PICK ASR ~~ TheatreWorks’ Sondheim Tribute a Delightful Production

By Joanne Engelhardt

Combine a half-dozen versatile actors, a maestro of the keyboard (Bill Liberatore) and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s long-time artistic director Robert Kelley (now retired), and the result is Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration — a concoction that makes for a pleasurable two hours of theatre.

Both Kelley and Liberatore say they’ve been so influenced by Sondheim over the years that they felt he deserved his own production chockful of his incredibly long list of songs – some so familiar it’s hard not to start singing along.

The women (Melissa WolfKlain, Solona Husband, and Anne Tolpegin) butt heads with the men (Sleiman Alahmadieh, Nick Nakashima, and Noel Anthony Escobar) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration,” performing June 5-30.
Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Many, like “Putting it Together,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Pretty Women” and “Love is in the Air,” not to mention the sensitive, soulful “Children Will Listen,” are as familiar to theatregoers as old friends. Others such as “Loving You,” “Love’s a Bond” and “There is No Other Way” introduce audiences to lesser-known Sondheim songs. Yet, by the time the audience heads home, the actors have sung a whopping 35 songs — 36 in fact,because “Send in the Clowns” is sung twice.

” … a pleasurable two hours of theatre …”

During Kelley’s 50-year tenure at TheatreWorks, he actually mounted 18 Sondheim productions. Upon learning that it’s now “legal” to create a musical review of Sondheim’s works, Kelley said the first thing he did was ask Liberatore to collaborate with him as they have many times before.

The cast (l to r: Melissa WolfKlain, Nick Nakashima, Solona Husband, Noel Anthony Escobar, Anne Tolpegin, and Sleiman Alahmadieh) put a show together in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

And, while not every song or performance zings, it’s likely audiences will recognize once again Sondheim’s musical genius through most of the songs sung, danced and acted here. What’s so surprising is that all of the music – which sounds both fulsome and lyrical — comes from Liberatore’s melodious piano playing and Artie Storch’s occasional drumming accompaniment.

No small credit, of course, goes to the cadre of fine performers, most particularly the diminutive Solona Husband as Sally, who acts, dances, jumps and belts out her songs with joyfulness. Nick Nakashina as Gene and Melissa WolfKlain are solid additions who know how to charm an audience with a sassy wink or nod. Rounding out the cast with equally fine performances are Anne Tolpegin as Lena, Sleiman Alahmadieh as George, and Noel Anthony as Ben.

The cast (l to r: Anne Tolpegin, Sleiman Alahmadieh, Solona Husband, Noel Anthony Escobar, Nick Nakashima, and Melissa WolfKlain) embraces new possibilities in “Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Sondheim, who passed away in 2021 at the age of 91, wrote an astonishing 334 songs in his lifetime. That’s why Kelley and Liberatore decided to concentrate on songs that are primarily focused on love – in all its iterations: first love, love lost, broken hearts, redemptive love and more. Audiences happily responded to the upbeat “Love is in the Air, ”Everybody Says Don’t,” “Can That Boy Foxtrot” and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” WolfKlain’s rendition of “The Wedding is Off” is another crowd pleaser.

Then comes the poignant “Send in the Clowns,” sung with heartfelt sincerity by Tolpegin, and the equally touching “We Do Not Belong Together” sung by Husband and Alahmadieh. Husband also stands out in “Our Time” with Nakashima and Alahmadieh as well. The same trio joins up in “Old Friends” and does a terrific switching hats routine.

Kelley sandwiches in touching songs like “Children Will Listen,” sung by WolfKlain and Tolpegin. with comedic ones like “Agony” sung by Nakashima and Anthony, as well as “Any Moment/Moments in the Woods,” sung by Anthony and WolfKlain, to balance out the program.

But it’s the song “Being Alive,” sung by all six performers, that ends the show on a high note. It’s a reminder of just how astounding Sondheim’s music really is.

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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

 

ProductionBeing Alive: A Sondheim Celebration
Conceived by
Robert Kelley and William Liberatore
Directed byRobert Kelley
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Entre Acts
Production DatesThru June 30th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$37- $82
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK ASR! ~~ LASC’s Fabulous “Young Frankenstein” is Monstrous Laughs!

By Joanne Engelhardt

Whenever you go to a Mel Brooks production, you know you’re in for a barrel of laughs, sight gags, and a quirky plot. But when it’s also a musical with sensational actors, singers, and dancers, it’s a given that it’s going to be good.

The Los Altos Stage Company’s current production of Young Frankenstein isn’t just good.

It’s GREAT!

(L-R) Bryan Moriarty as The Monster, and Joey Dippel as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein at work.

Director/choreographer Morgan Dayley has pushed her cast of 13 actors to the highest levels of absurdity to make this production zing. There’s hardly a false note anywhere, although this reviewer thought there were a few times when the onstage band conducted by Benjamin Belew played a tad too loudly to hear the zany lyrics being sung. But that’s a trifle because sold-out audiences like the one at last Sunday’s matinee couldn’t stop laughing, cheering and happily enjoying the whacky show.

Young Frankenstein is based on the 1974 comedy film written by Gene Wilder and Brooks. Brooks and Thomas Meehan began working on the musical version in 2006; it opened on Broadway the following year.

“… sold-out audiences … couldn’t stop laughing …”

In LASC’s production, it took just a little lime-colored headpiece and platform shoes to turn Bryan Moriarty into The Monster, but he was a perfect one. Other standout performers — in a cast that is uniformly excellent — are Dave Leon as Igor, Caitlin Gjerdrum as the rubber-faced Frau Blucher, an over-the-top Gwyneth Price Panos as Elizabeth and Keith Larson as the hapless one-eyed Inspector Kemp.

(L-R) Dave Leon as Igor, Joey Dippel as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, & Gwenaveire Garlick as Inga.

Who’s left to mention? Why, Frankenstein’s heir, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (fast-talking Joey Dippel), who is the dean of anatomy at a respected New York City medical school. This Frankenstein has spent his lifetime insisting he’s not a madman, but a scientist –- he even tries to distance himself by saying that his last name is pronounced “Fronk-en-steen.”

But when he finds out he has inherited his grandfather’s castle in Transylvania, he is forced to head there to resolve the issue of what to do with the property.
Eventually he meets all the people who work in the castle as well as a yodeling (and beautiful) lab assistant named Inga (a delightful Gwenaveire Garlick).

Joey Dippel as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in “Young Frankenstein.”

Perhaps it’s best to let theatregoers discover all the charm and joys of LASC’s Young Frankenstein on their own because it’s got it all: Fine dance numbers, strong vocals, fun costumes (thanks to Lance Muller), a versatile set by Bryan Hornbeck, good sound (Chris Beer and Brian Foley) and lighting (Carol Fischer).

“Young Frankenstein” cast stepping it out!

And that rarity: A couple of tap numbers including Irving Berlin’s “Putting on the Ritz.” It’s worth the price of admission just to watch The Monster try to keep his top hat and lime headpiece on while tapping!

This show is 2 ½ hours of unadulterated fun including one 15-minute intermission. Go see it!

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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

 

ProductionYoung Frankenstein
Written byMel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Music-Lyrics by M. brooks.
Directed byMorgan Dayley
Producing CompanyLos Altos Stage Co.
Production DatesThru June 23rd
Production Address97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos, CA
Websitelosaltosstage.org
Telephone650.941.0551
Tickets$22-$45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Quirky, Comical and Weird: “Pear Slices 2024”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Mountain View’s Pear Theatre is unique in the mid-Peninsula area in that it supports its own playwrights guild. This year’s compilation of eight short plays – all written by members of The Pear Playwright’s Guild – can justifiably be called an entertaining evening of theatre.

Half of the eight are directed by Troy Johnson, and half by Arcadia Conrad. Johnson, a member of The Pear’s board of directors, has co-directed Pear Slices 16 times, while Conrad is co-directing at the Pear for the first time.

” … ‘Pear Slices 2024′ is worth seeing …”

A mere half-dozen versatile actors make up the cast for all eight short plays, which means sometimes an actor must rush off stage in one costume and walk out in about a minute in a totally different outfit and persona. That usually means there’s a trained off-stage crew helping the actors handle their quick changes.

Several of the short plays are both engrossing and comical – something not always easy to achieve. Two of the best are whimsical or whacky – or both! That certainly describes Brick House, written by Paul Braverman, who not only is a member of Pear’s board but is also an actor and playwright.

It brought down the house watching three actors walk on with pink pig snorts and ears, earnestly discussing the pros and cons of whether to build their homes out of straw, sticks or brick. Pig 1 (Bezachin Jifar) lords it over the other two pigs (Lizzie Izyumin and Arohan Deshpande) because his house is made of brick and he knows the Fox (Vanessa Alvarez) won’t be able to blow his house down. The humorous dialog has Pigs 2 and 3 mixing up the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood with the fox. Silly? Yes. Funny: Absolutely.

Bezachin Jifar in “Brick House” by Paul Braverman.

Greg Lam’s clever take on all things Shakespearean is another fine short play. Called Juliet’s Post Credits Scene, Lam manages to include the names of a dozen or more Shakespeare plays (with one actor almost saying the dreaded word MacBeth inside the theater!)

Cleaning Up, written by Christine C. Hsu, is another interesting short. Actors Jifar and Vivian Truong expertly unfold the odd but interesting storyline. Truong plays Ruby, who was previously married to Jifar’s Donny. His second wife recently passed away, and Ruby attended her funeral, bringing food for the reception afterward. It’s just a simple plot, but the two actors make it come alive and retain our attention.

Jenna Ruby Marvet at work in “Pear Slices 2024.”

While the short called I’m Not Her by Teresa Veramendi is somewhat difficult to watch, it’s nevertheless riveting thanks to the performance of its lone actor, Jenna Ruby Marvet playing the character Passion Monster. It’s not easy to keep an audience’s attention for 10+ minutes when you’re on stage all alone, but Marvet manages to do just that.

L-R: Bezachin Jifar and Vivienne Truong in CLEANING UP by Christine C. Hsu.

Although Truong is never seen (only heard), she nevertheless is the most interesting person in Cherielyn Ferguson’s Backyard. The setting is the backyard of Dana (Vanessa Alvarez) who is sitting with her friend Jill (Izyumin). They’re discussing plans for a school book fair and Truong (as Robin) is supposed to join them. Instead, Dana and Jill hear Robin constantly berating her children, screaming at them to do what she says. Disparate reactions of Jill and Dana are the heart of this play.

(L-R): Bezachin Jifar and Jenna Ruby Marvet in “Juliet’s Post Credits Scene” by Greg Lam.

Three other short plays complete this year’s Pear Slices. One, Accidental Immortal by Sophie Naylor left this reviewer a tad confused, with actor Arohan Deshpande (Charlie) rushing his lines a bit, and Marvet showing up in a mask as Death.

This reviewer also thought the two remaining short plays could benefit from a bit more polish. The first is Bridgette Dutta Portman’s Fertile Soil featuring Marvet and Truong as two women planting a garden. The storyline has promise, but seems to run out of gas by play’s end. Ditto the second and last play of the night, The Tarot Reading by Sophie Naylor. (Suggestion to The Pear: Make sure the last show is a crowd pleaser because the audience needs to leave the theater with a good feeling about the plays.)

Overall, Pear Slices 2024 is worth seeing, both to admire the work of The Pear’s Playwright’s Guild as well as the production of short plays by those same playwrights.

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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

 

ProductionPear Slices 2024
Written byThe Pear Playwrights’ Guild
Directed byTroy Johnson and Arcadia Conrad
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru June 2nd
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.75/5
Performance4.0/5
Script3.75/5
Stagecraft3.25/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

Pick ASR!  Palo Alto Players’ Tender, Pastel Version of “The Music Man”

By Joanne Engelhardt

If you’re at least 50, it’s likely you’ve seen The Music Man several times over the years. Meredith Willson both wrote and produced it the 1957 Broadway hit, a portrait of the fictional town of River City, Iowa. It won five Tony Awards that year.

Five years later, it was made into a wildly popular film adaptation starring Robert Preston, Buddy Hackett, Ron Howard, and Shirley Jones. Of course, it’s been a mainstay of community theatre companies everywhere since then. Many theater fans consider The Music Man the greatest piece of Americana ever written.

“… sure to resonate with audiences of all ages …”

Because of its wholesomeness and down-home characters, the musical still draws in adults who remember the movie, as well as young people seeing it for the very first time.

Photo by Scott Lasky — Harold Hill (Alex Perez) convinces the citizens of River City, Iowa that the presence of a pool table in town is trouble in THE MUSIC MAN at Palo Alto Players.

Palo Alto Players’ current rendition of the predictably sweet story doesn’t disappoint. That said, on opening night, this reviewer believed that “Professor” Harold Hill (a charming Alex Perez) spoke and sang perhaps a tad softly (maybe because he has a lot of songs to sing and words to speak).

The Music Man’s first scene is a classic – and PAP’s version is a winner. Aboard a train heading to River City, a number of traveling salesmen are debating whether they are becoming a dying breed thanks to modern technology.  One has to posit that it’s a difficult scene to do well, because all the men on the train have to sway and bounce in precise harmony! (They performed flawlessly on opening night.)

The last man to get off the train in River City turns out to be Hill himself, who’s decided it’s the perfect town for him to do his special kind of “sales” (Spoiler Alert: he’s a con man.) And so he promises to form a children’s marching band and gets parents to pony up for musical instruments as well as band uniforms. Then, after collecting the money, Hill plans to skip town and head to another to sell his spiel. Of course, he always likes to woo a lady or two wherever he goes, but things in River City don’t exactly turn out the way the professor expects.

There are several excellent performances in PAP’s production, not least of which is Gabrielle McColgan as Mrs. Paroo, whose daughter Marian (Alicia Teeter), is the town’s librarian and the object of Harold Hill’s affection. Both McColgan and Teeter have two of the loveliest voices in this show.

Photo by Scott Lasky — Pictured: Winthrop Paroo (Russell Nakagawa, who alternates the role with Henry Champlin) sees the Wells Fargo Wagon coming down the road in THE MUSIC MAN, Meredith Willson’s six-time, Tony Award-winning musical comedy.

Other standouts include Sheridan Stewart, who plays the town mayor’s oldest daughter, Zaneeta, with Andrew Mo as bad boy Tommy Djilas, and Russell Nakagawa playing Winthrop Paroo. (Nakagawa shares his role with Henry Champlin.) On opening night Nakagawa was wildly applauded as he proudly sang his second-act song, “Gary, Indiana.”

One of the “inside jokes” in The Music Man is that the four men who serve on the school board can’t stand each other. Yet they suddenly turn into a barbershop quartet thanks to Prof. Hill recognizing that their voices blend perfectly as parts of the quartet. Together with Hill they sing “Ice Cream” and “Sincere.” Later they again join up with Hill (and Marian) to sing “Lida Rose” and “Will I Ever Tell You,” in beautiful harmony.

Director Lee Ann Payne has her hands full trying to corral this large cast of more than 30. She also choreographed the large dance numbers, among the best parts of Music Man.

The show has at least seven full-cast dance numbers for which costume designer Katie Strawn dressed the young girls in an adorable rainbow of pastel dresses. Strawn had much-needed assistance by a crew of seamstresses for all the outfits needed for the production’s big cast. Live music emanated from the pit in front of the stage, thanks to a skilled group of musicians led by music director/conductor Tony Gaitan.

Photo by Scott Lasky — The Pick-a-Little ladies of River City practice their dance presentation for the town’s Ice Cream Sociable in THE MUSIC MAN at PAP.

No review of The Music Man is complete without mention of the “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” ladies lead by the rubber-faced Linda Piccone as the mayor’s wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. It’s fun to watch as she herds her ladies into Grecian urn poses in their oversized black-and-white bathing suits.

This reviewer wondered why Drew Benjamin Jones (as anvil salesman Charlie Cowell) rushes his lines, and constantly wears a mean, vindictive scowl? As Harold Hill’s old sidekick, Marcellus, Dane Lentz at first seems ill at ease, although he does a credible job when he joins Perez singing and dancing “The Sadder by Wiser Girl.”

PAP’s artistic director Patrick Klein (and scenic designer for the show) created several set pieces that have the original look-and-feel of a little midwestern town. Angela Young is spot-on as sound designer; Chris Beer’s lighting works well.

Overall, PAP’s The Music Man is sure to resonate with audiences of all ages.

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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

 

ProductionThe Music Man
Written by Meredith Willson
Directed byLee Ann Payne
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru May 12th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$35-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.25/5
Performance4.25/5
Script4.50/5
Stagecraft4.25/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK ASR! ~~ Hillbarn Theatre’s Superb “Something Rotten”

By Joanne Engelhardt

There is unequivocally nothing rotten in Hillbarn Theatre’s enchanting rendition of Something Rotten, running through May 12 at the Foster City theater. The sold-out crowd on opening night showed the hard-working cast their love by standing up and awarding them a prolonged round of applause.

For this musical, it helps to have seen many other Broadway musicals, because references to hit songs from Annie, Beauty and the Beast, A Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera, and more are sprinkled throughout the production.

Playwrights John O’Farrell, Karey, and Wayne Kirkpatrick obviously used their theatrical backgrounds in writing Rotten and bringing it to Broadway in 2015. The show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including “Best Musical,” and earned one.

For the Hillbarn production, director Randy O’Hara rounded up a talented cast of 21 performers who all act, sing, and dance—and here’s a plus: there are even a few tap numbers!

Jill Jacobs and Nigel Bottom in “Something Rotten” at the Hillbarn. Photo courtesy Tracy Martin.

In his pre-show speech, artistic director Stephen Muterspaugh joked that it took three Hillbarn artistic directors to bring Rotten to Penninsula/South Bay audiences: himself, O’Hara, who was his predecessor, and Dan Demers, the company’s artistic director from 2011 to 2021. Demers has returned to play Brother Jeremiah in Rotten, with the audience applauding loudly when he made his first entrance.

As the lights dim and pixyish Jon Gary Harris enters, wearing a flashy costume and big pink hat as The Minstrel, singing and playing a tune. The magic begins. Quickly the entire cast walks onstage to sing the opening number “Welcome to the Renaissance.”

The crux of the story is that the two Bottom brothers, Nick (a sensational Brandon Savage) and Nigel (a sweetly charming Andrew Cope) are trying to come up with an idea for a play to counterprogram anything Will Shakespeare might be writing. They are desperate for an idea, a backer and some good actors.

Because the Bard has just produced Richard III, the Bottoms decide to write a play about Richard II. Then someone tells them that Shakespeare is now working on a Richard II. “What?” screams Nick: “Who goes backwards??” That results in the play’s second song: “God, I Hate Shakespeare” sung by Nick.

Nick is desperate to put on a money-making play—especially when his wife, Bea (Melissa Wolfklain) tells him he’s going to be a father. He enlists the help of the famous soothsayer, Nostradamus (an electrifying Caitlin Beanan). She agrees to help him come up with a great topic for a play–of course, extracting money from him for that little favor.

(L-R) Melissa W., Brandon S., Julio C., Jill J., and Andrew C. from “Something Rotten” at Hillbarn Theater. Photo courtesy: Tracy Martin.

Beanan practically steals the show as she gestures/cogitates/imagines what Nick’s play will be about. Using her magic powers, she tells him that he should make a musical. Up until that time apparently, plays were either comedies or tragedies. No one had ever included music in a play, let alone have actors sing words rather than speak them.

She then uses her magical powers to conjure up what the musical should be about. “It’s something about an egg—and maybe ham—Danish ham” she says, before finally blurting out “Omelet!” Nick doesn’t think it’s a good play topic but he follows her lead because the first idea he had, a musical about the Black Death, was a total flop. Later, when Shakespeare announces he’s written a play about a melancholy Dane named Hamlet, Nostradamus snaps her fingers and says, “Oh! So close!” (“Omelet,” “Hamlet” – get it?)

There are so many terrific performances in Rotten that it’s difficult to single out all of them. Julio Chavez is a delightfully over-the-top Shakespeare who with the swagger and costumes of Elvis, immodestly sings “Will Power” and “It’s Hard to Be the Bard” with a roguish smile.

Demers plays the firebrand preacher Brother Jeremiah who refuses to let his daughter, Portia, get near heathens such as the two Bottom brothers. But Nigel and Portia fall in love nonetheless, brought together by the fact that he writes beautiful sonnets (poems) and she loves reading poetry.

Nick Bolton and Nigel Bottom at work at Hillbarn. Courtesy Tracy Martin.

Then there’s the Jew, Shylock, well played by Jason Nunan. At the time, laws didn’t allow people to employ Jews, so Nick refuses his money. Later, after having no money left of his own, he relents and accepts the Jew’s backing.

Hunter B. Jameson gets credit for creating the flexible, quick-change scenic design. Long-time Hillbarn costume designer Pamela Lampkin must have had a mighty crew to help her create the many costumes needed for the 29-member cast, with several actors playing three or four roles.

Somehow the audience knows that by the end of Rotten, all’s well that ends well” as the Bard himself famously wrote! Muterspaugh said he and the play’s production staff decided against a live orchestra for this show. “Given the amount of dancing in the show, this gave the creative team and cast access to the musical tracks during the entire rehearsal process and allowed them to work out exact timing.”

That was obviously the right choice because Hillbarn’s Something Rotten is something irresistible. The show has even garnered a “Go See” recommendation from the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle! Get tickets soon before they sell out.

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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

 

ProductionSomething Rotten
Written byJohn O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick
Music & Lyrics byKarey and Wayne Kirkpatrick
Directed byRandy O’Hara
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru May 12th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4.50/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK ASR! ~~ Fine Cast in Pear Theatre’s Episodic “The Chinese Lady”

By Joanne Engelhardt

The very first thing that strikes the eye when sitting down in your seat for The Pear Theatre’s The Chinese Lady is the lush gold satin curtain that encircles the small circular stage.

Written by Lloyd Suh, the son of South Korean immigrants who grew up near Indianapolis, this 90-minute play tells the story of Afong, who has been treated all her life as a beautiful, delicate toy, something to admire from afar. The other character, Atung, is basically “irrelevant”—at least if you believe Afong’s opinion of him.

” … It’s definitely worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time …”

This production, running through May 12 in Mountain View, is playing in repertory with Love Letters by A. R. Gurney. Both productions are directed by Wynne Chan, who does a credible job of attempting to help audiences understand the plight of women like Afong, who was sent to New York in 1934 to appear on stage—more as a novelty or curiosity than anything else.

Each of the roles is shared by two actors, but for the purpose of this review, Eiko Moon-Yamamoto plays Afong and Joseph Alvarado plays Atung. Both are excellent. Sharing the two roles for other performances are Joann Wu and Daniel Cai.

This reviewer found that the play itself at times is rather a challenge to understand, despite the fact that every time the satin curtain is drawn and then opened again, Afong tells the audience how old she is and what year it is. Afong’s poignant storyline begins in 1894 when she explains that she’s the first Asian woman to ever arrive from the “Orient.”

 

Eiko Moon-Yamamoto in “The Chinese Lady” at The Pear. Courtesy of The Pear Theater.

“Everyone’s curious about the Chinese lady,” she remembers. It cost 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children to see her. “The first thing they look at are my feet. I have to be coy and charming and show the way of eating with chopsticks.” Then she adds: “Forks are violent! Chopsticks are elegant.”

After the curtain twirls around, Afong is now 16 years old. This continues, but as the years go by, Afong realizes that on the social pecking order she is considered a carnival act or freak show. Eventually the entrepreneur who sponsors her raises ticket prices to 75 cents. “I demand more!” she says.

By the time she’s 29 years old, Afong feels she is losing the “ring of the Cantonese language.” Eventually she’s sold off to P.T. Barnum where she once again becomes a sideshow act.

Afong grows so tired of the whole “entertainment” business that she makes up her mind to retire. Yet, does she have any skills or abilities to help her earn a living? She has read newspapers and realizes that “the Chinese were perfect for doing the hard work for building a railroad. But once it was built, they are told: ‘You are irrelevant.’ ”

 

The cast of “The Chinese Lady” at work. Courtesy of The Pear Theater.

The poignant play ends in the year 2024. Obviously Afong isn’t still alive, but perhaps one of her descendants tells the audience to “take the time to really look at each other. Then we’ll be understood.”

Though this review doesn’t make much mention of the Atung role, he is nevertheless more than just a curtain turner. He, too, is caught in the same predicament as Afong. He has never learned how to earn a living, nor does he have any skills. He’s just one of many Chinese who worked hard all his life but earned little.

“… Suh wrote ‘The Chinese Lady’ six years ago, yet it’s perhaps more relevant today than ever …”

Sharon Peng’s costumes are authentic to the period, and the rounded two-step stage created by Louis Stone-Collonge feels just right. Sonya Wong’s lighting is excellent, and original compositions by Howard Ho are appropriate. It seems logical that a play such as this would have a history and cultural consultant, a role filled by Patrick Chew.

One projects that what Suh hoped to do by writing this play is to help today’s audiences reexamine their own feelings about Asian-American and Pacific Island people. It’s definitely worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time to relive Afong’s life and consider it in the context of 2024.

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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

 

ProductionThe Chinese Lady
Written byLloyd Suh
Directed byWynne Chan
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru May 12th
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$38-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.25/5.00
Performance4.25/5.00
Script4.00/5.00
Stagecraft4.25/5.00
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

Pick ASR! ~~ Tender “Love Letters” Features Real-Life Partners

By Joanne Engelhardt

Such a simple set, yet by the time the Pear Theatre’s production of Love Letters ends, the show’s various actors (all but one couple are real-life partners) bring a tear or two to audience members. In the play, characters Andrew and Melissa love each other – but never at quite the same time. That’s what makes it so poignant.

The Pear’s Artistic Director, Sinjin Jones, came up with the novel idea of selecting different actors who are real-life couples to appear at each performance. Each duo is asked not to read the script ahead of time or do any research for their roles.

… The Pear definitely has a hit…

Playwright A.R. Gurney conceived Love Letters as a short novel in 1988 but later realized it made a better play. (He’s also written such well-known plays as Sylvia, The Dining Room, and The Cocktail Hour.)

Director Wynne Chan explained to each couple there would be no rehearsals. The actors don’t even see the set until they walk out to perform. The two enter from separate parts of the stage and each sits down at a desk, facing away from each other, with a white curtain serving as a barrier between them.

The first letter, written by Melissa, is sent to Andrew (Andy) when both are in the same second-grade classroom. “My parents are sending me to dancing school. Do you go to dancing school, too?” Andy scoffs at that, writing back that he’s supposed to take up sports – even though he doesn’t want to.

As they grow up together, they also recognize what different worlds they come from even though both are born into wealthy WASP families. They are trained from childhood to follow the customs of their class structure, but while Andy conforms, Melissa is something of a rebel. She sees her family as dysfunctional, which, she says, is like having no family. Andy’s family is more stable and he’s more conventional, so it’s likely Melissa’s rebellion is why he’s attracted to her.

Photo credit: Liz Edlund. From left: Robyn Ginsburg Braverman and Paul Braverman

Eventually, Andy goes to an all-boys school, and the two keep up their friendship by sending each other letters. He then gets into a prestigious men’s college. Melissa chides him by writing: “Going off with the boys again…” Later, the two begin calling each other rather than sending letters, but it’s not the same – and they both recognize the value of the written word.

One of the delights of doing this play without rehearsals is that occasionally, even the actors laugh at something they are saying – or laugh at what the other says in response.

If all of the actor couples who appear in Love Letters are as charming and enthralling as the Bravermans, The Pear definitely has a hit on its hands. Check out the schedule of which couple appears on which date on the theatre company’s website: www.thepear.org

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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

 

ProductionLove Letters
Written byA.R. Gurney
Directed byWynne Chan
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru May 12th
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$38-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.50/5.00
Performance4.75/5.00
Script4.50/5.00
Stagecraft4.25/5.00
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Thornton Wilder’s Charming, Epic-Length “Skin of Our Teeth”

By Joanne Engelhardt

In a way, Los Altos Stage Company’s production of The Skin of Our Teeth is somewhat like a Ringling Brothers three-ring circus: It’s got woolly mammoths, it’s got an Atlantic City seductress, and it has an ice wall pushing down from Canada into New Jersey.

Thornton Wilder’s 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about as close to an allegory of the entire history of the world ever attempted on stage. It gets a decent, if “mammoth-sized”, production, thanks to the efforts of director Chris Reber, five strong actors, and an interesting scenic design enhanced by Reber’s creative projection touches.

… “An antic ode to human resilience…”

It’s difficult to describe Skin in a few words because just when it seems to be veering toward sheer fantasy, something akin to pathos pops up. And though attempts are made to modernize it (like adding a few visual sound bites from TMZ), some might think it shows its age.

 

In any case, as the play opens, a beleaguered Mr. Antrobus is making his way home during a full-blown blizzard, exhausted but exhilarated after a hard day at the office doing such things as dividing M and N as he invents the alphabet. (He’s also inventing the lever and the wheel … …)

Michael Hirsch plays Mr. Antrobus with authority and a bit of wonder, especially when it comes to his family. As Mrs. Antrobus, Mary Hill is a neurotic marvel. She pops and twirls around with motherly authority in period dresses that float around her thanks to lots of crinoline petticoats.

(L-R) Kristin Walter and Olga Molona at work.

But first it’s the ditzy maid Sabina (a delightful Kristin Walters) who commands the audience’s attention. Using her little feather duster, she flits around the stage dusting this, that and whatever suits her fancy, including other people. She tells anyone who will listen that she can no longer stand being the Antrobus family’s maid and she gives Mrs. A her two-weeks’ notice. “That’s the law!” she smirks. Sabina’s also the character who breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience and suggesting several times that a scene should be skipped. Irascible to the end, she guides us through the willful anachronisms of the play.  At one point, Mrs. A yells at Sabina because she (Sabina) apparently let the fire go out in the fireplace. Now, Mrs. A says, her family will freeze to death, so she sends Sabina out in the blizzard to gather more twigs.

Mary Hill and Michael Hirsch in “The Skin of Our Teeth”.

When Act 2 opens, the Antrobus family is now in Atlantic City on vacation and celebrating their 5,000th wedding anniversary. Mrs. A, carrying a purse large enough to hold a good-sized dog, says she’s delighted that her husband can enjoy a few days with the family and relax. He’s also there to give a speech and to announce the winner of the “Miss Atlantic City” beauty contest.

Turns out Kristin Walters (Sabina), now wearing a sexy bathing suit and cover-up, is the contest winner, and Mr. A is ready for a little extra-marital fling. Spoiler Alert: Mrs. A makes sure he doesn’t get the chance.

Four actors (LASC’s artistic director Gary Landis, Olga Molina, Patty Reinhart and Sam Kruger) play a number of ensemble roles. Molina stands out as the gypsy fortuneteller, and Landis is deadpan funny wearing a UPS uniform in short pants.

The Antrobus children, Henry (Max Mahle) and Gladys (a pert Emily Krayn) have very little stage time and only a few lines, so it’s difficult to judge their performances.

It’s likely most theatergoers will recognize that many of the things happening in the lives of the Antrobus family are still relevant today: Hoards of homeless people have nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat; a large poster states “Make Mammals Great Again,” and there’s a sequence where Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus attempt to herd various animals (some long extinct) into a ship (aka Noah’s Ark).

(L-R) Kristin Walter, Mary Hill, costumed Sam Kruger and Patty Reinhardt, and Gary Landis.

Kudos to Jonathan Covey for excellent sound,  to Aya Matsutomo for comprehensive lighting, Yusuke Soi for good scenic design, and Miranda Whipple’ for zany props (a gargantuan “A” is part of the Antrobus’ living room décor.)

However, the production team ‘s decision to combine Acts 2 and 3 into one “Act 2” (with only “one brief pause”), the play’s overall length (~2 hours and 45 minutes), and the play’s period dialog and sexual politics–might be a stretch for some modern audience members.

In the end, Skin is a rallying cry for a world that could use some reassurance that it will, despite everything, carry on — even if by “The Skin of Our Teeth.”

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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

 

ProductionThe Skin of Our Teeth
Written byThornton Wilder
Directed byChris Reber
Producing CompanyLos Altos Stage Co.
Production DatesThru May 5th
Production Address97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos, CA
Websitelosaltosstage.org
Telephone650.941.0551
Tickets$22-$45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4.00/5
Script3.25/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-------

Pick! ASR Theatre ~~ Hillbarn’s “Once” Tugs at Your Musical Heartstrings

By Joanne Engelhardt

A simple set-up has profound consequences in Once—a guy from Dublin, Ireland, a busker or street performer, meets a girl from Czechoslovakia. She recognizes his talent and encourages him to go to New York to pursue a musical career. That’s just one of many pieces in this musical at Foster City’s Hillbarn Theater through April 7.

For Once, the Hillbarn stage has a working saloon on one side where theatre patrons can purchase beer at intermission. The floor also revolves, so that during some songs, everyone on stage eventually gets around to the front to sing or play their instruments.

… It’ll keep your toes tapping– for Once! …

Written in 2007 as a film by John Carney, the musical premiered on Broadway in 2012 and won seven Tony Awards that year. Like the Broadway production, Hillbarn’s version has a minimalistic set with chairs on three sides. Cast members, who also serve as the orchestra when sitting in their chairs, simply step forward for their lines and sit down when others are the focus.

Kaylee Miltersen in “Once” at Hillbarn Theater. Photo: Tracy Martin.

What gives this production its authenticity are several fine actors, none better than Kaylee Miltersen playing Girl, a little scrap of a thing with an authentic-sounding Czech accent and a way of whipping out lines that cause the audience to laugh. She’s so delightful! Why wouldn’t the Irish musician Guy (Jake Gale) fall for her?

Gale has a wonderfully lilting voice that brings life to many of his songs, such as “Say It to Me Now,” “Leave,” and even “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy.” They all sound incredibly sincere. Miltersen and Gale team up on piano and guitar, respectively, and sing “Falling Slowly” and “If You Want Me”—simultaneously melting the audience’s hearts.

Musical instruments and connections abound (more on this in a minute), in fact, the accordion player is Girl’s mother, Baruska (a spirited Sarah Jebian, in an indelible performance). Another fine actor, Paul Henry, plays Billy—who owns a music store, is somewhat shy and thinks he’s in love with Girl. He attempts to show he’s a judo expert until his back gives out. Meanwhile, Guy and his father own a vacuum cleaner repair shop where Guy works. It happens, as Girl reminds Guy, that she has a Hoover vacuum that “doesn’t suck” so he needs to take it to his father’s shop for repair.

Cast of “Once” (L-R, Jake Gale, Jesse Cortez, Nicholas Conrad, and Chloe Angst) at work at the Hillbarn Theater. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

Hillbarn’s artistic director Steve Muterspauch lyrically directs Once, with assistance from choreographer Francesca Cipponeri to include modern dance and ballet moves as the musical progresses. For a few songs, timing must be perfect, and on opening night, it was.

As mentioned, nearly every minute of the two-act, roughly two-hour play is filled with music. There’s a cello playing in one corner (cellist, Kit Robberson), a guitar or two a minute later (Brad Satterwhite, Nicholas Conrad, Jesse Cortez), two violins (Nina Han and Karen Law) or Chloe Angst with their tattoos, attitude and angst (pun intended) up to the end of their spiked red hair. (And don’t forget the accordion!)

Nick Kenbrandt does a fine job as the bank manager who decides to take a chance on Guy when he needs a loan so he can get into a sound studio and make a complete recording of his songs to send to New York.

One small curiosity for this reviewer was why Hillbarn hired Equity actor Colin Thomson in the relatively insignificant role of Da? Thomson is a fine actor but has not much to do here except add his strong voice to group songs and play Girl’s father in one short scene.

“It’ll keep your toes tappin’! “Once” at the Hillbarn Theater. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

Musical director Amie Jan and vocal director Joseph Murphy did a masterful job of selecting actors who could also play musical instruments and sing, a necessity in this musical.

To set the right tone, costumer Lisa Claybaugh found outfits that nicely complimented each performer’s character. Lighting by Pamila Gray and sound by Jeff Mockus were first-rate. Two young sisters, Stella and Sybil Wyatt, play the small role as Girl’s daughter.

Although Once may not be everyone’s cup of tea, this reviewer believes that it certainly deserves bigger audiences than it had for opening night. Could be because Hillbarn patrons aren’t familiar with it as it hasn’t been performed on the Peninsula in years, if ever.

But seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical) say “Go see it!” It’ll keep your toes tapping– for Once!

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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

 

ProductionOnce
Written byEnda Walsh
Directed bySteve Muterspaugh
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru April 7th, 2024
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.50/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Other Voices on: “Once”

"...The script is ... steeped in wise and folksy observations about committing to love and taking chances..."The New York Times
"...captures the loveliness of the music, the likability of the characters, the fluidity of the staging, the sweetness of the ending..."The Chicago Sun Times
" ...Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant! This is one of those shows that remind you: magic is real..."New York Theatre Guide

ASR Theater ~~ TheatreWorks “Queen” Probes Scientific Morals

By Joanne Engelhardt

San Jose-based playwright/filmmaker Madhuri Shekar tackles the real-life dilemma of saving bees in Queen, running through March 31 at Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto. The “queen” here is the queen bee in a bee colony, voraciously devoured by worker bees.

Is this enough to absorb an audience for 90+ minutes? In this reviewer’s opinion: yes and no.

That said, four fine actors are nearly first-rate; Shekar incorporates a lot of humor into her dialogue to counter the heaviness of scientific research and supposition. Just when it gets a bit too much on the statistics side, Shekar slips in a joke about bees or science to loosen things up.

… Her grandfather keeps setting up blind dates for her, most of whom she finds loathsome…

Queen’s premise is unquestionably true: There’s been a disheartening drop in the number of bees over the past decade. As research assistant Sanam Srinivasan (Uma Paranjpe) points out, “The human race depends on bees.”

L-R, Kjerstine Anderson, Mike Ryan and Uma Paranjpe play researchers in “Queen,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

That’s why she and her Ph.D. research partner, Ariel Spiegel (Kjerstine Rose Anderson), have been doggedly trying for years to figure out how to address the issue. They’ve concluded that a pesticide used by Monsanto has killed more than one billion bees. (That’s billion–with a “B.”)

They’ve meticulously done their research and, after eight years, are about to present their case at a conference scheduled a few days hence, then publish their research results in the prestigious scientific journal “Nature.” But the night before the conference they meet with their mentor and supervising professor, Dr. Philip Hayes (Mike Ryan). Sanam says she has discovered an error in coding which is causing the results to be off by a few percentage points.

That’s when a riff appears between Dr. Hayes and Sanam, with the professor telling her that the error is small and can be adjusted later, while Sanam emphatically declaring that she can’t present inaccurate data.

(L-R) Uma Paranjpe, left, and Kjerstine Anderson star as researchers exploring declining bee populations in “Queen” for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Photo: Kevin Berne

There are also a couple of side stories: One involves Ariel’s decision to take six months off from her research to have a child (a daughter often heard crying but never seen). Another involves Sanam whose Indian parents are concerned that she may not marry and give them grandchildren. Her grandfather keeps setting up blind dates for her, most of whom she finds loathsome until she meets Arvind, an Indian American financier who thinks her devotion to her bee research is charming and admirable.

Deven Kolluri plays Arvind as a confident, handsome rogue who eventually wins over Sanam for a romantic night – but she has no intention of following him to New York where he lives.

Playwright Shekar has set her play in a nearby location (UC Santa Cruz), which helps theatregoers relate to the story. But it might not be a winner for everyone–because while it has humor, this reviewer found it a tad heavy on the scientific side. Director Miriam A. Laube ensures that the play moves along quickly, especially when the methodical discourse gets a bit… murky.

All four actors bring unique personalities to their roles– with a couple personal asides: IMHO, Paranjpe speaks a shade too fast and not quite loud enough. Also, Ryan tends to become a bit too…well, bombastic when he’s telling his research assistants to present their data –-inconsistent or not.

Among the clever subtleties of Queen is scenic designer Nina Ball’s proscenium and panels, pockmarked with cut-out circles that give the appearance of a beehive. The panels are quickly moved in and out as lead deck crew Megan Hall and her team soundlessly move set pieces for different scenes. Kent Dorsey’s lighting design is excellent, as is James Ard’s sound.

As with the flawed data, this reviewer is of the mind that this play needs a bit of work to make it as good as it could be. That said, for those more scientifically inclined, the play will give them food for thought.

A joint collaboration between TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and EnActe, located in Sunnyvale and Texas. the entire production runs a scant 100 minutes without intermission.

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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

 

ProductionQueen
Written by
Madhuri Shekar
Directed byMiriam A. Laube
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Entre Acts
Production DatesThru Mar 31st
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$42- $82
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3.25/5
Stagecraft3.75/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?No.

ASR Theater ~~ Pinkalicious: Foothill’s Spectacular Production of “Legally Blonde”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Over-the-top enthusiasm of the sisters of Delta Nu sorority, coupled with terrific musical numbers. keep Foothill Music Theatre’s production of Legally Blonde zooming along at Lohman Theatre in Los Altos Hills. Although some of the college sorority sisters seem past their college years, Blonde is nevertheless a pleasant way to spend 2 ½ hours.

Directed by Milissa Carey, Legally Blonde is filled with Stacy Reed’s enthusiastic choreography, Y. Sharon Peng’s pinkalicious costumes, and a lively score played backstage by music director Michael Horsley and his pocket orchestra of six musicians.

… it’s a good idea to get tickets now for this (fun) production…

Most attendees likely remember the 2001 movie with Reese Witherspoon as the lead character, Elle Woods. Later, it was turned into a stage musical that opened on Broadway in 2007.

Carey, whose style of directing might be described as “exuberant,” found some young actors who were able to bring some nuance and likeability to characters that might otherwise present as one-dimensional. And then there were the two sweet dogs who, unfortunately, didn’t spend very much time on stage but always invoked a chorus of “Ahhhhhs….” from the audience.

Selfie! (L-2-R) – Pilar, Elle, Margot & Serena. Photo credit David Allen

Act 1 begins with the UCLA sorority sisters of Delta Nu jumping up and down with excitement as they gather to celebrate the expected engagement of their president, Elle (sweet, sincere Rachelle Schaum) to her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (good-looking Jason Mooney).

But apparently Warner believes Elle doesn’t have enough smarts, nor does she come from the “right” background, so he dumps her. What’s a perky cheerleader to do??

That’s when she decides to get serious about her life and, like Warner, she applies to Harvard Law School to become a lawyer. Obviously, that’s a bit more difficult than just applying, but one of her Delta Nu sisters, Kate (versatile Lauren Berling), helps her study for her LSATS.

In its light-and-frothy-musical way, Elle goes to the Harvard Admissions office, backed by her cheerleading squad, does a cheerleading routine and then sings a song that gets her in because she’s “motivated by love.”

She also decides that because she’s a blonde, she isn’t taken seriously. That’s when she meets a woman who becomes a good friend: Paulette (an excellent Sarah Bylsma), who owns the local hair salon and who convinces her that changing her hair color won’t change her life. Bylsma has arguably the best voice in the cast, which she demonstrates with the song “Ireland.” She also shows her comedic side in the song “Bend and Snap.”

The Girls at work, in “Legally Blonde” at Foothill. Photo credit David Allen

All this happens in Act 1 . And there are more unexpected twists in Act 2.

After intermission, likely the best choreographed musical number, “Whipped into Shape” starts the continuation of our story with a bang. It features fitness instructor Brooke (Melissa Momboisse) and her fitness students doing a sensational number with jump ropes.

Almost overnight Elle becomes a crackerjack lawyer… saves a young woman wrongly sentenced to death for murder… and ends up with the “her” guy (Andrew Cope as Emmett) who has been right there all along.

Rachelle Schaum as Elle & Andrew Cope as Emmett. Photo by by David Allen.

Foothill’s Lohman Theatre is relatively small, so even though an additional performance has just been added on Wed., March 13 at 7:30 p.m., it’s a good idea to get tickets now for this frothy-but-fun production.

If you don’t, it’s likely you’ll be singing what the Delta Nu sorority sisters enthusiastically sing in Act 1: “Omigod You Guys!”—because you’ll be out of luck.

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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

 

ProductionLegally Blonde
Written byHeather Hach
Directed byMilissa Carey
Music & lyrics byLaurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin
Producing CompanyFoothill Music Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 17th
Production Address12345 El Monte Rd.
Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
Websitehttps://foothill.edu/theatre
Telephone(650) 949-7360
Tickets$20 -- $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.75/5
Script3.25/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?No.

ASR Theater ~~Pear Theatre’s Quirky “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday”

By Joanne Engelhardt

American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s plays are frequently fascinating and often almost psychological studies of families. Many of her plays have appeared on Broadway, and two were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. She received a Tony Award for Best Play for In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). She’s also an acclaimed professor, poet, and essayist.

In other words, she’s the real deal.

Yet the Ruhl play now running at The Pear Theatre in Mountain View, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,  has not reached those levels of acclaim. (Well, to be fair — a person has a shot at the MLB Hall of Fame by only hitting the ball four times in ten!) Anyway, the play is partially autobiographical, having molded the main character, Peter Pan, after her mother, who once played Peter Pan when she was a young girl.

… (the play) has its own charm and offers…a ..reminder … growing old doesn’t necessarily mean growing up …

Moving on. In this reviewer’s opinion, director Austin Edginton made an … interesting … choice in casting Monica Cappuccini as Ann, who is turning 70 but is spending that day with her siblings in a hospital room where her father lies dying. Make no mistake: Cappuccini is a fine actress, and she’s got just the right combination of spunk, caring, and droll humor to carry off wearing a Peter Pan costume and giving a charming speech directly to the audience before the curtain opens.

But — Ms. Cappuccini is British, and her accent is unmistakably British.  So how does she manage to have four siblings, none of whom are or speak the Queen’s language? Non-traditional casting, perhaps?

L-R: John Mannion (Jim), Tannis Hanson (Wendy), Bill Davidovich (John), Ronald Feichtmeir (Michael), and Monica Cappuccini (Ann). Photo credit: Sinjin Jones.

There’s also a bit of exciting casting in this situation as well: white-haired Ray Renati plays the father of Ann as well as of her sister Wendy (a credible Tannis Hanson) and three sons: Jim (John Mannion), John (Bill Davidovich) and Michael (Ronald Feichtmeir). Yet Mannion and Davidovich look about the same age as Renati – who’s supposed to be their father! Mannion even mentions being the third child, which seems odd. Que sera sera!

Casting aside, Pear’s production is an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes. The sword-fighting scenes are fun to watch (thanks to fight choreographer Dexter Fidler), and Greet Jaspaert’s Peter Pan costume for Cappuccini is charming, as is the Captain Hook costume worn by Mannion late in the play.

Once the large green curtain opens, the setting is a hospital room where Renati (as the father) lies hooked up to tubes and machines, apparently ready to take his last breath at any moment.

All five “children” are at his bedside, torn between hoping he will improve and wondering which breath will be his last. There’s talk about sending someone out to pick up Chinese food to bring back to Dad’s hospital room because they have been there for many hours. But then Dad finally kicks the bucket, and the action moves to a dining room where the siblings talk about politics and reminisce about their childhood. But good old dad is wandering around the room, although they can’t see him!

One child mentions the hereafter and wonders whether Dad is there now. Then Davidovich says, “Dad if you’re here with us, give us a sign.” With a twinkle in his eye, Dad decides to drop a plate of nibbles he’s eating. That generates the biggest laugh in the play.

Then, one of the other kids drags out an old trunk where Ann finds —  her long-ago Peter Pan costume.

All the grown-up children put on costumes from the play and begin jumping around saying “I’m flying” and “Cock-a-doodle-doo…” There are even a couple of brief appearances by Tinkerbell! After that bit of fantasy, they all leave the family home and return to their spouses and children.

L-R: Tannis Hanson (Wendy), John Mannion (Captain Hook/Jim), Bill Davidovich (John), Ronald Feichtmeir (Michael), and Monica Cappuccini (Ann). Photo credit: Sinjin Jones.

Although your experience might vary, this reporter did not find For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday as focused as other Ruhl plays. Yet — it has its own charm and offers audience members a soothing reminder: growing old doesn’t necessarily mean growing up.

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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

 

ProductionFor Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday
Written bySarah Ruhl
Directed byAustin Edgington
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru Mar 3rd
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$38-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5.00
Performance3.25/5.00
Script3.5/5.00
Stagecraft3.75/5.00
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Hillbarn Theatre’s “Rent”— A Haunting Look Back at AIDS

By Joanne Engelhardt

If you’ve never seen Rent, Hillbarn Theatre’s rendering of what happened in the lower East Side of New York City in 1989 will give you goosebumps. It’s an authentic look at what young people had to deal with during that era. Not only is the cast filled with marvelous singers, but the entire set makes the audience feel as if they are living there, too.

As the audience walks into the theater, replicas of big 1989-era posters greet them, advertising the New York City Ballet, the Ramones, and several NYC theatre productions. After taking their seats, audience members discover they are entirely surrounded by the multilevel set designed by Hillbarn’s Artistic Director, Stephen Muterspaugh. It enables the cast to suddenly appear two feet away from you as they descend down one of the stairways or walk out onto the catwalks.

… “RENT” … will give you goosebumps!”

Director Reed Flores finds multiple ways to ramp up the agony and the ecstasy of the Rent storyline. First, he cast the excellent Brandon Leland as Roger, a songwriter/musician who is HIV positive. Roger lives with Mark (Edward Im), who gives a finely etched performance as a man whose big dream is to be a filmmaker one day.

It’s Mark who is determined to document the lives of his friends, to show how hopeless they feel – unemployed and uncertain about how they’ll find food, heat and a roof over their heads tomorrow. It’s a stark, realistic look at New York City’s struggling artists.

Though it takes place 35 years ago, it has some similarities with what’s happening today in San Francisco, Los Angeles and most large cities that have large numbers of people who can’t find jobs, a place to live and health care when they need it.

Arguably the most memorable character in Rent is Angel, a drag queen and the partner of Tom Collins (stalwart Dedrick Weathersby), an anarchist with AIDS. Tom has AIDS but still manages to teach philosophy part-time at New York University.

Jesse Cortez plays Angel in such a sweet, caring way, it’s hard not to be concerned for her. As written, Angel is a young drag queen who’s addressed as female when in drag and as male when out of drag.

It’s the grit and determination to try to hang on to much of their lives as best they can that makes Rent such a gut-wrenching experience. The story opens on Christmas Eve, with Mark and Roger attempting to keep warm in their apartment. Their heat has been shut off because they haven’t paid their rent. This is New York in December, so having no heat is a big deal.

Their landlord Benny (Jamari McGee), is their former friend, who has reneged on his promise to not require them to pay their back rent. Angel finds Tom Collins wounded in an alley and tends to him. They share the fact that they both have AIDS and discover they are instantly attracted to each other. Amazingly, all of this happens in the first half hour of the musical!

Director Flores selected at least half-a-dozen actors with big voices – voices that carry throughout the theater. Danielle Mendoza’s voice (as Maureen) is one. Both she and Solona Husband as her on-again/off-again lover, Joanne, have two of the best voices in Rent. Each also has one solo (“We’re Okay” for Joanne and “Over the Moon” for Maureen) in Act 1. Then they duke it out in a duet in Act 2’s “Take Me or Leave Me.”

Musical director Diana Lee conducts and plays keyboard with three other musicians (Mike Smith on guitar, John Doing on drums and Paul Eastburn on bass) from a tiny black pit at the back of the stage.

Though they are few and far between, there are some comic bits in Rent. One that got laughs at Hillbarn was persistent phone calls from anxious mothers calling to find out if their grown-up “children” are all right. Some of the calls are made by ensemble member Kristy Aquino who starts by begging them, as their mother, to call her back. Later, she calls to wish them “Merry Christmas.” Finally, out of frustration, she yells into the phone: “Pick up the phone, damn it!!”

The show’s wondrous musical score includes many songs that are part of our collective musical playbook. Who can forget “Another Day,” “La Vie Bohème,” “Take Me or Leave Me” — and the ubiquitous “Seasons of Love” with the wonderful line: “Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes?”

All of this – music, lyrics, book – came from the incredible mind of Jonathan Larson, who passed away before it ever opened on Broadway. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical.

Clearly, any production of Rent has historically big boots to fill. Hillbarn’s thrilling production does so quite comfortably.

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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

 

ProductionRENT
Written byJonathan Larson
Directed byReed Flores
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Feb 25th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Coastal Rep’s “Boeing, Boeing.” An Amusing Look Back at the 1960s

By Joanne Engelhardt

What happens when the electricity and amplification go off in the middle of a performance? If you’re the cast and crew of Coastal Repertory Theatre in Half Moon Bay, you just go with the flow and continue the performance!

That’s what happened last Sunday afternoon when this reviewer saw CRT’s pleasantly charming (if a tad dated) production of Boeing, Boeing. Clearly, the Coastal Rep bunch believes in the old theater adage: “The show must go on.”

“… terrific performances by Deborah Joves…Mark Selle…Danny Martin and Maddie Rea…”

Go on, it did, thanks to opening large doors to let in some light. Even a few audience members contributed by using their phone lights or getting a car flashlight to shine on the stage.

“Boeing, Boeing” cast at Coastal Rep!

Boeing, Boeing was written by French playwright Marc Camoletti and later translated into English by Beverley Cross and Francis Evan. It was first staged in London in 1962, where it ran for seven years. When it opened on Broadway in 1965, it was a flop, running for only 23 performances. That same year it was made into a movie starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis. The film was considered somewhat dated but mildly amusing. That about sums up Coastal Rep’s production as well.

And so it is that in this reviewer’s opinion, if it weren’t for the terrific performances by Deborah Joves as the housekeeper Berthe, Mark Selle as Robert, an American who comes to visit his old college friend Bernard (Danny Martin) in Paris, and Maddie Rea as the Lufthansa flight attendant, Gretchen, this production would be, well, a challenge at attracting viewers.

Danny Martin and Emily Krayn at work in “Boeing, Boeing”

Joves, in particular, carries the brunt of the storyline and performs her role in the deadpan manner of Thelma Ritter (who was in the 1965 film). Watching her attempt to keep her boss’ love life straight is priceless.

When Gretchen arrives, Berthe has to be sure that her photo is sitting in the frame in the living room. But if Gabriella (Emily Krayn), the Air France stewardess, is coming, her picture has to be visible. Ditto for Gloria (Erica Racz), the American air hostess who strangely loves catsup on her breakfast waffles!

(L-R) Danny Martin, Deborah Joves, & Erica Racz.

Director Mark Drumm is a pro and does a good job of trying to keep this menage a trois x2 up in the air! But, the play, so much a product of its time, is itself the source of its own … turbulence. That said, kudos and all credit to the production crew, too.

The spectacular set and the oh-so-authentic 1960s furniture and paintings are both the work of Doug McCurdy. Imagine creating a set with six single doors and then double doors at the center rear of the stage! The authentic-looking costumes of the flight attendants, and of the housekeeper, are the creative work of Michele Parry and add so much as well. Jaap Tuinman’s sound design is fine as is Blake Dardenelle’s lighting design.

And please be aware: Coastal Rep’s website advises that this play has “mature themes. Parental guidance suggested for persons under 13.”

Many of the paintings on the walls of the set are actually for sale, although they’re not available until the play closes on Feb. 18. Check out the Coastal Rep website at www.coastalrep.com for photos of the paintings and how to place a bid.

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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

 

ProductionBoeing Boeing
Written byMarc Camoletti
Directed byMark Drumm
Producing CompanyCoastal Repertory Co.
Production DatesThru Feb 18th
Production Address1167 Main St.,
Half Moon Bay, CA
Websitewww.coastalrep.com
Telephone(650) 204-5046
Tickets$19– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.75/5
Performance3.5/5
Script2.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

ASR Theater ~~ LASC’s “Heroes” a Difficult Play

By Joanne Engelhardt

A tall man walks out of a Wyoming cabin in the woods, hears the rustle of leaves and a tell-tale sound. He grabs his shotgun and – POW! He’s shot a deer. The man gets it, lays it on the cement in front of his cabin, and … well, let’s just say he makes sure it’s dead.

Does this have anything to do with the rest of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, playing through Feb. 18 at Los Altos Stage Company? Difficult to say. It does establish place: an old cabin in the woods, far out in the Wyoming countryside.

The crux of the storyline is that four former students of the extremely conservative Transfiguration College of Wyoming return to the school to celebrate the inauguration of one of their favorite professors as president of the college. She’s also the mother of one of the four.

From left: Will Livingston, Tim Garcia, April Culver

Reuniting at the inauguration, the friends accept an invitation from Justin (Will Livingston) to stay at his mountain cabin for a few days to catch up with each other and to see an upcoming full eclipse of the moon.

. . . each of the quartet suffers from either a gigantic bucketful of animosity, angst, feminist beliefs, booze or alt-right dogma…

This is not an easy play to watch, and it’s wise that LASC advises that it may be unsuitable for younger audiences.

LASC Executive Artistic Director Gary Landis directs this production with a steady hand, allowing each of the actors to have his or her own moment in the sun. In fact, all five of the actors seem to fit into the characters they play as easily as putting on a favorite set of clothes. They are:

Tim Garcia as Kevin, a booze-swilling, neuroses-filled hot mess who whines, cries, throws up and basically flops down on the hard dirt while asking pointed questions he has about his Catholic upbringing and why they must love the Virgin Mary. It’s difficult to watch his thin, almost-frail body suffer so horribly.

April Culver as Emily, daughter of the new college president. She suffers terribly from an unnamed disease, frequently crying out in pain and needing help to walk even with the cane she uses. She has become far more liberal since leaving college, having seen the anguish of a woman who went to Planned Parenthood after an unwanted pregnancy. Basically, she says she’s come to have empathy with even those with whom she fundamentally disagrees.

From left: Tim Garcia, Sarah Thurmond at work.

Sarah Thermond as Teresa, who has clearly drunk the Kool-Aid of Trumpian America and calls Steve Bannon her “personal hero.” Teresa believes that by out-shouting and out-talking her three friends, she will succeed in winning them over to her beliefs. Mesmerizing as she is, Teresa is easily the least likeable character, at least by liberal standards.

Will Livingston (Justin) owns the cabin where everyone is congregating. He has chosen to withdraw somewhat from the world, although he makes it abundantly clear that he believes that by focusing on Christianity, he can block out liberals “trying to wipe us out.”

The fifth character is the newly anointed school headmistress, Gina (Lee Ann Payne). She doesn’t show up until the last 45 minutes of the show, but she plays forceful, decisive and dynamic. With a slight Southern drawl, she describes herself as a “Goldwater gal” but admits to being appalled by Theresa’s ultra-far-right rhetoric.

Will Arbery’s 2019 play is nothing if not unsettling. The single-set production is creatively designed by Seafus Chatmon. Sound is crucial for such a wordy play, and Ken Kilen’s sound makes almost every intelligible. Kudos, too, for Mykal Philbin’s moody outdoor lighting design.

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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

 

ProductionHeros of the Fourth Turning
Written byWill Arbery
Directed byGary Landis
Music byMatthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin
Producing CompanyLos Altos Stage Co.
Production DatesThru Feb 18th
Production Address97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos, CA
Websitelosaltosstage.org
Telephone650.941.0551
Tickets$25-$48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.25/5
Performance4.50/5
Script4.50/5
Stagecraft4.25/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-------

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Steven Anthony Jones Soars in “How I Learned What I Learned”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Not many actors can stand on stage for 90+ minutes and talk with just a few sips of water – all the while keeping an audience mesmerized. Yet that’s exactly what Steven Anthony Jones does in August Wilson’s theatrical memoir How I Learned What I Learned.

As directed by former TheatreWorks Silicon Valley artistic director Tim Bond, an acclaimed interpreter of Wilson’s works, How I Learned is as mesmerizing as anything you’ll see on a Broadway stage. It runs through Feb. 3 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

..shares the stage with a table, a chair & a gigantic wall of red bricks…

Co-conceived by Todd Kreidler, the show is a wondrous gift to Peninsula theatregoers who have the opportunity to see it. That’s because it forcefully relates so many difficult, lonely and unfair experiences that people like poor, black, uneducated Wilson experienced growing up after his family came to the United States.

Steven Anthony Jones at work in Palo Alto.

“My mom came to Pittsburg in 1937,” Jones recalls, in Wilson’s voice. August, the fourth of six children, was born in 1945, and was immediately saddled with the “unfortunate circumstance” of being born black. “I was supposed to be white! I got that from Clarence Thomas,” he jests.

Wilson’s works examine the American condition, which is why he’s been referred to as theater’s poet of Black America. All the pain and suffering that both he and his family before him bore is clearly visible in his series of 10 plays collectively called The Pittsburgh Cycle. They include such award-winning plays as Fences, The Piano Lesson, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Jones is a short, somewhat pudgy man who, as Wilson, hobbles around a bit on stage. As he meanders here and there, he doffs a beret, perches on a desk, sometimes turning his back on the audience for a second or two before winking and then continuing on an autobiographical journey.

This is his fourth time performing in Wilson’s one-man show since 2019. Over the years it’s obvious that what he says and does on stage has become more nuanced, more human, more real.

Jones shares the stage with a table, a chair and a gigantic wall of red bricks reaching high into the rafters. That wall is where a word or three appear up high – propelling him to segue into another story, another vignette, another unfairness.

Growing up, August had a few good friends he’d hang around with – friends that he’d stay close to all his life. But he clearly emphasizes that he’s his “mother’s son,” and she told him he had to get a job after school to help out with the family’s expenses. He endured many experiences of prejudice and unfairness, to the point where he’d finally quit a job rather than be treated that way. “Something is not always better than nothing,” he declares, once again quitting a job rather than being accused of something he didn’t do.

The takeaways are many in this 95+ minute presentation of Wilson’s life and literary evolution into becoming one of American’s most celebrated and influential playwrights. Equally telling are his observations on what it means to be a black writer and artist in the 20th century.

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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

 

ProductionHow I Learned What I Learned
Written by
August Wilson; co-conceived by Todd Kreidler
Directed byTim Bond
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThru Feb 3rd
Production Address500 Castro St. Mountain View
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$37- $82
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.25/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Palo Alto Players’ Mesmerizing “Misery”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Expect to spend more than 1 ½ hours being mesmerized by the Palo Alto Players’ production of Misery, running through Feb. 4 at Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto. It’s so scary you might even consider taking a Valium before heading to the theater!

Because of all the suspense, violence, and downright nastiness in Misery, it’s no wonder that PAP has made it abundantly clear that this play is recommended for ages 17 and older.

Kimberly Ridgeway’s direction is so carefully executed that even the most violent scenes provoke fascination and horror. That’s also due to the two fine actors she chose to perform onstage nearly nonstop for the entire production.

Photo by Scott Lasky. Paul Sheldon (Chris Mahle) is being nursed back to health after a car crash by Annie Wilkes (Maria Marquis), in MISERY, one of Stephen King’s best novels come to life onstage.

As the quirky, isolated-from-society Annie Wilkes, Maria Marquis is both exquisitely frightening and authentic. Marquis’ Annie has a childlike vibe about her that makes her even more bizarre and creepy.

…When she says to Paul: “I’m your Number One fan!” it’s not a compliment …

As well-known author Paul Sheldon, Christopher Mahle is the object of all of Annie’s affection and attention after she pulls him out of his car when he has an accident not far from her home. She takes on the role of nursing him back to health in her spare bedroom, a task she relishes because she’s read all of his “Misery Chastain” novels and can’t wait to read the next one.

Although Annie is somewhat experienced in nursing, she also decides that she wants Paul all to herself for as long as possible. She takes away his car keys and cell phone, hiding them where he’ll never find them.

Annie’s delighted when Paul finally wakes up after being unconscious for four days. During that time, she discovers he has a new manuscript in his briefcase and asks him whether she might be allowed to read it as his “Number One fan.” Grateful for her care, Paul begrudgingly agrees. But when she discovers that the book isn’t about Misery Chastain, she is enraged.

She tells him he must continue writing about her favorite character, Misery. Paul tells her he wanted to write something somewhat autobiographical. Helplessly he watches as she sets fire to the book he’s spent months writing.

Even this much of the storyline doesn’t reveal a lot about the play’s plot because it has more twists and turns than a maze.

Photo by Scott Lasky. Annie Wilkes (Maria Marquis) discusses the mysterious disappearance of author Paul Sheldon with the local Sheriff Buster (Zachary Vaughn-Munck) who is on the case in MISERY at Palo Alto.

Written by playwright William Goldman, based on the Stephen King novel, the cast of Misery includes just one other character: the local sheriff, Buster (Zachary Vaughn-Munck). The sheriff makes several trips to Annie’s home to talk to her about the missing author.

Gillian Ortega’s rotating three-room set (plus a front door at the far right) is an integral part of Misery. The bedroom, living room and kitchen are the three rooms that slowly move in a circle as the actors sometimes rush through them to be in place when the pre-recorded music stops and lights go up on the next scene. Edward Hunter’s lighting is appropriately scary. Dave Maier also deserves a shoutout for making the fight scenes authentic (and again: scary).

With Misery, Palo Alto Players provides an absorbing evening of theatre. Just leave the kiddies at home.

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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

 

ProductionMisery
Written by William Goldman. Based on the novel by Stephen King.
Directed byKimberly Ridgeway
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru Feb 4th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$35-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ TheatreWorks’ Terrific “25th Annual Putnam Co. Spelling Bee”

By Joanne Engelhardt

A funny thing happened on the way to creating Silicon Valley TheatreWorks’ top-notch production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. When auditions were held, Broadway actor (and TheatreWorks alum) James Monroe Iglehart was Spelling Bee’s director. He cast the fine actors who are now performing at Lucie Stern Theater.

But then Broadway called, and Iglehart left the production in the capable hands of Meredith McDonough and the Genie returned to the Great White Way for the plum role of King Arthur in Spamalot.

 “…get yourself to Lucie Stern Theatre!” …

But somehow Iglehart magically reappeared for opening night to watch the cast he chose spell themselves into a frenzy or two! All six of the “youthful” performers as well as their moderator (and fellow Putnam County Spelling Bee champion) Ronna Lisa Peretti (a dynamic, animated performance by Molly Bell) are first-rate.

Logainne (Jenni Chapman), Leaf (Blake Kevin Dwyer), Olive (Maia Campbell), William Barfée (Beau Bradshaw), Marcy (Mai Abe), and Chip (Dave J. Abrams) are eager to compete in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

What’s fun about this show is that at each performance, several audience members are invited to join the spellers onstage. The four non-actors may or may not be good spellers, and when it’s their turn to spell a word, they sometimes are given one as easy to spell as “cow” – or their word might sound as if it has ten syllables and has a very obscure definition.

The cardinal rule of the spelling bee is that to continue, contestants must spell each word correctly. Spellers can ask the judges for pronunciation, a word’s etymological origin, and to say it in a sentence. After that, the spellers must take a swing at spelling it correctly or be eliminated. Which is how many real spelling bees work.

What makes this small-cast musical work is how well-balanced the storyline is. Each of the six Bee spellers has his or her own backstory, which come out one way or another along the way to achieving the epitome of spelling mastery: Being the last surviving contestant.

Mitch (center – Anthone Jackson) comforts a guest speller (Romelo Urbi) as he’s eliminated as the cast (background l to r: Mai Abe, Jenni Chapman, Christopher Reber, Blake Kevin Dwyer, Molly Bell, Maia Chapman) celebrate him in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” performing November 29 – December 24. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

First produced on Broadway in 2005, the musical comedy was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn. It ran for more than 1,100 performances and won two Tony Awards (Best Book and Best Featured Actor).

At TheatreWorks, Beau Bradshaw is affecting as William Barfee, a student who has found spelling success only by spelling out words using his right foot. He gears himself up for attempting the spelling by doing a little hop or two and then twisting his foot this way and that to spell out the word.

Though all the adult actors are playing middle school students, probably Mai Abe as Marcy Park truly comes closest to looking the part because of her diminutive size. The two other female contestants, Maia Campbell as Olive Ostrovsky and Jenni Chapman as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, have unusual family backgrounds that make them both sympathetic characters.

As Leaf Coneybear, Blake Kevin Dwyer is endearing as he attempts to spell the word “capybara” as if in a trance. Dave J. Abrams plays Chip Tolentino, a speller who finds himself in a difficult physical predicament and ends up being the first one eliminated when he misspells his word.

Mitch Mahoney, played by the strong Anthone Jackson, is the “enforcer” for the contest. When someone is eliminated from the competition, it’s Mahoney who physically escorts that person off the stage.

Chip (Dave J. Abrams), Leaf (Blake Kevin Dwyer), and Logainne (Jenni Chapman) gawk as Marcy (Mai Abe) introduces herself to Rona (Molly Bell) in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Bee has about twenty songs (and several reprises), so Bill Liberatore’s small orchestra of three (Liberatore on piano, Artie Storch on percussion and Steve Park on woodwinds) is kept mighty busy.

A shoutout, too, to Courtney Flores-Kerrigan for her costume design and the amazing holiday scenic design of Andrea Bechert.

There’s so much more to this production of Spelling Bee that it’s best to just get yourself to Lucie Stern Theatre between now and Dec. 24 to enjoy a holiday treat.

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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

 

ProductionThe 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Written byRachel Sheinkin
Music byWilliam Finn
Directed byMeredith McDonough
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThru Dec 24th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662- 8778
Tickets$27 – $92
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

ASR Theater ~~ A 6’2” Elf Captures Hearts In LASC’s “Elf The Musical”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Ridiculous, implausible, irresistible: Elf, the Musical will worm its way into the hearts of young and old alike in Los Altos Stage Company’s holiday production running through Dec. 23 at Bus Barn Theater.

Before the start of the actual play, Santa (Michael Johnson), in a dignified-looking dressing gown, sat down in a proper Santa chair on stage and began chatting with the audience.

 … Elf, the Musical has … heart!

He asked whether any child wanted to share Christmas wishes with him. At last Sunday’s matinee, several children responded quickly, including a young girl who said “a Barbie!” Santa, who likely saw the recent big-screen adaptation, asked her: “Do you want a little Barbie or a big Barbie?” Without hesitation she responded, “A little one!”

Santa open “Elf, The Musical”

A young boy’s voice yelled “Can I tell you what I want?” Santa chuckled and said, “Go ahead,” but apparently at that point the child was overcome with shyness and refused to say another word. Then Santa asked the children if he should read them a story. That received a big round of “Yes’s!” and he picked up a storybook about Buddy the Elf.

For purists, the Bob Martin–Thomas Meehan musical might fall short in the annals of Broadway musicals — but with a winsome cast, some terrific tap dancers and the charming, child-like Andrew Cope as Buddy the Elf, it also has much to recommend.

Andrew Cope as Buddy the Elf at work in Los Altos.

Cope, who likely inches past six feet, is simply terrific as the awestruck newcomer to New York City who arrives in search of his real dad. He’s been one of Santa’s helpers for many years, but now Santa decides it’s time that he depart the North Pole to search for his father.

Eventually he finds him: Walter Hobbs (Lysander Abadia), a workaholic who neglects his son Michael (Jackson Janssen) and his loyal wife Emily (Annmarie Macry). When Buddy shows up in his bright green elf outfit claiming to be his long-lost son, Walter thinks he’s a lunatic and calls the police to haul him away.

An Elf in The Big Apple.

Once Emily and Michael learn that Buddy is really Walter’s son , they take him home with them. When Walter gets home and finds Buddy there, he wants to throw him out, but his family stands firm. Eventually dad agrees to take him shopping for some more suitable business attire and then reluctantly takes him to the office.

Once there, Buddy keeps pestering other workers but one woman, Deb (an effervescent Alison Starr), takes pity on him and tries to find him something to do. That “something” turns out to be feeding unwanted paper into the office shredder. Buddy says the chopped-up paper particles reminds him of snow at the North Pole, so he’s happy just shredding paper.

Dancing, Singing, Acting, and an Elf!

Another office worker, Jovie (Corinna Laskin) catches Buddy’s eye, and she eventually agrees to go out on a date with him. At times, the storyline zigs and zags so it might be hard to keep up, but — what Elf, the Musical has in spades is heart! It also has tap dancing! And some fine musical voices (Macry, in particular, with an extensive background in musical theatre).

It even has ice skating, a small live orchestra lead by Catherine Snider, strong direction from Sara K. Dean, colorful costumes by Lisa Rozman, a jolly good Santa Claus….and snow!

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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

 

ProductionElf, The Musical
Written byBob Martin and Thomas Meehan
Directed bySara K. Dean
Music byMatthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin
Producing CompanyLos Altos Stage Co.
Production DatesThru Dec. 23rd
Production Address97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos, CA
Websitelosaltosstage.org
Telephone650.941.0551
Tickets$22-$45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.75/5
Performance4.25/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.25/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ An Uplifting “Sound of Music” at Hillbarn Theatre

By Joanne Engelhardt

Rogers and Hammerstein’s iconic musical The Sound of Music is so ingrained in the annals of Broadway, Hollywood, and the community theatre world that one wonders what a new production can offer.

Quite a lot, to judge by the standing ovation given it on opening night (Dec. 1) at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City.

Despite the fact that The Sound of Music is not a Christmas musical, director Dennis Lickteig creates holiday magic with an ethnically diverse cast that brings tears to the eyes by play’s end. There’s even a small live orchestra led by music conductor Debra Lambert to add to the production’s excellence.

Two professional actors play the two key roles of Maria and Captain von Trapp: an affecting Sophia Alawi and a commanding Jared Lee. Both possess strong voices and a naturalness that adds credibility. A slew of other cast members also enrich the production.

There’s even a tiny mite named Kaylee Lopez who plays the youngest von Trapp, Gretl, who generated many “awwws” from the audience. (On opening night she tried mightily to stifle a yawn toward the end of the 2 ½-hour production!)

All seven of the youngsters playing the von Trapp children are fine, with strong singing chops and the ability to provide texture and nuance to their scenes. Chloe Fong as Liesl stands out as does McKenna Rose as Brigitta. Nicki Weppner appears as Liesl’s love interest, Rolf, who brings a lot of telegrams to the von Trapp family home so he can chat with her.

Arguably the best voice in this Sound of Music belongs to Sarah Jebian who plays the Mother Abbess. Her lead vocal on “Climb Every Mountain” ends Act 1 on a high note. Another strong performance came from Brad Satterwhite as Max, the music festival promoter who helps the von Trapps escape the Germans as they take over Austria.

“The Sound of Music” at Hillbarn Theater.

It’s important to applaud Hillbarn for choosing live music for this production – expensive, yes, but so much better than canned. Music director Debra Lambert, who both conducts and plays one of two keyboards and the organ, also has two violins, a cello, and a reed player doubling on clarinet and cello in her orchestra.

Jayne Zaban’s choreography also adds a lot, especially in the musical numbers featuring the Von Trapp children. Stephanie Dittbern had her hands full designing costumes for the large cast – she actually created outfits for the children (supposedly made from Maria’s bedspread) that they wear for only about 15 seconds on stage!

Sound is so important in a musical, and Joshua Price’s sound design is spot-on throughout the show. Ditto Sarina Renteria’s lighting, but this writer felt Hunter Jameson’s scenic design was just a bit too static and artificial. A slight flaw, but easily forgiven with all the other reasons to see the show. Obviously it takes a village to create a show like The Sound of Music. Kudos to all whose work brings this classic to life.

Though not a traditional Christmas offering, The Sound of Music is well worth a trip to Foster City before it closes on Dec. 17.

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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

 

ProductionThe Sound of Music
Book byHoward Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Music byRichard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed byDennis Lickteig
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Dec. 17th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Shakespeare and Zombies at the Pear Theater – What a Combo!

By Joanne Engelhardt

John Heimbuch’s William Shakespeare’s The Land of the Dead is a pairing that almost works at The Pear Theater in Mountain View. That it keeps the audience’s attention as much as it does is due in large part to some fine acting performances and the steady direction of Sinjin Jones, The Pear’s artistic director.

Welcoming the audience at the first performance of Dead, Jones described it as a “Shakespeare-adjacent play.”

Photo (“LoTD_3”): L-R – Helena G. Clarkson (Queen Elizabeth), Adam C. Torrian (Soldier 1), Marc Berman (Sir Francis Bacon).

Though there’s no scientific data to back up this reviewer’s opinion, it’s likely there are more Shakespeare-inclined people in the “50-and-older” category, while the majority of Zombie lovers skew younger. Some audience members will be thrilled to hear Marc Berman as Sir Francis Bacon make the Bard proud. He has an extensive background in Shakespearean roles.

Other cast standouts include:

— Helena G. Clarkson as the white-faced (and white accordion-collared) Queen Elizabeth. Her heavily British-accented lines make her a force to be reckoned with.

–Arturo Dirzo as Richard Burbage, also uses a fine British accent. He’s also credited as the fight choreographer for Dead.

–William J. Brown III as Shakespeare himself. Perhaps  Brown could have been a bit more forceful in his portrayal, but his commanding physical presence is impressive.

It’s best not to read too much ahead of time about this play….

As Kate, Nique Eagen is another forceful character. She and Burbage are lovers, and he wants to marry her as soon as possible. They both show real passion in their romantic scenes, although Eagen can talk so fast that this reviewer found it difficult to catch what she said, on occasion.

L-R – Adam C. Torrian (Sinklo) and Nique Eagen (Kate Braithwaite).

One of the fun parts of Heimbuch’s script is how many references to Shakespeare’s real plays are slipped it here and there by different cast members. Dirzo can barely keep a laugh from escaping when he mentions “To be….” And then mumbles “…or not to be.”

When Zombies show up –- and they show up many times –- there’s more than one insinuation that they represent the famous London plague of 1592-93. Whatever they represent, be prepared to be horrified as they seem to bite into the flesh of other actors on stage. Stage blood also appears which horrified one young girl at the Nov. 18 matinee. Nevertheless, holding tightly to her mother, she stayed to watch the entire production.

Surprisingly, it’s a tiny wisp of a character, Olga Molina (as Rice) who is the glue that holds this production together. Molina plays a boy who must wear a young maid’s dress in Shakespeare’s play, so when he gets offstage, he wants to take it off, but other characters are always commanding him to keep the dress on and go fetch something for them.

L-R – William J. Brown III (William Shakespeare), Marc Berman (Sir Francis Bacon) and Nique Eagen (Kate Braithwaite)

Molina also delivers a moving speech toward play’s end that almost made all that Zombie gore acceptable!

So: Is it true what one character says (“Only the dead shall reign”)? Best to see for yourself. Dead plays in repertoire with District Merchants by Aaron Posner through Dec. 10 in case you’d like a dash of the dead for your holiday merriment.

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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

 

ProductionThe Land of the Dead
Written byJohn Heimbuch
Directed bySinjin Jones
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru Dec. 10, 2023
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$38-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5.00
Performance3.5/5.00
Script3/5.00
Stagecraft4/5.00
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ PAP’S “Wizard of Oz” a Nostalgic Delight

By Joanne Engelhardt

There she is, her hair in short pigtails, wearing a starched blue-and-white pinafore over her plain white dress. If that doesn’t take you back to your own childhood, nothing will.

It’s Dorothy Gale (a delightful Libby Einav) and her little dog Toto (played by a stuffed replica named Beanie) who decides to hide from her Aunt Em (a rather stiff Kayvon Kordestani) and ends up being blown away when a hurricane pummels their little Kansas farm.

…So, what are you waiting for? Best get off to see the The Wizard of Oz!…

After an overly-long video of swirling clouds (and cows!), Dorothy finds herself and Toto somewhere new – and entrancing.

So begins this nostalgic story that just about everyone from eight years old to 80+ likely remembers fondly. There are a few new technological twists in this version, as well as delightful casting choices that make the Palo Alto Players’ production of The Wizard of Oz a must-see for all ages (over three).

Naturally there’s a mean-spirited (and green-faced) Wicked Witch of the West, played with devilish delight by Barbara Heninger.

Barbara Heninger as The Wicked Witch and Penelope DaSilva as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”. Photo Credit: Scott Lasky.

The role of Dorothy is shared by two young girls: Einav and Penelope DaSilva, but for the purpose of this review, all comments are about Einav, who played Dorothy on opening night. As young as she is, Einav has already performed in a number of roles and obviously taken singing lessons because her vocals are strong, clear and sung with real meaning.

Credit PAP with making casting diversity a priority. Here, it’s the delightfully acrobatic Noelle Wilder as the Scarecrow, along with Lauren D’Ambrosio as their voice. Wilder identifies as Deaf. They actually look as if they are stuffed with straw the way they slither and maneuver their body!

Diminutive dynamo Stacey Reed serves as director and choreographer –- excelling at both. She smartly cast her husband, Michael D. Reed, as the Cowardly Lion who hesitates but finally agrees to join Dorothy to see if the Wizard can give him some courage. (His rendition of Act 2’s “If I Were King of the Forest” is a production highlight.)

Several other actors deserve a shout out as well:
~~Andrew Mo is the perfectly (and greenly) dressed Guard who determines who does – and doesn’t – get to see the Wizard;
~~Ian Catindig plays the Tinman who joins Dorothy’s merry troop to see the Wizard and plaintively sings “If I Only Had a Heart;”
~~Jessica Ellithorpe brings sparkly white sprinkles with her every time she enters and leaves as Glinda the Good Witch. It’s distracting, however, that Ellithorpe’s lovely gown seems too big for her, so she kind-of floats around inside it.

Naturally, The Wizard of Oz would be incomplete without disarmingly cute little Munchkins — who turn into equally cute-but-dangerous Winkies in Act 2.

There are numerous other surprises awaiting PAP audiences who see Oz. Other than Glinda’s dress, costume designer Jenny Garcia and her crew did an A+ job of creating the dozens of costumes for the 23-person cast.

Kevin Davies wears several hats – and excels with all of them. He’s the technical director, scenic and properties designer and master carpenter. The audience burst out in applause in the number “If I Only Had a Heart” as the Tinman blew smoke and whistling sounds from under his hat!

Mr. Reed (the Cowardly Lion) also found time to create the projections of the tornado footage that throws Dorothy out of Kansas and back again.

Lighting and sound are so important in a musical production and both are first class here thanks to Edward Hunter on lighting and Sheraj Ragoobeer on sound. Finally, Greet Jaspaert and her large crew deserve credit for the beautiful scenic backdrops.

So – what are you waiting for? Best get off to see the The Wizard of Oz before PAP’s production closes Nov. 19!

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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

 

ProductionThe Wizard of Oz
Written by L. Frank Baum with Music and Lyrics by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg
Directed byStacey Reed
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru Nov. 19th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$30– $57 (limited availability)
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.25/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Seussical” a Giddy, Colorful Musical at Woodside Musical Theatre

By Joanne Engelhardt

Dare to admit that you’ve never read “Green Eggs and Ham,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “Horton Hears a Who,” and….duh: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” OK, if you didn’t read them, then it’s likely someone read them to you when you were a little tike.

Woodside Musical Theatre’s playful production of the 2000 musical comedy Seussical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty takes you back to the entire world of Dr. Seuss even before the curtain opens. That’s when the pert, wily Olivia Swanson Hass as that famous Cat in the Hat (you know: the one with the tall red-and-white striped hat) hustles onstage to retrieve said hat.

The Cat in the Hat (Olivia Haas) takes Jojo (Tyler Kawata) on a ride! Photo credit Nancy Fitzgerald.

Sadly, in its initial Broadway appearance, the Great White Way apparently felt Seussical (a portmanteau of the words “Seuss” and the word “musical”), was a dud. Later it was revived and had several national tours and now is a frequent production at regional theatres and schools.

It’s easy to see that WMT’s production has a heart as big as the one of Horton – performed here with plenty of down-home sincerity by Jay Steele. His gentle, caring vocals help the audience understand how really compassionate Horton is.

…Bright primary colors make “Seussical” a visual delight…

Horton and a young boy named JoJo – who is doing poorly in school and is teased by his classmates – are at the core of the story. JoJo’s the only child of the mayor of Whoville and his wife, who are trying to decide how to discipline him. They tell him to take a bath, go to bed and have some normal “thinks.”

Two young actors alternate playing JoJo: Nadia Moehler and Tyler Kawata. On opening night Moehler was JoJo and she did a remarkable job. Her strong voice and commanding stage presence is rare in such a young person.

Jeffrey Ramos has his hands full directing the incredibly large cast – and he succeeds beautifully.

Standouts in the cast include: Leslie Chicano as Mayzie LaBird, who longs to have more than one tail feather – then comes to regret it when she gets more than she bargains for; Sarah Szeibel as Gertrude McFuzz; Angela Harrington as Sour Kangaroo, and Lauren Biglow as Yertl the Turtle. Biglow also plays a wacky judge in Act 2.

John Tondino makes a solid Vlad Vladikoff as does Mark Bowles as General Genghis Kahn Schmitz.

Of course, a musical with about 30 songs obviously needs strong singers – and a large orchestra to keep them all on key. Musical director Justin Pyne and his 13-piece orchestra are at the back of the stage mostly hidden from the audience by what looks like an ornate metal barrier.

Mayzie LeBird (Sarah Szeibel) and her Bird Girls (Samantha Ayoob, Samantha Ayoob, Ayanna Brewer, Erica Waxer, Jennifer Yuan) teach Gertrude (Leslie Chocano) how to be amayzing too. Photo credit Nancy Fitzgerald.

Greet Jaespert’s delightful costumes are an essential part of Seussical. She cleverly finds a way to help audience members remember who’s who by adding a feather here, a tiny kangaroo there, and a military-looking uniform that stops at the geneal’s knees to show off his silly socks.

All-around handyman Don Colussi deserves heaps of applause for not only creating the set, but doing lighting design and serving as technical director. Another crucial position for any musical is the choreography, and Richard Nguyen and his assistant choreographer Samantha Ayoob handle that chore gracefully.

It’s clear that for WMT’s actors and production staff, it’s a labor of love for their annual show.

It’s unfortunate that Seusical plays for only one more weekend because the effort put into it by the cast and crew deserves a longer run. Discounts are available for tickets outside the center orchestra premium section.

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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

 

ProductionSeussical
Written ByLynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Directed byJeffrey Ramos
Producing CompanyWoodside Community Theatre
Production DatesThrough Oct. 22nd
Production Address199 Churchill Ave., Woodside, CA
Websitewww.woodsidetheatre.com
Telephone(650) 206-8530
Tickets$30 (youth); $52 (seniors); $57 (adults).

Discounts available online.
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.25/5
Performance4.25/5
Script3.0/5
Stagecraft4.25/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ TheatreWorks’Disjointed Retelling of Agatha Christie’s Disappearance

By Joanne Engelhardt

Whether or not you’re an ardent devotee’ of all things Agatha Christie, you likely will find much to appreciate in Mrs. Christie, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s current production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

In this reviewer’s opinion, high praise should be showered on the incredibly beautiful scenic design by Christopher Fitzer. The stage itself features the interior of the lovely Devon estate (called Greenway) of the renowned author Agatha Christie.

The expansive set includes three handsome bookcases, a warm fireplace, a very high ceiling, an elegant chandelier, four doorways and some tables with chairs. Below the stage – right across from patrons sitting front row center – are the table and chair where Agatha writes. That little spot is her sanctuary, one she escapes to frequently in the play.

Impressive set design for “Mrs. Christie.”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Author Heidi Armbruster has taken a tiny swatch of Agatha’s life and created this play. The incident that Armbruster choose to highlight: eleven days in 1926 when Agatha mysteriously disappeared.

… high praise should be showered on the incredibly beautiful scenic design…

The story opens as a car comes to a halt offstage and Agatha (stalwart Jennifer LeBlanc) runs onstage and screams “Peter is dead!” – a line which certainly perks up the audience. She continues to scream that Peter has bit the dust while yelling to her maid Charlotte (a role marvelously deadpanned by actress Elissa Beth Stebbins): “I must call the doctor!”

Charlotte asks Agatha whether she is hurt, but Agatha stumbles over some books sitting in the middle of the stage and simply insists: “Call Dr. Hancock!” The level-headed maid reminds Agatha that if Peter is, indeed, dead, then a doctor will be of no use.

Thus begins the rather convoluted, occasionally humorous and sometimes riveting storyline of Mrs. Christie. (Incidentally, Peter — “Petey” in the program– is a loveable big black dog played by Murphy and, in other performances, by Anubis).

“Mrs. Christie” cast at work. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

One of the primary flaws of Mrs. Christie is that it’s set both in 1926 and in the current day. Some of the actors perform in dual roles while others, like the enigmatic Jane (charmingly played by Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) and Lucy (Nicole Javier) are only in modern scenes.

Javier has a pivotal role, yet , in my opinion, she speaks much too softly and hurriedly to be understood in the carnivorous theater.

Lucy has been a huge Christie fan for many years, so she seizes the opportunity to attend a celebration of the author’s 125th birthday at her Davon estate, but she isn’t content staying outside Agatha’s home at the celebration – she finds a door open to let in air and ends up in her living room. She instantly turns into a kleptomaniac and starts grabbing anything that Agatha owned, small enough to fit in her large purse!

That’s when Stebbins becomes the present-day maid, Mary, who quickly removes everything Lucy has taken – then stands guard to make sure she leaves the house. (Oddly, she doesn’t shut and lock the doors, because Lucy returns to pilfer again.)

There are a few scenes with Agatha’s husband, Colonel Archie Christie (a somewhat strident Aldo Billingslea) and his lover Nancy Neele (Kina Kantor) who, while attractive, is directed to show zero emotion in her role.

The playwright adds more characters to compound the confusion. When Agatha is sitting in a bathtub trying to forget all her marital problems, who shows up to keep her company but her own creation Hercule Poirot – called Le Detective in the program and appealingly played by William Thomas Hodgson.

Agatha Christie and Monsieur Poirot chatting. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Watching Stebbins as the maid Mary get down on her hands and knees and spend several minutes drying the floor in semi-darkness after the bathtub scene was, for this reviewer, a lighthearted highlight! The stalwart Max Tachis appears in both 1926 and today as William and Collins – adding a down-to-earth quality in both parts.

TheatreWorks’ new artistic director Giovanna Sardelli directs this, the company’s first production of the 2023-24 season. Though she likely found ways to make the script more meaningful to 2023 theatregoers, Armbruster might want to consider a rethink of what she has written – so that audiences will perhaps better understand the Agatha Christie she obviously adores.

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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

 

ProductionMrs. Christie
Written by
Heidi Armbruster
Directed byGiovanna Sardelli
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThru Oct 29th
Production Address500 Castro St. Mountain View
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$37- $82
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script2.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR THEATER ~~ Talented Cast Lifts Hillbarn’s “Baskerville”

By Joanne Engelhardt

You can count on one hand theatrical productions where the supporting cast is by far the best part of the play. Add Hillbarn Theatre’s current production of Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery to that short list.

Ludwig is known for his comedic work including Lend Me a Tenor (which won two Tony Awards), Crazy for You, Moon Over Buffalo and Shakespeare in Hollywood.

…several production team members deserve a shout-out..

At under two hours with one intermission, this efficient production meticulously directed by Leslie Martinson, moves so quickly that it’s sometimes all an audience can do to watch the three versatile supporting actors — playing 40+ different characters — rush out and then return in slightly altered costumes as other characters. There must be several dressers backstage to assist with so many quick changes!

A mysterious stranger on the moors (George Psarras*) *Actors appear courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association. Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

Ted Zoltan (Actor 1), Darrien Cabreana (Actor 2) and especially Alicia M.P. Nelson (Actor 3) are the warp-and-woof of Baskerville, despite the rather annoying tagline which says it’s a “Sherlock Holmes mystery.” Nelson uses a dozen or so different accents (both upper and lower-class British), Scottish, Irish and who knows what else, to steal the show from George Psarras (Sherlock Holmes) and John Watson (Michael Champlin).

Champlin, at least, has more to do (and far more stage time than Psarras). He deservedly garnered a huge sympathetic reaction from Friday’s opening night audience when he intentionally fell flat on his back with a resounding thud!

It’s useless to attempt to describe the storyline, although perhaps anyone who’s read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles might have an easier time of it. If not, it’s best to just go with the flow and not worry when something doesn’t make sense or when an actor changes from a landowner to a pauper in a few seconds by dashing out one of the four archways, switching into a different hat or scarf, and walking back in as a different person.

(L to R) Watson (Michael Champlin) and Holmes (George Psarras*) learn never to question a cabbie (Alicia M.P. Nelson) — *Actors appear courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association. Photo Credit: Tracy Martin

The first hint that something has gone awry is the introduction of a troupe of traveling artists who are touring England in a production of the original tale. Alas! All but five of the actors have missed the train – and only a few trunks of costumes and props have made it on the train as well. Their next stop: Barnhill-on-Foster (wink wink) in Hampshire, England, circa 1892

Despite a performance by Psarras which this reviewer found  a bit wanting, the other four players made sure Hillbarn audiences got to chuckle a lot and go home feeling that they’ve had a jolly good time.

(L to R) Holmes (George Psarras*) and Watson (Michael Champlin) are hot on the case, interviewing Actor 1 (Ted Zoldan) and Actor 2 (Darrien Cabreana). *Actors courtesy Actors’ Equity Assoc. Photo Credit: Tracy Martin

Several production team members deserve a shout-out for superior effort: costume designer Nolan Miranda is one; ditto scenic designer Kevin Davies and sound designer Jeff Mockus.

Steve Muterspauch, Hillbarn’s new executive artistic director, can justifiably be proud of Hillbarn’s first production of the season. Discounts are available for anyone under 18 as well as seniors and groups of 10 or more.

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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

 

ProductionBaskerville
Book byKen Ludwig
Directed byLeslie Martinson
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Oct 22nd
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$30-$62 (plus discounts)
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5
Performance4.25/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Palo Alto Players’ “Matilda” A Mixed Bag

By Joanne Engelhardt

Palo Alto Players’ current production of the musical version of the beloved Roald Dahl book, Matilda is a bit of a mixed bag.

While there are odd bits to enjoy – most especially Doug Santana’s uproarious acting and buxom look as the school’s old bag principal, Miss Agatha Trunchbull – there are also times when the sounds of screeching little voices and painfully outdated sound system at the Lucie Stern Theatre make one wonder whether to leave at intermission. And why did someone run the air conditioning during the show, making people try to bundle up in their sweaters or jackets for a matinee production?

…Costume designer Greet Jaspaert also deserves a shout-out…

Two young girls play the title role of Matilda Wormwood: Sofia Zamora and Araceli Grace. This reviewer saw Grace as Matilda, so comments made here are about her. Grace is a charmer, though I also found it frequently difficult to hear her words clearly. Good news: when she sings, her words are crystal clear.

For those who are not familiar with Dahl’s book, it can be quite confusing to watch the PAP production. Matilda’s parents, Mrs. Wormwood (a campy take on the role by Brigitte Losey) and her husband, Mr. Wormwood (Randy Lee) are more interested in money and trying to con other people out of theirs than they are in Matilda.

But the young girl has two people who watch out for her: Mrs. Phelps (Kayvon Kordestani) and her kindly teacher Miss Honey (Madelyn Davis). Davis likely has the best voice in the 29-member cast, and she uses it in several numbers: “Pathetic,” “This Little Girl,” “When I Grow Up” and “My House.”

One of the best group musical numbers in Act 2 is “When I Grow Up” featuring the children, Matilda and Miss Honey. Four long swings are lowered from the rafters, and some of the youthful ensemble jump on them and swing away. Then four older boys take over and swing far out into the audience. That causes an audible “Oh!” from the audience, and applause. Credit choreographer Whitney Janssen for that bit of excitement.

Costume designer Greet Jaspaert also deserves a shout-out for coming up with appropriate clothes for the large cast – and for creating the comical clothing of Santana as the dreaded Miss Trunchbull.

As the Escapologist, Steve Roma plays a large part in Matilda, although to anyone not familiar with the book, it might be a mystery what he does.

For some reason, PAP seems to be focused on children’s stories this year.

Matilda runs for just four more performances this weekend, ending on Sunday, Sept. 24. If you go, prepare by bringing along a warm jacket. PAP’s next production in November is The Wizard of Oz, then there’s more adult fare in 2024.

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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

 

ProductionMatilda
Written by Dennis Kelly
Directed by
Janie Scott
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru Sept 24th, 2023
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$30– $57 (limited availability)
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.25/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

Pick ASR Theater ~~ Prepare to Die Laughing at Pear Theatre’s “Noises Off”

By Joanne Engelhardt

It’s a miracle that Mountain View’s tiny Pear Theatre pulls off the complex staging required for the insanely wacky Michael Frayn comedy Noises Off.

Some may recall that Frayn’s 1982 play was made into a film a decade later with Carol Burnett playing the role of the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett/Dotty who keeps losing her plates of sardines. Here, the exceptional Judith Miller takes on that role and excellently conveys her incredulity and amazement as plates of sardines appear and disappear at will.

Kristin Walter (Belinda), Judith Miller (Dotty), Natalie To (Brooke), Kyle Dayrit (Lloyd), Michael Rhone (Frederick). Photo credit: Caitlin Stone-Collonge.

Though the entire cast is fine, Chris Mahle as the lecherous Garry and Natalie To as the dim-witted Brooke skillfully find their characters’ charm and nuanced characteristics.

What’s most amazing about the Pear’s production is that at the end of Act 1, the audience is directed to leave by a side entrance, then, once in the front of the theatre, the Pear’s education director Meaghan Anderson commands their attention as she charmingly gives a history of sardines to the crowd. Next, she takes everyone on a tour of the theatre’s green room as well as the dressing room where various actors are sitting, standing or reading lines.

“Noises Off’ cast working hard at the Pear theater. Photo credit: Caitlin Stone-Collonge.

When they emerge, the audience is now invited to take a seat in the Pear’s somewhat small backstage area. It’s from this vantage point that Act 2 begins.

It’s quite obvious that Champlin, the actors and crew all had to work with the same goal in mind to make Noises Off work so well in this theatre.

…Frayn’s entire set of characters are just that: characters!…

There are two casts in this Pear show: the “Sardines Cast” and the “Doors Cast” although all but three actors perform in both casts. (The “Sardines” cast is the one reviewed here.)

Other standouts in the Sardines cast include:

–Brandon Silberstein as Tim, the put-upon set-builder, carpenter and general jack-of-all-trades who suddenly discovers he enjoys being in front of the curtain as well as behind the scenes.

–Kristin Walter as Belinda, wife of the couple who own the house where everything takes place. For tax purposes she and her husband (Michael Rhone) have to stay in Spain for a year, but they sneak back to their home for a romantic one-night getaway for their anniversary.

–Ken Boswell as Selsdon, who is always hunting for his bottle of booze which is frequently snatched away from him by other cast members for fear he’ll get drunk and not remember his entrances or his lines.

–Kyle Dayvit as Lloyd, the long-suffering director of the play-within-a-play, who constantly yells at his actors when they forget lines, their blocking, and their entrances and exits. He’s constantly marching down to the set to scream, yell and generally seethe at how the rehearsal is going.

Walter and Dayrit do not appear when the “Doors” cast is performing.

Judith Miller (Dotty), Ken Boswell (Selsdon), Kristin Walter (Belinda), Brandon Silberstein (Tim), Vivienne Truong (Poppy), Kyle Dayrit (Lloyd), Natalie To (Brooke), Chris Mahle (Garry). Photo credit: Caitlin Stone-Collonge.

The show is a riotous testament to the ingenuity of director Katie O’Bryon Champlin and a top-notch cast capable of juggling pratfalls and senseless lines – all while looking as if it’s an everyday occurrence!

The Pear Theatre’s website (www.thepear.org) lists which cast performs on which dates.

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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

 

ProductionNoises Off
Written byMichael Frayn
Directed byKatie O’Bryon Champlin
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru Oct 1st
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets
SOLD OUT. Contact Box Office for additional performances
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5.00
Performance4.75/5.00
Script4.75/5.00
Stagecraft4.75/5.00
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Top-Notch Fun with “Kinky Boots” at SJ’s City Lights Theater

By Joanne Engelhardt

 Seeing Kinky Boots at City Lights Theater in San Jose is a little like witnessing a 2 ½-hour earthquake: It’s guaranteed to shake you right down to your boots, shoes, slippers or whatever else you’re currently wearing on your feet.

The much-acclaimed musical starts out rather innocently, with a young white boy befriending a young black boy – a very brief prologue. Face it: with book by Harvey Fierstein and music/lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, it would require some pretty poor directing decisions to make Boots a disappointment.

That doesn’t happen here., although it starts out slowly with a grown-up, Milquetoast-like Charlie Price (Matt Locke) torn between taking over his father’s faltering shoe company in Northampton and moving to London where Nicola (Amber Smith), his demanding fianceé, wants to live.

The team at the factory celebrates the new boots. Photo by Christian Pizzirani.

That would mean laying off all of the long-time employees of Price & Son. Charlie is torn between going broke making shoes nobody wants to buy or shutting down the business altogether.

. . . A scuffle in a dark alley changes his life – and that of a transvestite named Lola . . .

It’s almost as if Barton “Bart” Perry is made to play the part of Lola (Simon when he’s not in drag.). He’s equally at ease playing both roles, although in San Jose he’s definitely kickin’ it as Lola.

What City Lights also has going for it is a secondary tier of actors who do a credible job of both singing and acting. AJ Jaffari as Harry, one of Charlie’s drinking buddies, is one and Dane Lentz as George is another. Both Karen DeHart and Molly Thornton as female factory workers have strong voices and show good acting skills.

Lauren Berling as Lauren is a somewhat happy surprise. She’s just part of the Price & Son work team until Charlie asks her to do some administrative work in his office. She’s dumbfounded that he even notices her, and it’s then that she blossoms, both in her role and as a singer.

Scenic designer Ron Gasparinetti’s versatile set works perfectly on the City Lights stage. Initially the audience sits outside the tall walls of the shoe factory, which seamlessly fade away to reveal a two-story set with rolling benches where shoes are measured, cut and sewn. Lysander Abadia’s choreography is lively and fun, and Samuel Cisneros provides fine vocal direction.

Lola (Barton “Bart” Perry) and her Angels sparkle in their nightclub drag act. Photo by Christian Pizzirani.

Costume designer Kailyn Erb, assisted by Gloria Garcia Stanley, must have had her hands full creating costumes for the 20+ cast members. The best ones, of course, fit on Lola and her four tall, leggy “Angels.”

Here’s a tip: Just sit back and enjoy an evening of fun, entertainment and song. Some of the best: “”Take What You’ve Got,” “Sex is in the Heel,” “Everybody Say Yeah,” “The Soul of a Man” and the uplifting “Raise You Up.”

Ticket sales have been so strong that Artistic Director Mallette decided to extend the show through Aug. 27th. Grab a seat while you can!

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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

 

ProductionKinky Boots
Written byHarvey Fierstein
Music & Lyrics byCindi Lauper
Directed byLisa Mallette and Mark Anderson Phillips
Producing Company
City Lights Theater Company
Production DatesThru Aug 27th
Production Address529 S. Second St., San Jose
Websitewww.cltc.org
Telephone
(408) 295-4200
Tickets$24 – $65
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.8/5
Performance4.6/5
Script4.8/5
Stagecraft4.8/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “Falsettos” – A Mixed Bag at The Pear Theatre

By Joanne Engelhardt

A strange musical production with an equally strange history is currently on stage at The Pear Theatre in Mountain View.

Falsettos is an impressive undertaking for a small theatre which seldom offers musicals in its season. First, there’s a four-piece band, led by conductor Val Zvinyatskovsky, playing in a tiny second-story balcony. That’s a good thing, except that for some of the songs, the musicians played so loud so that singers’ voices could not be heard.

The unique shape of The Pear means that viewers sometimes all sit on the north side of the building, sometimes all on the south side and sometimes on three sides. Director Janie Scott apparently decided to have three rows of seats on the north and two on the south.

…Most everything is conveyed by song…

Bad choice. For some parts of Falsettos a performer is singing only to those on the north side, while for other songs, most of the song gets sung to people on the south side. Why would anyone want to see the back side of a singer?

There are numerous other issues with this production, but the core cast of actors makes it marginally enjoyable. Key among them is young Russell Nakagawa, as Jason, who “ages” from 10 to 13 by play’s end. Nakagawa’s clear, clean voice is fine, but it’s his earnest, complex acting that is a wonder to see in someone so young.

(L-R): Russell Nakagawa (Jason), Brad Satterwhite (Whizzer) and Tyler Savin (Marvin). Photography credit: Caitlin Stone-Collonge..

Tyler Savin is almost always believable as Marvin, Jason’s father, who loves his son but who has realized that he also loves a man, even when some of the things he does makes him difficult to like. Savin possesses the best voice in the cast, which helps tremendously as Marvin is deeply conflicted and must convey that in many songs and duets.

Most of the time Jen Wheatonfox (as Jason’s mother and Marvin’s wife Trina) doesn’t quite pull off the gravitas needed in this role. Instead, Wheatonfox seems to simply go with the flow, whatever it is. She ends up with Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel (a bland Kyle Herrera) and mostly smiles for the remainder of the show.

Jen Wheatonfox (Trina), Russell Nakagawa (Jason) and Tyler Savin (Marvin). Photography credit: Caitlin Stone-Collonge.

As Whizzer, Brad Satterwhite seems perfectly suited as Marvin’s lover, although it’s not really clear how he ends up becoming the one Jason confides in. But his slight body built makes him physically right to play a man who contracts AIDS and goes through the agonies of that disease.

Only theatregoers who are familiar with how Falsettos came to be a two-act play may accept the two characters who come in after intermission. Both are superfluous, although Angie Alvarez, as Whizzer’s doctor, gets the chance to show off her lovely voice in several songs.

Kyle Herrera (Marvin), Jen Wheatonfox (Trina), Russell Nakagawa (Jason), Brad Satterwhite (Whizzer), Angie Alvarez (Charlotte), Leah Kennedy (Cordelia), and Tyler Savin (Marvin). Photography credit: Caitlin Stone-Collonge.

There are actually approximately twenty songs in Act 1 and seventeen in Act 2. As a play designed as a sung-thru musical (that is, a production  in which songs entirely or almost entirely replace any spoken dialogue) most everything is conveyed by song. “Everyone Hates His Parents,” “Something Bad is Happening,” “You Gotta Die Sometime,” “Thrill of First Love,” “I Never Wanted to Love You” and the comical Act 1 opener, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” are all excellent.

Overall, Falsettos clearly could have been better directed and improved by toning down the musicians, but its exploration of both Jewish culture and 1980s’ gay culture just might make it worth seeing.

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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

 

ProductionFalsettos
Written byWilliam Finn and James Lapine
Directed byJanie Scott
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru July 23rd
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.25/5
Performance3.75/5
Script3.0/5
Stagecraft3.0/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

ASR Theater ~~ ASR Theater. “Puffs”: All Things Harry Potter…Minus The J.K. Rowling

By Joanne Engelhardt

If you’ve never read a Harry Potter book or seen any of the movies based on the books, then how will you understand Puffs, a play written in 2015 by New York-based playwright Mike Cox?

One suggestion: Bring along a 13-year-old to enlighten you.

In any event, the full title of Cox’s play is: Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic.

…much to appreciate here…

Running through July 2 at Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto, Puffs definitely draws in a youthful demographic, most of whom were likely Potter devotees in their younger years. Frankly, if you haven’t seen the films or read the books, you’ll miss out on most of what’s going on. (A few groups of older patrons were conspicuously absent after intermission.)

Still, there is much to appreciate here. For example: The set is full of spectacular lights, sounds and moving parts, the characters are so darn silly (but likeable), the musical score is amazingly diverse, and the costumes so colorfully imaginative, that there’s plenty to occupy your eyes, ears, and other facial appendages.

Photo by Scott Lasky
Pictured: The Puffs learn of a troll in the dungeons on Halloween in “PUFFS Or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic”

Apparently Puffs has no connection whatsoever with J. K. Rowling, so that means it can’t show Harry, Hermione or Ron and can’t mention Hogwarts. How Cox’s play does this is rather ingenious, at least as represented by director Kristin Walter and the PAP production.

Director Walter, a self-proclaimed Harry Potter fan, tackles this somewhat unwieldy script as if it were one triple ice cream sundae. Smart choice to choose Tiffany Nwogu as the narrator because she brings some semblance of normalcy every time she opens one of the doorways and walks onstage to speak. Her colorful dress, created by costume designer Jenny Garcia, helps her stand out from everyone else in the cast.

Photo by Scott Lasky
Pictured: The narrator (Tiffany Nwogu) keeps the story moving in PUFFS at PA Players.

At the center of Cox’s play are three young men who ,mainly because they are new to the school and don’t know anyone, become fast friends. They discover that the “Sorting Hat” (of course! What’s a play without a hat with magical powers?) puts all three of them into the “Puffs” house. None of them want to be a Puff – they were hoping to be “Braves,” “Smarts” or “Snakes – but they eventually accept their fate.

Photo by Scott Lasky
Pictured: Megan Jones (Michelle Skinner) threatens Wanye Hopkins (Will Livingston) and Oliver Rivers (Nicholas Athari) in PUFFS.

In fact, it’s a tale meant for those who rarely get any recognition. None of these characters are a Harry Potter – and never expect to be. But they learn during their seven years at a certain school of magic that friendship is just about the best thing anyone can hope for.

Though none of the cast members are in their teens, the actors do a fine approximation of acting the age of college students. Will Livingston (Wayne), Nicholas Athari (Oliver) and Michelle Skinner as Megan are all excellent in their roles, as is Katie O’Bryon Champlin as Susie Bones and other parts.

The diminutive Champlin brings down the house whenever she walks out on stage wearing a familiar-looking maroon and gold scarf around her neck and carrying two mops – one bright red (representing Ron) and one brown (Hermione).

Photo by Scott Lasky.
Pictured: The Puffs pay their respects when their headmaster dies in PUFFS Or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic, the hilarious Off-Broadway hit.

Unfortunately, there is much in this show that will not be familiar without an understanding of the Harry Potter books or movies. Still, there’s both heart and humor for those who do “get” it.

Scenic designer Kevin Davies, assisted by scenic painter Greet Jaspaert, adds a lot of visual interest onstage, most especially the tall faux-stone staircase that gets moved around seamlessly just before someone walks out of a second-story door to walk down to the stage. That requires precision timing – bravo!

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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

 

ProductionPuffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic
Written by Matt Cox
Directed byKristin Walter
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru July 2nd
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$30– $57
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.75/5
Script3.25/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

ASR Theater ~~ Funny and Sweet: TheatreWorks’ “Steel Magnolias”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Make no mistake: The women of Chinquapin parish are as delicate as magnolias – but as tough as steel. That’s why Robert Harling’s play, Steel Magnolias has endured since it first premiered in New York in 1987. Two years later, it was made into a movie featuring a whole lineup of Academy Award-winning women.

Since that time, Harling’s comedy-drama has been a favorite at regional and community theatres all over the country. One reason it has endured so long is because it’s the simple story of a group of women friends who overcome difficulties by supporting each other through thick and thin.

…Director Elizabeth Carter did a commendable job of assembling a companionable multi-cultural cast…

In this case, the setting is Truvy’s home-based hair salon – in fact, according to its owner, Truvy (a somewhat subdued Lisa Strum), it’s the best hair salon in town. That’s why most of the women in town go there weekly to get their hair washed, dried and teased to make it ‘poofy.’

This day is particularly special because both M’Lynn (a marvelously warm Dawn L. Troupe) and her daughter Shelby (a youthfully delightful Jasmine Milan Williams) are coming in to get their hair done for Shelby’s wedding that very afternoon.

Interestingly, Harling based the play on the death of his sister, who had diabetes but decided she wanted to have a baby anyway – despite the risks. She had a child, but then her kidneys failed, and even though Harling’s mother donated one of her own, it failed too and his sister passed away. That’s the sad part, but there’s so much joy, laughter and camaraderie in Steel along the way.

Director Elizabeth Carter did a commendable job of assembling a companionable multi-cultural cast. (Some folks might question her decision to have some of the actors stand facing toward the audience while talking to people behind them. Nancy Carlin as Ouiser does this several times.)

Arguably the real “star” of this Steel production is the wondrous set created by scenic designer Andrea Bechert. That’s one of the advantages of offering a play on the extraordinarily wide stage of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. A lot of plays wouldn’t work here, but “Steel” is made for such a stage. The hair salon takes up nearly all of the stage, with just two steps leading up to a second level, going into a room where coffee is brewed—and hot dogs are occasionally cooked! It helps, too, if you like turquoise—because that’s the color du jour!

Cast of “Steel Magnolias” at work. Photo by Kevin Berne.

There’s so much heart here that it’s likely to have some theatregoers shedding a tear or two. Alexandra Lee hits the mark with her portrayal of the newcomer Annelle, who “may or may not be married” and is desperately in need of a job. The rest of the women at Truvy’s all contribute clothes, food and even a place to stay.

The final cast member (Marcia Pizzo as Clairee) is a bit too brisk, but she comes through in the final scene when she grabs her nemesis Ouiser and tells M’Lynn to take out her aggressions on her. Now that’s friendship for sure!

(Note: Several performances will offer open captioning and others will include audio descriptions to assist anyone who is visually impaired. American Sign Language will be available at the 7:30 p.m. June 20 performance. Check the website for more information.)

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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

 

ProductionSteel Magnolias
Written by
Robert Harling
Directed byElizabeth Carter
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThru July 2nd
Production Address500 Castro St. Mountain View
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$37- $82
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

ASR Theater ~~ Pointillism on Point in LASC’s “Sunday in the Park with George”

By Joanne Engelhardt

For its current production of Sunday in the Park with George, Los Altos Stage Company turned its proscenium into a gold frame – a very large gold frame, thanks to the efforts of scenic designer Skip Epperson.

The James Lapine-Steven Sondheim musical gets a credible showing at LASC, despite the relatively small stage available to the actors and set pieces. The musicians are hidden behind a wall that includes several screens representing some of the artwork created by French artist Georges Seurat, who almost singlehandedly established the technique of Pointillism in 1886. Lapine apparently preferred to use the Americanized version of his name in his play.

Director Alex Perez chose his 14 actors with precision, not so much in their physical appearance as for their strong characterizations. It’s certainly not easy for each of the actors to portray two distinct characters, yet most came through with flying colors.

…JoAnn Birdsall’s costumes add another rich layer to this production. The sound, light, and props are equally important parts…

Act 1 takes place in 1884 when Georges is attempting to hone his painting style by separating out different aspects of his art: “White, a blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole, through design, composition, tension, balance, light and harmony.”

Alycia Adame as Dot and Rob Cadwallader as George Seurat. Photo by Christian Pizzirani.

As the play begins, Seurat’s model and live-in girlfriend Dot (Alycia Adame) is standing at the park wearing a tight corset and gown, complaining how hot it is to be out in the sun and begging Seurat to let her stand in the shade.

His response: “Don’t move. Look out at the sea!” She begrudgingly complies until finally surprising the audience by stepping away from the dress (which stands up all by itself!) and telling him she won’t pose any longer.

Alycia Adame as Dot, Rob Cadwallader as George Seurat and Linda Piccone as Old Lady. Photo by Christian Pizzirani.

This give-and-take is pretty indicative of their relationship, which eventually ends because Seurat clearly values working on his art far more than he does spending time with her. She begins dating the baker, Louis (played by Bryan Moriarty, in four roles), whom she later marries and has a child – something she’s always wanted.

There are a number of other fine performances here including Penelope DaSilva as a very spoiled child, Louise, who ignores her mother and annoys people who are trying to enjoy a Sunday in the park. Other standouts: Andrew Kracht as the “live” Toy Soldier; Linda Piccone as both Georges’ mother and as Blair Daniels in Act 2, and Kate Matheson as Celeste.

Sunday’s score has at least 15 songs, so an orchestra is as essential as the actors. Brian Allan Hobbs leads a small, five-person orchestra from behind the scenery with just a small opening that allows the actors to begin singing at the right moment. Some of Sondheim’s best here are “”Sunday” (of course!), “We Do Not Belong Together,” “Putting it Together,” “It’s Hot Up Here” and “Move On.”

JoAnn Birdsall’s costumes add another rich layer to this production. The sound, light, and props are equally important parts.

Cast of Sunday in the Park with George. Photo by Christian Pizzirani.

The clear highlight is what’s known as the “tableau” that ends Act 1. This is when all the actors in Act 1 line up precisely where Georges wants them in order to recreate his most famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”

(NOTE: Some performances have been cancelled due to a cast member contracting COVID. Check LASC website for available dates.)

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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

 

ProductionSunday in the Park with George
Music & Lyrics byStephen Sondheim
Book byJames LaPine
Directed byAlex Perez
Producing CompanyLos Altos Stage Company
Production DatesThru June 25th
Production AddressBus Barn 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos
Websitewww.losaltosstage.org
Telephone(650) 941-0551
Tickets$20 - $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

ASR Theater ~~ “The Spongebob Musical” Goofy, Wacky, Colorful at Palo Alto Players

By Joanne Engelhardt

When you’ve never watched one single cartoon episode of Spongebob Squarepants, you’re at a bit of a disadvantage seeing the latest Palo Alto Players production, The Spongebob Musical.

No matter.

The set is so full of spectacular lights, sounds and moving parts, the characters are so darn silly (but likeable), the musical score amazingly diverse, and the costumes so colorfully imaginative that there’s plenty to occupy your eyes, ears and other facial appendages.

A colorfully designed set including neon lights…

Now at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto through Sunday, May 14, the show starts way before the show starts when several gigantic beach balls get tossed back and forth, over and around the audience. Then Patchy the Pirate (Dane Lentz) comes out to tell the audience that he really wants to join the fun, but no one has invited him. Patchy seems a bit superfluous, but at least he’s not around long.

PAP’s executive director, Elizabeth Santana, admits she’s a bit baffled by the 30-to-40-year-olds turning out nightly to see the show. That was certainly the case on opening night last Friday – and very few children were in the audience.

SpongeBob SquarePants (Joe Galang) greets the day with his pet snail Gary in THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL, Broadway’s award-winning bold, fresh, and hilarious deep-sea adventure that will make a splash with audiences of all ages. Photo by Scott Lasky

Yet, it’s easy to get caught up in the experience, thanks to artistic director Patrick Klein’s fast-paced direction and colorfully designed set including neon lights and imaginatively shifting sets.

A diminutive Joe Galang is Spongebob who sports a wide-eyed wonderment about everything in the world around him. His best friend Patrick Star (a jovial Rocky James Conception) stops to chat with him as he awakens and walks to the Krusty Krab restaurant, where he works. Mr. Krabs (a bigger-than-life Zachary Vaughn-Munck) wears gigantic red boxing gloves and reminds his young daughter, Pearl (a delightful Gillian Ortega) that someday she’ll own the restaurant.

Pearl Krabs (Gillian Ortega) and the other citizens of Bikini Bottom get ready to rock out at a benefit concert in hopes that the funds raised can save their town in THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL. Photo by Scott Lasky

Pearl, of course, has other ideas and when Spongebob tells Krusty that he’d like one day to be the manager, Krusty laughs him off, telling him he’s just a simple sponge.

Suddenly a violent tremor rocks the entire town. After the tremor, a news report says the gigantic volcano, Mount Humongous, will soon erupt and likely will disgorge hot lava all over the area, destroying Bikini Bottom.

Many townspeople want to leave, but SpongeBob enlists his friends Patrick and Sandy Cheeks (a sensational Solana Husband) to join him, climb up the volcano to stop it from erupting.

And that’s only Act 1!

Of course, there’s always an evil villain – here it’s Sheldon Plankton (played by Michael Jackson-lookalike Nico Jaochico) and his tiny wife Karen the Computer (Kristy Aquino). But they’ll get their comeuppance, right?

One more actor deserves mention: Andrew Cope as Squidward Q. Tenacles. It certainly can’t be easy to walk around -– and even dance –- when you have four legs!

Squidward Q. Tentacles (Andrew Cope) dreams of stardom on the stage in THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL. Photo by Scott Lasky

Music director Richard Hall and his keyboard are onstage while his 11-piece orchestra is hidden under a small opening at the center front of the stage, an opening that frequently becomes part of the set.

There’s a lot of enjoy here: Klein’s set is terrific, Stacey Reed’s choreography is fun, Edward Hunter’s lighting is spot on, Raissa Marchetti-Kozlov’s costumes, wigs and makeup are creatively outlandish . So: Even if you know nothing about SpongeBob, you’ll still find much to enjoy.

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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

 

ProductionThe SpongeBob Musical
Based on series by -

Book by -
Stephen Hillenburg

Kyle Jarrow
Directed byPatrick Klein
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThru May 14th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$30– $57
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance3.75/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Producers” Still Enthralls at Hillbarn

By Joanne Engelhardt

The astonishing thing about The Producers is that no matter how many times you’ve seen it, its inane characters, its music and its heart still catch you by surprise. Mel Brooks, writer of the book, music, and lyrics, is a legendary master of this kind of comedy.

Running at Foster City’s Hillbarn Theatre through May 14, this version has it all except for a live orchestra. Tall, leggy dancers? Check. A quivering, mousy Leo Bloom (James M. Jones)? Check. Over-the-top histrionics by John Mannion as Roger DeBris and his minion Carmen Ghia (a lively Jesse Cortez)? Double check.

YES!! This show has it all…

That’s not even before the tall, beauteous Renee DeWeese Moran walks in and does her thing as the astoundingly efficient Ulla. Announcing her entrance with a tiny curtsy, Ulla tells Max (a somewhat subdued Edward Hightower) that she came to “audition.” Watching her sing, dance and sashay around the office, flinging a leg straight up (and ending with the splits), Max and Leo hire her on the spot.

Ulla (center, Renee DeWeese Moran), while Max (left, Edward Hightower*) and Leo (right, James M. Jones) watch on with glee. *Denotes member of Actors Equity Association Photo by Tracy Martin

And that’s only a few of the many reasons not to miss this production. Keith Pinto is flawless as Franz Liebkind, the “playwright” who writes a Nazi musical called “Springtime for Hitler” and submits it to Max and Leo.

Max wants to produce a sure-fire flop and decides that “Springtime” is the ticket. He and Leo visit the would-be Nazi at his home, and Franz insists on taking them to see his pigeons.

He prances around cooing and oohing at his prized pigeons – a scene that’s funny in itself but even funnier thanks to the fact that the pigeons are actually puppets operated by Beth A. Wells and Andrew Victoria. They actually move! And coo! This reviewer can’t recall another production of The Producers that includes pigeon puppets!

Leo ( James M. Jones) dreams of being a producer on Broadway. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

There are oodles more memorable scenes including: –Watching a trembling Leo pull out what’s left of his little blue baby blanket, covering his face with it, patting off excess sweat with it, and clutching tightly so no one can take it away from him.

–Roger DeBris all dressed up for a big party event, in a gorgeous long shimmering gown of purple and silver. He’s so sure he’ll be the belle of the party until Max walks in and says he looks just like the Chrysler Building. Mannion, as DeBris is the picture of devastation.

–Who can forget the conga line of dancing grandmas? Max’s benefactors all get together to parade across the stage with their walkers. There’s “Kiss Me, Bite Me,” “Hold Me, Touch Me,” “Kiss Me, Feel Me” – and so many more!

(Lto R) Carmen Ghia (Jesse Cortez) and Roger DeBris (John Mannion) keep it gay. Photo by Tracy Martin

Director Erica Wyman-Abrahamson does a masterful job of keeping all this madness moving along quickly. Y. Sharon Peng deserves high marks for all the gorgeous costumes she’s created – the outfits worn by Ulla are terrific, as is the Nazi one Pinto wears. And then there’s the Ziegfeld Follies -type costumes some of the ensemble wear in the “Springtime for Hitler” parade.

There’s far more to admire in the Hillbarn’s production – including Kevin Davies’ scenic design. Not to be forgotten is Christopher Childers’ clever choreography, with dancers flying off one side of the stage, then suddenly walking down the steps in the audience to return to the stage. Did we mention tap? YES!! This show has it all.

-30-

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

 

ProductionThe Producers
Book byMel Brooks
Directed byErica Wyman-Abrahamson
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru May 14th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “Pear Slices” 2023: A Mixed Bag of Offerings

By Joanne Engelhardt

The Pear Playwrights Guild is made up of about fifteen playwrights, although five more are currently listed as “on leave.” Of the fifteen active playwrights, seven wrote short plays for this year’s Pear Slices, at Mountain View’s Pear theater. (Two wrote two each, making a total of nine short plays. The plays average about 10-15 minutes each.)

With such a focused pool of playwrights to draw from, it’s not surprising that the quality of the Slices varies. Sometimes widely. Perhaps this is due to each member of a small pool of playwrights having to churn out a short play every year or two.

That said, several of the nine actors and some of the shorts are attention grabbers. Leah Halper’s Way Home is one, with fine acting by Nique Eagen as Fannie Lou Hamer and Bezachin Jifar as her husband, Pap Hamer.

Halper’s A Lift is another. This short has Lisa, nicely played by Sarah Benjamin, picking up her father, Will (a solid Arturo Dirzo) as she drives to school. The two actors have good chemistry, discussing past problems and misunderstandings — although this reviewer sometimes found Benjamin difficult to hear.

Sarah Benjamin and Arturo Dirzo in “A Lift” by Leah Halper.

But the first short, Sophie Naylor’s The Witching Hour needs a bit of work. It has great lighting and special effects, but the four witches making random comments (most of which make no sense to this reviewer) is challenging.

I also found Ross Peter Nelson’s Sweet Dreams Are Made of This  confusing – something about AI controlling and stealing dreams. Next up is Robin Booth’s Fantasy Island where a woman named “IT” seemingly crawls out of the water after being kicked out of a canoe. At times Sandy Sodos as IT is amusing as she talks to a coconut (voiced by Eagen), but this short seems to be in search of an ending.

Sandy Sodos as IT at work in this year’s “Pear Slices”.

Aileen by Barbara Anderson takes place when police detectives arrest a black man (Jifar). If nothing else, this short gets the honor of presenting the toughest acting challenges of the night to Sarah Kishler as Detective Murphy.

Nirvandraw also by Sophie Naylor features Sandy Sodos using high-tech speak, and the piece has great wall projections. Yet: the point of this play eluded this reviewer.

After intermission, the aforementioned Way Home and A Lift were presented. The Street Has I’s by Greg Lam could stand some polish, but featured good acting by Tiffany Nwogu and Jifar.

Nique Eagen and Bezachin Jifar in “Way Home” by Leah Halper.

Finally, a short that has promise (but didn’t seem to deliver same that night) is called Literary Mediation Services by Bridgette Dutta Portman which includes an actor appearing in a Moby Dick shark costume.

Behind the scenes, Carsten Koester deserves credit for good lighting and projections, and several of Pati Bristow’s costumes for Literary Mediation Services are exceptional.

(L-R): Bezachin Jifar, Tiffany Nwogu, Sandy Sodos and Nique Eagen in Literary Mediation Services by Bridgette Dutta Portman.

Rated “PG” for mild adult themes including discussion of drugs and violence, this year’s Pear Slices runs approximately two hours, with one intermission.

Like a real crop of pears, the quality of writing, acting, and directing in Pear Slices varies from year to year. Here’s hoping next years crop is exceptional.

-30-

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

 

ProductionPear Slices 2023
Written byVarious Playwrights
Directed byCaitlin Papp & Thomas Times
Producing CompanyThe Pear Theater
Production DatesThru May 14th
Production Address1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone(650) 254 - 1148
Tickets$35 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script2.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

ASR Theater ~~ TheatreWorks’ “A Distinct Society” a Vague Memory of Long Ago

By Joanne Engelhardt

A wonderfully inviting library located exactly on the border between a small town in northern Vermont and a Quebecoise town is the setting for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of A Distinct Society.

There’s a cozy children’s nook filled not only with children’s books but also pint-sized furniture, an abacas and a couple of stuffed animals. But the real attention-getter in Jo Winiarski’s impressive set design is the two-foot-wide bookcase full of (what else?) books that runs up one side over the top and down the other side of the proscenium in the Mountain View Center of the Performing Arts.

Yet there’s one uninviting thing about the library: the wide strip of tape that runs straight down the middle of the library. Why? Because the left half is in the United States and the right half is in Canada.

Daughter Shirin (Vaneh Assadourian) and father Peyman (James Rana) reunite in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s World Premiere of “A Distinct Society”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

There are just five characters in Society, so each plays an important part in telling Kareem Fahmy’s fictionalized story of what happened at the Haskell Free Library & Opera House in 2017 when families separated by what was called the “Muslim ban” used the space to connect with each other. The ban didn’t allow citizens of seven Muslim countries to enter the U.S.

As the play opens, an Iranian father, Peyman (a serious, caring James Rana) enters the library with his passport and food he has prepared for his medical-student daughter, Shirin (Vaneh Assadourian), who lives in the U.S.

Because he arrived early, he just wants to sit in the library and wait to give Shirin food from home. But the big, burly U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Bruce (Kenny Scott) says he can’t stay. Shirin tries to give the food to Manon, the librarian (Carrie Paff), but she’s not willing to accept it because she says no food is allowed in the library.

Enter young, tousle-haired Declan (an appealing Daniel Allitt), who practically considers the library his home because his parents are divorced and he has no friends to chum around with. Declan has found ways to sneak into the library any time of the day or night, and he sometimes sleeps there as well. He also keeps a stash of soda and snack food that he consumes when no one’s around.

Smiling mischievously, Declan says, “Technically I don’t eat meat. But I do.”

In a rather strange turn of events, Manon reveals that she’ll be performing in the upstairs opera house, playing the title character in Bizet’s Carmen. Bruce invites her to have dinner with him before the opera, and she accepts. Later they return to the library where he convinces her to dance on a library table just as Carmen does in the opera. Bruce and Manon kiss a few times when suddenly she hears a noise.

Bruce (Kenny Scott) flirts with Manon (Carrie Paff) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s World Premiere of “A Distinct Society,” performing April 5-30. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Guess who’s the unintended witness to all of this? Of course: It’s Declan who’s been spending hours in the library reading what he calls “graphic novels” (actually fantasy comic books) and chowing down on his never-ending supply of junk food.

Though the actors’ performances are nuanced and well done, it’s the play itself that lets down their abilities. One example: too many topics are mentioned in passing such as the 1995 referendum asking Quebec citizens if they want to secede from Canada to form a “distinct society.” It’s touched on so quickly that many in the audience won’t understand or, more likely won’t even remember that time.

The play runs approximately 95 minutes without an intermission.

-30-

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

 

ProductionA Distinct Society
Written by
Kareem Fahmy
Directed byGiovanna Sardelli
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley in collaboration with Pioneer Theatre, Salt Lake City, Utah
Production DatesThru Apr 30th
Production AddressMountain View Center for the Performing Arts
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$29- $77
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ LASC’s Exquisite “Harold and Maude”

By Joanne Engelhardt

 

Los Altos Stage Company’s executive artistic director Gary Landis came up with a winning formula for their production of Harold and Maude, which opened April 14 and runs through May 7.

Landis relates that he decided to include Harold and Maude in the 2022-23 season because it was the 50th anniversary of the beloved movie of the same name. LASC produced the same show (with the same actor playing Maude) eight years ago.

It’s easy to see why. That actor, Lillian Bogovich. personifies the “almost 80-year-old Maude” in look, sound and manner. Her own long, gray-streaked hair looks exactly how an aging hippie would style her hair, and her low, gravelly voice is precisely right for the role. That she is able to appear guileless and even childlike makes her characterization complete.

As Harold, the boyish Max Mahle is every bit Bogovich’s acting equal – though his innocent-looking face conceals a troubled youth who acts out in the most perverse, devilish ways possible. Those diabolical pranks are sometimes the works of Landis’ clever scenic projections, while other times are simply a matter of good-old-fashioned magic tricks.

Max Mahle and Lillian Bogovich. Photo credit: Christian Pizzirani

As the play begins, Harold’s haughty upper-class mother, Mrs. Chasen (a marvelous characterization by Katelyn Miller), is showing her new maid (Erika Racz) around the house, explaining to her what her household duties will be. They enter the Chasen living room and the maid looks out the large backyard window to discover a body hanging from a branch of a tree.

It’s Harold, yet Mrs. Chasen pays her son no mind. She revives the poor maid and tells her that her son has “staged his own suicide at least fifteen times.” She arranges for psychiatrist Dr. Matthews (an earnest Steve Althoff) to come to the house to chat with Harold. After a few uncomfortable minutes together, Dr. Matthews tells Mrs. Chasen that Harold will soon grow out of it, and decides to leave.

Next up is the sweet, pious priest (a perfectly cast Jonathan Covey). He first meets Harold at his parish where the young man is attending a funeral. When the priest asks Harold how he knows the deceased, Harold looks at him innocently and says he doesn’t. “I just like to attend funerals,” he says matter-of-factly.

Fifteen times he’s staged his own suicide….

Asked what he likes to do for fun, Harold says in all sincerity: “I go to funerals.” But Mrs. Chasen has other plans for her son: She finds a dating app and arranges for three young women to come to the house to meet Harold. She’s so anxious for Harold to find a young woman he likes and wants to spend time with.

That’s when Michelle Skinner gets her moment in the spotlight. She plays all three young ladies (Sylvie, Nancy and the hippie Sunshine Dore), but Harold makes a resolute effort to scare each one out of their wits. The result: All three get out of the Chasen house in short order.

Max Mahle (standing), Lillian Bogovich (upside down). Photo credit: Christian Pizzirani

To his mother’s amazement, Harold suddenly starts dressing nicer and talking about someone he met who has the same interests he does. He even met her at a funeral!

He’s talking about the sweet, kind, totally artless Maude. One of the best scenes in an already fabulous production is when Mrs. Chasen goes to Maude’s house to meet the “young girl” who has so smitten her son. The look on her face when she discovers that the older-than-she Maude is the “girl” Harold loves is simply priceless.

If you want an absolutely terrific evening of theatre, call LASC or go online to get tickets before this show is completely sold out.

-30-

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

 

ProductionHarold and Maude
Book byColin Higgin
Directed byGary Landis
Producing CompanyLos Altos Stage Company
Production DatesThru May 7th
Production AddressBus Barn 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos
Websitewww.losaltosstage.org
Telephone(650) 941-055
Tickets$32 - $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Stilted “Perfect Arrangement” at Hillbarn Theatre

By Joanne Engelhardt

Topher Payne’s 2014 production Perfect Arrangement seems horribly out of date even though written a scant nine years ago. That’s why it’s surprising that Foster City’s Hillbarn Theatre and director Tyler Christie decided to make it part of the 2022-23 season.

Although it’s played mostly for laughs – as in I Love Lucy laughs – it’s really about a very difficult time in U.S. history.

It’s set in the 1950s at a time when Joe McCarthy was holding congressional hearings to root out communists holding government positions, and later expanded to uncover homosexuals who might also work for the government.

…D’Angelo Reyes’ scenic design is a highlight…

Two of the four lead characters (Brad Satterwhite as Bob Martingale and Leslie Waggoner as Norma Baxter) both work for a government department that will soon be assigned to go after such security risks. The irony is that Bob and his real-life partner, mild-mannered Jim Baxter (Alex Rodriguez) as well as Norma’s flighty real-life partner Millie Martindale (Amanda Farbstein) reached an interesting agreement four years earlier: The foursome live “next door” to each other so that it appears as if they are all good friends and neighbors.

Left to right: Norma (Leslie Waggoner), Millie (Amanda Farbstein), Jim (Alex Rodriguez), and Bob (Brad Satterwhite). Photo by Tracy Martin.

In reality, they go into an obviously symbolic closet full of clothes at night so that they can spend their evenings with their same-sex partners.

Much of the humor comes from people constantly showing up at Millie and Norma’s apartment when one of the men is there – and one of the women isn’t. Then it’s up to the remaining woman to explain where her husband is – or why her female friend is there instead.

(L-R) Millie (Amanda Rose Farbstein) chats on the phone while Norma (Leslie Waggoner) listens in. Photo credit: Tracy Martin.

The play starts out during a cocktail party, supposedly put on by Millie and Bob, attended by Bob’s boss, Ted Sunderson (John Mannion) and his ultra-rich, ultra-snobbish wife Kitty (Erica Wyman).

Time-out right here: Does anyone notice that Millie brings in gigantic cocktails festooned with little umbrellas, hands them out to the partygoers, and then, after taking one sip of their drinks, the Sundersons leave?

Faux paux 2: Millie collects everyone’s drinks and takes them back into her kitchen. What kind of party is this???

Christie’s direction is anything but subtle. Wyman’s wealthy Kitty seems to enjoy lording it over the other women. She invites Norma to go to the opera with her, which gives costume designer Bethany Deal an opportunity to come up with some lovely long gowns and mink stoles.

Photo: Tracy Martin.

D’Angelo Reyes’ scenic design is a highlight. The expansive stage looks exactly what you’d expect of a large living room/dining room from the 1950s complete with a stone fireplace, a wall-mounted clock and comfy couch.

Another rather weird stage direction happens at the play’s end. One at a time, all four of the main characters decide to stop hiding their true identities, even though it means leaving their loving partners. One by one they walk to the center front of the stage, stare off into space a moment, walk two steps down to audience level, look left and walk off, leaving the audience wondering exactly what that means and what happens to them after that.

FINAL NOTE: ALERT! For the remainder of the run of Perfect Arrangement, the role of Bob will be played by Alex Kirschner due to the fact that Brad Satterwhite broke his leg! and is unable to continue performing. Get better soon Brad!

-30

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

 

ProductionRENT
Written byJonathan Larson
Directed byReed Flores
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Feb 25th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Other voices…

"[A] clever canapé of a comedy... Mr. Payne is a deft and witty writer."
The New York Times
“As hiding gets harder, pitch-perfect comedy ensues: slamming doors, strange disguises, preposterous excuses [….] Eventually, the four must decide whether face-saving domestic lies are worth it, or whether ostracism beats living in fear. In our own era of surveillance and paranoia, their mid-century problems don’t feel so far away.”
The New Yorker
"This is truly what a play should be. Thought-provoking, but with loads of laughs, this terrific show strikes the perfect balance between harsh social criticism and comedy."
Triangle Arts & Entertainment
"The best thing about Topher Payne’s fabulous "Perfect Arrangement" is its pitch-perfect capture of the 1950s comic voice, and its application to the dreadfully serious drama."
DC Theatre Scene
"Introduces audiences to a piece of theatre where tragedy and farce wrap around each other like strands of DNA. It's two distinct plays telling the same hilarious and heartbreaking story... "Perfect Arrangement" drags history out of the closet."
Memphis Flyer
"At a time when discrimination and witch hunts are increasingly becoming the norm again, Theatrical Outfit’s new Perfect Arrangement feels like a lot more than just snappy entertainment — it’s mandatory, topical viewing, as well as a glimpse back at a sad moment in history."ArtsAtl.Org

PICK! ASR THEATER ~~ Heartfelt Story: Fannie Lou Hamer Celebrated at TheatreWorks

By Joanne Engelhardt

You know you’re in for a story about the plight of Southern Black people when you take your seat in the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto for Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer and see signs all over the theater walls with slogans like “Folks died so you could vote,” “We demand the right to vote,” and “Pass the Civil Rights Bill.”

Then a stubby woman strides down one of the theater’s aisles, gallops up the steps pronouncing her presence and begins a 66-minute dialogue – interrupted only a few times by a line or two from one of the men in the three-person musical orchestra – and by the glorious 1960s gospel songs she sings.

…“To hope is to vote!” — activist/civil rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer…

The magnificent Greta Oglesby immerses herself in the role of civil rights advocate Fannie Lou Hamer who was a simple 44-year-old sharecropper in Louisville, Mississippi when she took on that mantel after learning that President Lyndon B. Johnson was trying to get Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act.

One day Fannie and seventeen others went to the county courthouse to register to vote, but just about everyone else in her town had different ideas. The would-be registrants never even got in the door. Thinking back on it, Fannie declares “We were only trying to register! Imagine if we were actually trying to vote!!”

TheatreWorks artistic director Tim Bond gives Oglesby all the space she needs to exhibit the emotions – from joy to pain and agony – that created the firebrand Fannie became.

One of the most difficult scenes to watch is Fannie telling what happened to her when she was thrown into jail – first alone, but then put in with four male prisoners, both black and white. Listening as she describes being sodomized by one, then another, and another and another, can make your blood boil. Such experiences only made Fannie more resolved than ever that she and “her kind” deserved to both be equal and to have the right to vote.

When Oglesby belts out her gospel songs, she makes the audience feel they are in her church, complete with a sporadic “hallelujah” from the men who add so much, both with their voices and their fine instrumentation—music director Morgan E, Stevenson on keyboards and harmonica, Spencer Guitar on guitars, and Leonard Maddox Jr. on drums.

At one point Fannie urges the audience to join her in a rousing rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” The audience sings first altogether, then she divides the crowd and has half sing, then the other half. By then she has everyone in her pocket, stomping their feet and singing out as if in a Southern church gospel service.

Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Aided by Miko S. Simmons’ projections, scenic designer Andrea Bechert does a masterful job of creating a set that switches from scenes of marches and demonstrations to intimate times in Fannie’s living room. Ronnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting adds another dimension to many scenes as does Gregory Robinson’s sound.

Yet  this reviewer found something wanting in playwright Cheryl L. West’s scant (one hour, six minutes) script. At one point Oglesby marched off the stage and a slide came up telling the audience that Fannie Lou died of heart failure in 1977, a few months shy of her 60th birthday. Then Oglesby came out to take a bow. The ending is so abrupt – and the play itself so short! – that this reviewer assumed it was an intermission.

Clearly, this is a production with a lot of heart. What it lacks is a clear view of when it needs to stop ticking.

-30

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

 

ProductionFannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer
Written by
Cheryl L. West
Directed byTim Bond
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThru Apr 2nd, 2023
Production AddressLucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$30- $90
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Other Voices…

"Inspired by her life story and filled with her music, FANNIE is a hopeful rallying cry that honors the spirit of a true revolutionary."
Actors Theatre of Louisville
[the play is] "...welcoming to all people and highly entertaining. For those who know little about Hamer’s life, there is a willingness to inform. For those that do, there’s an impulse to celebrate the achievements of what turned out to be an extraordinary American life..."
Chicago Tribune
..."rich in memorable vignettes, just as the song-laden show abounds in energy, wit and aspiration."
Chicago On the Aisle
"...As Hamer ruminates on the problems of the 1960s — police brutality, victim blaming, gentrification, the education gap and voter suppression, among them — the unsettling parallels to life in 2020's deepen. Even before the play evokes Harriet Tubman and John Lewis, the message crystallizes: If these heroes fought for what’s right in the face of unspeakable turmoil and trauma, what’s your excuse for apathy?"
Washington Post

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Into the Woods” A Delightful Stroll at Foothill Theatre Arts

By Joanne Engelhardt

There’s nothing like a relatively small theater to enable audiences to appreciate the wonder, the magic and the magnificence of Stephen Sondheim’s way with words.

That’s what’s in store for anyone lucky enough to get a ticket to the current Foothill Theatre Arts production of Into the Woods, running through March 19 under the capable direction of Milissa Carey.

Several powerful voices in this version of Woods greatly add to the overall experience. Caitlin Gjerdrum, in the pivotal role of the Witch, excels in both acting and singing.

(L-R) Alicia Teeter, James Schott, and Caitlin Gjerdrum in “Into The Woods”. Photo by David Allen.

Equally strong in the vocal department is James Schott as the Baker, Alicia Teeter as the Baker’s Wife and, as the Narrator/Mysterious Man, Michael Paul Hirsch brings those characters to life in new, interesting ways.

”…the magnificence of Stephen Sondheim’s way with words.”

Into the Woods first opened on Broadway in 1987 with Sondheim providing the music and lyrics and James Lapine, the book. It won three Tony Awards that year – for best score, best book and best actress.

The story primarily involves fairy tale characters from Jack and the Bean Stock, Little Red Ridinghood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel, with several others having lesser roles.

Characters galore! Jack’s Mother, Cinderella, Witch, Baker, Cinderella’s Prince, Florinda, Lucinda, Rapunzel’s Prince, Stepmother, Mysterious Man, Little Red, and Baker’s Wife at work in Foothill’s “Into The Woods”. Photo by David Allen.

Music and lyrics, of course, are key and here’s where Sondheim shines. The song “Into the Woods” is interwoven throughout the show, but there’s also the haunting “Last Midnight,” “Children Will Listen” and “No One is Alone.”

There are many lighter musical moments as well, including “Hello, Little Girl,” sung by the Wolf to Little Red Riding Hood,” “A Very Nice Prince,” “Agony,” and “It Takes Two.”

Carey’s production team is top-notch as well. Scenic designer Yusuke Soi had his work cut out for him, trying to fit this big musical onto the Lohman Theater stage. But he came through with flying colors, making a tree-filled woods, several homes, a bakery, Grandma’s house and a special giant tree all fit.

He even made the orchestra part of the woods. By putting them at the rear center of the stage, audience members get to watch Horsley conduct a top-notch seven-person orchestra play the score.

Soi also is responsible for the remarkable design and construction of the hapless cow, Milky White. Some productions have two people wear a cow costume to play this character, but Soi’s design is remarkably fluid. Kudos, too, to Mateo Urquidez, who easily manipulated the cow character.

In many ways, the story line involving the Baker and his wife very much wanting to have a baby is just an excuse for stringing together beautiful Sondheim songs.  Just to cite two examples, read carefully and “listen” to his words, first in “Prologue Into the Woods”… 

“Into the woods without regret,
The choice is made, the task is set.
Into the woods, but not forgetting
why I’m on the journey.”

And then in the song “Children Will Listen”…

“Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen”

 

Both, amazing and classically Sondheim.

Costume designer Sharon Peng’s amazing talent at work. Photo by David Allen.

Costume designer Sharon Peng did an outstanding job of creating the colorful outfits that seemed right for each storybook character as well as the ordinary people in the town. Lighting is a key part of the show as well, and Pamila Grey didn’t disappoint.

Two other production staff deserve mention: What good are song lyrics if they can’t be heard? Sound designer Andy Heller makes sure that doesn’t happen. Finally, Kayson Kordestani’s choreography works beautifully on the small stage.

To sum up: A beautifully presented production that shouldn’t be missed.

-30

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

 

ProductionInto The Woods
Book by / Music & Lyrics byJames Lapine / Stephen Sondheim
Directed byMilissa Carey
Producing CompanyFoothill Music Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 19th
Production AddressFoothill College
12345 El Monte Rd.
Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
Websitewww.foothill.edu/theatre
Telephone(650) 949-7360
Tickets$20 - $40
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!

PICK! ASR THEATER ~~ Excellence! Hillbarn Theatre’s “Assassins”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Horrible topic. Terrible timing.

Yet when Hillbarn Theatre’s production of Assassins opened last weekend, it was, in a word, spellbinding. Imagine watching the incredibly talented Andre Amarotico kill President Abraham Lincoln a few days after the news of the seven farm workers shot in Half Moon Bay.

Amarotico’s acting skills are so good that the Foster City theater’s audience couldn’t help getting drawn in. The almost-sold-out opening night audience found a way to put aside recent events for two hours and lay witness to watching a fine cast of actors portray characters who kill – or shoot — several presidents and others they have grudges against.

Assassins first opened on Broadway in 2009. The incomparable Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, and handpicked John Weidman to write the book. The show got mixed reviews and closed after 73 performances. Over the years it’s had numerous revivals both off- and on Broadway, and is now frequently performed by theatre companies around the world.

Curiously, Assassins is a musical – nearly the entire cast sings about their plans to kill, or how they killed or tried to kill. Not exactly fodder for a musical, though it works here.

There’s a nimble “balladeer” (beautifully acted by Keith Plato) who wanders in and out of the multi-tiered set, and into the audience, swinging around poles – all while singing “Everybody Has a Right to be Happy.”

That’s what makes Assassins so strangely seductive. The actors smile, sing upbeat songs – all while plotting to kill someone.

..Curiously, Assassins is a musical…

One of the best scenes is between Sara Jane Moore (a devastating, yet drop-dead funny portrayal by Hayley Lovgren) and Squeaky Fromme (equally well acted by Brigitte Losey). These two sit on the steps and discuss killing famous people while smoking weed and chomping on KFC, potato chips and sodas.

Moore is distraught because she can’t find her dog – and she can’t remember where her children are. But that doesn’t keep her from having a good ol’ time with Fromme while stuffing her mouth with fast food.

Fromme tells her that she’s a follower of Charles Manson who is the Son of God. Sara Jane looks at her as if she’s insane and asks: “Did he tell you he was the Son of God?” “Absolutely!” Squeaky answers, “….and I’ve slept with him!”

Nick Kendrick, so good as Jerry Lee Lewis in productions of Million Dollar Quartet, wears his hair long and flat in front here as he plays John Hinkley, whose obsession with Jodie Foster caused him to attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.

He and Losey sing the duet “Unworthy of Your Love,” as their characters cry out for their obsessions (Foster and Manson).

"Assassins" cast at work at Hillbarn.

Nearly everyone in the cast does a fine job with their roles. Kudos to Benjamin Ball as Leon Czolgosz, an American laborer and anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901 (and was later electrocuted for his crime); and Ted Zoldan as Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President James Garfield and was later hanged. But Julio Chavez doesn’t seem quite up to playing Lee Harvey Oswald, which is unfortunate because the murder of President John Kennedy is likely the one that some audience members still vividly remember.

Director Joshua Marx deserves high marks for keeping the musical moving at a fast pace, assisted by Leslie Waggoner who not only helped with directing but was also the production’s choreographer. Scenic designer Christopher Fitzer did an amazing job with creating the versatile wooden set. It had American flags, bunting and very old, tattered flags everywhere. The multi-level set enables cast members to dart in and out and, at times, all stand in their own spaces.

A fine orchestra of six musicians, lead by music director and keyboardist Jad Bernardo made sure their music didn’t masque the voices and kept a solid tempo.

Marx says in the program that it’s his hope Assassins will help audiences think about the threads that connect all of the play’s events – and how these characters got to the point of doing what they did.

Well said.

-30

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

 

ProductionAssassins
Based on / Written byConcept by Charles Gilbert, Jr.

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman
Directed byJoshua Marx
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Feb 12th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ A Devilishly Good Elf Makes Hillbarn’s “Elf, the Musical” a Don’t Miss Production!

By Joanne Engelhardt

When you have as versatile an actor as Dave J. Abrams playing Buddy the Elf, it’s impossible to go wrong. Director Randy Ohara can justifiably be pleased with his new hit Elf, the Musical, running through Dec. 18 at the Foster City theater.

This young man – locally educated at UC Berkeley – is the real deal. He jumps high, he squeals like a kid, he dances around gracefully and he literally commands the stage whenever he’s on it – which is almost all the time.

”….he’s on the ‘naughty’ list!!”

As director O’Hara says in his director’s notes: “My hope is that you share some laughs and live in the moment with your loved ones, creating holiday memories.” Once he found his Buddy, choosing the rest of his 23-member cast likely came together easily. Several standouts include Jessica Coker as Emily Hobbs, the dynamo mom to impressive young MIchael Hobbs (Josh Parecki). Both Coker and Parecki possess strong voices that are used to good advantage in this fun show.

Walter Hobbs (Brandon Savage) leads the office in a chorus of “Christmas Always Gets in the Way”. Photo Appears Courtesy of Actors Equity Association — Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

Nadiyah Hollis’ clear vocals are another fine addition to “Elf.” As Macy’s top boss, she’s both commanding and demanding! Russ Bohard’s Santa displays just the right amount of “ho-ho-ho-ness” without becoming cloyingly sweet. But he would have seemed a tad more Santa-like if he looked as if he more enjoyed being around children.

As for Brandon Savage, playing the all-work-and-no-play Macy’s manager Walter Hobbs, he is truly on Santa’s “naughty” list when he tells his employees they’ll have to work late on Christmas Eve – maybe even on Christmas! – because they’re behind in their work. He’s even all-business at home but Buddy teaches him some solid lessons on lovingly taking care of both his business and his family.

Deb (Lindsay Schulz) shows Buddy (Dave J. Abrams*) how to make snow using the shredder. Photo Appears Courtesy of Actors Equity Association — Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

The sense of child-like wonder Abrams brings to his role is mesmerizing. When his father (Savage) tells him to go get a cup of cocoa and sit quietly in a chair, Buddy squeals with childish delight: “You know what’s even yummier? Hot chocolate with a chocolate bar on top!”

A number of supporting roles deserve mention as well: Lindsay Schulz as Deb is always smiling, dancing, singing – it made this reviewer hope she becomes Buddy’s girlfriend! But that role belongs to Allison J. Parker as Jovie. At first, Parker seems aloof and not at all interested in the persistent Buddy who instantly falls for her and tells her he wants to make all her dreams come true.

But Parker grows on you, and once she relaxes and smiles more, she seems a perfect foil for the mercurial elf. Her powerful vocals are also first-rate.

Meanwhile, high up to one side of the Hillbarn theatre sits musical director Joe Murphy playing drums and conducting a fine-sounding orchestra of about eight musicians.

Jeanne Batacan-Harper does a good job of choreographing her dancers in the somewhat small stage space at Hillbarn. Pam Lampkin and her costumers made cute little elf slippers for all of Santa’s elves – and created their outfits, including a colorful one for Buddy.

Buddy (Dave J. Abrams*) and New York’s out of work Santa’s declare that nobody cares about Santa Claus. Photo Appears Courtesy of Actors Equity Association — Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

Although the set design is fairly minimal, it works well for quick scene changes with most furniture sliding in and out as the background moves from Santaland, to Macy’s to the Hobbs home, to Central Park in New York.

So, pack up the whole family – kids especially, but aunts, grandparents, friends – and spend a few hours enjoying the wonderfulness of Hillbarn’s Elf, the Musical.

-30-

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

 

ProductionElf, the Musical
Songs by

Book by
Tony Award nominees Matthew Sklar & Chad Beguelin.

Tony Award winners, Thomas Meehan & Bob Martin
Directed by
Choreography by
Randy Ohara
Jeanne Batacan-Harper
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Dec 18th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
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.

-30-

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!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Coastal Rep’s Engrossing “Murder on the Nile”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Who doesn’t love a “whodunit?” Audiences revel in the idea of trying to figure out which one of a number of suspects is the culprit. And who is the Queen of that genre? Agatha Christie, of course.

Director Brad Friedman and Coastal Repertory Theatre in Half Moon Bay figured it was a safe bet that audiences would find Murder on the Nile a fine way to spend three hours.

It most definitely is.

Though that pillar of Christie books Hercule Poirot appears in this one as well, Agatha herself decided that he had no place in the stage play.  But one of the play’s characters, Canon Pennefather (played to perfection by Louis Schilling), is the closest thing to a Poirot surrogate as possible – and it’s much easier to understand him!

…there’s plenty of murder, mayhem and mystery…

A week or so before opening night, this production caught a bad break when Carolyn Ford Compton, set to play the part of Miss Foliot-Foulkes, spent several days in the hospital and had to bow out. Her role was taken over by Nancy Martin, a seasoned actress who taught high school drama for 19 years and has performed in many area productions.

Martin was commendable as Miss F-F, but a shade too severe and wore a stern frown in nearly every scene. Still, on quick notice, her effort is admirable.

Amy Stringer brings the exact amount of agita to her role as the jilted woman, Jacqueline De Severac, whose fiancé, Simon Mostyn (a somewhat miscast Rob Hedges) breaks off their engagement when he falls for Jackie’s best friend, the rich beauty Kay Mostyn (Allison Gamlen).

Though she’s only in a few scenes, Gamlen makes an indelible impression with her savoir faire, attractiveness, permed hair wig and gorgeous costumes (the work of Michele Parry and her assistant, Sue Joswiak).

The cast overall is strong, including Janelle Aguirre as Louise Bourget, who works for the story’s small river cruise company and attempts to keep her small cadre of guests happy while onboard the S.S. Lotus. Alex Bloom is youthfully perfect as Christina Grant, the niece of the hyper-critical Miss F-F, always trying to please her – a task too Herculean for anyone.

Johnny Villar as William Smith, seemingly the only guest who doesn’t come from money, starts out as a milquetoast – or even a gold-digger when he starts flirting with Christina – but he, too, isn’t really who he appears to be.

As the German doctor, Dr. Bessner, Amnon Levy provides a very-authentic sounding accent and a seriousness about all the murder attempts in the play. Greet Jaspaert as Mrs. McNaught, Kay’s maid, seems somewhat miscast, though she tries hard to fit in.

R. Dutch Fritz uses the wide CRT stage to good advantage, giving it the appearance of one end of a river boat with six large windows at the back of the set, doors to cabins on each side of the set and a few accoutrements of Egypt like a wall hanging and period sconces. The wicker furniture at the front of the stage looks right at home in Egypt’s heat and humidity. Opposite is a long bar, a period radio and some kind of Egyptian bird on the wall. Persian rugs are scattered around the two-level set with long white curtains tied back on the windows so the blue sky is visible to all.

Lighting by Carson Duper is fine, and Kristin Pearson’s sound design is pitch perfect. Nearly every word was easily understandable from the first- to the top- row of seats.

Interestingly, CRT’s Murder has two intermissions and is presented in three acts, although some are much shorter than others. Overall, there’s plenty of murder, mayhem and mystery to keep the audience’s attention. Many walk away asking each other: “Did you figure out who the real murderer was?”

-30-

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

 

ProductionMurder on the Nile
Written byAgatha Christie
Directed byBrad Friedman
Producing CompanyCoastal Repertory Co.
Production DatesThrough Oct. 23. No performances Pumpkin Festival Weekend (Oct. 14 - 16)
Production Address1167 Main St.,
Half Moon Bay, CA
Websitewww.coastalrep.com
Telephone(650) 204-5046
Tickets$19– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!
ASR Editorial's Special Thanks!Footlighters Co.

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.

-30-

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?-----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Everything’s Rosy in Hillbarn Theatre’s “Gypsy”

By Joanne Engelhardt

Rose– as in Mama Rose, the ball-busting lead character of the much-performed and universally loved musical “Gypsy,” is obviously a force to be reckoned with. But when that role is played by the phenomenally talented Stephanie Prentice, whose full-throated vocals can likely be heard at least several blocks away, it’s definitely worth seeing. The role fits Prentice like a glove.

Luckily for San Francisco Peninsula theatergoers, it’s just a short trek to Foster City’s Hillbarn Theatre to witness not only Prentice but also several other fine performers.

The hackneyed story of an overbearing stage mother (Rose) whose determination to make her younger daughter June (Melissa Momboisse) a star first saw light when the esteemed talents of David Merrick, Leland Hayward and Jerome Robbins combined to turn the Arthur Laurents’ book (suggested by Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs) into a Broadway show. Throw in music by Jule Styne, lyrics by the great Stephen Sondheim, then contract Ethel Merman to play Mama Rose, and what do you get? A sure-fire hit, that’s what!

Prentice has that Merman kind of chutzpa: badgering, bullying and generally making a nuisance of herself to make sure her Baby June gets the attention of everybody in the audience as well as backstage. Momboisse plays June with a wide smile, a blonde, curly wig and lots of sparkly pink tulle. She has talent – she can do cartwheels and summersaults, all while twirling not one but two batons.

Momma Rose (Stephanie Prentice*), June (Melissa Momboisse), Luoise (Makena Reynolds), and Herbie ( Chris Reber*) sit in Mrs. Crachitt’s (Lisa Appleyard) office waiting for a big meeting.
* Denotes member of Actors Equity Association. Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

When June was 10 or 12, the family troupe had a cute vaudeville act. But eventually vaudeville faded away and June grew up and developed a fetching figure, something her mother refused to accept. Vaudeville falls out of style, but Mama Rose keeps hauling her daughters around the country with her – to smaller and smaller venues – even as June can no longer pretend to be a little girl.

…A sure-fire hit that’s what!

Louise, the bookish mousy older sister, is perfectly content to let June have the spotlight. Instead, she lugs the suitcases around, acts as a gofer and buys chop suey for the three to eat morning, noon and night. “It’s cheap! And filling!” Mama Rose shouts.

Louise (Makena Reynolds) Attempts her first strip routine.
Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

As Louise, Makena Reynolds is a tad too attractive to be considered ‘mousy,’ but she does her best to stay in the shadows – even playing the front end of a cow when Mama Rose decides to make Baby June become a sweet farmgirl with six fine farmhands and a cow to dance with her. But when Baby June and one of her backup dancers elope and move away without a forwarding address, Mama Rose decides she’ll make Louise the star of the show.

Louise can’t really sing, and her dancing is mediocre, but she tries her best because that’s what mama wants. The turning point is when the act inadvertently gets booked into a burlesque theatre. When Mama discovers what it is, she tells Louise they need to leave immediately, but the practical Louise, as well as Mama’s long-suffering boyfriend Herbie (a rather subdued Chris Reber) – tell her they have no more money and nowhere to go.

The rest, as they say, is history. Louise’s shyness becomes her “thing” – that little something different that sets her apart from other burlesque queens. Soon she’s performing her burlesque routine at bigger and bigger burlesque emporiums –and earning much more money.

Hillbarn’s opening night audience last Friday night gave the entire cast a standing ovation – mostly deserved, although the large musical orchestra lead by Rick Reynolds sometimes played as if they were at a summer family concert.

Herbie ( Chris Reber*), Rose (Stephanie. Prentice*), and Louise (Makena Reynolds) Sing “Together Wherever We Go.”
* Denotes member of Actors Equity Association. Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

Standout songs include “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Some People,” “Rose’s Turn,” all sung by Prentice, “Small World,” sung by Prentice and Reber, and “Wherever We Go,” sung by Prentice, Reber and Reynolds. Y. Sharon Peng’s costumes also are a highlight – from the plain “housewifey” dresses Prentice wears throughout the play to the clever outfits for the young June and Louise and their cadre of boys, who all morph almost onstage into young people in similar costumes.

Whether familiar with the legend of Gypsy Rose Lee or not, audiences will appreciate Prentice’s fine vocals, the singing and dancing of the large cast, and an opportunity to look behind the curtain to see how struggling actors survive.

-30-

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

 

ProductionGypsy
Book / Lyrics / Music byArthur Laurents / Stephen Sondheim / Jules Styne
Directed byLee Ann Payne
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Sept. 25th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$32-$60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Palo Alto Players Delight with “School of Rock”

By Joanne Engelhardt

With a bushel of fresh-faced, multi-talented kids, Palo Alto Players has a hit on its hand with the broad comedy “School of Rock,” playing through Sept. 11 at Lucie Stern Theater.

Sure, there are tons of hackneyed caricatures in “Rock,” the kind that Julian Fellows creates here. In fact, almost all the production’s adults are caricatures, the better to contrast with their earnest, brook-no-prisoners reactions to the show’s fifteen kids.

…A special shoutout to the four youngsters who played their own instruments in solo numbers….

What’s even more amazing about these pint-sized stars is that the four youngsters who ultimately become members of the kids’ band are actually playing their instruments live. They do so despite the fact that a number of adult musicians are also playing in the orchestra pit during the show.

Photo by Kate Hart Photography Pictured: Dewey Finn (Jomar Martinez) and the kids of Horace Green rock out to “You’re in the Band” in Palo Alto Players’ SCHOOL OF ROCK!

Yet one adult actor – the crazy-good Jomar Martinez, playing out-of-work musician/faux substitute teacher Dewey Finn – stands out simply because Dewey is a kid at heart whose two loves are playing music and sleeping. Dewey is living in the bedroom of an apartment owned by his old bandmate, Ned Schneebly (the bland but affable Zack Goller) and his fiancée Patty Di Marco. Amanda Le Nguyen plays Patty with waaaay too much veracity—her Patty is so demanding that it’s hard to imagine she and the affable Ned would ever have connected.

It’s obvious director Doug Santana put a lot of love into this production—his own daughter Maddie plays one of the precocious kids! While he let the kids shine as much as they are comfortable, it might have made the show a little more reasonable if not every adult except Dewey was unpleasant or bland.

As Rosalie Mullins, the headmistress of the posh Horace Green School, Amy Kohmescher comes close to playing another caricature. But she loosens up when she agrees to have a cup of coffee with the ersatz substitute teacher. Turns out the coffee date is in a bar and with each sip of beer, Rosalie loses her inhibitions and becomes more fun. She and the disheveled Dewey even share a quick kiss as they part.

But the kids are really the heart and soul of “School of Rock.” From reading their biographies, most are middle school or high school students, although at least two are fifth graders. Nearly all have had drama experience either at their schools or with local theatre productions.

Photo by Scott Lasky Pictured (L to R): Hailey Matta as Summer, Adeline Anderson as Katie, Jomar Martinez as Dewey Finn, Rafael ‘Rafi’ Frans as Zack, and Alex Pease as Freddy in Palo Alto Players’ SCHOOL OF ROCK, the electrifying Broadway musical based on the hit movie.

A special shoutout to the four youngsters who played their own instruments in solo numbers: Adeline Anderson who, as Katie, played bass; Alex Pease playing drums as Freddy; CJ Fernando as Lawrence with his socko piano playing; and the blow-it-out guitar playing of Rafael “Rafi’ Frans as Zack.

Choreographer Joey Dippel smartly allows youngsters with previous dancing experience to lead the musical numbers, yet gives every one of the kids a chance to at least “doo wop,” dance, and sway to the beat.

Andrew Lloyd Webber composed “Rock’s” musical score, and Glen Slater provided lyrics. It has several memorable numbers, most notably: “You’re in the Band,” “Where Did the Rock Go?,” “School of Rock” and “Stick It to the Man.”

Photo by Scott Lasky. The teachers of Horace Green sing the “Faculty Quadrille” in Palo Alto Players’ SCHOOL OF ROCK!

Costume designer Noreen Styliadis really hit the mark here with cute maroon-white-and black plaid school uniforms worn by almost all the kids. She pulls off a coup when she dresses Martinez in – well, you’ll just have to see “Rock” to find out.

All in all, definitely worth the 2 ½ hours (with one 15-minute intermission) for young and old alike to revel in the clever joyfulness of “School of Rock.”

-30-

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionSchool of Rock
Book by / Lyrics By / New Music ByJulian Fellowes / Glenn Slater / Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed byDoug Santana
Producing CompanyPalo Alto Players
Production DatesThrough October 11, 2022
Production AddressLucie Stern Theater 1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA 94301
Websitewww.paplayers.org
Telephone(650) 329-0891
Tickets$30 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!