AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Praise for Hershey Felder’s “A Paris Love Story” – by Victor Cordell

Hershey Felder occupies a unique and enviable position in the world of live entertainment. He has created a series of solo theatrical performances that draw on his powerful strengths of master story telling and piano playing. And if the subjects of the shows aren’t all personal heroes, which they probably are, each is a brilliant star in the constellation of great music composers. He has written and performed music biographies for the stage of Gershwin, Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and more at some of the finest performance venues in the country, often breaking box office records.

He now takes on the life and works of Claude Debussy in a world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. The great turn of the century composer is credited as the originator of the classical music genre of impressionism, though he didn’t care for the term. But his compositional style led to the designation because of its parallel with impressionist painting with its shimmering, ethereal quality like the dizzying, elusive mix of colors on canvas representing tangible items.

As with his previous successes, Felder weaves together a composer’s music with biographical highlights, but the structure of his newest work differs. He avows that Debussy actually is his favorite composer. At the age of 19, Felder visited Paris and haunted the places and followed the footsteps where Debussy trod, including a pilgrimage two hours on foot each way to visit the composer’s apartment. Because of this special connection with Debussy, Felder’s theatrical conceit is to insinuate his own story in with that of the composer. The device works well both because Felder himself has a following and because of his personal passion for the composer and the city. The one jolting aspect of the new production is that in Felder’s catalog of titles written for the stage, Debussy’s name does not appear except in the likely ignored third line of the title.

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

The performance takes place on a darkened stage, with a few props emblematic of Paris. Animated chalk figures festoon a black backdrop to further depict the architecture and the ambiance of the city. Hershey Felder plays with brio at the black Steinway grand and regales, often with great humor. Interspersing his own growth and his travelogue with the compositions and many loves of Debussy, he details many vignettes, including attempted suicides by two of his love interests.

Despite his esteem as a respected composer, Debussy works are perhaps not as broadly popular as Felder’s other honorees. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La Mer are well known, and opera aficionados will know the important opera Pelléas and Mélisande, though it is seldom performed or excerpted onto recordings. But the musical extracts that Felder plays charm and scintillate, including those less likely to have been heard by audience members before. The jaunty piano solo for children, Golliwog’s Cakewalk, is a fine example that also reflects the composer’s iterative relationship with African-American musical forms.

…clever and enticing… engenders anticipation…”

Felder does note the critical role that Debussy’s innovativeness played in directing classical music away from the weightiness of Wagnerian romanticism. Debussy felt that music should reflect the delightful way people feel when they engage with nature. Influenced by a Javanese gamelan performance he witnessed in 1889, he adopted the whole note scale, which facilitates the dreamy sound that is associated with impressionism. With this change, he not only disrupted the direction of classical music but also developed the musical vocabulary that led to improvisational jazz as best realized by the great pianist Art Tatum.

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

Of course, Debussy’s signature piece which makes him a household name and exemplifies his dream-like musical style is Claire de lune. Felder’s treatment of this piece is clever and enticing. He opens the performance with the story of how he learned the piece, his mother’s favorite, at age six. By playing only a brief but familiar phrase from it, he engenders anticipation for the work throughout the performance. It comes as the finale, and it is played with such grace and delicacy that it quieted the venue and had the audience on the edge of its seats – a worthy finish to a fine confection.

This review must close on a tragic note. As I write on April 15, 2019, one of the world’s great architectural masterpieces and cultural assets for all of civilization, Paris’s Cathédrale de Notre Dame, is engulfed in flame. This is a great loss to humanity. Indeed, this landmark is significant to A Paris Love Story, as the author speaks warmly of Notre Dame and of the magic of point zero, the designated spot in front of the cathedral that represents the symbolic center of Paris. The spot will remain, but can any of the cathedral be saved or reclaimed for posterity?

ASR reviewer Victor Cordell is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, and a Theatre Bay Area adjudicator.

 

 

ProductionA Paris Love Story
Written byHershey Felder
Directed byTrevor Hay
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThrough May 5th
Production AddressMountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(650) 463-1960
Tickets$35 – $113
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW! Foothill’s “Bullets over Broadway” Hits its Mark – by Victor Cordell

At the core of his comic genius, Woody Allen creates fictional lead characters who share his neuroses. He then places them in situations rich with local color based on his own experience and observation.

With Bullets over Broadway, he wrote a highly successful screenplay for a movie that received considerable award recognition. In transitioning the story to the stage and adding music, it was honored with six Tony nominations, but its box office outcome was modest at best. Perhaps its failure to earn a long run is because it entertains but doesn’t wow.

Rejection and crises of confidence plague authors, and in this instance, the Woody Allen proxy is a young playwright, David Shayne, whose break to get financing for his first Broadway-destined play comes with a catch. Borrowing a theme that Allen and many others have used before, the finance depends on giving a role in the play to the girlfriend of the money man.

Oh, and in this case, the money man happens to be a gangster. Needless to say, the girlfriend is as talentless as she is witless, and with a whiny-screechy voice that is the reincarnation of Jean Hagen in the movie Singin’ in the Rain. To make matters worse, rehearsals reveal great inadequacies in David’s manuscript. But an unlikely source will put the project on the right path and dramatically alter the future of David and his collaborators.

Allen resisted the theatrical conversion of this property but having a taste for pop standards, was finally convinced by the suggestion that the musical score be comprised of songs from the period of the action. This strategy works in giving the music an authenticity and a pleasant familiarity with tunes like “Let’s Misbehave,” “Up a Lazy River,” and “There’ll be Some Changes Made.” Many updated lyrics enliven the old chestnuts, fit the plot line, and are quite funny.

…Foothill Music Theatre’s production offers … gusto and … humor … for a fun evening…

At the same time, its period characteristics may be what prevents Bullets from unqualified success, especially with younger audiences. In addition to its ‘20s music, the plotline intersection of Broadway and gangsters evokes Damon Runyon’s stories that were used as the basis for the musical Guys and Dolls and may seem dated.

However, Bullets contains a bevy of stereotyped characters that provide charm – from the fading diva to the actor whose food urges undermine his career – and stock situations like the playwright resisting script changes to maintain his integrity and the younger man being seduced by the lure of an older woman.

Overall, Foothill Music Theatre’s production offers enough gusto and extracts enough humor from the material for a fun evening. Not to say that it meets professional standards, but as a community theater offering, it satisfies. Most performers have peaks and valleys in both singing and acting, but each has high points that are quite worthy. Singing voices tend to have strong sweet spots that diminish outside that narrow range. And while the situational humor is uneven, the many one-line zingers uniformly hit the target.

Early on, Adam Cotungno as David seems caught between channeling Woody Allen and establishing his own role interpretation. By Act 2, both his acting and vocalizations exude confidence, and when he frantically delivers “The Panic is On,” he nails it. His nemesis is Olive, played convincingly by Jocelyn Pinkett, who inhabits the lower-class floozy with flair. Carla Befera hits her stride as the prideful and self-indulgent older actress, Helen, with a fine rendition of the appropriate “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.” Finally, Nick Mandracchia masters the role of Cheech, the man in the shadows.

Milissa Carey directs commendably considering the resource requirements of the production. Bullets contains a huge number of scene changes. Andrew Breithaupt’s basic set is complemented by a revolving platform and a cache of movable props to give simple scenic suggestion, while Lily McLeod’s lighting effectively evokes mood shifts. Dance elements are demanding, and Claire Alexander’s choreography generally works, but execution is often out of kilter. Sharon Peng deserves a nod for the scope of costumery required for the production.

ASR reviewer Victor Cordell is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, and a Theatre Bay Area adjudicator.

 

 

ProductionBullets Over Broadway
Written byWoody Allen
Directed byMilissa Carey
Producing CompanyFoothill Music Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 17th
Production Address12345 El Monte Rd.
Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
Websitehttps://foothill.edu/theatre/bullets.html
Telephone(650) 949-7360
Tickets$15 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid” – by Victor Cordell

For anyone who has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, the period leading to death can be painful and profound. If one can carry out normal activities under the sentence of death, the person often makes a conscious decision whether to live as routinely as possible; whether to surround one’s self with what is most cherished; or whether to splurge on very special and perhaps extravagant experiences.

In any case, philosophical reflection is inevitable. But what if one knows that life will end for all of humanity at a prescribed time? Say, an asteroid large enough to obliterate life hurtles inexorably toward earth.

In Jeffrey Lo’s new comic farce, Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid, a prophet of doom named Alfred Winters had accurately predicted “The Vanishing” in which half of humanity recently disappeared at once without a trace. Now Winters has assured those who have survived that the world will end at midnight on the day that the action of the play takes place. By the way, for those like me who have trouble deciphering the title, you probably don’t know that “OK Cupid” is an online dating site. Now it should make sense.

The narrative centers on two couples and several other characters whose lives intersect. Each couple has just met on the fateful day through OK Cupid, which should suggest that the characters are not exactly Homecoming King and Queen material. These young adults, as couples and with others, go through relationship rituals and the memes of daily life – from hypnotically gazing into cell phones to confronting the condescending barista at the coffee shop over a $20 cuppa.

…in the notable words of Caitlyn, “Before we learn to die, should we learn to live?”

Although some aspects of the play are universal, many themes and characters will speak more effectively to a younger audience. Millennials (and stoners?) may find the comedy-club and sketch-type humor funny throughout, but much of it seems strained, even though the actors animate the dialogue as well as can be expected. Humor in the script needs to be fine-tuned, and strands need to be tightened, as some of the segments never connect well with the overall arc. In fact, the funniest segment, a Scotsman, played by Flip Hofman, who reveals his OK Cupid self-summary and six things he can’t live without, fails to integrate at all.

Tasi Alabastro as the hyperkinetic Ben and Michelle Skinner as the depressive Caitlyn bring energy to the lead roles and are effective overall, while Keith Larson seems at risk of blowing out his carotid artery from his frenzied depiction of Winters. At the other extreme, Michael Weiland seems totally natural as the relaxed Bong, and in a small bit, Tyler Pardini nails it as the low affect open-mic, poetry emcee.

The staging suits the vignette-driven nature of the story. Open staircases, platforms, and catwalks comprise Paulo Deleal’s set, with the occasional addition of cafe tables and chairs. Director Michael Champlin aptly isolates scenes on the stage, and actors who are not performing can comfortably hang out in other locations (and fiddle on their cell phones!). Megan Souther’s lighting complements the overall effect. Generally, low lighting is supported by spots and mobile area highlights. Cell phones are particularly effective for facial illumination.

The driving motives of the play are strong. Although the situations are intimate and farcical, existential matters are broached. What is the point of life and why do things remain important to us once we know the end is imminent? Yet, in the notable words of Caitlyn, “Before we learn to die, should we learn to live?”

Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid by Jeffrey Lo is produced by Pear Theatre and plays at its stage at 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View, CA through February 17, 2019.

ASR reviewer Victor Cordell is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, and a Theatre Bay Area adjudicator.

 

 

 

ProductionSpending the End of the World on OK Cupid
Written byJeffrey Lo
Directed byMichael Champlin
Producing CompanyPear Theater
Production DatesThru Feb. 17th
Production AddressPear Theater
1110 La Avenida St.
Suite A
Mountain View, CA 94043
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone650.254.1148
Tickets$28-$32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall
Performance
Script
Stagecraft
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----