AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Marvelous “Miss Bennet” a Must-See at Spreckels – by Nicole Singley

Niernberger and Cadigan (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Austen lovers will rejoice at this dazzling continuation of beloved classic Pride and Prejudice, picking up two years after the novel leaves off and making its Sonoma County premiere at Spreckels through December 15th. Penned with finesse by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” rings true to the canonical author’s style and characters, full of everything an Austenesque story should be – strong, outspoken women who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo, an abundant wealth of razor-sharp wit, and a heartwarming love story for the ages.

L-R: Pugh, Park, Nordby, and Niernberger (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The show opens on an elegant drawing room in Mr. Darcy’s sprawling estate, in which he (Matt Cadigan) and Elizabeth (Ilana Niernberger) are preparing for her family to descend for the holidays. Thanks to Niernberger’s spirited demeanor and playful charm, matched with Cadigan’s stately ease, the Darcys are credibly reincarnated as though no time has passed at all. If anything, it’s clear two years of marriage have only served to strengthen and solidify their affection. The two are soon joined by Elizabeth’s eldest sister, Jane (Allie Nordby), and Mr. Bingley (Evan Held), who are expecting their first child and seem happier than ever.

All of this would be enough to make any Pride and Prejudice fan ecstatic, but Gunderson and Melcon have another treat in store. This is Mary Bennet’s turn in the spotlight, after all – the dry-humored, pedantic, and oft-overlooked middle sister, presumed doomed to a life of spinsterhood by her preference for books and pianoforte over the company of other people. Mary (Karina Pugh) has grown since we last saw her, and so too her fear that she may never leave her parents’ home. Must she sit forever on the sidelines, watching each of her sisters find the kind of love she’ll never know? Or could this Christmas bring an unexpected gift?

Pugh makes a brilliant first appearance at Spreckels with her captivating frankness and candor, earning laughs with her deadpan quips and well-timed delivery. Her scenes at the piano are equally hilarious, requiring no words to convey what her character is feeling. (She gets some help behind the scenes from pianist Nancy Hayashibara.)

Diffenderfer and Park (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Also excellent are Ella Park as Lydia Wickham, bubbling over with flirtatious energy as she cavorts about the stage, attempting shamelessly to conceal the unhappiness of her marriage, and Taylor Diffenderfer as the spine-chilling, frigid Anne de Bourgh, channeling her deceased mother’s pretentious disdain and willful intimidation tactics. Her very entrance is like a dark cloud rolling over the stage. She’s transfixing. Even though they act in small part as the story’s villains, they too are given room to grow and hope for a happier ending. Because, after all – as “Miss Bennet” suggests – don’t we all deserve a chance at love?

. . . a completely engrossing and highly enjoyable night at the theater.”

Walters and Pugh (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The playwrights have succeeded in crafting characters who are believable extensions of their predecessors, allowing their stories to develop in a way that feels natural and at home with Austen’s legacy. The addition of Darcy’s socially-awkward cousin, Arthur de Bourgh (Zane Walters), is a welcome surprise. He fits right in as the perfect complement to Mary’s hyper-studious and antisocial tendencies. Walters is simply outstanding – his Arthur is genuine and endearing, and despite his clumsy stumbling, a character you’ll want to root for.

Elizabeth Bazzano’s set is tasteful and inviting, begging us to cozy up beside the fireplace, help decorate a much-discussed spruce tree, or gaze out the beautiful window at snow falling on a frosted landscape. Pamela Johnson has chosen costumes that feel in keeping with the characters’ personalities. (A minor wardrobe malfunction was noticeable but easily forgotten amid the fun.)

Director Sheri Lee Miller helms this tightly-paced production with an evident flair for comedic timing. The unceasingly clever dialogue is well served by all members of this first-rate ensemble, and adeptly paired with physical comedy and priceless facial expressions throughout. Rarely has a show made me laugh so often and wholeheartedly.

While previous knowledge of Pride and Prejudice will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the show, it’s completely unnecessary. Even those new to Austen will find much to love in this easy-to-navigate and utterly uplifting story. Stellar writing, effective direction, and an exceptional cast combine to make “Miss Bennet” a completely engrossing and highly enjoyable night at the theater. Sincerely sweet and unforgettably good, it’s a true delight from start to finish, and over in a flash. You may even wish to catch it twice before it’s gone.

 

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionMiss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Written byLauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough December 15th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$10-$24
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Laughter Proves Contagious in “Eureka Day” – by Nicole Singley

The Cast of “Eureka Day” (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

When an outbreak of the mumps sends shockwaves through an avant-garde Berkeley charter school, parents with opposing views on vaccination struggle to uphold the school’s core principles of inclusion and government by consensus. The stakes are high and the tensions higher in this first-rate production of Jonathan Spector’s whip-smart “Eureka Day,” an award-winning comedy that first took audiences by storm last year at Berkeley’s own Aurora Theatre Company.

Eureka Day is exactly the kind of ultra-progressive school one would expect to find in Berkeley. Diversity is celebrated, alternative lifestyles and gender-neutral pronouns are embraced, and board meetings conclude with an inspirational reading set to the chime of Tibetan tingsha cymbals. It’s so Berkeley, in fact, that we open on the school’s Executive Committee deliberating whether “transracial adoptee” should be added to the list of ethnic identities on student registration forms. With unanimity required to pass any resolution, this proves only the first of many drawn-out discussions.

Rendered impotent by their quest for consensus, the group’s leaders are paralyzed by political correctness, so worried about saying the wrong thing they often struggle to say anything at all. It’s at once hysterical and exasperating to watch these perfectly-crafted, superbly-acted, and all-too-recognizable modern archetypes turn every molehill on the meeting agenda into a long-winded tightrope walk between mountains. It would play like a brilliant piece of satire if it weren’t so true to life. In either case, it’s wildly funny.

L-R: Yamamoto, Sinckler, Coté, and McKereghan (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

And then the bombshell drops. A case of the mumps has been confirmed, and perhaps unsurprisingly at a school of this sort, a large percentage of the students are unvaccinated. A quarantine is issued and school policies are called into question. When the committee hosts what begins as a cordial “Community Activated Conversation” with school parents via Facebook Live, it’s only a matter of time until the adults begin to act like children, the forum rapidly devolving into utter mayhem as a storm of angry rants, barbed remarks and uproarious emojis are projected on the set’s back wall above the huddled actors.

. . . a top-notch production of a masterfully written piece of theater, as timely and thought-provoking as it is hilarious . . .”

Though vaccination serves as the catalyst here, larger questions loom about how we move forward when agreement becomes impossible, how we manage to separate fact and fiction in our modern world, whether all perspectives are equally valid or deserving of respect, and where the limits of social responsibility exist when weighing community impact against individual risk and personal beliefs. While Spector’s own stance is fairly conspicuous, his script does justice to conflicting viewpoints. There are good intentions, after all, on both sides of the fence – and playground bullies, for that matter, too.

Jeff Coté as Don (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Jeff Coté is excellent as hyper-considerate headmaster Don with his noncommittal list making and new-agey Rumi quotations. Equally superb is Sarah McKereghan as longtime board member and grown-up flower child Suzanne, who proclaims to prize inclusion and respect for all perspectives – until she finds her own perspective challenged. So convinced of her own thoughtfulness and moral superiority, Suzanne fails to recognize the hypocrisy of her assumptions and offensive remarks. McKereghan brings nuance and depth to a challenging role, harnessing the frantic energy of a well-meaning mother in denial.

Val Sinckler as Carina (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The group is rounded out by wavering mother Meiko (Eiko Yamamoto), stay-at-home father and original Google employee Eli (Rick Eldredge), who holds progressive views on marital monogamy and catches up on his yoga practice during meetings, and newcomer Carina (Val Sinckler), a sharp-witted black lesbian and the mother of a boy with special needs, who we quickly glean has been invited to join the committee in the interest of promoting diversity. All are outstanding in complex roles, though Sinckler shines brightest as the anchor and voice of enduring reason. The interactions between Sinckler and McKereghan are especially compelling, bringing humanity to both sides of a contentious and deeply divisive debate.

Hats off to director Elizabeth Craven for thoughtful staging and pitch-perfect pacing, allowing tension to build and all the laughs to land while leaving space for somber moments and heavier dialogue. Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen have designed a beautiful and believable set complete with shelves full of library books, child-sized tables and chairs, and posters that resonate with the school’s core values. Well-paired songs elicit laughter between scenes thanks to Jessica Johnson’s clever sound design.

It’s a top-notch production of a masterfully written piece of theater, as timely and thought-provoking as it is hilarious, with a side-splitting first act that builds into a frenzy and then unfolds into an unexpectedly moving and empathetic second chapter. Guaranteed to keep your wheels turning long after the actors make their exit, “Eureka Day” will leave you questioning whether consensus is worthwhile or even possible in the digital age of relentless misinformation and incompatible opinions. Be sure to catch it (the show, that is) at Spreckels Performing Arts Center through September 22nd.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ProductionEureka Day
Written byJonathan Spector
Directed byElizabeth Craven
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough September 22nd
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$10-$24
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Cinderella” Delights at Spreckels – by Barry Willis

Law and Graham (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Move over, Disney.

An ancient fairy tale gets a modern reworking in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, through May 26. Classicists will be relieved to learn that the story’s essential elements are still intact: a poor abused girl who dreams of a better life, her domineering stepmother and two nasty stepsisters, a magical fairy godmother, a smitten prince, and the promise of miraculous transformations.

Cinderella’s hope of exchanging her rags for the gowns of a princess is an expression of a persistent human dream, very much like the popular urge to buy lottery tickets week after week despite astronomical odds against winning.

In Cinderella’s case, she actually succeeds—she finds Mr. Right, he finds her, and after much travail they live happily ever after. It’s a timeless story—the basis of almost every piece of “chick lit” ever written. The plain yellow pumpkin still becomes a golden carriage, but Douglas Carter Beane’s version adds a new character and subplot in an attempt to make the story more contemporary: a radical firebrand named Jean-Michel (Michael Coury Murdock), who seeks social justice and economic opportunity for everyone. Instead of having his head lopped off instantly, as would happen in most real threats to ruling class hegemony, he succeeds not only in winning the hand of a mean stepsister (converting her to a decent person in the process) but in getting the prince to agree to sweeping changes to his kingdom. Cinderella wins the man and life of her dreams and her entire society gets to go along for the ride. Participation trophies for all!

Cinderella ensemble (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Director Sheri Lee Miller’s huge cast does a great job conveying the story—one with a 7:00 p.m. evening curtain time in anticipation that hordes of kids will fill the large theater. Brittany Law is marvelous as “Ella” the household maid renamed “Cinderella” by Madame (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) for the dirty work she tirelessly performs. Shawna Eiermann and ScharyPearl Fugitt are excellent as stepsisters Gabrielle and Charlotte, respectively, bringing more nuance to their characters than expected or required. Innocenti-Beem’s Madame takes delight in tormenting poor Cinderella, but has moments of surprising gentility and humor. Musical theater veteran Innocenti-Beem is likely the best singer in the cast but her role limits her to only a few lines of music. Her physical comedy and sense of timing are impeccable.

. . . excellent . . . superb family fare . . .”

Zachary Hasbany is superb as “Prince Topher”—the character’s name another nod to contemporaneity—with a good singing voice and fine sense of movement. The prince—a big guy himself—swings a giant sword in slaying a giant dragon (offstage) but the horse he rides is comically undersized. It’s one of few glitches in the otherwise excellent production. The worst is the huge suspension of disbelief required of the audience when Cinderella goes barefaced to the masked ball where the prince falls for her. Later when scouring the realm for her, he can’t recognize her until her foot fits the shoe she didn’t lose but intentionally gave to him. These twists on the original story aren’t improvements.

Larry Williams is gleefully evil as the conniving Sebastian, the prince’s minister, a sort of fairytale Rasputin, and Sean O’Brien matches him as Lord Pinkleton, another royal court sycophant. A gifted singer, O’Brien has a couple of breakout moments in the show’s many musical numbers. A high point is “Impossible” late in the first act, in which the ragged Marie (Mary Gannon Graham) is transformed into a fairy godmother who in turn transforms mice into liveried footmen, a pumpkin into a carriage, and Cinderella into a potential princess. Graham beautifully channels Billie Burke (Glinda the Good from “The Wizard of Oz”) in this bit, a duet of “Impossible” with Law, and the transformation is one of the show’s great illusions. Many times nominated for critical awards, choreographer Michella Snider is at her best. Group and individual dances and movements are delightful and take full advantage of the theater’s big stage and clear sight lines.

Set design by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen is gorgeous and facile, enabling quick set changes that keep the show moving briskly. Chris Schloemp’s huge colorful projections are stunning. Pamela Johnson’s and Chelsa Lindam’s costumes are gorgeous. Music director Paul Smith’s orchestra—in the pit, stage front—sounds tremendous. What’s not to like? All things considered, this “Cinderella” is excellent. Appropriate for all audiences, of course, it’s superb family fare that won’t require parents to do a lot of explaining when they get home—except for the fact that the “golden carriage” isn’t yellow. For that, you can simply say “It’s white gold.”

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.

 

 

ProductionCinderella
Written byBook and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
Music by Richard Rodgers
Additional material by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed bySheri Lee Miller; Music Directed by Paul Smith
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough May 26th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$18 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Laughs Served Well-Done in “Barbecue Apocalypse” – by Nicole Singley

Headington and Coughlin (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Do you have what it takes to survive the end of days? Three couples put their skills to the test in Matt Lyle’s tremendously funny “Barbecue Apocalypse,” playing at Rohnert Park’s Spreckels Performing Arts Center through April 20th.

Thirty-somethings Deb (Jessica Headington) and husband Mike (Sam Coughlin) are frantically preparing to host their closest frenemies for a backyard cookout. Bemoaning their half-mowed lawn, mismatched patio furniture and dorm room-esque house decor, Deb fears they can’t possibly impress well-to-do “yupsters” Lulu (Lyndsey Sivalingam) and husband Ash (Trevor Hoffmann), or sleazy penthouse-dwelling Win (J.T. Harper) and his younger girlfriend Glory (Katie Kelley). Mike’s crowning achievement, after all, is the humble deck they’re standing on, and neither he nor Deb can keep a simple garden plant alive.

Clockwise, left to right: Headington, Coughlin, Harper, Sivalingam, Hoffmann (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

When a calamitous event interrupts their awkward party, the group must find their niche in a post-apocalyptic world where once-considered strengths may now be vulnerabilities, and talents formerly perceived as useless could be advantageous. This brave new world offers Mike and Deb a chance to shine, while alpha-male Win shrivels from over-confident womanizer into sobbing, bathrobe-clad mess. Dynamics shift but the grill goes on, until an uninvited guest (Matt T. Witthaus) threatens to end the festivities once and for all.

Don’t miss this witty, laugh-a-minute romp…”

Headington is a riot as neurotic housewife turned spear-wielding survivalist. She makes the jarring transition with remarkable ease, hauling in act two’s blood-spattered dinner – “raccoon, the other red meat!” – with an air of self-possession entirely in contrast to her anxious, pre-apocalyptic stumbling over cocktail umbrellas and fashion accessories. It’s equally satisfying to watch Coughlin’s understated Mike transform from insecure would-be writer to confident grill-master and gardener extraordinaire.

Sivalingam is superb as lovably pretentious Lulu, whose flippant remarks flow faster than the mango margaritas she’s a little too fond of. Hoffmann’s Ash is the painfully familiar portrait of a modern-day screen junkie, forced to settle for library books in a now Google-less world. The apocalypse, as luck would have it, is a boon to their marriage, bringing Lulu back down to earth and pulling Ash away from YouTube. It’s fun to watch their newfound spark ignite.

Clockwise, left to right: Headington, Kelley, Harper, Sivalingam (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Harper’s Win feels a bit overdone, dripping in stereotypical frat-boy machismo. It’s a hat that doesn’t quite fit, although it serves its comedic purpose all the same. Kelley is endearing in the role of a perky wannabe Rockette, even though she spends much of her time onstage aggressively swapping spit with Harper. Witthaus delivers a truly chilling cameo appearance.

An able cast excels under Larry Williams’s direction, assisted by Marcy Frank’s pitch-perfect costumes and Elizabeth Bazzano’s thoughtful backyard set. Jessica Johnson brings finicky lawn mowers, angry raccoons and propane grills to life with well-timed sound effects.

Marinated in millennial-centric humor, “Barbecue Apocalypse” makes lighthearted fun out of some fairly dark subject matter. Don’t miss this witty, laugh-a-minute romp – or you just might live long enough to regret it.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionBarbecue Apocalypse
Written byMatt Lyle
Directed byLarry Williams
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough April 20th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$16-$26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!