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.

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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

 

 

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 ~~ Sorkin’s “Mockingbird” Fails to Sing at Golden Gate Theatre

By Sue Morgan

Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird played a pivotal role in awakening the social consciousness of countless Americans as they studied the story in middle school and high school English classrooms across the nation. It holds a secure place, among others, at the very top of the Western literary pedestal as it tackled, with clear-eyed accuracy, the issue of racial injustice in this country.

Award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, among many others) said he knew when he was asked to adapt Mockingbird for the stage, that “…there was no way I could get out alive.” Despite his early trepidation, Sorkin’s adaptation was a Broadway hit and has gone on to tour the country. It’s playing through October 9th at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco.

…the national touring production in San Francisco felt tone deaf and oddly flat…

Sorkin did not have free rein in reimagining the story. His earliest attempt raised the ire of the Lee estate, which launched a lawsuit contending that the playwright had gone too far in modifying both the character and behavior of beloved Atticus Finch, the story’s kind-hearted, principled lawyer, played in the national touring production by Richard Thomas.

Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”) and The Company of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

To move forward with the adaptation, Sorkin had to tone down his initial vision to meet the conditions set out in the suit. Given those constraints and believing that the original story, first published in 1960, did not stand the test of time, Sorkin made Atticus the primary protagonist, and dispersed the duty of narrator among Scout (Melanie Moore), her brother Jem (Justin Mark) and their friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson).

He also gave additional voice to Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), the Finch family maid, and to Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), a black man unjustly accused of rape by a white woman.

While this sounds reasonable in theory, to this reviewer the national touring production in San Francisco felt tone deaf and oddly flat, despite its fraught content and the beautiful careening of Scout about the stage.

Melanie Moore (“Scout Finch”). Photo by: J. Cervantes.

Sorkin stated in an interview that, “Using black characters simply as atmosphere in 2022, it’s not only noticeable, but more importantly, it’s a waste because these two characters’ voices should be heard.” Sorkin therefore gave Calpurnia a few lines in which she was able to vent her feelings about Atticus’ philosophy of treating everyone (including rabid bigots) with respect, and her resentment of being expected to be sufficiently grateful to Atticus for agreeing to represent Tom Robinson in the first place.

These sentiments were no doubt in play in the minds of subjugated peoples at the time the novel was written, but Harper Lee understood that a black servant in 1936 Alabama would not have risked speaking them aloud to any white person, no matter how kindly they appeared to be. She was not using her black characters as “atmosphere,” but was accurately portraying their inability to give voice to their own inner fury for fear of risking their lives.

Melanie Moore (“Scout Finch”) and Jacqueline Williams (“Calpurnia”). Photo: J. Cervantes.

A lot a mansplaining took place, particularly around every potentially poignant moment. When Tom Robinson explained that he helped his accuser with her chores because he felt sorry for her, Sorkin had Atticus explain to the jury that Tom Robinson knew that it wasn’t appropriate for a black man to express feeling sorry for (and therefore, superior to) a white woman, but did so anyway as a means of reclaiming his own sense of dignity. These sorts of heavy-handed explanations felt unnecessary and contrived.

In terms of direction, there was also a strange sense of disconnect when the character Boo Radley was played by the same actor (Travis Johns) who earlier played Mr. Cunningham (to very good effect). Because no attempt was made to alter his appearance from that of the previous character, it felt somewhat confusing to see him appear from behind a door when those who were familiar with the novel were expecting Radley. Had there been obvious previous instances of someone playing multiple characters, it may have worked but, as that was not the case, it just seemed odd.

Sorkin added humor to the production. While there were many humorous scenes in the novel, they were primarily centered on the antics of the children and felt organic and in context. Sorkin’s humor involved jokes (Dill explaining that he won Jem’s pants playing strip poker, “but only with the men”) and exaggerated facial expressions by Calpurnia, meant to evoke laughs, which felt not only inappropriate, but almost obscene to this viewer as they appeared meant to convey her exasperation (rather than anger) with what the white folk were saying now.

It was as if Sorkin forgot that the piece is a drama. Or perhaps he couldn’t imagine a contemporary audience having the fortitude to hold space for the unrelenting injustice unfolding before them. Whatever his motivation, it undermined what should have been a roiling sense of outrage at the conclusion of the play. Instead we are left with a mild and wholly bearable sadness.

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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

 

 

ProductionTo Kill a Mockingbird
Written byAdapted by Aaron Sorkin from the Harper Lee original
Directed byBartlett Sher
Producing CompanyNational Touring Production / Broadway SF
Production DatesThrough Oct 9th
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
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!----

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!