PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Chart Topper: “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Golden Gate

By Barry Willis

The Temptations were one of Motown’s most successful and enduring vocal groups, one that in many ways shaped and defined American pop music in the 1960s and ’70s. Four years after it debuted at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations has come roaring back to San Francisco after becoming a major attraction on Broadway.

The national touring production has reportedly sold out the capacious Golden Gate Theatre for its entire run into early December–and deservedly so. It’s a dazzling spectacle covering the entire arc of the Temps’ storied career, from their origins as a street-corner doo-wop act in the late 1950s to long-term superstardom.

…the #1 R&B group of all time”…

Beautifully structured by playwright Dominique Morisseau (Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew) and narrated by Marcus Paul James as the group’s founder Otis Williams, the story encompasses not only the group’s enviable success, but many of the personal tragedies incurred along the way: Williams’ estrangement from his wife Josephine (Najah Hetsberger) and their son; the dismissal from the lineup of Paul Williams (James T. Lane) due to his alcoholism; and the unreliability of top talents such as Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin (Jalen Harris and Elijah Ahmad Lewis, respectively), both of whom had great solo careers despite their personal issues. Ruffin was dismissed from the group due to drug problems — he died of an overdose — and the erratic Kendricks succumbed to lung cancer.

PHOTO CREDIT: EMILIO MADRID
National Touring Company of AIN’T TOO PROUD

These tragedies provide real-world counterbalance to the upbeat feel of the whole show, as do projections that put many Temptations hit songs into historical context, including the 1967 riots in Detroit and the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King in Memphis the following year. All of that is valuable information, especially for younger members of the audience who weren’t here at the time, but it’s the music that sustains this amazing production, performed by a stellar cast backed by an equally stellar band behind the stage’s backdrop.

The nearly three-hour show sails along thanks to expert flawless stagecraft, amazing dance (Sergio Trujillo, choreographer) and absolutely stunning vocal performances. Songs include all the Temps’s greatest hits — “My Girl,” “Cloud Nine,” “Get Ready,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “War,” “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” “Shout,” and many many others too numerous to list here.

The Temptations were listed by Billboard magazine as “The #1 R&B Group of All Time.” For those who weren’t around during their peak, Ain’t Too Proud is a vastly entertaining immersion in cultural history. For those who were, it’s an equally valuable reminder of how much Motown contributed to our lives. It’s a night in the theater that no one will forget.

-30-

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

 

ProductionAin't Too Proud
Written byDominique Morissea
Directed & Choreographed byDirected by Des McAnuff; Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Producing CompanyBroadwaySF
Production DatesThru Dec 4th, 2022
Production Address1192 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://www.broadwaysf.com/
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$56 - $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Thrilling “Jagged Little Pill” Triumphs in SF

By Sue Morgan

Like Alanis Morissette’s raw 1995 alt-rock/grunge album, which sold over 33 million copies, Jagged Little Pill can resonate long after the performance is over. The production shines unrelenting light on the often hidden or denied reality of human life. A week later, Morisette’s songs and images from the performance continue to play in my mind.

Diablo Cody (winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Screenplay for Juno) won the 2021 Tony award for Best Book of a Musical for Jagged Little Pill. Cody could have safely chosen to simply showcase Morissette’s music and lyrics in a standard jukebox musical, but instead elevated them with brilliant subtlety by creating a story using the dramatic archetype of the outwardly perfect family’s inward unraveling. She set the action in provincial whitebread Connecticut reinforcing the universality of the experience, rather than perpetuating the stereotype that life’s baser experiences occur only in impoverished places.

(L to R) Heidi Blickenstaff, Allison Sheppard and Jena VanElslander in the North American Tour of JAGGED LITTLE PILL. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The story line focuses on the Healy family, a privileged group comprised of mom, Mary Jane, “MJ,” (Heidi Blickenstaff) a perfectionista, universally envied for her seemingly charmed life; dad, Steve (Chris Hoch), a corporate attorney who works 60 hours per week; son, Nick (Dillon Klena), who succeeds at every endeavor and has just been accepted to Harvard; and adopted daughter, Frankie (Lauren Chanel), who feels unseen within her family and is in a romantic relationship with her best friend, Jo (Jade McLeod).

…The women of JLP have the most powerful roles…

Some have criticized the playwright for piling too many “hot button” topics into one show. Cody pulls off the magic trick of invoking addiction, sexuality, alienation, rape (and the culture of disbelieving/blaming/shaming the victim), perfectionism, workaholism, and betrayal—issues that are all too commonplace—all while eliciting empathy, compassion, and ultimately, a sense of redemption, rather than judgment, ennui or despair.

Set pieces – living room, kitchen, classroom, hospital room, etc. – glide on and off stage, while a few elements are assisted by actors, but the pieces de resistance are the gorgeous screen projections that instantly, and to excellent effect, turn each setting into its intended location or accentuate a mood or aesthetic.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s astonishing choreography melds seamlessly with Tom Kitt’s musical arrangements which, together, nearly capture the intensity of Morissette’s album. The feral, seemingly unselfconscious, yet clearly precise, hip-hop movements recalled the cathartic vitality of early moshpit melees.

Two of the most astonishing numbers were expressionistic compositions performed by Jena VanElslander who mirrored both Mary Jane’s and Bella’s sexual assualts. VanElslander’s portrayal of the intoxicated victims of “date rape” was stunning in its technical virtuosity but also in its ability to make us viscerally feel the confusion, fear, disbelief and despair of the characters. I literally stopped breathing during the performances.

The women of JLP have the most powerful roles. Heidi Blickenstaff was perfection as Mary Jane, looking every bit the preppy soccer mom, even as she sidled into back alleys to await her drug dealer, whom she tried, unsuccessfully, to engage in small talk. Blickenstaff’s gorgeous and powerful voice was able to capture Morisette’s intensity, if not entirely her rawness. Her head-to-head battle with Lauren Chanel’s Frankie during “All I Really Want” was a fiercely poignant way to highlight the mutual sense of alienation felt by this mother and daughter.

Allison Sheppard and the North American Touring Company of JAGGED LITTLE PILL. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Allison Sheppard as Bella was riveting in her performance of “Predator,” and did an outstanding job portraying Bella’s initial sense of self-loathing, gradually transforming into righteous indignation. The night’s show-stopper was “You Oughta Know,” performed by Jade McLeod, as Jo, who had half the audience on their feet as she belted out Morissette’s anthem to romantic betrayal. Both McLeod and Chanel more than held their own with the dancers in the troupe.

Jagged Little Pill may be the beginning of a trend in which jukebox musicals deal capably with grittier aspects of life. I salute Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, Diablo Cody, Diane Paulus, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Tom Kitt and the rest of the creative team for making it beautiful, powerful and moving, while also making it real. Given the opportunity, I would gladly see it again.

Performance is 2 1/2 hours with one 15 minute intermission. Masks are not required, but strongly recommended.

-30-

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

 

 

ProductionJagged Little Pill
Written byDiablo Cody
Directed byDiane Paulus
Producing CompanyGolden Gate Theatre
Production DatesThrough November 6th
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$66 – $157
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Nasty, Disjointed “Oklahoma!” Lands in San Francisco

By Barry Willis

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” must have been a deeply traumatic event in the young life of director Daniel Fish.

There’s no other explanation for his nasty, disjointed interpretation of the beloved 1950s musical. A small part celebration, a larger part attack, but mostly a personal exorcism, Fish’s national touring production opened Wednesday August 17 to a nearly full house in San Francisco’s capacious Golden Gate Theatre.

Entering the theater, the audience squinted into a broad bank of harsh bright lights from high above the stage, perhaps a forewarning that they were about to undergo psychological torment of the type dished out to political prisoners. Below these lights lay the set for the entire production: a huge open room filled with rows of picnic tables and walls festooned with mounted guns—dozens of rifles and shotguns, implying that the space is possibly a hunting club, but also perhaps the rec room of a church, or a school cafeteria. It’s community meeting space with lots and lots of guns.

Gun culture is established early in the show—this is Oklahoma, of course—and despite the story’s lack of gunplay, it provides thematic background throughout a nearly three hour performance. Russian novelist/playwright Anton Chekhov famously commented “If there’s a gun hanging on the wall in act one . . . you must fire the gun by act three,” advice clearly followed by Fish in his rewriting of the show’s closing moments.

In the opening scene we meet most of the pertinent characters near the town of Claremore, Oklahoma Territory, all presided over by matriarch Aunt Eller (Barbara Walsh). This introduction closely adheres to Hammerstein’s original, with cowboy Curly (Sean Grandillo) accompanying himself on guitar while singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” We meet Laurey (Sasha Hutchings), the girl of his dreams, and Jud Fry (Christopher Bannon), village idiot and Curly’s rival for Laurey, goofy adventurer Will (Hennesey Winkler) and pivotal comic-relief character Ado Annie (Sis), the “girl who cain’t say no.” They’re mostly in fine voice, especially Sis, blessed with superb comic timing and a powerful contralto. The Laurey/Curly duet “People Will Say We’re in Love” is delightful.

The company of the National Tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! —- Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

But our short stay in traditional romantic musical territory is abruptly ended by a lengthy blackout scene in which Curly and Jud have a man-to-man discussion. The blackout is as annoying and unjustifiable as the airfield landing lights that illuminate the theater on entering, and is inexplicably repeated in the second act. If one long blackout wasn’t enough, how about two or three?

The original production featured a “dream ballet” in which Laurey tries to sort out her feelings for Curly and Jud. That’s been jettisoned for a solo modern dance routine done to a high-intensity heavy-metal medley of “Oklahoma!” tunes, in the midst of more stage smoke than ever obscured a 1980s rock concert.

Clad in an oversized T–shirt emblazoned with the words “Dream Baby Dream,” dancer Jordan Wynn performs well even if John Heginbotham’s choreography bears no relationship to 1906 Oklahoma, or to the rest of the show. It’s also Wynn’s only appearance. Benj Mirman does a nice turn as Ali Hakim, the “Persian” peddler, as does Mitch Tebo as local jurist Andrew Carnes. The production’s dozen or so musicians are excellent, and the show’s actors overall are very good.

…Director Fish’s conceptual conceits sink this show.

As done originally, both stage and film, “Oklahoma!” is a lightweight musical hampered by a weak story—its weakness forgivable because great music carries the show. Fish makes the too-obvious mistake of trying to push “Oklahoma!” into dramatic territory that would have appalled both its authors and previous generations of musical theater fans.

In the original, Jud appears in the penultimate scene at the wedding of Laurey and Curly. He’s drunk and belligerent, provokes a fistfight with Curly, then dies after falling on his own knife—an accidental death. In Fish’s version, he arrives stone cold sober, with a wedding gift for Curly: a revolver whose grip he puts in Curly’s hands. He provokes the inevitable single shot that kills him, and the blood-spattered newlyweds then sing the “Oklahoma!” anthem as off-key and ironically as possible. It’s an intentional abomination.

Fish may have many good reasons for hating the musical, for hating gun culture, for hating the state of Oklahoma and its history. He may even have some good reasons for sympathizing with a character as repellent as Jud Fry, but there’s no justification for turning what’s basically an upbeat romantic fantasy into a screed about evil.

This “Oklahoma!” is little more than a protracted, self-indulgent exercise in millennial irony. Professional tastemakers in New York and elsewhere may have gushed about its brilliance, but bear in mind that they also considered “Guards at the Taj” a delightful little comedy, “The Humans,” an insightful depiction of family dynamics, “Dance Nation” a revelation about adolescent girls, and “Next to Normal” a fun romp through the minefield of drug addiction and delusional behavior. God save us.

There are certain theatrical icons that should be off-limits to reinterpretation. Fish’s “Oklahoma!” neither honors the original nor does it provide any degree of satisfaction for an audience eager to leave the theater with songs in their hearts. Instead they go home sorry that they paid to be insulted.

-30-

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionOklahoma!
Written byRichard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II /alterations by Daniel Fish
Directed byDaniel Fish
Producing CompanyNational Touring Production / Broadway SF
Production DatesThrough Sept. 11th
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$56 – $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

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.

-30-

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe 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!