PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Gypsy” an Oldie but Still a Goodie!

By Mitchell Field

Marin County’s venerated 110 year-old Mountain Play, which bills itself as a “Great Outdoor Theatre Adventure” is currently producing the 63-year-old Broadway smash musical Gypsy indoors. Neither is showing its age.

Nor is the venue, The Barn Theater at the Marin Art and Garden Center. Normally the home of the 92-year-old Ross Valley Players, the theater has undergone a recent face-lift, including brand new seats and a remodeled concession area.

With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by the then 30-year-old Stephen Sondheim, 1959’s Gypsy is a much-beloved American musical about a fame-obsessed stage-mother during the waning days of vaudeville, with her itinerant troupe of ‘kids’– including her own two daughters, one of whom grows up to become the world-famous burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, on whose memoir the show is loosely based.

Director/choreographer Zoe Swenson-Graham’s well-cast group of thirteen exuberant performers, including two Equity actors, play thirty-seven different roles in this three-hour extravaganza, on choreographer/scenic artist Zachary Isen’s clever yet spare set, with musical-direction by Jon Gallo.

…Is Gypsy a superb black comedy or an American tragedy? Decide for yourself at this smashing production.

Even those who are not musical-theater aficionados will probably be familiar with the show’s hits: “Some People,” “‘Together, (Wherever We Go),” the classic strip-tease number “Let Me Entertain You” and Broadway belter favorite “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

“Gypsy” guys: L to R – Anthony Maglio as Yonkers, Alex Alvarez as Tulsa, Lucas Michael Chandler as L.A., and Michaela Marymor as Broadway Boy. Photos: Robin Jackson

This over-the-top musical, which American essayist Frank Rich described as, ” . . . nothing if not Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to King Lear . . .” demands that performers give their all to pull it off successfully. Swenson-Graham’s troupe does just that, led by Dyan McBride as the ultimate likeable-but-nightmarish stage mother.

Jill Jacobs as Gypsy Rose Lee. Photos: Robin Jackson

McBride’s Mama Rose drives ahead constantly, no matter the difficulties, financial setbacks, slap-downs, fleabag accommodations and poverty. She’s ready, able and willing to digest even canned dog food to achieve her ambition of propelling her daughter June to stardom. It’s hard not to despise the ego-driven Rose, whom theater critic Clive Barnes described as “one of the few truly complex characters in the American musical’ and yet not admire her at the same time for her grit and spirit, as she harangues and uses her own children and everyone else around her, including her long-suffering boyfriend/manager Herbie, played charmingly by Bay Area stage veteran DC Scarpelli.

Her awkward, yearning-to-be-loved daughter Louise’s ultimate transformation into the glamorous, sexy Gypsy Rose Lee is quite extraordinary. The talented Jill Jacobs absolutely kills it. While the primary plot is Mama Rose’s struggle to keep her act afloat in a changing market, the secondary plot is a wonderful ugly duckling story.

Alexandra Fry as ‘Baby June’ in “Gypsy” at The Barn.

Alexandra Fry and Julia Ludwig, as daughter June at different ages, also shine. Swenson-Graham’s supporting cast is terrific. In the show’s most hilarious burlesque scene, showgirls Michaela Marymor and Libby Oberlin and the outstanding Tanika Baptiste, as stripper Tessie Tura, dance and prance in Adriana Gutierrez’s fabulously ridiculous outfits, one of which even lights up! Kudos to Marymor who cutely ad-libbed when one piece failed to fire up on opening night.

The lighting of a stage show is critical to its ambiance and drama. Ellen Brooks and Frank Sarubbi handle the Barn’s lighting design with aplomb. Bruce Vieira’s sound design follows suit.

There’s no live orchestra for this production, unlike regular Mountain Play performances, but the recorded tracks directed by Sean Paxton work well, although sometimes the music seemed to overwhelm the vocals. Perhaps the volume might be lowered for the music or the lead performers should be miked.

Is Gypsy a superb black comedy or an American tragedy? Decide for yourself at this smashing production.

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Mitchell Field is a Sr. Contributing Writer for Aisle Seat Review. Based in Marin County, Mr. Field is an actor and voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: mitchfield@aol.com

 

ProductionGypsy
Written byBook: Arthur Laurents.
Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Directed byZoe Swenson-Graham
Producing CompanyThe Mountain Play Association / Ross Valley Players
Production DatesThrough Dec 18, 2022
Production AddressThe Barn Theater @ Marin Art & Garden Center 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. Ross, CA.
Websiterossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone(415) 456-9555
Tickets$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ PAP’s Production Has Lilting Voices — And A Few Strange Choices

By Joanne Engelhardt

An enchanting Belle, a handsome, muscular Gaston and snappy choreography. What could go wrong?

A few things, actually, although the large opening night audience at the Palo Alto Players’ production of Beauty and the Beast probably didn’t notice. In fact, after the big Act 1 production number “Belle” — featuring the entire ensemble clicking metal drink cups — the audience whistled, applauded and stomped their feet so long, you’d have thought it was the finale!

Sam Mills is close to perfection as Belle, who is shunned by the townspeople for being a little strange (she loves to read books!). Her plain blue pinafore makes her look a bit like Judy Garland in….you know: THAT movie.

Sam Mills as Belle in Palo Alto Players’ production of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, the enchanting Broadway musical based on the animated film. Photo by Scott Lasky.

But she’s got gumption galore, and she does her best to take care of her somewhat eccentric father (Michael Johnson) who loves to fiddle with all things electronic. He’s especially proud of the automobile-type contraption he’s invented which has a habit of breaking down every few feet or so.

In addition to Belle, director Patrick Klein made several fine casting choices here: Frankie Mulcahy as Gaston is one. Mulcahy has played Gaston before, and he’s likely only grown better in the role. Such biceps! Such conceit! Such a devilish grin as he boasts to one and all that he — and only the magnificent he — will sweep Belle off her feet and she’ll melt like honey in his arms. Ha! Belle has absolutely no interest in the self-absorbed Gaston, and the more she resists, the more he’s sure she’s all his.

It’s difficult to go wrong when you’re watching a musical that has an enchanting musical score by Alan Menken, with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.

… Such biceps! Such conceit!

Lucky for Mulcahy that he has someone as versatile and pliable as John Ramirez-Ortiz who, as Lefou, gets batted around and mightily bruised whenever Gaston needs something to punch.

The hard-working cast of 24 brings choreographer Stacy Reed’s sprightly dance numbers to life, helping recreate the magic of the Broadway musical. Yet there are a few strange choices which, to this reviewer make it slightly less than it could be.

Sam Mills as Belle and Frankie Mulcahy as Gaston. Photo by Scott Lasky.

Michael Reed is strong as the Beast. His large structure, gnarled face, ugly horns (thanks to Shilbourne Thill and the Children’s Musical Theatre of San Jose, from whom all the costumes were borrowed), and thoroughly obnoxious disposition make him a Beast to cower before and obey.

But underlying that blustery front is a lonely man who has never known love. Reed’s vocals are clear and filled with longing. So, though he snarls and barks commands to his household servants (who are gradually turning into inanimate objects), he becomes subservient to Belle when she becomes the first person to defy him.

It’s simply delicious to watch him suddenly become a tongue-tied male in love with the dainty Belle.

“…I’m not going to dinner!”

Yet at play’s end, as the Beast finally explodes in a mighty whirl of smoke and lightning, why did director Klein decide to remove Reed from the scene and put in a different actor? It felt wrong because actor Justin Kerekes, as the Prince, looks nothing like Reed.

(To this reviewer, it actually looked as if Kerekes was embarrassed to be standing on stage in Reed’s place.) There’s no logical reason for this switch. Other productions have easily removed the Beast’s facial makeup and hair during the 10 – 15 seconds when he isn’t visible.

Several other supporting characters deserve mention, most especially Arjun Sheth as Lumiere, who was once the Beast’s servant but is now gradually turning into a chandelier. Sheth is so subtle that at one point he goes from a standing position to slithering across the stage like a snake!

Juliet Green is a charming, sweet Mrs. Potts, who, instead of serving tea, is gradually turning into a teapot, and Ben Chau-Chiu is a deservedly disgruntled Cogsworth.

But PAP choose not to have a live orchestra in the pit, so musical conductor Daniel Hughes is there, all alone, giving the actors musical direction.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

ProductionBeauty and the Beast
Based onWalt Disney’s animated film
Directed byPatrick Klein
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru Nov 20th, 2022
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$10 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Amusing Back-to-back Productions at Pear Theatre

By Joanne Engelhardt

Although the Pear Theatre in Mountain View is currently offering two 90-minute plays in repertoire through Oct. 2, one far outshines the other, most likely because one of them was written by a more experienced playwright.

Jen Silverman’s “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties” is practically a laugh-a-minute as the lives of five women all named Betty intersect with one another in the most surprising ways.

Though audience members are warned that there is some foul language and nudity in “Betty,” it’s done discreetly and is certainly appropriate for adults. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why this one-act play is so funny.

… Clearly, you can never have too many Betties in a play…

Although all five Betties are good actresses, there are two who stand out for the absurdities that come out of their mouths and their ridiculously comic actions.

Crystal Liu is Betty 2, a quiet, unassuming woman who says she has no friends and is apparently afraid to look at her own privates. She always feels left out, and in fact she is the only one left whenever the other four Betties pair up. Liu’s Betty turns to her hand to talk to her—a clever ploy that enables her to have discussions with herself. Eventually, she decides to throw a dinner party for all the Betties, and she decorates by putting out a little wading pool, blow-up float toys, and beach balls.

(L-R): Skylar Rose Adams as Betty 4, Regina Kohl as Betty 1 and Marjan Safa as Betty 5 in Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties

The other standout Betty is No. 3: Vanessa Veve Melendrez. This Betty, with an itsy-bitsy size 1 figure, decides that she’ll become a playwright, then a director, as well as the lead actor in her own play. She bosses the other Betties around with varying success, but she does it all with such a cute, dimpled smile and shimmering little gold dress, that it’s difficult not to root for her whatever she decides to do.

Skyla Rose Adams (Betty 4), Carla Dejesus (Betty 1 but subbing for an actress who was not available one weekend) and Marjan Safa (Betty 5) are all fine, though Safa’s voice was sometimes too soft to hear clearly.

Clearly, you can never have too many Betties in a play, so make plans to see it before it closes on Oct. 2

The other Pear play, “Bull in a China Shop,” written by Bryna Turner, is a hodge-podge of short scenes that sometimes didn’t track. It attempts to cover a wide swatch of history—about 30 years, not always successfully. Dejusus (again subbing for a different actress) sometimes stumbled through her lines, but since she was just appearing in a few performances, it’s hard to fault her.

(L-R): Regina Kohl as Woolley and Tannis Hanson as Marks in Bull in a China Shop

”Bull’s” other main actress, Tannis Hanson, as Jeannette Marks, was exceptional. But even with her skilled acting, it’s a difficult play to follow. Chase Kupperberg’s first-rate costume design, especially for “Bull,” adds a lot, and Tanika Baptiste does her best to direct both short plays.

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Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

 

Production"Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties" *and* "Bull in a China Shop"
Written byJen Silverman / Bryna Turner
Directed &
Choreographed by
Tanika Baptiste
Producing CompanyPear Theater
Production DatesThru Oct 2nd
Production AddressPear Theater
1110 La Avenida St.
Suite A
Mountain View, CA 94043
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone650.254.1148
Tickets$35-$38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

Are You a Devoted Theater Fan? — Check Out Our “BEHIND THE SCENES” Page!

News and events in the theater community, each hand-curated by ASR’s Editors.

Stay up-to-date on national touring shows, in memoriam, new events at key stages and theater companies within our coverage area, and more.

So check it out — on the BEHIND THE SCENES page. Access it from the menu bar above!

Now in “Behind the Scenes”…

  • Oakland Ballet Brings the East Bay The Nutcracker
  • > Pretty Woman: The Musical? Yep, Check it Out!
  • SF Opera Showcases Orpheus and Eurydice
  • Stalwart Jeffrey Lo Directs Little Shop of Horrors in South Bay
  • SF Playhouse Adds Music to As You Like It
  • Book of Mormon Fan? It’s Coming….!
  • Grab Those Tickets! A Christmas Carol at ACT!
  • … & more!

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Pick! ASR Theater ~~ “Ain’t Misbehavin’” Rocks the Stage – Legendary Fats Waller Tribute Bursts with Energy

By Cari Lynn Pace

Welcome back to Harlem’s Golden Age of Jazz, with Prohibition booze and uninhibited dance clubs swinging circles around each other.

Fats Waller composed and played rockin’ songs in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s for folks who were “dance crazy.” Sonoma Arts Live brings back these fun-loving times with five talented singer/dancers, one superb slide piano player, and five backup band members on stage. The musical tribute showcases the breadth of Waller’s influence on jitterbug, Charleston, tap, and just plain foolin’ around to the sultry lyrics of sensual waltzes and slow favorites like “Honeysuckle Rose.”

“The musical tribute showcases the breadth of Waller’s influence on jitterbug, Charleston, tap, and just plain foolin’ around…”

Waller, a posthumous Grammy award winner, was one of the most prolific composers and entertainers of the era, writing over 400 songs. He had huge hands, wide enough to master the slide piano technique. With slide piano, the left hand plays the bass rhythm of a piece, typically when there is no actual bass musician to cover the beat. Some musicians of that era had surgery to cut the thumb-first finger tendon in their left hand in order to make the necessary ten-key reach from bass note to chord. Waller was born with that ability, a blessing the “King of the Stride” used to wrote songs that were equally successful with audiences of all colors in those highly segregated times.

Back in the 20’s Harlem, if the rent was due and there was nothing coming in, folks would gather at the apartment for a dance-and-booze “rent party” to chip in for their friends. There was always a gun check at the door, and a password to avoid the cops. They called these gathering “joints” to avoid tipping off the cops.

Photos in this review — Miller Oberlin

No Fats Waller revue would be complete without the raucous “This Joint is Jumpin’” as Serena Elize Flores, D’Artagnan Riviera, Jonathen Blue, and Bay Area favorite Phillip Percy Williams are joined by Director Aja Gianola-Norris in a slap and swirl romp. Costumes, designed by Jaya Grace, range from flirty to fancy as the exuberant cadre belts out “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own” and the signature song Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Waller gave us songs to make us smile, like “You Feet’s Too Big” or sigh, in “I’m Gonna’ Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”

Sonoma Arts Live is to be commended for gathering this group of talents to showcase a master entertainer of a bygone era. Williams is a seasoned standout with his smooth jazz voice, and Blue and Flores lead the others in clever tap dancing. It’s worth the price of admission just to watch Neil Angelo Fontano play jazz piano at the apron of the stage. The fun the performers have onstage is contagious, whether shouting out lyrics or kicking high. Harlem’s legendary “Clown Prince of Jazz” is rockin’ indeed.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionAin’t Misbehavin’
Written byMurray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr.
Directed byAja Gianola Norris
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesSeptember 25th, 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
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Hershey Felder Delivers an Enchanted Evening in ‘Chopin in Paris’

By Sue Morgan

Hershey Felder swings wide the French door opening onto an opulent salon, replete with gilded framed mirrors, crystal chandelier and candelabras, luxuriously draped brocade curtains, elegant chaise longue and Victorian side tables. In the center of the room, mirrored surfaces gleaming in purple-gold “candle light,” stands a magnificent Steinway grand piano. Elegantly dressed in white starched shirt, narrow trousers, waistcoat, impeccably tailored frock-coat and cravat, he steps across the threshold. The spell is cast: Chopin has arrived.

The date is March 4th, 1848, mere days after the violent February Revolution in Paris and we, the audience, are among the privileged piano students (here for a lesson) from whose wealthy and illustrious families Chopin makes his living. Making a light-hearted joke about having just had “tea” in the rooms of a lady, Chopin – who had a reputation as a ladies’ man – proceeds to mesmerize his audience with detailed accounts which bring vividly alive the intimate details of his too-brief existence.

…Hershey Felder is simply a genius….

Over the following ninety minutes—no intermission—his students experience the full spectrum of human emotions. Using nothing but words and gorgeous renditions of many of his most famous pieces—gloriously executed on that spectacular Steinway—Chopin conjures those who inspired his genius and walks us through his musical passions and processes.

Several times breaking into his own narrative, Chopin invites his “students” to ask questions, responding to queries including, in part, the type and quality of sound of a piano typically played during that era, his greatest musical influence (Bach, from whom, he asserts, “we all just steal bits and pieces of his music”), and his feelings about his rival, Liszt.

Chopin played only thirty public concerts but made a reputation for himself in Paris playing in private salons at the homes of the city’s elite. While describing his distaste for pandering to some of his wealthy patrons, Chopin encourages his students who might find themselves playing under similar circumstances to ignore their surroundings and, “Play as if you are playing for God.” When he himself begins to play, one can only imagine the good favor with which God looks upon him.

Felder’s Chopin seems to have been resurrected, rather than contrived. Felder embodies the master with such seemingly effortless confidence that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he has had to memorize almost everything Chopin is known to have uttered or written. That dedication to authenticity is, in part, what makes this performance so riveting. I do not enjoy the banal and often mistakenly applied term, “tour de force,” but even that phrase seems too mild to express the brilliance and artistry of Felder’s performance.

Hershey Felder is simply a genius. He is a conceptualist, playwright, virtuoso pianist, actor, and set designer. Did I mention that he also sings like an angel? In addition to the numerous solo shows Felder has created and starred in, including George Gershwin Alone, Beethoven, Monsieur Chopin and many others, he created his own arts broadcasting company during the Covid crisis, which allows him to reach a larger audience for his theatrical films.

 

Director Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) uses a light hand, allowing Felder’s deep understanding of his character full expression in both movement and mannerism. The scenic design by Felder is perfect in its authenticity, truly bringing to life the luxurious and rarefied setting of a salon for the highest echelons of Parisian society in the mid-1800s. The pink porcelain swan, on the Victorian side table, is an artful touch. Lighting design by Erik S. Barry enhances the elegance of the setting with its rich purple tones and rose/gold effect. Dimming the overhead stage lights brightens the candlelight whenever Chopin plays.

Video projections using flame effects and renderings of buildings or participants in the salon are good effects, but the overly large and bright image of a female disembodied head (George Sand? Chopin’s sister Emilia?) is a bit disconcerting.

Felder gives his audience the gift of being transported to 19th century Paris to sit at the feet of one of the world’s most renown musical geniuses – with none of the discomfort or inconveniences of that time – and plays music of such beauty it elicits tears. If you love theatre, classical music, sublime acting, or all of the preceding, do everything in your power to see Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris. And bring your friends.

They’ll thank you for the experience.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionChopin in Paris
Written byHershey Felder
Directed byJoel Zwick
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThrough Sept. 11th
Production AddressMountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662- 8778
Tickets$35 – $95
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ “Goddess” at Berkeley Rep Looks Broadway Bound!

By George Maguire

Berkeley Rep’s “Goddess” opens with electrifying, high-energy afro-centric dance and music that encompass skat, jazz, and R & B, and introduces us to Moto Moto, a bar in Mombasa, Kenya. A loquacious and slitheringly sexy emcee Ahmed (Rodrick Covington) and company welcome us, the visitors, to an evening of high entertainment. “Moto Moto” means hot and fiery. Indeed it is.

Through a trio of always-present all-knowing spirits, we meet the bar’s owner Madongo (Lawrence Stallings), the snap-crackle-and-pop bar gal, Rashida (Abena), and the boy just back from Columbia University with a Poli-sci degree, Omari (the multi-talented quadruple-threat Philip Johnson Richardson). Suddenly the mood shifts from exuberant joy to a sense of fear and awe as we meet Nadira (the golden voiced Amber Iman). Nadira is the Goddess reaching into mortal elements trying to find that most human of virtues: love. Omari is smitten as she sings “That Love.” They meet and a bond of the heart begins.

…With some tweaking, this wonderful new musical should find its place on the Broadway roster of hits….

A weave of myth and legend, Nadira’s world is the African tale of Marimba, the Goddess of Music and Mother of Song. Nadira’s desire to understand the love possessed by mortals is hampered by a curse placed on her by her vengeful Mother, the Goddess of Evil—a curse that will be fulfilled should Nadira relinquish her power and attempt to come alive as human. The budding mutual passion she and Omari feel—and his own love of music (Mr. Richardson also plays a mean sax)—can only bring heartbreak.

(center) Isio-Maya Nuwere (Moto Moto Ensemble – Safiyah) (l to r) Teshomech (Grio Trio – Tisa), Wade Watson (Moto Moto Ensemble – Musa), Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi), Quiantae Thomas (Moto Moto Ensemble – Amina), Zachary Downer (Moto Moto Ensemble – Sameer), Aaron Nicholas Patterson (Moto Moto Ensemble – Yusef), and (stairs) Rodrick Covington (Ahmed) in the world premiere musical production of Goddess. Directed by Saheem Ali, book by Jocelyn Bioh, music and lyrics by Michael Thurber. Photo by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Complications ensue as Omari’s parents and fiancée have other plans for him. He is tied to the roots of family and must marry and become the Mayor of Mombasa. The talented Kecia Lewis and Kingsley Leggs as the parents, and officious Destinee Rha as the fiancée, offer Omari no alternative but to get out of his situation and back to Moto Moto and Nadira.

In the sixteen-year development of this musical, this area still needs work. We need to see and understand how Omari is torn between wanting to honor the commitment he made to them before he left for NYC and his nascent love for Nadira.

(front) Phillip Johnson Richardson (Omari) (back, l to r) Wade Watson (Moto Moto Enemble – Musa), Melessie Clark (Grio Trio – Mosi), Quiantae Thomas (Moto Moto Ensemble – Amina), and Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi) in the world premiere musical production of Goddess. Directed by Saheem Ali, book by Jocelyn Bioh, music and lyrics by Michael Thurber. Photo by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

A magnificent production surrounds the world of Moto Moto with a detailed Afro-Arabic set by Arnulfo Maldonado, luminous lighting by Tony Winner Bradley King, magnificent costuming by Dede Ayite and special mention to the sound design of Nevin Steinberg. Literally every word spoken or sung is clearly understood. Music director Marco Paguia honors Michael Thurber’s original score with joy and specificity.

With some tweaking, this wonderful new musical should find its place on the Broadway roster of hits.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco-based actor and director and Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionGoddess
Written by / Music & Lyrics by /
Choreography by
Jocelyn Bioh /
Michael Thurber /
Darrell Grand Moultrie
Directed bySaheem Ali (Conceiver/Director)
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough September 25, 2022
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$38 - $104
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

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

By Barry Willis

San Francisco has a long strong history of audacious theatricality.

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

R2D2 and dancer. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Empire Strips dancers. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ “Hooray for Hollywood” Hits the Mark; Transcendence Shows Off Silver Screen Energy

By Cari Lynn Pace

Lights, Camera, Action! Hollywood’s movies inspire and propel the latest Transcendence Theatre Company’s production, now showing live onstage at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, CA. If you grew up watching movies, and rocked along with the music, you’ve got to see this energy-packed show.

Over five dozen songs from movies then and now delight the senses in this fast-paced and multi-level production. Fifteen singers and dancers show off their vocal power and athletic moves as the klieg lights pierce the night. The stage bursts with costume changes from “The Greatest Showman” to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

Hooray for Hollywood cast working.

There’s a lovely pas de deux from “An American in Paris” and a clever “Jailhouse Rock” medley interspersed with “West Side Story.” The audience gave a standing cheer to “The Show Must Go On” in the second act, and many joined in when the “Time Warp” and “Footloose” let loose.

“…star talents with tight yet fluid moves. The silver screen never looked this good!”

Transcendence’s Musical Director Susan Draus conceived this amazing evening, revealing her lifelong love of movie music. Director/choreographer Alaina Mills, highlights the dancers’ star talents with tight yet fluid moves. The silver screen never looked this good!

Transcendence has but a few weeks to rehearse their superb talent in their short summer season. On opening weekend of “Hooray for Hollywood,” one of the TTC veterans had been injured in rehearsal and unable to dance. She sat alongside the orchestra and sang her part beautifully, smiling along with her fellow dancers. What a brilliant way to build company camaraderie!

Transcendence began ten years ago with a handful of singing and dancing performers who escaped their summer gigs on Broadway and LA stages. From their humble start as a nonprofit established to support the Jack London State Historic Park, they’ve grown to be a beloved part of the Bay Area performing arts family in Sonoma. Transcendence now has Kids Camps and Outreach Programs to bring joyful theatre and workshops to all ages.

To have what many call “The Best Night Ever!” bring a picnic starting at 5 PM and share the summer with pre-show entertainment, gourmet food trucks, and premium Sonoma County wines. After the party, settle into your seat surrounded by the stone ruins of the park. Dress in layers, for when the moon rises the temperature falls.

Transcendence Theater Company – 2022 Hooray for Hollywood cast at work

“Hooray for Hollywood” is the second outdoor show in their three-part summer series and runs Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings through August 14th at the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen in Sonoma. Next up will be the outdoor “Gala” set for September 9-18, and their indoor Holiday Show this winter.

New this year is a “Transcendence For All” program that shares the joy of musical theatre with the community. Affordable tickets are available for $25, with closer-in seats starting at $49 to $165 for VIP at www.ttcsonoma.org or call the box office at 877-424-1414.

And finally, if you’d like just a brief peek at the energy and excitement of “Hooray for Hollywood”, check out this video clip: https://youtu.be/b1ct15tnk_w

“Hooray for Hollywood” — it’s a fun-filled spectacular!

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionHooray for Hollywood
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed byAlaina Mills
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough August 14th 2022
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen

2400 London Ranch Road, Sonoma
Websitewww.ttcsonoma.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$25-$165
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Choreography5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

Rolston’s neurotic but hugely entertaining characters succeed beautifully…

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

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

Kevin Rolston at work at Magic Theater.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Maximum Nostalgia: “Follies” at SF Playhouse

By Mitchell Field

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical “Follies” first opened April 4, 1971. It was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, won seven, and has enjoyed many revivals.

During her 1987 West End performance, Eartha Kitt sparked a comeback and went on to perform her own one-woman show to sold-out houses after “Follies” closed. Several songs from the show—“Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” “Losing My Mind”—have become standards.

…an awesome, great, and exhausting show, done with San Francisco Playhouse panache!

The latest version of “Follies” arrived at the San Francisco Playhouse July 20, after five years in development and delays due to Covid. The show had never been performed in its entirety by a professional troupe in The City, according to director Bill English, also co-designer of the show’s imposing set and projections with Heather Kenyon.

Phyllis Rogers Stone (Maureen McVerry*, center) reckons with life’s choices through ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie,’ accompanied by (L-R) Jill Slyter, Chachi Delgado, Anthony Maglio, M. Javi Harnly, Cameron La Brie, and Ann Warque. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse. (*Equity Actor)

Set as a reunion of past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies,” (a musical revue based on the Ziegfeld Follies, that played in that theater between the world wars) in a soon-to-be-demolished Broadway theater, the show focuses on two mature married couples at the reunion: Buddy and Sally (Anthony Rollins-Mullens and Natascia Diaz, respectively) and Ben and Phyllis (Chris Vettel and Maureen McVerry, respectively).

Sally and Phyllis were once showgirls in the Follies; both marriages are in trouble. Ghosts of former showgirls as youngsters glide through the crumbling theater without being seen by the revelers. Thus begins a series of musical numbers performed by the Follies’ many veterans, exploring their lives and desires, while “invisible” younger performers mirror them in counterpoint. Other ghosts from former shows appear and the characters try to recapture their youth in re-creations of past performances.

The ghosts of Follies past (L-R: Catrina Manahan, Samantha Rose Cárdenas, Ann Warque, Danielle Cheiken, and Emily Corbo) welcome you to Dimitri Weismann’s theater. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse.

Broadway producer/director Hal Prince said of the show: ” ‘Follies’ examines obsessive behavior, neurosis and self-indulgence.”

Spirited, emotional and touching musical numbers performed by a perfectly-cast blend of seasoned professionals and talened newcomers fill this production with energy and verve, as do many lively and dynamic dance routines.

While the book by James Goldman is thin on plot, as one of the show’s characters opines: “Facts never interest me, what matters is the song!” Originally a one-act show, “Follies” was later expanded into two acts. Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote: “It wasn’t until the second act that I fell in love all over again with ‘Follies’.” This reviewer concurs.

As with several Sondheim shows, the second act is often “where the beef is.” The second act of “Follies” is wildly divergent from the first, as in “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods.” In “Follies,” the first act is primarily the introduction of characters and their back-stories. It’s a lot of exposition in the midst of glittering showgirls and assorted middle-aged matrons at the reunion party. Either by design or possibly due to opening-night nerves, act one got off to a stilted start, making the second act all the more spectacular.

Benjamin Stone (Chris Vettel*, center) reevaluates his priorities during ‘Live, Laugh, Love,’ accompanied by the Follies company (L-R: Emily Corbo, Anthony Maglio, Samantha Rose Cárdenas*, M. Javi Harnly, Catrina Manahan, Chachi Delgado, and Danielle Cheiken). Photo courtesy SF Playhouse. (*Equity Actor)

In the ‘Loveland’ scene, (“the place where lovers are always young and beautiful, and everyone lives only for love”), Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy, perform in a dream-like pastiche of vaudeville-style numbers in which each acts out their own particular folly.

The scene culminates in total hysteria, as the characters reveal their true emotions for all to see, before returning to the theater, the end of the reunion and the rest of their lives.

A long odyssey for SF Playhouse, “Follies” is an enormous undertaking for any theater company, requiring a large cast of triple-threat performers. The late critic Martin Gottfried wrote: “Follies is truly awesome and, if it is not consistently good, it is always great.”

This production lives up Gottfired’s description. Expertly directed by Bill English, with gorgeous costumes by Alba Berman and choreography by Nicole Helfer, it’s an awesome, great, and exhausting show, done with San Francisco Playhouse panache!

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Contributing Writer Mitchell Field is an actor and voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle based in Marin County, California. Contact: mitchfield@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionFollies
Written / Music byBook by James Goldman. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru September 10th, 2022
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Still Relevant: “Nan and the Lower Body” at TheatreWorks

By Sue Morgan

The two-hour drive from the Russian River to the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto proved to be more than worth the time to attend TheatreWorks’ world premier of Jessica Dickey’s remarkable “Nan and the Lower Body,” directed by Giovanna Sardelli.

Via a poignantly serendipitous series of circumstance, the production, which on the surface deals with women’s reproductive health, but at heart deals with every woman’s worth and right to be recognized as a human being, was originally scheduled to premier in 2020 but, due to the worldwide pandemic, was rescheduled for release a mere three weeks after what Dicky terms “this travesty; the overturning of Roe v. Wade.”

…a timely catalyst for deep reflection about the journey of women…

Dickey performs somewhat of a magic trick, successfully using both pathos and humor to express the urgency and maddening frustration of a midcentury medical system that ignored the number one cause of death in women (cervical cancer) due in large part to the discomfort of doctors and scientists in separating female anatomy from female sexuality.

Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) examines a slide as Dr. Papanicolaou (Christopher Daftsios), inventor of the Pap smear, watches in the World Premiere of “Nan and the Lower Body,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley July 13 – August 7.

Arriving in the US in 1913, Greek immigrant Dr. George Papanicolaou (skillfully played by Christopher Daftsios) toiled tirelessly for decades to develop and promulgate the use of the Pap Smear, allowing detection of cancers via analysis of cells found in women’s vaginal secretions.

Here, conceived as a jocular over-sharer and passionate champion of women’s rights, he exhorts all he meets to “call me Dr. Pap,” and enjoys frequent use of the word “vagina” to create discomfort in and shorten interactions with those who have interrupted his work. By contrast, in a deeply powerful scene, Pap’s face and gestures transform from angry frustration to compassionate tenderness as he gently places a series of unusable slides into the bottom of a garbage can, as if to honor the sacredness of the contents.

Nan’s character is based on Dickey’s maternal grandmother who became a cytologist. According to family lore, in 1952 she worked with Dr. Papanicolaou as a researcher, examining slides to ascertain the presence or absence of abnormal cells. Elissa Beth Stebbins’ Nan is a stolid woman determined to “do good” in the world both through the vehicle of her career and as a mother. Hired by Dr. Papanicolaou because of her insightful cover letter, outstanding academic performance and because she was “the only woman to apply,” Nan is secretly battling the baffling early stages of what will later prove to be multiple sclerosis.

Mache (Lisa Ramirez) meets Dr. Papanicolaou’s new assistant Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) in the World Premiere of “Nan and the Lower Body,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley July 13 – August 7.

In her first mainstage performance with TheatreWorks, Lisa Ramirez is compelling as Mache, Dr. Pap’s spouse, partner, former colleague, and test subject. Responding to her husband’s assertion that he knew she would be up to the task of being a doctor’s wife after seeing her bear an injury silently and without complaint, Mache momentarily cracks wide open as she admits that she remained silent because if she’d allowed herself to speak, she “would have sobbed.”

Jeffrey Brian Adams does a fine job as Nan’s husband, the minister Ted. In a riveting feminist discussion in which Dr. Pap asserts that women are superior to men because of the complexity and capabilities inherent in their anatomy, Ted insists that it is, paradoxically, essential for women to be seen simply as human beings if they are ever to be afforded the same rights and privileges as men. Ted points out that if women are seen to be “different,” they will continue to be subjected to separate rules.

Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) embraces her husband Ted (Jeffrey Brian Adams) after he visits her at work in the World Premiere of “Nan and the Lower Body,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley July 13 – August 7.

The various settings of the play—a university lecture hall, research lab, living room, night-time exterior—are depicted in keeping with the period with no outstanding features other than the lab’s examining table with stirrups. This adherence to the expected affords a lack of distraction so we can focus on dialogue and interactions between characters. Stagecraft by Nina Ball is superb, with one set literally splitting open in the center – half gliding off stage right and the other half stage left, after which the next set glides forward in a seamless motion that set off a chorus of appreciative gasps from the audience.

The Lucie Stern Theatre is itself a treasure. Set within a lovely neighborhood, it’s warm and inviting, spacious and well laid-out, with not a bad seat in the house. The outer courtyard with benches offered a lovely setting for the after-show reception.

“Nan and the Lower Body” acts as a timely catalyst for deep reflection about the journey of women (and the men who try to truly see them). When viewed through the lens of contemporary events, it also reminds us that progress is not always linear and must never be taken for granted.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionNan and the Lower Body
Written byJessica Dickey
Directed byGiovanna Sardelli
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThrough Aug 7th
Production AddressLucie Stern Theatre 1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto CA 94301
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662- 8778
Tickets$35 – $95
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Drowsy Chaperone” Delights at Sonoma Arts Live

By Nicole Singley

What do a tipsy wedding chaperone, a blundering Italian lothario, a pair of mobsters disguised as pastry chefs, and a musical theater-obsessed divorcé in an armchair have in common? They’re the unlikely ingredients for a night full of toe-tapping music, fun, and laughter in Sonoma Arts Live’s production of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” on the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall through July 31st.

With a delightful script that both celebrates and pokes fun at roaring 20s era musicals and vaudevillian hijinks, the show opens on North Bay stage veteran Tim Setzer – billed only as “Man in Chair” – regaling the audience with his love of classic musicals and ironically, his hatred of theater that breaks the fourth wall.

Tim Setzer as “Man in Chair” (Photo by Eric Chazankin)

But lucky for us, Setzer’s character continues to shatter that fourth wall to smithereens, with his frequently hilarious, oftentimes snarky, and occasionally sweetly reflective commentary. From the comfort of his armchair, he puts on a record and invites us to listen along to his all-time favorite musical as it comes to life before us on the stage.

With a quirky cast of characters, a bevy of silly song and dance numbers, and a classic will-they/won’t-they-tie-the-knot set-up, “The Drowsy Chaperone” – a fictitious musical from the late 1920s – is fantastic light-hearted fun, punctuated by catchy tunes and comical mishaps aplenty.

Daniela Innocenti-Beem in the title role (Photo by Eric Chazankin)

The production features some excellent ensemble work and a host of talented performers, though Daniela Innocenti-Beem steals the show with her powerhouse vocals. She’s an absolute hoot in the title role, too, stumbling in and out of scenes in a semi-drunken stupor.

. . . the perfect happy escape for anyone seeking a bit of refuge and good-natured fun.”

Andrew J. Smith is equally uproarious as Adolpho, the cape-clad caricature of an Italian ladies’ man, on a mission to break up the wedding. Maeve Smith takes an endearing turn as bride-to-be Janet Van De Graff, boasting a beautiful voice and a (deliberately) terrible French accent. Setzer is the show’s anchor, and phenomenally good in the role of “Man in Chair,” chaperoning us through the action on stage.

The cast of “The Drowsy Chaperone” at work!

Supporting cast members are marvelously entertaining, too. Jonathen Blue shines as George, the tap-dancing best man, joined by Stephen Kanaski, who makes a charming groom-to-be and earns laughs with his blindfolded roller-skating. Emily Owens Evans perfects the ditzy aspiring starlet trope as Kitty, and Sean O’Brien deserves kudos for enduring a series of preposterous spit takes in the role of “Underling.”

Liz Andrews has done an admirable job with style and period-appropriate choreography for this show. Rebecca Ann Valentino’s costumes deserve a nod, too, thanks to an array of fabulous, flapper-inspired frocks and a host of other elaborate get-ups that add immensely to the fun.

Stephen Kanaski and Maeve Smith as the bride and groom to-be (Photo by Eric Chazankin)

Brindle Brundage and Ryan Severt have designed and built a simple but charming set, with a clever layout enabling it to serve as both Setzer’s apartment and the stage for a full-ensemble musical. From ringing phones to record players, sound effects by Tom Luekens are perfectly timed. The accompaniment of a live band under Sherrill Peterson’s direction makes the music loud and lively, though at times it drowns out the singers on stage, due in part to the hall’s challenging acoustics. But any bumps in the road are easily forgiven amid the merriment.

As the “Man in Chair” reminds us, music and theater have the power to transport us away from our daily stress and struggles when we’re feeling blue. “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a celebration of this power, and the perfect happy escape for anyone seeking a bit of refuge and good-natured fun.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Drowsy Chaperone
Written byBook by Bob Martin and Don McKellar; Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThrough July 31st
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!

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.

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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!-----

 

 

 

 

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ensemble cast dancing. Photo by: Robin Jackson.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

ASR Theater ~~ “The Government Inspector” – Comedy Imitates Life in this Russian Town

By Cari Lynn Pace

Those who are appalled at the travesties between Russia and Ukraine which dominate our headlines may enjoy a respite with this Ross Valley Players comedy, at the Barn at the Ross Art and Garden Center through June 5.

This farce lampooning government officials was written by Nikolai Gogol, a Russian playwright who exiled himself after this play was presented to the Tzar in 1836. Gogol was subjected to intense official disdain after he parodied government unscrupulousness.

Act II is truly a laugh out loud absurdity….

Although the location is not specific, the play takes place in a Russian town filled with corrupt officials and workers who continually (and successfully) defraud the system. Their deceits are profitable and mutually accepted among themselves, resulting in uninhabitable hospitals, sub-standard schools, courtroom graft, fake employment, and the like. One is reminded of the phrase repeatedly heard from a Russian friend: “We pretend to work, and the government pretends to pay us.”

Steve Price as The Mayor; Benjamin Vasquez as Dobchinsky;
Raysheina de Leon-Ruhs as Bobchinsky. Photo Robin Jackson.

The trouble begins when the Mayor belatedly discovers that a “Government Inspector” has arrived unannounced from St. Petersburg and is residing undercover. Those in charge fear that the inspector will report their misdeeds to the Tsar, with distressing consequences. The Mayor and his minions go into hyperdrive concocting schemes to cover up the extent of the town’s corruption. Steve Price is hilarious playing the blustering and panicked Mayor, a role he pushes over the top with present pandemonium. He’s in charge of the mayhem, and it is truly madness.

Hlestekov, an indolent and lowly clerk from St. Peterburg happens to be passing through the town and has lost his funds gambling. He’s holed up in the inn awaiting funds from his family when the town mistakes him for the dreaded inspector. Suddenly, a stream of rubles get thrust into his hands, labelled “welcome gifts.” Michel B. Harris plays this role perfectly, from an initially confused clerk to the role of a now-corrupt official commanding further bribes from the guilty.

It’s not only rubles that get this clerk’s attention. He takes the opportunity of this sudden power to seduce the Mayor’s daughter Marya (Hunter Candrian-Velez), all the while deflecting passionate advances from the Mayor’s lustful wife Anna (hilarious Pamela Ciochetti.)

Wood Lockhart. Photo Robin Jackson.

Harris revels in his new identity, upstaged only by the snide comments of his servant, enacted by veteran Wood Lockhart in an elf’s garb. Act II is truly a laugh out loud absurdity.

The large cast of fourteen, directed by Lisa Morse, jumps into their madcap roles with full tilt energy. Some frantic bits bring to mind the antics of the Three Stooges, other moments are clearly inspired by Groucho Marx. One might expect the cast to emulate Russian accents, although most do not. “The Government Inspector” misadventure could easily be transported to any corrupt city these days, which makes Gogol’s plot from the early 1800’s a timeless possibility.

“The Government Inspector” is an ambitious production and an audience pleaser with the RVP crowd. Costume and wig changes are supported by an offstage production team more numerable than the cast. “The Government Inspector” is a wild ride and a frivolous breath of fresh air in these sober times.

Note: Ross Valley Players requires proof of vaccination in keeping with public health protocols. Actors, stage crew and volunteers are fully vaccinated. To attend performances, attendees must show proof of being fully vaccinated and masks always must be worn. There are no food and drink concessions open as of this writing. Parking is free at the lot at 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross.

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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 Government Inspector
Written byNikolai Gogol
Directed byLisa Morse
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThursdays through Sundays until June 5, 2022
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Tickets$15-$30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

…a delightful morsel of musical theater….

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

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

HarriettePearl Fugit (r) at Sonoma Arts Live.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Almost, Maine” Sublimely Sweet at Spreckels

By Nicole Singley

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.

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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!

ASR Theater ~~“The Packrat Gene” Stashes Memories Amidst Stuff; RVP Offers New Production

By Cari Lynn Pace

It’s a common dilemma as years go by. Who can get rid of the pile-up of possessions, especially those linked to precious memories? “The Packrat Gene” explores this timeless agony with a true-to-heart script by the Bay Area’s Margy Kahn at the Ross Valley Players.

This new play was selected by the Ross Alternative Works Committee (RAW) for its original, provocative, and exciting aspects, an addition to RVP’s regular subscriber season. The familiar theme resonates with audiences young and old.

Marcia van Broek as Esther; Julie Ann Sarabia as Rachel. Phots by Robina Jackson.

In New Jersey, three generations of grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter gather with a goal to clear out grandma’s apartment. Their conversations are acerbic and amusing as the women cajole, collide, concede, and console one another.

Marsha van Broek is marvelous as widowed grandma Esther with the accent of a holocaust escapee from Paris. She’s just fine where she is, thank you, surrounded by her books, broken bowls, 30-year-old pay stubs and Edith Piaf records.

Maya Rath as Leigh. Photos by Robina Jackson

Maya Rath masters her role as the practical and frustrated daughter Leigh, flying cross country to take control of the situation. Concerned about her mother’s age and mental state, Leigh tries to convince her to consider a retirement community. She’s on a deadline to return back to work in LA. Her obstinate mother dismisses Leigh with harshness dredged up from the past, while the dutiful daughter patiently reminds her to live in the present.

Spunky granddaughter Rachel, superbly played by Julie Ann Sarabia, flies in to give affection and allegiance to her grandmother and a snippy attitude to her mother. It seems Leigh can’t do anything right by these two. Three divergent generations, three authentic portrayals, and three riveting backstories anchor this solidly satisfying production.

“Three divergent generations, three authentic portrayals, and three riveting backstories anchor this solidly satisfying production.”

Director Michael R. Cohen notes “This play succeeds because of the casting. I am fortunate to have three superb actors who worked well together and made my job easy.”

“The Packrat Gene” is an addition to RVP’s season of regular subscriber shows. It’s a new and fully staged production selected by the Ross Alternative Works Committee, running only through April 3rd. Pack this performance into your plans and make a move to see it.

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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 Packrat Gene
Written byMargy Kahn
Directed byMichael R. Cohen
Producing CompanyRoss Alternative Works Committee via RVP
Production DatesThursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 2 PM through April 3rd
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Tickets$15-$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Legend of Georgia McBride” Sizzles at 6th Street Playhouse

By 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.”

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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!

ASR Theater ~~ Pure Joy: Cinnabar’s “Amy and the Orphans”

By Barry Willis

On rare occasions, an obscure play with an unknown star rocks the theater world.

At Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater through February 20, Lindsey Ferrentino’s “Amy and the Orphans” is exactly that kind of production. In it, a couple of adult siblings named Maggie and Jacob (Mary DeLorenzo and Michael Fontaine, respectively) return to New York for their father’s funeral. They also have a half-baked plan to get their sister Amy (Julie Yeager) to move out of the state-supported home where she has lived for many years and to come reside with one of them.

It’s not clear why Maggie and Jacob wish to do this—they’ve had little contact with Amy for a long time, and no experience caring for her. Perhaps a lingering sense of guilt propels them, and while bickering with each other, they press their case with both Amy and Kathy (Jannely Calmell), her caretaker. The results are heartrending and comical.

“Amy and the Orphans” is one of the freshest things to land at local theaters in years…

A Down’s Syndrome person, Amy has a strong attachment to where she lives, a residence full of her friends. She’s a movie fanatic, watching them constantly on her iPad, and has a job working in a movie theater—a perfect occupation, in that she has memorized every classic line from every iconic film reaching back decades.

Left to right_ Mary DeLorenzo as Maggie, Julie Yeager as Amy. Photography by Victoria Von Thal

It’s a very fulfilling life for her. She doesn’t want to disrupt any of it, but her sister and brother insist that they know what’s best. Blessed with an innocent passion for fairness, Amy argues with impeccable logic about why she should remain where she is, and when rationality fails to convince them, she resorts to small-scale guerrilla tactics, coming close to risking her life in her fight for autonomy.

With a great sense of comic timing and tremendous confidence, Julie Yeager astounds in the lead role. Her wise replies come off with an improvisational immediacy that one might expect from a theatrical veteran of many years. So do her many movie-quoting bits, all done with perfect timing and the original characters’ diction. She’s a wonder to behold, provoking a spontaneous standing ovation from a nearly full house on opening weekend.

DeLorenzo and Fontaine are very good as middle-aged siblings whose differences have never been resolved. Calmell, a young veteran of many North Bay productions, is excellent as Kathy. Gina Alvarado and Justin P. Lopez are enjoyable diversions in a couple of flashback scenes of Sarah and Bobby, the parents of Maggie, Jacob, and Amy.

L-to-R_ Michael Fontaine as Jacob, Mary DeLorenzo as Maggie, Julie Yeager as Amy, Janelly Calmell as Kathy. Photo by V. Von Thal

Director Nathan Cummings has gotten a world-class performance from his cast of six, but most especially from Yeager, an absolute joy. Cinnabar’s whimsical set (by Brian Watson) and goofy props only add to the fun and satisfaction.

“Amy and the Orphans” is one of the freshest things to land at local theaters in years. Continually engaging, uplifting, and at moments downright hilarious, it’s a show that will instill hope and bring you to your feet in celebration.

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

 

ProductionAmy and the Orphans
Written byLindsey Ferrentino
Directed byNathan Cummings
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Feb. 20th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Hair” an Exuberant Experience. Classic Rock Musical Shines with Energy

By Cari Lynn Pace

6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa took a brilliant risk in staging the rock musical “Hair.” From the moment one enters the theatre, one is surrounded by the exuberance of the hippie “Tribe” of actors cavorting onstage to drums. It’s clear this joyful “be-in” will be a performance like no other.

When “Hair” opened on Broadway 50 years ago, it broke every rule in the theatrical book. How did it become such a timeless musical? And how does it still capture audiences?

It has no real story line, plenty of four-letter words, a batch of rock ‘n’ roll songs strung together, and an in-your-face confrontation of the issues of race, the Vietnam War draft, sex, drugs, pollution, and clothing. It’s a brash bold and ballsy exploration of issues, many which still confront us today.

Photo courtesy 6th St Playhouse.

Whatever the magic formula, Director Aja Gianola-Norris brings this production of “Hair” over the top with a talented cast in fine frenzy, feathers, and fringe. Rachel Wynne’s choreography is vigorous and uninhibited, the onstage band under Lucas Sherman’s direction is spot on (although a bit loud for some of the solos), and the actors abound with strong voices.

Photo courtesy 6th St Playhouse.

Their physical performances are so impressive it would be no surprise if they lost weight after each performance.

“Hair” is a festival of fun, not to be missed…

Act I begins with a celebration of the extraordinary 1962 alignment of seven heavenly bodies (planets and the moon) in the constellation Aquarius. Time-tested favorites open with “Age of Aquarius” belted out by Serena Elize Flores. It’s followed by a dozen more, including “Hair,” “Hare Krishna,” and “Easy to Be Hard,” a solo soulfully sung by Gillian Eichenberger. The Tribe’s conflicts about the Vietnam War come to a head as some burn their draft cards. Others burn bras. Claude (an extremely acrobatic Jamin Jollo) and Berger (hilarious Ezra Hernandez) must decide their future paths in “Where Do I Go?”

Act II consists mainly of the Tribes LSD trip. It’s a free-flowing dream sequence, a circus with bizarre bits and beads. Famous characters come and go. The Tribe freely partners up, uncouples, and mixes again against the backdrop of “Good Morning Starshine.”

When the finale “Let the Sunshine In” is sung, audience hands wave in a reflection of peace, love, and difficult choices. “Hair” is a festival of fun, not to be missed.

 

*** Covid restrictions at the 6th Street Playhouse require proof of vaccination and masks to be worn throughout the production. Some material may not be suitable for people under 16 years of age. Please see website for further advisories about this performance.

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

 

ProductionHair
Written byGerome Ragni and James Rado
Directed byAja Gianola-Norris
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 6th, 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
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Band’s Visit” a Revelation at the Golden Gate Theatre

By Barry Willis

A mistaken destination leads to a night of small-scale magic for some Egyptian musicians and their accidental Israeli hosts in “The Band’s Visit,” at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre through February 6.

It also leads to a night of big-time magic for theatergoers willing to brave the pandemic. Like every other socially responsible venue, the Golden Gate is adamant about checking vax status for all attendees and requiring masks during the show’s no-intermission 105 minutes.

This production is a risk worth taking: a simple story about ordinary people that rises far above the ordinary through a seamless blend of great writing, great music, great acting, and great stagecraft—among the many reasons why the show ran seemingly forever on Broadway and garnered 10 Tony awards.

You’ll leave the theater overjoyed for having been there but longing for more.

The time is 1996, forty-eight years after the Arab-Israeli War, a conflict not forgotten by either side. The setup is the arrival in a small Israeli desert town of the eight-member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Resplendent in pale blue uniforms, they’ve come to the wrong town due to misunderstanding its name—Bet Hatikva, not Petah Tikva, where they’re scheduled to perform at the Arab Cultural Center. There’s no bus to take them to their proper destination until the next day, and there’s no hotel in Bet Hatikva either, so they must rely on friendly locals for the night. In the process, potential adversaries get to know each other and discover that the same problems bedevil everyone regardless of religion or nationality.

Janet Dacal (left) and Sasson Gabay in “The Band’s Visit,” which tours to BroadwaySF’s Golden Gate Theatre.

Apart from the original mistake that launches the story, writer Itamar Moses doesn’t mine the obvious comedic ore of language barrier. Instead the Egyptians speak Arabic with each other, the Israeli speak Hebrew, and the two rely on heavily-accented and sometimes clumsy English as their lingua franca—all of it perfectly understandable to an American audience.

Set designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Tyler Micoleeau do their utmost to convey life in a dead-end town—both the heat and the hopelessness. (Cue the song “Welcome to Nowhere.”) The designers’ work, like the overall production itself, has rough-around-the-edges qualities that reinforce an abiding sense of realism. We may never visit the Negev Desert, but we certainly get a lingering taste.

The production’s realism is leavened with intervals of sheer magic—the band itself has moments of rehearsal that have the audience clamoring for more, and some of the songs are genius. Café owner Dina (Janet Dacal) befriends bandleader Twefiq (Sasson Gabay)—derisively called “the General” by a couple of Bet Hatikva locals—and sitting at a small table, she confesses how much she loved watching Egyptian movies on TV when she was young, a prelude to “Omar Sharif,” one of the show’s breakout hits. Twefiq in turn confesses his everlasting sorrow at losing his son and wife. Sweetness counterbalanced with regret tinged with hope—“The Band’s Visit” may have some of the most complex emotional undercurrents of any contemporary musical.

Janet Dacal and Sasson Gabay 2 — Photo by Evan Zimmerman, Broadway SF

But it has moments of levity, too—Joe Joseph is outstanding as the seductive trumpeter Haled, who knows everything about his hero Chet Baker, right down to playing his riffs and singing in his voice. Joshua Grosso has the pitiable role of “Telephone Guy,” a Bet Hatikva resident who stands vigil all night at a pay phone hoping his former girlfriend will call. The Israelis and Egyptians discover commonality in their love of many kinds of music—Arabic, Klezmer, American jazz, while the seductive lure of the oud, cello, and clarinet continually remind us of the band’s reason for being.

Morning comes as it inevitably must, and the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra must say farewell to new friends. That we don’t get to enjoy their full concert is the show’s only disappointment. You’ll leave the theater overjoyed for having been there but longing for more.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Band’s Visit
Written byItamar Moses Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed & Choreographed byDirected by David Cromer Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
Producing CompanyBroadway SF
Production DatesThrough February 6, 2022
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 749-1799
Tickets$56 - $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Choreography5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

Happy New Year from Aisle Seat Review! | From Team ASR

As the new year dawns, Aisle Seat Review thanks all of our loyal readers—and all of the many theater companies that invite us to their productions month after month despite the fact that we don’t always praise their work.

Our intention is always to deliver honest appraisals with a goal of improving the theatrical experience for everyone involved—performers, technical crews, and audiences alike.

Like the year before it, 2021 was a rough period for the theater community, but we have emerged from months of lockdown stronger and more energetic than ever. ASR looks forward to a healthier, happier season with expanded coverage, including an enticing potential rollout of new regional editions.

If it’s theatrically significant, you’ll see it here–and we’ll see you at the show!

Happy New Year!

Editorial Team ASR:

  • Kris Neely, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
  • Barry Willis, ASR NorCal Executive Editor
  • Nicole Singley, ASR NorCal Senior Contributing Writer/Editor
  • Cari Lynn Pace, ASR NorCal Contributing Writer 
  • Victor Cordell, ASR NorCal Contributing Writer/Editor
  • Team ASR (technical review staff)

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An ASR Pick! Center Rep Delivers a Sumptuous “Christmas Carol” — by Barry Willis

Kerri Shawn and Michael Ray Wisely (Photo courtesy of Center Rep)

The holiday spirit can’t get any brighter or more uplifting than the one inhabiting Center Repertory Company’s “A Christmas Carol,” at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through December 23.

A sumptuous large-scale production on one of the biggest stages in the Bay Area, this almost-a-musical update to the Charles Dickens classic is Broadway-quality, with a huge and hugely talented cast of approximately thirty actors/singers/dancers, and with spectacular scenic effects in what is arguably one of the premier physical theaters in Northern California. Center Rep is deeply endowed.

Why almost-a-musical? Productions of this enduring story always feature traditional Christmas carols—in fact, they’re among the many holiday irritants that provoke the wrath of miserable old miser Ebenezer Scrooge—but in this one, director Scott Denison and music director Michael Patrick Wiles have chosen to include a vocal quartet whose harmonies serve to underscore the drama, not to comment on it as in a Greek tragedy, but to deepen the emotional impact of key scenes. 

Jeff Draper as Marley

It’s a wonderfully effective gambit, as wonderful in its own way as is the towering set by Kelly James Tighe that serves as Scrooge’s office and home, as London streets, and as the netherworld from which emerge the ghost of Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley (Jeff Draper), and the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future (Kerri Shawn, Jerry Lee, and Scott Maraj, respectively). Shawn and Lee are especially delightful—Shawn with gorgeous voice and glittering gown, flitting about as she leads Scrooge through a return to his youth, Lee with boisterous good humor and infectious dynamics as he shows the cranky old bachelor how his relatives and employees celebrate the holiday. Maraj is silently malevolent as the giant specter of Christmas Future—“wardrobe engineering” by Thomas Judd.

The Cratchit family is portrayed with great sensitivity—Michael Patrick Wiles as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s loyal and long-suffering clerk; Addison Au as his wife Belinda; William Foon as Tiny Tim; and a passel of sisters and brothers too numerous to name. Michael Barrett Austin does a convincing turn as Fred, Scrooge’s well-meaning nephew.

. . . as near-perfect a production of “A Christmas Carol” as you may ever hope to see . . . “

Michael Patrick Wiles and William Foon (Photo courtesy of Center Rep)

As in other productions, Scrooge’s viewing of the Fezziwigs’ annual party is a highlight of the first act, with wild dancing (choreography by Jennifer Perry) and frenetic comic acting by Michael McCarty and Jeanine Perasso as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. It’s a beautifully portrayed pivotal moment in which Scrooge (Michael Ray Wisely, brilliant) begins to comprehend all that he’s lost in his single-minded pursuit of profits, but it takes much more than that to provoke an epiphany that converts him from despised capitalist oppressor to beatific benefactor. Visions of his own demise, the plundering of his possessions, dismissive sentiments among those who knew him, and ultimately, the loss of Tiny Tim, all combine to overwhelm him to change. 

All these plot points are stunningly conveyed in a production that’s both heartfelt traditional drama and techno-spectacular. 

Opening night was marred by a couple of minor glitches—voices inaudible during the opening scene (quickly corrected), and onstage voices competing with the unseen narrator. The populous streets of London aren’t as bustling as they might be, and some of the spectacle may be too much for very young children, of whom there were many on opening night, but no hysterical crying was heard from the audience in the capacious Hoffman Theatre.

Apart from these quibbles, this is as near-perfect a production of “A Christmas Carol” as you may ever hope to see. With a ground-floor art gallery open before the show, and a delectable assortment of restaurants nearby, the Lesher Center for the Arts is a tremendous destination, reachable by BART or an easy jaunt on Highway 24. However you get there, you’ll be glad you did.

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

 

ProductionA Christmas Carol
Written byCharles Dickens, adapted by Cynthia Caywood and Richard L. James
Directed & Choreographed byDirected by Scott Denison; Choreographed by Jennifer Perry
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThrough December 23rd, 2021
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$33-$50
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

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!

An ASR Pick! The Laughs are On in “Noises Off” at Spreckels by Nicole Singley

If you’re in need of a good, hearty laugh (and who isn’t, these days?) Spreckels Theatre Company has you covered. Don’t miss their top-notch production of “Noises Off,” running now through October 24th on the big stage in Rohnert Park.

In Michael Frayn’s classic, door-slamming farce within a farce, a traveling theater company descends into utter chaos while attempting to stage a play called “Nothing On.” It’s a pants-dropping, riotous affair replete with perfectly timed entrances and exits, tangled phone cords, plates of sardines that vanish and reappear without explanation, and a seemingly endless series of mishaps and misunderstandings that fuel the frenzy. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that the chaos onstage can’t hold a candle to what’s unfolding among the actors behind the scenes.

This is the kind of show that requires impeccable comedic timing and painstaking coordination, and Spreckels doesn’t disappoint. Veteran director Sheri Lee Miller helms this tightly paced and carefully choreographed production with evident precision; her talented ensemble proves up to the challenge. Those familiar with “Noises Off” will be pleased to find this old favorite has been handled with care. Only the location has been changed, and though it’s a change that feels unnecessary, it in no way detracts from the overall effect.

“Noises Off” at work. Kevin Bordi, Eileen Morris, & Zane Walters.

MacKenzie Cahill is a hoot as ditzy Brooke, lovably oblivious and always losing her contacts, and Zane Walters shines as leading man Garry LeJeune, swinging axes and stumbling down stairs in his jealous rage. John Craven is delightful as Selsdon, the hard-of-hearing actor who’s a little too fond of the bottle and keeps missing his cues. And who couldn’t love Eileen Morris as Dotty Otley, even if she’ll never remember where she left those damned sardines? Kevin Bordi, Matthew Cadigan, Taylor Diffenderfer, Maureen O’Neill, and Brandon Wilson round out the bunch, and there isn’t a weak link among them.

…Those familiar with “Noises Off” will be pleased to find this old favorite has been handled with care…

The stagecraft is excellent, too, thanks to resident designer Eddy Hansen’s elaborate, two-story set piece that rotates to reveal the goings-on backstage. Scenic artist and prop master Elizabeth Bazzano has her hands full with this one. From interchangeable bags and boxes, bottles of booze and bouquets of flowers, and countless sardines, to questionably repurposed sheets and a very prickly cactus, Bazzano has covered all the bases.

“Noises Off” — full cast, set by Eddy Hansen

With three acts and two intermissions – the first of which was slated at 15 minutes but felt much shorter, and the second of which was billed at 5 but stretched on for closer to 15, it’s a long night out at the theater. But the third act is even funnier than the second, and you won’t be looking at your watch. Even the program will give you a chuckle – be sure to flip it over, where you’ll find a second program for “Nothing On,” complete with hilarious cast bios.

“Noises Off” is the perfect remedy for anyone in need of some lighthearted fun or a happy distraction, and this production is an absolute delight. Be sure to catch it while you can.

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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

ProductionNoises Off
Written byMichael Frayn
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough October 24th, 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

 

An Aisle Seat Review. OTP Tries Drive-in Theater With Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station – by Vic Cordell

It’s been virtually a year since the pandemic darkened the live performance stage. All theatergoers lament the absence of our favorite intellectual stimulation and fear that many theatrical organizations may lack the wherewithal to rebound from financial catastrophe.

Many companies now offer electronic alternatives – from the filming of previous stage performances to original productions using Zoom technology. Although electronic media don’t offer the same urgency and reward as live performances, these endeavors do provide a way for companies to reach their audience and for audiences to support companies.

Enter drive-in theater productions which, unlike viewing at home, offer the advantage of bringing theater lovers together at the venue to recreate some sense of community and allow some possibility of live elements. So it goes with Oakland Theater Project’s (OTP – formerly Ubuntu) entire 2021 season. In keeping with OTP’s origins as a peripatetic, site-specific theater company, its season opener Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station takes place away from its current home base. Even more poignant, the visuals are cast upon the outside walls of the titular station in Oakland.

This presentation of Binding Ties is the 30th anniversary of the documentary created by the esteemed Bay Area theatrical lighting designer, Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson, with Michael Copeland Sydnor. It focuses on the African-American, and to a small extent, on the Asian and Mexican immigrant minority’s experience working in service capacities on long-distance trains in the first half of the 20th century.

The stately Beaux-Arts-styled 16th Street Station plays a major character in the stories that unfold. The station itself was damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and was subsequently condemned, and former rail lines have been rerouted to other stations. Nonetheless, attempts to revive and repurpose this beautiful grande dame continue to this day.

…The concept and message of Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station appeal and deserve our patronage…

In addition to contextual narration, recorded interviews comprise the substance of Binding Ties The subjects are Oakland-based, Southern Pacific Railroad workers, primarily sleeping car porters, who recount vignettes of their lives and work. This worthy look into history reveals maltreatment of minorities in this country, even those with relatively esteemed employment.  Despite their dignified hard work, their tales reveal many layers of indignity directed toward them. The pay was poor. Treatment by passengers and supervisors was often demeaning. Unfounded claims that black employees were stealing from passengers and the company were common. And even though female employees served as stewardesses, they were classified and referred to as maids.

The viewer also catches glimpses into the sometimes very luxurious aspects of train travel that also serve to emphasize the social and economic gulf between the passengers and those who served them. Although the interesting storytelling yields a kaleidoscopic view of working on the trains, there is no dramatic arc or trend line leading to a dénouement.

One bright spot reported in the documentary was the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, which protected and advanced its members. This noteworthy accomplishment in the labor and civil rights movements was the first-ever union founded and led by African-Americans to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor.

As a result of inconsistent audio quality in the soundtrack (delivered by FM through car radios), some speakers sound loud and clear, but others are faint or scratchy, suggesting the need for audio engineering. Sound designer Kevin Myrick has incorporated musical numbers, beginning with the appropriate “Hear That Train Whistle Blow,” that add life and dimensionality to the piece.

The visual component of the work is represented by a slide show of relevant black and white period photos projected on two screens. The parking spot assigned this reviewer was extremely oblique to the screens so that most text and smaller image details in the nearer screen could not be deciphered, and nothing could be discerned on the far screen.

In order to add a live element to the production, a “Conductor” played by William Oliver III introduces and closes the show.  From my vantage point, I heard him clearly but caught only a glimpse of him. The concept makes sense, but more content and spark for the role would be welcomed.

The concept and message of Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station appeal and deserve our patronage. However, the dramatic elements could be strengthened as could the technical side of delivering performance with this technique. Nonetheless, credit is due Oakland Theater Project for taking on important topics and providing some intellectual stimulation for its supporters.

Oakland Theater Project’s Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station

Created by Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson with Michael Copeland Sydnor

Performances in the parking lot of Oakland’s 16th Street Train Station

Through February 28, 2021

Tickets: Per car price, $25 for one person, $30 for two, with some pay-what-you-can.  No sales at the door.

Ticket info: https://oaklandtheaterproject.org/

Reviewer ratings

  • Overall: 3 of 5 stars
  • Performance: 3 of 5
  • Script: 4 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 3 of 5

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

 

 

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An Aisle Seat Review! San Francisco Opera’s Drive-in “Tosca” – by Vic Cordell

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

San Francisco Opera’s stage at the War Memorial Opera House has remained dark for nearly a year.

Happily, the company keeps touch with its patrons by initiating informative programs and delivering streaming performances of previous productions online.  It has now embarked on events to rouse its community out of their chairs and sofas.  Last weekend, SF Opera offered four screenings in the drive-in movie format at Fort Mason.  The filming was the company’s 2009 fine production of Puccini’s brilliant “Tosca.”  A review of the film of a 12-year-old stage production that has completed its drive-in run may seem fatuous.  However, it could be of interest to those who might consider viewing a future streaming of the production or buying an electronic copy.

Although not without its detractors, who consider it melodramatic and musically harsh, audience and most music critics’ love of “Tosca” have not wavered since overcoming its hostile debut in 1900.  In contrast with the lyrical beauty of the other two of Puccini’s top three operas, “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca’s” music and drama are bombastic and conflictual almost throughout.  But this opera is also exceptionally artful in many dimensions and includes several masterful arias and love duets.

As specified by the score, the SF Opera’s Marco Armiliato-conducted orchestra roars and often punctuates with the deliciously ominous and powerful Scarpia leitmotif.  As one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire, the title character demands a soprano with the dramatic vocal power of a Wagnerian, who is able to caress poignant Pucciniesque melody.  Oh, and she must possess a full palette of acting colors with an array of emotions.  Two male leads must also be of top-caliber.

San Francisco Opera appeals to opera singers as a company, and it possesses one of the great singer development systems, thus performers in support roles are generally excellent.

Since aficionados value seeing multiple productions of the same opera, the notion of a plot spoiler doesn’t really exist in this realm.  So here’s a synopsis of the central plot.  In 1800, painter Cavaradossi is a partisan sympathizer opposed to Napoleon’s domination of Rome.   When caught harboring a political enemy of the state, he is tortured by the police.  The scheming chief of police, Scarpia, courts sexual favors from Tosca with the promise of freeing her lover, Cavaradossi.  All goes awry.  All three die – violently, of course.

Adrienne Pieczonka plays Tosca, and she possesses the vocal and dramatic chops required.  She retains pitch control while singing at full power for extended periods, especially during the high tension train wreck of Act 2, full of intrigue, interrogation, intimidation, betrayal, torture, and more.  But amidst this melee comes Tosca’s beautiful signature aria “Vissi d’Arte” (I lived for art).   It emerges after a significant pause which renders an almost dreamlike quality as Tosca seems to imagine herself removed to another place.  Pieczonka delivers the aria with confident assertiveness, but the style of a plaintive lament might better fit her ethereal escape.

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

Antagonist Scarpia is deftly performed and solidly sung by Lado Antoneli, though his “Te Deum” would have benefited from a stronger lower register.  The artist’s patrician gray wig and unthreatening visage belie his character’s nihilistic sadism.  Though falsely pious, polite, and proper when necessary, Scarpia’s singing “I savor violent conquest more than surrender” reveals his inner rage.  Antoneli mines these contradictions well as he punishes Cavaradossi and manipulates Tosca into a compromising position.

Spinto tenor Carlo Ventre is Cavaradossi.  Blessed with a warm vibrato, he sings in a manner associated with some Italian singers which is the opera corollary to country music twang.  Some listeners may not care for this style which is most evident in his beautiful Act 1 number “Recondita Armonia” (Concealed harmony).  But in his Act 3 lament, “E Lucevan Le Stelle” (And the stars were shining), the whine is less discernable, and he excels in this famed aria as he reflects on love and contemplates his imminent execution.

San Francisco Opera appeals to opera singers as a company, and it possesses one of the great singer development systems, thus performers in support roles are generally excellent.  This is true of “Tosca,” led by Dale Travis as the nervous sacristan.  Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi marshals top-ranked creative designers.  The opera plays on a world-class set designed by Thierry Bosquet.

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

Of course, this is a filming of a stage performance, not a movie, and some shortfalls should be expected.  A great fear in filming a staged opera is that it will seem static, like a video archival record.  In this case, multiple cameras are used, but they shoot from fixed positions — meaning they can zoom and pan, but not dolly.  Editing cuts are sharp, so while there is reasonable variety in camerawork, the outcome is somewhat jerky and stilted.  In addition, lighting and sound production are designed for the live audience, not for filming, so some deficiencies exist.  That said, this is a fine production with a great cast performing one of the great operas in history.  It is a worthwhile watch.

“Tosca” composed by Giacomo Puccini with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa was produced by San Francisco Opera in 2009 and played on-screen outdoors at Fort Mason on February 12-14, 2021. SF Opera has also announced newly-coined “live at the drive-in”—including productions of “Barber of Seville” and a concert of the Adler Fellows.

Reviewer ratings:

  • Overall: 5 of 5
  • Performance: 4 of 5
  • Script: 5 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 5 of 5

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

 

 

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ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: A Talk-Talk with the Versatile, Vivacious Maureen McVerry

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

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

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

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

***

Maureen McVerry

Few performers have backgrounds as deep as Maureen McVerry’s. In 1993 she created Verry McVerry, her ever-evolving cabaret show, one she has performed for 25 years. In San Francisco, she has performed at Oasis, Feinstein’s, the New Conservatory Theatre, the Herbst Theatre, the Plush Room, the Venetian Room, the Gateway Theatre, and the Alcazar. Verry McVerry has also been performed at 88s in NYC and the Gardenia Room in LA and at other venues nationally. The show earned a 2012 SFBATCC nomination for Best Solo Show.

As a stage actress, McVerry has celebrated 39 years in theatre, like the legendary Jack Benny. At ACT she played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (SFBATCC award), Kitty Packard in Dinner at Eight (SFBATCC award), the Gypsy in Scapin, Carrie in House of Mirth, Mrs. Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol and Sister Gabriella in The Pope and the Witch.

At ACT she also played Mrs. Schlemiel in Schlemiel the First and went on with the show to the ART in Cambridge and the Geffen Playhouse in LA. McVerry was featured as Kay in the SF Shakespeare Festival production of Oh Kay! (SFBATCC award) and in two long-running SF shows, Noises Off (SFBATCC and Dramalogue awards) and Curse of the Werewolf (SFBATCC award). At Marin Theatre Company she has appeared in Side by Side by Sondheim, You’re Going to Love Tomorrow (SFBATCC award), Born Yesterday (SFBATCC award), Room Service, and Me and My Girl.

McVerry has appeared in four different productions of Noises Off and would gladly do that show once or twice weekly to stay in shape. At 42nd St Moon she has appeared in several shows: Pardon My English (SFBATCC award), High Spirits, Wildcat, Very Warm for May, and Student Gypsy. She directed the successful 2011 revival of Oh Kay! and appeared at TheatreWorks as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest, Sylvia in Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, and Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods.

She played Clara in Sex at the Aurora Theatre, and at Center Rep performed in the hit musicals Bingo and Xanadu – her first Shelly nomination as Calliope. In 2014 at SF Playhouse, she reprised her role as Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods, which she plays 24/7 (her son’s name is Jack).

In October of 2014 Maureen’s husband of 32 years, Rick Alber (Dr. Rom on KGO radio) died unexpectedly from an unsuccessful heart operation. After a break, she slowly went back to work.

She did her new solo show Love Will Kick Your Ass at Oasis and at Feinstein’s. She made her drag king debut as Mr. Roper in Three’s Company Live at Oasis. She returned to Center Rep and played Georgette in It Shoulda Been You (Shelly nomination) and to 42nd St Moon, where she played Pauline in No No Nanette. At TheatreWorks she played Marge in The Bridges of Madison County, and at SF Playhouse played the Old Lady in Sunday in the Park With George.

In 2018 she played Linda Porter in the one-woman show, Love Linda at Cinnabar Theatre in Petaluma. She is the winner of seven SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards and two Dramalogue Awards. McVerry’s film credits include Nine Months, The Dead Pool, Big Business, True Believer, Howard the Duck, The Ox and the Eye, and Crackers. On TV: Full House and Divorce Court.

For the last 10 summers, McVerry has hosted the “very” successful Maureen McVerry’s Musical Theatre Camp for children and teens. The camp’s motto is “Where children learn to play on and off the stage.”

Since 2001, she has directed 27 student theatre productions at public schools on the Peninsula. Since Rick’s passing, she directs one middle school musical a year at North Star Academy in Redwood City.

__________________

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MM: Halfway through my junior year of college, I was a little lost, so I dropped out and lived in Europe and the San Juan Islands and had a lot of fun. Not finishing what I had started bugged me though so in 1980 I returned to Cal to graduate (I recommend taking a few gap years to anyone else who might be lost).

Since I had completed almost all of my requirements, I knew I could really explore what the school offered. Amazingly, my father suggested that I “try drama” (What parent suggests that??). I enrolled in Drama 10, my first acting class, and was completely swept away. For the final five quarters at Cal, I appeared in several shows and completed my degree in history.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

MM: The summer before I graduated from Cal, in 1980, I was in The Three Penny Opera at the Goodman Building on Geary with the incredible Jayne Dornacker as Jenny Diver. It ran for the whole summer! I even got paid a small stipend and was in heaven. In the ensemble, I played a beggar and a whore. My mother was thrilled. A few years later I played Polly Peachum at the Eureka Theatre with the late fabulous Sigrid Wurschmidt as Jenny Diver.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

MM: Too many to count, but maybe 50+? In one show in the 80s, I performed in the parking garage of the Oakland Museum. Maureen McVerry, LLC—still going strong since 19-*cough cough.*

ASR: Did you anticipate that you would become as successful as you have?

MM: That’s hilarious since I always tell people that by choosing theatre over film as my favorite pursuit, I took a “vow of poverty.”

However, I joined Equity and SAG back in the 80s and due to my longevity in the business, I can count on a pension from both of my unions. Fight for the union!

I should add that I married someone who was not in the business, which gave me the opportunity to have two children and own a house—really tough for a theatre actor.

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

MM: Happily, I have worked in films (feature and industrial), commercials, bad TV (Divorce Court), a sitcom filmed in front of a live audience (Full House), big expensive shows with fabulous costumes and tiny little shows where you wear your own clothes, weird experimental theatre, comedies, dramas, musicals and most recently, a “clown opera.”

Every few years I also put together a solo cabaret show and that is always a blast. Being in the same room as the audience is without a doubt my favorite way to work.

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

MM: My late husband Rick Alber, (who never appeared on stage) had the greatest impact on my life as an actor. In 1982 I met him and he was my opening night date for 32 wonderful years. Rick loved theatre and during the rehearsal and performance process, he was my special advisor and gave me tons of tips to polish my performances.

After he died in 2014, one of my biggest fears was actually that my performances would fall apart without his second set of eyes to notice things and ask questions. However, 32 years of his advice was deeply rooted so even without his presence, I’ve managed to get the job done.

Luckily I have also worked with directors who create great work.

ASR: With the ongoing coronavirus crisis, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

MM: I’m heartbroken. Before COVID, my 2020 was really filled with upcoming work. Pajama Game at 42nd St Moon was canceled almost immediately as it was set to go into rehearsal in late March. Following Pajama Game, I was supposed to have three weeks off and then start rehearsals at SF Playhouse for Follies by Stephen Sondheim, scheduled to run all summer.

Last fall and winter I thought that my summer 2020 would be filled with an exhausting eight-shows-a-week schedule. Hopefully, next spring 42nd St Moon will mount Pajama Game (I’m cast as Mabel) and if I’m lucky, SF Playhouse will mount Follies in 2021. In that show, I am cast as Phyllis. Fingers crossed.

…the audience almost vomited with laughter.

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

MM: What coming seasons? The theatre world is devastated as the floor just fell out. Everyone is just trying to figure out what is next. And not only what, but when? As a singer, I am especially crushed. It was devastating to read that singing with other people is the worst possible activity to pursue. Wow. My favorite thing to do is the last thing I should be doing— that hurts.

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

MM: Gosh, I wish I had a crystal ball for that question. My vision for everything is filled with hope because I believe hope is contagious. I hope and pray that someone smarter than me can create a vaccine soon and we can return to a world that is different, but hopefully closer to what we had than what we have now. During “normal” times, I am not really sure if anyone noticed their activities. We just called it “life.”

More than anything I miss sitting in the dark and laughing like a hyena and/or crying like a baby, surrounded by strangers having a similar experience. Who’da thunk that would be taken away? Back before this—especially with that guy in the White House—we were worried about a missile from North Korea or Russia invading some country but instead what we got was far worse. 150,000 Americans have died. That fact makes me weep.

Financial problems are already wreaking havoc on theatre companies everywhere and I worry that some won’t make it to the new post-COVID world. Trying to save money as people readjust, shows will probably be scaled back. Elaborate sets and costumes will be gone.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected you?

MM: Luckily, as a member of an acting union, I am always paid.

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

MM: Favorite dramas: Oslo, Uncle Vanya, Angels in America, great productions of plays by Arthur Miller and Tennesee Williams. Center Rep did The Diary of Anne Frank last season and it was brilliant. I saw the filmed version of The Lehman Trilogy—amazing. Sunday in the Park with George makes me cry all the time. I have so many good plays filling my brain now I have to stop listing shows.

Comedies: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Noises Off is my favorite comedy from the 20th century. So far, in four different productions, I have played two of the three roles I am eligible for. Hopefully, another production is in my future.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce—or never produce again?

MM: Anything by Dario Fo.

ASR: Which rare gem would you like to see revived?

MM: Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw.

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

MM: It would have to be costumes. Twenty-some years ago I was recruited to re-mount the middle school musical at my children’s elementary school.

Twenty-two shows later I’m still at it and am still amazed at the joy I experience at costume time. As the director, I have to teach children and parents about how to create a show. I tell my parent volunteers that a costume should do half of the work for the actor. As soon as an actor enters the stage, the audience should have a good idea of who that character is.

Coming up with the perfect costume is so rewarding. Plus, if you do costumes, once the show opens, you can sit out front and watch.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

MM: Dan Hiatt.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

MM: In a musical, I love it when the music director runs a group warm-up. I never miss one. It gives the actors a chance to connect in their street clothes and also share some air together.

Being super superstitious, I have a personal pre-show ritual that I never miss as well.

Afterward, I go home to walk my beloved dogs. Being in a show can be quite exhausting so afterward, I try to take care of myself. To handle the stress of tech weeks and openings which made my eyeballs twitch, I started meditating again (I hadn’t for 25+ years), and ba-bam! my twitch went away.

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

MM: For the last twenty years I have taught my hundreds of student actors the three rules my college director Louise Mason taught me:

1. Be on time, ready to work at the start of rehearsal—not running in the door with a cup of coffee, but ready to work.

2. Do not talk when the director is talking.

3. When the director gives you a note, write it down, review the note before the next rehearsal. And never, I repeat, never make a director give you the same note twice.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

MM: Three people in my life fit this category:

In 2005 I was in my first production of Into the Woods at TheatreWorks as Jack’s Mother. The actor playing the Baker was Jackson Davis. During rehearsals, we discovered that we were born on the exact same day (but luckily for me, he’s two hours older). In 2010, we commuted from the Peninsula to SF Playhouse together to do a groovy musical, Coraline. That’s when we truly bonded.

2. The “Arbiter of Taste and Fashion,” my friend Lawrence Helman, is a man about town, publicist, writer, and the most opinionated person I know. Also smart and funny with a razor-sharp memory. If you need to get the word out, call Lawrence.

3. In 1990 I met a director named Rick Simas. He found songs for me, directed my solo shows, and has made think and laugh for 30 years. Way back, after getting a Ph.D. at Cal, he left the Bay Area and taught at SD State for years but hopefully he will move back here soon. Great ideas, plus an encyclopedic memory on shows, songs, and theatre. He directed my solo shows in 2017 and 2019. They were quite entertaining thanks to Rick.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

MM: There were a million screw-ups in runs of Noises Off but one of the best involved me and Dan Hiatt. His character was tugging a phone cord—the bit was the cord would come back without the mouthpiece. One night the cord returned like normal but zinged all over the stage and ended up caught in my hair. So I was actually attached to the phone offstage.

The audience almost vomited with laughter. I could have lost an eye but it was hilarious.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

MM: Once an actor missed an entrance in Noises Off and we stopped the show for the amount of time it took another cast member to run offstage and through the dressing rooms to get the actor off the pot and then into her costume to finally make her entrance and move on with the story.

Luckily I didn’t have to attempt bad improv since my character was “meditating.” Shockingly, my friends at the show didn’t notice the four-minute pause in act two!

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

MM: After a matinee of Two Gentlemen of Verona at San Jose Rep, the cast went back out for a post-show discussion. While asking a question, an audience member said the title of the “Scottish Play” out loud. We all reacted with horror since it is supposed to bring such bad luck upon the theatre.

That night during the evening show, an enormous sandbag fell thirty feet to the stage with a huge boom.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

MM: My career as a children’s theatre director could be considered my day job.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MM: Politics, baseball, reading, gardening, tap dancing, boogie boarding, and making the world more fabulous.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater?

MM: I belong to all the museums and try to see as much as possible. For a time I painted portraits of dogs and landscapes but my passion pooped out. Guess I just need to get my paints out.

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

MM: Say yes. Be kind. No whining.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

MM: Another Trump?

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

MM: Soup, a show set in a soup kitchen: the banter and dynamics of the volunteers with an opportunity to share the stories of guests so people learn more about the daily life of people experiencing homelessness. Comedy plus drama—a dramedy!

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

MM: Before this gosh darn pandemic I was looking forward to flying to DC and getting arrested with Jane Fonda and others to protest the lack of attention paid to climate change. It would be an honor to wear handcuffs for that. Wish me luck. In March, my son was evacuated from Lesotho after serving in the Peace Corps. He’s been with me but soon he plans to return to DC to live and work. Therefore soon I have another excuse to go to DC besides getting arrested.

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

MM: First I’d say, “If I Loved You,” from Carousel. Makes me cry

Then, “All Kinds Of Time, by Fountains of Wayne. It’s a perfect story song. Our family sang it at Rick’s memorial in 2014.

Finally, “Danny Boy.” It also makes me cry. And more importantly, it reminds me of my childhood and how much my parents loved that song.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

MM: Scarves.

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

MM: Terrifying thought to have anything that big around. Yikes! A cockapoo the size of a horse? I don’t want anything that big— not even horses!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MM: I go river rafting once a summer and that fulfills my need for thrills.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MM: “Never give up. Never surrender.” —Galaxy Quest

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

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: The Terrifically Talented, Totally Mind-Blowing David Templeton

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.

***

David Templeton is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright best known locally for his work with the Petaluma Argus-Courier, and for 16 years as a writer and theater critic for the North Bay Bohemian. He also contributes to Strings magazine and others.

As a playwright, he’s won awards for his solo show Wretch Like Me, which has had runs at the San Francisco Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Scotland. His other plays include Pinky, Polar Bears, Drumming with Anubis, and Mary Shelley’s Body – the latter adapted from David’s novella of the same name, published in the 2016 anthology Eternal Frankenstein.

His supernatural short story, Questions and Answers, appears in the recent anthology Tales From a Talking Board. His next play is the science-fiction mystery Galatea, which will make its world premiere in 2021 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.

David Templeton

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

DT: In second grade, in Southern California, I wrote a short play called Grumpy, which was Snow White and the 7 Dwarves told from the perspective of the crankiest dwarf.

I asked my teacher if I could stage it, and we made some attempts at making that happen, but I have no memory of actually performing it, beyond my working hard to learn my lines for weeks. It’s weird because I don’t think I’d previously seen a theater production of any kind beyond my Episcopal church’s annual nativity pageant, in which I appeared as the one-and-only black sheep in the flock of white-costumed kindergarten sheep.

But for some reason, I had that idea for a play, and from Grumpy on, I knew I wanted a life in the theater. I did tons of plays in school, wrote and staged plays and puppet shows at the local library, and then started my own company in high school. It was originally a puppet theater, but we eventually added live action plays, which of course, I wrote and directed.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

DT: That’s a hard one. A lot of those early plays I wrote and directed were done on a pass-the-hat basis but were enough to pay my bills for a year or so after I graduated from high school. If you mean, what was the first play I appeared in for a company that was not: A. a school, B. my own company or C. a troupe performing at the Renaissance Faire (where I did do some performing while operating game booths in the early 1980s), I suppose it would have to be Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) for Santa Rosa Players.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

DT: Another hard one. By the time I did that show with the Santa Rosa Players, I’d long ago moved to Northern California, started working for newspapers on the swing shift, and started a family.

During all that time, I pretty much thought I’d given up on my earlier theatrical ambitions. Instead, I wrote poems and short stories, the occasional bad screenplay, and of course the journalistic writing I was doing more and more of.

In fact, I got the part in Complete Works of William Shakespeare “because” of journalism. I was writing for the North Bay Bohemian (not yet doing theater criticism), and I was assigned a story on local community theater. The idea my editor and I came up with was for me to go to an audition “undercover” as someone auditioning, and then write about all the wacky folks spending their evenings doing local shows.

To my surprise, I was offered one of the three roles, at which point I had to admit that I had not actually been auditioning, but was writing a newspaper story.

As I remember it, the director Carl Hamilton said, “Write what you want, we want you in this show.” I got a scathing review from the Press Democrat but was suddenly being offered parts again.

After a few shows with the Players, I segued back into writing my own plays, beginning with my one-man-show Wretch Like Me, which I wrote with the intention of performing it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I ended up performing it nearly a hundred times including runs all over the North Bay. I went on to write several more plays as you’ve already noted — thank you.

On occasion, over the years, I’ve continued to be occasionally cast in other shows, including playing Judas in Godspell and the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (both with Santa Rosa Players), The Large and Terrible Frog in A Year With Frog and Toad (6th Street Playhouse), Rick Masters in Circus Acts (Actors’ Basement), Bill Sikes in Oliver (Lucky Penny Productions) and Commander Harbison in South Pacific (Spreckels Theatre Company).

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

DT: This one’s easy. Though I would arguably never have stepped back into writing plays were it not for Dan Zastrow and Julia Lander, two friends who “strongly” encouraged me to stop “talking” about writing my one-man show and actually write and perform the thing – and went on to produce the first several productions of it (originally directed by David Yen) – it’s been Sheri Lee Miller who has had the largest impact on me professionally – as a playwright, certainly.

She encouraged me to write my follow-up, Pinky, which she directed in its world premiere and also in its encore production. Since then, she’s been a stalwart friend, a constant supporter, champion, and exemplar of generosity, an artistically vibrant source of inspiration, a tireless feedback giver and promoter, and a frequent and ever-valuable collaborator. Every minute spent on a stage with Sheri is a directorial master class. She’s the best.

…I’ve seen two or three bad productions of ‘Macbeth’ for every good one.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. What are you doing till then?

DT: I’ve been mostly reading other people’s works, memorizing huge chunks of text just to keep my memorization skills intact. Having Galatea be canceled less than a week before its opening was hard because it was really looking good. It’s a script I’m incredibly proud of, and not getting to share it with the world was hard, but since Spreckels is still planning on producing the play once it is possible to do so, I’ve got that to look forward to.

That said, it kind of took the wind out of my sails, so I haven’t had much desire to write anything new just yet. But in the meanwhile, I’ve learned that a theater school in New York will be doing a Zoom-based production of my play Drumming with Anubis in July, and there’s talk of a production, either live or streaming, of my one-person-show Polar Bears this winter in Idaho.

And I “do” have some ideas for new plays (I’m suddenly having crazy new ideas all the time), and I imagine I will get the bug to start writing one of them sometime fairly soon.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

DT: Gem of the Ocean, by August Wilson (I’ve seen three productions, and would love to see more). Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel because the story, the language and the poetry of the plotting are breathtaking. The Jungle, by Joe Murphy and Joe Robinson, who collected stories from a real refugee camp in France, and spun them into an interactive, immersive experience that entirely rearranged the way I think about theater.

ASR: Musicals?

DT: Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, not normally performed “as” a stage production (usually as an orchestra piece with choruses), but I saw it done as a theatrical piece once, and I’ve never gotten over it. Come From Away, because it’s so uplifting and delightful and deeply moving. Fiddler on the Roof, because every song is gorgeous and memorable and because it’s about surviving prejudice and bigotry and hate.

ASR: Comedies?

DT: On the Razzle, by Tom Stoppard, The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde and Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley. These are plays that are weird, funny, and deeply insightful, and are consistently effective, every time I see them or reread them.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays?

DT: I really dislike Bye Bye Birdie, a play that – despite introducing a rare instance of interracial love in which no one ends up dead at the end – is so of its time that it just doesn’t work anymore. In fact, it’s kind of embarrassing.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

DT:  Bye Bye Birdie, obviously. Can we make it 30 years?

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

DT: Got to be Cymbeline.

ASR: Why?

DT: People just don’t seem to understand it, but to me, it’s actually a flat-out blast of a play, with a little of everything in it. It’s got a great female central character (Cymbeline, the king, is barely a presence in it; this show is “all” about Imogen), some fantastic plotting, huge twists and turns and really dark comedy, a fantastically icky villain (several of them actually), an evil stepmother, a headless body, and a fantastic battle with huge emotional impact for everyone involved. I’d love to direct it sometime. I have ideas.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

DT: As opposed to “most performed?” Those would obviously be A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, but they are solidly entertaining plays and good introductions to the Shakespeare canon.

I’d say the most “over-performed” is Macbeth, because it’s actually really hard to pull off, and yet people can’t resist it because it’s spooky and fun and bloody and theater producers think it’s a good one for Halloween. But I’ve seen two or three bad productions of Macbeth for every good one.

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

DT: Props. I love making props. It’s like arts-and-crafts but with a bit of costuming and magic involved. When I was in Oliver! I ended up taking the broom-handle I was given as Bill Sikes’ murder stick, and I beat it up and stained it and turned it into a really scary-looking billy club. I still have it, actually.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

DT: Well, I’ve already talked about Sheri Lee Miller as a director, but I do believe it’s a shame she hasn’t been on stage since she played Mary Shelley in Mary Shelley’s Body, a role I really hope she picks up again sometime in the near future.

She’s been awesome in everything I’ve see her in, but beyond that, I’d say that, Bay Area-wide, my other favorites include Margo Hall (exacting and meticulous performer, with a blinding presence and one of the most dazzling stage smiles of all time) and James Carpenter (a chameleon in every way, best death scene I’ve ever witnessed, and not a bad smile himself).

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

DT: It depends. There was a time I went through a list of about 20 stretches and vocal things, made a ceremony of transforming into my costume/character, but after Edinburgh, when I literally had ten minutes or less to get into costume and get ready for places, I learned to do all of that in a few intense minutes.

That said, when I’m doing a normal non-fringe solo show, where I’ll be reciting 75 minutes of text but have plenty of time in the theater beforehand, it really takes the fear-factor down if I run every word of the show, with blocking (sped up, or course), an hour or two before the house opens.

ASR: How do you relax after?

DT: I really enjoy talking with people in the lobby after a show. It’s a nice transition back to the world.

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

DT: Well, as a playwright mentor, I’d hope anyone I instructed or coached would take away that

1. Failure, while awful to experience, is as important a teacher as is success, and maybe more so, if you are up to staying in the discomfort space long enough to hear the lessons failure has to teach.

2. To get a good idea for a play, or a solution to a problem encountered in writing that play, you generally have to generate hundreds of less good ideas, so we should never fall too much in love with our first thoughts. Use the brainstorming to get a lot of material and then choose the one you think is the juiciest.

3. Listen to actors. You don’t have to take every suggestion they throw at you, but you should definitely avoid “never” listening to them. After several weeks of stepping into a character, they often get to know that person at least as well as you do, and sometimes more so.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

DT: I once watched a production of Camelot, in which a sword escaped one of the knights of the round table, flew across the stage toward the audience, launched into the air and finally landed in the one unoccupied seat in the front row. It was, under the circumstances, hilarious, precisely because it was very nearly … not.

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

DT: I don’t know how weird this is, but during one performance of my play Pinky, in which I performed along with Liz Jahren, there was a climactic kiss scene, in which my character takes an excruciating amount of time “getting” that Pinky wants him to kiss her.

At one point, a woman in the back row suddenly yelled, “Just KISS HER … FOOL!” It was hard completing the kiss while both Liz and I were trying not to laugh, and even harder when Pinky, having been kissed by my character, thinking about whether she liked it or not, suddenly grabs him and kisses him back, really energetically.

At that point, another person in the audience, probably loosened up by the first patron’s exclamation, shouted, quite loudly, “Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about!!!”

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DT: Fortunately, yes. Currently, I’m the Community Editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier newspaper in Petaluma.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

DT: Movies have always been a major enthusiasm for me. A perfect day is one where I see at least three movies in actual theaters, which of course, hasn’t happened in a while. I’ve also recently learned to tie balloon animals. So I’ve been doing a lot of that. I especially like making balloon dogs. They are classic.

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

DT: Honestly, I’ve often thought it would be cool to turn my Wretch Like Me play into a television series. Set in the ‘70s, in the beach communities and suburbs of LA, with a nerdy puppet-loving kid who gets ”adopted” by the Jesus Club at his school, and goes to wacky extremes trying to fit in. I see it as being like That 70s Show, but with a slightly cult vibe. And darker. And possibly funnier.

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

DT: “Amazing Grace,” because it was once very important to me on numerous levels, and because I learned how to sing it forwards and backward (literally backward). Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Street,” because I once danced to it in a mayonnaise factory during a moment of profound emotional release and freedom.

And the theme song to Rockford Files, which I long ago recognized as an excellent song to which my coffin might one day be carried away from the funeral service, an idea my family is well aware of and which I continue to stick to, at least for the moment.

ASR: Rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

DT: If randomly given the opportunity to go into space, specifically to the moon, I would go in a heartbeat. I’ve been dreaming of going to the moon since before I was dreaming of writing plays.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

DT: Currently, I’d say one quote I’ve been thinking about a lot happens to be from my own play, Galatea, which I look forward to sharing with the world soon, or soon enough: “Humans. Not a bad species really … just badly programmed.”

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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.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Master Actor, Teacher, and Musician Mister Marvin Greene

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.

***

Marvin Greene

Marvin Greene is an amazing human being: actor, musician, teacher, voice over artist, New York cab driver  —   even a coal miner.

Legend has it he arrived in San Francisco in the cast of a road show of Biloxi Blues starring Woody Harrelson, and that he (Mr. Greene) loved the Bay Area so much … he put down roots and stayed here.

Marvin has been teaching acting, directing, and improvising around the Bay Area.  Just the briefest glance at his resume shows some illustrious names, including: A.C.T, San Jose Repertory Theater, Marin Shakespeare Company, Marina Theatre Company, Aurora Theater, and a host of others. He has taught acting at A.C.T., Berkeley Rep, the Academy of Art University and Voice One in San Francisco, among others. He has performed in regional theater, voice-over, television and film, and appeared in the feature film Fruitvale.

Marvin came to the theatre by way of his and other people’s music, starting his career playing guitar and cello in the pit orchestra for musicals. This is also a man who proffers damn good advice for people going into an audition, “Remember the word “show” in show business. Be charming!”

In addition to his “night job” as an actor/musician, Marvin has worked with the firm “Stand & Deliver Group” since 2012,  at organizations like Black Rock, Deloitte, and Cisco, focusing on helping individuals and teams find relevance in their messages; communicate honestly and without pretense; elevate their confidence; learn to read others; and communicate with brevity.

A graduate of Brown University in English literature, Marvin received his M.F.A. in Theater from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

As busy as ever, Aisle Seat Review’s publisher Kris Neely managed to lasso Mr. Green long enough to get some answers to some of our favorite Not So Random Questions!

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

MG: First real play I performed in was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played Lysander.

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

MG: Have a heart attack and die instantly. The weird part is that right before we went on I said to the leading lady, “you look so hot you’re going to give some old man a heart attack.”

She did. But I suppose it was almost okay in the end. His wife told us that he loved the Theater and if he had chosen a way to go that would be it.

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

MG: James Barnhill. My first acting teacher at Brown University. He was one of the few professors I ever met who seemed to enjoy his job. He made me fall in love with acting.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance of a play?

MG: That was at the Longwharf Theater in 1984. I and another Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) had something like four or five lines each.

Before one show he said: “Watch me out there.” He went out and started ad-libbing the play.

His desire to be a star was so huge that he wrote himself a part and recited it for the audience. One of the actors improved him off the stage. Needless to say he never worked in that town again.

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

Know who you are.

Know who you are.

Know who you are.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

MG: Ex-Lax.

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 put into place?

MG: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest… is commentary.

ASR: How do you relax before a performance?

MG: I play the guitar. Music is great because it’s a language beyond words. Doesn’t mess with the text.

…Shoes. I’m really fascinated by how they change you…

ASR: You have been given the opportunity to create the 30-minute TV show of your own design. What is it called and what’s the premise?

MG: Okay I’m really winging it here. It’s called PICK ME.

A guy is on-line dating and meets a girl who he’s so attracted that he can’t give up on her. After the first date she rejects him. So he keeps re-inventing himself through costume and behavior. She keeps rejecting him and picking the new version of him.

Eventually the end up together.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

MG: I have many. They generally form when the problems in the play are the problems in our lives and we’re all working out our lives together as we work out the play together.

That creates a bond that is like family.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

MG: Dark Was the Night by Blind Willie Johnson. Ry Cooder called it the “single most transcendent piece of American music.” It’s haunting, beautiful and deep beyond words.

Stardust by Louis Armstrong Louis has freedom and restraint in his playing at the same time. Total imagination and playfulness. Soul beyond description.

Something is New by Santana. It reminds me of being 16 with the world ahead of me. His playing is lyrical and the band is great.

ASR: Which one fashion accessory do you like better than others?

MG: Shoes. I’m really fascinated by how they change you

ASR: Which play would you like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

MG: Well, anything topical, really. Cultures, like people, need breathing and healing time before their reflections become art.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing one of the following technical theater roles: Light, Props or Costumes which would it be and why?

MG: Costumes hands down. The pressure work is before the performance. Once the show is up you’re mostly planning for a new show, doing minor repairs on costumes and you’re way backstage where you can do or say what you want. Besides very few people can really do what you do so nobody gets in the way too much.

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

MG: A squirrel. Can you imagine how far they could leap?

ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?

MG: Shark diving.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MG: It’s from The Godfather. They’ve just murdered this guy in a car.

One of the assassins says: “Leave the gun. Take the Cannoli.” (There was a pastry on the seat of the car.)

Legend has it that the actor made up the line on set.

-30-

Kris Neely

Kris Neely launched Aisle Seat Review in 2015. He is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of ASR. Mr. Neely is an SFBATCC Best Director Award Winner (2013). He is also the founder and publisher of Cresting Wave Publishing, LLC at www.gocwpub.com

 

 

 

The Editor’s Desk: Catching Up on Who We Are

It’s important in the life of an arts website to check in from time-to-time about what makes the website (and its staff) tick. Basic principles. And so this particular post.

Let’s face it, most people do not read the “About” (or equivalent) page on most websites. So, I’m going to post the content of ours here.  It’s worth a read if I do say so myself. We started with these basic ideas 5 years ago and have held to them pretty well to this day.

[start]

Aisle Seat Review (ASR) is created by people devoted to theater, opera, ballet, music performance, movies, writing, and the arts in all its forms.

While our primary focus is on the production of art in the greater San Francisco Bay area, our reviewers have been known to cross California and even go beyond.

If it’s well done — we’d like to see it, read it, or experience it.

Editorially, we hope to add our voices and experience to those helping to keep the arts vigorously alive and growing. We will tell you what we really think, not what we know the venue’s or person’s management would like us to say. If it’s bad, we’ll tell you how and why. If it’s good, we’ll tell you how and why.

We’ll strive to make our reviews interesting, original, well written, and well-edited. We may drop a page or two from the AP Manual of Style or Chicago Manual of Style, but know our hearts are in the right place (as in, at the beck-and-call of our editors…)

If you have an event, a book, a play, music, or a show you’d like us to cover, a comment, suggestion, or even a complaint please don’t hesitate to let us know at editors@aisleseatreview.com.

We’ll read every email and reply as necessary ASAP.

 

In the hard-fought trenches of contemporary art, being able to post a review in this manner conveys valuable information and opinion to our readers,..

Review Bylines

Our reviews have two types of bylines — an individual byline (i.e. “by Michael Brown”) and a team byline (i.e. “by Team ASR”.)

The TEAM ASR approach allows contributors to this site to remain anonymous when posting a review.

In the hard-fought trenches of contemporary art, being able to post a review in this manner conveys valuable information and opinion to our readers, while retaining/maintaining professional relationships.

While Team ASR contributors may do so anonymously, please understand that they take personal responsibility for creating their reviews and that all reviews are subject to editorial review without exception.

Now, here is where the rubber meets the road:

    • All content on Aisle Seat Review is subject to editorial review prior to publication.
    • All content accepted for publication on ASR is subject to editorial review, editing for space, approval of and by the Editorial staff.
    • Final approval or rejection of any and all content, language, “message”, or imagery (of any kind and in any form) is always reserved by and for ASR founder Mr. Neely.

Editorial Questions 

Q: Can submitted content be flat-out rejected by Aisle Seat Review?

A: In a word, yes. It is mainly a reflection of the majority vote from the editorial board who are the governing body that makes up this site. And, as before, final approval or rejection of any and all content, pictures, and language is always reserved by and for ASR founder Kris Neely.

Q: Are all the editors on Aisle Seat Review paid for their work? 

A: With the exception of Mr. Neely ASR’s Editor-in-Chief and Publisher who does not take any compensation, yes indeed, everyone else on this site is paid, monthly. We’re inordinately proud of that fact, too.

Lots of folks write about the arts and lots of people have people writing for their arts-oriented website. But goddamn few have the resolve and the commitment to pay their people. Our editors aren’t going to retire on what they make here, but that’s finally not the point. Respect for the craft of writing is.

Review Forms

Our reviews also come in a few basic forms, including:

  • An “Aisle Seat THEATER Review”
    • These focus primarily on the overall theatrical presentation with less emphasis on the underlying text.
  • An “Aisle Seat DRAMA Review”
    • These focus primarily on the playwright and his/her/their work and message(s).
  • An “Aisle Seat PLAY or SCRIPT Review”
    • These focus primarily on the words on the page of plays and scripts.
  • An “Aisle Seat TECHNICAL Review”
    • These focus primarily on the technical aspects of the performance, such as direction, lights, set design, costumes, make-up and wig design, sound design, stage management, and so on.
  • An “Aisle Seat PERFORMANCE (Music, Opera, Ballet, etc.) Review”
    • These are (non-theater) genre-specific event performance reviews.
  • “Thoughts from the Playwright’s Desk “
    • Without playwrights, the theater would be pretty dull. This column presents a forum for a playwright to voice his or her thoughts. If you’re a playwright and have something on your mind that you’d like to share with our readers, drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.
  • “A Few Words from The Management “
    • Performance Arts management and editorial staff often have thankless jobs. That said, the work these dedicated professionals do gives them a unique perspective on our world. We should hear more from them! So, if you’re in Performance Arts management or editorial and have something on your mind that you’d like to share with our readers, drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.
  • ” Lesson Notes: Performance Arts Teachers Speak Out”
    • Almost all of us started our performance journey in a classroom of one stripe or another. Often, performance teachers and/or teaching artists are cited as some of the most influential contributors of successful performing professionals. So, if you’re a teaching artist or teach in a more traditional school, college, or university setting (or are a retired teacher!) and have something on your mind that you’d like to share with our readers, drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.
  • An “Aisle Seat GEAR Profile”
    • These entries focus primarily on the hardware, software, and equipment used in the performing arts.

[end]

Thanks for reading this far. Much appreciated. Suggestions? ideas? Complaints? Drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.

I appreciate your time and attention. Hang in there and stay healthy!

Sincerely,

Kris Neely

Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Aisle Seat Review

Kris Neely

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ASR Not-So-Random Question Time! The Very Model of a Modern Major Talent — Ron Severdia

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.

***

Ron Severdia

Actor, magician, and tech entrepreneur Ron Severdia may be the most diverse theatrical talent in the North Bay. His solo performance of A Christmas Carol is a must-see. Last year he won critical acclaim for his performance in Every Brilliant Thing at Left Edge Theatre. He found time in his busy schedule to chat with ASR.

ASR: Your background?

RS: I was born and raised (mostly) in Marin County. I started as a magician when I was around seven and got into theatre shortly after. I’ve been performing on stage and in film ever since.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

RS: I started doing magic when I was young and I was a voracious reader. I read everything about Houdini I could get my hands on. Houdini told a story of where he got his name—a magician he admired named Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who famously said “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” This fascinated my young mind and began my jump into the world of acting.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

RS: My first acting gig was a film, not a play. My fifth grade teacher was teaching about the Revolutionary War and working with our class to product a film. The story was an old man and his wife who’d lived through the war telling their grandchildren about it through flashbacks. I was the old man with old makeup and all. There was a big night where the whole school, including parents and teachers, came to watch the film. This was my big debut, but I was sick that day and my parents wouldn’t let me go. To this day, I’ve never seen that film, but when I went back to school I heard how “amazing” my performance was.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

RS: Dozens. In the Bay Area, London, Prague, and various other places.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

RS: I started the Modern Shakespeare Company (https://www.modernshakespeare.com) maybe 20 years ago, but it’s just my thing and there’s only been one so-called performance.

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?

RS: Um, no.

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

RS: Making Shakespeare and the classics accessible. I really took an interest in director Buzz Goodbody. I was intrigued by her approach at the RSC. She took over their costume shed (“The Other Place”) and made it into a successful experimental theatre.

The seminal Macbeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench premiered there and so did Ben Kingsley’s Hamlet, during which she committed suicide at the age of 28—a metaphor of Haley’s Comet.

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

RS: No one single person, rather a variety of really smart people—many of whom were teachers during my time at ACT (Rod Gnapp, Ken Ruta, Larry Hecht) or RADA (Andrew). I always hope to learn something from the directors I work with and my fellow actors.

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

RS: I’ve done some musicals in the past (the last one was Cabaret at CenterRep a few years back), but I’m kinda done with those.

Some of the dramas I like and would like to do someday are Cyrano, Of Mice & Men (Lenny, of course), and Nick Dear’s adaptation of Frankenstein.

As for comedies, I really enjoyed Hangmen (McDonough’s brilliant black comedy), The Play That Goes Wrong, or Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests—all of which I’d love to do.

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

RS: My last show at Left Edge Theatre was a solo show called Every Brilliant Thing, which tells the story of a young boy as he grows up trying to cope with his mother’s depression and suicide attempts. It’s funny, sad, and presents a difficult subject in a really moving way.

I performed as Miles in Left Edge Theatre’s world premiere of Sideways in 2017, which had an awesome cast and collaborated with author Rex Pickett. It was great to share this story that has had an indelible impact on the wine industry.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce—or never produce again?

RS: Neil Simon. I’ve felt this way for many years, which actually led to me taking a role in the world premiere of Dale Wasserman’s play Premiere. It’s the story of a playwright so successful he gets bored with writing one Broadway hit after another so he decides to write a play in verse and pass it off as a long lost play by William Shakespeare. When Dale’s widow flew out to see the play, she told me how Dale and Neil Simon were great friends and, ironically, the character I was playing (the playwright) was really based on Neil Simon.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

RS: Oooooh. There’s a long list. Let’s start with Our Town and the entire Andrew Lloyd Webber canon.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

RS: Definitely The Norman Conquests or even a solid production of Deathtrap (which is really rare).

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

RS: Hands down, King John. It’s a great play that can be done with a small cast in a small theatre. The text can veer off course a little, but nothing a director/dramaturg couldn’t sort out. There are some great verbal exchanges in there.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

RS: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s easy to do, especially for kids and newbies to Shakespeare.

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

RS: Probably sound design. Maybe set design. To me, both are a little more conceptual and appeal to me more than the other aspects.

I think I’d be scared of any animal smaller than a horse being scaled up…

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

RS: Very hard. Jarion Monroe, Julian Lopez-Morillas, Stacy Ross. There are so many talented people in the Bay Area.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

RS: First, the typical vocal and physical warm-ups to get things going. Then I have show-specific warm-ups depending on the show. It might be songs that evoke for me the spirit of the play or it might be speeding through the lines of a particularly challenging part. Followed by an espresso.

After the show, it’s all about trying to wind down. That takes me longer when I have smaller parts in the show. For larger parts, winding down is easier due to the vocal/physical demand.

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

RS:

1. Work constantly on your instrument, mentally and physically.

2. Study the classics. Mine them for gems. They’re classics for a reason.

3. Become self-aware by learning the connection between how you think you’re perceived and how you actually are.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

RS: Yes, I’m the head of product design for a Silicon Valley technology company.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

RS: I created a few theatre related apps that I work on outside of theatre:

Shakespeare Pro: An app containing the complete works, glossary, search and a variety of other features to help students, teachers, actors, directors and other theatre professionals. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/shakespeare-pro/id341392367

Soliloquy Pro: An app to manage your monologues and help you memorize them. Search from over a thousand classic pieces and share them with others. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/soliloquy-pro/id1029313343

Scriptigo Pro: An app to manage file/theatre scripts, take notes, and share with others. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/scriptigo-pro/id1444743519

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

RS: A simple black cotton t-shirt.

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

RS: I think I’d be scared of any animal smaller than a horse being scaled up that big! Good premise for a horror flick though.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

RS: Meh. I’ve done some of those things, but I’m not an “adrenaline junkie” by any stretch.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

RS: Movie: “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” — Indiana Jones (gets more and more relevant as I get older)

Stage Play: “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” —Charles Condomine (Blithe Spirit)

-30-

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

 

ASR Not-So-Random Questions Time: All the World’s a Stage for Bob & Lesley Currier of Marin Shakes

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.

***

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

Lesley: My grandmother was a professional actress and my mother a drama teacher. Even with that heritage, I’m the only one of my siblings who went into theatre. In first grade, I was Gretel in a school production of Hansel and Gretel.

Bob: I started in second grade, as the Narrator of Little Toot. In high school, I did a lot of sports, but rediscovered the allure of theatre when at UC Irvine. I was studying Political Science, but the theatre building was always lit up at night and that’s where all the cute girls were. So it was back into theatre for me! My first role there was in Oh What A Lovely War. I went on to the get the first MFA in Directing that UCI ever granted.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

Lesley: I was cast as a Lady in Waiting to Queen Gertrude in a professional production of Hamlet while an undergraduate at Princeton University. Harry Hamlin starred as the prince. I invited him for a meal at one of Princeton’s famous Dining Clubs, and in return he took me out for a really good dinner at a local restaurant. That was a rare treat in college. Bill Ball, Harry’s mentor at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), saw the production and thrilled me by telling me he understood the whole tragedy of the play through my reaction to Gertrude’s death.

Bob: I was paid to direct The Little Prince in 1972 at the Woodstock Opera House. It was the artistic home of a young Orson Welles.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

Lesley: I joined ACT one summer during college where I fell in love with the Bay Area. After college, I stumbled upon the Ukiah Players Theatre, where I met Bob. He took me to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, which I’d never heard of. I auditioned there and was cast as a Fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Back at UFI, while working towards my MFA in theatre, I appeared in Hard Times at South Coast Repertory Theatre. It was a very long show which we performed 8 times a week, made more intense because I was nursing my first-born son.

Bob: I’ve co-founded four theatre companies, three of which are still going: Encounter With the Theatre at the Woodstock Opera House (now defunct), the Ukiah Players Theatre, Marin Shakespeare Company, and Baja Shakespeare. I’ve also directed and/or acted at Berkeley Rep, Seattle Shakespeare, Cinnabar, Spreckles, Ross Valley Players, and a few more.

ASR: Marin Shakespeare Company is your present company. What’s the history on that?

Bob and Lesley: In 1989 we got a call out of the blue asking if we would like to come to Marin to revive Shakespeare at Forest Meadows. The Forest Meadows Amphitheater was purpose built for the original Marin Shakespeare Festival in 1967, after it moved from its original home at the Marin Art and Garden Center, where it had begun five years earlier. The Festival’s last year at this Dominican location was 1972, due to a fire and some other questionable activities by art-loving hippies running around in the forest.

ASR: Did you anticipate Marin Shakespeare Company would become as successful as it has?

Bob and Lesley: Back in 1989, we hoped we’d be able to build a theatre company that would last for generations. We never dreamed that 30 years later we’d be pioneering Shakespeare in Prisons, or working with formerly incarcerated actors, or building an indoor Center for Performing Arts, Education, and Social Justice.

…Tequila.

ASR: Does your company have a special focus?

Bob and Lesley: Obviously, our focus is Shakespeare. But we’ve produced lots of other shows that are in some sense “classical” or appropriate for outdoor summer theatre. Since 2003, we’ve grown to become the largest provider of Shakespeare in Prison programs in the world. We’ve created an online video archive of over 50 performances in prisons, despite the massive logistics to do so. We can share these inspiring videos without violating any Actors Equity rules which do restrict our main stage performance videos.

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

Bob and Lesley: Sadly, we just announced that we are postponing our 2020 season to 2021. We don’t think it will be truly safe for actors or audience members to share theatre this summer.

During the shutdown, we stay busy, very busy, with many projects. Earlier this year we began renovations of the Forest Meadows Amphitheater, which were delayed due to Sheltering in Place. We’ll use the summer of 2020 to complete the renovations before welcoming audiences into a beautifully face-lifted venue next year.

We provide on-line MSC Education Programs and summer camps, and Alternative Programming for each of the prisons where we work. We’re continuing our plans for the Center for Performing Arts, Education, and Social Justice at 514 Fourth Street in San Rafael. We’re working to provide income opportunities for artists, and our staff is completing a number of “house-cleaning” and back-office tasks to make us stronger than ever when we’re able to return to full capacity.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. How has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

Bob and Lesley: Several years ago, we started transitioning independent contractors to employee status. With AB5, we plan to make the last group of former independent contractors – non-Equity actors – employees for the first time. We estimate that this will incur an increase to our budget of approximately $60,000. We know it’s the right thing to do.

ASR: Which rare theatre gem plays would you like to see revived?

Bob and Lesley: The three parts of Henry VI. But we know we wouldn’t sell many tickets!

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

Bob and Lesley:  King John – if you saw our production, you’d realize how much great comedy there is in it, in addition to superb characters and great themes.

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

Bob and Lesley: Sets – (we’ve) always loved building things together.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

Bob and Lesley: Scott Coopwood just keeps getting better and better. We were honored to give him his first Bay Area acting contracts.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

Bob and Lesley: Tequila.

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

Bob and Lesley: Honesty and integrity. Passion for the work. Persistence and Diligence – be ready to put in a lot of hours!

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

Bob and Lesley: The actor who showed up covered in poison oak and still had to put on his make-up and do his part. We always tell the actors to stay out of the poison oak!

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

Bob and Lesley: A female audience member flashed an actor once during one of those “audience participation” moments when the actors ask an audience member to respond – it stimulated audience hooting and hollering for several minutes. It was a lot of fun.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?” What are your interests outside of theater?

Lesley: I work about 80 hours a week for Marin Shakespeare Company. My “day job” is being a mom and grandmother. My hobbies include tile mosaic and free-form dance.

Bob: I’ve done a lot of building and guest directing for other theatres over the years. I love to build things around the house, travel, and be Bopo to my two adorable granddaughters who live in San Rafael.

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

Bob and Lesley: “Jeers” with a bunch of characters hanging out in a theatre bar.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

Lesley: I’m a coward, but I do spend a lot of time in prisons, and I hang-glided once and didn’t throw up.

Bob: I enjoy snorkeling and driving my ancient Alpha-Romeo, and I just hiked for two weeks in Japan with my youngest son.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

Bob: Some Like It Hot — “Well nobody’s perfect.”

Lesley: Hamlet — “The rest is silence.”

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

 

 

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: Can’t Stop Those Dancing Feet — Marilyn Izdebski

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.

***

Marilyn Izdebski

Marilyn Izdebski is a Bay Area dancing dynamo. A Los Angeles native who graduated from UCLA in 1970 with a degree in theatre arts, she has fulfilled her life’s passion with over six decades of dancing, choreography, singing, acting, backstage tech, and directing front and center. She inspires and educates, having founded a dance theatre school in 1978 which brought over 230 children’s and adult productions to the stage. Marilyn claims to have retired in 2018, but today she heads up the volunteer boards of Novato Theatre Company and The Playhouse in San Anselmo.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MI: When I was three years old, my mother took me to see the film The Red Shoes. I begged her for dance lessons. From then on, I studied ballet, jazz, tap and every other kind of dance. Ice skating too.

Fast forward to my sophomore year of high school. A friend asked me to go to two auditions with her. She got a part in one show, and I got the other show. I was cast as a dancer in Guys and Dolls at the Bluth Brothers Theatre in LA. Pretty heady stuff for a fourteen-year-old. After a few rehearsals I knew dance was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I went on to earn my theatre arts degree from UCLA and my teaching credential, and then taught for many years.

I had a tumultuous youth, and became orphaned at age sixteen. During my three years with that first theatre company, my joy of dancing helped form a dream to create a company where young people (like me) would have a real place to shine, a place to belong.

ASR: And you realized your dream?

MI: Yes, twelve years later I started Marin Studio of Theatre and Dance in Corte Madera with a partner. She wanted to move on after seven years, so I changed the name and continued as Marilyn Izdebski Productions. We produced musicals, dance recitals and had classes in dance and theatre.

ASR: What was the first play you directed for a paying audience?

MI: The Lottery, at a Junior High where I taught.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

MI: Lots: Ross Valley Players, Marin Theatre Company, the Mountain Play Association, Rhythms Performing Arts, Stapleton School of the Performing Arts, Mayflower Chorus, and Katia & Company. Currently I throw all my energies into the Novato Theater Company.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

MI: The Novato Theater Company originated in 1909 as a community theatre. It’s grown and survived multiple challenges and moves, including being booted out of their home mid-production when their Novato Community House stage was suddenly declared an earthquake risk.

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?

MI: I first starting attending NTC shows way back in 1980, following its growth since then. NTC has always had an abundance of talented directors, actors, and designers in addition to superbly dedicated volunteers.

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

MI: NTC’s major focus is on their audiences and what they would enjoy seeing. We want to expand their theatre experience. Our play selection committee and board combine classic plays, new works and musicals.

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

MI: I had a wonderful mentor at UCLA, John Cauble, who taught me all the basics of theatre and gave me opportunities at a young age for which I will be forever grateful. David Issac, my partner who left us way too soon, helped me have the confidence to achieve what I wanted and to always “take the high road.”

Hal Prince’s book Contradictions influenced me greatly as a young director. His book motivated me to be deeply involved in all aspects of a production. When I prep for a show, I always think of the elements of the set, lights, costumes, props, etc. to keep everything in my mind as I create a show.

ASR: With the coronavirus pandemic, it’s likely going to be many months until theater companies get back to regular productions. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

MI: During this difficult time, we are keeping ourselves open to this “new normal.” All of our meetings are online and our upcoming fundraiser will be a virtual online experience.

Our play selection committee and board combine classic plays, new works and musicals…

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

MI: Making decisions is almost impossible. We have the season we selected before the pandemic hit, but are not sure when the season can even start.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company?

MI: All we can do is one day at a time. Or even one month at a time is good. We cannot produce a show until the quarantine is over and people feel safe going to the theatre. I am very concerned for the theatre community everywhere. Society has looked to theatre for 2,500 years to provide insight and joy. Now, more than ever, we need these gifts.

ASR: Assembly Bill 5, the new state regulation, requires theater performers and technical talents to be treated as employees. Has it affected your theater company’s plans?

MI: AB5 has absolutely affected NTC. We are an all-volunteer theatre company that also gives small stipends to our designers and support staff. We’re a non-profit; we survive on a very limited budget. If we have to put independent contractors on payroll, will suffer a large blow to our financial status. We hope that non-profit theatre companies become exempt from AB5. For the moment, we are waiting to see what happens in the State Legislature and hoping for the best.

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

MI: Les Miserables is my favorite musical. The level of artistry in the show takes my breath away. I have so many comedies that I love but I think my favorite comedy is one I saw in New York that had all of the insane things that have happened in my life in theatre in one show—The Play That Goes Wrong. There are also many dramas that have affected me in my life, especially those of Tennessee Williams.

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

MI: I have seen so many shows at NTC since 1980 that it is hard to choose. In recent years, truly exceptional shows were Into The Woods, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Chicago. Notable additions are Urinetown  and August Osage County.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

MI: There is a little musical called Archie and Mehitabel that I fell in love with in college and always hoped someone would produce it, so I could see it!

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

MI: I would definitely do lights. Lighting is like painting and can create the exact mood or feeling needed on stage.

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

MI: Be a sponge. Don’t be afraid of criticism. Think outside of the box.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

MI: The very best friends I have were made in my theatre and dance world. These friendships are so close because of the intensity and intimacy of the process making a show. You lay yourself bare to others while creating and it takes a lot of trust during this time. A cast ends up feeling like a true family by the end of a run.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

MI: In West Side Story the gun wouldn’t go off, so the actor punched the intended victim.  Another amusing episode was during a big production number with multiple dancers, actors and singers on a turntable…it abruptly stopped working. Everyone went on with the show and moved around themselves. A few minutes later, the turntable suddenly started turning again. The lead singer stopped mid-song to exclaim “Look, it’s working!” Great audience applause!

ASR: Do you have a “day job?

MI: I just “retired” almost two years ago from my studio and production company. Now I work ten hours a day on NTC and help out at other theatre companies. Until the pandemic hit, I was directing, choreographing and doing the lighting for many groups. Guess I like to work on theatre whether it’s a “day job” or not!

ASR: What do you do in your “off time?”

MI: I avidly watch sports – all kinds – at the end of a high-energy day. After decades of dancing, there are too many things wrong with my body to participate in sports, but I love to watch football, basketball, baseball, tennis. I always use the sports analogy in teaching or directing theatre. I say “Give your body up to this. Our team goal is not winning, it is to put on a great show!”

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from theater?

MI: I love all the arts! My mom and several great teachers opened me up to ballet, opera, painting and film. I often bring what I have seen or heard into my approach to a show.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

MI: Earrings!

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MI: From Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: The Inimitable Jaime Love of Sonoma Arts Live

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.

***

Jaime Love

Jaime Love is Executive Artistic Director of Sonoma Arts Live (SAL), based in the town of Sonoma. SAL performs primarily on the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center. Love has been involved in theater and radio for over 35 years as an actor, producer, singer, director, writer and voice-over artist in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco. She is a founding member of the Sonoma Theater Alliance and Sonoma Arts Live, and for six years was Co-Artistic Director and Producer of the Nicholson Ranch Players’ musical revues and Christmas shows at Nicholson Winery.

A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Love left the big city and worked in summer theatre in Montana (“Damn Yankees”), did post-production film work in L.A., and then fell in love with voice-over work and headed east again to attend Connecticut School of Broadcasting. She then went on to Boston, where she worked as the Arts & Entertainment Director and Promotions Director at WMJX and WMEX, focused on producing voice-overs for “Today’s Executive Women” and “That’s Entertainment.” Radio brought Jaime and her husband Rick back to the west, this time to San Francisco and ultimately to Sonoma, where he owns Creative Audience Research. Jaime and Rick have lived in Sonoma for twenty years.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

JL: The minute I saw my first movie, “Mary Poppins.” I’ll never forget the theater, or Julie Andrews’ face filling up the screen. It was like a magic wand tapped me on my head and said “You’ve found your people.” I was the classic put-on-a-show-in-the-backyard kind of kid.

Regarding theater here in Sonoma, I had spent two years in San Francisco from 1993-95 and had loved the thriving scene there. I did a play with Jean Shelton at the Marsh, did an original play at this tiny awesome theater in North Beach called Bannam Place Theater. When we moved to Sonoma for Rick’s job there was just nada happening. Then I wandered into the Sonoma Community Center and discovered a wonderful woman who was starting Theater at the Center. From 1995-2001 we had a thriving community theater. In 2001 under a new administration they decided to use the theater as a rental, and that’s where it stood until 2010 when Todd Evans and I approached the Community Center about renting to us.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

JL: My first real role was freshman year in high school: “This Property Is Condemned.” First time I was paid was at Park Royale Night Club in New York. I sang a half hour set and was given a tiny stipend and a cut of the door, so of course I asked all my fellow American Academy of Dramatic Arts pals to come! I remember my “hits” were “Because the Night,” and “Your Nobody Called Today,” a popular country-western thing. First show I directed was a music revue I co-wrote called “Wine, Women and Song – Love Unleashed” at Nicholson Ranch winery. I went on to write and produce shows there for about five years.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

JL: 2015. Before then we were a theater cooperative, Sonoma Theater Alliance, for five years.

ASR: Did you anticipate that SAL would become as successful as it has?

JL: I’m really thrilled and encouraged by the response from the community and the critics. Once we honed in on our demographic and what they wanted, things really came together, and I feel we have found our sweet spot. We have a mature well-educated audience and I try to envision them, what they’ve been through in their lives, and choose plays that speak to them nostalgically or emotionally. I am in their age group and I rely a lot on thinking about my generation’s collective experience and how a play may or may not fit in.

I’m not ashamed to say that our company feels no shame in producing feel-good theater. There is a place for everything, and I love edgy theater and new works but that’s just not us—not to say we do “fluff”—maybe “tried and true” is a better way of looking at it. Sonoma is so small that I truly do know most of our 250 season ticket subscribers and we talk constantly about what brings them through our doors. We do a few new works as staged readings each year, and I’ve been proud and pleased with the response from our patrons.

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

JL: I’ve got at least three different scenarios ready to go. It’s been so sad to have to move shows like chess pieces, strategizing and trying to stay one step ahead without having a crystal ball. We were set with a full season ready to announce April 11 with a now cancelled reception. And as so many of us in the North Bay share the same talent pool it will create even more stress. You can’t just move a show three months ahead and not run into conflicts. My hope is to take the three remaining shows in our season and add them to the new one.

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

JL: My guess is it will come back slowly. I’ve been rethinking the big cast/big shows for the short term. If audiences are not allowed to gather in large groups—necessary for us to be financially stable—I’ll need to produce shows that will at least cover expenses for actors, crews and rent. And we are going to have to deal with the very real fear of “gathering” and what that will mean for our actors and our audience. If I think about it too much I go down the rabbit hole.

I’m not ashamed to say that our company feels no shame in producing feel-good theater.

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

JL: “My Fair Lady,” “Always, Patsy Cline,” and “Becky’s New Car.”

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

JL: Definitely props and set decoration. I’ve been a thrift shop and antique hunter since I was about eight years old! A week does not go by when I do not pop into all the great thrift stores in Sonoma. I’m an “Antiques Road Show” junkie! When I was little I would go “antiquing” with my mom and her best friend. I learned so much from them.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

JL: Well, Dani Innocenti-Beem of course! She has that star power. You can feel the energy when she walks on stage. She truly helped put Sonoma Arts Live on the map. Also Chris Ginesi. I’ve known him since he was about twelve—we did “Our Town” together. He’s truly exciting to watch on the stage. It’s been wonderful to watch him develop his craft over the years.

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

JL: I was playing Rita Boyle in “Prelude to a Kiss” in upstate New York. Cell phones had only just come out—this was before it was added to curtain speeches to turn them off—I’m in the middle of this intimate scene, and not wearing much, and this guy’s phone goes off. He answers as if he’s at home in this very normal voice: “I can’t talk now. I’m watching a play.” Then a few seconds of silence. “Yeah, it’s OK…” meaning “Yeah, the play’s OK.” It was very hard to stay in character after that!

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

JL: I am so blessed and lucky and honored to say for the first time in my life, theater is my paying full time job. We have an amazing Board and a fundraising team

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

JL: Writing, being with my kids, exercising, enjoying new restaurants and hiking with my amazing husband. After 31 years together, I still really like him—and I am writing this after three weeks of seeing basically only him!)

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you pursue any other arts apart from theater?

JL: For about ten years I wrote wrote wrote, and had a few things published.

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

JL: “Whine Country”—I was a wine country tour guide for six years, creating private trips: lots of bridesmaids, rich rich people, anniversaries. The company I worked for had a division of drivers who picked up people at different hotels for group tours … I have always wanted to do a series based on the TV show “Taxi,” where each episode starts with all of us at the station, picking up our vehicles, and then each individual episode would follow a different charter driver and guests. There are so many stories I could tell!

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

JL: “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from “Oklahoma,” “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves, and “When You See a Chance,” by Steve Winwood.

My first musical was Oklahoma in ninth grade and I had a huge crush on the guy who played Curly and I can still get butterflies in my stomach picturing him walking out on our stage singing the first few notes.

“Walking on Sunshine”—I lived in Helena, Montana for a few years after NYC, and I had this fun little moped that I would ride to the Grand Street Theater, listening to my Sony Walkman and playing that song full blast riding up and down hills!!

“When You See a Chance”—I first heard it by going through my roomie’s records and throwing it on the turntable. When that song came on it just leapt out at me, I never forgot that moment when lyrics grabbed me like that. It was my grab-a-hairbrush-as-a-microphone-and-stand-on-the-bed song!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks” — have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

JL: Absolutely not.

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Leading Light of the San Francisco Stage, Susi Damilano

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.

***

Susi Damilano

Actor/director/producer Susi Damilano is Producing Director of the San Francisco Playhouse, co-founded with husband Bill English, the company’s Artistic Director. In its seventeen years SF Playhouse has grown from relatively obscurity to one of the city’s preeminent theater companies. Damilano is a five-time recipient of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC) ‘Excellence in Theatre Award for Principal Actress in a Play’ for Playhouse productions “Abigail’s Party,” “Harper Regan,” “Bug,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and “Reckless.”

She has also performed in many other leading roles, in addition to directing Playhouse productions of “Groundhog Day the Musical,” “Cabaret,” “Mary Poppins,” “Noises Off,” “She Loves Me,” “Stage Kiss,” “Company,” “Stupid Fucking Bird,” “Into the Woods,” “A Behanding in Spokane,” “Den of Thieves,” “Wirehead” (SFBATCC nomination).

Damilano also directed the West Coast premieres of “Honey Brown Eyes” (SFBATCC nomination), “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” “Coronado,” “The Mystery Plays,” and “Roulette,” and the world premieres of “On Clover Road” by Steven Dietz, “From Red to Black” by Rhett Rossi, and “Seven Days” by Daniel Heath. As will attest anyone who’s been to one of the Playhouse’s legendary opening nights, she is also a world-class caterer.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

SD: When I was 27 I visited a friend in London. She told me that while she was at work during the day, to go to Leicester Square and get a half price ticket to anything. I did, and saw my first professional play, “Les Miserables.” I was hooked. The next day I saw “42nd Street.” Wow! That began my love for theater—the magic of seeing someone jump off a bridge to their suicide, and ‘knowing’ he must have landed on the floor, and believing he landed in water. Beautiful.

Our focus is on how plays impact the audience…

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

SD: The first play I performed was called “Coming Attractions” at City Lights Theater. I got to play tons of different parts, sang and danced and had so much fun. Wendy Wisely took a chance on me and because of her, I was accepted into the Bay Area acting world.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

SD: As I was learning my craft I took jobs anywhere around the Bay: City Lights, Town Hall, CenterRep, Actors Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Bus Barn.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

SD: We had our first show in 2003.

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?

SD: We dreamed of what we could be and decided from the first moment to work as if we were on par with Steppenwolf or Royal Court or Donmar or Almeida … all theaters we admired, and the ones in London that we loved to visit.

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

SD: Our focus is on how plays impact the audience, not on any particular topic, niche or type. The goal is to bring people together, to touch and be touched. To share an experience and create compassion.

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

SD: My husband, Bill English, who is a walking library of dramatic works and knowledge. I learned to direct by sitting next to him for years and observing. My acting work was most influenced by Jean Shelton and Richard Seyd, and my courage has most been influenced by our patrons, who keep coming back and who are in the lobby crying or laughing afterward, confirming that what we are doing makes a difference.

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

SD: We have the most incredible staff and board and patrons. The shutdown happened the week we were supposed to start previews for “Real Women Have Curves.” Everyone took the news so bravely. Actors lost the opportunity to share a beautiful story, our staff went to work calling ticket holders; ticket holders became donors and supporters. We’ve had to furlough many of our dear staff and are grateful that California unemployment will provide that extra $600 to them. On the other hand, we continued with announcing our season. We did a virtual announcement that has received more views and positive feedback than any event in the past.

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

SD: When we announced the season we did not include dates or actual order of the shows. That certainty is simply not available to us right now.

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

SD: My vision (hope) is that we will come out of this ‘big pause’ stronger than ever. Our love and need for the arts have been solidified through its absence. The theatre has always been a place where people gather. Spacing, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer will be likely be the norm in the short term.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts underway in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

SD: It hasn’t impacted our plans other than inducing confusion as to how an artist or designer could be an employee.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

SD: I left my ‘day job’ to run the Playhouse in our 12th season. Besides acting and directing, managing the Playhouse is my day job.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

SD: I love spending time with friends and family, and of course, my dog Emi.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you pursue any other arts apart from theater?

SD: I love the arts, and have dabbled with drawing, and film — wish I was a trained dancer and pianist … maybe soon, if we keep staying home.

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?

SD: The words “no” and “but” are forbidden and to be replaced with “yes,” “and.” Honor the environment and keep it beautiful and strong. Be kind.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

SD: If I wanted to buy one, wouldn’t getting two be great?

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

SD: Been framed.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

SD: My soundtrack is more like the ocean waves, or breeze through the trees.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

SD: Bracelets.

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

SD: None. Too big for my house.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks” — have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

SD: When I was younger, for sure. Not anymore.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SD: It’s from “The Sound of Music” — “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must’ve done something good.”

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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 ASR 1-On-1 Interview: Man About Town, Director Patrick Nims of Zoom Theatre

 

Patrick Nims.

Two actors sit down together at a table in a modest apartment, with old photographs lining the walls. For the next forty-five minutes, they’ll be an estranged father and daughter reunited after decades apart. The only catch? The actors are in different states and have never even met in person. The apartment behind them is a green screen. And the audience members are watching from the safety of their living rooms.

“The show must go on!” or so the adage goes. But what does that mean in a world that’s living six feet apart, gloved and masked, attending school, and work through laptop screens?

Desperate times call for creative workarounds, and “Zoom Theatre” offers an inspired solution to the unprecedented challenge of producing live theater in the era of “social distancing.” Utilizing Zoom’s popular web conferencing software, stage director Patrick Nims gives theatergoers the chance to attend exclusive, live performances of plays staged explicitly for online viewing, all from the comfort of home.

Nims is an award-winning stage director whose work has appeared all over the Bay Area. He also co-founded and served as Artistic Director for Marin Summer Theater, and is currently a resident director at Portland’s Stumptown Stages. Zoom Theatre is his latest brainchild.

Its first production – David Mamet’s two short plays, “Reunion” and “Dark Pony,” brought to life beautifully by actors David L. Yen of Sonoma County and Voni Kengla of Portland, OR – aired for only three performances on April 9, 10, and 11. But two more shows are already in the works, the next of which is slated for early May.

ASR’s Nicole Singley asked Nims for a behind-the-screens look at his self-declared “experiment in theatre…

***

Voni Kengla and David L. Yen at work in Zoom Theatre’s first production

ASR: In your own words, what is Zoom Theatre, and what is your vision for it?

PN: Zoom Theatre is an experiment. It is an attempt to see if web conferencing software is up to the demands of live performance, with live feedback from the audience. Like in the early days of television, we know that the technology is in an imperfect state, but for me it is an intriguing and promising notion. So far it has proven successful at delivering a “theatre-like” experience, with a few gotcha’s and a steep learning curve.

ASR: How are plays rehearsed and performed for this medium? What special equipment does your team rely on?

PN: The plays are rehearsed entirely over Zoom. We have a Zoom Rehearsal Room that the actors join from their home. Each actor started with a laptop with a webcam as we did table work and then set the staging. The actors had to look in their own homes for props. As we got closer to performance each actor received an external microphone and HD webcam, a green screen kit and a ring light. While not up to sound stage quality, these items improve the quality of the image and sound greatly.

ASR: What are some of the biggest or most unusual challenges – technological or other – that your team has had to overcome in this process?

PN: There has been nothing yet that caused us to reconsider moving forward. Luckily all of our company has had fast enough and reliable enough internet to make it work. Getting matching props was fun (when the “same” item is used on both screens). Because of the 500ms delay in Zoom, it took a bit to work out the timing when they are supposed to say the same thing at the same time. Handing the live audience sound is the last big issue. We’re slowly figuring out how to dial that in so that the actors can hear the audience, without the audience being too loud. Overall we all had fun working on the project. Saddest thing so far was not being able to give the cast and stage manager Georgia Ortiz a hug after opening night.

ASR: How did you select David Mamet’s “Reunion” and “Dark Pony?”

PN: I knew the plays from my college days and when I looked at my list of possible two-person shows, it jumped to the top as being suitable for Zoom. They are actors’ plays. There are no special stage effects, machinery or blocking required. The actors don’t need to touch, and each only requires a single location. It was a perfect fit.

…we all had fun working on the project.

ASR: What was it like to direct through a screen, and to stage intimate scenes between two actors who’ve never met face-to-face?

PN: It was a great experience for me. When they were working scenes, I would turn off my video (so they could concentrate on each other) and then bring mine back on after to give notes. Within a day or two, it was just normal. Voni and David are real pros and they made it look and sound real from day one.

ASR: What other shows can we look forward to seeing from Zoom Theatre in the coming months?

PN: Next up will be “Lungs” by Duncan Macmillan in early May. It is a beautiful play about love, relationships and our responsibility to the planet. The show will star Amber and Gregory Crane who are two wonderful Marin County actors that are sheltering in place together, so in this case, they will be physically together and I will be directing remotely for a remote audience. After that is “Actually” by Anna Ziegler, May 21 through 24. It is also a two person play that with lyricism and wit, investigates gender and race politics, our crippling desire to fit in, and the three sides to every story.

ASR: Do you think online theater will endure once the pandemic has passed?

PN: Beyond the pandemic, I think Zoom Theatre will remain viable as a way of inexpensively producing small plays with work-from-home actors in unlimited locations. The technology and performance will have to improve before I’d try a musical over Zoom, but I imagine it is only a matter of time.

To learn more about Zoom Theatre and register to see upcoming shows, visit ZoomTheatre.com, or find and follow the Zoom Theatre page on Facebook.

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.

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Actor, Director, & Fight Coach Extraordinaire, Steve Beecroft

Aisle Seat Review begins 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.

***

Steve Beecroft

Steve Beecroft is an actor, dancer, choreographer, director, and producer as well as a pillar of the Curtain Theater in Mill Valley CA. Besides his vocal talent, Beecroft is noted for his extraordinary skill as an athletic fight choreographer. If you’ve ever seen him jumping, leaping, and swinging a sword onstage, be sure to duck.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

SB: It was really by accident. I have always been a singer, and still do concerts for fund-raising today, but I’d never planned to act. In my senior year of high school, I somehow got roped in to play the lead in the musical “The Boyfriend”. I was hooked and never turned back. It was a real switch from athletics for me. I remember that my football coach would avert his eyes when he saw me in the school corridors after that.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

SB: I have never counted them all, but between Canada, England and the USA, quite a few.

… We had a blast mixing Shakespeare, Star Trek and rock ‘n roll!

ASR: When was your present company formed?

SB: The Curtain Theatre was formed twenty years ago to bring Shakespeare to the outdoor stage in Old Mill Park in Mill Valley. I joined the company 10 years ago. We are blessed to have two of the original founders still in the company. Michele Delattre is Artistic Director and will direct this summer’s show “Twelfth Night”, while also playing in the band. Don Clark has been our music director throughout all the years the company has been in existence. They are both brilliant!

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?

SB: It was already pretty special with its free performances in our outdoor setting. We have grown the company further over the years and are proud of the awards and loyal audiences we continue to gather.

ASR: What’s Curtain Theatre’s focus?

SB: The Curtain Theatre is primarily a Shakespeare company, adjusted to be fun and family-friendly. Many kids come and sit at the foot of the stage. We’re delighted to see they’re totally into it, which makes it super for us. We keep the plays light with topical music and authentic costumes. We might introduce props that were not available in the Bard’s era, like the chain saw we used in “The Taming of the Shrew.” That got everyone’s attention!

We switch out of Shakespeare too, performing other classic plays such as Moliere’s “The Miser” in 2017. Back in 2013, we went completely off the Bard’s rails when I joined with Carl Jordan and Gary Gonser to put on “Return to the Forbidden Planet.” It was such a hit at Tam High that we staged it the following year at Novato Theatre. We had a blast mixing Shakespeare, Star Trek and rock ‘n roll! It was outrageous and won a batch of SFBATCC awards.

ASR: On a somber note, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen due to COVID-19. How is your company coping?

SB: Our 2020 summer show has been cast and the artistic team are hard at work planning music, choreography, sets, costumes, etc. We start rehearsals after the July 4th weekend and we are hoping to have the go ahead then.

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

SB: Given social distancing rules, we obviously cannot meet for character work and design sessions, so we use ZOOM a lot.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company?

SB: The Curtain Theatre has been an integral part of the cultural life of Mill Valley and Marin for a long time. Shakespeare aficionados and neophytes alike love to come to see our plays. Families come to be entertained with their children getting their first impression of the Bard at our shows. They keep coming back. So will we.

It is worth remembering that Shakespeare and his company often saw the theatres closed by the plague. But creativity continued, plays were written and rehearsed, and when the air cleared, new plays surged into the light to entertain a people much in need of it. We at the Curtain Theatre hope to do the same in these troubled times. We think it vital that we carry on, whatever the difficulties.

ASR: Has Assembly Bill 5, requiring theatre folks to be employees, affected your company’s plans?

SB: If the law were to be enforced, it would kill almost all amateur theatre companies including us.

ASR: Life in the theater: What are some personal favorites?

SB: For dramas: “Equivocation”, “Cyrano de Bergerac”, and “Shakespeare in Love.”

Musicals I like include “Les Miserables”, “West Side Story”, “Return to the Forbidden Planet”, “Mamma Mia”, and “Guys & Dolls.”

My favorite comedies include “Noises Off”, “Lend me a Tenor”, and “Much Ado About Nothing”.

ASR: What are three all-time favorites from The Curtain Theatre?

SB: Tough choice. Top of the list is “Return to the Forbidden Planet” of course, plus “Henry IV” part one, and “The Taming of the Shrew.”

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

SB: “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” It has great comedy and some excellent poetry and prose. It has a problem at the end but I think that can be worked around effectively. I hope to direct the play in the future.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

SB: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”…though it is still great fun!!

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

SB: I am afraid I am hopelessly untalented when it comes to tech areas. I could probably manage props.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

SB: Lots of stretching and singing beforehand, and a beer with my cast mates and the Curtain team afterward.

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

SB:  Hmmm… I guess,

1. Only do plays and roles that you are passionate about.

2. Seek to work with the most creative people you can.

3. Have fun!!

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

SB: When playing Curly in “Oklahoma”, I was supposed to shoot Jud, but the gun cap didn’t go off. I spent about 3 minutes ad-libbing and having lots of fun with the audience.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

SB: I tore my hamstring doing a split-leap on stage. Not fun.

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

SB: When I was rehearsing for a John Denver concert, an elderly lady came in to listen and watch. When I finished one particular song, she proceeded to remind me that I had gotten one word wrong and that I really shouldn’t do that again.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

SB: I work for a multi-national investment bank.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

SB: Hiking, the gym, singing both choral and in concerts, traveling, kayaking, and environmental economics.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SB: This one…

“How will it work?” 

“I don’t know, it’s a mystery.”

-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.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Award Winning Director and Choreographer Carl Jordan

Carl Jordan

This week, Aisle Seat Review begins 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.

***

Our first guest is North Bay director and choreographer Carl Jordan, a theater veteran with three decades of experience. Jordan’s “Clybourne Park,” “By the Water,” and “Death of a Salesman” are among his more recent standout productions.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

CJ: I was a member of a dance company and started doing choreography there. This led to choreographing musical theater and opera, which led to directing musicals.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

CJ: First choreography was a college production of “Babes in Arms.” First solo direction was “Little Shop of Horrors.”

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

CJ: Lots.

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

CJ: My first mentor was my college teacher John Weldon. He taught me to be have fun with what you are doing. His teaching is still a big inspiration. I’ve learned from every actor I have worked with—they all taught me something. Some, how not to do things. Working with actors, every moment is a lesson in the art. I watch and learn from other directors. I love watching the work of Sheri Lee Miller, now with Spreckels.

ASR: How is your company coping with the coronavirus shutdown?

CJ: I just had a production cancelled, hopefully rescheduled for next season.  It’s difficult to plan when we do not know how long this will last. When will it be safe? Right now we all have to be flexible with a plan B and plans C, D etc.

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

CJ: It will be changed—how, we do not know. In the short term, generally after a crisis, audiences want escapism: happy musicals. Audiences might be affected financially and therefore be reluctant to part with their dollars. At some point, it will mostly return but art reflects our yearnings and our souls and will change.

ASR: Has Assembly Bill 5 affected your theater company’s plans?

CJ: I don’t know yet.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

CJ: “Clybourne Park,” “Death of a Salesman,” “The Jungle,” “Angels in America.”

ASR: Musicals?

CJ: “Fun Home,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “A Little Night Music,” “The Spitfire Grill.”

ASR: Comedies?

CJ: “Noises Off,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The 39 Steps.”

ASR: Three all-time favorites that your company has produced?

CJ: “Return to the Forbidden Planet, the Musical,” “Becky’s New Car,” “Taming of the Shrew.”

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

CJ: Some of the silly old Rogers and Hart musicals.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

CJ: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but I still love it

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

CJ: Lighting design. The art reminds me of creation and joy. Sublime and stark, it adds to and magnifies the story.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

CJ: L.Peter Calender

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

CJ: I do something fun or joyous—frequently I write cards to the cast.

ASR: How do you relax after?

CJ: Libations with friends. And sleep.

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

CJ: Read and read and read the script. Then listen to the actors.

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

CJ: Talking drunkenly to the actors onstage.

ASR: Do you have a day job?

CJ: I’m a licensed general contractor.

ASR: Other artistic interests?

I love the world of dance. I have degrees in dance—I started as a ballet dancer, but mostly choreographed jazz ballets. I love teaching and coaching. I’ve learned and played several instruments, and studied architecture and building design. I frequently attend museums and art shows. I go to garage sales and flea markets looking for quirky items that might be good props or set pieces. I love puppets and puppet shows, and hiking, especially on the coast. I read constantly—mostly scripts, but I love science fiction. It’s my favorite movie idiom.

ASR: Parting comment?

Theater manifests the heart and soul of our lives!

-30-

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

 

 

 

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!

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! “Five Course Love” Serves Up Tasty Trysts — by Cari Lynn Pace

Here’s the satisfying recipe for “Five Course Love” as served up at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa: Combine three actors and five restaurant scenes. Mix in a generous batch of costume changes. Blend well with three musicians, adding headgear as desired. Toss in two dozen amusing songs using quick lyrics by Gregg Coffin. Stir well with direction by award-wining performer Heather Buck. Cook for two hours on a warm stage until tender. Serve immediately with lots of laughs. Enjoy!

Cast at work in “Five Course Love” at Lucky Penny!

This clever and witty musical debuted off-Broadway in 2005. With no signature songs or ground-breaking drama, “Five Course Love” has stayed in the wings, depending on smaller theatres to bring this frothy bit of fluff to center stage. The costumed characters haven’t changed, nor has their search for connectedness and the holy grail of love.

Delicious!

Five singing sketches feature three actors connected by diverse yet spare cafe locations. These showcase the formidable vocals and acting chops of Sarah Lundstrom, F. James Raasch, and Brian Watson. They switch roles swiftly and seamlessly, from cowboy to nerd to bandit to dominatrix to gangster, sometimes at breakneck speed. Their tried-and-true stereotypes bring laughs and smirks of empathy from the audience.

Kudos to Lucky Penny for using mikes, enabling actors to change accents and move fluidly to Staci Arriaga’s choreography on the small stage. The intimacy of this theatre-in-the-round adds to the fun.

“Five Course Love” is not a filling intellectual meal, by any stretch. It’s familiarity and frivolity, more of a pie-in-your-face kind of show, without the pie. The characters are alternately charming, raunchy, ridiculous, and quite predictable. It’s the clever lyrics that add so much spice to this meal.

The play’s final scene is the most satisfying, where the last tidbit of love is dished out. Delicious!

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

 

ProductionFive Course Love
Written byGregg Coffin
Directed byHeather Buck
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review: “Our Town” Falls Flat at NTC – by Nicole Singley

With its modest set and simple, unassuming premise, “Our Town” aims to celebrate the magic of the mundane, contemplating the ordinary, everyday moments we too often take for granted. Revolutionary when it debuted in 1938, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama has since become an enduring staple of American theater. Under Michael Barr’s direction, this three-act classic takes the stage at Novato Theater Company through February 16th.

We open with a welcome from the Stage Manager (Christine Macomber), who introduces us to the small New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners, and continues to serve as our guide and sometimes-narrator throughout. We meet the town doctor and the milkman, watch as families gather ‘round their kitchen tables, and eavesdrop on schoolkids discussing their homework. Wilder’s script spans over a decade of love, loss, and run-of-the-mill moments in the lives of the townspeople. At the center of it all are George and Emily (Bryan Munar and Nicole Thordsen), the all-American boy and girl next door, who we encounter first as childhood friends, again as awkward teenagers stumbling into the early stages of love, and later as bride and groom, hurdling into adulthood ‘til death do they part.

Beautifully written and subtly profound in its frank depiction of normal people living unremarkable lives, its power lies not in what happens – as very little, in fact, actually does – but in the authenticity of its characters and the relatability of their life experiences. “Our Town” could be any town, anywhere at any time, the residents as familiar as our own friends and neighbors. It’s perhaps the realization of our shared humanity, and the quiet beauty and impermanence of each little moment, that beckons us to appreciate the here-and-now before it slips through our fingers.

. . . an ever-haunting tribute to the small, extraordinary moments that comprise an ordinary life.”

This show has the potential to be powerful and poignant – possibly transcendent – in the hands of the right cast and director. NTC’s production, however, comes up lacking in sincerity, bordering on tedious and boring. Much of the acting is stiff and unnatural, the lines flat and devoid of real emotion, and where nuance and depth of feeling are needed, there is little to be found. Without believable characters and relationships, their interactions become trivial and uncompelling.

Munar and Thordsen (Photo Credit: Fred Deneau)

Arguably the most damaging weak link in this production, the love story between George and Emily is utterly unconvincing. Munar’s George is sweet but overly shy and nervous, possessing little charm and none of the archetypal trappings of a school class president and star baseball player. There is no palpable chemistry between him and Thordsen, and none of the flirtatious tension or playfulness that often accompanies a budding young romance. Their love is at the heart of “Our Town,” and it needs to feel genuine in order to effectively hold our interest, arouse our compassion, and convey the full weight and meaning of Wilder’s message. Instead, it just feels flat and forced.

Janice Deneau and Mary Weinberg have done well with costume choices. Sparse scenic design is at the playwright’s instruction, and it’s reasonably well executed here by local designer and builder Michael Walraven. The production suffers, however, from the nearly constant, distracting boom and echo of heavy footsteps clomping across the hollow stage, often making it terribly difficult to hear and follow the actors’ lines.

On the whole, the ensemble puts forth a good effort. Macomber makes an excellent narrator, and Jennifer Reimer is convincing as wife and mother, Mrs. Gibbs. What’s missing is the sense that some key players are fully at home in their roles. Perhaps a few more performances will help them find their groove. There is great potential here to ramp up the emotional impact. “Our Town” remains deeply relevant despite its age, and an ever-haunting tribute to the small, extraordinary moments that comprise an ordinary life.

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.

 

ProductionOur Town
Written byThornton Wilder
Directed byMichael Barr
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough February 16th
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
WebsiteNovatoTheaterCompany.org
Telephone(415) 883-4498
Tickets$15 – $27
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

An Aisle Seat Review: Past and Present Collide in MTC’s “Noura” – by Barry Willis

David and Ibrahim (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

An Iraqi immigrant family finds a Christmas holiday gathering and promise of a bright future sullied by the momentum of the past in Heather Raffo’s “Noura,” at Marin Theatre Company through February 9. 

Escapees from the destroyed city of Mosul, the family of three—Noura, her husband Tareq, and their young son Yazen—share a spacious New York City apartment, one decorated with an oversized Christmas tree but little else. Their space (set design by Adam Rigg) has the disheveled, semi-organized look of a temporary refugee camp, a reflection of Noura’s sense of disconnectedness despite the fact that her family has been in the US eight years, and has gained American citizenship and Anglicized names so that they might be better assimilated. Easier said than achieved, as this fascinating if uneven production proves over the course of its approximately ninety minutes.

The Christmas season is especially difficult for Noura (Denmo Ibrahim), who longs for the life she knew in her home city—family, friends, neighbors of multiple ethnicities and religions— an extended community that was destroyed in the wake of the US invasion. Tareq (Mattico David) is an emergency room physician who seems pretty much Americanized until confronted by the arrival of a holiday visitor, Maryam (Maya Nazzal), a fellow refugee they’ve been sponsoring who shares complicated ties to their past lives in Mosul. Her impending arrival is a source of anxiety for Noura as she makes preparations. A physics student in California, young Maryam hopes to land a job as a weapons designer with the US Department of Defense.  

Ibrahim beautifully portrays her character’s abiding sense of loss and ambiguity . . .”

Maryam’s aspirations don’t seem to have any effect on Noura and Tareq, nor on their doctor friend Rafa’a (Abraham Makany), also an exile from Mosul, but the fact that she is unmarried and pregnant—both by choice—throws Tareq into a tailspin. An independent young woman with no apparent need for a man is a situation he simply can’t cope with: thousands of years of macho Arab culture upended by one modern independent feminist, resounding proof that they’ve left the old world behind. The emotional repercussions from this and other conflicts resonate off the stage and into the audience as the four adults and one boy (Valentino Herrera) struggle to make the holiday a pleasant one. 

The Cast of MTC’s “Noura” (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

All four adult actors are excellent. Ibrahim and David in particular are able to mine emotional nuances that actors with lesser skills might not manage. Some of their dramatic expertise must certainly be the work of director Kate Bergstrom, but there are holes in the story that detract from its intended effect. Why, for example, do these Iraqi-Americans not raise even one word of dismay over Maryam’s stated career agenda, when their entire country was demolished by high-tech weaponry and the medieval mentality behind it? Tareq must make a decent income from his emergency room work, but they still can’t afford some basic furniture? Then there are Noura’s recurring smoke-filled reveries of the life she once knew, with no counterbalancing embrace of the future’s potential. 

Noura lives in limbo between then and now, unable to let go and unwilling to move on. It’s a heartbreaking situation, the immigrant’s plight, one not understood by Americans intent on “reaching closure” as quickly and painlessly as possible. Ibrahim beautifully portrays her character’s abiding sense of loss and ambiguity, repeated several times with minor variations in the extended final scene. Playwright Raffo might better have chosen one powerful statement and let the curtain fall, rather than hammer the audience with what they’ve already learned is Noura’s unhappy truth. Not that the story needs to be tied up in a tidy little bundle of happy-ever-afterness, but a clear ending would enhance the play’s impact.

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

 

ProductionNoura
Written byHeather Raffo
Directed byKate Bergstrom
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough February 9th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$25 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

An Aisle Seat 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! Transcendence Broadway Holiday Spectacular 2019 by Cari Lynn Pace

Transcendence got the “Spectacular” name right – this show is an amazing celebration. The cadre of 19 good-looking expats from Broadway and LA blockbuster musicals rocked the Sonoma stage and travels to the Napa stage with this annual show. They mix it up with dancing (from ballet to tap), singing (from touching solos to majestic choruses) and 100% joyful energy.

Done in two acts, Transcendence talents perform holiday favorites along with signature pieces from eight classic musicals in the first half. Songs include all faiths, with “O Holy Night” and “Sabbath Prayer” beautifully juxtaposed on a two-level set.

Photo by Mimi Carroll.

Act II flashes back to carols and seasonal songs over the ages, punched up by high-energy creative choreography by Tony Gonzalez, who also directs. The talented 10-piece band under Susan Draus’s baton had a blast strutting their stuff, with a few musicians sharing the limelight with the dancers.

All ages rushed to their feet for a standing ovation…

The show provokes lots of laughter. There’s an amusing role reversal when Micki Weiner and Colin Campbell McAdoo sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” More hilarity when five handsome guys scruff about, singing “I’m Getting’ Nuttin’ for Christmas.”

Tony Gonzalez, a veteran Transcendence member, deserves a shout out for the impressive flow of the show, so well varied in pace and volume. Ten cast members rocked the house with “Light Sings”, building up a tremendous crescendo of voices to thunderous applause. Just when you think it can’t get any more dynamic, the spotlight hits David R. Gordon with his guitar on center stage. He practically whispers his poignant solo “Let There be Peace on Earth” as the audience holds their breath. Not a pin was dropped.

Photo by Ray Martel.

All ages rushed to their feet for a standing ovation as the finale ended and the performers took their bows. Transcendence Broadway Holiday Spectacular is a power-packed show, exuberant entertainment at its festive best.

 

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

 

ProductionMy Hero
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byMatthew Rossoff
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThru June 20th, 2021
Production AddressB.R. Cohn Winery, 15000 Sonoma Hwy, Glen Ellen, CA 95442
Websitebestnightever.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$54-$129
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
ScriptN/A
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! A Christmas Story – The Musical by Cari Lynn Pace

This is the heart-warming story of Ralphie, the 9-year old boy who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas and fantasizes how to convince his parents and Santa to grant his wish.This stage play adds musical pieces to enhance the nostalgic and classic comedy, without losing the original’s momentum or warmth.

Larry Williams directs, or more accurately corrals, nearly a dozen kids and a handful of adults from many Bay Area theatres to present this show. It’s an amazing undertaking that overflows the small Sonoma Arts Live stage with youthful energy and authenticity. It’s a good thing Williams is a veteran actor and director. He knows how to get the best performances out of a large cast of 21 diverse ages who act, sing, and dance.

Worth the effort for this holiday treat!

Ralphie, acted and sung by Tuolumne Bunter, is a standout. This 10-year old’s gestures and facial expressions are far beyond his years. The program notes he cut off 18 inches of his hair to play the part…quite the sacrifice!

Where did these youngsters get their talent? Little brother Randy, played by Joseph Atchley, is so tiny he hides beneath the kitchen sink, to the great amusement of the audience. There’s a bully (perfectly cast in Ty Schoeningh) and his sidekick (Mario Alioto) who terrorize the other kids from their class. Every costumed youth stays solidly in character to deliver authenticity, and pure enjoyment for the audience.

Their teacher Miss Shields (Scharypearl Fugitt) gives an over-the-top performance as a lovesick spinster, including a tap dance with young Mario Alioto. She has the audience chuckling as she sings “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” the phrase adults use to thwart Ralphie’s wish.

Ralphie has an adult alter ego who narrates the youngster’s ever-hopeful story in flashback. George Bereschik does an admirable job in his task providing the glue to hold the scenes together. The cast’s adults, including Morgan Harrington and Rick Love (as Mom and “The Old Man”) had their work cut out for them lest they be upstaged by the many talented wunderkinds.

“A Christmas Story” is suitable for all ages, and particularly youngsters who may not be familiar with live theatre. You may have to hustle to get tickets as the show is a winner and the theatre is small. Worth the effort for this holiday treat!

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

 

ProductionA Christmas Story – The Musical
Written byJoseph Robinette, based on Jean Shepard’s book
Directed byLarry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThursdays thru Sundays until December 22, 2019
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
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! “Harry Potter” a Mind-Blower at the Curran by Barry Willis

Unlimited budgets can yield miracles. Especially in theater. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” at the Curran through July 12, is one of those miracles.

And yes, the July 12 closing date is correct—a six-month run! The large-capacity Curran (nearly 1700 seats) was closed for a couple of years for a massive renovation, only to have some of the new seating and carpeting removed to build out the realistic refugee camp for last spring’s fantastic production of “The Jungle.” It’s been redecorated again—this time with carpeting and fabric wall coverings embellished with the Hogwarts logo.

The unlimited budget is apparent both the moment you step into the theater and the moment the curtain rises for Part One, which manages to pack in more theatrical illusions than any dozen blockbuster shows in Las Vegas, including characters that step out of seemingly solid walls, or seemingly solid walls that absorb characters the way a sponge draws water, characters that instantly morph into other characters, characters that vanish only to reappear swimming in the sky, characters that emerge and exit through a burning fireplace, ghostly spirits that hover above the audience, and graffiti that somehow appears throughout the theater’s huge ceiling, like a celestial pattern in an observatory. Then there’s the amazing choreography of swirling capes and their disappearing owners (Steven Hoggett, movement director). Those are a few highlights.

…It’s a wild adventure.

The story by J.K.Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany has the now-adult Harry Potter (John Skelley) toiling away as a wizard in the Ministry of Magic, and about to send his son Albus (Benjamin Papac) off to school at his alma mater, where Albus meets Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), a boy his age who’s the son of dark lord Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall).

The two of them form an uneasy but solid friendship and are soon continuing the struggle against the evil Lord Voldemort (Andrew Long) and his offspring. It’s a wild adventure. The fanciful, quick-moving, and action-packed tale consumes nearly two-and-a-half hours and will keep you riveted to your seat the entire time. It’s a mind-blowing, all-consuming production populated by four or five dozen ace performers.

Among the amazing factoids around this show are stories of the two young actors who so magnificently embody Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is reputedly Papac’s first professional stage acting gig, and Steiger’s prior experience includes a Shakespeare festival in Scranton, Pennsylvania. They nonetheless meet the world-class challenge of what must be an exhausting, demanding production, including Saturday and Sunday performances that include both Part One and Part Two, where the two boys and their Hogwarts associates meet Voldemort’s daughter for a final showdown.

Should your time or budget restrict you to seeing only Part One or Part Two, note that Part One is the more compelling of the two, and more spectacle-intensive. Real Potterites, of course, will want to see both, but casual visitors will likely enjoy the first one more. Part Two’s extensive exposition and lengthy dialog will be better suited for those who’ve read all the books and seen all the films.

Casual theatergoers not in the Potter camp would do well to read up on the mythology before the show—a brief synopsis of which is included in the playbill. Even those who don’t know Harry Potter from Harry Houdini will be astounded by this production. For true believers—they are legion—it’s a religious experience.

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.

 

ProductionHarry Potter and the Cursed Child
Written byJ.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byJohn Tiffany
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesThru August 31st
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$69-$229
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review Theater PICK! “Sound of Music” Climbs Every Mountain (almost) at SSU by Barry Willis

One of the most beloved musicals of all time is enjoying a sumptuous revival at Sonoma State University’s capacious Evert B. Person Theatre through December 8.

With its own theater facilities still under renovation, the Santa Rosa Junior College Theater Arts department has teamed up with its counterpart at Sonoma State University to put on a hugely ambitious and mostly successful production of “The Sound of Music,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic about the Austrian von Trapp family and their escape from Nazi oppression shortly after the Germans annexed their country. It’s also, of course, the story of Maria Rainer (Arianna LaMark), the perpetually upbeat would-be nun who becomes governess to the seven von Trapp children, and ultimately, the wife of their widowed father, Captain von Trapp (Michael Coury Murdock).

… …a wonderfully engaging performance… …

The show is rampant with tunes that won instant popularity and continue to be favorites today: “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “How Can Love Survive?,” and “Climb Every Mountain,” all of them performed brilliantly by a huge cast on a huge stage, backed by a superb ten-piece orchestra led by music director Janis Dunsun Wilson. Everything about this show is enormous, from the steeply-raked large-capacity Person Theatre to the fantastically oversized stage set and towering backdrop on which is projected an image of the Matterhorn as it looks at various times of day and night—set and projection design by Peter Crompton.

Director Laura Downing-Lee has coaxed a wonderfully engaging performance from her cast of nearly three dozen performers, all of whom deliver without a bobble. Vocal performances are tremendous—LaMark and Murdock excel here—and the acting is almost as good, with the best performances given by Heather Buck as Elsa Schrader and Crystal McDougall as Mother Abbess. LaMark wins hearts with “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” and several other songs, while Murdock prompts tears with his treatment of “Edelweiss” in the penultimate scene. Madigan Love is excellent as Liesl, the oldest of the von Trapp brood, although her handling of the guitar makes it appear as if she’s just discovered the instrument.

There are a couple of unfortunate glitches that detract from the pervasive magic, especially the fact that the backdrop isn’t stretched tight enough to avoid billowing. When it does, the Matterhorn appears to be breathing. A bit of a letdown comes at the end, when the von Trapps decide to strike out on foot through the mountains to Switzerland. Downing-Lee wisely has them tackle the steep stairs out of the theater—in the dark, as must have happened in real life—but a bit of subdued lighting on them as they climb would heighten the drama. The same is true when they reach the top and look back at their home. Instead of simply standing there in the dark then leaving through an “Exit” door, they might linger for a moment behind a bit of set indicating that they’ve reached Switzerland and freedom.

But those are small suggestions intended only to take this already tremendous production one notch higher. Even without them, it’s guaranteed to please. “The Sound of Music” is among the greatest feel-good shows of all time; SRJC’s affordable tickets make this version an absolute bargain.

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.

 

ProductionThe Sound of Music
Written byBook by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed byLaura Downing-Lee
Producing CompanySanta Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Deptment in conjunction with Sonoma State University
Production DatesThrough December 8th
Production AddressEvert B. Person Theater at Sonoma State University

1801 E. Cotati Ave.

Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitetheatrearts.santarosa.edu
Telephone707-527-4307
Tickets$15-$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

An ASR Theatre Review: “The Seafarer” a Rough Voyage at Main Stage West by Barry Willis

The stereotypical Irish affinity for alcohol, self-delusion, and self-defeat gets fully exercised in Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” at Main Stage West through December 21.

It’s Christmas eve, 2007, in a shabby residence (set design by director David Lear) in a small coastal town north of Dublin. Four buddies have gathered for a night of blarney, heavy drinking, and card games, with a fifth guest named Mr. Lockhart (Keith Baker) who may or may not be the devil incarnate. The four friends—Nicky, Richard, Ivan, and Sharky (Anthony Abate, John Craven, Kevin Bordi, and Edward McCloud, respectively)—spend the entire first act getting hammered and regaling each other with long-winded and elaborate tales about very little. It’s a long setup.

…a stunning ensemble effort by five extremely talented actors.

In the second act, they get down to business with a poker game in which they bluff not only about the cards they hold but about their generally miserable existences—bluffing exacerbated by their sharing a treasured bottle of high-octane liquor, as the financial and psychological stakes rise.

The stakes reach a fever pitch during a lull in the game—with the other three out of the room, Mr. Lockhart torments Sharky with a hideously frightening description of eternal damnation. Then they reunite around the table for a few final rounds of cards, in which their true characters are revealed to be as empty as their pockets. None of them are likable—Nicky, for example, admits that he has only thirty-five euros to last until January, and that he ought to be at home with his wife and kids, but he can’t resist gambling more than he has on one last desperate hand. Ivan likewise wrestles with how he’s going to explain his absence from home. Richard, Sharky’s brother and literally a blind drunk, takes great delight in tormenting his friends, as he has throughout the evening.

Altogether, it’s an unpleasant story about unlikeable losers, not one that would normally earn a recommendation, but it’s a stunning ensemble effort by five extremely talented actors. All are 100% committed to their characters and 100% committed to telling McPherson’s tale as well as it can be told. In that sense, “The Seafarer” is an exemplary production—a master class for aspiring actors, but not the sort of production that ordinary theatergoers will gush about to friends. If you’re seeking something to brighten your day or a tune to whistle on the way home, this isn’t it.

Is it possible to beat the devil at his own game? Is it possible to beat the devil that resides in every man’s heart? McPherson, a reformed alcoholic himself, implies that it is, perhaps even accidentally. Brave theatergoers with a tolerance for the dark side of humanity may wish to find out for themselves.

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.

 

ProductionSeafarer
Written byConor McPherson
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Dec. 21st
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$0 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

 

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 Review! “Champions of Magic” an Astounding Show at the Golden Gate by Barry Willis

For the next few days, Bay Area theater fans have a rare opportunity to see the UK-based international touring show “Champions of Magic,” with twice-per-day performances through Dec. 1 at San Francisco’s downtown Golden Gate Theatre.

Five world-class illusionists and one aerialist/contortionist prove that classic theatrical magic is alive and well, with acts that include a mind-reader, a sleight-of-hand performer, an escape artist, and illusionists Strange & Young, who make people including themselves disappear and reappear instantly in ways that absolutely baffle and confound the audience.

Champions … is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families.

Aided by willing audience members, some little children, the sleight-of-hand artist gets an amazing amount of mileage from a Five of Clubs pulled from her deck, cut-and-torn paper, and various ordinary objects including rubber bands. Audience volunteers also propel the mind-reader, who on opening night correctly guessed names and relationships of random people pulled onstage. He also identified one woman as a Navy veteran and former presidential guard, without any apparent prior knowledge. How this is possible will keep you wondering long after the show is over.

The escape artist revives some of Houdini’s best tricks, including getting out of a straitjacket while submerged in a tank of water locked from the outside, a performance guaranteed to induce anxiety in anyone with a hint of claustrophobia. Strange & Young offer plenty of comedic patter as they leap about with a dynamic, quick-moving illusionist spectacle worthy of Las Vegas.

“Champions of Magic,” in fact, is the nearest thing to Las Vegas currently running in San Francisco, save the Cirque de Soleil production of “Amaluna” that runs into January. “Champions” is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families. The show’s run is short and if opening night is a good indicator, tickets may be in short supply. If dazzling spectacles appeal to you, do not miss this show.

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.

 

“Champions of Magic” International Touring Show

  • Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco
  • Two shows daily through Dec. 1
  • Tickets: $59.99 to $169.99
  • Info: broadwaysf.com

Ratings:

  • Overall: 5 of 5
  • Performance: 5 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 5 of 5

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 Theater Review: Big Sprawling “Oliver!” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Sold to the Undertaker – photo by Eric Chazankin

London in Charles Dickens’s time must have been close to hell on earth, choked with pollution, poverty, homelessness, and crime. “Oliver Twist,” the author’s second novel, depicts all this quite vividly. So does “Oliver!” the 1960 musical adaptation by Lionel Bart, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through December 15.

The show’s requirement of many children in the cast prompts theater companies to present it in the hope of generating substantial ticket sales—all those kids have parents, relatives, and friends who must attend. But despite its huge popularity, it’s not a feel-good extravaganza like “Annie.” It’s a grim portrait of a poor orphan boy (Cecilia Brenner and Gus Jordan, in alternating performances) doing his best to survive in unbelievably adverse circumstance.

This includes falling in with a group of scuzzy adolescent hoodlums led by an old hustler named Fagin (David Yen), who fences their stolen goods in exchange for providing them a bit of safety and mentorship, aided by his youthful apprentice The Artful Dodger (Mario Herrera). These small-time criminals are in turn under the thumb of a really serious criminal named Bill Sykes (the imposing Zachary Hasbany), a malevolent force who doesn’t hesitate to kill people who displease him or get in his way.

…the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing…

Survival is the primary plot, but there are some compelling secondary plots too, including love affairs among the adults—especially between the doomed, pathetically mistreated Nancy (Brittany Law) and the dastardly Sikes. There’s also a meandering subplot about the hunt for Oliver’s family of origin that’s resolved near the end, as is Fagin’s reconsideration of his disreputable career.

Cecilia Brenner as Oliver-Mario Herrera as Dodger-photo by Eric Chazankin

6th Street’s show has a huge cast—it’s in many ways an all-star gathering of North Bay theatrical talent, who make substantial contributions to its success under director Patrick Nims. The set by Sam Transleau is equally huge, occupying the entirety of the big stage in the G.K. Hardt theater, save the space backstage where Ginger Beavers leads an excellent seven-piece band.

There’s some inexplicable gender-bending in the adult casting, but most of the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing (choreography by Joseph Favalora).

Oliver’s personal triumph is uplifting, and Fagin’s repentance satisfying, but the real appeal of the show—and perhaps, the reason for its enduring popularity—is the number of great songs in it. Many of them broke out as pop and jazz standards—especially Nancy’s heartbreaking showcase number, “As Long As He Needs Me.” The music alone recommends this show, while the rest of it works with admirable effort in every direction to sustain that level.

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

 

ProductionOliver!
Written byLionel Bart
Directed byPatrick Nims
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough December 15th
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
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW: SF Playhouse Missteps with “Dance Nation” – by Nicole Singley

Time flies when you’re having fun. And it slows to a crawl when you aren’t. “Dance Nation” at San Francisco Playhouse succeeds in proving that an hour and fifty-two minutes can feel like an eternity. It fails at just about everything else it ostensibly sets out to accomplish. With no intermission and thus no chance for a polite escape, this production feels more like an avant-garde experiment in torture than an illuminating night at the theater.

The premise is straightforward enough. An Ohio dance troupe comprised of preteen girls – played by adult women of various ages, at the playwright’s instruction – is vying for a spot at Nationals in Tampa Bay. The competition is fierce, and things get really strange and gory. But there isn’t much more to the story, if it could even be called that. Instead it merely serves as a backdrop for a series of disjointed, drawn-out monologues, ranging from flat and painfully boring to overly-intense and agitating, like a bad slam poetry throwdown at the local café where angry feminists commune to rail against the patriarchy and destigmatize the female body. It plays like a misguided grab at women’s empowerment wrapped up in a hollow coming-of-age story about resilience and self-discovery. But none of it rings true.

Clare Barron has packed a lot into her characters, but little that’s terribly realistic or relatable. We bear witness to one girl’s narcissistic meltdown, reaching fever pitch as she shouts at the audience “I’m going to make you my bitch, you motherfucking cunt-munching piece of shit prick. I am your god. I am your second coming.” In another scene, a girl who’s just gotten her period smears menstrual blood across her face like war paint. In yet another, a familiar childhood pact takes a warped turn when the girls wipe armpit sweat on each other’s upper lips and kiss (what ever happened to the good old pinky promise?). We watch grown women depicting thirteen-year-old girls strip naked together without a hint of modesty or embarrassment. (Does this match your childhood locker room experience? It certainly doesn’t mine.) And yet despite their comfortable bond, the show opens awkwardly on the troupe abandoning an injured teammate on the dance floor. It all feels gratuitous, ill-fitting and off-key.

Are these the inner thoughts and lives of women? Good grief, let’s hope not.”

The cast of “Dance Nation” at work at San Francisco Playhouse (Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli)

The coup de grâce is the show’s conclusion (dare I call it that), which features the entire cast chanting “I wish my soul were as perfect as my pussy!” – louder with each repetition – so many times that I could hear it echoing inside my head the whole drive home. Are these the inner thoughts and lives of women? Good grief, let’s hope not. None of it serves any discernible purpose but to shock and repulse the audience, for shock’s sake alone. Despite being the work of a young female playwright, “Dance Nation” is so deeply out of touch with its subject matter that it fails to be emotionally accessible in any meaningful way. It tries really hard to be controversial and edgy – in keeping with much of contemporary art – but only managed to leave me feeling tired, bored and angry. It certainly didn’t resonate with my experience of puberty and early womanhood, adolescent rivalries and friendships, the inherent camaraderie in competitive sports, or just about anything else it reaches for.

Without more believable and fully-formed characters or a compelling and cohesive narrative arc, it’s hard to feel all that connected to or interested in anything that’s happening on stage. The dancing isn’t very good, either. It’s just a lot of forced, unnatural dialogue broken up by obnoxious monologues and little to no plot, with some pointless nudity and a lot of fake blood thrown into the mix. The actors commit a commendable amount of energy to their roles, but it’s not enough to make us care about what happens to their characters. The set doesn’t help much, either. It’s clunky and underwhelming, offering little to look at but a shelf full of trophies and large pillars that often block the audience’s view.

In light of this experience, it’s difficult to fathom why this play has received such high praise from other critics. (It won the Relentless Award, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and was even a Pulitzer Prize finalist.) Is Becca Wolff’s direction at fault? Did SF Playhouse simply miss the mark with this one? Given their excellent track record, it’s hard to imagine that’s the case, but without any basis for comparison, it’s impossible to know exactly what to think. All I can say with certainty is that from start to finish, I didn’t find a single minute of this show enjoyable. Seldom have I felt so anxious for something to be over. SF Playhouse calls itself an “empathy gym,” but the only thing “Dance Nation” exercised was this reviewer’s patience.

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.

 

ProductionDance Nation
Written byClare Barron
Directed byBecca Wolff
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThrough November 9th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2/5
Performance3/5
Script1/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Ross Valley Players Catch Tremendous Show in The Mousetrap – by Cari Lynn Pace

Evan Held as Giles Ralston at RVP.

This whodunit? play is so well-loved that Ross Valley Players sold out their opening night and had to bring in extra chairs. For good reason. This character-driven and exciting play keeps the audience guessing – and delightfully entertained.

Agatha Christie, that prolific mystery author, stipulated that film and television rights to The Mousetrap could not be sold until the London production closed. The Mousetrap opened 67 years ago and set the record for the longest-running stage play anywhere.

Director Adrian Elfenbaum skillfully controls the action and pacing of this true murder mystery, with a cast of actors who go over-the-top in their roles and accents.

The action is nonstop, the clues fly everywhere, and the ending has the typical Agatha Christie twist.

Welcome to an English bed-and-breakfast manor as the new and inexperienced owners, charmingly enacted by Heather Buck and Evan Held, anxiously await their very first guests. As they plump the pillows, the wireless (Brit for radio) is reporting a recent murder in London.

Tori Truss as Mrs. Boyle; Maria Mikheyenko as Miss Casewell at Ross Valley Players.

The fun begins with the arrival of an outrageously enthusiastic guest played by Andre Amarotico. He’s followed shortly by a prune-faced spinster, beautifully acted by Tori Truss who captures every disdainfully arched eyebrow imaginable. She’s annoyingly critical and a good balance for Steve Price, the proper Major and helpful gentleman. Maria Mikheyenko poses as the next arrival, an odd and clever young woman with indeterminate plans for the future.

The final guest is one without a reservation, claiming his car was stuck in the snow. Robert Molossi arrives with no luggage and a heavy accent, immediately arousing suspicions by all.

The wireless chirps an update on the recent murder, and a local detective sergeant (Steven Samp) arrives to alert and interview the guests. The connections between the guests, the manor house owners, and the London murder develop in scene after scene. Suddenly, the lights are out and one of the guests is dead. A piercing scream (kudos to Heather Buck), cut telephone lines, and the chase … begins. But whodunit?

Heather Buck as Molly Ralston; Evan Held as Giles Ralston at work in ‘The Mousetrap’

No spoilers will come from this reviewer! The play has been a favorite not only for its puzzling mystery of the real killer, but for the fun to switch finger-pointing as more clues are revealed. The action is nonstop, the clues fly everywhere, and the ending has the typical Agatha Christie twist.

After the final curtain, a cast member announces “Now that we have seen The Mousetrap, you are our partners in crime. Please preserve the tradition to keep the secret of whodunit locked in your hearts.” It’s a worthy custom that will allow future audiences and generations to be caught up in The Mousetrap.

 

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

 

 

ProductionThe Mousetrap
Written byAgatha Christie
Directed byAdrian Elfenbaum
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru October 13th.
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415. 456. 9555
Tickets$17 - $29
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! 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! Big Silly Fun in Cinnabar’s “Little Shop of Horrors” – by Barry Willis

Photo by Vero Kherian.

Roger Corman’s 1960 low-budget comedy/horror flick “The Little Shop of Horrors” is a classic of the genre. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was a staple of late-night TV, inspiring an adaptation as a stage musical by Howard Ashman, with music by Alan Menken.

It’s been in continual production somewhere since it debuted in 1982, for good reasons. The story is cheesy, the characters are as broadly drawn as possible, and the music is absolutely infectious—think “Rocky Horror Show” meets “Grease.” Cinnabar’s current production of “Little Shop” is a tremendously high-energy treatment of this All-American classic, directed by Nathan Cummings and choreographed by Bridget Codoni, running through September 22.

The little shop is Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, a failing retail business in a decrepit part of the city. Proprietor Mr. Mushnik (played with palpable fatigue and despair by Michael Van Why) prays for a miracle to keep his doors open. His hoped-for miracle appears when needed most— in the form of a carnivorous plant developed by Mushnik’s nerdy assistant Seymour Krelborn (Equity actor Michael McGurk).

Since its intro in 1982, American audiences can’t get enough schlocky story telling entertainment…

The presence of the plant in the shop generates astounding public interest for reasons that no one questions. Seymour names the plant “Audrey II” in honor of his co-worker Audrey (Sidney Raey-Gonzales), a sweetly reticent girl in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Dr. Orin Scrivello (Keith Baker, superb in multiple roles).

 

Seymour discovers by accident that the plant thrives on human flesh and blood — and that it speaks, demanding to be fed. Each feeding causes huge spurts in the plant’s aggressiveness and size—it goes from a “strange and interesting” thing in a small pot in the shop’s window to an enormous all-consuming monster that can devour a human in one gulp.

Mushnik’s business enjoys phenomenal growth in direct proportion to the plant’s, from selling a handful of posies each day to supplying all the flowers for the Rose Bowl Parade. Seymour undergoes a similar transition, from perpetually unnoticed back-room nobody to pop star, winning Audrey in the process. Her botanical namesake has solved multiple problems, but as in all monster lore — indeed, as in much of human life — the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Audrey II (voiced by Michelle Pagano, puppetry by Zane Walters — both excellent) becomes a massive problem. Solving it becomes Seymour’s new challenge.

Micheal McGurk as Seymour. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

The show’s patently ridiculous dramatic arc is further exaggerated by plenty of upbeat pop music, beautifully sung by Raey-Gonzales, McGurk, Baker, and the “doo-wop girls”: Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon (Selena Elize Flores, Aja Gianola-Norris, and Olivia Newbold, respectively). The trio’s harmonies are marvelous; the three are equally entertaining whether dolled up as an early ’60s girl group or in grunge mode as street urchins, and they nail the choreography. “Somewhere That’s Green,” a sweet invocation of idealized 1950s’ suburban living, is delivered with shimmering conviction by Raey-Gonzales. It’s the emotional high point of the first act.

The Doo-Wop Girls and Dr Scrivello. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Baker clearly relishes going over the top as the hyper-caffeinated, charming-but-evil Dr. Scrivello. The ultra-kinetic McGurk is absolutely in his element as Seymour. Raey-Gonzales is commanding as Audrey, with a Brooklyn accent that never falters, even when she’s singing.

Peter Q. Parish has conjured a facile set serving as florist shop and city street, needing only a few brief changes from scene to scene. Their brevity helps propel this quick-moving musical—less than two hours including a fifteen-minute intermission. Hilarious and enthralling from beginning to end, this “Little Shop of Horrors” is an entertainment bargain certain to sell out fast. It’s simply big silly fun, fabulously well done.

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.

 

 

ProductionLittle Shop of Horrors
Written byWritten by Howard Ashman, from the screenplay by Charles Griffith
Directed byDirected by Nathan Cummings.

Assisted by Cecelia Hamilton.
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Sept. 22nd
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$30 – $45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW! Merry Wives of Windsor Gain the Upper Hand – by Cari Lynn Pace

Summer and Shakespeare go together like fudge sauce on ice cream. To put the cherry on top, make it an outdoor presentation reminiscent of the London Globe Theatre’s open-air venue. The Curtain Theatre, performing in the Old Mill Park Amphitheatre in downtown Mill Valley, does exactly that. Now in their 20th year, this award-winning troupe presents Merry Wives of Windsor among towering redwoods through Sunday, September 8th.

The Curtain Theatre experience envelopes their audience in the late 1500’s. Absent the plastic chairs and jet streams visible overhead, the scene in this majestic redwood grove transforms time. A quartet of musicians in period garb quietly plays original songs written by Music Director Don Clark and Hal Hughes. The air fills with sounds of a fiddle, tin whistle, concertina, and other quaint instruments. Children scamper about the soft ground while adults pour their libations and chat. Costumed and bewigged actors, (authentically designed by Kathy Kingman-Solum and Hope Carrillo) beckon patrons to available seats.

…Grey Wolf is ridiculously perfect as Falstaff, charming and powerful and capable of stealing any scene on the stage…

The Curtain Theatre has no curtain, so Producer/Choreographer (and duo-role actor) Steve Beecroft grandly welcomes all from the front of the stage. Merry Wives of Windsor’s multi-layered plot focuses on a young maiden, Mistress Anne Page (lovely Lilly Jackson), who has attracted the eye of several suitors. Each suitor has his personal champion, including Anne’s parents who advocate differing preferences for their daughter’s match. As with much of Shakespeare’s plays, it takes a while to catch on to all the characters and their relationships.

Gray Wolf and friends at work for Curtain Theatre

Enter lustful Sir John Falstaff, who boasts of his intentions to seduce not merely one, but two of his acquaintances’ wives, one of whom is Anne’s mother. Grey Wolf is ridiculously perfect as Falstaff, charming and powerful and capable of stealing any scene on the stage. When the wives get wind of his plans, they team up to plot their amusing revenge. Heather Cherry and Marianne Shine make a formidable duo, outmaneuvering Falstaff and even exacting better behavior from their clueless husbands.

Director Kim Bromley notes “The central theme of this play is power, who wields it, who wants it, and who gets it.” Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor is lengthy and uneven in spots, yet ultimately allows women to gain the upper hand in a period of time when such was certainly not the norm.

The City of Mill Valley was recently under pressure from several nearby neighbors to curtail The Curtain Theatre and other public noise-producing events in Old Mill Park, site of the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival and the Dipsea Race. Happily, Steve Beecroft reports that performances have been adjusted to mollify neighbors yet continue with these free weekend performances. To that end, all may shout “Huzzah!” Not too loudly, please.

Playing at 2 PM through September 8th on Saturdays and Sundays and Labor Day Monday. Admission is FREE. For more information surf the web over to: www.curtaintheatre.org.

Open seating, picnics welcome, cookies and coffee available for purchase, and chairs are provided on a first-come basis, or bring your own. Dress in layers as this redwood grove is always much cooler than the street level.

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

 

ProductionMerry Wives of Windsor
Written byWilliam Shakespeare
Directed byKim Bromley
Producing CompanyCurtain Theatre
Production DatesThrough Sept. 8th
Production AddressOld Mill Park Amphitheater.

375 Throckmorton Avenue (behind the library), Mill Valley
Websitewww.curtaintheatre.org
Telephone
TicketsFree!
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

 

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! Stacy Ross Shines in “Year of Magical Thinking” – by Barry Willis

Stacy Ross at work at the Aurora Theatre. Photo courtesy Aurora Theatre Co

Anyone who’s read Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” might wonder how anyone could turn the book into a play. The answer is that only the author could do it, or at least, do it right. Prolific essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, Didion accomplishes the seemingly impossible in her one-woman/one-act play at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, through July 28.

On a stage and backdrop of what appear to be huge Travertine slabs (set by Kent Dorsey) Stacy Ross shines as she relates Didion’s horrific, heartbreaking tale of suddenly losing her husband and collaborator, writer John Gregory Dunne, while their adopted daughter was in a coma. Among the very best actors in the Bay Area, Ross fully inhabits the story without attempting to be Didion—an astute decision by her and director Nancy Carlin. Ross and Didion are as physically unlike as possible.

…brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life…

No one is ever prepared for a sudden loss, of course, and the shock of it is the running theme throughout the production’s ninety well-paced minutes. Ross opens with a recitation lifted almost verbatim from the book’s first chapter—about how Dunne collapsed as the author was preparing dinner, the arrival of paramedics, a panicky trip to the emergency room, and the inevitable aftermath. Even in shock and overwhelmed by sorrow, Didion can’t help injecting self-deprecating humor and ironic observation—she stands in line with insurance card in hand, because it seems the proper thing to do, and in the ER, she’s introduced to her husband’s momentary physician, whom she can’t resist describing as “a pre-teen in a white lab coat.”

The social circumstances of death get full vetting, brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life in Malibu and New York. But it’s the interior monolog that’s most compelling—an examination of pretending to go about the daily business of life while knowingly indulging in self-deception and compulsive rituals in the secret hope that all that’s happened can somehow be altered—the “magical thinking” of the title.

This solo production is an understated masterful performance that seamlessly blends lecture, confession, and conversation. In her book and play, Didion eloquently managed to encompass all of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous stages of dying—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—stages that apply not only to the terminally ill but to their survivors. Stacy Ross is brilliant in conveying a narrative whose subject will inevitably touch all of us.

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.

 

 

ProductionYear of Magical Thinking
Written byJoan Didion
Directed byNancy Carlin
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$49 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
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 THEATRE REVIEW: “Cabaret” a Solid Bet at Napa’s Lucky Penny – by Barry Willis

 

Ashley Garlick (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The current American political climate has had some predictable consequences. Among them: a spate of theatrical revivals of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret,” a musical now in its 53rd year. The latest North Bay version runs at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through June 16th.

The 1972 movie firmly established the show in pop culture—many people know the songs without understanding that the show itself isn’t a lightweight romp through the decadent underworld of Weimar Republic Berlin. The story’s time frame isn’t specific, but encompasses the rise of the Nazi party and increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. We often forget that the Nazi party was democratically elected, having gained popularity slowly but persistently throughout the late 1920s. By 1933 it was the most powerful political party in Germany. The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.

Directed by Ken Sonkin, this “Cabaret” is presented in shades of gray—except for the Nazi armbands, costumes by Rebecca Valentino are all black/white/gray. Lighting designer April George bathes the stage in flat yellowish light that gives the whole affair a grainy film-noir look. It’s an evocative effect but one that left this reviewer longing for more dramatic lighting, something that comes only late in the final act.

The core plot revolves around an itinerant American novelist, Cliff Bradshaw (a youngish Ryan Hook) befriended by German businessman Ernst Ludwig (F. James Raasch) on a train ride into Berlin. Ludwig knows the city intimately, and introduces Bradshaw to the Kit Kat Klub (the cabaret of the show’s title) and to Fraulein Schneider (Karen Pinomaki), proprietor of a rooming house where he takes up residence. At the club he meets a self-centered British songbird named Sally Bowles (a spirited Ashley Garlick). The two of them are soon deeply if contentiously involved.

Tim Setzer and Karen Pinomaki (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

A secondary love story involves Fraulein Schneider and fruit seller Herr Schultz (Tim Setzer), both of them in late middle age and deeply in love. The relationship between Bradshaw and Bowles is interestingly rocky and ultimately sort of pointless, but it’s the fate of Schneider and Schultz that hooks the audience. One of only three characters in the play who comprehend the inevitability of the approaching storm—the other two are Bradshaw and Ludwig—Schneider backs out of a late-in-life wedding, hoping to survive by “flying under the radar,” as we might say today. As stage director Michael Ross pointed out on opening night, Schneider and Shultz are the pair you’re rooting for. Setzer and Pinomaki are at the height of their considerable theatrical powers in conveying the sweetness and hopelessness of their characters’ relationship. The two are absolutely wonderful in this production.

The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.”

Denial of the obvious is a strong theme. As the tale progresses, the Nazi movement rises from potential menace to full tsunami, symbolized by a moment when the charming Herr Ludwig comes out of the political closet sporting a Nazi armband. Raasch is superb as the villainous but totally likeable true believer. Fraulein Schneider vows that maintaining a low profile will insure her survival; while Bradshaw tries desperately to get Bowles to leave Berlin with him—before it’s too late. Too hooked on minor league stardom to consider going elsewhere, she stays behind when he escapes to Paris. Herr Schultz is similarly clueless, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first. Setzer is magnificent in his portrayal of a kind-hearted man blinded by delusional hope.

Kirstin Pieschke and Brian Watson (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The show-within-a-show is the burlesque in the Kit Kat Klub, stunningly produced and performed by its Emcee (Brian Watson, the cast’s only Equity actor). Watson is spectacular throughout, as is the live music from a strong four-piece band led by Craig Burdette. Barry Martin is excellent in several minor roles—as Max, the club’s owner; as an inspector on the Berlin-Paris train; and as a Nazi officer. Andrea Dennison-Laufer is very good as Fraulein Kost, a resident of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house, who makes her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Staci Ariaga’s choreography is entertaining without being too difficult for the assorted Kit Kat girls, and boys.

Opening night was marred by too much stage smoke and sound effects that overwhelmed dialog—problems that we were assured would be corrected immediately. Fifty-some years after its debut, not much about this show will seem shocking other than its message. Unique to this production is a final dismissal to Nazi madness: the cast tossing their swastika-emblazoned armbands on the floor like so much trash. It’s a great directorial decision, and a really satisfying gesture—one performed with silent conviction that no words could emulate.

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

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byMusic by John Kander and Fred Ebb; Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed byKen Sonkin; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough June 16th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

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 THEATRE REVIEW: “Jazz” Dissects Life to Imitate Music at MTC – by Cari Pace

Clockwise, left to right: Troy, Tenille, Sullivan, Wright, Hall, Mayes, Lacy (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

The dictionary defines “jazz” as American music developed from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre.

It’s an accurate parallel to Nambi Kelley’s latest play “Jazz,” just opened at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. All the jazz components are here, dissected on stage. Based on the book by Toni Morrison and directed by Awoye Timpo, this production propels story lines, characters, and time frames from 1920s Virginia cotton fields to NYC’s Harlem. It’s not a musical and there are no instruments onstage, although Marcus Shelby’s music adds to the texture of the performance.

“Jazz” opens with a young girl’s funeral, then aggressively explodes into a polyphonic ensemble of an emotional wife and a cuckolded husband, surrounded by busybodies. A colorful talking and singing parrot joins the cacophony in an over-the-top role by multi-talented Paige Mayes.

Just let it waft over and enjoy.”

With jazz music, a bluesy baseline melody can be ephemeral, quickly punctuated then disappearing. It typically returns later, played by another instrument or in a different key. The well-worn story lines in “Jazz” follow this lead.

Wright, Mayes, Sullivan (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

Post-funeral, a flashback begins with the blues. It’s a mother’s suicide, and a young girl (C. Kelly Wright) is sent off to work the cotton fields. Boy (Michael Gene Sullivan) meets girl, they enjoy some happy married years, then husband meets younger girl (Dezi Soley), younger girl tempts then taunts husband, husband rages out of control, wife rages at girl’s funeral. And we’re back where we started, almost.

A reappearing melody or theme is a familiar and welcoming ploy in every genre of music, yet difficult to manage on the stage. Threads of several story lines in “Jazz” repeat stage right, then left, with minor changes in pitch and timbre. These flashbacks can be confusing; it’s best not to fret. Just let it waft over and enjoy.

The actors put a lot of energy into their roles, although without mikes many quick spoken lines are lost. Local favorite Margo Hall plays multiple roles with skillful versatility while Lisa Lacy, Dane Troy and Tiffany Tenille complete the talented cast. They dance ragtime, sing snippets of spiritual songs, and make the most of the “devil music” in “Jazz.”

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

 

ProductionJazz
Written byAdapted by Nambi E. Kelley
Based on the book by Toni Morrison
Music by Marcus Shelby
Directed byDirected by Awoye Timpo
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$10 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Astounding, Shocking Realism in “The Jungle” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Jonathan Nyati and Ben Turner (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

A crisis in a refugee camp comes roaring to life each night in “The Jungle,” at The Curran through May 19. San Francisco is the third stop for this astounding international touring production, which originated in London and then moved to New York.

Conceived and written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, “The Jungle” has won universal acclaim. The co-playwrights lived in the sprawling multi-ethnic refugee camp in Calais, France during its peak, 2015-2016, when its approximately 8000 residents lived peaceably if contentiously with each other while enduring continual harassment from French authorities. The production is a full-immersion experience that puts most of the audience in the midst of a large shantytown café — called “Salar’s Restaurant” or the “Afghan Café”— that served as a community center for the camp. The high-intensity story encompasses the final few months of the camp’s  existence, before it was destroyed by French police in October 2016.

Arya Rose Lohmor and Ammar Haj Ahmad (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

The elegant interior of the recently renovated Curran has been converted to a plywood-and-rough-framing temporary structure where the audience sits on hard wooden benches, sipping fragrant tea while arguments rage among the camp’s residents about what to do in the face of increasing pressure from French authorities. Several British aid workers try their best to help, to intervene, and in some cases, to transport refugees across the channel to Kent — a horrendously frustrating and occasionally comic effort for everyone involved. Two dozen impassioned actors wander among the audience, murmuring and shouting at each other in English, French, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish, and several African languages as the crisis builds, reinforced by real news clips on television sets placed here and there around the café (video design by Duncan McLean and Tristan Shepherd).

…the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.”

A huge extended table serves as a thrust stage where most of the drama and a few moments of levity and hope take place — including several confrontations with haughty French officials and condescending police — interspersed with tales of unbelievable hardships endured by refugees from throughout the Middle East and Africa in their quest for a better life away from the violence of their homelands. Among these are stories of leaving behind all they owned, knew, and loved, walking thousands of miles, enduring kidnappings, torture, and extortion, and embarking on perilous attempts to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded inflatable rubber boats or being packed by the hundreds into leaky ships with little chance of reaching their destinations. Such a tale is told in an unwavering voice by a clear-eyed Sudanese boy named Okot (John Pfumojena).

Ammar Haj Ahmad and John Pfumojena (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

What these refugees endure in their quest for peace and freedom is horrific, as is their cold reception by Europeans. French duplicity gets deserved exposure as politicians pay lip service to human rights while planning to eliminate the camp. Despite its self-image as a nation of asylum, France does not have a glowing history in support of human rights — Haiti’s crushing poverty, for example, is the result of terms imposed by France when the island nation sought independence.

The show’s denouement is among the most shattering you are likely ever to experience in any theater. Its hyper-realism will shock you to the core and at the very least make you reconsider our own refugee crisis. “The Jungle” may be the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.

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 Jungle
Written byJoe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed byStephen Daldry and Justin Martin
Producing CompanySonia Friedman Productions with Tom Kirdahy present the Good Chance Theatre, National Theatre and Young Vic production
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressThe Curran
445 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone(415) 358-1220
Tickets$25 – $165
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! Praise for Hershey Felder’s “A Paris Love Story” – by Victor Cordell

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

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

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

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

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

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

…clever and enticing… engenders anticipation…”

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

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infectiously energetic… great silly lightweight fun…”

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

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

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

 

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

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “The Nether” Enthralls at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

Imagine a virtual world in which you are free to live out your darkest fantasies without repercussion – a perfectly rendered, immersive escape from reality, wherein you can look, speak, and act as you please, your identity securely concealed.

But what makes something real? If a virtual experience has the power to make us think and feel, is it truly artificial? Are our choices ever free from consequence?

By turns philosophical and eerily prophetic, “The Nether” – making its Sonoma County premiere at Left Edge Theatre through March 24th –invites us into such a world, raising these and many other timely questions about morality and culpability in the digital era. But before “logging in,” users be warned: unsettling subject matter is in no short supply here.

Schloemp and Rosa (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We open on a bleak interrogation room at an unspecified time in the future. Detective Morris (Leila Rosa) sits across from a man in old-fashioned clothing with a guarded demeanor. What was once the internet has evolved into the Nether – an immense network of online realms in which students attend virtual schools, employees telecommute to virtual offices, and people like Mr. Sims (Chris Schloemp) log in to indulge their innermost desires.

Sims – or “Papa,” as his avatar is known – is the proprietor of a realm dubbed the Hideaway, an elaborately designed Victorian home conjuring up a hypnotic nostalgia for simpler times past with its ornate furniture and poplar-lined vistas. Visitors can enjoy a stiff drink, dance along to old records on the gramophone, or molest and dismember prepubescent girls.

Morris is determined to shut the Hideaway down and hold Sims accountable for his gruesome crimes – crimes committed, that is, by and against avatars in the Nether. But has anyone really been hurt? Morris presses Hideaway participant Mr. Doyle (David L. Yen) for incriminating details, her own composure slowly crumbling in the process.

Wright and Spring (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We cut between the interrogation room and scenes inside the Hideaway, where we meet Iris (the stellar Lana Spring) – Papa’s favorite little girl – and Mr. Woodnut (Jared N. Wright), an undercover agent sent to gather evidence for Morris’s investigation. Mr. Woodnut has honorable intentions, but soon discovers the lines between personal and professional – as well as virtual and actual – are hard to draw inside this realm. He is bewitched by the Hideaway and all it has to offer, becoming himself a reluctant participant in Papa’s twisted world.

…haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant…”

It is evident Director Argo Thompson has chosen his cast with care. Schloemp brings grace and finesse to a difficult role, making Sims remarkably sympathetic given his deviant inclinations. Wright is compelling as the well-meaning detective, grappling with unexpected temptation and fearful self-reflection. Yen delivers a surprisingly heart-rending performance as the reticent and wounded Mr. Doyle. Spring’s Iris is ethereal and deeply felt, adding much to the story’s emotional impact. (It’s important to note that Spring is an adult, and that the worst of what happens is not depicted on-stage.)

Rosa is arguably the only weak link. She doesn’t seem at home in her role, and the opening scenes are a bit awkward because of this. Her behavior may be intentional, however, given what we learn later in the show.

Yen (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Thompson’s set anchors the interrogation room at its center, flanked on both sides by rooms within the Hideaway, keeping us tethered to reality as we experience the virtual world. His crew has chosen fitting furniture and props for the Hideaway, and the interrogation room feels adequately cold and futuristic. Schloemp’s projections are an effective enhancement, transforming the interrogation room’s table into an interactive portal to the Nether.

Joe Winkler has set the show to an appropriately ominous soundtrack, from floor-shaking electronic overtures to the crackle and pop of old-timey tunes on Papa’s Victrola. There’s a moment of eerie dissonance near the show’s end when the soundtracks from both worlds collide, as the real and virtual begin to meld.

Act one is weighed down by philosophical quandary and is slow to build momentum. When the pieces begin to fall together, however, the pace accelerates into a second act rich with chilling developments and surprising revelations, and an ending that begs as many questions as it answers.

Though not for the faint-hearted, “The Nether” is a haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant ride well worth taking if you can stomach the subject matter. Playwright Jennifer Haley pulls us out of our comfort zone and thrusts us into this dark exploration of a not-so-far-off future that could very well become our own.

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

 

 

ProductionThe Nether
Written byJennifer Haley
Directed byArgo Thompson
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 24th
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
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Partial ensemble (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

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

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

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

 

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

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Stunning “After Miss Julie” at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Trouble brews as a flighty heiress cavorts with her head servant in “After Miss Julie,” Patrick Marber’s adaptation of the August Strindberg classic, at Main Stage West through March 3.

Reset in an English country manor at the close of World War II, with the Labor Party about to win the national election and disrupt traditional social structures, the play features Jennifer Coté as Christine, a loyal scullery maid; Sam Coughlin as John, her fiancé and the manor’s head servant; and Ilana Niernberger as Miss Julie, the heiress who can’t resist defying class restrictions by seducing him. All the action plays out in the manor’s cramped downstairs kitchen, while a wild celebration swirls about outside.

Jointly directed by Elizabeth Craven and David Lear, who also did the set design, this brilliantly staged and performed piece is the antidote to the poison that is Strindberg’s much-praised “Creditors,” extended to March 3 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Both plays were written in 1888, and both are about the power dynamic inherent in sexual triangles—strong superficial resemblances, but “After Miss Julie” actually has uplifting moments and an ambiguous ending that proves to be far more nuanced and far more satisfying than the abrupt finality of “Creditors.”

…a stunning, perfectly paced pas de deux… that will keep you on edge right to the end…”

Coughlin and Niernberger (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Coté is excellent in her role as the determined, hard-working Christine, while Coughlin and Niernberger are astounding in their portrayal of a pair of hopelessly attracted lovers deep in the throes of an intractable dominant/submissive relationship. Julie relishes lording it over John, issuing orders that as her lover and employee he must obey. She then immediately demands that he issue orders to her in return and he complies, despite knowing how wrong it all is. With class distinctions amplified by differences in dialect, it’s a stunning, perfectly paced pas de deux—quite literally, with white-hot choreography by Dana Seghesio—that will keep you on edge right to the end, and will give you plenty to ponder for days after.

Sound designer Matthew Eben Jones has selected some wonderful music from the WWII era that perfectly establishes the play’s time frame, and Missy Weaver’s moody subdued lighting works marvelously to reinforce every scene. Running time is about 90 minutes. Opening night featured a short intermission; it wasn’t clear if MSW would keep it or not for the duration of the show. In either case it’s a fantastically good production, among the best in a series of superb productions by Sebastopol’s quirky troupe. In its few short years, Main Stage West has become one of the North Bay’s leading theatre companies. “After Miss Julie” proves why.

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.

 

ProductionAfter Miss Julie
Written byPatrick Marber
Directed byElizabeth Craven and David Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough March 3rd
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
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Unpleasant “Creditors” at Aurora Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Nothing kills one’s ardor more quickly than hearing this from a partner: “We have to talk.”

That pretty much sums up this reviewer’s take on August Strindberg’s “Creditors,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company through February 24. Written in 1888, the then-scandalous play examines the relationships of two men, Adolph and Gustav (Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Jonathan Rhys Williams, respectively) and one woman, Tekla (Rebecca Dines). Adolph is a self-doubting artist with unspecified neurological problems that manifest in spastic mannerisms and ambulatory difficulties. Gustav is a new friend talking him through an artistic identity crisis—should he pursue painting or sculpture?—while  fanning the flames of doubt in him about his wife Tekla, who as we discover later, is Gustav’s ex-wife.

The initial exchange between the two men goes on for maybe twenty minutes—it feels like hours of manipulative psychobabble—until at some point Tekla appears, an independent, free-spirited novelist who has published a book with a central character based on Gustav. She’s been gone a week, approximately as long as Gustav has known Adolph, and has come back to flirt with her own husband while her ex lurks unseen to hear everything they say. There is nothing about the two men that is at all appealing—Adolph is a cringing neurotic and Gustav, a master schemer. It’s hard to imagine what attracts Tekla to either of them. It isn’t money, despite the play’s title.

…the actors are excellent playing despicable characters…”

Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Rebecca Dines

Tekla is the prototype of a new kind of woman emerging in Western culture at the time—assertive, confident, uninhibited. She can entertain the concept of loving more than one person while the two men cannot. (Strindberg must have thought his character was unique; he accused Henrik Ibsen of plagiarism in making Hedda Gabler a similar type. Certainly Tekla and Hedda cannot have been the only free-spirited women in fin de siècle Scandinavia.) Tekla flirts and spars with Adolph until he leaves in a huff, whereupon Gustav enters and attempts a seduction. Tekla almost takes the bait then thinks better of it, and to cut to the chase, Adolph comes back in and dies of an epileptic seizure. That’s a wrap.

In the week since it opened, “Creditors” has been gushed about by a score of critics, many of whom, it must be assumed, are classicists. And while it’s always unfair to judge the art of the past through the lens of the present, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s so gush-worthy. The story is horrible, but directed by Barbara Damashek, the actors are excellent playing despicable characters—two men suffering from terminal cases of emotional hemorrhoids, and a woman who can’t be trusted. It’s ninety minutes of late 19th century European navel-gazing, a repellent talkathon in which almost nothing happens other than the malicious destruction of the weakest character.

The fact that something is old doesn’t make it valuable or worth reviving. As David Foster Wallace put it in another context, this play is “a supposedly fun thing I will never do again.”

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.

 

ProductionCreditors
Written byAugust Strindberg
Directed byBarbara Damashek
Producing CompanyAurora Theatre Co.
Production DatesThrough February 24th
Production AddressAurora Theatre Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone(510) 843-4822
Tickets$49
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! A Solid “Streetcar Named Desire” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is among the most popular recurring productions in regional theater, with a couple of bucket-list roles for ambitious actors: the loutish Stanley Kowalski and his wilting-flower sister-in-law Blanche DuBois. The current revival of this favorite play runs in the studio theater at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 17.

Directed by Phoebe Moyer, Ariel Zuckerman and Juliet Noonan do justice to these difficult parts, aided by superb supporting performances from Melissa Claire as Blanche’s pregnant sister Stella, and Edward McCloud as Mitch, Stanley’s bowling-and-poker pal who falls under Blanche’s spell. With a consistently bland mid-south accent and palpable emotional tenderness, Claire is rock-solid as the long-suffering sister, moving from joy at being reunited with Blanche to despair at having to get her removed from the cramped flat she shares with Stanley. McCloud also has a complicated path to traverse as Stanley’s army buddy who asserts himself enough to pursue Blanche, only to have his hopes dashed by plausible tales about her scandalous behavior back in Laurel, Mississippi.

…compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.”

Zuckerman and Noonan (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Zuckerman apparently relishes his part as the savage Stanley, and in many scenes seems to be channeling Marlon Brando, whose portrayal of Stanley in the film version has forever affected those who followed. Zuckerman even looks like the young Brando, and some of his postures are eerily like the film actor’s. He’s also in great athletic shape, much more impressive than Brando in his youth.

Juliet Noonan has the unenviable task of carrying the bulk of the drama—like Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Blanche DuBois is among the most demanding roles in 20th century American theater, perhaps the female equivalent of Hamlet, and Noonan gets it about ninety percent right. Her physical gestures are evocative, and her timing excellent, but she falls in and out of her Mississippi plantation accent. With moments of true pathos, she beautifully conveys Blanche’s self-delusion and persistent manipulation of those around her.

Matt Farrell and Laura Downing-Lee are very good as Steve and Eunice, who live upstairs from Stella and Stanley and provide Stella with comfort when Stanley rages. A full-size spiral staircase leads to their unseen apartment, an amazing bit of set design in 6th Street’s compact studio theater. While not the best production this reviewer has seen, this “Streetcar” generates plenty of compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.

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 Streetcar Named Desire
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byPhoebe Moyer
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 17th
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
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Sex with Strangers” Turns Up the Heat at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

How do you define success, and what would you sacrifice to achieve it? Would you be willing to take advantage of others? To trade in your dignity, your privacy, or even your identity? Would you dare to risk a shot at love?

Pondering the price of fame in the digital era, “Sex with Strangers” is the smart, seductive modern romance by Emmy Award-winning House of Cards writer Laura Eason, playing now through February 17th at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre.

Olivia (Sandra Ish) has faded into obscurity following the long-ago release of her modestly successful novel. Badly bruised by mixed reviews and fearing public scrutiny, she continues to write but shares her work with no one. Now in her late thirties, Olivia has settled for a teaching job and relegated writing to a hobby.

Ethan (Dean Linnard) is an up-and-coming writer who, at only 28, has already made a splash on the New York Times Best Seller list and amassed a sizeable following online. Having leveraged his controversial blog about casual sex into two books and an impending movie deal, Ethan’s fame and fortune are on an upward trajectory. Even so, he is restless to escape his reputation as philandering lothario and rebrand himself as a serious author.

Linnard and Ish (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

When a snowstorm leaves these strangers stranded and alone at a remote bed-and-breakfast, sparks fly as flirtatious tension escalates into a passionate affair. But we soon learn their chance encounter wasn’t chance at all, and when Ethan offers to help relaunch Olivia’s career, there is ample room to doubt his motives. Olivia, we learn, has ambitions of her own, and we are left to question who is using whom. Or could this be a genuine connection?

…a steamy, entertaining story full of laugh-out-loud moments…”

Anticipation is half the fun, and the opening scenes are butterfly-inducing as heat and momentum build between Olivia and Ethan. Their banter appears unrehearsed – the pair’s interactions feel alluringly natural, raw, and resultantly real. Eason’s dialogue is sharp and delightfully fast-paced, and these two pros deliver it with ease.

Linnard’s Ethan is irresistibly charming. His coarse manners and frank confidence are at once repulsive and magnetic. There’s a sweet sincerity in his affection for Olivia that helps sustain our hope in the honesty of his intentions, despite the reasons we are given to suspect he can’t be trusted. Ish is equally excellent as voluptuous Olivia, bringing a compelling blend of vulnerability, sass, and surprising strength to the role.

Ish and Linnard (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

The unlikelihood of their pairing makes their romance all the more interesting to watch unfold. What might have been a modest age difference in decades past is now a significant gap made ever broader by the rapid technological advancements we’ve seen in the last twenty years. Ethan’s Wi-Fi dependent world is ruled by an ever-ringing cell phone, overflowing email inbox, and constant public exposure. Olivia’s world – at least when we first meet her – is significantly more quiet. She’s still a fan, after all, of things like privacy and hard copy books.

A subtle power shift occurs as Olivia’s star begins to rise and Ethan’s fades, culminating in a simple, striking moment when the scene is interrupted by a ringing phone. We expect to see Ethan reach into his pocket. But this time, much to our surprise, the call is for Olivia. (Kudos to Sound Designer Joe Winkler for this and other well-timed effects.)

Eason’s ending is powerful and poignant, leaving the door open for us to reflect on what we hope will happen after the curtain falls. We are at once indulged but also wanting more.

Under Diane Bailey’s direction, Linnard and Ish hit it out of the park. Light Designer April George creates a convincing blizzard outside the opening scene’s window, and Argo Thompson’s set provides an attractive and believable backdrop, converting cleanly from a cozy bed-and-breakfast to an urban apartment.

“Sex with Strangers” is a steamy, entertaining story full of laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of food for serious thought. Leave the kids at home, check your inhibitions at the door, and strap in for a night of fun you won’t regret the morning after.

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

 

ProductionSex with Strangers
Written byLaura Eason
Directed byDiane Bailey
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 17th
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
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Poignant, Poetic “Swallow” at Main Stage West – by Nicole Singley

At Sebastopol’s Main Stage West through January 27th, “Swallow” is a lyrical and haunting reflection on how we put our pieces back together and rebuild – our wounds, our relationships, our sense of purpose and of self – through the healing conduit of shared suffering and human connection.

Rebecca (Michelle Maxson) is alone and angry. Her husband has fallen in love with another woman. She takes the pain out on herself and fears her scars may never heal. Meanwhile, upstairs neighbor Anna (Dana Scott Seghesio) hasn’t left her apartment in months and is tearing it apart piece by piece, living on ice cubes and canned beans in total isolation. When the two begin to talk through Anna’s closed door, their fragile, faceless friendship evolves into an unusual but much-needed lifeline.

Sam (Skyler Cooper) is in the process of becoming the man he feels himself to be, enduring the humiliation of a job at which he is still called Samantha and struggling to gain confidence and acceptance in his new identity. Recognizing his own loneliness in Rebecca when he discovers her sitting by herself at a coffee shop, Sam takes a chance and starts a conversation.

Cast members Cooper, Maxson, and Seghesio at work.

Although she is initially wary, Rebecca begins to let her walls down as she reopens herself to the possibility of finding new love and understanding. But ho