic — by Barry Willis

A hashish-infused New Year’s Eve party yields unintended consequences in Sarah Ruhl’s “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” at Left Edge Theatre through November 21.

A Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominee, the prolific Ruhl mines the comical friction between middle-class morality and libertine lifestyles when two married New Jersey couples decide to invite a “polyamorous” young woman and her two male lovers to their annual fete. Act One is a lengthy bit of exposition in which we get familiar with the two couples—Jane and Michael (Angela Squire and Anthony Martinez, respectively) and Georgie and Paul (Gina Alvarado and Corey Jackson, respectively), sitting around drinking and bemoaning their highly-educated but not entirely satisfying existence.

Paul is an architect who’s grown bored doing “bathroom remodels” and has moved instead toward writing and lecturing about architecture. Michael is an unsuccessful musician who’s found subsistence writing jingles. Jane works in a law office where she’s become intrigued with Pip (Abbey Lee), an intern whose unconventional lifestyle has prompted her to suggest including Pip and her lovers as party guests—a slightly naughty shared joke that ultimately forces the four friends to confront their  conceptual limitations about love, eroticism, and commitment.

Director Sandra Ish has worked up a gorgeous presentation of this piece…

Self-confrontation is most pronounced in Georgie, who befriends Pip to the point of going hunting with her, a bumbling attempt at making spiritual connections to the natural world that ultimately lands them in jail. Georgie’s personal dramatic arc is the strong thread in this tightly-woven but loose-around-the-edges story—in fact, late in the play she steps out of the story and addresses the audience directly, a somewhat jarring departure from what might otherwise be expected given what has transpired beforehand. There’s also a pivotal subplot involving Jenna (Jewel Ramos), the mostly-absent teenage daughter of Jane and Michael, and god-daughter of Georgie, who seems to have a better relationship with her than do her own parents.

Jenna’s surprise return home is the laugh-out-loud high point of this prescient comedy/drama, a plot device as delightful in its small way as is Pip’s extended improvisational dance interpretation of the old country song “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” The uninhibited Abbey Lee is fantastically exaggerated in the part, a diametrical opposite from the emotionless android she played recently in “Galatea” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center.

Anderson Templeton is Freddie, the soft-spoken, sensitive-to-the-point-of-annoyance member of Pip’s coven; Nathaniel Mercier is the more intellectually aggressive David, a mathematician given to lecturing about Pythagoras and theories of the triangle—in his words, the strongest form in nature. His fascination with numbers resonates with architect Paul and musician Michael, but his riff on the strength of the three-cornered form is clearly meant as a challenge to the two married couples and perhaps to the audience. Cue David Crosby’s song “Triad.”

Director Sandra Ish has worked up a gorgeous presentation of this piece, in which can be seen roots as deep as Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Ang Lee’s film “The Ice Storm.” Argo Thompson’s set works seamlessly as Jane and Michael’s home, a forest where Georgie and Pip go hunting, and the jail where they ponder their fate. Patrick Nims contributes substantially with gorgeously immersive three-channel video projections, as does April George with lovely lighting design.

The show’s female cast members—in particular, Lee, Squire, and Alvarado—are very strong in this production, but it’s well performed by the entire cast. No weak links! There’s a lingering sense that playwright Ruhl may not have wrapped up every loose thread in this well-paced tale—perfectly appropriate in that very little in real life ever has clearly defined starts and stops. Takeaway: in matters of love, live in the moment and consider all possibilities.

Whether you are single, married, polyamorous, or undefined, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” is funny, engaging, and provocative for all the right reasons.

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

 

ProductionHow to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Written bySarah Ruhl
Directed bySandra Ish
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theater Co.
Production DatesThrough November 21, 2021
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone707-546-3600
Tickets$22-$44
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

An ASR Theater Review — Ambitious “Great Khan” Fills the Stage at SF Playhouse — by Barry Willis

“The Great Kahn” cast at work.

A brave high school student learns life lessons from one of history’s most famous conquerors in “The Great Khan” at San Francisco Playhouse, through November 13.

Leon Jones stars as Jayden, a student whose bravery in defending a classmate from a gang attack has caused his mother to move them to a new home and enroll him in a new school to save him from harassment and possible retaliation. Laudable precautions on her part don’t prevent nightly visits from “Ant,” the girl he saved, who climbs through his bedroom window each night to give him trouble about his gallant deed. Ant (Jamella Cross) seems genuinely confused as to whether she should be thankful or resentful, as if the rescue somehow demeaned her independence. Jayden, in turn, is genuinely confused about what she’s doing in his room.

Two people thrown together by accident: it’s a potent setup for Michael Gene Sullivan’s ambitious and mostly successful meditation on teenage identity. Jayden’s a smart kid but is a worry for his hard-working single mom Crystal, played with some emotional detachment by Velina Brown. He has tough time connecting to school, especially a history class about the European Middle Ages, a field of study that he dismisses as being mostly about “dead white people.” Then his well-meaning but mostly clueless teacher Mr. Adams (Adam KuveNiemann) suggests that he research Genghis Khan, the legendary Mongolian conqueror whose empire encompassed most of Asia and a large part of Europe. Mr. Adams ups the ante by assigning Jayden a project partner, a nerdy girl named Gao-Ming (Kina Kantor) whose encyclopedic knowledge almost compensates for her social awkwardness.

…a good solid effort…

As Gao-Ming and Jayden study, he develops a near-obsession about the conqueror whose given name was Temujin (Brian Rivera). In a delightful bit of magical realism, Temujin begins to appear in his room, telling Jayden all about his life, from growing up and selecting a bride, to ultimately creating one of the biggest empires the world has ever known.

Temujin (Brian Rivera*) gets acquainted with Jayden (Leon Jones) in ‘The Great Khan’ by Michael Gene Sullivan at SF Playhouse.

It’s a life-changing event for Jayden, and for the audience too—Rivera simply commands the stage as the legendary Khan, striding about in full Mongol warrior gear (costumes by Kathleen Qiu), singing lustily in Mongolian, and telling Jayden how he succeeded: by offering the conquered the opportunity to join his horde, and by instructing his soldiers to leave some of their enemies alive that “they might tell the tale”—an early exercise in what we now call “brand building.”

Relaxed and confident, Rivera clearly relishes the role. His performance is so mesmerizing that it has the unfortunate effect of putting his castmates in his shadow—probably not director Darryl V. Jones’ intention, but perhaps an inevitability when an actor is so perfectly suited for his part.

Sullivan’s script, while very good, could use a bit of editing. The early part suffers from too much exposition—Ant makes multiple appearances in Jayden’s room, in an effort to resolve her own feelings about the incident which launched the story, but she might be able to do so in three visits instead of five.

The scriptwriter’s “rule of three”—applied to setups for jokes as well as dramatic buildups—has proven accurate over centuries. And Gao-Ming seems under-utilized, mostly as comic relief. She, Crystal, and Mr. Adams have the shallowest character arcs in the play, while Jayden and Ant have the largest. Temujin doesn’t need a character arc—his presence alone is sufficient to drive the drama.

Ant (Jamella Cross*) confides in Jayden (Leon Jones) in ‘The Great Khan’ by Michael Gene Sullivan .

 

“The Great Khan” is the first big-cast post-pandemic production put on by SF Playhouse. It’s a good solid effort that showgoers will find both rewarding and provocative. A streaming version is available for those still reluctant to venture into indoor gatherings.

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

 

ProductionThe Great Kahn
Written byMichael Gene Sullivan
Directed byDarryl V. Jones
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru November 13th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

ASR Theater Review: Erma Bombeck Alive and Well in “At Wit’s End” — by Barry Willis

North Bay stage veteran Jill Wagoner brings legendary humorist Erma Bombeck to life in “At Wit’s End,” at Napa’s Lucky Penny through October 31.

One of America’s most prolific and celebrated writers, Bombeck practiced her craft persistently from an early age with a series of poorly-paying small-scale gigs until she finally broke through in 1964 with Ohio newspaper the Kettering-Oakwood Times, which paid her three dollars for each weekly column. A year later she began writing twice-weekly columns for the Dayton Journal Herald. Shortly after starting with that publication, Newsday Newspaper Syndicate put her in 36 major U.S. newspapers—a stunning achievement for a new talent. By the 1980s her work was appearing regularly in 900 American and Canadian newspapers, totaling millions of readers.

She also appeared frequently as a radio and television personality and at her peak was earning as much as a million dollars annually. Despite hitting the financial jackpot, she continued in her tried-and-proven format of homespun humor from a suburban housewife’s perspective. In this, she was very much part of lineage of self-deprecating American humorists going back to Will Rogers, a lineage that includes masters of minor domestic absurdity such as Jean Shepherd and Garrison Keillor. (Terry Ryan’s “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” is very much in this tradition.)

…a delightful and fascinating piece of Americana…

Bombeck’s rise from working-class origins to media superstar was a quintessential American story, but she alienated some of her more conservative fans with her support of 1978’s still-languishing Equal Rights Amendment. All of this is conveyed casually and conversationally by Wagoner on a simple set by Brian Watson that serves as various parts of a Midwestern home. As easily as a neighbor chatting over coffee, she tells Bombeck’s first-person story (script by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel) without gloating about her ultimate success.

Jill Wagoner at work as Erma Bombeck

In a loose-fitting period-perfect dress (costumes by Barbara McFadden) Wagoner moves easily about the set, encompassing Bombeck’s career arc with a deferential, off-handed delivery that’s plausible and pleasant without an excess of irony.

The performance is well-paced—neither too slow nor too hurried—and at approximately 70 minutes, is the perfect length for both audience and performer. “At Wit’s End”—the name of Bombeck’s long-running column, a best-of compilation, and this show—is a delightful and fascinating piece of Americana.

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

 

ProductionErma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Written byAllison Engel and Margaret Engel
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough October 31 (no performance Oct. 28-29)
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$28-$39
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

An ASR PICK! Theater Review: Gorgeous, Pitch-perfect “Dancing Lessons” at Cinnabar — by Barry Willis

An autistic scientist and an injured dancer find solace and hope in Cinnabar Theater’s “Dancing Lessons,” through October 31.

Jessica Headington stars as Senga, a dancer who has suffered a devastating and potentially career-ending knee injury. Trevor Hoffmann is Ever, her pesky upstairs neighbor who badgers her to give him dancing lessons so that he can fulfill his function as emcee of an upcoming awards gala. Their initial meetings couldn’t be more contentious or less promising – she’s in an enormous amount of pain and anxiety, and he has little emotional empathy and limited social skill.

Cast of “Dancing Lessons” at work.

Mutual impairment, distrust, and animosity at the start: a fantastically potent setup that scriptwriter Mark St. Germain spins into one of the loveliest romantic comedies ever conceived. A career writer for television and film, St. Germain has an unerring eye and ear for what works in telling a story. His script is absolutely pitch-perfect: every word uttered by the actors and every action they make propel this tale of an unlikely but totally plausible relationship. His characters’ conversations are sometimes terse but never artificially truncated, and sound perfectly natural as Senga and Ever grow more familiar with each other. “Dancing Lessons” is a theatrical rarity in that it contains neither fluff nor filler.

…“Dancing Lessons” is the kind of show that makes a critic’s life rewarding…

The ebb-and-flow of this production is a master class in onstage storytelling, with rhythm and musicality like a minor-key symphony. Director John Browning has coaxed a stunning performance from his cast of two superbly talented actors, aided by Wayne Hovey’s elegant set that serves as Senga’s apartment, Ever’s office and classroom, and an auditorium where Ever speaks to the National Autism Coalition. Hovey also served as lighting designer; his work adds much to the show’s evolving mood.

“Dancing Lessons” -Trevor Hoffmann and Jessica Headington.

Not enough praise can be showered on Headington and Hoffmann, both of them fully invested in their characters and both of them totally comfortable with and trusting of each other. It’s an amazing balancing act in that the dynamic differences between Senga and Ever ultimately blend together so well in a heartwarming pas de deux—both literal and metaphorical.

“Dancing Lessons” is the kind of show that makes a critic’s life rewarding. With just a pinch of magical realism, it’s certainly the most satisfying romantic comedy this reviewer has ever seen—just absolutely right from beginning to end, and more than worthy of multiple viewings, a wish this writer intends to fulfill.

Headington & Hoffmann at work in “Dancing Lessons”

Kudos to Cinnabar for bringing this wonderful production to life in the wake of the marvelous “Cry It Out.” The Petaluma company has a perfect track record so far as theater companies emerge from

COVID-induced hibernation. Proof of vaccination is required of attendees, as is the wearing of masks during performances. For those still unwilling to venture out, “Dancing Lessons” will be available online October 29-31.

 

 

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

 

Production"Dancing Lessons"
Written byMark St. Germain
Directed byJohn Browning
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough October 31st
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

ASR Theater Review: “Topdog/Underdog” Uneven but Compelling at Main Stage West — by Barry Willis

Sibling rivalry and resentment take a horrific turn in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” at Main Stage West in Sebastopol, through October 30.

Directed by North Bay theater veteran (and cookie magnate) Bronwen Shears, Keene Hudson and D’Artagnan Riviera star as brothers Lincoln and Booth, respectively, residing in a shabby room with a communal bathroom down the hall. A reformed street hustler, Lincoln has taken a job in a local arcade, acting the part of his namesake president in a game in which players take potshots at him. Booth is doing his best to master the art of Three Card Monte so that he might improve his personal cash flow by preying on gullible “marks”—a pursuit Lincoln has already renounced, to the point where he’s reluctant to coach Booth on the finer points of the game.

…The potential to take this production from good to great is certainly there…

The two brothers vacillate between reminiscing about their mostly dysfunctional childhoods and arguing with each other. The more animated and aggressive of the two, Lincoln is frequently unkind to Booth, who has long chafed in his older brother’s shadow. There’s also palpable love between the two, but much disagreement about their shared past as well as the future. Their interactions—all taking place in one room—are an emotional rollercoaster skillfully crafted by playwright, director and the two actors.

Keene Hudson at work in Topdog/Underdog.

Hudson and Riviera play off each other well—Hudson’s character the more dynamic of the two. Riviera plays Booth as brooding and introspective, without a hint of the malevolence that ultimately brings down the curtain. He has a solid grasp of his character and his character’s motivation, but stumbled with some lines late on opening weekend, a shortcoming certain to be corrected as the production moves into its second, third, and fourth weeks.

The potential to take this production from good to great is certainly there. Parks’ theme, of course, is one of the oldest, going back to ancient mythologies—the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, for example. Other inspirations may include the viciously backstabbing sisters in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” or the contentious brothers Austin and Lee in Sam Shepard’s “True West.” There are certainly striking parallels between that play and this one. It’s not a jolly ride, but it’s one that will open your eyes and perhaps prompt discussion. “Topdog/Underdog” is a compelling examination of a permanently recurring and tragic human condition.

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

 

ProductionHam for the Holidays
Written byShad Willingham
Directed byEmily Cornelius
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Dec 30th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

 

An ASR Theater Review — Raven Players’ “Fully Committed” Overlong But Still Funny — by Barry Willis

A day in the life of a harried scheduling manager makes for some uproarious comedy in “Fully Committed,” at the Raven Performing Arts Theater in downtown Healdsburg, through October 17.

The telephone equivalent of a slamming-door farce, the production requires its lone onstage talent to dash from one telephone to the next—three internal lines at opposite ends of the wide stage, and two or three on his desk. Plus his personal cell phone. It’s a lot to keep track of, especially when they ring in rapid succession or in unison.

…a delightful show…

Troy Thomas Evans plays the roles of everyone working in a trendy New York restaurant—chef, maitre d’, front-of-house staff, and an absent co-worker, plus his own father, and dozens of pesky would-be patrons who refuse to take “I’m sorry—we’re fully committed” as an answer when they try to make reservations. Evans is energetic and convincing as Sam, a hopeful young actor trying to land a gig at Lincoln Center, and to arrange time off to spend the Christmas holiday with his family.

Troy Thomas Evans at work as Sam – photo by Ray Mabry

He conveys all of this effectively; some of his characters (Bunny VanDerveer, Bryce from Gwyneth Paltrow’s office, the dreaded Ned Finley) are outrageous while others are merely amusing. His performance is hampered by the need to scramble from one side of the stage to the other, because director Tika Moon insisted on using the entirety of the wide stage as the restaurant’s basement office, a space that in the real world would be almost unbearably cramped, the way other productions’ set designs usually have it.

Net result: this “Fully Committed” runs more than two hours —no intermission— vs. a typical production’s 90 minutes. It’s still a delightful show earning Evans a big thumbs-up as a comedic performer. Plus it’s great that live theater has returned to downtown Healdsburg, which was bustling on opening night. The October 16 production will also be livestreamed.

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

 

ProductionFully Committed
Production DatesThrough October 17th, 2021
Production AddressRaven Theater Healdsburg

115 North Street Healdsburg, CA 95448
Websitehttp://www.RavenPlayers.org
Telephone707-433-6335
Tickets$10-$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An ASR Pick! “Sunset Boulevard” a Stunner at Sonoma Arts Live — by Barry Willis

Sunset Boulevard ensemble at work!

Sonoma Arts Live has emerged from eighteen months of hibernation with a stunning production of “Sunset Boulevard.” The first large-scale musical to appear on a Sonoma County stage since the long pandemic shutdown, the show runs on the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center through October 10.

North Bay musical theater favorite Dani Innocenti-Beem shines in the role of Norma Desmond, a reclusive and delusional former film star who’s befriended, seduced, and rejected by down-on-his-luck scriptwriter Joe Gillis (Michael Scott Wells) in this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical adaptation of the classic Billy Wilder film, perhaps the ultimate depiction of a Hollywood love affair gone sour.

…stage veteran Norman Hall has a nice cameo as legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille…

Backed by a solid five-piece band, Innocenti-Beem and Wells sing their hearts out. Seasoned show-goers may not initially recognize Wells, his signature shaved head hidden by a stylish wig, while Innocenti-Beem is considerably slimmer than in her last stage appearance in “Sweeney Todd” at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. Wells convincingly nails his character’s hopes, cynicism, and failures while Innocenti-Beem moves heaven and earth with her emotive high-volume vocals. Also a skilled comedienne, she gives the audience a full examination of Norma’s delusions, exaggerated just enough to let us know how far off the rails she’s gone. It’s a terrific performance.

Dani Innocenti-Beem

Secondary characters are excellent too, especially Tim Setzer as Max Von Mayerling, Norma’s loyal-to-a-fault butler. Setzer is in fine voice, giving Max a properly guttural Teutonic baritone both speaking and singing, amazing in that Setzer’s natural speaking voice is softer and higher. Maeve Smith is superb as Betty Schaefer, Gillis’ young collaborator and potential lover once he tires of Norma. Stage veteran Norman Hall has a nice cameo as legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille. The large ensemble—sixteen in all—are very good in multiple roles. The music isn’t memorable, lacking Lloyd Webber’s characteristic melodic hooks—think “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “Jesus Christ, Superstar”—but it works to propel the story.

Michael Scott Wells and Maeve Smith work a scene.

Critical quibbles: an overly-long bit of exposition mirroring the film’s early scenes, and a sometimes rickety set, but the show itself is exemplary, with just-right pacing, a welcome surprise in light of how long it was on hold. Director Carl Jordan has pulled a fantastically compelling production from a diverse cast.

“Sunset Boulevard” is a delight—and an entertainment bargain.

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

 

Production'Sunset Boulevard'
Written byMusic by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black

Story based on the Billy Wilder film
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThursdays thru Sundays thru Oct.10th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An ASR Theater PICK! Cinnabar’s “Cry It Out” — Hilarious, Lovely, Elegant — by Barry Willis

Two young mothers with newborns form a friendship that soon encompasses distinctions in class, education, income, and aspirations in “Cry It Out” at Cinnabar Theatre through September 26.

Elegantly conceived by playwright Molly Smith Metzger, the production centers around two Long Island neighbors, Jessie (Ilana Niernberger) and Lina (Amanda Vitiello), both on maternity leave with babies at home, a similarity that enables a quickly-formed deep bond. They share afternoon coffee, tidbits on baby care—the show’s title is derived from a popular theory that babies put to bed should be allowed to cry until they go back to sleep—and many personal misgivings and misadventures, some of them laugh-out-loud funny.

“Cry It Out” – Ilana Niernberger and Amanda Vitiello at work.

A working-class girl with attitude as strong as her New Jersey accent, Lina is a comic riot as she describes her travails not only with her baby but with her underachieving husband and his alcoholic mother, who serves as nanny when Lina goes out. Jessie is the more contained of the two—contemplative and methodical, an attorney considering leaving her profession to be a stay-at-home mom. Both women have problems with their husbands, whom we never meet.

…director Molly Noble extracts delicious performances from four exquisitely talented but hugely differing actors…

Into their midst comes a nerdy neighbor, Mitchell (Andrew Patton), awkwardly inquiring if his wife, also a recent mom, might join them. Once they get over the creepiness of the fact that he’s been watching them, they agree to welcome Adrienne (Kellie Donnelly), a haughty disdainful designer with little interest in raising children or socializing with others who are. Mitchell’s well-intentioned intervention is a desperate nudge in the wrong direction, fireworks to follow.

It’s a fantastically potent setup, with increasingly satisfying payoffs as the story progresses. The quick-moving one-act segues seamlessly from comedy to drama as director Molly Noble extracts delicious performances from four exquisitely talented but hugely differing actors. Their differences as performers and the differences between their characters expand the dynamic possibilities of this show far beyond what an audience might expect when first viewing the simple set of a suburban backyard patio.

“Cry It Out” – L-R Amanda Vitiello, Ilana Niernberger, Kellie Donnelly

“Cry It Out” is a master class in elegant modest-budget theater. North Bay residents are privileged to have such sterling performances so close to home. As with most Bay Area theater companies, Cinnabar requires proof of vaccination at the door, and the wearing of masks during the performance. Attendees also get a sticker that says “Welcome Back!” to which we can only reply “Welcome Back, Cinnabar!” Those who can’t get to the theater may also view a streaming production.

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

 

Production"Cry It Out"
Written byMolly Smith Metzger
Directed byMolly Noble
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Sept. 26th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR Theater Review: “Galatea” – Brilliant, Heartwarming Sci-Fi at Spreckels – by Barry Willis

A mysterious survivor of a deep-space disaster is brought out of stasis more than nine decades later in the prolific David Templeton’s “Galatea,” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park through September 19.

Aboard a space station orbiting the earth, two researchers—Dr. Mailer and Dr. Hughes (Sindu Singh and Chris Schloemp, respectively)—delve into the origins of “71” (Abbey Lee) an apparently authentic member of the maintenance crew of the starship Galatea, which suffered an unexplained total destruction. Prior to the discovery of humanoid 71, and fellow crew member 29 (David L. Yen), shards of the wreckage were all that had been found, none of them substantial enough to support a working hypothesis of what might have happened.

Abbey Lee in Spreckels Theatre Company’s “Galatea.”

71’s uniform, stilted robotic speech, and lack of familiarity with basic human social interactions all support her contention that she had been a crew member aboard the Galatea. Psychotherapist Dr. Mailer hopes to reintegrate 71 into society, by coaching her through fundamentals such as greetings, conversations, gestures, and reactions to humor.

…Into the mix steps her colleague Dr. Hughes, a geeky, gregarious researcher with a bottomless collection of corny jokes…

An “EPS” (Energy Processing Synthetic) series humanoid, 71 undertakes the tutorials with a beguiling mix of robotic reluctance and enthusiasm. Versatile, uninhibited, and perfectly in control, Abbey Lee is amazing as the subject slowly transforming under Dr. Mailer’s gentle persistent guidance. Many of 71’s early attempts to mimic human behavior are both laugh-out-loud funny and almost tearfully poignant. The gambit of a humanoid attempting to become more human is clearly derived from the emotionless android character Data of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” in turn derived from the character of Pinocchio, the wooden marionette who wants to become a real boy, from the 19th-century Italian children’s story.

Sindu Singh, Abbey Lee & David L Yen at work.

Singh is outstanding as the psychotherapist Dr. Mailer—patient, methodical, and loving but pushy when necessary, with a few personal quirks (“Okey dokey, pokey”) that make her utterly charming. Into the mix steps her colleague Dr. Hughes, a geeky, gregarious researcher with a bottomless collection of corny jokes. As always, Chris Schloemp is relaxed, confident, and completely convincing as his character probes for more information about the Galatea. He consults with Dr. Mailer about 71’s progress, in the process sometimes interfering as much as he’s helping.

The denouement launches in the second act with the appearance of 29 (David L.Yen), another recently discovered Galatea veteran and revived EPS unit. Still visibly damaged and uncommunicative, 29 perks up, within his limits, at questioning about 71 and ultimately reveals all—or as much as he can remember and convey—about what went wrong with the ship and how he and 71 survived. Normally a dynamic actor, Yen here displays a previously unseen aspect of his astounding ability, portraying 29 as deeply as possible while retaining the character’s essential uni-dimensionality.

It would be hard to imagine a better cast for this lovely, heartwarming production, one that Templeton described after the opening performance as “turning the usual sci-fi trope on its head”—i.e, no marauding monsters (“Alien,” “Jurassic Park”), nefarious corporate overlords (“Blade Runner”) or armies of rebellious androids (“I, Robot”).

David L Yen and Abbey Lee in Galatea

Beautifully helmed by director Marty Pistone (assisted by Andy Templeton), the show itself emerged September 3 from 18 months of COVID-induced stasis, with Eddy Hansen and Elizabeth Bazzano’s elegant set still intact—you’ve never seen a lovelier Palladian window—since the postponement of “Galatea” in early 2020, a time that now seems long ago. Chris Schloemp’s gorgeous, sometimes ephemeral projections add just the right touch for what is to date the best production to appear in the North Bay as the theater world slowly emerges from the pandemic.

“Galatea” is a rarity—a brilliant script brilliantly executed. Potential ticket buyers couldn’t ask for more.

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

 

Production"Galatea"
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byMarty Pistone, assisted by Andy Templeton
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough September 19. 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An ASR Theater Review — A Zoom with a View: Patty from HR Gives Corporate Training a Thumping – by Barry Willis

‘Patty from HR: Mo Patty Mo Problems,’ the sequel to writer/performer Michael Phillis’s “Patty from HR Would Like a Word” is coming to Oasis Jan. 30-Feb 1.

Corporate training sessions and their inevitable Power Point presentations are among the most dreaded rituals of modern life. Drag performer Michael Phillis must have endured dozens of them to come up with Patty from HR: A Zoom with a View, at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West through September 11.

Written, directed, and performed by Phillis, A Zoom with a View skewers the idiocy of technological culture—including, thank you very much, the irksome speech patterns of millennials. In a quick-moving one-act, Phillis’s self-deprecating Human Resources manager Patty covers everything from the early days of Netscape and dial-up modems to the present day of full-time social media as she stumbles through an inept introduction to Zoom video meetings, the bane and the salvation of many home-bound office workers during the Covid crisis.

It’s a lot to cover in only 70 frenetic minutes but Phillis does it with a delightful, goofy grace…

Her tattered Dress Barn business suit and frazzled 80s hairstyle serving as visual testament to decades spent toiling in the corporate trenches, Patty dances around the idea of Zoom, and Power Point too, and the longer she goes on, the clearer it becomes how little she actually knows about either. Imagine Dana Carvey’s “church lady” jacked up on caffeine, adrenaline, and perhaps just a tidbit of stage fright. Patty’s a corporate train wreck and you simply can’t look away.

When she stumbles (often) she gets plenty of coaching from an unseen tech assistant, whose annoyed comments act as punctuation for Patty’s non-stop blather, directed scattershot at herself, her audience, and her corporate overlords. It’s a lot to cover in only 70 frenetic minutes but Phillis does it with a delightful, goofy grace that earned plenty of laughs and sustained applause on opening night.

 

Main Stage West co-artistic director Keith Baker enjoys a cameo as “Kevin,” an underling who supplies her with props. Patty is never quite sure about names, a running gag throughout the show, and of course, a detriment for any human resource professional. That’s one of many repeated themes tightly woven into the fabric of this expertly conceived and executed production, its three-week run an injustice to its comedic brilliance.

A Zoom with a View runs Thursday-Friday-Saturday at 8 pm through September 11, with a 5 pm matinee Sunday September 5.

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

 

ProductionPatty from HR: A Zoom with a View
Written byMichael Phillis
Directed byMichael Phillis
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Sept 11th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

An ASR Theater Review – “Hold These Truths” a Warm Welcome Back to Theater – by Barry Willis

Jomar Tagatac at SF Playhouse.

Racism is an eternal condition of the human species. Xenophobia, tribalism, call it what you will, it continues to plague us today despite our self-congratulatory image as a modern, rational society.

In “Hold These Truths,” at San Francisco Playhouse through July 3, playwright Jeanne Sakata makes the universal personal with a tale of one Japanese-American’s effort to deal with an unjust sentence leveled against him for ignoring a curfew applied only to him and his fellow “Nisei,” (second-generation Japanese immigrants), all of them US citizens by virtue of having been born in this country. In Gordon Hirabayashi’s story, we also get a history lesson about how detention camps to house them were set up in western US states, the result of widespread fear following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was (and still is) considered one of the most socially conscious presidents of the 20th century, but his signing of Executive Order 9066 that established the camps was one of his most reprehensible acts, one that was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld its legality in a split decision. The order was clearly motivated by racism, but Italian-Americans and German-Americans, two of the largest immigrant groups in the US, were also herded into camps and deprived of their fundamental rights.

Director Jeffrey Lo has coaxed a lovely recital from Tagatac…

In a ninety-minute-plus solo performance, Jomar Tagatac embodies both the young and mature Hirabayashi, encompassing his journey from college student to college professor, and celebrating his ultimate success in getting his conviction overturned, the result of an accidental discovery of his legal records by an academic colleague.

A veteran of many productions at SF Playhouse, Tagatac also acts the parts of members of Hirabayashi’s family, his friends, officials, police officers, judges, and many other characters in quick seamless character shifts, under a modestly-scaled but beautiful projected montage (design by Teddy Hulsker) of slowly varying flag motifs, old photographs, and historical documents, including the US Constitution, whose slogan “we hold these truths to be self-evident . . . that all men are created equal” remains an article of faith held by Hirabayashi throughout his life, despite many reasons to doubt it.

Tagatac expertly distinguishes all his characters from each other, and especially from the primary one, sometimes simply by changing his jacket or moving from one spot to another on the mostly-bare stage (set by Christopher Fitzer).

While “Hold These Truths” is a cautionary tale about how the law can be subverted, it’s not a horror story of oppression and violence, especially not in the context of the horrors that consumed much of the “civilized” world in the 1940s. Some of it is actually funny—having negotiated a 90-day sentence for his curfew violation, Hirabayashi has to report to a road crew in Arizona, and gets there by hitchhiking from Seattle, apparently without any trouble. When he arrives, the local sheriff doesn’t know what to do with him other than to suggest that he go to a movie in town, to a theater equipped with air conditioning. In addition, he succeeds in winning conscientious objector status thanks to having joined the Quakers.

 

 

 

Director Jeffrey Lo has coaxed a lovely recital from Tagatac, who breezed through the press opener without a glitch. SF Playhouse was extremely cautious with this soft opener—all attendees had to present proof of vaccination, have their temperatures checked, agree to an affidavit stating their good health, and mop their hands with sanitizer before being admitted to the theater upstairs, where they were seated far apart but still asked to wear masks.

 

As of today (June 15) it’s unclear whether that policy will continue with the statewide lifting of pandemic precautions. In any case, “Hold These Truths” is a lovely performance and a welcome return to live, in-person theater. For those still reluctant to venture out, the show will also be available as an online streaming production.

 

 

 

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

 

ProductionSaturday Night at Grossinger’s
Written byStephen Cole
Directed byJaime Love and Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesMay 8, 2022
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center 276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

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An ASR Review: Left Edge Theater Serves Up Sweet “Slow Food” — by Barry Willis

A late Sunday dinner at a Greek restaurant in Palm Springs becomes a comedic ordeal for a pair of vacationing middle-aged New Yorkers in Wendy Macleod’s “Slow Food” at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa.

The show closed this past Sunday, June 13, after only a two-week run. Ordinarily, Aisle Seat Review wouldn’t cover such a limited engagement. But Left Edge deserves enormous credit for anticipating the June 15 statewide lifting of pandemic-related restrictions—and more for putting on such a lovely comedy, sorely needed after sixteen months of shutdown.

“Slow Food” featured Left Edge artistic director Argo Thompson in a rare acting appearance as Man, the male half of the vacationing couple, with Denise Elia-Yen as “Woman,” Man’s wife. David L. Yen stole the show as the curmudgeonly and uncooperative waiter, Stephen—“with an ffffffffff . . .,” he reminds his guests repeatedly.

“Slow Food” cast at work on stage.

The setup is simple: Man and Woman enter a restaurant near closing time, and rather than consuming the food and drink they desperately seek, they instead receive a load of guff from an opinionated server. The production plays out as an extended comedy sketch—small dramatic and character arcs counterbalanced by plenty of tension and shifting loyalties among the three performers, all stage veterans with decades of experience. Comfort in their roles was palpable for the limited-capacity audience, in what was clearly a testing-the-waters effort to emerge from the cocoon of COVID.

“Slow Food.” It’s that good…

Macleod is a brilliant playwright—her outrageous funny, and unforgettably disturbing “The House of Yes” enjoyed a fantastic production at Main Stage West in December 2018. “Slow Food” doesn’t rise to such a pinnacle but is hilarious without the need for deep psychological nuance and unsavory revelations. Imagine a Saturday Night Live sketch stretched from six minutes to ninety, and you’ve got a pretty solid grasp of what “Slow Food” is all about—a lightweight, feel-good comedy without malevolent repercussions or imagery that might haunt you after the fact.

Left Edge Theatre’s published schedule for the coming year includes a slot for an undetermined production “To Be Announced.” Consider this a vote for reprising “Slow Food.” It’s that good, and with a few more performances could be even better.

 

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

 

ProductionSlow Food
Written byWendy Macleod
Directed byDenise Elia-Yen
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 13, 2021
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
TicketsShow has closed.
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?---

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ASR’s Stuff Worth Seeing! Music Therapy Revives Dementia Patients in Rossato-Bennet’s Compelling Documentary – by Barry Willis

ASR’s “Stuff Worth Seeing” brings you news and reviews of exciting programming our critics and writers believe is worthy of your time and attention. Check them out! Thanks! — Editor

Some years ago, a friend and his sister decided that they would care for their elderly mother at home rather than handing her over to professional care. They fed her and bathed her and made sure that she consumed dozens of prescription medications several times per day, a self-imposed task that they originally imagined would last at most a year or two, given that their mother was well into her 80s and suffering from multiple ailments.

Instead, their home health-care regimen stretched into several years. Despite her general weakness, their mother proved an amazingly durable physical specimen, but mentally she was almost completely gone. She had come to the US as an immigrant at the age of eight and spoke English her entire life. Near the end, she lost all her English and spoke only rudimentary Greek. She no longer recognized her son and daughter.

Dementia is a widespread and growing problem. There are more than five million dementia patients in the United States. Approximately twice that number work full-time caring for them, to a large extent dispensing sedatives and other drugs that make them more manageable. There is a much more effective treatment available for those with dementia and other forms of mental impairment, treatment with very low cost and no negative side effects, compellingly demonstrated in a documentary by Michael Rossato-Bennet.

Alive Inside opens with an informal interview with a 90-year-old resident of a nursing home. She speaks in cogent sentences, but when asked about her life, can’t remember much. Then she dons a pair of headphones and hears a recording of Louis Armstrong playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The recording triggers a rush of memories and she pours forth all kinds of information about her life, from childhood on, information that was hidden from her prior to hearing the music. It’s one of the film’s many examples of the therapeutic value of music for people suffering from dementia.

The Director of ALIVE INSIDE

Winner of multiple awards at several international film festivals, Rossato-Bennet’s 2014 documentary follows social worker Dan Cohen through three years of introducing the benefits of music to people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other devastating forms of mental deterioration. Equipped with headphones, iPods, and a laptop computer from which he can program each player for each patient, Cohen visits nursing homes and works apparent miracles through the simple act of sharing music.

…she not only has a positive emotional breakthrough but begins to regain her vocabulary…

Many of the patients he visits are in vegetative or near-vegetative states and haven’t responded to other forms of therapy, yet they all respond to music—in particular, music that was very meaningful for them in their youth. The reason, according to neurologist Oliver Sacks (author of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, among many other titles) is that “music is not just a physiological stimulus . . . it engages the whole brain—memories, and emotions—in a way that no other stimulus can. “ Sacks goes on to explain that music connects to parts of the brain that are the last to be affected by dementia. It can awaken dormant parts of the brain that can’t be reached otherwise.

We are treated to an irrefutable example of this healing power late in the film when we meet a woman named Mary Lou Thompson, in late middle age and apparently good physical health but whose mind has begun to disintegrate. She’s lost words for common objects such as “fork” and “spoon” and can’t remember which button does what in her building’s elevator. Cohen fits her with headphones and an iPod loaded with music from her youth—Beatles and Beach Boys—and in an astounding transformation, she not only has a positive emotional breakthrough but begins to regain her vocabulary. Her personal music system and soundtrack are foundational to her new level of independence.

The film strongly implies that for music therapy to be effective, it must be music that is deeply significant for listeners. Advocates of classical/jazz/New Age/you-name-it music will be disappointed to learn that their favorite genres don’t have innate healing potential, nor do once-weekly concerts by well-meaning visiting musicians. The music played has to be deeply meaningful for each listener. For Henry, a ten-year nursing home resident who spends most of his time dozing, it’s Cab Calloway that wakes him up. A paranoid schizophrenic named Denise is emotionally out of control, but comes to center hearing Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” In another scene, she discards her walker and dances to salsa music. She hadn’t been without her walker in her two years at the institution, according to Rossato-Bennet.

Unlike drugs intended to keep elderly patients sedated, there doesn’t appear to be a downside to music therapy. Yet it’s near impossible to get it approved for widespread use, according to gerontologist Bill Thomas, MD, who states “The amount spent on drugs dwarfs what we could be spending on music therapy for every nursing home patient in America.” Thomas encounters no obstacles writing prescriptions costing $1000/month but has no way to get a $40 personal music system approved. Drugs make patients more manageable for nursing home workers, but, Thomas says, “We haven’t done anything, medically speaking, to touch the heart and soul of the patient.”

My own father lasted well into his 80s without paying any particular attention to diet, exercise, or other health concerns. Other than being a cranky old guy, he wasn’t mentally impaired. What sustained him throughout his life was his abiding love of music—especially Swing Era and Dixieland jazz, the music of his youth. He remained deeply involved with his music library right to the end, without relying on massive amounts of prescription drugs. Music carried him along. As the old saying goes, it added life to his years and quite probably, years to his life. Alive Inside makes a strong case that the same outcome might be possible for millions of elders.

 

 Alive Inside

A documentary by Michael Rossato-Bennet

Date of production: 2014

Runtime 78 minutes

Available on Netflix

 

Reviewer’s Score

Overall: 4 of 5 stars

Script: 4 of 5

Production value: 3.5 of 5

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.

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ASR’s Armchair Seat Film Review: Solid Direction, Astounding Performances Anchor “Hillbilly Elegy” – Reviewed by Barry Willis

Glenn Close and Amy Adams – photo by Lacey Terrell – Netflix

Director Ron Howard has delivered a Thanksgiving gift to America’s most-forgotten and most-maligned people—poor whites—with his solid cinematic treatment of Hillbilly Elegy, based on the best-selling memoir by J.D. Vance. The film enjoyed its Netflix debut on November 24.

While Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor have taken some liberties with Vance’s material—and of necessity, left out his observations and speculations about what ails the heartland—the book’s essential survival story remains intact: a poor kid with roots deep in the Kentucky hill country manages to overcome the soul-deadening effects of continually moving from place to place with his drug-abusing mother, and a childhood without a father or father figure—unless you count his mother’s nonstop parade of drunks, addicts, abusers, whackos, and losers.

The kid—J.D. Vance, played as an adult by Gabriel Basso, and as an adolescent by Owen Asztalos, both of them excellent—survives mostly by his wits, inspired by his mean-as-hell no-nonsense chain-smoking grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close), the counterbalance to his mother’s reliably erratic behavior. Unlike in similar stories, there are no kind-hearted coaches or teachers to intervene and help him along. Mamaw, in fact, seems to be his only guide, an unsteady one at best.

Haley Bennet, Gabriel Basso, and Amy Adams – photo by Lacey Terrell – Netflix

By sheer determination, young J.D. manages to overcome his family’s collective madness and the unhappy cycle of alcoholism/drug addiction/crime/jail that seems to be the fate of many of his high school classmates. He joins the Marines straight out of high school, does a stint in Iraq, completes four years of work at Ohio State University in only two, and wins admission to Yale Law School. It’s a story that would have critics leaping for new superlatives were it about a poor kid from a different background—one from a clearly oppressed minority, for example, whose against-all-odds triumphs are standard fare in film and television.

The fact that Hillbilly Elegy is about poor white people rather than poor people of color has apparently given some critics permission to be unfairly dismissive of this film. Poor white people are the last ethnic group that can be attacked with impunity, whose plight can be ignored without paroxysms of guilt. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton sealed her fate with her characterization of such people as “a basket of deplorables.” Trump won the election the moment those words came out of her mouth. There’s nothing working-class people hate more than condescension from Ivy League elitists.

Those who disparage this film are doing so largely from Ms. Clinton’s perspective, a perspective shared by a trolling lawyer at J.D.’s first interview for a summer law internship: “rednecks,” he says without irony, categorizing an entire family and subculture.

J.D. Vance became a Yale lawyer without forgetting where he came from. Many commentators apparently have little experience of life in the rural South or in the towns of the Rust Belt, whose populations in the 1950s swelled with Southern immigrants who went north seeking opportunity.

…Poor white people are the last ethnic group that can be attacked with impunity, whose plight can be ignored without paroxysms of guilt…

The decline of such towns caused by sending industrial production offshore, compounded by the opioid crisis, is a theme examined in depth in Vance’s book, but merely implied in Howard’s film—actually all the better, as the film remains tightly focused on the personal story. In many ways, Hillbilly Elegy is a great companion piece to 2017’s The Glass Castle, with Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts.|

For those who understand its premise and background, Hillbilly Elegy is a compelling triumph-of-the-underdog story, shot mostly in Georgia, with only a few exterior scenes actually shot in Middletown, Ohio, an appropriately-named generic town built in the shadow of an ARMCO steel plant. Taylor’s screenplay honors Vance’s book without mirroring it, and Howard’s direction is solid if a bit heavy on flashbacks and parallel flashbacks.

Haley Bennet, Glenn Close and Owen Asztalos – photo by Lacey Terrell – Netflix

Haley Bennett is understatedly consistent as J.D.’s long-suffering sister Lindsay. Amy Adams is a totally believable wonder as his way-out-of-control mother Bev. Veteran actress Glenn Close disappears so far into her character that she’s initially unrecognizable. Her astounding performance alone recommends this production—one that, like the book that inspired it, is good, not great, but nonetheless important.

 

“Hillbilly Elegy”

  • Streaming now on Netflix
  • Directed by Ron Howard.
  • Screenplay by Vanessa Taylor, based on the book by J.D. Vance
  • Starring: Gabriel Basso, Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Haley Bennett, Owen Asztalos, Bo Hopkins
  • Run Time: 1 hr 56 min

………………………………………..

Ratings:

  • Overall: 3.5 of 5 stars
  • Performance: 4 of 5
  • Script: 4 of 5
  • Cinematography: 3.5 of 5
  • Score: 15/20

 

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis was born in Ashland, Kentucky, his family’s ancestral home in the coal-mining region near West Virginia. His maternal grandfather was a coal miner and worked at an ARMCO steel plant across the river in Ohio. Barry grew up mostly in small towns in Indiana and Ohio and spent fourteen years as a so-called adult in the Deep South. He is president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.

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ASR’s Not So Random Question Time with Musical Theater Force-of-Nature Dani Innocenti-Beem

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Ms. Innocenti-Beem

Among the North Bay’s most prominent and prolific theater artists is Dani Innocenti-Beem, a phenomenal singer and delightful comic actress known for her ability to melt hearts, rattle walls, and provoke uncontrollable laughter with her improvisations. Recipient of innumerable nominations and winner of multiple awards—SFBATCC, TBA, MTJA, and Artys included—Innocenti-Beem in normal times is booked eighteen months out and often performs in one show while rehearsing the next one. The entire North Bay theater community looks forward to a return to normal so that we can enjoy her onstage again.

***

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

DIB: I was ten years old. My mom and dad took me and my brother Marco to the Belrose Theatre in San Rafael where they had a show called Kids in Vaudeville, a showcase featuring kids 8-18 doing skits, songs, dances etc.

There was a young girl, I’ll never forget her name, Hathaway Pogue, who came out on the stage in her blue Gunne Sax dress, sat on a stool, and sang “Rainbow Connection.” In Act Two she came out in a brown Gunne Sax and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I tugged on my mom’s arm and said, “I want to do that.” She signed me up for classes the next day.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in for a paying audience?

DIB: It was The Miracle Worker at the Belrose. I played a little blind girl. I remember getting my first note from Margie Belrose. It was a compliment and such a high. I very rarely do plays. Funnily enough, I did this play twice. In a high school production, I played Annie Sullivan.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

DIB: In my adult life, probably 15.

ASR: Did you anticipate that you would become as successful as you have?

DIB: Am I successful? Certainly not in terms of money. In the North Bay, you don’t do this for the money. I have a 9-5 to pay the bills. I never thought about being successful. It’s just become who I am—it’s what brings me joy, what makes me me.

ASR: Do you have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

DIB: Musical theater, of course! Give me a big broad musical comedy any day!

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in theater?

DIB: Three people have really had a true impact on my journey. My father Ugo—I get my voice from him. He was in the boys’ choir in Italy growing up. He and my mother insisted on classical training, which gave me the voice I have today.

Second is my singing partner and friend Julie Ekoue-Totu. I am never more myself than when I am on stage singing with her.

The third is Carl Jordan, who was the first director to have faith in me and pushed me out of my comfort zone of comedy when he cast me as Shelby in The Spitfire Grille.

ASR: With the ongoing pandemic, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

DIB: In all honesty, it has been a struggle. My joy is gone. Postponed, or canceled. My other family, gone. That intimacy that only those in the theater understand, gone. Those moments that give you life on a daily basis, be it in rehearsal, or memorizing a line, or hitting that note right in the pocket, gone. I would have closed three shows since Covid started. I am struggling.

ASR: How do you envision the future for the theater community overall?

DIB: I would like to say I have an optimistic outlook but some days are harder than others. I have hope that one of these days we’ll get back to what we had, more or less. How many theaters survive will depend on just how long that takes.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

DIB: I spent most of my life being in shows rather than attending them, and those were 99.9% musicals. It is just in these last few years that I have been able to attend more theater and have started to broaden my knowledge.

So, from what little I have seen, my favorite dramas tend more toward the classics, such as Streetcar and Death of A Salesman, although I did very much enjoy the 6th Street Playhouse productions Faceless and The Revolutionists.

Comedies must really make me laugh out loud for me to truly enjoy them. A little chuckle won’t cut it. The Mystery of Irma Vep, Noises Off, and one that teetered between them both, Drumming with Annubis.

Musicals? Oh boy! The list is long for different reasons, from performing in them, to the score only, to being an audience member. Lumping them in the same list, a few would be: Gypsy, Into The Woods, Sunset Boulevard, Sweeney Todd, Hello Dolly!, Little Shop of Horrors, Evita, Man of La Mancha, Urinetown, Mame, Falsettos. I could keep going but this Q&A has to have an end sometime!

ASR: Name some all-time favorites that you have worked in.

DIB: Man of La Mancha—to be able to tell such a wonderful story, with a cast that was brilliantly talented, was tops for me for sure. Hands on a Hardbody—It felt like an honor to bring these real people to life. It spoke to our hearts as a cast.

Great American Trailer Park Musical—We had lightning in a bottle with that show. Everything clicked and it was the most fun I have ever had on a stage. Merman’s Apprentice—stepping into the shoes of Ethel Merman. Need I say more? Nunsense, in 1996—my castmates Julie Ekoue-Totu, Kayla Gold, Diana Bergala, and Gail Gongall, truly became my sisters and lifelong friends. I would not be who am I am in the theater without that show and those women.

…Great American Trailer Park Musical—We had lightning in a bottle with that show…

ASR: What are some of your least favorite productions? Care to share titles of those you would never do or never do again?

DIB: Expiring Minds Want to Know, a horrible little musical. Annie. I love the role of Miss Hannigan and loved my cast when I did it, but the show itself is not a favorite.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

DIB: Triumph of Love is such a gem. The Drowsy Chaperone is another one that is just pure fun and so rarely done.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

DIB:  Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yes, you shadows have offended, too many times!

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

DIB: I would love to do props and set dressing. Creating the world the actors are playing in. Bringing a vision to life and making sure it keeps with the time period, aesthetic, etc. That would super fun and creative.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

DIB: I sing the show through in my car on the way to the theater. Warm up the voice in the shower of course. But other than that, I just try to relax and remember my lines. I like to get into the theater at least two hours before showtime. Just to be there and settle in. After the show, I enjoy a milkshake at Shari’s or Chinese food at Yet Wah or just hanging out in the lobby with the cast and some friends enjoying each other.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

DIB: Hmmm…

1. Be on time.

2. Be humble.

3. Be a team player.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

DIB: Julie Ekoue-Totu, my singing sister. I have known her since 1989. She’s been my performing partner and my giggle gal all this time. She taught me how to take chances vocally and helped me tremendously in developing my style. She’s one of the most honest people I know. I trust her more than anyone else on that stage. She has had my back in so many ways over these years and I am forever grateful and will love her and sing her praises until my last note!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

DIB: I was in the audience at Lucky Penny’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when three women got up and walked across the stage—actually through the scene, explaining to the audience why they were leaving (one of them wasn’t feeling well).

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DIB: Of course I do. I have to pay the bills and I am extremely lucky to have mine during this horrible time. I am an escrow officer.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater?

DIB: No, not really. I appreciate art and enjoy listening to music but I am not a follower per se. When I am not performing I enjoy being with my family and my fur babies.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

DIB: Ahhh, here:

1. No cigarettes or cilantro.

2. Kindness is key.

3. Popular vote wins.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

DIB: A home enema kit.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

DIB: If All the World’s a Stage, I Want My Own Damn Dressing Room, a show about the lives and times of a regional theater group of course!

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

DIB: Beaten up someone who was being cruel to animals.

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

DIB: Soundtrack? That is tough. I have certain artists or songs from my childhood that will always be on repeat in my heart. Those tunes you go to when you need a lift. Does that count? Narrowing them down to three? Hmmm?

Luciano Pavarotti singing anything. He was my background music as a child.

Helen Reddy—“Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)”—As a kid, I never knew what it meant but it made me smile (especially the horns) and I would sing it at the top of my lungs.

John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain Christmas.” It just isn’t Christmas without it.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

DIB: I love boots. Nice comfortable boots. Combat, Ugg, Booties, Go-Go, Cowboy, Dress, Rain, All the boots!

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

DIB: I love turtles. I would like to see a turtle the size of a horse! Prehistoric and beautiful. I could ride it!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

DIB: When I was younger, I liked to climb everything—trees, towers, you name it. The only thing I could climb right now is the walls.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

DIB: “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.”—The Outsiders

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

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Seafus Smith — Singer/Musician/Sound Designer/Music Director/Scenic Designer (That’s All..?)

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Seafus Smith

Seafus Chatmon-Smith is a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, music director, sound designer, and scenic designer. He is a recipient of a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle “Excellence in Theatre” award for his 2019 scenic design of Admissions for Los Altos Stage Company.

A California native who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Central Valley, his career in entertainment spans from onstage to behind-the-scenes. In the mid-to-late 2000s, he played in various bands before going on to front his own band, Vasco Skys, formed by him and drummer Richard Messenger III. In 2010 he joined the band Dallas, (now known as Bryan Dallas) as keyboardist and background vocalist. After playing FM 107.7’s Bone Bash X concert, he decided to take a break from the music stage.

Seafus’ first work in theatre was as a student, in Las Positas College’s 2006 production of Macbeth, as a sound designer. He began working in entertainment staging and lighting in 2012, which ultimately led him back into the theatre, first as a sound engineer/designer, then into music directing and scenic design.

After sound designing Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s Fancy Nancy Splendiferous Christmas in 2016, he began music directing with James and the Giant Peach JR, 2017, Junie B Jones JR, 2018. Dragon Theatre’s 2018 production of Equivocation would bring him to his first scenic design. His next design was Lohman Theatre’s 2018 production of She Kills Monsters, followed by Los Positas College’s 2019 production of Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Odd Stupid Tales.

Seafus is currently designing the Steel Magnolias set for Los Altos Stage Company, originally slated for the spring season of 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been pushed to the spring of 2021.

***

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

SS: Though I have worn many different hats in theatre, and still do, my introduction into the inner workings of the theatre was in college where I took acting and technical theatre classes. I fell in love with the process.

ASR: What was the first play you worked in for a paying audience?

SS: The first show I did was a production of My Son Pinocchio, as a sound engineer.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

SS: I’ve been involved with five different theatre companies—from children’s theatre to high school, to college and community theatre. I’ve been working in theatre in various capacities since 2013.

ASR: Did you anticipate that you would become as successful as you have?

SS: Truthfully I don’t know what I’m doing, other than trying to do my best. Not sure what kind of success I’ve achieved just yet, but having received an award from SFBATCC, I have hope that I’m headed in the right direction.

ASR: Do you have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

SS: I’ve worked for companies that have a specific focus, but I myself strived to work on any and all projects that tell great stories. Hopefully inspiring new dreamers like myself, to create new worlds we’ve yet to experience.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

SS: It’s two people really: Michael Rinaldi and the late Jeremy Hamm, educators that have done amazing things in their lives to enrich the lives of others as well as my own.

ASR: With the pandemic, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

SS: As an independent artist, this time has and continues to be difficult for me, as I’m sure it has for our entire community both on the small and large scale. Right now it’s hard as shows have been postponed with the uncertainty that they will ever go up, though I remain positive and hopeful that in time things will get better.

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for the coming seasons? How do you envision the future for the theater community overall?

SS: Well to the first question.. . All of my shows that were in progress that aren’t canceled, have been postponed until the 2021 spring season. And to the second.. . I’m hopeful that in the future things will pick back up, though I know it’s going to take some time.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

SS: AB5 was passed just before the COVID-19 crisis, so I have yet to really experience its impact, though I’m sure it will bring about many changes to the contractual agreement side of things. I’m sure we will work out a way for art to continue as it should.

…I’m also a sucker for amusement parks…

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

SS: From the first time I heard the original cast recording, my favorite musical of all time is Phantom of the Opera. From the score and story to the dancing and technical theatrical gymnastics, to me it is all that you could ask for.

My favorite comedy is Noises Off. As someone who has spent so much time backstage as both a performer and crew member, I can give first-hand accounts of the hilarity that inevitably comes from behind the curtain. As for dramas… Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail is one of my absolute faves, though I really like most all of his shows.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

SS: Romeo and Juliet would be the most over-performed and yes, it could be put in the vault.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

SS: It would have to be sets. One of my favorite things to do is to imagine the world in which the story takes place and bring what’s in my mind to life. It can be a powerful thing giving a visible voice to a story. Look at Hollywood!

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

SS: Given the current climate this may be an unpopular opinion but . . . Tom Hanks. The talent he poses in emoting is something striking, both on the surface as well as in the depths of the characters he chooses to portray.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

SS: As a performer, I try to practice my craft as much as possible, then I do a full body and vocal warmup. All dependent on what part I’m playing of course. And to relax after. . . I love a good gathering with friends. I don’t really sleep much, maybe go to a movie or chill on the couch with a nice bottle of wine.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

SS: Really it takes more than this, but if you don’t have these three things, you won’t be able to get very far with me. So…

1. Focus

2. An understanding of conscious learning.

3. Flexibility.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

SS: The relationship between myself and the story, as well as everyone involved. My belief is, if you have a great story and a wonderful team, then anything is truly possible.

ASR: What’s the most excruciating screw-up you see onstage?

SS: When someone has cast an actor that can’t sing in a musical. Nobody wants to hear a cat being tortured for two hours, and we all know it happens.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

SS: Due to COVID-19, I am currently out of work. Normally when not working on a specific show I work for an entertainment lighting and staging company, as well as in various personal music endeavors.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

SS: As a singer-songwriter and record producer I’m usually making music when not working. However, now with so much more time on my hands, I’m learning the craft of screenplays. I’m also a sucker for amusement parks, beaches, and hiking.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater?

SS: Music-making would be number one on the list. I love to dance and have been a choreographer for multiple projects. Cinema is one of my all-time great loves, I would love to direct and be in a film one day. In my late teens, I was a magician. From painting to building, sculpting, and most things in between. I have either done it, do it, or enjoy watching it being done.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

SS: I’d say…

1. No making noise before 10 a.m.

2. Bring your own bottle of sauterne.

3. No acts of hate or violence!

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

SS: A circumcision.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

SS: Been caught sneaking into a concert.

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

SS: 1. Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” because I love the choreography in that video and love to dance to it.

2. Prince’s “Partyman,” because as a kid I wanted to be Batman, and still do!

3. “Stuck,” a song I wrote about how I feel during this COVID-19 pandemic.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

SS: Sunglasses are a must at all times. As long as I have a pair we’re ok.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

SS: I have a healthy respect for human life so the only thing for me in this category would be rock climbing! You have to take risks in life to move forward. I believe you take risks whether you choose to or not. Daring to live is risky, and sitting on the sidelines is to risk never having lived at all.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SS: “It’s working, it’s working”—Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars.

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: One-on-One With North Bay’s Multi-talented Anthony Martinez

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Anthony Martinez is an actor and musician based in Santa Rosa. He most recently appeared in David Templeton’s critically acclaimed Drumming With Anubis, a production that won a 2019 “Ensemble” award from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Film credits: Donovan Reid, The Last Hit, Quick, Ghettoblaster, The Animal, Cheaper by the Dozen, Bottle Shock. Television: Love Kills (Investigation Discovery), World’s Astonishing Stories (Nippon TV), World’s Crime Mysteries (Nippon TV), 13 Reasons Why, numerous commercials and industrials for clients such as Polaroid, Apple, Save Energy, Food Network, AARP, and many more. Theater: Left Edge Theater (Zombietown- TBA nomination, This Random World, Drumming with Anubis, Sweat), Spreckels Theater Company (Guys & Dolls, Forever Plaid, 1776– TBA/SFBATCC nomination), 6th Street Playhouse (La Cage Aux Folles, Kiss Me Kate), Lucky Penny Productions (Funny Girl), Novato Theater Company (Next to Normal, Into the Woods– TBA and SFBATCC nominations), Cinnabar Theater (Forever Plaid, Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha), 42nd Street Moon (Girl Crazy, On a Clear Day, Dear World).

In addition to his stage and film work, Anthony is a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who performs with his own band “The Core,” tours nationally as keyboardist for Cash & King, a Tribute to Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and Petty Rocks, a Tribute to Tom Petty, and is the founder and tenor vocalist with “Comfort & Joy,” the Bay Area’s premiere a cappella holiday vocal quartet.

Anthony Martinez

 

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

AM: I was actually a musician before becoming an actor. As a kid, I took piano and guitar lessons and played in rock bands. I never did theater as a kid. Right after high school, I got into a car accident and, while I was recuperating, most of what was on TV in the middle of the day were soap operas. I remember watching them thinking “I can do that.”

My sister had a co-worker who was a part-time commercial actor in the Bay Area, and said “OK, prove it.”

Through her co-worker, I got hooked up with SF on-camera training classes and casting agents. From there, I got my first agent and first acting jobs (a national commercial and a small part in a movie in LA) without ever having set foot onstage. I then met a theater artist from LA with a theater company and fell in love with live theater.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

AM: That would be Holy Ghosts by Romulus Linney. Good play. I wish more companies would produce it. I have never seen another production other than the one I was in. I think the reason it’s seldom produced is because it calls for live snake handling!

It’s about a religious snake-handling congregation in the south and, yes, for my first play I had to take up live snakes onstage every night. What an introduction to live theater!

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

AM: Wow. Let’s see… I think 17 different theater companies in the Bay Area.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

AM: That’s a great question. I have to say Marvin Klebe, the founder of Cinnabar Theater. He not only gave me my first professional job, the moment I met him he was so kind, so knowlegable, so supportive… he really inspired me be the best I could be.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

AM: For drama, I love Angels in America, The Compleat Female Stage Beauty, and A Steady Rain. Comedies I love are Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo, and Vanya, Sasha, Masha and Spike. Musicals… Next to Normal, Falsettos, and everything and anything by Sondheim.

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

AM: I’m currently an Associate Artist at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa, so I’d have to say Drumming with Anubis, Hand to God, and A Steady Rain.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

AM: The Music Man.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

AM: A musical called Triumph of Love. It had a very short life on Broadway in the 90s, but it is so wonderful. My old theater company in Marin did it and it was so charming. The audience loved it. I am always astounded that more companies don’t do it.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

AM: I would say Titus Andronicus, but I am a horror movie fan, so I’m biased!

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

AM: A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, for sure.

The dog took center stage and… followed its natural instincts… …

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

AM: Sound design. I am a musician so I really vibe with the impact sound and music can have in evoking mood.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

AM: Wow. That is so, so hard. I personally know so many astounding actors, but I will pick someone I know only from their work. I am a big fan of Craig Marker. He is always amazing.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

AM: For musicals, I do vocal exercises and light physical warmup. For plays, I do a physical warmup and go over my lines! After a performance, I like to unwind with an adult beverage, but if I have a performance the next day, never tequila. It shreds my voice.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

AM: Hmmmm…

1. Be on time.

2. Be off book ASAP.

3. Always be helpful and cooperative to everyone involved in the production, even if you’ve had a bad day.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

AM: I have to say the one with my sister, Vicki. She is a stage manager at Left Edge Theatre and it’s nice to be able to work together and share that common interest.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

AM: It wasn’t technically a screw-up, but during a production of Camelot I was in, the dog playing Pellinore’s dog proceeded to completely steal a scene doing… something dogs do. The dog took center stage and… followed its natural instincts, looking right out at the audience. The audience was roaring with laughter and the stunned cast onstage was just frozen. I wasn’t onstage at the time (thank God), just watching from the wings, but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

AM: Probably when I split my pants completely onstage during a performance… in a theater in the round! No wings to dash off into!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

AM: I was in the audience of a local musical when a drunk person climbed onstage, waving at the audience and then at her friend in the cast on stage (who was mortified), and trying to conduct the orchestra. It seemed like she was up there for an eternity and I kept wondering “When is someone gonna do something?” Finally, an ASM came out and got her offstage. So awkward.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

AM: I worked as an administrator at a community college for many years. Now I am lucky enough to be able to work for myself as a consultant and teacher.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

AM: I am an avid martial artist and instructor, as well as a musician. I also sing, play keyboards and guitar, and work as a sideman for many local and touring artists.

ASR: Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater? Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture?

AM: I do lots of music (live and recording) and on-camera work (industrial films, commercials, and movies). I also practice martial arts. Does that count?

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

AM: Ahh…

1. No talking in the audience during a performance.

2. No nuts in brownies or cookies.

3. Kindness to all animals.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

AM: A colonoscopy.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

AM: I’m still working on that. ;)

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

AM: Protesting or used martial arts in self-defense (maybe at the same time).

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

AM: I have many, many pairs of shoes.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

AM: A French Bulldog.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

AM: Nope. I am not a daredevil. I have had enough life-threatening excitement in my life already and lived to tell the tales—those are stories for another time—so I now crave calmness. But I do love rollercoasters!

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

AM: “Just because they could, they never stopped to think if they should.”- Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. Good life advice.

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Feeling the Beat with Transcendence Theatre Company’s Music Director Daniel Weidlein

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Winner of a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award for Transcendence Theatre Company’s 2019 production of A Chorus Line, Daniel Weidlein is a music producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and music director based in Los Angeles.

Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Daniel has enjoyed a diverse career spanning many parts of the entertainment industry, from acting in Academy Award-winner Whiplash, to performing and music directing on season 3 of NBC’s The Sing Off, to writing and producing Billboard charting music for artists like Blake McGrath, Stan Taylor, and Miss Peppermint. He owns and operates BioSoul Music, a boutique recording studio in LA. In addition to his work as music director and orchestrator for Sonoma County-based Transcendence Theater Company, Daniel has been integral in the development of new musicals such as The Mollyhouse by Richard Hanson and Divya Maus, and Bottleshock by James Sasser and Charles Burwell.

***

Daniel Weidlein. Photo by Taryn Dudley.

 

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

DW: From a very young age I acted in musicals, and always loved film musicals in particular, so it’s in my bones. But as I grew older, I felt the call to avenues of performing music.

Professionally, I have worked as a music producer, arranger, music director, instrumentalist, and singer. In almost every single one of those capacities I eventually was brought to the intersection point of the Venn diagram of music and theater.

A major turning point in that regard was the work I did with Morgan Karr in the pop music realm, but ultimately it led me to the work I do in the Bay Area with Transcendence Theatre Company.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

DW: The Grifters—a musical theatre adaptation of the book-turned-film with book and lyrics by Joe Giuffre, with music (and musical direction) by yours truly in 2013.  Imagine—a theatrical concert of original music from various shows with Transcendence Theatre Company in 2015.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

DW: Ahh…Transcendence Theatre Company (Sonoma County), Fogg Theatre Company (San Francisco), NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts (New York City).

ASR: When was your present company formed?

DW: TTC set down roots in Sonoma in 2011 and has been growing ever since!

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

DW: Bringing the Broadway experience to the Sonoma Valley!

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

DW: My fiancé! Divya Maus is an incredible composer and lyricist (wrote The Mollyhouse with Richard Hanson and is in development on a new show, Elijah, that she has written herself).

I serve as the music director, orchestrator, and general editor for her shows. Being able to build her vision from the ground up has helped me grow faster in this business than any “gig.”

 

….Les Miserables had its place, but we don’t need to keep beating it over our own heads.

 

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

DW: Transcendence has been putting on a wonderful online season of shows comprised of highlights from the past ten summers of shows in Jack London State park. There’s one more online show this coming weekend, Sep. 11-13, to commemorate their annual Gala fundraiser!

ASR: How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

DW: Phew…where to begin? Let’s just hope we can all be back in person in the theater next year…

ASR: How do you envision the future the theater community overall?

DW: I truly believe that theater is going to come back stronger than ever. Nothing replaces an in-person theatrical experience, and the kindling that’s keeping the drive and passion of idle performers all across this country is going to ignite into a brilliant blaze once those hearts and voices and feet are unleashed on the stage again.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

DW: West Side Story is a no-brainer. I love Parade. I love Angels in America (I so wish I could have seen the recent revival). I love Hadestown!

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

DW: Transcendence has only done one full musical so far (the rest are handcrafted reviews and concerts from the Broadway lineage)—A Chorus Line—but it was a blast! Chicago was slated for 2020…

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce—or never produce again?

DW: Les Miserables had its place, but we don’t need to keep beating it over our own heads.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

DW: I love Rent, but it’s become that song that’s been played one too many times. I think it may actually age really well if we just hit pause.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

DW: I’m a huge fan of Cole Porter’s music, and yet I will bashfully admit that I’ve only seen Kiss Me Kate. The rest of my experience of his music is through the jazz world.

But I think this is the perfect answer to your question…because his musicals don’t get staged enough!

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

DW: Seems hard to call any of them underrated…but I’d say Much Ado About Nothing. The tragedies get the credit they deserve, and have deep themes that still very much resonate today, but I think what stands out about Much Ado is that it feels so current, and so modern.

Not just thematically, but in the actual writing. Update the language and the writing and humor feel like they’re part of the canon of indie comedic film writing that I love so much.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

DW: Hamlet. It’s great…I often feel like I just want to read it though. If you’re going to put it on, please give me a fresh reason to do so!

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

DW: Light and projections. I’m fascinated with how much you can influence the audience experience with lighting.

I remember seeing Fun Home and being so captivated by how powerful the lighting and projections were. Super simple, yet so powerful.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

DW: I can’t say her name enough—Lexy Fridell. One of the most brilliant comedic actresses I’ve ever seen in any context, and you Bay Area folks have her all to yourself now in Sonoma after her return from stints in LA and NY.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

DW: It’s all about building adrenaline so it doesn’t slam into you when the performance starts. So I like to have a little coffee, move my body around a lot, and do a few mental run-throughs of exciting moments of the show.

Afterward, I eat. A lot. All that adrenaline burns calories!

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

DW:  Great question.

1. It’s all about relationships. Great work is meaningless if you don’t do it in conjunction with all the other people and moving parts that make a show possible.

2. Learn what makes your work unique, and do everything to exploit and celebrate it, rather than try to adapt it to the “norm.”

3. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Make bold choices—make interesting choices—and let the work and/or the people around you (but not the critics!) inform whether those choices are working or need to be altered.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

DW: There are so many valuable friendships that I have developed through theater. I think the beauty of the theater world is the work requires you to go deep on a personal level with the material—and you’re spending exorbitant amounts of time with one another—so inevitably you end up going deep with your peers during the process.

Compared to most other spheres of my life, I’ve definitely developed more deeply consistent relationships in theater than in any other.

I’ll highlight one great friendship with Tony Gonzalez, a frequent director and choreographer at Transcendence. Tony and I were both new to the creative team in 2016 and were tasked with co-designing and leading the high octane dance show of that year.

The entire process was a masterclass in “yes, and” from the creation side and still to this day is one of my favorite shows I’ve ever put on a stage. With that foundation, Tony has become someone I can share any thought, any concern, any emotion with freely, and he’s always the most supportive and caring friend anyone could ask for!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

DW: I’ve seen audience members try to get hand-on with actors coming through the aisles on numerous occasions…please don’t

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DW: I do not! I write and produce music (mostly for other artists…so it’s KINDA a day job…) all day every day when I’m not music directing or playing saxophone and piano.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

DW: Hiking, cooking, basketball, my dog Puri Bhaji.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

DW: “John Boy” by Brad Mehldau — it feels like the perfect expression of the curiosity I was talking about earlier.

“Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean — this is the song that can freeze me in my tracks anywhere at anytime. It explores life in a raw, painful way that is so relatable. And Frank’s voice is the ultimate vehicle for expressing that quest.

“Fire in the Sky” by Daniel Weidlein — thought it would be fun to include one of my own. This is the title track off of one of my jazz albums and is really accurate example of how I sometimes can articulate my thoughts and emotions better musically than verbally.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

DW: I’m a big jewelry fan in general. Earrings, rings, necklaces. I love making them all work within my wardrobe.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

DW: An ant. Sounds scary, but it’s insane how much they can carry at their current size. Just imagine…

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, sky diving?

DW: I’ve done a bit of rock climbing. I’m not great with heights, so I feel like I need to conquer that at some point and go sky diving.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

DW: “I’m curious what makes you so curious,” from Django Unchained. I’m notoriously curious, and one of the things that captivates me most is what drives other people!

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: ASR Meets Husband-and-Wife Stage Talents Michael Scott Wells and Danielle DeBow

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Among the Bay Area’s few married couples who are equally immersed in theater, Michael Scott Wells and Danielle DeBow frequently appear together onstage. Both are Associate Artists with Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions, but their art frequently takes them to other venues. They also work together away from the theater, and have a toddler—the very definition of togetherness.

Michael Scott Wells: Born in Southern California and raised in the Bay Area, Michael has been a part of the theater community for the past fifteen years as an actor, director, fight choreographer, sound designer, casting associate, and musician.

He has appeared on stage recently for CCCT (Bright Star), Sonoma Arts Live (Gypsy, Always Patsy Cline, Hello Dolly). Performances with Lucky Penny Productions, where he is an Associate Artist, include I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change; Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (TBA Award – Featured Actor), Clue: the Musical, Hands on a Hardbody, Annie, The Tasting Room, and Forever Plaid.

Outside of the Bay Area, he was fortunate enough to be a part of the first national tour as Big Anthony in Strega Nona the Musical!, and worked for that production as Associate Technical Director.

 

Danielle DeBow: Danielle grew up on the stage and studied Theatre and Dance at UC Davis. Dancer turned film actress, turned musical theatre enthusiast, she fell in love with the immediacy and fellowship of the theatre.

She was most recently seen as Alice in Bright Star at CCCT and Rebecca in The Tasting Room at Lucky Penny. You may have seen her at Sonoma Arts Live as Irene Malloy in Hello Dolly, Patsy Cline in Always, Patsy Cline (TBA and Marquee Theatre Award), and Louise in Gypsy.

Danielle is proud to be an Associate Artist at Lucky Penny, her home away from home. When she’s not on stage, you’ll likely find her outdoors chasing her one-year-old and fur babies or finding new ways to turn 90s pops song into folk with her hubby.

Michael Scott Wells
Danielle DeBow

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MW: I’ve always loved to tell stories. My family can regale you with the multitude of puppet shows and make-believe plays I made them sit through as a child. I participated in a number of church plays as well. Then I took a hiatus to focus on sports. All the sports. In high school, a friend asked if I could help stage manage a show he was working on. The bug re-bit me and I never looked back.

DD: I spent much of my childhood on stage dancing. In fourth grade I moved to a new elementary school that focused on learning through musical performance and that is where I fell in love with the art and immediacy of theatre.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

MW: Miss Saigon in 2005 at Diablo Light Opera Company

DD: The Nutcracker, 1992, Bolshoi West

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

MW: I don’t think I can say just one person or company. Every member of the theater community I’ve had the opportunity to work with has helped shape my life in ways I can truly never thank them enough for.

DD: Many amazing, talented, and compassionate teachers, directors, and crew members have impacted me in ways I’ll be eternally grateful, but I must thank my parents for believing in me and encouraging me to do what I love. They instilled confidence in me that allowed me to pursue opportunities and take risks leading me to where I am today.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

DD: The shutdown has been a great challenge. The theatre is where we go to escape, to fill back up when the world drains us. While we miss our theatre family more than words could ever properly describe, we’ve been able to fill at least some of the void jamming in our living room with our one-year-old.

ASR: How do you envision the future for the theater community?

MW: The arts by nature are innovative and revolutionary, so I have no doubt that while this current situation is extremely disheartening for the community, we will all come out of this stronger, more passionate, and more in-tune with who we are as artists and performers.

This time away from the stage, and more importantly, my theatre family has reaffirmed my true love for it. It’s not something that can be created over a zoom call—it’s the tangible aspects I’m craving: the energy exuding from the audience, the jitters in your stomach pre-show, the rush of joy as the overture starts, the sweaty hugs post-show, and the unforgettable conversations in the wings with cast and crew. I know we will get back to it, and I’m proud of the community and companies that are finding ways to bring opportunities for us to share our craft and stories in new ways while we’re restricted from gathering during the pandemic.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

DD : While many shows stand out for me, the three shows that top my list are Godspell, Always Patsy Cline, and Bright Star.

MW: Godspell, Big River, and Evil Dead, the Musical.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

DD: Costumes, without a doubt. I’m in constant awe of the men and women who pour their hearts and souls into the costumes we wear on stage. They’re tasked with near-impossible requests and somehow end up making us look beautiful (or hideous depending on the requirements), period-appropriate, and tailored, all while ensuring our frocks can handle our quick changing, jumping, falling, dancing, and sweating through them.

MW: That’s a tough choice. It’s a toss-up between lighting and sound for me. There’s something about creating the atmosphere of a moment to make not only the audience but the storytellers feel that moment deep in their gut. That’s what excites me.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

DD: Dyan McBride is one of my favorite people to watch on stage. Not to mention, one of the most supportive, humble, and passionate actors to work beside. She’s reliable, devoted, and brings out the best in those around her. Her attention to detail, poise, and comedic timing are impeccable. I aspire to captivate an audience as she can.

MW: It’s been a while since I’ve seen in him in anything, but Joel Roster is truly one of the finest actors I have ever witnessed on stage. I could watch him read the phone book. He is never anything but 100% genuine in everything that he does. I have never laughed harder or felt so deeply than when Joel tells a story.

……. asking a stranger to borrow their popcorn bucket to throw up in.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

DD: My warm-up varies drastically by the show, but once I get a routine, it must not be broken (kidding/not kidding). I always do a few push-ups right before I hit the stage to shake the jitters and get my blood going. Sometimes my opening costume makes this a challenge, but I’ve yet to find one that’s thwarted me. My last two performances were unique in that my pre-show routine also included breastfeeding my newborn backstage. The two companies I had the privilege to work with made it possible for me to continue to pursue my dreams and share the experience with my baby. I will be eternally grateful to Lucky Penny and CCCT for those unforgettable and cherished memories.

MW: Most people will say you’ll catch me cracking jokes right up to the curtain. This is part ploy to hide my nerves and part enjoying the heck out of my job and the people I’m with. I am always nervous before any show, no matter if it’s opening night or closing night. I try to take a moment or two to stretch and get my mind centered. But when it comes down to it, frivolity is truly the best medicine for preparing myself to go on a nightly journey. After a show—that really depends on the show, but it all generally ends with a late-night snack and binging something on Netflix.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

DD: The cast and crew of Cowgirls at Lucky Penny will forever mean the world to me. The relationships I built during that show continue to enrich my personal and stage life. The theatre became our home. Michael proposed to me there, Barry married us on stage and in real life, and Taylor, Dani, Staci, Dyan, and Heather are some of the most important confidants in my life.

MW: There are many individuals I truly cherish in the theater universe. And while I may not see some of them as often as I’d like right now, the cast/crew of Godspell from a 2014 production will always be in my heart. You’ll never see a group who sweated more, loved harder and supported one another through every trial and tribulation. I can never thank that group of humans enough for the joy and love they brought into my life.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

MW: During a production of Into the Woods, Little Red missed her entrance for a scene with Jack. In this production, they used a live chicken for Jack to carry around in this scene. This turned into a hilarious 3-4 minute improvised scene between the actor playing Jack and this live chicken. When Little Red finally showed up, out of breath having clearly run from the dressing room, the audience gave Jack a rousing round of applause for his show-stopping improvisation skills.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

DD: Performing in the wine country comes with its perks, and one of them is often a well-oiled audience. This can make for some wonderful laughs and energetic claps, as well as wine glasses shattering in front of you while singing a tender ballad, or a drunken audience member turning on the house lights while bickering with her partner across the theatre. Yes, that all happened during a single performance.

MW: It’s safe to assume that when you perform in the heart of wine country, most audience members will typically, and hopefully in a responsible fashion, enjoy an adult beverage before coming to the theater. But in some cases, “responsible” can be taken many ways. In one example, it wasn’t just one person but a party bus that decided to over-serve themselves before a show. This resulted in several hilarious moments of call and response, clumsily attempting to leave the theater in the middle of a heartbreaking ballad, and topping off the evening with asking a stranger to borrow their popcorn bucket to throw up in.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DD/MW: We work as the sales and marketing team for a digital workspace consultancy in Davis, CA.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MW: I’ve been a musician since I was old enough to hold an instrument. The guitar is my main muse but I can play just about anything if you give me twenty minutes to figure it out.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

DD:  Hmmm….OK…

    1. Chew with your mouth closed.
    2. Be nice.
    3. Chew with your mouth closed. (Yes, I repeated #1; Misophonia made me do it.)

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

DD: Attacked someone for chewing too loudly.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MW: I am a total thrill-seeker. Who wants to go skydiving?

ASR: Favorite quotes from movies or stage plays?

DD: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

MW: “May the force be with you.” – Star Wars

-30-

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.

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Getting Down Low on the Low Down with Clay David

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Hailing from the Creole/Cajun bayous of Louisiana, Clay David has enjoyed a wide-ranging professional career in theatre arts. Spanning London, Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theatre, national tours and educational theatre, his work has embraced advocacy, acting, directing, and design. His achievements in the theater have been recognized with five San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards. David has also earned an AMCO Kennedy Center National Award, the Victor Borge Legacy Award, a TITAN Award for Theatre Excellence (Theatre Bay Area), the Dean Goodman Choice Award for Best Director in San Francisco Bay, the Lee Hartgrave Fame Best Play Award, and the Bravo Award for Outstanding Innovation and Excellence in Arts.

Notable directing highlights: L’ours et la Lune, and Birth of the Son (Off-Broadway, Blue Heron, NYC), Wives as They Were/Maids as They Are (London Theatre Royal, St. Edmunds, Regency Rep), Romeo et Julieta, (Campamento Lomas Pinar, Cuernavaca, Mexico), York 24: The Capmaker’s Play, (Poculi Ludique Societas, Toronto), Trojan Women and Phedre, (Jerry Rojo Environmental Theatre, CT), Learned Ladies, and School for Scandal (Connecticut Repertory Theatre.)

His joy of collaboration is a true passion, directing premiere productions of Ernest Gaines, Luis Alfaro, Gloria Stingily, Savion Glover, Jared Choclat, Chuck Prophet, Felice Picano, Michael Golamco, and Kathyrn McCarty.

On stage, he has performed the title roles in Hamlet, Amadeus, and The Dresser (Connecticut Repertory Theatre), The Elephant Man and Uncle Vanya (Jerry Rojo Environmental Theatre, CT). Regional Shakespeare roles include: Don John in Much Ado About Nothing (Marin Shakespeare), and Troilus in Troilus and Cressida (Riverside Shakespeare, NY). In musical theatre, he has performed Georges in La Cage aux Folles, Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Preacher in Violet (Bay Area Musicals), Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar, and Tobias in Sweeney Todd (Connecticut Repertory Company).

(Editor’s note: His A Cajun Midsummer Night’s Dream at Novato Theater Company was unique, brilliant, amazing, and delightful.)

In educational theater, Clay David has served as professor and lecturer of theater at Loyola Marymount University, The University of Connecticut, Diablo Valley College, and was Chairman of Drama at Contra Costa College.

Clay David

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

CD: I sang in church. In the Southern Gothic Cajun South, High Mass was about as close as you could get to the papacy. I was on the debate team in ninth grade and won a few national titles in dramatic interpretation and poetry reading. I was cast as Cornelius Hackle in Hello Dolly in tenth grade. That opened the door and connected the dots.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

CD: Performance: Sparger in Kennedy’s Children, Robert Patrick; directing: Welcome to Andromeda, Ronald Melville Whyte

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

CD: I feel like I have been doing this since the earth cooled, so well over a 150.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

CD: My brother was severely disabled, and I always carry his spirit with me. I always say hello to him in the wings. I know he is an angel looking over me.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

CD: The Dutchman, Amiri Baraka; The Dresser, Ronald Harwood; The Blacks, Jean Genet; The Maids, Jean Genet; America Hurrah, Jean-Claude van Itallie; The Visit, Friedrich Dürrenmatt; Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams; Woysek, Georg Büchner.

ASR: Musicals?

CD: Sweeney Todd, Blood Brothers, Jerry Springer the Opera, Cabaret. Kinky Boots.

ASR: Comedies?

CD: The Bald Soprano, Eugene Ionesco; Tartuffe, Moliere; The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde; Private Lives, Noël Coward.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

CD: Hamilton.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

CD: The works of Enrico Cavacchioli, Rosso di San Secondo, Luigi Pirandello, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco. Theatre of the Grotesque and Theatre of the Absurd speak to our times, as we navigate the national discord, the bafflement, and bewilderment of the truth of our times.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

CD: His plays have dimensions that are not explored or are diluted. Many times these works will be misdirected, or will politely just dance around the ideas of Hamlet asking his mother about the semen-stained sheets, or Ophelia singing pornographic songs when she is mad (who taught her the tunes?) or Richard ll’s historical and factual accuracy of his homosexuality.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

CD: Hamlet. I wish more companies would produce Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

CD: I was a theatre professor for 20 years and loved teaching design. I adore making properties. But most importantly, I love working with the actors who use each prop I design, ensuring that it is perfect for them and helps the character that they are creating.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

CD: I drink a Red Bull, rock catatonically in my chair and suck on a cough drop.

ASR: How do you relax after?

CD: A large bowl of cereal and milk.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

CD: Always think outside the box. Always take risks. The audience is the most important element of theatre.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

CD: In that sacred moment when we come together on production we are all soulmates and family. I will always be present for my fellow actors and technicians on stage and backstage, a faithful steward. Whether it is cleaning the dressing rooms, fanning sweating dancers running offstage, picking up costumes after quick changes, or mending shoes in between scene changes, I feel that we are a family, a community with a mighty purpose, and I am there to serve.

…Theatre of the Absurd speaks to our times…

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

CD: Yes. Corporate. Director, Senior Resource Group.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

CD: Maintaining serenity during these troubling times.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater?

CD: I am a designer and work closely with hospice and COVID patients, creating art that speaks to their needs and the needs of their families.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

CD: Our island is built on the doctrine of egalitarianism. Believe in reciprocity. Your mood should not dictate your manners.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

CD: Title: Sugarcane Burning. It would be about my disabled brother, raised by a fragile mother and a queer little brother in the mystic land of the bayou, Cajun South Louisiana.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

CD: Been there and done that, darling. They’d think, “Hey, y’all, what is it this time?”

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

CD: “J’ai Passé Devant Ta Porte,” the Cajun song we sang as children. “I Believe,” because I love and resonate with a good hymn. “Beautiful Dreamer,” because I played it on the organ and sang it for my mother and brother when times were hard.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

CD: Cufflinks.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

CD: “ Most people’s lives, what are they but trails of debris—each day more debris, more debris . . . long, long trails of debris, with nothing to clean it all up but death.”—Suddenly Last Summer

-30-

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.

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: A Talk-Talk with the Versatile, Vivacious Maureen McVerry

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Maureen McVerry

Few performers have backgrounds as deep as Maureen McVerry’s. In 1993 she created Verry McVerry, her ever-evolving cabaret show, one she has performed for 25 years. In San Francisco, she has performed at Oasis, Feinstein’s, the New Conservatory Theatre, the Herbst Theatre, the Plush Room, the Venetian Room, the Gateway Theatre, and the Alcazar. Verry McVerry has also been performed at 88s in NYC and the Gardenia Room in LA and at other venues nationally. The show earned a 2012 SFBATCC nomination for Best Solo Show.

As a stage actress, McVerry has celebrated 39 years in theatre, like the legendary Jack Benny. At ACT she played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (SFBATCC award), Kitty Packard in Dinner at Eight (SFBATCC award), the Gypsy in Scapin, Carrie in House of Mirth, Mrs. Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol and Sister Gabriella in The Pope and the Witch.

At ACT she also played Mrs. Schlemiel in Schlemiel the First and went on with the show to the ART in Cambridge and the Geffen Playhouse in LA. McVerry was featured as Kay in the SF Shakespeare Festival production of Oh Kay! (SFBATCC award) and in two long-running SF shows, Noises Off (SFBATCC and Dramalogue awards) and Curse of the Werewolf (SFBATCC award). At Marin Theatre Company she has appeared in Side by Side by Sondheim, You’re Going to Love Tomorrow (SFBATCC award), Born Yesterday (SFBATCC award), Room Service, and Me and My Girl.

McVerry has appeared in four different productions of Noises Off and would gladly do that show once or twice weekly to stay in shape. At 42nd St Moon she has appeared in several shows: Pardon My English (SFBATCC award), High Spirits, Wildcat, Very Warm for May, and Student Gypsy. She directed the successful 2011 revival of Oh Kay! and appeared at TheatreWorks as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest, Sylvia in Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, and Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods.

She played Clara in Sex at the Aurora Theatre, and at Center Rep performed in the hit musicals Bingo and Xanadu – her first Shelly nomination as Calliope. In 2014 at SF Playhouse, she reprised her role as Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods, which she plays 24/7 (her son’s name is Jack).

In October of 2014 Maureen’s husband of 32 years, Rick Alber (Dr. Rom on KGO radio) died unexpectedly from an unsuccessful heart operation. After a break, she slowly went back to work.

She did her new solo show Love Will Kick Your Ass at Oasis and at Feinstein’s. She made her drag king debut as Mr. Roper in Three’s Company Live at Oasis. She returned to Center Rep and played Georgette in It Shoulda Been You (Shelly nomination) and to 42nd St Moon, where she played Pauline in No No Nanette. At TheatreWorks she played Marge in The Bridges of Madison County, and at SF Playhouse played the Old Lady in Sunday in the Park With George.

In 2018 she played Linda Porter in the one-woman show, Love Linda at Cinnabar Theatre in Petaluma. She is the winner of seven SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards and two Dramalogue Awards. McVerry’s film credits include Nine Months, The Dead Pool, Big Business, True Believer, Howard the Duck, The Ox and the Eye, and Crackers. On TV: Full House and Divorce Court.

For the last 10 summers, McVerry has hosted the “very” successful Maureen McVerry’s Musical Theatre Camp for children and teens. The camp’s motto is “Where children learn to play on and off the stage.”

Since 2001, she has directed 27 student theatre productions at public schools on the Peninsula. Since Rick’s passing, she directs one middle school musical a year at North Star Academy in Redwood City.

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ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MM: Halfway through my junior year of college, I was a little lost, so I dropped out and lived in Europe and the San Juan Islands and had a lot of fun. Not finishing what I had started bugged me though so in 1980 I returned to Cal to graduate (I recommend taking a few gap years to anyone else who might be lost).

Since I had completed almost all of my requirements, I knew I could really explore what the school offered. Amazingly, my father suggested that I “try drama” (What parent suggests that??). I enrolled in Drama 10, my first acting class, and was completely swept away. For the final five quarters at Cal, I appeared in several shows and completed my degree in history.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

MM: The summer before I graduated from Cal, in 1980, I was in The Three Penny Opera at the Goodman Building on Geary with the incredible Jayne Dornacker as Jenny Diver. It ran for the whole summer! I even got paid a small stipend and was in heaven. In the ensemble, I played a beggar and a whore. My mother was thrilled. A few years later I played Polly Peachum at the Eureka Theatre with the late fabulous Sigrid Wurschmidt as Jenny Diver.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

MM: Too many to count, but maybe 50+? In one show in the 80s, I performed in the parking garage of the Oakland Museum. Maureen McVerry, LLC—still going strong since 19-*cough cough.*

ASR: Did you anticipate that you would become as successful as you have?

MM: That’s hilarious since I always tell people that by choosing theatre over film as my favorite pursuit, I took a “vow of poverty.”

However, I joined Equity and SAG back in the 80s and due to my longevity in the business, I can count on a pension from both of my unions. Fight for the union!

I should add that I married someone who was not in the business, which gave me the opportunity to have two children and own a house—really tough for a theatre actor.

ASR: Do you have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

MM: Happily, I have worked in films (feature and industrial), commercials, bad TV (Divorce Court), a sitcom filmed in front of a live audience (Full House), big expensive shows with fabulous costumes and tiny little shows where you wear your own clothes, weird experimental theatre, comedies, dramas, musicals and most recently, a “clown opera.”

Every few years I also put together a solo cabaret show and that is always a blast. Being in the same room as the audience is without a doubt my favorite way to work.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

MM: My late husband Rick Alber, (who never appeared on stage) had the greatest impact on my life as an actor. In 1982 I met him and he was my opening night date for 32 wonderful years. Rick loved theatre and during the rehearsal and performance process, he was my special advisor and gave me tons of tips to polish my performances.

After he died in 2014, one of my biggest fears was actually that my performances would fall apart without his second set of eyes to notice things and ask questions. However, 32 years of his advice was deeply rooted so even without his presence, I’ve managed to get the job done.

Luckily I have also worked with directors who create great work.

ASR: With the ongoing coronavirus crisis, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

MM: I’m heartbroken. Before COVID, my 2020 was really filled with upcoming work. Pajama Game at 42nd St Moon was canceled almost immediately as it was set to go into rehearsal in late March. Following Pajama Game, I was supposed to have three weeks off and then start rehearsals at SF Playhouse for Follies by Stephen Sondheim, scheduled to run all summer.

Last fall and winter I thought that my summer 2020 would be filled with an exhausting eight-shows-a-week schedule. Hopefully, next spring 42nd St Moon will mount Pajama Game (I’m cast as Mabel) and if I’m lucky, SF Playhouse will mount Follies in 2021. In that show, I am cast as Phyllis. Fingers crossed.

…the audience almost vomited with laughter.

ASR: So the crisis has really affected your planning for the coming seasons?

MM: What coming seasons? The theatre world is devastated as the floor just fell out. Everyone is just trying to figure out what is next. And not only what, but when? As a singer, I am especially crushed. It was devastating to read that singing with other people is the worst possible activity to pursue. Wow. My favorite thing to do is the last thing I should be doing— that hurts.

ASR: How do you envision the future for the theater community overall?

MM: Gosh, I wish I had a crystal ball for that question. My vision for everything is filled with hope because I believe hope is contagious. I hope and pray that someone smarter than me can create a vaccine soon and we can return to a world that is different, but hopefully closer to what we had than what we have now. During “normal” times, I am not really sure if anyone noticed their activities. We just called it “life.”

More than anything I miss sitting in the dark and laughing like a hyena and/or crying like a baby, surrounded by strangers having a similar experience. Who’da thunk that would be taken away? Back before this—especially with that guy in the White House—we were worried about a missile from North Korea or Russia invading some country but instead what we got was far worse. 150,000 Americans have died. That fact makes me weep.

Financial problems are already wreaking havoc on theatre companies everywhere and I worry that some won’t make it to the new post-COVID world. Trying to save money as people readjust, shows will probably be scaled back. Elaborate sets and costumes will be gone.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected you?

MM: Luckily, as a member of an acting union, I am always paid.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

MM: Favorite dramas: Oslo, Uncle Vanya, Angels in America, great productions of plays by Arthur Miller and Tennesee Williams. Center Rep did The Diary of Anne Frank last season and it was brilliant. I saw the filmed version of The Lehman Trilogy—amazing. Sunday in the Park with George makes me cry all the time. I have so many good plays filling my brain now I have to stop listing shows.

Comedies: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Noises Off is my favorite comedy from the 20th century. So far, in four different productions, I have played two of the three roles I am eligible for. Hopefully, another production is in my future.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce—or never produce again?

MM: Anything by Dario Fo.

ASR: Which rare gem would you like to see revived?

MM: Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

MM: It would have to be costumes. Twenty-some years ago I was recruited to re-mount the middle school musical at my children’s elementary school.

Twenty-two shows later I’m still at it and am still amazed at the joy I experience at costume time. As the director, I have to teach children and parents about how to create a show. I tell my parent volunteers that a costume should do half of the work for the actor. As soon as an actor enters the stage, the audience should have a good idea of who that character is.

Coming up with the perfect costume is so rewarding. Plus, if you do costumes, once the show opens, you can sit out front and watch.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

MM: Dan Hiatt.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

MM: In a musical, I love it when the music director runs a group warm-up. I never miss one. It gives the actors a chance to connect in their street clothes and also share some air together.

Being super superstitious, I have a personal pre-show ritual that I never miss as well.

Afterward, I go home to walk my beloved dogs. Being in a show can be quite exhausting so afterward, I try to take care of myself. To handle the stress of tech weeks and openings which made my eyeballs twitch, I started meditating again (I hadn’t for 25+ years), and ba-bam! my twitch went away.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

MM: For the last twenty years I have taught my hundreds of student actors the three rules my college director Louise Mason taught me:

1. Be on time, ready to work at the start of rehearsal—not running in the door with a cup of coffee, but ready to work.

2. Do not talk when the director is talking.

3. When the director gives you a note, write it down, review the note before the next rehearsal. And never, I repeat, never make a director give you the same note twice.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

MM: Three people in my life fit this category:

In 2005 I was in my first production of Into the Woods at TheatreWorks as Jack’s Mother. The actor playing the Baker was Jackson Davis. During rehearsals, we discovered that we were born on the exact same day (but luckily for me, he’s two hours older). In 2010, we commuted from the Peninsula to SF Playhouse together to do a groovy musical, Coraline. That’s when we truly bonded.

2. The “Arbiter of Taste and Fashion,” my friend Lawrence Helman, is a man about town, publicist, writer, and the most opinionated person I know. Also smart and funny with a razor-sharp memory. If you need to get the word out, call Lawrence.

3. In 1990 I met a director named Rick Simas. He found songs for me, directed my solo shows, and has made think and laugh for 30 years. Way back, after getting a Ph.D. at Cal, he left the Bay Area and taught at SD State for years but hopefully he will move back here soon. Great ideas, plus an encyclopedic memory on shows, songs, and theatre. He directed my solo shows in 2017 and 2019. They were quite entertaining thanks to Rick.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

MM: There were a million screw-ups in runs of Noises Off but one of the best involved me and Dan Hiatt. His character was tugging a phone cord—the bit was the cord would come back without the mouthpiece. One night the cord returned like normal but zinged all over the stage and ended up caught in my hair. So I was actually attached to the phone offstage.

The audience almost vomited with laughter. I could have lost an eye but it was hilarious.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

MM: Once an actor missed an entrance in Noises Off and we stopped the show for the amount of time it took another cast member to run offstage and through the dressing rooms to get the actor off the pot and then into her costume to finally make her entrance and move on with the story.

Luckily I didn’t have to attempt bad improv since my character was “meditating.” Shockingly, my friends at the show didn’t notice the four-minute pause in act two!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

MM: After a matinee of Two Gentlemen of Verona at San Jose Rep, the cast went back out for a post-show discussion. While asking a question, an audience member said the title of the “Scottish Play” out loud. We all reacted with horror since it is supposed to bring such bad luck upon the theatre.

That night during the evening show, an enormous sandbag fell thirty feet to the stage with a huge boom.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

MM: My career as a children’s theatre director could be considered my day job.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MM: Politics, baseball, reading, gardening, tap dancing, boogie boarding, and making the world more fabulous.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater?

MM: I belong to all the museums and try to see as much as possible. For a time I painted portraits of dogs and landscapes but my passion pooped out. Guess I just need to get my paints out.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

MM: Say yes. Be kind. No whining.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

MM: Another Trump?

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

MM: Soup, a show set in a soup kitchen: the banter and dynamics of the volunteers with an opportunity to share the stories of guests so people learn more about the daily life of people experiencing homelessness. Comedy plus drama—a dramedy!

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

MM: Before this gosh darn pandemic I was looking forward to flying to DC and getting arrested with Jane Fonda and others to protest the lack of attention paid to climate change. It would be an honor to wear handcuffs for that. Wish me luck. In March, my son was evacuated from Lesotho after serving in the Peace Corps. He’s been with me but soon he plans to return to DC to live and work. Therefore soon I have another excuse to go to DC besides getting arrested.

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

MM: First I’d say, “If I Loved You,” from Carousel. Makes me cry

Then, “All Kinds Of Time, by Fountains of Wayne. It’s a perfect story song. Our family sang it at Rick’s memorial in 2014.

Finally, “Danny Boy.” It also makes me cry. And more importantly, it reminds me of my childhood and how much my parents loved that song.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

MM: Scarves.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

MM: Terrifying thought to have anything that big around. Yikes! A cockapoo the size of a horse? I don’t want anything that big— not even horses!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MM: I go river rafting once a summer and that fulfills my need for thrills.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MM: “Never give up. Never surrender.” —Galaxy Quest

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