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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle DeBow at work as Patsy Cline.

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

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

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

 

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

 

ProductionHello, Dolly
Written byBook by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru Oct. 21st
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$28 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An ASR Theater Review! Bottomless Laughs with “The Savannah Sipping Society” at RVP – by Nicole Singley

Cast of TSSS at RVP

Lost and looking for change, four middle-aged women forge an unlikely alliance over cocktails, romantic woes, and career changes. Fans of “The Dixie Swim Club” and “Always a Bridesmaid” will recognize the hallmarks of authors Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten in this laugh-out-loud comedy about strong southern women and the transformative powers of friendship. At Ross Valley Players through August 12th, “The Savannah Sipping Society” packs in an abundance of clever zingers and feel-good moments guaranteed to leave you smiling.

Uptight and overly-logical Randa (Monica Snell) is recovering from a meltdown and the loss of her high-pressure job, alone in a large house she can no longer afford and unsure of what to do next. Recently widowed Dot (Mary Bishop) is facing an uncertain future on her own, having retired to the area with her husband only months before his passing.

Heather Shepardson at work as Marla Faye in “Savannah Sipping Society”

Boisterous, bottle-toting Marla Faye (Heather Shepardson) is a recent arrival, too, fleeing a painful divorce and philandering husband in Texas. The three cross paths in the aftermath of a hellaciously hot yoga class, and with nothing to lose, decide to reconvene at Randa’s house for drinks.

The evening is off to an uncomfortable start when Dot shows up with an unexpected guest in tow. Bold and brazen beautician Jinx (Sumi Narendran Cardinale) is new in town, too, having spent the majority of her life-changing jobs and moving from place to place. She’s decided to try her hand at life coaching, and with a few drinks under their belts, the women agree to be her guinea pigs. We watch the group grow and bond through a series of hilarious misadventures, cheering each other on as they shake things up and work to overcome their fears and failures.

Monica Snell, Heather Shepardson, and Mary Bishop at work in RVP’s “The Savannah Sipping Society”

Thanks to good casting, awkward social tension evolves into real chemistry and camaraderie as the story progresses. Snell’s Randa is palpably high-strung and Bishop’s Dot is utterly endearing. Narendran Cardinale’s Jinx has spunk and swagger, although her closing monologue felt lacking in sincerity. The writing is strong enough to save the revelatory moment, however, and her performance is otherwise able.

Cleverly written and strongly felt, ‘The Savannah Sipping Society’ is as uplifting as it is hysterical.

Under Tina Taylor’s direction, the women offer up a heap of memorable quips with excellent timing. Shepardson is the stand-out, earning a sizable share of the laughs with well-delivered snark and sass. “Women who carry a few extra pounds,” she informs us, “live longer than the men who call it to their attention.”

The simple, charming set (designed by Tom O’Brien and constructed by Michael Walraven) remains more or less unchanged throughout the show. Miles Smith effectively highlights the characters’ different personalities with complementary costume choices. A chorus of crickets and summer thunderstorms (sound design by Billie Cox) – combined unwittingly with the heat and humidity of opening night – made for an immersive experience.

Cleverly written and strongly felt, “The Savannah Sipping Society” is as uplifting as it is hysterical. Dress for the heat, grab a drink, and sip along to your heart’s content – because according to Marla Faye, “drink responsibly means don’t spill it.”

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

 

 

ProductionThe Savannah Sipping Society
Written byJessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten
Directed byTina Taylor
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru August 12th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415. 456.9555
Tickets$15 - $27
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Uproarious, Upbeat “Shrek, The Musical” at Raven Theater – by Nicole Singley

Shrek: The Musical at Raven Theater

Based on the popular animated DreamWorks movie and book by William Steig, “Shrek, The Musical” is foot-tapping fun for the whole family, with enough adult humor in the mix to satisfy audiences of all ages. At Healdsburg’s Raven Theater through July 8th, this adventurous tale packs in a score of catchy tunes, outrageous laughs, and, of course, a happy and heartwarming ending to top it all off.

Our unlikely but lovable hero, Shrek (Caleb Daniel Noal), is a curmudgeonly ogre who keeps to himself in the solitude of his swamp. That is until a crowd of fairytale characters comes knocking seeking refuge on his land. The evil Lord Farquaad – large in ego, small in stature, and played brilliantly by Bill Garcia – has issued them an ominous eviction notice from the neighboring kingdom of Duloc, and they have nowhere else to go.

A feast for the eyes and ears…

With the unwanted help of a talkative donkey he meets along the way (the hilarious Troy Thomas Evans), Shrek sets out to Duloc and strikes a deal with Lord Farquaad to reclaim his swamp. He must rescue Princess Fiona (Kelly Hitman) from a dragon-guarded tower and escort her to the castle, where Farquaad hopes to make her his bride. Things are on course until a shocking secret threatens to derail our hero’s journey, reminding us that “beautiful ain’t always pretty,” and proving sometimes life surprises us with endings far happier than anything we could have planned.

A feast for the eyes and ears, “Shrek” features entertaining choreography by Katie Watts-Whitaker and an ensemble of talented singers, all accompanied by a live eight-piece chamber orchestra. Standout vocal performances by the vivacious Hitman and enthusiastic Evans are made all the more enjoyable by the physicality of their acting. Fiona’s facial expressions and Donkey’s body language often communicate as much or more than their lines and lyrics.

Evans Noal and Hitman in Shrek:The Musical

Noal nails the characteristic accent movie fans will remember, but he is hard to hear at times. His Shrek feels a bit muted and unenergetic; a more dynamic performance with increased physicality might help to convey more emotion. Audiences may feel inclined to cut him some slack, however, for the evident limitations of his cumbersome garb.

The artistic team and crew at Raven Theater have brought this feel-good show to life with a host of elaborate costumes (Jeanine Grey and Robert Zelenka), spectacular make-up (Tara Kelly Ryan), and clever props (Kerry Duvall). Highlights include a singing dragon (designed and fabricated by Michael Mingoia and puppeteered by Eric Yanez) and a sassy gingerbread cookie (voiced and puppeteered by Stephanie Beard).

Garcia has designed and fabricated his own ingenious masking, adding much to the tear-inducing hilarity of his turn as the altitude-challenged Lord Farquaad. The show is worth seeing for his performance alone, thanks to a handful of laugh-out-loud moments that just might bring you to your knees. (Pun intended, for those who’ve seen it.)

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

 

 

ProductionShrek: The Musical
Written byJeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed byKerry Duvall
Producing CompanyRaven Theater
Production DatesThru July 8th
Production AddressRaven Theater Healdsburg
115 North Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Websitehttp://www.raventheater.org
Telephone707-433-6335
TicketsSee website
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5

An ASR Theater Review! Delightful “Soft Power” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Cultural appropriation gets turned upside down in David Henry Hwang’s “Soft Power,” through July 8 at San Francisco’s Curran.

China is clearly on its way toward being the dominant economic force in the 21st century. Its cultural influence isn’t yet on par with its industrial and financial power, but there seems little doubt that its ascendency is inevitable. Directed by Leigh Silverman, the fantastically entertaining “Soft Power” imagines a near future when Chinese film, TV, and theater borrow heavily and indiscriminately from standard tropes of 20th-century American popular culture. The title is code for a nation’s global cultural influence.

Hwang opens the piece with a meeting between himself (played by Francis Hue), a successful screenwriter, and Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), an executive with “Dragon Media” sent to Hollywood to recruit talent for productions for the Chinese domestic market. Xing’s comprehension of English is excellent but he needs help with idioms and cultural details. His slight Chinese accent gradually disappears as the story moves forward in time, an indication that he’s become fully assimilated.

Alyse Alan Louis (center), working in ‘Soft Power’ at the Curran. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

A classic Hollywood trope involves his much younger starlet girlfriend Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis, a fantastically talented singer who also does a superb impression of Hillary Clinton in one of the core story’s many tangents.)

The ambitious but somewhat out-of-control script covers everything from America’s love affair with firearms to the venomous 2016 presidential election and its aftermath to typical American/European stereotypes of Asians in such beloved shows as “The King and I” and similar huge-scale theatrical productions.

Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is especially delicious, riffing on classics like “Billy the Kid” and “Oklahoma.” Watching nearly two dozen mostly Asian performers hamming it up in blonde wigs and mid-South accents is a scream.

‘Soft Power’ is a wildly entertaining celebration…

The script leaps forward to a televised discussion among Chinese cultural intellectuals about the “invention of new theatrical forms” combining speech, song, and dance. Stagecraft is superb, immersive, and at times almost overwhelming.

This is a hilarious must-see production for anyone interested in the future, in the abysmal state of American politics or in an alternate take on the stupidly contentious issue of cultural appropriation. Should Anglo women be driven out of business for making and selling tacos and burritos? Is it fair that white college girls get harassed by their Hispanic sisters for wearing hoop earrings? These questions aren’t hypothetical; both have happened recently.

A visit to McDonald’s, a fine eatery, in ‘Soft Power.’
Photo by Craig Schwartz

The bottom line is that humans copy everything they like—food, fashion, music, art, language, technology. “Soft Power” is a wildly entertaining celebration of this eternal truth. It’s a genius production whose short three-week run does it an unintentional  disservice.

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer 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

 

 

Production“Dear Evan Hansen”
Written byWritten by Steven Levenson,

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byMichael Greif
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesDecember 30th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$99 – $325
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?------

 

An ASR Theater Review! Bold, Incisive “Dry Powder” at Aurora Theatre – by Barry Willis

One devilish deal leads to the next in Sarah Burgess’s incisive “Dry Powder,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, through July 22.

Directed by Jennifer King, this Bay Area premiere is a dark comedy that peers into the often impenetrable world of private equity—a niche of the financial world where companies are bought, sold, merged, or dismembered in pursuit of mind-blowing profits.

A high-stakes game with enormous potential for victory and defeat, and enormous potential to affect countless people, private equity is little understood by ordinary citizens except as a scapegoat for all that might and can go wrong on the grand economic scale. The show’s title refers to working capital—money in reserve, the industry’s primary tool.

Bay Area stalwart Aldo Billingsly, along with Jeremy Kahn, in ‘Dry Powder’ at Aurora Theater

Bay Area theater veteran Aldo Billingsly is brilliant as Rick, the volatile founder of a private equity firm that’s recoiling from some very bad press about his lavish wedding party in the aftermath of a buyout that threw thousands of people out of work.

Junior partners Seth (Jeremy Kahn) and Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown) bring him potential deals, treatments for deals, financial projections for various scenarios, personal advice, and insider opinions about the probable public relations consequences of their deals—in this case, a proposed buyout of an American luggage maker with more than 500 employees.

Emily Jeanne Brown at work as Jenny, in ‘Dry Powder’

It’s a deal that Seth has been nursing for months, in the process forming a strong bond with Jeff (Kevin Kemp), co-owner of the target company. The two have such a pronounced “bromance” that Jeff is actually excited about the possibility of reviving the brand and re-jiggering its business model to create a whole new market for personalized luggage.

A math-whiz elitist with zero empathy for working people, Jenny dismisses Jeff’s ideas as feel-good nonsense and presents an alternate plan to buy the company, spin off its assets, and send production offshore—a plan with a larger potential upside but horrible social consequences. Numbers are all that matter to Jenny. The fact that this will render 500 people jobless is of no concern to her—”It’s their responsibility to learn how to do something else,” she flatly states.

Hilarious and horrific, ‘Dry Powder’ is a quickie tour of one of the outer rings of hell…

Therein lies the moral struggle in Rick’s office, depicted with superb energy and conviction on the Aurora’s simple, all-white thrust stage (set by Tanya Oellana, lights by Kurt Landisman, sound by James Ard). Jenny and Seth battle like adolescent brother and sister—much of it side-splittingly funny—and Rick alternately takes their counsel or reins them in. A couple of plot twists near the end drive home the Faustian nature of their business, including a desperate alliance with a Hong Kong financier so corrupt that he’s lost his Chinese citizenship.

Hilarious and horrific, “Dry Powder” is a quickie tour of one of the outer rings of hell—if you believe the old adage that the love of money is the root of all evil. In Berkeley, the message will certainly find an eager audience, who may be dismayed at the verity of another old adage: Everyone has a price.

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer 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

 

 

ProductionDetroit '67
Written byDominique Morisseau
Directed byDarryl V. Jones
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Oct. 7th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$33 – $65
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

 

An ASR Theater Review! Spectacular Transcendence Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

“Stairway to Paradise” at Transcendence Theater Company

The old adage has it that the difference between good and great is enormous. That enormity is totally apparent in “Stairway to Paradise,” the current production by Transcendence Theatre Company, at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, through July 1.

Now in its seventh year, Transcendence doesn’t deliver traditional drama, comedy or musical productions but instead offers stellar revues of music and dance by dozens of Broadway professionals, whose youth is belied by their skill, confidence, and commanding stage presence. “Stairway” is a collection of uplifting songs from Broadway classics with a few enduring pop hits thrown in for variety. The performances range from stunning solo efforts to duets, trios, and full ensemble pieces that will make you glad to be alive.

Some of the performances have a charmingly improvisational characteristic—an intimate, almost throwaway feel—but there is a daunting amount of rehearsal behind each Transcendence production. Each piece segues seamlessly into the next, backed by the rock-solid and solidly-rocking Transcendence band. Comedic intervals include a spoof on a TV game show that may involve volunteers from the audience.

The venue in the park’s stone ruins couldn’t be more accommodating. Ticketholders can enjoy picnicking from 5 p.m. onward until the show begins at 8, on a roughly constructed but perfectly serviceable stage set against the Sonoma hills.

Transcendence Theatre Company is the summer’s North Bay musical destination.

Transcendence does winter holiday shows indoors—last season’s were at the Marin Veterans Auditorium in San Rafael and the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa—and a series of summer shows at Jack London. “Stairway to Paradise” runs through July 1, to be followed by “Fantastical Family Night” July 13 & 14; “Shall We Dance” August 3 – 19; and “Gala Celebration” September 7 – 9.

Transcendence Theatre Company is the summer’s North Bay musical destination. Ordering tickets well in advance is highly recommended. These shows sell out quickly, and with good reason: the world is in dire need of the kind of positive energy that Transcendence serves up at every show.

 

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer 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

 

 

Transcendence Theatre Company presents

“Stairway to Paradise”

Through July 1: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Jack London State Historic Park  Glen Ellen, CA

Tickets: $45 – $145 (single, reserved seating); Group discounts available Info: 877-424-1414 ext. 1,

www.BestNightEver.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars