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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byWritten by Joe Masteroff

Music by John Kander and Fred Eb
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Sept. 14th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! – “My Fair Lady” Isn’t Fair, It’s Loverly! Oversize Production is a Hit on Their Undersize Stage – by Cari Lynn Pace

The cast of “My Fair Lady” at work. Photos courtesy of Eric Chazankin.

In a bold move, Sonoma Arts Live removed 12 seats from the floor of their narrow theatre to make space for a London street scene. As the house lights go down, a certain cockney flower girl mingles with other back-alley workers awaiting the evening swells in tuxes and top hats. Scruffy Eliza Doolittle crosses paths with Professor Henry Higgins, and thus begins the delightful story of “My Fair Lady”. This energetic and rousing adaptation of the famed movie and stage musical by Lerner and Loewe is playing on the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center through July 28th.

Michael Ross directs an incredibly outsize production in this small and intimate theater. If you sit in the front row, you’d best pull in your legs as the high-stepping dancers rush by. The seven-piece orchestra, directed by F. James Raasch, is completely hidden behind the raised stage, opulently decorated as a two-story English drawing room with gramophone and fireplace.

Impish Sarah Wintermeyer reveals her golden singing voice and sweet face to create an irresistible Eliza. What talent!

When Eliza, a yowling flower girl, comes to call seeking language lessons, the game is on. Larry Williams brings forth arrogant Professor Higgins with a much better voice than Rex Harrison ever didn’t have. He and Colonel Pickering, a well-cast Chad Yarish, make a wager that the dirty, lowly street urchin could be transformed to pass as a real lady in six months if she only learned to speak as one.

And the flower girl? Impish Sarah Wintermeyer reveals her golden singing voice and a sweet face to create an irresistible Eliza. What talent! Before our eyes, she transforms from a sooty guttersnipe into an elegant lady, dressed for the ball. Cinderella could take lessons from her.

Speaking of dressing, Barbara McFadden’s costumes are a real treat, from garbage men and serving maids to elegant grey Ascot tuxes and outsize flowered hats. Simply marvelous!

Alfred P. Doolittle (Tim Setzer) sings “Get Me to the Church on Time” at Sonoma Arts Live. Photos courtesy of Eric Chazankin.

Several of the 12 actors fill multiple roles, and all sing and move in a smooth-flowing ensemble. A big favorite is Tim Setzer, who seems born for his hilarious role as Alfred P. Doolittle. His knockout songs “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” bring the house down. Ryan Hook shows a fine tenor voice when he croons “On the Street Where You Live” at Eliza’s doorway.

Executive Artistic Producer Jaime Love notes “We are thrilled to close our 2019 season with this timeless and iconic classic.” The entire family will enjoy this oversize production on this undersize stage.

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

 

 

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

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! One Singular Sensation: “A Chorus Line” – by Cari Lynn Pace

“A Chorus Line” cast (Photo courtesy of Transcendence Theatre Company)

Every summer through September, friends flock to one of four different “Broadway Under the Stars” shows: mix-and-mingle evenings full of fresh air, picnics, fine wines, stunning scenery, and professional singers and dancers. These extraordinary escapees from the bright lights of Broadway and LA have a single goal: to give patrons their “best night ever!” And they do!

Eight years ago a small circle of NYC and LA performers took the summer off and held a song-and-dance fundraiser in the open stone ruins of Jack London State Historic Park. Their first “Broadway Under the Stars” was so well attended it raised enough money to keep the park open.

Each year the three original members, Amy Miller, Brad Surosky, and Stephan Stubbins, recruit more high-energy performers and friends to join them. Today, with over 55 stellar performers, Transcendence is a family of talented dancers and singers who love performing on the beautiful open-air stage in Sonoma’s wine country. They’ve raised nearly $500,000 from ticket sales to keep the park open and are proud to bring performances and classes to local schools.

Transcendence delivers a knockout show at Jack London State Park.”

The first show in their summer lineup under the stars is the award-winning “A Chorus Line.” It couldn’t be a more appropriate choice for Transcendence. Based on actual interviews, the story is about a group of dancers anxiously trying out for limited spots in a Broadway show. Every one of the performers on stage no doubt went through countless such auditions. Now here they are, under the setting sun and rising moon, dancing and singing to win a part they’ve already joyously earned. This is life imitating life. It can’t get more real than this!

Kristin Piro and Matthew Rossoff (Photo courtesy of Transcendence Theatre Company)

About the Transcendence summer experience: Cast members exuberantly welcome Bay Area patrons who come early to the park for a pre-show dinner picnic under umbrellas. Local musicians entertain on a small stage while food trucks line the meadow. Beer and wine vendors offer tastes and glasses of their finest.

At 7:30, just before sunset, patrons gather up their picnic items (and extra jackets) to head for seats in the stone ruins. The orchestra’s pounding beat brings forth a stream of high-stepping performers who belt out songs with sleek moves and smiles against the background of Sonoma Mountain. Broadway never had such a stage setting!

Catch the stars in Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon in one of four upcoming summer shows:

“A Chorus Line” runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings through June 30th.

“Fantastical Family Night” for the youngest friends begins July 19th for one weekend through July 20th.

“Those Dancin’ Feet” features world-class dancing full of passion, energy, and excitement, backed by a full orchestra. This program runs August 9th through 25th.

The finale of the summer shows is “Gala Celebration” to complete Transcendence’s magic of music and community, for one weekend only September 6th, 7th and 8th.

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

 

ProductionA Chorus Line
Written byBook by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante; Music by Marvin Hamlisch; Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed byAmy Miller
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough June 30th
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen
Websitebestnightever.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$154
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

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

Law and Graham (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Move over, Disney.

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

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

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

Cinderella ensemble (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Infectiously energetic… great silly lightweight fun…”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Partial ensemble (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Annie” will always be a relevant show…

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

ProductionYou Mean to Do Me Harm
Written byChristopher Chen
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Nov. 3rd
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle DeBow at work as Patsy Cline.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

ASR Theater Review! “Tinderella” Delights at Custom Made Theatre Co. – by Nicole Singley

Tinderella: Tinder Creeps

What if Cinderella were alive today, resigned to searching for her kale-munching, kombucha-swilling, flannel shirt-donning prince on an Internet dating app, adrift in a sea of creepy stalkers and unsolicited ‘dick pics?’

Running through May 26th at San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Co., modern musical “Tinderella” puts a wildly entertaining spin on an age-old classic, thrusting our beloved Disney princess into the harsh realities of 21st-century online dating. FaultLine Theater has partnered with Custom Made for the world premiere of a brilliant show three years in the making, attracting a remarkably young, enthusiastic audience with a story acutely relevant to millennials and Bay Area living, and poking plenty of fun at our newfound reliance on all things digital. (Boomers, be warned – some generational references may be lost in translation.)

Tinderella: Dylan & Meg

Once upon a time, (shortly after the release of the iPhone 5, but before the release of the iPhone 5C, we’re told), our princess Meg (Juliana Lustenader) naively yearns for the fairy-tale romance she grew up believing she was destined for. Her ordinary life feels inadequate when measured against the glamorous Facebook facades of her social media-savvy stepsisters, whose virtual personas exude the confidence and fulfillment Meg aspires to. But when gay fairy-god-roommate Dylan (the magnificent Branden Noel Thomas) introduces her to popular dating app Tinder, it seems as though her luck may be about to change. “If you’re straight, hot, and white,” he tells her, “Tinder is like magic, (more or less).”

Tinderella: Julie & Marcus

Meanwhile, in couples’ land, Julie (the exquisite Sarah Jiang) and Marcus (Jackson Thea) are at a crossroads. Marcus wants to settle down with Julie, move to Texas, buy a dog, and crank out a couple of kids. Julie, on the other hand, wants… well, she doesn’t exactly know yet, but she’s pretty sure it isn’t that. She urges him to take a step back and explore other options. Marcus does just that, inviting his new Tinder match Meg to a “super cool party” at his San Francisco apartment. Full of hope, Meg sets out to meet her prince, win his heart, and catch the last BART train back to Oakland before midnight. But in a world where success is measured in “likes” and love is found by “swiping right,” all bets for a happy ending are off.

The cellphone-toting ensemble is well balanced and superbly gifted, and vocal talent abounds. Thomas is dynamic, empathetic, and often hilarious as quesadilla-making, tough-loving Dylan, with a powerful voice and a flair for delivery. In lead roles, Thea and Lustenader are both convincing and cute and remain lovable despite lapses of self-centered blindness.

Tinderella: Selfies with Stepsisters

Adielyn Mendoza and Alex Akin are well cast as New York fashionista Allie and world-traveling, do-gooder Tanya (Meg’s not-so-evil stepsisters). Their excellent voices, though regrettably underutilized, are put to good use in “Picture Perfect” and “Reality Check,” calling out our obsession with ‘selfies’ and the false images of perfection we project online.

Jiang shines in a standout performance as undecided Julie, questioning whether she’s in the best place she can be (“The Best Place”) and ultimately helping lead us to one of the night’s most insightful revelations – that we are all sometimes guilty of forcing others to play a role in our own stories. It takes courage to shed our misguided fairy-tale notions and break free from the pressure to conform. “I’m not giving up on my dreams,” Julie explains to Marcus, “but I’m giving up on yours.” Jiang’s beautiful voice only accentuates her knack for acting and reacting to the other cast members throughout the show.

The production is punctuated by riotous, foot-tapping musical numbers like “Old School Chivalry,” “Slow Grind Love Song,” and “(You’re Gonna) F***ing Rock It.” Weston Scott’s lyrics are funny and sharp, pairing perfectly with Christian B. Schmidt’s hip, vibrant score. Meredith Joelle Charlson’s choreography adds much to the tear-inducing hilarity of lighter-hearted acts. The more solemn, introspective pieces are lovely, too, spotlighting some of the incredible voices on stage.

“Tinderella” is the sexy, hilarious, and highly enjoyable triumph of an immensely talented cast and creative team. You, too, may fall in love at first swipe.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“Tinderella: The Modern Musical” by Rose Oser, Christian B. Schmidt, and Weston Scott, in partnership with FaultLine Theater

Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Through May 26, 2018

Tickets: $25—$49

Info: (415) 798-2682, custommade.org

Recommended for mature audiences

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Journeying “Into the Woods” with SRJC’s Theatre Arts Department – by Nicole Singley

Santa Rosa Junior College’s production of beloved musical “Into the Woods,” running through May 6th at the Maria Carrillo High School Theatre, enchants audiences with an imaginative mash-up of famous fairy tale figures set to witty tunes by Stephen Sondheim.

Thanks to the curse of a hideous witch (Alanna Weatherby), a baker and his wife (Brett Mollard and Katie Smith) are unable to have the child they so desperately desire. To break the hex, they must venture into the woods to find four ingredients the witch needs to brew a special potion. Their paths soon cross with classic characters like Little Red Riding Hood (Serena Poggi), Cinderella (Ella Park), Rapunzel (Shayla Nordby), and Jack (Levi Sterling), each on a quest of their own.

The first act is fast-paced, funny, and feel-good, wrapping up neatly with the promise of ‘happily ever after.’ In the second chapter, however, all hope for a fairy-tale ending is quickly – and quite literally – crushed. The pace slows and the comedy wanes as we are forced to confront harsh realities in the ‘ever after.’ As our characters soon learn the hard way, getting what we think we want doesn’t always pan out the way we hope it will.

SRJC has assembled an energetic and enthusiastic cast, whose efforts transcended the distraction of some unfortunate technical difficulties at the opening night performance. Smith brings a charming candor and sense of comedic timing to the role of Baker’s Wife, and Mollard aptly matches her charisma. Their convincing banter propels the plot and keeps the laughter coming. Background characters add much to the amusement, too, manifesting as curious rabbits and cleverly-clad deer among other accessory roles. Siobhan Aida O’Reilly delivers a standout performance as Jack’s beloved cow, Milky-White, who at times steals the show with her expressive gestures and winning mannerisms. Victor Santoyo Cruz is hilarious in brief appearances as Hen and Dwarf.

Music drives much of the story’s action, and while Sondheim’s lyrics are sharp and entertaining, the songs often struggle to find their melody. On the whole this troupe rises to the challenge, with noteworthy vocal performances by Weatherby and Cooper Bennett (Cinderella’s Prince not-so-charming). The actors are accompanied by a live off-stage orchestra.

This production is a feast for the eyes thanks to Maryanne Scozzari’s creative, quirky costumes and Peter Crompton’s elaborate and absorbing set, evoking the magic and opulence of grand libraries past. Books act as fluttering birds and rolling shelves transform into horses. Papier-mâché masks are made from pages lined with text, and kitchen gloves become cow udders. Rather than detracting from the action, the visuals are impactful and effectively enhance the story.

Clocking in at around two and a half hours, “Into the Woods” makes for a long but enjoyable night at the theater, and remains family-friendly despite the darker turn things take in Act II.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“Into the Woods,” by Santa Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Department

2.5 hours, with one 15-minute intermission

Maria Carrillo High School Theatre, 6975 Montecito Blvd, Santa Rosa, CA 95409

Through May 6, 2018

Tickets: $12-$22

Info: (707) 527-4307, http://theatrearts.santarosa.edu/

Recommended for ages 12 and above

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

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

 

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

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

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

Head Over Heels: A New Musical

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

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

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

Head Over Heels: Peppermint

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

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

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

 

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

130 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission

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

When: Through May 6, 2018.

Tickets: $29-$175

Info: 415-358-1220, SFCURRAN.com

Rating: Five Out of Five Stars

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical”

Through March 11, 2018

Lucky Penny Productions

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

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

 

Rating: Three-and-a-half-stars

 

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

 

ASR Theater Review! ‘Company’ Storms SF Playhouse and That’s Good News! — by Kris Neely

SF Playhouse has learned a secret uncovered by few community and regional theaters: big musicals in the June 1 to Sept. 1 time-frame can make serious money. Especially in tourist destination cities or areas.

Raising a vodka gimlet to toast their own obvious success with this secret (as witnessed by the near sell-out audience last Saturday night), SF Playhouse’s production of Company, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, went down as smooth as a cocktail and left many patrons with a satisfied glow as a result.

Company is not your typical all-singing-all-dancing musical. In fact, there’s little enough dancing in the show—this is a musical with the emphasis on the music and the singing.Company is not a sort of A-to-Z straight-line plot, either. The show is composed of a variety of scenes that taken as a whole tell our tale.

The scenes/music/singing all revolve around the dating / marriage / commitment / relationships of one newly 35-year-old man named Bobby, played with almost detached studied aplomb by Keith Pinto. A perpetual bachelor and bon vivant, Bobby, and his married friends, are celebrating his birthday; that, in essence, is the story line.

As directed by SF Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano, Company eschews the full orchestration and electric guitars of most productions, relying instead on two pianos, located stage left and stage right. Music Director Dave Dobrusky presides over one of these pianos and surely conducts his charges. The effect of this two-piano strategy is more personal, less grandiose than a full or even partial orchestra.

The set design by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott is elegant on many levels because the set is built on, you guessed it, many levels. The scenic rear projections as designed by Micah Stieglitz add a powerful theatrical touch to the proceedings. The sound design by Anton Hedman works well, as does the lighting design by Michael Oesch.

Stage management by Tatjana Genser is tight with sound and light cues snappily in place. Costume design by Shannon Sigman takes full marks—elegant, well designed, and nicely rendered. All the actors looked darn good in Sigman’s work. The props design is fine—what props need to be in place are in place, work well, and underscore scenes nicely.

Choreography by Kimberly Richards, ably assisted by Morgan Dayley, is sharp and professional, given the limitations on dancing room due to the multi-plane set.

Let’s move on to the acting. Overall, the casting and associated acting of this show is a little bit uneven, but, to be sure, the acting is in general rendered with obvious verve and commitment.

I do wish we’d gotten to see a bit more of Abby Sammons’ (Jenny) good work. This is a talented lady.

Then there is Monique Hafen as Amy.

Can I say, “Oh. My. God.” in a review? There’s nothing else to say. To say Hafen nails the anxiety, the intensity, the comedy, and the speed-singing of Amy, who may not be getting married today, is like saying the Mona Lisa is “a pretty, sort of, mostly OK drawing.” Once Hafen starts acting and singing, almost all the other cast members turn to specters at worst or supporting actors/singers at best. Hafen is the most exciting and engaging musical performer in this cast, bar none. If she doesn’t have a suitcase permanently packed for Broadway by her home’s front door she’s doing something wrong.

Another notable performance is rendered by Joanne (Stephanie Prentice). Never far from a bar or a drink, the fragile, emotional wreck that is Joanne has one of the most powerful songs of the night (“The Ladies Who Lunch”) and Prentice nailed it cold.

Full marks must be given to Morgan Dayley in her character as a flight attendant who spends as much time looking up at bedroom ceilings as she does looking down airplane aisles. Dayley gives the role her all and does so without stepping into cliché or camp. Watch this performer, she is going places.

“Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?” is, I will admit, one of my favorite dance numbers and SF Playhouse did it with gusto. Overall, the music and singing were quite good.

All in all, SF Playhouse’s Company is a fine night on the town.

Company continues through Sept. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco.

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

ASR Technical Review! ‘Company’ Rocks at SF Playhouse — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

SF Playhouse has learned a secret uncovered by few community and regional theaters: big musicals in the June 1 to Sept. 1 timeframe can make serious money. Especially in tourist destination cities or areas.

Raising a vodka gimlet to toast their own obvious success with this secret (as witnessed by the near sell-out audience last Saturday night), SF Playhouse’s production of Company, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, went down as smooth as a cocktail and left many patrons with a satisfied glow as a result.

Company is not your typical all-singing-all-dancing musical. In fact, there’s little enough dancing in the show—this is a musical with the emphasis on the music and the singing.Company is not a sort of A-to-Z straight-line plot, either. The show is composed of a variety of scenes that taken as a whole tell our tale.

The scenes/music/singing all revolve around the dating/marriage/commitment/relationships of one newly 35-year-old man named Bobby, played with almost detached studied aplomb by Keith Pinto. A perpetual bachelor and bon vivant, Bobby, and his married friends, are celebrating his birthday; that, in essence, is the storyline.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set design by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott is elegant on many levels because the set is built on, you guessed it, many levels. The scenic rear projections as designed by Micah Stieglitz add a powerful theatrical touch to the proceedings. (Score: 8/10)

Set Construction:

In a word: quality. A well constructed, well thought-out set. No extraneous architecture—nothing that didn’t need to be there was there. (Score: 8/10)

Stage Management:

As rendered by Tatjana Genser, the stage management was tight with sound and light cues snappily in place.  (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

The sound design by Anton Hedman works well. (Score: 7/10)

Props:

The props design is fine—what props need to be in place are in place, work well, and underscore scenes nicely. (Score: 7/10)

Costumes:

Costume design by Shannon Sigman takes full marks—elegant, well designed, and nicely rendered. All the actors looked darn good in Sigman’s work. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

As directed by SF Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano, Company is well blocked with excellent stage pictures rendered on the multiple layers of the stage. This adds complexity to the directorial process because it’s easier to watch/direct actors at the same time on a single level plane versus actors scattered liberally from stage left to stage right and upstage to downstage.

Blocking takes on aspects of choreography in many plays (both musical and non-musical), and Damilano handled movement well. My only nudge would be that cue pick-ups could be quicker, brisker, and the same nudge for scene transitions—a bit faster might have added even more audience energy to the proceedings. (Score: 8/10)

Musical Direction:

Company eschews the full orchestration and electric guitars of most productions, relying instead on two pianos, located stage left and stage right. Music Director Dave Dobrusky hosts one of these pianos and surely conducts his musical charges. The effect of this two-piano strategy is more personal, less grandiose than a full or even partial orchestra. That said, at times it felt a bit like the cast was fighting the sound envelope of the pianos. (Score: 6/10)

Lights:

The lighting design by Michael Oesch in and of itself works well. (Score: 8/10)

NOTE: But I have significant reservation about a couple of architectural lighting issues. The house right and house left tormentor lights spill too much light into the audience area. The same is true of the lights high, upstage center. The light spillage was very distracting and detracted from the quality of what was happening onstage.

Casting:

The casting was a bit uneven. Disappointing, as the majority of the cast ranged from good to superb.  (Score: 7/10)

Overall Production:

As presented by SF Playhouse, Company gives general audiences and those of us inside theater a solid example of taking a musical from some years back and making it modern, energetic, and appealing to a contemporary audience.

The acting of Monique Hafen made this show for me. Her stellar history with SF Playhouse is now the stuff of regional theater legend. Soon, I have little doubt, it will be the stuff of Broadway legend as well. (Score: 8.5/10)

Reviewer Score:

SF Playhouse has demonstrated to everyone that they know how to rock musical theater. From awards won to sell-out nights, SF Playhouse knows musicals. Company continues that proud heritage.

The quality of SF Playhouse musical productions should be a beacon to technical theater artists as well as actors across the US, and, indeed, globally. (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Score: (92/120) Extremely good work.

 All in all, SF Playhouse’s Company is a fine night on the town.

 

Company continues through Sept. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco.

Tickets are $20-$120 (discounts available). Call 415-677-9596 or visit http://www.sfplayhouse.org.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

 

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