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

By Cari Lynn Pace

An ASR Pick!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-30-

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

 

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

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

By Barry Willis

An ASR Pick!

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.

-30-

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

 

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

ASR Theater ~~ Undead Cat Provokes Hilarity in MSW’s “Wink”

By Sue Morgan

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

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

…a truly enjoyable evening’s diversion…

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

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

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

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

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

John Browning (L) as Gregor.

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

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

Ilana Niernberger at work in “Wink” at MSW.

 

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

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

-30-

Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region.

Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

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

 

 

 

 

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.

-30-

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?----

An ASR Pick! “Almost, Maine” Sublimely Sweet at Spreckels – by Nicole Singley

“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” –Roald Dahl 

Allie Nordby and Skylar Evans (Photo by Jeff Thomas)

Spreckels has something sublimely sweet in store for those in need of a little magic. On a snowy night in the remote outskirts of eastern Maine, nine couples confront questions about love, loss, hope, and healing under the spell of the northern lights. Gracing the intimate Condiotti Studio Theatre stage through April 10th, “Almost, Maine” is equal parts funny and moving, and a heartwarming night at the theater well spent.

John Cariani’s clever script features nine vignettes that play out across eleven short scenes, each brimming with witty wordplay and plentiful humor, a hearty sprinkling of magical – and sometimes absurdly literal – realism, and characters who are endearingly forthright and sincere. Cariani gives viewers a sampling of love stories in various stages of growth and decline, including missed connections, new beginnings, unexpected reunions, and sweet misunderstandings. While most of the endings are happy or hopeful, there are plenty of poignant moments, too, offering audiences a beautifully balanced exploration of human relationships and folly.

Director Anderson Templeton leans into the play’s comic absurdity just enough to earn laughs in all the right places without devaluing the more tender and genuine moments. He gets strong performances from a capable ensemble of six, who together take on the roles of nineteen different characters throughout the show, moving smoothly between parts and pairings. It is a testament to their talent that it’s not a struggle to adjust to the same faces reappearing in each new capacity. Instead, it imbues the show with a sense of intimacy and familiarity that feels becoming of the tiny, would-be town of Almost, Maine.

. . . refreshingly honest, tremendously funny, and full of love and wisdom, with a little bit of magic awaiting those who are willing to find it.”

Serena Elize Flores and Brandon Wilson (Photo by Jeff Thomas)

Serena Elize Flores and Brandon Wilson shine together as distraught Glory and earnest repairman, East, whose chance encounter under the aurora offers hope that a broken heart can possibly be fixed. John Browning and Molly Larsen-Shine are at once hilarious and charming as Lendall and Gayle, a couple on the verge of breaking up when a surprising revelation changes everything. Allie Nordby delivers a haunting performance in a touching scene with Skylar Evans, in which a woman named Hope comes home to find out if the man she once loved still holds out hope for her return. These are only a few of the most memorable scenes, but all are well-executed and highly enjoyable.

Combined with Chris Schloemp’s stunning astral projections, Andrew Patton’s simple, snow-covered set creates a lovely backdrop, and is complemented by Donnie Frank’s humble, cold-weather costumery. Elizabeth Bazzano assists with a whimsical array of props, including big red bags purportedly full of love, an ironing board that doubles as an accidental weapon, and a shoe that drops mysteriously from the ceiling with impeccable timing. Thanks to resident designers Eddy Hansen and Jessica Johnson, lighting and sound work together seamlessly to set the scene, transitioning the small stage from romantic star-lit night to local watering hole with ease.

There isn’t much more I can divulge without risk of ruining some of the delicious surprises that await first-time viewers, but suffice it to say that from start to finish, this production is an absolute delight. This reviewer laughed and cried in equal measure. “Almost, Maine” is the kind of world I want to live in – refreshingly honest, tremendously funny, and full of love and wisdom, with a little bit of magic awaiting those who are willing to find it. If you’ve been waiting to get back to the theater, this show is the perfect opportunity. Don’t let it pass you by.

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionAlmost, Maine
Written byJohn Cariani
Directed byAnderson Templeton
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough April 10th, 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An ASR Pick. | Big Hug: Lucky Penny’s “The Marvelous Wonderettes” | Your Reporter: 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!

 

 

-30-

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!

An ASR Pick | “The Legend of Georgia McBride” Sizzles at 6th Street Playhouse | Your Reporter: Cari Lynn Pace

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse transforms their 99-seat Monroe Stage into Cleo’s Bar, a down-and-out dive in Panama City, Florida—a Gulf Coast town at the eastern end of the state’s panhandle, an area southerners refer to with disparaging affection as “the redneck Riviera.”

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a comedic and heartfelt unfolding of how female impersonators are made, not born. Directed by Carl Jordan, it’s a totally charming, well-acted and danced production. It blends the story of friendship and support with more than a few bawdy and ribald scenes. Leave the kids at home.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

Cleo’s Bar manager Eddie (Peter Downey) introduces an earnest but untalented Casey (Alexander Howard) to an underwhelming cluster of patrons. Casey is a down-on-his-luck wannabe Elvis impersonator who makes less money in tips than his gas bill to drive to work each night.

After the show, Casey arrives home to find his hardworking wife Jo (Jamella Cross) distraught as their rent check has bounced again. These two have a strong bond, now sorely tested by their desperate finances. When Casey shows Jo a sequined Elvis suit he purchased to enhance his act, Jo erupts in dismay and reveals she is pregnant. Casey promises he will do better for their future together. It’s a great setup.

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a comedic and heartfelt unfolding of how female impersonators are made, not born.”

The next night at Cleo’s Bar, two female impersonators arrive and size up their backstage digs. Miss Tracy Mills (an astounding performance by Joseph Abrego) is optimistic and determined to make their new gig work. She reminds her inebriated co-star Anorexia Nervosa (a hilarious turn by Tyler Bertolone) that this is their last chance; they’ve run out of options.

Casey knows nothing of this change of plans and prepares to drive to work as usual. In a remarkable double role, Bertolone appears as Casey and Jo’s butch neighbor and landlord. Friendly but determined, he lumbers over to collect the back rent or evict them. It seems Casey and Jo aren’t the only ones who’ve run out of options.

Casey arrives at work and is dismissed as entertainment by the manager. Elvis has left the building, and a new duo of divas is waiting to show off their assets. When Nervosa passes out drunk for the first show, Tracy plops an Edith Piaf wig on to a very reluctant Casey and shoves him onstage to lip sync. A star is born, sort of.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

The drag show money lures Casey to do it again, so Tracy coaches and grooms him for more female impersonator roles. She creates a “Georgia McBride” stage name as Casey starts to enjoy himself. Cleo’s Bar becomes the hottest and hippest joint in town.

When Anorexia sobers up enough to re-join the cast, the team’s sexy shiny costume changes and clever choreography propel the bar’s fame over the top. The first row of seats in this ¾ round theatre gets the action up close, and these outrageous gals really work the crowd.

Tracy’s generous guidance and stage smarts bring months of success to Cleo’s. But there’s a problem: Casey is uncomfortable in his new onstage “skin” and has not told his pregnant wife he has dropped performing as Elvis in favor of “Georgia McBride.” When she finds out, their reckoning is both painful and eventually productive. Love and community support conquer all.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

“Georgia McBride” delivers nonstop entertainment, filling this stage to the brim with pizzazz. Act II has the choreography talents of Devin Parker Sullivan and Jacob Gutierrez-Montoya. Add dazzlingly quick costume changes designed by Amaris Blagborne to the wig and make-up skills of Rosanne Johnson, and the audience goes wild.

 

Director Carl Jordan noted that “Georgia McBride” was ready to roll when the Omicron surge hit, and he had to replace three cast members who were no longer available. Fortunately, Jordan has the stunning talents of Joseph Abrego, a top drag queen across LA. Jordan also recruited Peter Downey to step into the role of the bar manager with a mere ten days’ rehearsal. You’d never know it, as Downey seamlessly fits into this talented crew as part of “The Legend of Georgia McBride.”

-30-

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

 

ProductionThe Legend of Georgia McBride
Written byMatthew Lopez
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 20th, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$22 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR Pick. | “Master Class” Sonoma Arts Live Hits the High Notes | Your Reporter: Cari Lynn Pace

Emily Evans and Libby Oberlin at work. Photo courtesy Sonoma Arts Live.

 

Sonoma’s Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall transforms into a classroom for opera legend Maria Callas, where she instructs aspiring opera stars. A creation based on actual events, Terrence McNally’s story stars Libby Oberlin as Madame Callas. Under the direction of veteran Carl Jordan, Oberlin becomes a tour-de-force in this poignant look back at the Diva’s life.

The audience is welcomed as if we are all students by a commanding Madame Callas. She sharply addresses us “There will be no applause, we are here to work!” We meekly obey. She is at once mercurial, charming and aloof.

Libby Oberlin at work. Photos courtesy Sonoma Arts Live.

Reduced to teaching master classes at Julliard in 1971-72, Madame Callas shares recorded snatches of her past triumphs and once-incredible voice. Although she does not sing, she reminisces about past triumphs and loves. And losses. Callas was the world’s American-born Greek goddess whose voice, like her pedestal, crumbled away far too soon.

Madame Callas as channeled by the talented Oberlin is a firestorm onstage. She mocks her pianist (John Partridge) for his clothing choices. She barks orders to stagehand Dan Monez. When her first student, a soprano beautifully played by Emily Evans, appears in a short dress, the Diva is not amused.

“Helpful” criticism overflows to the audience, some of whom are berated for their obvious lack of style. Evans does a fine turn as the terrorized young singer who does her best to comply with Madame Callas’ instructions. When the soprano finally does get to sing, the audience erupts in a burst of encouraging – and supportive – applause.

“When the soprano finally does get to sing, the audience erupts in a burst of encouraging – and supportive – applause.”

The Diva’s next “victim” (as she calls them) is another soprano, played by regal redhead Morgan Harrington. Although dressed resplendently, Madame cuttingly dismisses her to re-do her stage entrance. She does not reappear; Madame Callas suspects this student is gone for good.

An attractive tenor is next (Robert Dornaus) and his confidence and style impress the Diva. When his fine tenor voice fills the auditorium, Madame shifts her criticism. This class is not as much about his voice; she zeros in to correct his pronunciation and his presentation of the role.

Robert Dornaus as the tenor whose confidence and style impress the Diva. Photo courtesy Sonoma Arts Live.

The dismissed soprano (Harrington) reappears, Madame insists she fully master the emotion of what she sings. This is the reputation and legacy of Maria Callas as she performed at all the greatest opera houses around the world.

Throughout “Master Class,” Callas draws from the well of emotional pains of her upbringing and dramatic life onstage and off. Her end-of career reminiscences interrupt the lessons, with clips of her past projected behind her. The saddest line Madame Callas speaks is in Act II, when she admits to the re-appearing soprano “I would never tell anyone not to applaud. Sometimes applause is the only thing we have to live on.”

COVID Update: Sonoma Arts Live has a policy of COVID protections. They require evidence of vaccination or similar safety precautions and masks are worn throughout the performance. See the website for full information.

-30-

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

 

ProductionMaster Class
Written byTerrence McNally
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesFebruary 27, 2022
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Theater | Pure Joy: Cinnabar’s “Amy and the Orphans” | Your Reporter: 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.

-30-

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!

An ASR Pick! Transcendence’s Broadway Holiday Spectacular Offers an Evening of Magic at Belos Cavalos — by Nicole Singley

L to R: Edward Juvier, David R. Gordon, Maria Bilbao, Arielle Crosby, and Lori Haley Fox (Photo by Rob Martel)

It’s that time of the year again, and Transcendence Theatre Company has cooked up something special sure to put you in the spirit. Their Broadway Holiday Spectacular is back, and this season, it’s better than ever. Featuring a talented troupe of artists from all over the country – including many familiar faces, and some exciting new additions to the Transcendence family, too – it’s a high-energy night full of festive, foot-tapping fun for folks of all ages. Be sure to catch it while you can, before the show’s two-week run ends on December 12th.

Returning audiences will recognize all the traditional elements of a night spent with Transcendence – fresh and funny renditions of favorite tunes and classic carols, a live band and dazzling choreography, and of course, a pre-show party complete with food and wine from local vendors. But this year, the fun has moved under the big tent at Belos Cavalos, a charming equestrian estate tucked away in the hills of Kenwood, where guests will enjoy the chance to mingle with horses and goats during intermission, and gather around tables in lieu of standard theater seating.

On the program are a number of fan-favorites from previous years, including a clever play on Madonna’s “Vogue” paying homage to Rudolph of reindeer fame, and a silly song about making fruitcake set to the tune of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” performed capably by Transcendence newcomer Edward Juvier. There are some fun surprises, too, including two four-legged guest-stars, and a creative take on “12 Days of Christmas” inviting audience members to help with the countdown.

If you’ve never experienced a Transcendence show, make this the first of many.”

Top row: Bebe Browning, Marissa Barragán, Edward Juvier, Kyle Kemph; Bottom row: Luther Brooks IV, Preston Truman Boyd, Drew Elhamalawy (Photo by Rob Martel)

Lori Haley Fox is quirky and endearing as Mrs. Claus, who serves as our narrator throughout the evening, and Preston Truman Boyd is our flannel-clad Santa, loosely framing the musical acts within an uplifting story about family, friendship, and love. Behind them onstage, the live band really rocks, and bassist Lynn Keller even joins performer David Morgan for a cute number about Chanukah, together lamenting the limited greeting card options available at the local drugstore.

There are, of course, some slower heartfelt pieces in the mix, including a haunting rendition of “O Holy Night” performed by Kyle Kemph, whose voice is so clear and bright it gave me chills, and Arielle Crosby, whose talent alone is worth the price of admission. The pair team up again for an equally moving performance of beloved Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston duet “When You Believe.” Maria Bilbao nearly steals the show with a spine-tingling version of “Please Come Home for Christmas.” She makes it sound effortless, and the high notes brought actual tears to my eyes.

Top row: Bebe Browning, Drew Elhamalawy; Bottom row: Maria Bilbao, David R. Gordon, Kristin Piro; Front: Arielle Crosby (Photo by Rob Martel)

The entire cast is immensely talented, so much so that it almost feels unfair to single anyone out. But I’d be remiss not to also mention Transcendence newcomer Luther Brooks IV, who charms with his sparkling smile and evident dance skills. Be sure to keep an eye on him during some of the big ensemble numbers. Choreographers Matthew Steffens and Marissa Barragán have worked some magic on stage, making the show as fun to watch as it is to hear and sing along to. (Did I mention there are tiny goats in diapers?)

If you’ve never experienced a Transcendence show, make this the first of many. And if you’re a repeat visitor, you’ll be happy you didn’t miss out on this one. Plan to get there early and meet the horses, take selfies with goats, and wine and dine with friends before the show. Bring layers, too – the heated tent felt a bit chilly as the night cooled down. Even so, you’re sure to leave feeling full of warmth and holiday cheer.

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionBroadway Holiday Spectacular 2021
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byMatthew Steffens
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough December 12th, 2021
Production AddressBelos Cavalos
687 Campagna Lane
Kenwood, CA 95452
Websitebestnightever.org
or
ttcsonoma.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$149
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Choreography4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR 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?

-30-

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 Pick! “The Wickhams” Delights with Warmth and Wit at Spreckels — by Nicole Singley

Leonhart and Lichirie working at Spreckles.

Those in search of some heartwarming fare this holiday season will find it at Spreckels, where “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” is scheduled to grace the intimate Condiotti Studio Theatre stage through December 12th. Second in a three-part series, “The Wickhams” is a sequel to Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, though theatergoers need not have seen part one – nor have read the original novel – to understand and enjoy the show. Acclaimed duo Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have penned a delightful and clever continuation to one of the literary world’s most famous love stories, brimming with enough wisdom, wit, and charm to have been written by Austen herself.

…I can’t think of a better way to start the holiday season.

As those who attended may fondly recall, Spreckels staged a memorably top-notch production of part one in the series, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” in November of 2019. “Miss Bennet” takes place on the ground floor of the Darcys’ estate, where the newlyweds are hosting the entire Bennet clan for Christmas festivities. In part two, however, we venture downstairs to see what’s happening in the servants’ quarters while the family gathering unfolds above. Amid the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations, the late-night arrival of an uninvited guest threatens to throw the household into chaos. Cue the comedic mishaps, delicious drama, and sweet romance in this uplifting tale of family and love, forgiveness and redemption.

Sheila Lichirie delivers a stellar performance as head housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, who is equal parts sharp-tongued censure and quick-witted wisdom, with just enough warmth peeking through the cracks in her all-business exterior. Sam Coughlin is equally exceptional as notorious scoundrel George Wickham, whose drunken stumbling and slick overtures to the new maid would be enough to make one’s skin crawl if he weren’t so hilarious and strangely charming. Coughlin has mastered the appropriate body language and facial expressions to really sell his character.

Cohan and Coughlin at work in “The Wickhams”

Though Lichirie and Coughlin are the standouts, their companions are excellent, too. Kimberley Cohan makes a wonderfully lively and sympathetic Lydia Wickham, whose naivety is more endearing than annoying. Dale Leonhart’s Cassie, the ambitious new housemaid, is deliciously sassy, spirited, whip-smart, and self-assured. Silas Vaughn is eager and earnest as love-struck footman Brian, and delivers an enjoyably energetic performance. Allie Nordby – who was phenomenal as eldest Bennet sister, Jane, in the 2019 production – brings an irresistible sweetness and sincerity to her character that makes her impossible not to love, though lacking in some of the headstrong passion and playfulness I secretly crave in an Elizabeth Darcy. Perhaps what’s missing is convincing chemistry with her beau.

Coughlin, Nordby, and Guo work at scene of “The Wickhams” at Spreckle’s Performing Arts Center.

Byron Guo’s Fitzwilliam Darcy is appropriately stately and reserved, but perhaps just a touch too stiff, with his arms often glued to his sides. He does some effective things with his intonation and facial expressions, but his scenes with Nordby feel somewhat forced, and I kept hoping to see him loosen up a bit. Mr. Darcy isn’t supposed to be overly effusive or unrestrained, of course, but part of his charm is the way he softens in Elizabeth’s presence. Guo is more convincing as a charitable host and consummate gentleman than a newlywed man in love, though a few more performances may help him ease into the role. Despite these minor criticisms, it’s clear this is a very talented ensemble, and the show is entirely diverting.

Director Emily Cornelius has paced the production beautifully. Laughs land where they should, there are no lulls in the action, and the sweeter, softer moments don’t feel rushed. The impact is greatly enhanced by Elizabeth Bazzano’s handsome set, tempting us to gather around the kitchen table to help with holiday preparations, or cozy up by the glowing fire. The build quality and attention to detail are impressive, with doors that open to a realistic looking room and hallway, and an abundance of props that make the space feel like a real home. Costume designer Donnie Frank deserves recognition, too, for aptly chosen attire and some seriously stunning pieces. (Where can I find Lydia’s fabulous evening dress and nightgown?)

Whether you’re an Austen fan or just a fan of good theater, be sure to catch “The Wickhams.” With a hearty dose of warmth and wit that’s sure to leave you in a brighter mood, I can’t think of a better way to start the holiday season.

-30-

Nicole Singley

Sr. Contributing Writer/Editor, AisleSeatReview.com

Member, American Theatre Critics Association

Member, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Member, Marquee Theater Journalists Association

ProductionThe Wickhams
Written byLauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed byEmily Cornelius
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough December 12th, 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

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.

 

 

-30-

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.

-30-

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

 

ProductionTopdog/Underdog
Written bySuzan-Lori Parks
Directed byBronwen Shears
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Oct 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
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

 

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: “Love, Loss, and What I Wore”; 6th Street’s Season Opener Reminisces About Outfits & More – By Cari Lynn Pace

“Love, Loss, and What I Wore” cast at work.

“Love, Loss, and What I Wore” is a promising first post-pandemic live offering by Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse in its studio theater. Five seasoned actors take turns retelling an emotional assemblage of snippets, each chronicling her memorable outfits. Not all the event memories are happy, yet all make up the fabric of life.

Written by Nora Ephron, the American essayist and humorist who penned such comedies as “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and more, the show’s pedigree promises to be heartfelt. The late author’s sister Delia Ephron is co-author, doubling down on the anticipated warmth.

“Five seasoned actors take turns retelling an assemblage of emotional snippets, each chronicling her memorable outfit.”

Sadly, the show is hampered by continuing Covid restrictions, and the actors wear clear plastic masks throughout their soliloquies. This impediment no doubt curtails their abilities to get into character. It also hampers their diction, causing them to over-project their volume and lose the finer emotional points. They’re close, but still far away.

The stage is spartan, backed by two projection screens, and naked except for a few bits of feminine accessories and a dressed sewing dummy.

Dressed all in black, five actors read their scripts from music stands in front of them. Only occasionally does an actor come forward, sans script. Most of the monologues have a projected sketch of the outfit illustrating the actor’s subject story. There’s even a music snippet of Madonna when the actors recall their outfits worn in homage to the fashion icon. And who can forget Nancy Sinatra’s boots?

“It’s a humorous essay about the female bond to clothes, boots, and purses. What’s not to like?”

“Love, Loss, and What I Wore” has heartfelt talk but no action; internal humor laced with poignant moments. The stories move slowly, linked only by blackouts between scenes. The timelines of the individual characters—spanning an era from the 1950s to the 2000s—stand alone without connection or plot. Some scenes garnered applause; others drew sparks of laughter.

“Love, Loss, and What I Wore” — 6th Street’s Season Opener

Anyone who has ever lamented “I have nothing to wear” may relate to this humorous essay about the female bond to clothes, boots, and purses. “What’s not to like?” asked one patron.

The Saturday night performance in this 99-seat theatre was sold out. After the first act of 1 ¼ hours, and intermission, there were at least 40 empty seats. Director Libby Oberlin might take note and make some edits.

“Audiences must prove Covid vaccination or negative test results before entering.”

6th Street Theatre takes their Covid restrictions seriously. Audiences must prove vaccination or negative test results before entering the lobby. Several without proof were denied entrance. All attendees must wear masks over nose and mouth throughout the production and in the lobby; roving ushers remind patrons to cover up or leave the premises.

Playing Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 and Sunday matinees at 2:00 (one Saturday matinee August 21) at the Monroe Stage (the smaller theatre) through August 29th at 52 West Sixth Street, Santa Rosa, CA. Free parking in their lot.

For tickets go to www.6thstreetplayhouse.com or email boxoffice@6thstreetplayhouse.com or call 707-523-4185.

Seating note: On this hot evening, some overhead equipment hummed and buzzed intermittently, a distraction for those seated in the top rows.

ProductionLove, Loss, and What I Wore
Written byNora and Delia Ephron
Directed byLibby Oberlin
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough August 29th, 2021
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $29
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

-30-

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

 

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! Quirky, Wonderful “Heisenberg” at Left Edge Theatre – by Barry Willis

Rider and Craven (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

A seemingly chance encounter between a mature London butcher and a younger woman prompts  unpredictable developments in Simon Stephens’s “Heisenberg,” at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through February 2.

Directed by Carla Spindt, the two-actor, six-scene piece takes its name from German physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose famous “uncertainty principle” means, in its largest sense, that we can’t really be sure about what we think we know. It opens with Alex (John Craven) sitting calmly on a park bench when quite unbidden, Georgie (Shannon Rider) approaches and kisses him on the neck—the first time they’ve met. She introduces herself and gushes almost uncontrollably while he looks on befuddled—clearly this is a “red flag” moment but he plays along, listening attentively and politely without offering encouragement. 

It’s an extremely odd first encounter. In the second one, having done some minor detective work via Google, she’s tracked him down at his butcher shop, and comes on even stronger, this time with a completely different tale about who she is and why she’s interested in him. Amused and flattered by the unexpected attention, he’s again receptive but does not encourage. Craven maintains his character’s distance throughout, a mix of caution and curiosity, while the energetic Rider pours out ever-more-fanciful tales that culminate in a confession that she hasn’t seen her adult son in years and needs to go to America to find him.

. . . a fascinating dance, a true theatrical pas de deux.”

Craven and Rider (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

As the two become friendlier, her various veils of hyperactive identity fall away but it’s still never clear to Alex or the audience (or possibly to Georgie herself) which part of her is real and which is not—a maddening and very funny scenario. Having accepted that Georgie is off-kilter but probably harmless, Alex makes his peace with the situation’s unpredictability and goes along for what proves to be a lovely ride. It’s a fascinating dance, a true theatrical pas de deux.

Both of them veteran performers, Craven and Rider are fully committed to this delightfully ambiguous yet somehow totally believable piece of magical realism—Craven the embodiment of fascinated reticence, Rider a whirlwind of imaginative insistence. The drama and the comedy are equally enhanced by sound designer Joe Winkler’s lovely tango music and Chris Schloemp’s marvelous projections on an elegant set by Argo Thompson.  

Is the May/December relationship between Georgie and Alex believable? Is the ambiguity of their story plausible? Yes. No. Maybe. In a universe of infinite outcomes, everything is possible—perhaps even perfect. That’s the beguiling beauty of “Heisenberg.”

Barry Willis is the Executive Editor at Aisle Seat Review, 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

 

ProductionHeisenberg
Written bySimon Stephens
Directed byCarla Spindt
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 2nd
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$15-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Review: “Buddy” A Rocking Good Time at 6th Street – by Barry Willis

Kyle Jurrasic as Buddy Holly (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

1950s musical icon Buddy Holly had a short but prolific career. With 12 top 100 hits within three years, his sweet lyrics and catchy rhythms proved to have enduring influence on many artists that followed, including the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

Now in an extended run through February 16 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse, “Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story” follows his meteoric rise from the country music scene in Lubbock, Texas, to New York City and elsewhere—including his final performance in Clearlake, Iowa before a plane crash that took his life and those of fellow performers Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Holly was only 22 and might have gone on to a long illustrious career, but the catalog he left behind is still a source of inspiration and joy.

The show is a “jukebox musical”—one that conveys the biographical facts interspersed with Holly’s many hits. Bay Area newcomer Kyle Jurrasic is excellent as Holly, capturing his signature look, song styling, and guitar playing. That’s to be expected of an actor who’s played the role multiple times. Director D.J. Salisbury also has extensive experience with the show, having directed and/or choreographed seven previous productions.

The show’s infectious energy carries it along beautifully…”

The large cast is generally tremendous, especially Seth Dahlgren as the Big Bopper, Marc Assad as Valens, and Charlie Whitaker as Maria Elena Santiago, Holly’s wife. Husband-and-wife team John and Jennifer Bannister are superb in multiple roles, while music-and-dance numbers are handled adroitly by triple-threat Trevor Hoffman with Selena Elize Flores and Jennifer Barnaba. Nick Ambrosio is comically delightful as Jerry Allison, Holly’s drummer.

Opening night was marred by a few technical glitches—what the heck was a battery-powered transmitter doing attached to a 1950s guitar?—but that didn’t seem to bother the sold-out crowd clearly assembled to revel in the music, delivered with gusto and authenticity over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours. The show’s infectious energy carries it along beautifully, but as has been true for several recent 6th Street productions, the set is minimal—in this case little more than three pairs of flats decorated with neo-50s graphics, that serve as everything from office walls to elevator doors. Production values are otherwise fairly high—costumes, lighting, and sound. The skimpy set is all that holds this show back from a higher rating, but it may not be a concern for the many Buddy Holly fans likely to buy tickets.

Barry Willis is the Executive Editor at Aisle Seat Review, 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

 

ProductionBuddy—The Buddy Holly Story
Written byAlan Janes
Directed byD. J. Salisbury
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough February 16th
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
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

ASR’s Year in Review: Our “Best of the Best” from 2019 – by Nicole Singley and Barry Willis

Better late than never, the old adage has it. Here (in no particular order) are some memorable productions from last season, a year full of four- and five-star achievements.

The Jungle (Curran Theatre): San Francisco’s renovated Curran Theatre was re-renovated for an immersive recreation of a 2016 crisis in a refugee camp in Calais, France. A huge and hugely talented multi-ethnic cast made this show last season’s most profound and moving theatrical experience. (BW)

After Miss Julie (Main Stage West): Ilana Niernberger and Sam Coughlin paired up for a thrilling pas de deux in Patrick Marber’s evocative spin on “Miss Julie,” transplanting Strindberg’s classic story to a summer night in 1945. A stunning set, great lighting, and white-hot performances brought class and erotic tensions to a boil, culminating in a seriously steamy tango scene that won’t be soon forgotten. (NS)

Rocky Horror Show (Marin Musical Theatre Company): MMTC took this Halloween favorite far over the top at the San Anselmo Playhouse, thanks to stunning efforts by Jake Gale, Nelson Brown, Dani Innocenti-Beem, Pearl Fugit and many others. (BW)

Barbecue Apocalypse (Spreckels): The laughs were served well-done in this quirky comedy, thanks to a witty script marinated in millennial-centric humor and a talented ensemble. Clever costumes, strong technical work, and excellent casting proved that all it takes to survive the end of days is a little raccoon meat and some serious comic relief. (NS)

Romeo and Juliet (Throckmorton): Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre and the streets around it became Verona, Italy, in a sweetly evocative, imaginative, and fully immersive production of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy. (BW)

Sex with Strangers (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre turned up the heat in “Sex with Strangers,” a seductive modern romance that broaches big questions about love, ambition, and the price of success in the digital era. Dean Linnard and Sandra Ish brought the story’s unlikely couple to life with electric chemistry and powerful, nuanced performances. (NS)

Incidents in the Wicked Life of Moll Flanders (Ross Valley Players): RVP gambled and won with Jennifer LeBlanc’s adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel. Amber Collins Crane stole the show as the lead in a compelling tale about a beautiful, quick-witted woman who rose from miserable circumstances to respectability through petty crime, stealth, charm, and unusually good luck. (BW)

Drumming with Anubis (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre invited us along to the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society’s annual campout, where a group of aging death metal fans communes in the desert to beat their bongos. Things got a little dark, a lot hilarious, and surprisingly touching when the Egyptian god of death crashed the party. Local playwright David Templeton’s brilliant new show earned a 5-star reception, featuring a phenomenal cast and beautiful scenic design. (NS)

How I Learned What I Learned (Marin Theatre Company): Director Margo Hall coaxed a tremendous performance from Steven Anthony Jones, who brought grandfatherly wit and wisdom to the role of playwright August Wilson. A master class in story-telling. (BW)

Faceless (6th Street Playhouse): Former artistic director Craig A. Miller returned to helm this riveting courtroom drama about an American teenager caught running away to join her internet boyfriend in ISIS. Razor-sharp dialogue and powerhouse performances made for an intense and memorable experience in 6th Street’s intimate studio theater. (NS)

The Year of Magical Thinking (Aurora Theatre Company): Stacy Ross glowed in a masterly solo recital of Joan Didion’s play from her book of the same name. (BW)

Home (Berkeley Repertory Theatre): In this stunning piece of performance art by Geoff Sobelle, audiences watched a two-story house materialize from the shadows of an empty stage as if by magic. A spectacle of epic proportions, this visual feast reminded theatergoers that a house is just a space in which we come together to make a home. (NS)

Fully Committed (6th Street Playhouse): Patrick Varner channeled 40-some characters in his hilarious one-man depiction of a scheduling manager at his wits’ end in a high-end NYC restaurant, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. (BW)

Merman’s Apprentice (Sonoma Arts Live): Daniela Innocenti-Beem brought Broadway legend Ethel Merman back to the stage with a larger-than-life performance in this sparkling world premiere, brimming with catchy tunes and colorful humor. Innocenti-Beem and teenaged costar Emma Sutherland boast some serious pipes, which made this charming new musical all the more fun. (NS)

Mother of the Maid (Marin Theatre Company): A mother’s love and devotion were never so well depicted as in this lovely, heart-rending piece about Joan of Arc’s mother Isabelle (Sherman Fracher). (BW)

Eureka Day (Spreckels): Laughter proved contagious in Jonathan Spector’s whip-smart “Eureka Day,” pitting parents at a Berkeley charter school against each other in the wake of a mumps outbreak. An all-star cast, elaborate set design, and top-notch technical work combined to make this a 5-star production. (NS)

Cabaret (San Francisco Playhouse and Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions): Both of these productions were excellent and amazing versions of this dazzling but starkly disturbing cautionary tale. (BW) 

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Spreckels): Theatergoers were dazzled by this cleverly written and superbly acted continuation of Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, containing everything an Austenesque story should: delicious drama, a heartwarming romance, and an abundance of humor and witPitch-perfect direction and exemplary casting made “Miss Bennet” the ultimate holiday treat. (NS)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Curran Theatre): Nonstop high-intensity theatrical magic is the only way to describe this extravagant production, running into next July. (BW)

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Spreckels): Hilarity ensued in this madcap musical about a man clawing his way to the top of the family tree. Tim Setzer stole the show as all nine members of the D’Ysquith family, all of whom meet their ends in some of the most creative and comical ways imaginable. Excellent ensemble work, cute choreography, and clever projections made this one killer production. (NS)

Barry Willis is the Executive Editor at Aisle Seat Review, 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

 

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! Explosive Laughs in “Escanaba” at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

The Cast of “Escanaba in da Moonlight” (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Alien encounters, porcupine piss, and a troop of whiskey-swilling women armed with hunting rifles. These are either the makings of a really strange nightmare or a recipe for comic gold. Left Edge Theatre proves the latter with their outrageously funny production of Jeff Daniels’s “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” playing in Santa Rosa through December 15th.

It’s the eve of deer-hunting season in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the Soady clan has gathered in the family cabin to continue an annual tradition steeped in generations of folklore and a whole lot of booze. But this year, things are different. For daughter Ruby (Paige Picard), the stakes have never been higher. She’s the only Soady who has yet to bag a buck, and if she can’t pull it off this season, she’ll break an embarrassing family record.

Willing to try anything and determined to succeed, Ruby’s packed some questionable dinner fare in place of the usual “pasties.” It would be wrong to give too much away, but suffice it to say that things only get weirder and wilder. It’s a strange ride full of fun surprises, hell-raising hilarity, and one especially memorable scene that nearly brought the opening-weekend audience to tears.

This one’s guaranteed to leave you smiling . . .”

Director Argo Thompson puts a refreshing spin on this originally male-dominated show with an all-female ensemble, and thanks to excellent casting, it works beautifully. Strong chemistry between the Soady gals and pitch-perfect delivery make the whole thing absurdly enjoyable.

Parrott-Thomas and Picard (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Sandra Ish is the ideal fit for tough-as-nails matriarch, Alberta, whose no-nonsense narration helps us find our footing in a land where the locals speak their own language and march to a very different drum. Chandler Parrott-Thomas is a riot as hotshot hunter Remy, whose superstition runs so deep she’s been sporting the same sweat-soaked lucky shirt each year since childhood. She and Picard evoke a comfortable familiarity that makes them believable as sisters, striking the right balance between cutthroat rivalry and abiding love.

Kalember as “The Jimmer” (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

The antics ramp up when “The Jimmer” (Kimberly Kalember) joins the party. She hasn’t been quite right, we’re told, since the alien abduction, and has since developed a bizarre speech impediment that makes for heaps of laughter and confusion. Kalember is ridiculously funny and a ton of fun to watch.

Thompson has a gift for designing immersive sets with thoughtful details on the intimate stage at Left Edge, and this one’s no exception. (Kat Motley helps out with a host of peculiar props.) The rustic plank walls and flannel sheets will make you want to pack a suitcase and cozy up at your own cabin in the woods this winter. Ish completes the picture with befitting costume choices that add to the amusement. April George shows off her lighting skills with forest backdrops and paranormal visitations, even bending time with a cleverly-placed stop motion strobe effect.

Whether you’re hungry for something new and unusual or just in need of a good, lighthearted laugh to ward off the holiday blues, “Escanaba” is the perfect tonic. This one’s guaranteed to leave you smiling all the way home.

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionEscanaba in da Moonlight
Written byJeff Daniels
Directed byArgo Thompson
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough December 15th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$15-$42
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! Marvelous “Miss Bennet” a Must-See at Spreckels – by Nicole Singley

Niernberger and Cadigan (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Austen lovers will rejoice at this dazzling continuation of beloved classic Pride and Prejudice, picking up two years after the novel leaves off and making its Sonoma County premiere at Spreckels through December 15th. Penned with finesse by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” rings true to the canonical author’s style and characters, full of everything an Austenesque story should be – strong, outspoken women who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo, an abundant wealth of razor-sharp wit, and a heartwarming love story for the ages.

L-R: Pugh, Park, Nordby, and Niernberger (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The show opens on an elegant drawing room in Mr. Darcy’s sprawling estate, in which he (Matt Cadigan) and Elizabeth (Ilana Niernberger) are preparing for her family to descend for the holidays. Thanks to Niernberger’s spirited demeanor and playful charm, matched with Cadigan’s stately ease, the Darcys are credibly reincarnated as though no time has passed at all. If anything, it’s clear two years of marriage have only served to strengthen and solidify their affection. The two are soon joined by Elizabeth’s eldest sister, Jane (Allie Nordby), and Mr. Bingley (Evan Held), who are expecting their first child and seem happier than ever.

All of this would be enough to make any Pride and Prejudice fan ecstatic, but Gunderson and Melcon have another treat in store. This is Mary Bennet’s turn in the spotlight, after all – the dry-humored, pedantic, and oft-overlooked middle sister, presumed doomed to a life of spinsterhood by her preference for books and pianoforte over the company of other people. Mary (Karina Pugh) has grown since we last saw her, and so too her fear that she may never leave her parents’ home. Must she sit forever on the sidelines, watching each of her sisters find the kind of love she’ll never know? Or could this Christmas bring an unexpected gift?

Pugh makes a brilliant first appearance at Spreckels with her captivating frankness and candor, earning laughs with her deadpan quips and well-timed delivery. Her scenes at the piano are equally hilarious, requiring no words to convey what her character is feeling. (She gets some help behind the scenes from pianist Nancy Hayashibara.)

Diffenderfer and Park (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Also excellent are Ella Park as Lydia Wickham, bubbling over with flirtatious energy as she cavorts about the stage, attempting shamelessly to conceal the unhappiness of her marriage, and Taylor Diffenderfer as the spine-chilling, frigid Anne de Bourgh, channeling her deceased mother’s pretentious disdain and willful intimidation tactics. Her very entrance is like a dark cloud rolling over the stage. She’s transfixing. Even though they act in small part as the story’s villains, they too are given room to grow and hope for a happier ending. Because, after all – as “Miss Bennet” suggests – don’t we all deserve a chance at love?

. . . a completely engrossing and highly enjoyable night at the theater.”

Walters and Pugh (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The playwrights have succeeded in crafting characters who are believable extensions of their predecessors, allowing their stories to develop in a way that feels natural and at home with Austen’s legacy. The addition of Darcy’s socially-awkward cousin, Arthur de Bourgh (Zane Walters), is a welcome surprise. He fits right in as the perfect complement to Mary’s hyper-studious and antisocial tendencies. Walters is simply outstanding – his Arthur is genuine and endearing, and despite his clumsy stumbling, a character you’ll want to root for.

Elizabeth Bazzano’s set is tasteful and inviting, begging us to cozy up beside the fireplace, help decorate a much-discussed spruce tree, or gaze out the beautiful window at snow falling on a frosted landscape. Pamela Johnson has chosen costumes that feel in keeping with the characters’ personalities. (A minor wardrobe malfunction was noticeable but easily forgotten amid the fun.)

Director Sheri Lee Miller helms this tightly-paced production with an evident flair for comedic timing. The unceasingly clever dialogue is well served by all members of this first-rate ensemble, and adeptly paired with physical comedy and priceless facial expressions throughout. Rarely has a show made me laugh so often and wholeheartedly.

While previous knowledge of Pride and Prejudice will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the show, it’s completely unnecessary. Even those new to Austen will find much to love in this easy-to-navigate and utterly uplifting story. Stellar writing, effective direction, and an exceptional cast combine to make “Miss Bennet” a completely engrossing and highly enjoyable night at the theater. Sincerely sweet and unforgettably good, it’s a true delight from start to finish, and over in a flash. You may even wish to catch it twice before it’s gone.

 

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionMiss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Written byLauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough December 15th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$10-$24
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Laughter Proves Contagious in “Eureka Day” – by Nicole Singley

The Cast of “Eureka Day” (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

When an outbreak of the mumps sends shockwaves through an avant-garde Berkeley charter school, parents with opposing views on vaccination struggle to uphold the school’s core principles of inclusion and government by consensus. The stakes are high and the tensions higher in this first-rate production of Jonathan Spector’s whip-smart “Eureka Day,” an award-winning comedy that first took audiences by storm last year at Berkeley’s own Aurora Theatre Company.

Eureka Day is exactly the kind of ultra-progressive school one would expect to find in Berkeley. Diversity is celebrated, alternative lifestyles and gender-neutral pronouns are embraced, and board meetings conclude with an inspirational reading set to the chime of Tibetan tingsha cymbals. It’s so Berkeley, in fact, that we open on the school’s Executive Committee deliberating whether “transracial adoptee” should be added to the list of ethnic identities on student registration forms. With unanimity required to pass any resolution, this proves only the first of many drawn-out discussions.

Rendered impotent by their quest for consensus, the group’s leaders are paralyzed by political correctness, so worried about saying the wrong thing they often struggle to say anything at all. It’s at once hysterical and exasperating to watch these perfectly-crafted, superbly-acted, and all-too-recognizable modern archetypes turn every molehill on the meeting agenda into a long-winded tightrope walk between mountains. It would play like a brilliant piece of satire if it weren’t so true to life. In either case, it’s wildly funny.

L-R: Yamamoto, Sinckler, Coté, and McKereghan (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

And then the bombshell drops. A case of the mumps has been confirmed, and perhaps unsurprisingly at a school of this sort, a large percentage of the students are unvaccinated. A quarantine is issued and school policies are called into question. When the committee hosts what begins as a cordial “Community Activated Conversation” with school parents via Facebook Live, it’s only a matter of time until the adults begin to act like children, the forum rapidly devolving into utter mayhem as a storm of angry rants, barbed remarks and uproarious emojis are projected on the set’s back wall above the huddled actors.

. . . a top-notch production of a masterfully written piece of theater, as timely and thought-provoking as it is hilarious . . .”

Though vaccination serves as the catalyst here, larger questions loom about how we move forward when agreement becomes impossible, how we manage to separate fact and fiction in our modern world, whether all perspectives are equally valid or deserving of respect, and where the limits of social responsibility exist when weighing community impact against individual risk and personal beliefs. While Spector’s own stance is fairly conspicuous, his script does justice to conflicting viewpoints. There are good intentions, after all, on both sides of the fence – and playground bullies, for that matter, too.

Jeff Coté as Don (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Jeff Coté is excellent as hyper-considerate headmaster Don with his noncommittal list making and new-agey Rumi quotations. Equally superb is Sarah McKereghan as longtime board member and grown-up flower child Suzanne, who proclaims to prize inclusion and respect for all perspectives – until she finds her own perspective challenged. So convinced of her own thoughtfulness and moral superiority, Suzanne fails to recognize the hypocrisy of her assumptions and offensive remarks. McKereghan brings nuance and depth to a challenging role, harnessing the frantic energy of a well-meaning mother in denial.

Val Sinckler as Carina (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The group is rounded out by wavering mother Meiko (Eiko Yamamoto), stay-at-home father and original Google employee Eli (Rick Eldredge), who holds progressive views on marital monogamy and catches up on his yoga practice during meetings, and newcomer Carina (Val Sinckler), a sharp-witted black lesbian and the mother of a boy with special needs, who we quickly glean has been invited to join the committee in the interest of promoting diversity. All are outstanding in complex roles, though Sinckler shines brightest as the anchor and voice of enduring reason. The interactions between Sinckler and McKereghan are especially compelling, bringing humanity to both sides of a contentious and deeply divisive debate.

Hats off to director Elizabeth Craven for thoughtful staging and pitch-perfect pacing, allowing tension to build and all the laughs to land while leaving space for somber moments and heavier dialogue. Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen have designed a beautiful and believable set complete with shelves full of library books, child-sized tables and chairs, and posters that resonate with the school’s core values. Well-paired songs elicit laughter between scenes thanks to Jessica Johnson’s clever sound design.

It’s a top-notch production of a masterfully written piece of theater, as timely and thought-provoking as it is hilarious, with a side-splitting first act that builds into a frenzy and then unfolds into an unexpectedly moving and empathetic second chapter. Guaranteed to keep your wheels turning long after the actors make their exit, “Eureka Day” will leave you questioning whether consensus is worthwhile or even possible in the digital age of relentless misinformation and incompatible opinions. Be sure to catch it (the show, that is) at Spreckels Performing Arts Center through September 22nd.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ProductionEureka Day
Written byJonathan Spector
Directed byElizabeth Craven
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough September 22nd
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$10-$24
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

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

Mark Bradbury (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miller and Martinez (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Faceless” Brings Feisty Focus to Courtroom Drama – by Cari Lynn Pace

The cast of “Faceless” (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Live theatre can bring laughter or tears. You may leave feeling warm and fuzzy or puzzling over moral questions.

You’ll be immersed in all these vibrancies with “Faceless,” playing through June 2nd in the Studio Theatre at the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. This intimate theatre-in-the-round is the perfect cocoon for a courtroom clash. The audience is the jury, and the intense characters are ours to judge.

Susie (a hijab-wearing Isabella Sakkren) is a teen swept into the web of an internet ISIS “friend” and wooed into believing that she can be part of a new “family.” Arrested as she attempted to flee to Syria, she is now jailed and facing trial.

Susie’s dad, a hard-working single father (perfectly cast in Edward McCloud), still grieves the tragic loss of his wife. Was he so bound in his grief that he neglected to see his daughter becoming sullen and marginalized? Dad agonizes between consoling Susie and berating her for her empty extremism. He “mortgages the farm” to hire a top-notch defense attorney for his hostile daughter – a perfect role for Mike Pavone.

You may not want this 90-minute play to end.”

As for the prosecution, the lead attorney’s strategy (in spot-on acting by award-winning David L. Yen) is delightfully devilish. He theorizes that a female Muslim attorney on his staff would be the perfect choice for this touchy trial. He summons Claire (the lovely and spirited Ilana Niernberger) who wears her hijab with devotion, not faux faith.

David L. Yen (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

The dialog between these two attorneys is like watching rams clash. They slice through untouchable issues of religion, race, privilege, and predatory behavior with knife-sharpened repartee in an astonishing feat of writing by playwright Selina Fillinger. You may not want this 90-minute play to end. When it does, you alone will make the judgment call.

Director Craig A. Miller, former Artistic Director of the 6th Street Playhouse, worked two years to gain the rights to present “Faceless.” He has exercised impressive skill in staging the characters, enabling the audience to feel included in the courtroom drama.

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

 

ProductionFaceless
Written bySelina Fillinger
Directed byCraig A. Miller
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 2nd
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
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! Breathtaking “Lungs” at Main Stage West – by Nicole Singley

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Timely subject matter, timeless relationship dynamics, and dazzling performances combine to make “Lungs” the latest triumph in a series of impressive productions to grace the intimate stage at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West this season.

A world increasingly impacted by climate change and overpopulation seeds new worries and doubts for a young couple on the fence about having children. The unnamed pair (Sharia Pierce and Jared N. Wright, both phenomenal) struggle with guilt about their contribution to the carbon footprint and fear of an uncertain future for their offspring. Where does their responsibility to the planet – and each other – end? Though their decision and the aftermath serve as the story’s crux, it’s the ebb and flow of their relationship that really hits home. Global warming is just an ominous backdrop.

. . . a tour de force – visceral, raw, and utterly real.”

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Pierce’s performance is a tour de force – visceral, raw, and utterly real. Wright feeds off of her intensity with equal authenticity, delivering nuanced and heartfelt reactions. The mounting tension, crushing heartbreak, and abiding affection between them is powerful and palpable. It’s a deeply personal and emotionally exhausting experience, rife with elements that will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a tumultuous relationship or pondered what it means to be a parent.

David Lear directs with perfect pacing and thoughtful staging on a minimalistic set, with no props, a simple backdrop, and only some introductory audio for context, keeping the focus entirely on Pierce and Wright. Given the caliber of their acting, this works in the production’s favor.

“Lungs” is a beautiful journey full of philosophical quandaries, anxiety and indecision, human error, love, and loss. It’s hard to imagine Duncan Macmillan’s insightful script in better hands than those of this exceptionally talented cast.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ProductionLungs
Written byDuncan Macmillan
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough May 26th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ensemble Choir (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

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

 

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

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

Bordi and Craven (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

…conveyed with stunning conviction…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Laughs Served Well-Done in “Barbecue Apocalypse” – by Nicole Singley

Headington and Coughlin (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Do you have what it takes to survive the end of days? Three couples put their skills to the test in Matt Lyle’s tremendously funny “Barbecue Apocalypse,” playing at Rohnert Park’s Spreckels Performing Arts Center through April 20th.

Thirty-somethings Deb (Jessica Headington) and husband Mike (Sam Coughlin) are frantically preparing to host their closest frenemies for a backyard cookout. Bemoaning their half-mowed lawn, mismatched patio furniture and dorm room-esque house decor, Deb fears they can’t possibly impress well-to-do “yupsters” Lulu (Lyndsey Sivalingam) and husband Ash (Trevor Hoffmann), or sleazy penthouse-dwelling Win (J.T. Harper) and his younger girlfriend Glory (Katie Kelley). Mike’s crowning achievement, after all, is the humble deck they’re standing on, and neither he nor Deb can keep a simple garden plant alive.

Clockwise, left to right: Headington, Coughlin, Harper, Sivalingam, Hoffmann (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

When a calamitous event interrupts their awkward party, the group must find their niche in a post-apocalyptic world where once-considered strengths may now be vulnerabilities, and talents formerly perceived as useless could be advantageous. This brave new world offers Mike and Deb a chance to shine, while alpha-male Win shrivels from over-confident womanizer into sobbing, bathrobe-clad mess. Dynamics shift but the grill goes on, until an uninvited guest (Matt T. Witthaus) threatens to end the festivities once and for all.

Don’t miss this witty, laugh-a-minute romp…”

Headington is a riot as neurotic housewife turned spear-wielding survivalist. She makes the jarring transition with remarkable ease, hauling in act two’s blood-spattered dinner – “raccoon, the other red meat!” – with an air of self-possession entirely in contrast to her anxious, pre-apocalyptic stumbling over cocktail umbrellas and fashion accessories. It’s equally satisfying to watch Coughlin’s understated Mike transform from insecure would-be writer to confident grill-master and gardener extraordinaire.

Sivalingam is superb as lovably pretentious Lulu, whose flippant remarks flow faster than the mango margaritas she’s a little too fond of. Hoffmann’s Ash is the painfully familiar portrait of a modern-day screen junkie, forced to settle for library books in a now Google-less world. The apocalypse, as luck would have it, is a boon to their marriage, bringing Lulu back down to earth and pulling Ash away from YouTube. It’s fun to watch their newfound spark ignite.

Clockwise, left to right: Headington, Kelley, Harper, Sivalingam (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Harper’s Win feels a bit overdone, dripping in stereotypical frat-boy machismo. It’s a hat that doesn’t quite fit, although it serves its comedic purpose all the same. Kelley is endearing in the role of a perky wannabe Rockette, even though she spends much of her time onstage aggressively swapping spit with Harper. Witthaus delivers a truly chilling cameo appearance.

An able cast excels under Larry Williams’s direction, assisted by Marcy Frank’s pitch-perfect costumes and Elizabeth Bazzano’s thoughtful backyard set. Jessica Johnson brings finicky lawn mowers, angry raccoons and propane grills to life with well-timed sound effects.

Marinated in millennial-centric humor, “Barbecue Apocalypse” makes lighthearted fun out of some fairly dark subject matter. Don’t miss this witty, laugh-a-minute romp – or you just might live long enough to regret it.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionBarbecue Apocalypse
Written byMatt Lyle
Directed byLarry Williams
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough April 20th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$16-$26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

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

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

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

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

…as arduous as a train ride through India.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Flores and Revelos (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! 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 REVIEW PICK **** Hellaciously Funny “Hand to God” at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

It could be argued that few things in life are more worth having than a hearty laugh. If you’re partial to this school of thought, then “Hand to God,” playing now at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through November 11th, could easily be the most rewarding thing you do this weekend.

Jason (Dean Linnard) is a nice young Christian boy who obeys his mother and the Bible. But everything goes to Hell – perhaps literally – when his hand puppet, “Tyrone,” takes on a startling personality of his own. Tyrone is the polar opposite of his meek and socially awkward puppeteer: loud and obnoxious, wildly vulgar, and jaw-droppingly crude.

What Jason’s mother Margery (Melissa Claire) at first mistakes as a harmless, albeit bizarre, vaudevillian routine soon proves to be something more sinister. Could her son’s unsettling puppet be possessed by the devil?

Linnard and puppet at work in “Hand to God”

Linnard’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. His uncanny ability to switch so convincingly between two diametrically opposed characters at lightning speed – all while effectively maneuvering his right-hand companion – makes it a little too easy to forget Tyrone is really just a puppet.

Director Chris Ginesi has staged an expertly executed and grossly entertaining experience for theatergoers…”

The caliber of Linnard’s performance would easily make him the standout if he weren’t on stage with such a talented group of actors. There is not a weak link in the bunch; their chemistry is excellent and their timing impeccable. The sheer absurdity of the subject matter is made only more hilarious by the intensity and physicality with which they bring it all to life.

Kraines and Claire at work at Left Edge Theatre

Claire is hysterical as Margery, an unraveling widow struggling to distract herself by teaching puppetry to unenthusiastic children in the local church’s basement. Carl Kraines is superb as Pastor Greg, earning as much pity as laughter for his awkward advances toward Margery.

Neil Thollander is a perfect fit for secretly sensitive, bad-boy Timmy, and Chandler Parrott-Thomas adds a touch of much-needed normalcy as Jessica. She surprises us in the end, however, with a heroic act of puppetry guaranteed to make audience members blush.

Director Chris Ginesi has staged an expertly executed and grossly entertaining experience for theatergoers craving something unconventional. Rife with clever dialogue and R-rated humor, the script explores some darker themes without compromising the explosive laughs, turning even the most shocking moments into serious fun. From puppet sex to pedophilia, playwright Robert Askins dares go where others won’t, and the result is thought-provoking comic gold.

Argo Thompson’s ingenious set transitions with ease from classroom to playground and from bedroom to office. His stage is a living entity all its own, much like the puppet it falls prey to in a memorably elaborate set change featuring decapitated Barbie dolls and bloody handprints. The scene plays like a childhood game of “Spot the Differences in These Two Pictures.” Be sure to take in all the thoughtful touches. If the devil is really in the details, Thompson, too, may be possessed.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ProductionHand to God
Written byRobert Askins
Directed byChris Ginesi
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough November 11th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!