ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: On the Curtain Line with Spreckels Theatre Company Artistic Director Sheri Lee Miller

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

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Sheri Lee Miller

Sheri Lee Miller has enjoyed a lifelong career as a professional stage director, actor and theater administrator, working with some of the leading theaters on the West Coast, including Seattle Rep, A Contemporary Theater, Tacoma Actors Guild, Gaslamp Quarter Theater, and Seattle Children’s Theater. Locally, she has been privileged to direct and act at Cinnabar Theater, Sonoma County Rep, 6th Street Playhouse, Actors Theater, Spreckels Theatre Company, and Main Stage West, where she is a founding member.

She holds a B.A. in Theater Arts from San Diego State University, with a double emphasis on acting and directing.

She has appeared in dozens of television commercials, voice-overs, industrial films and print ads, and is a member of Actors Equity and AFTRA. Sheri is Artistic Director at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, a position she’s held since July 2017. The center’s Codding Theater, with more than 500 seats, is Sonoma County’s largest. The center also operates the adjacent Condiotti Theater, a smaller venue. It is not unusual for two productions to be running simultaneously.

Sheri strongly believes that exposure to the arts in general and theater in particular leads to a more thoughtful, balanced and empathetic society. “I truly believe that art and artistry must be nurtured at home, at school and in the community if we as a society are to achieve the highest levels of empathy and humanity.”

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

SLM: We are probably most known for our big musicals in the Codding Theater, which are pretty fantastic, I must say. But we also do excellent smaller shows in our Condiotti studio space. We are committed to supporting new works, especially by local playwrights if possible. We are trying to keep one slot open for a new play each season, but we won’t put up just anything because it is new. It has to be a great script. We also have a very strong youth program, the Spreckels Education Program. Those young actors are very committed and it’s a pleasure to watch them develop. They do great work!

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

SLM: Probably my instructor at Santa Rosa JC, Joan Lee LaSalle (Woehler). She was my friend and mentor. Powerful, kind and brilliant. I think of her often and hope she is proud.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

SLM: We are working on an enormous restructuring of our various storage areas and a box office remodel. We are moving tens of thousands of costume items and will photograph and catalog them for ease of use and rental. We’ve also finished our props storage rooms. Sadly, our wonderful part-timers are currently laid off. So this is a lot of work for only three of us—Eddy Hansen, Gail Shelton and myself—to accomplish. And we are having a ball with it! I love this kind of work. Sooooo satisfying. And it’s great to be doing something physical.

…One night, I managed to enter at the wrong time and effectively cut an entire scene…

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

SLM: Well, it’s pretty impossible to plan. We do know we intend to go ahead with Matilda and Galatea in the coming season, as they were cancelled this year. Galatea was only a week from opening, and as for Matilda…those actors had been cast many months ago. And we already have the set, costumes, props ,etc. for it. We will also be doing Once Upon a Mattress, Jr. for the Education Program. We are not certain when those shows will actually go up.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

SLM: Theater has been around for thousands of years. There is a reason for that. People crave community and storytelling. Experiencing a story, through a live performance, with other audience members, satisfies something very primal in our souls. I think it will come back strong, but may need to ramp up gradually as we make our way through this crisis. As long as there is a space, a performer, and someone to observe the performance…theater is happening and it is alive and well.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

SLM: This is a terribly difficult question! Hamlet, of course. And King Lear. Arcadia. Angels in America. The two greatest comedies in my mind are Noises Off and You Can’t Take it With You. Musicals? I love them all.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

SLM: Gee, aren’t they all pretty highly rated? I have only read Coriolanus, never seen it. But at first read, it read to me as a dark comedy. I’d love to see a production. It seems especially appropriate right now. I would like to produce it, but I suspect the audiences would be slim.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

SLM: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But I do love it, and will probably produce it at some point.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

SLM: Oh, I really love doing tech! I think I would choose props. Very crafty, little sewing (I’ve sewn enough for a lifetime), and doesn’t require a lot of space. Yeah…props are fun.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

SLM: 1: Push through fear. Let it energize you rather than block you. And let your inner mantra be: “The universe loves artists.” 2: Learn to listen, both onstage and off, in your theater work and your “civilian” life. Quiet and focused observation and active listening help develop an understanding of the people and world around us and is imperative to the work we do. 3: Respect and understand every artist’s contribution to the work. If you truly respect everyone, you will be on time, arrive ready to work, care for your costumes, set and props, know your lines solidly, let others speak, work with your director and care about the playwright’s intentions.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up you’ve seen onstage?

SLM: Well, my most excruciating screw-up was during Eat the Runt at Actors Theater. It was a very difficult play where we all learned all the parts and each night the audience would cast us. So you never knew which role you were going to play when you entered the theater that night. One night, I managed to enter at the wrong time and effectively cut an entire scene. I didn’t even realize it until I got off stage and Joe Winkler pointed out what I had done, thus cutting his role in half. I had never messed up an entrance before or since, and I still feel terrible about it. Sorry again, Joe!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

SLM: When I was 25 and performing Madge in Picnic in Seattle, when it was time for Madge and Hal to run off to the “do it” bushes, a young woman stood up and yelled, “Go for it!”

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

SLM: 1: The planet is our source of life and must be regarded as the Supreme Ruler. 2: We are all equal and deserve equal opportunity, protection and sustenance. 3: Be nice.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

SLM: The Real Housewives of Sonoma County. Everyone just smokes pot while discussing wine, trendy food and their kids.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

SLM: A potato bug.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SLM: “What’s done cannot be undone.” Lady Macbeth.

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

 

An Aisle Seat Review Pick! “Urinetown, the Musical” a Cautionary Diversion at Spreckels — by Barry Willis

Paying to pee is a way of life for the poor and downtrodden in the fictional neighborhood of Urinetown. Managed with mendacity by water-and-waste management firm Urine Good Company, “amenities” dot the urban landscape, with admission fees so high that residents scramble all day to get enough money to relieve themselves—a high-pressure situation that foments rebellion if not resolution.

At Spreckels Performing Arts Center through March 1, “Urinetown, the Musical” celebrates many of the conceits of traditional musical theater while skewering others. The familiar plot elements—oppressive overlords, rebellious poor, star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the conflict, a desperate kidnapping—have all been exploited by playwrights for centuries.

What makes this darkly-themed show unusual is its coupling of these reliable plot elements with upbeat Broadway song-and-dance productions, and its self-conscious stance as a piece of “metatheater” that announces itself and its intentions directly to the audience through UGC’s chief enforcer Officer Lockstock (David L. Yen), whose main connection to the Urinetown residents is through the likable character of Little Sally (Denise Elia-Yen).

“Urinetown, the Musical” is tremendous production…

Theater fans of long experience will note similarities in theme, plot, characters and music with many other productions. “Urinetown” is in solid traditional territory there.

Tim Setzer shines as UGC’s evil chief executive Caldwell B. Cladwell, the “toilet tycoon,” as described by ASR critic Nicole Singley. His toady-laden office includes Senator Fipp (Michael Arbitter), a legislator doing his patriotic best to win congressional approval for a system-wide increase in toilet admission fees. Recently graduated from the world’s most expensive university, Cladwell’s beautiful daughter Hope (Julianne Thompson Bretan) is about to join her father’s management team but is taken hostage by restroom-deprived rebels. In the process, she develops sympathy for their cause—mirroring the real-world fate of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in a 1974 kidnapping staged by would-be revolutionaries—and falls in love with their charismatic leader Bobby Strong (Joshua Bailey).

“Urinetown” cast shows class dance moves

The stark set by Eddy Hansen and Eliabeth Bazzano is the perfect venue for this musical misadventure, enhanced by projections from Chris Schloemp.

Lucas Sherman’s small orchestra is dazzling. Performances range from good to superb, with especially good efforts by Bailey and Bretan, Yen, Setzer, and Karen Pinomaki as Josephine Strong, Bobby’s devoted mother. ScharyPearl Fugitt is a standout as Urinetown rebel Soupy Sue, and as Cladwell’s secretary. Her dancing is especially enjoyable. A large and exemplary cast fills out the remaining roles.

“Urinetown” has an impressive cast!

“Urinetown, the Musical” is tremendous production—not perfect, but huge fun with a depressing message at its core: sugar-coated theatrical medicine. Yes, resources are shrinking and the population is growing. It’s not a pleasant prospect, but we can all delight in the irony as we head for the abyss.

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

 

ProductionUrinetown, the Musical
Written byMark Holman and Greg Kotis
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

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 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 REVIEW PICK!: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” — Cari Lynn Pace Reviews a Musical That Gets Away with Murder!

Michael Ross directs this hilarious and campy musical at Spreckels Performing Arts Center’s Codding Theatre. The plot is immediately intriguing: impoverished Monty (well-cast in Andrew Smith) discovers he has an aristocratic birthright, making him ninth in line to inherit both title and fortune.

How did that happen? Turns out Monty’s noble-born mum had been rudely disinherited, and kept mum about it. His lady-friend Sibella (Madison Genovese) ignores poor Monty as she prefers a more financially secure suitor. Can Monty move up the inheritance list quickly enough to win her hand? Can he bump eight dismissive and nasty relatives off the queue?

“A Gentleman’s Guide” is morbidly delightful fun that’ll just kill you with laughter…

And what relatives they are! Tim Setzer, a talented veteran actor, clearly has a ball playing every one of the noble-born inheritors…including a female. It’s worth the price of admission just to watch him change personalities and voices as he doffs another costume.

 

“A Gentleman’s Guide” won four Tonys when it hit Broadway in 2014, including Best Musical. Gilbert and Sullivan might have been proud of the operetta-style music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak (with additional book and lyrics by Robert L. Freeman.) Several songs have a patter-singing character to cleverly move the plot along.

Act II has a particularly engaging number “I’ve Decided to Marry You.” While Monty hides his lover Sabella behind one door, his marriage-manic cousin Phoebe (lovely soprano Maeve Smith) embraces him behind the other. The trio has the comic chops and strong vocals which brought a cheer from the audience.

In further homage to G&S, “A Gentleman’s Guide” has several surprises and an amusing twist at the end. The musical is appropriate for all ages, despite the rather macabre story line. No blood, thank you, except for the blue kind.

The set is a stage on the stage, opulently designed by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen. Codding Theatre takes it a step further, maximizing their rear-projection screen to depict scene changes. Ice skaters cruise back and forth. Bees swarm. Tourists take tours of the mansion. Underneath it all is the 12-piece orchestra conducted by Jim Coleman.

“A Gentleman’s Guide” is morbidly delightful fun that’ll just kill you with laughter.

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

 

ProductionUrinetown, the Musical
Written byMark Holman and Greg Kotis
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
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 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! 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 REVIEW PICK **** “The Addams Family – A New Musical” Dazzles at Spreckels Performing Arts Center – by Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma LeFever at work as Wednesday – Photo by Jeff Thomas

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

“By the Water” Directed by Carl Jordan

Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Studio Theatre

5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park, CA

Tickets: $28

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

Rating: Five Stars — Out of Five Stars

 

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