ASR Theater ~~ Thought Provoking — Lucky Penny’s “The How and the Why” | Your Reporter: Barry Willis

Two research biologists have an unexpected encounter in the run-up to a scientific conference in “The How and the Why,” at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through April 24.

Lucky Penny Associate Artist Karen Pinamaki stars as Zelda, a career evolutionary biologist involved in hosting the annual meeting of the National Organization of Research Biologists (NORB). A late applicant named Rachel (Heather Kellogg Baumann) comes to Zelda’s office to plead for a speaking slot at the conference, to defend her hypothesis that human females menstruate as form of protection against sperm cells, which she characterizes as “antigens.”

Her hypothesis has gotten plenty of pushback from the biology establishment, especially from men. She begs Zelda for a speaking slot, despite having reservations about some of her own conclusions and many misgivings about drawing the ire of conference attendees, some of whom have already bashed her for what they perceive as outlandish assumptions.

Lucky Penny deserves praise for producing such a thought-provoking play….

Rachel enjoys some sympathy from Zelda, whose own hypothesis met a similar reception nearly thirty years earlier—in Zelda’s case, the “grandmother hypothesis” speculating that women’s longer lifespans compared to men serve an evolutionary purpose: they are needed to help younger women with child-rearing duties.

The two biologists argue their convictions passionately, but the story isn’t really about science, despite the seeming plausibility of both concepts, and despite the realistically-depicted rampant nitpicking, back-stabbing, petty bickering, and professional jealously that infect the scientific community.

Their real issue is that Rachel is Zelda’s biological daughter, given up for adoption when she was only six days old. She’s now 28, the same age Zelda was when she got pregnant. The moment when she enters Zelda’s office is the first time they’ve met as adults. They are both professional scientists, the epitome of rationality, and they try their best to remain above emotional outbursts, but the emotion comes through despite their efforts to contain it—resentment, betrayal, guilt, feelings of abandonment and diminished self-worth, the whole panoply of negativity that can affect both those given away by their birth parents and those who gave them away.

Karen Pinamaki and HeatherKellogg Baumann at work.

Pinamaki and Baumann tread this emotional minefield with great care and a growing sense of carelessness, which becomes more pronounced as their mutual familiarity improves. Written by TV writer Sarah Treem (“House of Cards” among many other credits) and directed by Dana Nelson Isaacs, it’s an impressive pas de deux performed mostly in Zelda’s office (set design by Taylor Bartolucci and Barry Martin) and later in a Boston dive bar.

The two performers are very well balanced and amazingly dynamic with material that here and there may veer too far in the technical direction for some viewers. But strip out the scientific stuff, expertly woven into Treem’s story, and you have a universal tale of long-estranged mother and daughter reuniting in adulthood and trying to make a go of it from there.

An old adage about science is that it’s very good about explaining how events occur, but not so good about why. This fundamental observation applies not only to hard-core objective reality but also to a whole range of human behaviors. “The How and the Why” is a fascinating examination of two people trying to make sense of something that may not ever be fully understood either by them or by professional therapists. Lucky Penny deserves praise for producing such a thought-provoking play.

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

 

ProductionThe How and the Why
Written bySarah Treem
Directed byDana Nelson Isaacs
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough April 24
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

ASR Theater Review — “A Napa Valley Christmas Carol” It’s the Most Wine-derful Show of the Year — by Cari Lynn Pace

Photos courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions.

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a winter holiday evergreen, one that appears onstage and onscreen everywhere in the English-speaking world this time of year.

There have been innumerable spinoffs and interpretations of the classic tale. Now in its inaugural run, “A Napa Valley Christmas Carol” is a rare musical leveraging Dickens’ basic plot, updated to the present with delightfully quirky characters, and many memorable pop tunes, playing now at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa, through December 19.

Writer/director Barry Martin and composer Rob Broadhurst are the creative team behind this fast-moving show, a brash and funny take on Dickens’s enduring tale of misery, remorse, and redemption, set in the wine country with contemporary dialog and local references.

Setup: Late on Christmas Eve in the Yuge Winery’s sparse boardroom, three employees struggle to create names for a dozen new labels. Casting by Lucky Penny’s Artistic Director Taylor Bartolucci is spot-on: the dynamic Dennis O’Brien as Buddy Wise, the worldly-wise Daniela Innocenti Beem as Sally Angell, and the surprisingly subtle Matt Davis as Joe Patchett. The three are Yuge Winery’s marketing team, brainstorming daft ideas before settling on the implausible label “Llama for Your Mama.” The absurd but catchy name launches the first of Broadhurst’s many fantastically goofy songs—“Llama for Your Mama/Drink it in pajamas/Serve it to Obama/Maybe add a comma.”

“It’s a brash and funny take on Dickens’s classic tale, set in the wine country with contemporary dialog and local references.”

Tired and punchy with more labels to design, they’re ready to quit for the night when the boss shows up. What a treat to see Tim Setzer enter as the cranky Alexander Yuge, the winery’s co-founder and owner. He sings and sneers about the Christmas spirit as “Sentimental Schlock” then orders his employees to discard gifts from clients he dismisses as “idiots” begging for his business. He has little patience for inept employees, pandering associates, or frivolous holidays. Like the character that inspired him, he has little patience for anything other than profits.

“Dakota Dwyer plays their little son Frankie, so adorable he unintentionally upstages every scene.”

Joe Patchett happens to be Yuge’s loyal undercompensated nephew. At the Patchett home, the Christmas spirit is in full swing, on a bright and colorful set by Brian Watson. Joe’s wife Mary, played by Kirstin Pieschke with a spirit of resignation belied by a lovely soprano voice, is depressed about their son’s unknown and worsening ailment, and the lack of money to care for him. Eight-year-old Dakota Dwyer plays their little son Frankie, so adorable he unintentionally upstages every scene.

Photos courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions.

While Mom dutifully sets out snacks, Sally and Buddy arrive to join the celebration. Teenage daughter Goldie (perfectly cast Cecilia Brenner) joins the group in conversation and song. Brenner gets a real chance to shine in Act II, when she appears as the Ghost of Christmas Future in full Goth regalia—a superb directorial choice with its symbolism of youth vs. advancing age.

In his office, Yuge goes on a bender with a bottle of scotch. His ex-wife and former business partner Vivian (beautifully portrayed by Karen Pinomaki) visits to admonish him that it’s not too late to change his miserly manner. She admits she has cancer, but Yuge thinks it’s a ploy for more alimony. She insists she just wants him to change for his own good. Yuge chases her away.

His phone announces three unscheduled appointments before morning, closely tracking Dickens’ original story. Lights and fog whirl around as a righteous 1990s grunge rocker, in requisite torn flannel shirt, appears as the Ghost of Christmas Past (Dennis O’Brien). Yuge is deeply skeptical as Vivian reappears in a scene from their happy past. He argues that there was no love from her, only a quest for power and wealth..

The fog swirls again, revealing the Ghost of Christmas Present in the form of svelte wise-cracking Daniela Innocenti-Beem. Beem’s performance is hilarious, a true highlight of Act II. In a show-stopping song, she urges Yuge and the others to “Live it up!” She admonishes him to remember that “Each day is a gift—that’s why it’s called the present.” Her parting shot delivered over-the-shoulder: “Every choice has a consequence”—advice that Yuge ignores.

Photo courtesy Luck Penny Productions.

The Ghost of Christmas Future (Cecilia Brenner) arrives, and shows Yuge a vision of Joe’s family a few years hence, mourning the loss of their little son, again tracking Dickens’ original. She reminds him that it’s his grandnephew who has gone. A gravestone mysteriously appears, bringing Yuge to his knees when he realizes that once he is dead, there will be no legacy by which he might be remembered. It’s his life-changing epiphany, an entirely predictable but dramatically essential moment that propels the story toward its uplifting conclusion.

Setzer is incredibly dynamic and convincing as the sour miser turned benefactor—for family, employees, and community alike. His castmates equal him in their total commitment to bringing this wonderful production to life. Ignore any “bah humbug” bias about yet another “Christmas Carol.” Even the most jaded theater sophisticates will be delighted with this new show.

Note: Seats in this small theater surround the stage on three sides. Audience must prove vaccination and wear masks during the show. Wine available.

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

 

ProductionA Napa Valley Christmas Carol
Written byBarry Martin, Music and Lyrics by Rob Broadhurst
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru December 19th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$25
$37 (Senior)
$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater Review: Erma Bombeck Alive and Well in “At Wit’s End” — by Barry Willis

North Bay stage veteran Jill Wagoner brings legendary humorist Erma Bombeck to life in “At Wit’s End,” at Napa’s Lucky Penny through October 31.

One of America’s most prolific and celebrated writers, Bombeck practiced her craft persistently from an early age with a series of poorly-paying small-scale gigs until she finally broke through in 1964 with Ohio newspaper the Kettering-Oakwood Times, which paid her three dollars for each weekly column. A year later she began writing twice-weekly columns for the Dayton Journal Herald. Shortly after starting with that publication, Newsday Newspaper Syndicate put her in 36 major U.S. newspapers—a stunning achievement for a new talent. By the 1980s her work was appearing regularly in 900 American and Canadian newspapers, totaling millions of readers.

She also appeared frequently as a radio and television personality and at her peak was earning as much as a million dollars annually. Despite hitting the financial jackpot, she continued in her tried-and-proven format of homespun humor from a suburban housewife’s perspective. In this, she was very much part of lineage of self-deprecating American humorists going back to Will Rogers, a lineage that includes masters of minor domestic absurdity such as Jean Shepherd and Garrison Keillor. (Terry Ryan’s “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” is very much in this tradition.)

…a delightful and fascinating piece of Americana…

Bombeck’s rise from working-class origins to media superstar was a quintessential American story, but she alienated some of her more conservative fans with her support of 1978’s still-languishing Equal Rights Amendment. All of this is conveyed casually and conversationally by Wagoner on a simple set by Brian Watson that serves as various parts of a Midwestern home. As easily as a neighbor chatting over coffee, she tells Bombeck’s first-person story (script by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel) without gloating about her ultimate success.

Jill Wagoner at work as Erma Bombeck

In a loose-fitting period-perfect dress (costumes by Barbara McFadden) Wagoner moves easily about the set, encompassing Bombeck’s career arc with a deferential, off-handed delivery that’s plausible and pleasant without an excess of irony.

The performance is well-paced—neither too slow nor too hurried—and at approximately 70 minutes, is the perfect length for both audience and performer. “At Wit’s End”—the name of Bombeck’s long-running column, a best-of compilation, and this show—is a delightful and fascinating piece of Americana.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionErma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Written byAllison Engel and Margaret Engel
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough October 31 (no performance Oct. 28-29)
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$28-$39
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Barry Martin and Taylor Bartolucci of Lucky Penny Productions

Aisle Seat Review begins a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

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

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

***

Eleven years old and going strong, Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions is a standout North Bay theater company founded by Managing Director Barry Martin and Artistic Director Taylor Bartolucci (pictured below.) The company’s co-founders are great friends and lifelong theater veterans. Both perform multiple roles in every aspect of Lucky Penny’s operations. Recent productions include an exemplary “Cabaret,” plus “Bingo the Musical,” “9 to 5 the Musical,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Five Course Love.”  

Website: www.luckypennynapa.com

Barry Martin and Taylor Bartolucci of Lucky Penny Productions.
Photo credit: Lucky Penny.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

Barry M.: I think I was in theatre from the day I was born.

Taylor: I was four years old when I got my first taste of the theatre. My mom enrolled me in a local community theatre production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” where I flew around on the stage as Woodstock. I was immediately hooked.

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

Barry M.: I played Perchik in “Fiddler on the Roof” as a sophomore in high school. The first paying gig for me was doing summer stock after my junior year of college.

Taylor: “Charlie Brown” was followed by my first of many productions of “Annie.”  I started off as Molly then throughout the years played every single female role you could play—Annie, all of the Orphans, Star to Be, Hannigan, Lily, Boylan Sisters—all of them,  except Grace.

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

Barry M.: Board member for two, co-founder of one.

Taylor: Oh gosh, way too many to count.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

Taylor: Barry and I founded Lucky Penny Productions in the spring of 2009.

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

Barry M.: I expected we would be successful but didn’t expect to become as large as we have become, nor did I expect to have a physical location.

Taylor: I think from the very beginning we were dreamers, always envisioning grand things, but at the same time we were always busy working for the current show or for the future, so there wasn’t a lot of time to focus on future success, just the success of the project at hand.

It seems to me that every now and then at the end of the day, we would sit back and look at where the company was and go “Wow, that’s pretty darn cool. We are so grateful. OK, now let’s get back to work!”

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

Barry M.: Special focus is on giving people a memorable experience but we do not have a niche.

Taylor: I wouldn’t say we have a focus as much as we feel we have a responsibility to our local community, the Napa Valley, to expose them to all genres of theatre. Being one of the only theatre companies in Napa County, we select a season that reflects a little bit of everything to attract and satisfy the needs of all of our community members.  This includes musicals, non-musicals, classics and modern pieces.

… Trust your gut. Be tenacious. Focus on the audience experience.

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

Barry M.: If I am any better at it than I was in the olden days, it’s due to Taylor’s example. She has made me want to be a better actor and director.

Taylor: I would say our patrons and volunteers. If it wasn’t for their support and belief in us, we wouldn’t be where we are today. And for all of them, we are incredibly grateful.

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

Barry M.: Conserving cash, and making plans for strategic online activities.

Taylor: We are taking it day by day. We had to make the tough decision to postpone “Sweeney Todd,” the show we were about to open, and we have cancelled our April/May production of “The Quality of Life” and our June production of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.”

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

Barry M.: No overall change to the approach but we expect to be leaner for at least a season.

Taylor: In all honesty, it hasn’t yet. I feel like we are in a bit of a holding pattern right now until we receive more information—which I assume we will be getting within the next few weeks. Once we know how much longer we will be practicing social distancing and bans on events, we can look into any necessary changes to our upcoming season.

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

Barry M.: We will be back with no substantial change in how we do things. In the larger view, the world will always need theatre. The forms it takes may continue to change.

Taylor: Like Barry said—we will be back at it as soon as we can!

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

Barry M.: AB5 was taking up a lot of my brain until two weeks ago. At some point I will have to focus on it again and resume efforts to get amendments carving out small non-profit theatres like ours. There is no path I can see that has us in compliance with the bill as currently enacted.

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

Barry M.: “Funny Girl,” “Hands on a Hardbody,” “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Taylor: Oh man…there are so many we have produced that I have been proud of for so many reasons…but if I had to pick three, I’d say:

“Funny Girl” because it was our first large scale musical, a lifelong dream of mine, and the show that really exposed us to a larger audience base.

“Hands on a Hardbody,” because it was such an incredibly beautiful and heart-filled show, and one that brought together different parts of our community to help put together (Soscol Auto Body, Wine Country Crossfit to name a few).

And “Clue: The Musical” because it was a show that was unknown, one that we were able to fully create from scratch, with a team of some of my best friends, and it brought so much joy to our audiences.

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

Barry M.: “Grease” is terribly written even though the songs are good. “Urinetown” annoys me.

Taylor: I have to agree with Barry—I have never enjoyed the humor of “Urinetown,” even though lots of people have asked us to produce it. I’m also not a fan of (*gasp*) “In the Heights” or “Cats.” No big shocker there.

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

Barry M.:  “The Iceman Cometh.”

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

Barry M.: I think there are only three or four worth doing and all the rest suck except as academic exercises. So for me none are underrated.

Taylor: “Titus Andronicus.” Maybe this comes to mind because we were just preparing to do “Sweeney Todd” at Lucky Penny.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

Barry M.: “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” both a yawn.

Taylor: “Midsummer.”

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

Barry M.: Well, I have done several whole seasons building sets, so there’s that. Other than sets I like doing sound.

Taylor: Props. Definitely props.

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

Barry M.: I hate warm-ups of all kinds and have no routine. Just tell me “places” and I’m ready to go. After a show I need at least 90 minutes and a minimum of two drinks to wind down. Not iced tea, either.

Taylor: Depends on the show. Like Barry, I’m not a huge warm-up person. If it’s a musical I will vocalize and make sure I’m warmed up in that capacity, but with non-musicals I don’t have a set regime. I do like to get to the theatre extra early and take my time getting ready. Plus, there is nothing like an empty theatre. It’s such a soothing place for me.

After a show I tend to have too much adrenaline to just go straight home, so I will typically grab a drink and hang out with cast members. If it’s a matinee I may jet home to see my kiddos before bedtime.

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

Barry M.: Trust your gut. Be tenacious. Focus on the audience experience.

Taylor: Be kind—the theatre world may seem big, but it ultimately is pretty darn small, and people will remember their experience with you. Be collaborative—your production and company will be so much better off utilizing the talent and ideas of your artists to the fullest. Be willing to step into any shoes—this means working front of house, making props, being on stage, working backstage, sweeping the floor. Not only does it familiarize you with every job that needs to be done so you know what you are asking of others, but you are the example. Be a great example.

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

Barry M.: When you build a theatre from the ground up together and keep it going ten years it’s a good friendship, so my friendship with Taylor Bartolucci means the most to me.

Taylor: My relationship with Barry. It’s not every day you have the chance to dream and work alongside your best friend. We complement each other very well in terms of how we make decisions, how we feel in certain situations and how we like to work.

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

Barry M.:  In college, the climactic sword fight on opening night between MacBeth and MacDuff started with MacBeth somehow getting his cape tangled in his crown and the audience laughed. Perfect climax to a truly cursed production of “The Scottish Play.”

Taylor: One that happened recently was a production where a very dramatic scene had two people fighting over a baby. When the person who wanted the baby grabbed it, the head popped off and bounced on the floor, while the other person had to keep crying and pretend that the head was still attached. It was truly a great exercise in acting as one of them grabbed it as quickly as possible and both actors kept going like nothing had happened.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

Taylor: Years ago I was at a show at ACT in San Francisco. One of the actors forgot his line. He stopped, said he was going to rewind and start over. I vaguely remember it was the beginning of a monologue. He started again and got stuck, and started again.  This happened four times! The audience got pissed and started booing.

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

Barry M.: Exiting through our greenroom trying to find the bathroom, startling some actors… or throwing up into their popcorn (yeah) during a scene… or cutting across the stage to leave in the middle of a scene.

Taylor: Oh my goodness. In our theatre—a 97-seat black box—the audience is VERY up close and personal, so we have seen it all! From people in the audience talking back to cast members on stage mid-show, having panic attacks, sleeping—you name it.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

Barry M.: Two or three of them.

Taylor: I work for my family winery, Madonna Estate during the day. And we are currently having a special—20% off all wines!  Use the code 20OFF and LOCALS at checkout and I will deliver to your doorstep!

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

Barry M.:  All the news all the time, soccer, wine

Taylor: Family, friends, working out, country music, cooking.

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

Barry M.: I enjoy quality films but don’t care for most of the popular ones. I’m a big fan of classic films—Capra, Ford, Welles, etc.

Taylor: There are lots of things I would love to explore—playing musical instruments, creating visual art (painting, wall art, etc) but with a two-year-old, a one-year-old, the theatre and the winery, I am sadly short on time these days.

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

Taylor:  Hmmm. OK:

1) Everyone clean up after themselves

2) It’s 5’o clock somewhere at all times

3) You don’t have to sleep but you need to stay in bed during naptime…

Oh wait, these are just my current stay at home rules with my kids. Sigh…

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

Barry M.: A timeshare.

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

Taylor: Barry already created one! It’s called “Good Talks with Taylor.” Sometimes the content is amusing, sometimes he thrusts the camera into my face when I’m annoyed, Other times I may or may not have had a drink or two. It’s always brought us some good laughs.

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

Barry M.: DUI, most likely. Mass murder would be most satisfying.

Taylor: I better not be arrested! Being married to a cop… should have some benefits!

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

Taylor: Not sure it’s something I like more than others, but I’ll take a good, useful pair of sunglasses on a sunny day.

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

Barry M.: Novel coronavirus. I’d mount up and ride it out of town.

Taylor:  Hmmm…can’t say there is anything I’d like to see blown up to a size that could attack me. Call me a wimp!

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

Barry M.: Nothing involving falling to my death or drowning interests me, for some reason. The risks I have taken in my life were not artificially imposed, they were real-life risks about financial security, family ties, and living the life I wanted to live.

Taylor: No, nothing that could physically harm me has ever been of interest. Give me a good juicy scene where I can cry and scream and be raw and real in front of strangers but ask me to jump out of a plane?!  NO WAY!

ASR: Favorite quote?

Taylor:  One of my all-time favorite quotes is actually from the song “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5: “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies—it’s compromise that moves us along. My heart is full and my doors always open, you can come anytime you want.”

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

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “Cabaret” a Solid Bet at Napa’s Lucky Penny – by Barry Willis

 

Ashley Garlick (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The current American political climate has had some predictable consequences. Among them: a spate of theatrical revivals of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret,” a musical now in its 53rd year. The latest North Bay version runs at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through June 16th.

The 1972 movie firmly established the show in pop culture—many people know the songs without understanding that the show itself isn’t a lightweight romp through the decadent underworld of Weimar Republic Berlin. The story’s time frame isn’t specific, but encompasses the rise of the Nazi party and increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. We often forget that the Nazi party was democratically elected, having gained popularity slowly but persistently throughout the late 1920s. By 1933 it was the most powerful political party in Germany. The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.

Directed by Ken Sonkin, this “Cabaret” is presented in shades of gray—except for the Nazi armbands, costumes by Rebecca Valentino are all black/white/gray. Lighting designer April George bathes the stage in flat yellowish light that gives the whole affair a grainy film-noir look. It’s an evocative effect but one that left this reviewer longing for more dramatic lighting, something that comes only late in the final act.

The core plot revolves around an itinerant American novelist, Cliff Bradshaw (a youngish Ryan Hook) befriended by German businessman Ernst Ludwig (F. James Raasch) on a train ride into Berlin. Ludwig knows the city intimately, and introduces Bradshaw to the Kit Kat Klub (the cabaret of the show’s title) and to Fraulein Schneider (Karen Pinomaki), proprietor of a rooming house where he takes up residence. At the club he meets a self-centered British songbird named Sally Bowles (a spirited Ashley Garlick). The two of them are soon deeply if contentiously involved.

Tim Setzer and Karen Pinomaki (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

A secondary love story involves Fraulein Schneider and fruit seller Herr Schultz (Tim Setzer), both of them in late middle age and deeply in love. The relationship between Bradshaw and Bowles is interestingly rocky and ultimately sort of pointless, but it’s the fate of Schneider and Schultz that hooks the audience. One of only three characters in the play who comprehend the inevitability of the approaching storm—the other two are Bradshaw and Ludwig—Schneider backs out of a late-in-life wedding, hoping to survive by “flying under the radar,” as we might say today. As stage director Michael Ross pointed out on opening night, Schneider and Shultz are the pair you’re rooting for. Setzer and Pinomaki are at the height of their considerable theatrical powers in conveying the sweetness and hopelessness of their characters’ relationship. The two are absolutely wonderful in this production.

The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.”

Denial of the obvious is a strong theme. As the tale progresses, the Nazi movement rises from potential menace to full tsunami, symbolized by a moment when the charming Herr Ludwig comes out of the political closet sporting a Nazi armband. Raasch is superb as the villainous but totally likeable true believer. Fraulein Schneider vows that maintaining a low profile will insure her survival; while Bradshaw tries desperately to get Bowles to leave Berlin with him—before it’s too late. Too hooked on minor league stardom to consider going elsewhere, she stays behind when he escapes to Paris. Herr Schultz is similarly clueless, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first. Setzer is magnificent in his portrayal of a kind-hearted man blinded by delusional hope.

Kirstin Pieschke and Brian Watson (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The show-within-a-show is the burlesque in the Kit Kat Klub, stunningly produced and performed by its Emcee (Brian Watson, the cast’s only Equity actor). Watson is spectacular throughout, as is the live music from a strong four-piece band led by Craig Burdette. Barry Martin is excellent in several minor roles—as Max, the club’s owner; as an inspector on the Berlin-Paris train; and as a Nazi officer. Andrea Dennison-Laufer is very good as Fraulein Kost, a resident of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house, who makes her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Staci Ariaga’s choreography is entertaining without being too difficult for the assorted Kit Kat girls, and boys.

Opening night was marred by too much stage smoke and sound effects that overwhelmed dialog—problems that we were assured would be corrected immediately. Fifty-some years after its debut, not much about this show will seem shocking other than its message. Unique to this production is a final dismissal to Nazi madness: the cast tossing their swastika-emblazoned armbands on the floor like so much trash. It’s a great directorial decision, and a really satisfying gesture—one performed with silent conviction that no words could emulate.

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

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byMusic by John Kander and Fred Ebb; Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed byKen Sonkin; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough June 16th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Bingo, the Musical” Offers Great Silly Fun – by Barry Willis

Through April 7, the intimate stage at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions is transformed into a VFW bingo hall where three women brave the elements to vie for power, glory—and maybe a handful of petty cash—in a raucous production of “Bingo, the Winning Musical.”

The friends, Vern, Honey and Patsy, dead-serious Bingo fanatics all, converge to compete on the fifteenth anniversary of Vern’s split with her former friend Bernice (Jennifer Brookman), an event so traumatic that the two have never reconciled. It’s an injustice that Bernice’s daughter Alison (Pilar Gonzalez) is determined to make right.

Lundstrom, Innocenti Beem, and Rider (Photo courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

Outlandish challenges—“I’m a professional bingo player!” shouts Vern (the irrepressible Daniela Innocenti Beem)—an attempted seduction of the game’s number caller Sam (Tim Setzer) by the flirtatious Honey (Shannon Rider), and the invocation of spirits, talismans, and good-luck charms by the addled Patsy (Sarah Lundstrom) are only part of the fun, all watched over by Minnie (Karen Pinomaki), a mischievous sprite who manages the hall, an authentic recreation of such places found in almost every town in America. Lucky Penny’s set includes a real numbers board, a rotating hopper to randomize the balls, and bingo cards for each member of the audience, encouraged to play along at least three times in the course of the show. Napa just happens to be home base for a major distributor of bingo equipment. Who knew?

Infectiously energetic… great silly lightweight fun…”

Add to this some spectacular singing in ensemble numbers such as “Girls Night Out,” “Anyone Can Play Bingo,” “I  Still Believe in You,” “Under My Wing,” and “Ratched’s Lament.” Solo numbers are also superb (music direction by Craig Burdette), including “I’ve Made Up My Mind” (Alison), “Patsy’s Flashback,” “Swell” (Vern), and “Gentleman Caller” (Honey). Where else can you see a “straightjacket ballet” (choreography by Staci Arriaga and Taylor Bartolucci) in which bingo gals go all out like a bunch of lunatics recently released from the asylum? Does bingo make its players crazy or are they a little bit that way from the start?

Infectiously energetic, “Bingo, the Winning Musical” doesn’t offer profound messages or cosmic revelations, but—perhaps more appealing—it does ultimately set aside the petty resentments that infect us all in favor of enduring friendship among charmingly ordinary people. Tickets are money well spent on a couple hours of great silly lightweight fun with the added benefit of a potential sweep of “blackout” or “crazy snakes.” You can’t win if you don’t play.

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

 

ProductionBingo, the Winning Musical
Written byMichael Heitzman, Ilene Reid and David Holcenberg
Directed byTaylor Bartolucci; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough April 7th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR Theater Review! Lucky Penny Has a Winner for Everyone With “Hands on a Hardbody” – by Barry Willis

“Hands on a Hardbody” at Lucky Penny

Down-on-their-luck Texans test their endurance to win a new Nissan pickup truck in an auto dealer’s publicity stunt. This may not sound like a solid basis for an uplifting comedic musical, but it works beautifully in “Hands on a Hardbody,” at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa, through June 17.

A real-life situation that may have originated at Jack King’s Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, in the early 1990s, the contest required competitors to keep at least one hand on the truck at all times, except for intermittent 15-minute breaks for water, food, and restroom visits—no lying down, and no sleeping. Losing contact with the truck meant disqualification from the competition—something easy to do as excitement, dehydration, fatigue, numbness, sleep deprivation, and hallucinations all take their toll. King’s dealership ran the contest annually for 13 years—one that was widely imitated throughout the country—and was the subject of a 1995 documentary film, which inspired the musical; book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, lyrics by Amanda Green.

With “Hands on a Hardbody,” Lucky Penny has a winner for everyone—cast, crew, and audience alike.

A gleaming red truck occupies center stage in Lucky Penny’s horseshoe-shaped arena, with assorted competitors surrounding it, sometimes marching around it and sometimes pushing it around. “If I Had This Truck” is one of the most heartfelt songs of wistful hope that’s ever been sung, and Staci Arriaga’s incredibly clever choreography has them adhere to the rules—one hand in contact at all times—although in a couple of instances they cheat by stepping into the truck’s bed for extended improvisations. The four-piece band under the direction of Craig Burdette is excellent, rocking the house from above stage right.

Director Taylor Bartolucci gets astoundingly great performances from her 15-member ensemble, one with no weak links. Standouts include Daniela Innocenti-Beem as Norma Valverde, a true-believer Christian certain that God intends her to have that truck, Brian Watson as Benny Perkins, a hard-core badass with a sad past; and Alex Gomez as Jesus Pena, who needs it to pay for veterinary school. Barry Martin is especially convincing as J.D. Drew, an easygoing good-ole-boy whose industrial accident has cost him his job and benefits. Shannon Rider is excellent as his exhausted but ever-supportive wife Ginny.

With “Hands on a Hardbody,” Lucky Penny has a winner for everyone—cast, crew, and audience alike. It’s a shame that it doesn’t run longer.

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

 

“Hands on a Hardbody”

Through June 17: 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Lucky Penny Productions – 1758 Industrial Way   Community Arts Center, Napa

Tickets: $28 – $39 Info: 707-266-6305, www.luckypennynapa.com

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

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