Pick ASR! ~~ “The Lehman Trilogy” Stuns at ACT

By Barry Willis

A family saga may never be better depicted than in The Lehman Trilogy, at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theatre through June 23.

The three-actor, three-hour+ production encompasses the birth, rise, expansion, and ultimate fall of the Lehman Brothers financial empire—from the moment the first hopeful brother arrives in New York from Bavaria with nothing but a suitcase and ambition to the firm’s collapse in late 2008 during the mortgage meltdown crisis, an event that doomed many big banks and institutions. The crisis had a worldwide impact.

(L-R): Actors John Heffernan, Aaron Krohn, and Howard W. Overshown in “The Lehman Trilogy”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

A touring version of the multiple award-winning National Theatre production directed by Sam Mendes and starring John Heffernan, Aaron Krohn, and Howard W. Overshown as brothers Henry, Mayer, and Emanuel Lehman, respectively, the huge immersive production is a recreation of the first West End show, complete down to its amazing set, overwhelming video effects, and the astounding abilities of its three actors, all in multiple roles—toddlers to codgers, and many incidental characters with a wide range of backgrounds and accents.

… “The Lehman Trilogy” is a master class in character acting …

It’s also a master class in storytelling. Originally written in Italian by Stefano Massini and first produced onstage in 2013, the tale spans approximately 160 years in the family’s history—and massive upheavals in the American economy, in particular the stock market crash of 1929, which Lehman Brothers survived, and the Second World War.

(L-R) Aaron Krohn (Mayer Lehman), John Heffernan (Henry Lehman), Howard W. Overshown (Emanuel Lehman), John Heffernan (Henry Lehman) in the National Theatre and Neal Street Productions’ critically acclaimed, fivetime Tony Award® winning production, “The Lehman Trilogy”, performing at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater now through Sunday, June 23, 2024. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Partly narrated in the third person, and partly delivered as straight dialog, the show’s incredibly effective verbosity is leavened by precise editing. We are given enough information to follow the story, but not so much that we get bogged down. The show sails along briskly and never feels overlong despite its more than three-hour run time.

All three performers are superb with characterizations, vocal inflections, and adroit movements on a set that itself is a master class in design—a rotating large open cubicle that serves variously as the brothers’ first cotton brokerage in Montgomery, Alabama; the state governor’s office during Reconstruction; and the New York high-rise headquarters of Lehman Brothers Holdings, where the company’s last rites took place during the mortgage meltdown crisis in 2008. Immersive video projections by Luke Halls surround the faux office, adding a palpable sense of urgency to everything taking place on stage. Rebekah Bruce’s piano accompaniment adds the perfect touch of melodrama.

(L-R): Howard W. Overshown (Emanuel Lehman), John Heffernan (Henry Lehman), & Aaron Krohn (Mayer Lehman) at work in San Francisco. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The Lehman Trilogy is much more than a tale of three immigrant brothers—and their offspring, who helmed the company until the death of Bobbie Lehman, last of the clan to lead the enterprise. It’s also a spectacularly compelling history of American industry, ingenuity, and ultimately, hubris. “Too big to fail,” was a catch-phrase uttered during the crisis that crushed many global financial powerhouses.

To that, Henry Lehman might have responded, “Baruch Hashem.”

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ASR 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 Lehman Trilogy
Written byStefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power
Directed bySam Mendes
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough June 23rd
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 – $147
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! ~~ Damilano Shines in “The Glass Menagerie”

By Cari Lynn Pace and Barry Willis

San Francisco Playhouse has launched an ambitious new production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which will run through June 15.

Set in a shabby apartment in St. Louis in the spring of 1939, on the verge of World War II, the classic mid-century family drama gets an unusual treatment by director Jeffrey Lo. Instead of an intimate or nearly claustrophobic setting, the Wingfield family residence is on a high open platform atop SFP’s famous turntable stage, a feature that worked supremely well in Guys and Dolls and Nollywood Dreams.

“… Susi Damilano … anchors this Glass Menagerie …”

Whether a rotating stage is appropriate for this production is a matter of personal opinion. Lo also has his actors sit stage-left and stage-right when they are not in a scene, like basketball players on the sidelines waiting to return to the game.

Tom (Jomar Tagatac), Jim (William Thomas Hodgson) and Amanda (Susi Damilano) toast to their meal in San Francisco Playhouse’s “The Glass Menagerie,” performing May 2 – June 15. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The Wingfields—matriarch Amanda (Susi Damilano), asocial daughter Laura (Nicole Javier), and disaffected son Tom (Jomar Tagatac)—struggle to survive in the wake of a long-ago departure by an unnamed father and husband, whose vandalized portrait presides over everything in the household. Behind it is a huge neon sign for the Paradise, a music club across the alley from the Wingfield apartment. The sign is beautiful, beckoning, and aspirational but we hear little music from the club.

Amanda is an aging Southern belle who has never let go of her glory days attending cotillions in the Mississippi delta, where she was courted by—in her memory—a seemingly endless procession of “gentlemen callers.” Laura is a high-school dropout with a limp, who pretends to be attending secretarial school while doing little more than wandering around town, playing old records on the family’s Victrola, or managing her collection of glass animal figurines—the “glass menagerie” of the show’s title.

Tom is a would-be writer toiling away in a shoe warehouse, and the tale’s narrator in Williams’ gorgeous prose. He and Laura both chafe under pressure from their mother, but Tom alone displays open rebellion, much of it self-defeating, such as spending money for the household’s monthly expenses on personal frivolities—including making his first payment for merchant mariners’ union dues.

Lo introduces Laura’s only gentleman caller, Tom’s co-worker Jim O’Connor (William Thomas Hodgson), immediately in the first scene, although he doesn’t appear in the drama until much later, when his tentative introduction to Laura appears promising but goes awry when he recognizes that the Wingfield family dysfunction isn’t to his liking.

Javier brings a weary lack of confidence to her character, but director Lo doesn’t give her much opportunity to mine Laura’s nuances. In the entire production, we don’t see her at the Victrola or playing with her glass collection until her encounter with Jim. Javier is underutilized in this production—she could contribute much more with directorial encouragement.

The set, in fact, doesn’t include a Victrola at all, but stage-right there’s an oddly-positioned 1980s-style record player—clearly not part of the Wingfield residence—to which Tom returns several times to cue up a 12” vinyl record, which also didn’t exist in 1939. The Glass Menagerie is what Williams called “a memory play,” so it’s possible that this gambit is a visual reference to a time in the future when Tom is recalling his past.

Amanda (Susi Damilano) is concerned for her children in San Francisco Playhouse’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Even so, it’s one of several anachronisms in the show. Another is the ultra-long cigarette that Tom habitually smokes, a product that didn’t hit the market until the 1980s. Jomar Tagatac is a fabulous actor with wonderful delivery. He appears frequently at most major SF and Bay Area theaters, but it’s a big leap of faith to accept him as a 20-something aspiring writer. He’s more like an uncle to Laura than a brother and former high-school classmate. Hodgson is also a talented prolific actor and nails the subtlety of the Jim O’Connor role, without bringing anything new.

But it’s Susi Damilano who anchors this Glass Menagerie. She absolutely shines in the role of Amanda, a character often portrayed as bitter, delusional, and manipulative—a fearsome harridan. Damilano turns this tradition on its head—yes, her Amanda exudes worry, frustration, annoyance, insistence, and pathos, but is also infused with love, whimsy, good humor, and self-awareness. Damilano mines hidden comedy in the Amanda role. She has always done great work, but she finds new depth is a character that other performers have been prodding for eighty-some years. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission. Brava!

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ASR Senior Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

ASR 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 Glass Menagerie
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byJeffrey Lo
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru June 15ht
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.75/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK ASR! Audacious and Confounding: ACT’s “A Strange Loop”

By Barry Willis

A would-be creator of musical theater named Usher wrestles with his demons in Michael R. Jackson’s one-act musical fantasy A Strange Loop. The West Coast premiere of the seven-actor, no-intermission, nearly two-hour production runs at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater through May 12.

A poorly paid young theater usher (Malachi McCaskill) is the only character with a name in Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning script. The others are called “Thought 1,” “Thought 2,” etc., because they exist only in the protagonist’s mind.

(front) Malachi McCaskill (Usher) with (L-R) Jordan Barbour (Thought 5), Avionce Hoyles (Thought 3), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), and J. Cameron Barnett (Thought 2) in “A Strange Loop”, performing at A.C.T. Photo credit: Alessandra Mello

His demons include profoundly obsessive issues about family, culture, identity, body image, loneliness, sexuality, and ambition. In various combinations, they’re all eating away at him. It’s a wonder he can function.

Strange Loop is certainly challenging and transgressive …

Sharply directed by Stephen Brackett, A Strange Loop opens with an explanation by Usher of the significance of the show’s title: a concept of the self, put forth by cognitive researcher Douglas Hofstadter about the human ability to perceive ourselves. We begin at one point, wander about in a miasma of fantasies, remembrances, and hall-of-mirrors self-concepts, then ultimately return to where we started—an interpretation of life as an exhaustive exercise on a closed-loop obstacle course.

Usher spends his work hours escorting theater fans to their seats at the perpetual Broadway show The Lion King, and his remaining time dreaming about writing his own musical theater blockbuster. Owner of both keyboard and computer, Usher carries with him a little notepad on which he jots down ideas, but when he sits at his desk he accomplishes little more than self-pity. He has many concepts—most of which play out very effectively on ACT’s stage—but no all-encompassing scheme to put them together.

(L-R): Avionce Hoyles (Thought 3), Jordan Barbour (Thought 5), J. Cameron Barnett (Thought 2), Tarra Conner Jones (Thought 1), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), and Jamari Johnson Williams (Thought 6) in “A Strange Loop” Photo credit: Alessandra Mello

What we get, rather than a traditional beginning-middle-ending storyline, is a hodgepodge of Usher’s imaginings, from hilarious to horrific, all of them brilliantly delivered in rapid-fire succession on Arnulfo Maldonado’s astounding set. We get the show’s amazingly talented actors/singers/dancers as multiple and widely divergent characters, including not only garden-variety and exotic theater people, but promoters, advisors, gay men cruising for momentary hookups, and a huge array of black stereotypes, such as Usher’s aloof, beer-drinking father (Jordan Barbour) or his Bible-clutching mother (John-Andrew Morrison), who begs him to abandon his sinful lifestyle and return to the church.

There’s plenty of sly self-deprecating humor in Jackson’s tale, but the outstanding moment of confrontational comedy comes with a depiction of Usher’s slacker brother, clad in giant oversize basketball shorts, who lives rent-free with his ditzy girlfriend in the parents’ basement. It’s a moment out of The Jerry Springer Show.

(front) Malachi McCaskill (Usher) with Tarra Conner Jones (Thought 1), Jordan Barbour (Thought 5), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Avionce Hoyles (Thought 3), J. Cameron Barnett (Thought 2), and Jamari Johnson Williams (Thought 6) in A Strange Loop, performing at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater now through May 12, 2024. Photo credit: Alessandra Mello.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum is a scene where Usher reluctantly submits to an encounter with an overbearing older man, an encounter as painful and grim as a prison rape. When it’s over, Usher shuffles away in shame. He’s already mentioned that he’s not a particularly prolific gay man. If this is an example of his once-yearly erotic adventures, he’s a miserable soul indeed.

By far the highlight of A Strange Loop is the big-production gospel sendoff for departed cousin Darnell, a victim of HIV. The funeral is a conflation of Usher’s guilt, his experience growing up in the church, and the urgings of friends and theater promoters for him to create “a Tyler Perry musical.” Set designer Maldonado is at the top of his game with this creation, alone almost worth the price of admission. Clad in glittering choir robes, the supremely talented performers make it shimmer and shine.

(L-R): J. Cameron Barnett (Thought 2), Tarra Conner Jones (Thought 1), Jamari Johnson Williams (Thought 6), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Malachi McCaskill (Usher), Jordan Barbour (Thought 5), and Avionce Hoyles (Thought 3). Photo credit: Alessandra Mello

Some observers have opined that McCaskill’s voice is inadequate for the demands of the music, but his apparent vocal shortcomings actually reinforce the verity of Usher’s deep self-doubt. His less-than-assertive singing style is likely intentional.

In all his interactions with other characters, there’s only one positive note. Toward the end, Usher has a friendly chat with a rabid theater fan, a lady standing near the aisle with a souvenir poster of The Lion King. Among the many parts she plays in this show, the gifted Tarra Conner Jones provokes a warm response when she gives him heartfelt encouragement to pursue his dreams.

Does he follow her advice? That’s not made clear. In keeping with the show’s introductory remarks, we return to where we began. There’s no character arc in A Strange Loop.

After a long wild ride through the tormented mind of an insecure artist, we find that he’s exactly as he was when the tale began. It’s a ride that’s by turns audacious, confounding, annoying, offensive, beautiful, pointless, uplifting, depressing, poignant, amazing, and celebratory. Most importantly, it’s thought-provoking—and absolutely not recommended for children.

Among the most enduring clichés about contemporary art is the assertion that really effective pieces should be “challenging, transgressive, and transformative.” A Strange Loop is certainly challenging and transgressive. Is it transformative? That’s a purely personal assessment.

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ASR 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

 

ProductionA Strange Loop
Written byMichael R. Jackson (book, music, and lyrics)
Directed byStephen Brackett
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough May 12th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 – $137
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3.0/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

Pick ASR! ~~ “Hairspray” Rocks the Orpheum

By Barry Willis

A spunky teenager brings social justice to 1962 Baltimore in the uproarious comic musical Hairspray, at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater through April 21.

Directed by Matt Lenz, with choreography by Robbie Roby, the national touring production is the most recent incarnation of John Waters’ iconic 1988 film starring Ricki Lake as the irrepressible Tracy Turnblad, a chunky girl auditioning for a spot on The Corny Collins Show, a Baltimore teen music-and-dance show.

 … the huge cast are all simply tremendous. …

Her ambition grows from merely personal to societal when she pushes for inclusion of the black community, much to the dismay of her rival Amber Von Tussle and Amber’s manipulative mother Velma. In her efforts to do the right thing, Tracy runs afoul of local police and even the governor of Maryland, but emerges victorious.

“Hairspray” at the Orpheum in The City.

Social justice issues are often served best by comedy and humor. Likewise, bigots and oppressors are often best skewered the same way. Hairspray spares none of them in a two-and-a-half-hour kitsch extravaganza spoofing all that was both serious and ridiculous in the early 1960s.

The Orpheum production is swollen to bursting with world-class talent, starring Caroline Eiseman as Tracy, Andrew Scoggin as Corny Collins, Caroline Portner as Amber, Sarah Hayes as Velma, Skyler Sheilds as heartthrob crooner Link Larkin, Greg Kalafatas as Tracy’s mother Edna, Ralph Prentice Daniel as Tracy’s goofy dad Wilbur, Scarlett Jacques as Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton, and Josiah Rogers as Seaweed J. Stubbs. Diedre Lang astounds as Motormouth Maybelle, especially in her breakout solo song, and Micah Sauvageau is a comedic delight in multiple roles. Let’s not overlook soul-sister song-and-dance trio “The Dynamites” – Ashia Collins, Leiah Lewis, and Kynnedi Moryae Porter.

“Hairspray” cast at work.

The huge cast are all simply tremendous. So are sumptuous quick-change set designs, immersive projections, dazzling costumes, and the rock-solid band (music director Lizzie Webb) in the orchestra pit. The show couldn’t be more appropriate for San Francisco, whose eager fans on opening night loudly applauded every scene and gave the whole affair an extended standing ovation.

Deservedly so. Hairspray is an absolute joy.

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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

 

ProductionHairspray
Written ByJohn Waters
Directed byMatt Lenz
Choreographed byRobbie Roby
Producing CompanyBroadwaySF
Production DatesThrough April 21st
Production AddressThe Orpheum
1192 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://www.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$55-$161
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK ASR Theater ~~ “The 39 Steps”, Mystery Thriller and Comic Farce at SF Playhouse

By Susan Dunn

Even before the story from the famous film begins, missteps, gags, mockery, parody, double-takes, and more abound in The 39 Steps at San Francisco Playhouse.

Our leading man appears, apparently ready to begin the show, then is blacked out by the lighting, comes back into view, then falls asleep in a chair while SFP Artistic Director Bill English gives the welcoming speech. What’s happening? Are they confused? Are they ready for opening night?

You bet!

It’s the audience that should be ready to exhilarate in two hours plus of clowning and buffoonery animating Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of a Hitchcock classic.

… Highly recommended to recharge your funny bone…

The 39 Steps is a classic noir narrative which started with a 1915 novel, was adapted in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock, and from there morphed into new films, TV series, a radio play, and a stage comedy. It’s a popular and easily adapted story that has proven its popularity time after time. Its secret is a mystery thriller base that has been freely adapted with new or excised material in subsequent renditions.

Richard Hannay (Phil Wong) is captivated by the mysterious Anabella (Maggie Mason) in “The 39 Steps,” presented by San Francisco Playhouse March 7 – April 20.
Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The story revolves around the stylish character Richard Hannay, marvelously played by Phil Wong, as he falls into one unlikely scenario after another. The action follows his path from falsely accused murderer to international spy-ring exposer and hero. It snakes from London to Scotland and back again with a cast of 150 characters, according to SF Playhouse. (I confess I lost count.)These roles are hilariously and frantically embodied by three superb actors.

Lithe and intense Maggie Mason shows us the women in Hannay’s life: Annabella, the spy whom Hannay is accused of murdering; Pamela, the girl on the train whom he first meets by attacking her with kisses; and Margaret, the collier’s wife who helps him escape from murderous thugs. Greg Ayers showcases a multitude of male and female roles with comic physical and facial wit that continually inspires laughter, as do his double takes for additional laughs. He both opens and closes the show with an important character, Mister Memory, and his shenanigans expand this role with his stage antics.

Richard Hannay (center – Phil Wong) is apprehended by two policemen (l to r: Renee Rogoff and Greg Ayers) as Pamela (Maggie Mason) denies association in “The 39 Steps,” presented by SF Playhouse. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Covering another bevy of parts, including a squadron of police and thugs, a ruthless power-hungry professor, and a dour innkeeper, Renee Rogoff seems to appear in every other scene in new costume or aspect. One of the funniest moments occurs when Mason, Ayers and Rogoff miraculously turn into six marching bagpipers immersing Wong in one of his many escape moves – a showcase for the inspired direction by Susi Damilano.

Like icing on a delicious cake, the lighting design, sound effects, costumes, projections and puppetry mesh together with the clowning to create a play that is a many-layered spoof. The 39 Steps is a farce that skims ever so lightly over themes of fate, chance, romance and ultimately human empathy. This production is a delight for all the senses. Highly recommended to recharge your funny bone.

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Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionThe 39 Steps
Sourced byPlay Adaptation by Patrick Barlow...

From the Novel by John Buchan...

From the Movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru April 20th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Cautionary Tale: ACT’s “Big Data”

By Barry Willis

American Conservatory Theater had the prescience to open Big Data the same week that chipmaker Nvidia’s stock rose by a factor of seven, prompting a market-wide surge. Nvidia makes microprocessors essential to artificial intelligence (AI), the subject of daily news and consternation for at least the past two years.

A world premiere, Big Data launches with an old-fashioned console TV with a big “play” button onscreen, beckoning someone—anyone—to come up from the audience and press it. A long wait ensues until someone can’t stand it any longer and climbs onstage to start the show.

Big Data launches with an old-fashioned console TV …

We are then treated to a grainy 1950s-style black-and-white film clip about trained pigeons that peck at various levers, piano keys, and other devices to get rewards of food pellets—and an overlong diatribe by a character named “M” (B.D. Wong), a very self-amused expert who equates humans to trained birds. (In the playbill is a “conversation” between playwright Kate Attwell and ChatGPT on this very subject. Somewhat disturbingly, the AI program mentions psychologist B.F. Skinner and his concept of “operant conditioning” but ignores Pavlov and his proverbial dog.)

The cast of ACT’s “Big Data” at work. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

We get the message within the first thirty seconds. Perhaps to test our patience, this introduction runs for what seems like 15 or 20 minutes, then fades as M visits a depressed writer named Max (Jomar Tagatac). M arrives unbidden at Max’s sparsely furnished apartment. “How did you get in?” Max asks. “You invited me,” M replies.

The meaning of this mysterious statement is elucidated a bit later when M visits quarrelling but very-much-in-love couple Sam and Timmy (Gabriel Brown and Michael Phillis, respectively). During an interminable exchange, one of the pair says, “How do you know my name?” “You told me,” comes the reply.

On a stage whose backdrop is a giant computer screen, with empty living quarters depicted in the stark-white Apple Computer aesthetic, M obviously represents intrusive technology—not merely computers, but all the interactive spinoffs that now seem essential to contemporary life: mobile phones, “smart” TVs, bio-feedback wristwatches that monitor bodily functions and daily caloric expenditures, and presumably even our emotional states. All this is conveyed with aggressive humor and plenty of gratuitous sexual teasing—symbolizing, of course, the seductive lure of life online.

The first act is loud, long, and obnoxious, a sort of survivalist boot camp to see if the audience is willing to hang in there for the second act. We didn’t notice defectors leaving at intermission, but if there were some, their dismay would be somewhat understandable to this reviewer.

The first act of Big Data may be an egregious act of beating the audience over the head, but it’s redeemed by the gorgeously performed second act, which opens on a warm, richly furnished traditional home—all natural wood, with lots of books and art objects (scenic design by Tanya Orellana). This home is inhabited by a very likeable and very comfortable couple in late middle age, Joe and Didi (Harold Surratt and Julia McNeal, respectively) who’ve been puttering in the garden and kitchen in anticipation of hosting a Sunday brunch for their children Sam and Lucy (Rosie Hallett), Max’s wife, and their partners.

(L – R) Gabriel Brown, Rosie Hallett, and Michael Phillis. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The visitors arrive, and the disconnect between the younger generation and their predecessors begins in earnest—first, with Sam asking what happened to the Nest-style thermostat he had given them. Joe responds with self-deprecating humor “I buried it. Under concrete.”—also the fate of their Wi-Fi router, a situation that throws Max into a frenzy. Having abandoned his journalistic career, he’s now engaged in public relations for some high-pressure enterprise, and comes to brunch fretting about being past deadline. He absolutely flips out when he realizes he’s in the countryside with no internet connection. Whatever project of world-shaking importance that he’s working on simply has to wait.

Then Joe and Didi drop the bomb, telling their visitors that they’re withdrawing in protest from the world of interactive technology. Like 19th-century Amish, they’ve decided that further advancement is not for them. This second act unfolds beautifully. Surratt and McNeal are supremely confident and relaxed actors. Their characters’ message—reached after prolonged private discussion—is delivered appallingly to their offspring but convincingly to ACT’s audience.

The second act is almost a one-act play in itself, and well worth sitting through the first. Its impact is weakened by a silly coda in which M reappears and walks among the other six characters frozen in place, making snarky comments as if the preceding drama were of no consequence, as if Joe and Didi’s decisions were pointlessly frivolous. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jomar Tagatac and BD Wong at work. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

To its detriment, Big Data hedges its bets. In her playbill notes, director Pam MacKinnon mentions “surveillance capitalism,” a wonderfully apt description of contemporary life. The show’s closing scene would leave viewers with much more to ponder if Joe and Didi were to simply slump to the floor. Fade to black—no cutesy commentary needed.

The audience departing the Toni Rembe Theater perhaps didn’t grasp the enormity of what they had just seen. Many had their phones out before the applause died, and were seen walking up the aisles with faces illuminated. Clearly, the word “irony” is not in fashion.

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ASR 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 him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionBig Data
Written byKate Attwell
Directed byPam MacKinnon
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Mar 10th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 – $130
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4.0/5
Script3.0/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “My Home on the Moon”, S.F. Playhouse’s Huge Serving of Hilarious Cyber-Pho!

By Susan Dunn

Here’s a play that will teach us how to make the Vietnamese soup specialty: Pho. Not quite! My Home on the Moon quickly takes us from our ordinary lives to other realities in the cyber world.

Act One opens on an average-looking Asian soup shop, adorned with pictures of the homeland and featuring a much-revered shrine to the shop owner’s sister, and former joint owner. The discouraged proprietress Lan (versatile and winning Sharon Omi) reveals the desperate straits her business is experiencing with the neighborhood takeover by mega-corporations and the fall to the wrecker’s ball of small businesses like hers.

…”My Home on the Moon” is a humorous take on a Matrix-like reality…

Lan is joined by her grouchy assistant Mai (hilariously played by Jenny Nguyen Nelson), who breaks the 4th wall to great effect. Soon enough, we hear the doom of a building being crushed to rubble off-stage. The corporate enemy is closing in.

Lan (Sharon Omi) reminisces about her childhood with a giant noodle (background: puppeteered by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) on the moon in San Francisco Playhouse’s World Premiere Play “My Home on the Moon,” performing January 25 – February 24. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

But Lan has applied for a financial aid grant for her shop, and her winnings come in to save it from default. First, a huge basket of delectable Vietnamese goodies appears, and the consumables seem to anesthetize Lan and Mai, whose binge puts them prone on the floor.

Next, they are greeted by marketeer Vera, who represents Novus Corporation, the company taking over local real estate. She promises the shop will be transformed, dripping with cachét and busy with customers now that Lan has won the grant. And Vera, smartly and charmingly played by Rinabeth Apostal, can make it all happen: the blank white shop turns to orange ambience, NFTs (Non-fungible tokens in cyber-talk) grace the walls, and the backyard becomes a Vietnamese jungle.

(L-R) A food critic (Will Dao) samples cuisine, watched by Lan (Sharon Omi), Mai (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) and a camera person (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) in SF Playhouse’s “My Home on the Moon.” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Miraculously, both Lan and Mai are smartly re-uniformed to enhance the look of the café. But who is Vera really? And why doesn’t she eat the fabulous Pho?

Understanding who is real and who is a robot or ‘simulation’ challenges us as the story and timeline proceed, and actors take on multiple roles. A standout is Will Dao, playing four very different personas, all to amazing effect. He grabs our attention immediately with every unexpected appearance. This is truly an eye-popping show, replete with suggestive dancers, sinuous and menacing cyber light cords, and alternate states of consciousness or digital manipulation depending on which of the corporate robots or managers are controlling the scene.

Mai (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) and Vera (Rinabeth Apostol) share a moment at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The challenge and ultimate success of scene changes and manipulations are handsomely done by the creative team under the direction of Mei Ann Teo. Projections are used to great effect in many scenes and in many parts of the stage by Hao Bai, and the scene swivels to reveal three different sets, times/places and states of consciousness.

Finally we are left to ponder what reality we live in. Is it the actual world, or is it the digital river of games, memes, virtual reality, NFTs and other predations on our consciousness?

My Home on the Moon is a humorous take on a Matrix-like reality where people are trapped in a simulated digital world. Warning: the constant food themes may spark your hunger for an immediate bowl of Pho.

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Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionMy Home On The Moon
Written byMinna Lee
Directed byMei Ann Teo
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru Feb 24th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ ACT’s “A Christmas Carol” Still Rules

By Barry Willis

The greatest redemption story in the English language is still going strong at the American Conservatory Theater in The City, through December 24.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has riveted readers, film fans, and theatergoers for many decades. ACT’s annual extravaganza is hugely satisfying, as it has been in its current configuration for 17 years. The sumptuous Carey Perloff/Paul Walsh production is scheduled for retirement after this season, to be replaced by a new one next year, according to ACT Executive Director Jennifer Bielstein.

 … hugely satisfying …

Details about the new version aren’t available, but those who wish to see the classic that has inspired many imitators have the remaining week to get a full helping of Christmas uplift.

The company of ACT’s “A CHRISTMAS CAROL” at work. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

James Carpenter alternates with Anthony Fusco in the lead role of curmudgeonly miser Ebenezer Scrooge—a role that both actors were born to play. (Ditto for Patrick Stewart in one of many film versions. Stewart may be the best Scrooge ever to sully the silver screen.) Sharon Lockwood is delightfully astounding as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper. She also has a cameo as the energetic Mrs. Fezziwig, wife of young Scrooge’s first employer.

The cast is universally excellent—we’d expect nothing less from ACT—with Jomar Tagatac as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s oppressed clerk, B Noel Thomas as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Catherine Castellanos as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Brian Herndon shines as Fezziwig, and Dan Hiatt is a malevolent reminder of accumulated karma as the ghost of Scrooge’s departed partner Jacob Marley.

Dan Hiatt (L) and Anthony Fusco (R). Photo credit: Kevin Berne

There’s a gaggle of charming children, and enough Londoners to fill the wide stage of the Toni Rembe theater—all of them in plausibly authentic 19th century costumes by Beaver Bauer.

Music by Karl Lundeberg (directed by Daniel Feyer) is wonderfully dynamic, and Val Caniparoli’s choreography is dazzling. John Arnone’s set design has been scaled back from previous elaborate productions but is still effectively versatile and immersive.

Anthony Fusco (L) and Piera Tamer (r) in “A Christmas Carol” at ACT in The City. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Those who have seen multiple productions of ACT’s A Christmas Carol may be slightly disappointed that this year’s offering doesn’t reach the astronomical heights of last year’s, but it’s nonetheless an immensely satisfying show.

This show is pretty much a requirement for those in need of high-quality holiday cheer, which is to say, all of us. Tickets for the final few performances are disappearing fast. Grab them while you can!

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ASR 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 him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionA Christmas Carol
Written byCharles Dickens - adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Wals
Directed by
Choreographed by
Peter J. Kuo
Val Caniparoli
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Dec 24th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$15 – $167
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5
Performance4.75/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.75/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “The Umbrella Play” – Show and Tell

By George Maguire

In my early days in New York city, I was part of the Off-Off Broadway movement, where new works were presented on a small stage with no budget, both as a vehicle for emerging playwrights and for actors hoping to be seen and picked up by an agent.

Writers like Christopher Durang, Albert Innuarato, Lanford Wilson and even Tennessee Williams were showcasing experimental works in theatres like The Direct Theatre, Caffé Cino, La Mama, The Cubiculo, The Impossible Ragtime Theatre and Joe Papp’s Public Theatre.

 … Ms. Frederick … is truly a Bay Area Theatre treasure …

Viewing The Umbrella Play by Linda Ayres-Frederick at the Phoenix Theatre on Mason Street, I was reminded of the power and the joy of presenting the premiers of new works in a workshop setting with no budget and minimal props, lights and sound. Ms. Frederick has a long and remarkable career as a playwright (over 50 plays), an actress and at the Phoenix Theatre as a producer. She is truly a Bay Area Theatre treasure.

Linda Ayres-Frederick at work.

Ms. Frederick uses an umbrella (played by Ms. Frederick herself) as a possession to be passed around, passed down and always remembered. These elements are filled with special memories as we touch them, recall them, and indeed cherish their memory.

The umbrella sees, comments and indeed feels emotions as it watches a family going through a series of confrontations of inheritance after the death of the mother (Adrienne Krug). The feud as such is fueled by a brother, sister and sister in law as they gather to hear the reading of Mama’s will.

Cast members of “The Umbrella Play” at work with the Phoenix Theater.

Among the cast are Michael Sommers (terrific) as the brother, AJ Davenport (strong and willful), Juliet Tanner (excellent) as the sister-in-law, and John Hurst as the bumbling husband.

Adrienne Villalon, Shailesh Sivanantham at work in “the Umbrella Play”

Ms. Frederick sets this play in Russia with allusions to Chekhov in character names and situations. For me, this led to confusion of both time and place. The family, the umbrella, and the challenges could easily have been in Pittsburgh. Were we supposed to glean a Chekhovian air? Probably…but for me, not at all necessary, thank you.

The production is billed as a “workshop” sponsored by the Multi-Ethnic Theatre. My hope is that Ms. Frederick utilizes this experience to craft a truly magical play of an umbrella’s observations.

The potential is all there.

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ASR Contributing writer George Maguire is a San Francisco-based actor/director and Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre. He is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: gmaguire1204@yahoo.com

 

ProductionThe Umbrella Play
Written byLinda Ayres-Frederick
Directed by Julie Dimas Lockfeld
Producing CompanyPhoenix Arts Association
Production DatesThru Dec 2nd
Production AddressThe Phoenix Theatre
414 Mason Street, 6th floor
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttp://www.phoenixtheatresf.org/
Telephone(415) 336-1020
Tickets$20 or pay what you will
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3.5/5
Script2.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~SF Playhouse Bends Genders in Superb “Guys and Dolls”

By Woody Weingarten

It’s virtually impossible to rate the new San Francisco Playhouse production of Guys and Dolls as anything but almost perfect, not quite as good as God’s long-running comic-tragedy, Mankind.

Sanitized, slang-spouting characters lifted from two 1920s and ‘30s Damon Runyon short stories remain extremely likeable 73 years after the Tony Award-winning musical comedy debuted on Broadway — New Yawk gamblers and gangsters mostly, but also a couple of inept Chicago crooks/crapshooters. And then, of course, there’s Sarah Brown, the Save-A-Soul missionary heroine who proves that love can conquer all.

… it’s the cast of the superb show …

Frank Loesser’s music (and lyrics) for this rendition — accompanied by a sprightly, hidden-onstage band under the direction of Dave Dobrusky — reaches the epitome of peppy, ideal for the holiday season.

Sky Masterson (David Toshiro Crane, center) and gamblers roll the dice.

Choreography by Nicole Helfer, even if somewhat derivative, hits an exciting high (with each dancer sublimely connected to all the others). Costumes designed by Kathleen Qiu appear both authentic to the era and playful (especially numbers in the Hot Box burlesque hall where Adelaide comically struts her stuff), augmented by sundry wigs concocted by Laundra Tyme—some straightforward, some whimsical.

Adelaide (Melissa WolfKlain, center) performs with the Hot Box Girls (from left, Malia Abayon, Alison Ewing, Jill Slyter, and Brigitte Losey) in “Guys and Dolls.”

The frequently revolving sets by scenic designer Heater Kenyon come across as exceptionally imaginative, a proverbial wonder to behold. Yet it’s the cast of the superb show — which is labeled a fable, but which adroitly delves into how one segment of society has trouble understanding another — that shines brightest.

Audience faces light right up, for example, each time Melissa WolfKlain, who delightfully and deliberately squeaks as Adelaide steps onto the stage, a stripper-star who’s been engaged for well over a decade to Nathan Detroit a guy whose livelihood stems from running a long-haul floating crap game. She’s particularly marvelous rendering “Adelaide’s Lament” (“In other words, just from worrying if the wedding is on or off, A person can develop a cough”), “Take Back Your Mink,” and “Marry the Man Today” (a duet with Abigail Esfira Campbell, as puritanical but seducible Sgt. Sarah Brown).

Campbell sings with a purity that can make most other vocalists jealous. She’s top-drawer on “I’ll Know” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” with her acting chops becoming an ideal accompaniment to her vocals (her slinky drunk scene in Cuba is most noteworthy). Both melodies are performed, by the way, in duet with David Toshiro Crane as charismatic, cocky, sexy gambler Sky Masterson.

Crane gives the Masterson character a sturdiness that makes you believe he can change from a high-roller to a guy high on life and love. His voice, too, soothes while delivering whatever emotion is required.

Joel Roster acts appropriately oblivious to his doll as Nathan Detroit, the guy who can’t bring himself to commit to her but who’s committed to finding a gambling site somewhere.

Kay Loren, who uses the pronouns they/them, rounds out the frontline performers as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a part usually filled by a man. Director Bill English and casting director Kieran Beccia, in fact, carefully gender-bent other actor-singers (such as having Kay Loren and Jessica Coker play Nicely-Nickely Johnson and Big Jule, respectively). They ethnic-bent, too, with Asian Alex Hsu assuming the slick role of Irish cop Lt. Brannigan.

But it takes only a minute or two for a theatergoer to fully suspended his or her disbelief and enjoy the binary and racial tampering.

Underscoring what unison truly means — musically and with a racial mix — is the praiseworthy chorus.

Sgt. Sarah Brown (Abigail Esfira Campbell, center) tries to enlist sinners for the Save-A-Soul Mission.

The major plot device is about finding a location for that dice game. The subplot feels terribly familiar: Guy meets and courts girl (because he bets the then huge sum of $1,000 that he can); girl is attracted to and then turned off by guy; guy gets girl.

Other don’t-miss tunes include the title tune, “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” — and two exhilarating all-dance numbers, “Havana” and “The Crapshooter’s Dance.”

The only thing absent from this two hour-plus version is the thick, unpolished Lower East Side of New Yawk accents — along with the “deses” and “doses” — that instantly tell visitors from Boise, Idaho, that they’re in the Big Apple.

Guys and Dolls has been considered by many as the ultimate musical comedy. The SF Playhouse production shouldn’t disavow that opinion.

Dancers Chachi Delgado and Malia Abayon move fast but sensually in a Havana nightclub.

A Footnote: I’ve told the tale of my wife’s obsession with the show for about 20 years — ever since the last time we saw it.

Before watching a touring company at another San Francisco theater, she’d played the entire score for me on our piano at home. She’d followed by humming most of its tunes during our trip into the city from San Anselmo. And, as I did, she loved the show itself.

But then she inserted a CD of the score on the way back from that performance. I knew she’d adored the show penned by famed theatrical storyline fixer Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling ever since as a pre-teen she’d seen the original with Robert Alda, Alan’s dad, playing Sky Masterson — that final over-the-top fangirl action was much too much for me to handle.

Ergo, I had some trepidation about leading her to the SF Playhouse, even as a MysteryDate, something we’ve been doing for all 36 years we’ve been wed. A MysteryDate, FYI, is an almost-certain way to help keep the sizzle in a relationship — an activity you arrange without your partner knowing where she or he is going until you get there. Or vice versa — that is, one arranged with you in the dark.

After five years of working on it, not incidentally, I’ve just finished writing a book about MysteryDates, one that can double as a travel guidebook while clobbering the myth that long-term relationships are inevitably doomed to become unexciting, monotonous, or drab. The book should be available in January. Check out https://woodyweingarten.com to be sure.

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ASR Senior Contributor Woody Weingarten has decades of experience writing arts and entertainment reviews and features. A member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, he is the author of three books, The Roving I; Grampy and His Fairyzona Playmates; and Rollercoaster: How a Man Can Survive His Partner’s Breast Cancer. Contact: voodee@sbcglobal.net or https://woodyweingarten.com or http://www.vitalitypress.com/

ProductionGuys and Dolls
Book byAbe Burrows and Jo Swerling
Directed byBill English
Musical Direction byDave Dubrusky
Choreography byNicole Helfer
Music/Lyrics byFrank Loesser
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru Jan 13th, 2024
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $125
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 ~~ Poignant, Powerful “Without You” at the Curran

By Barry Willis

Love, loss, and acceptance all figure into Anthony Rapp’s solo musical Without You at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre.

Rapp’s show encompasses his first professional audition—a performance of REM’s “Losing My Religion,” reprised as the opener in this moving retrospective. The audition landed him a role in the off-Broadway debut of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, the AIDS-era reworking of Puccinni’s La Boheme, and in the larger long-running production.

Without You is a wonderful show…

Larson died of an aneurism the night before his show opened. Rapp works that tragedy into his narrative and song selections, plus his loving relationship with his mother, who slowly came around to accepting his gay identity. His relationships with other members of his family are also depicted with fondness.

There’s no bitterness or rancor in anything he conveys. Backed by a superb onstage band, Rapp proves to be a compelling raconteur and singer. His penultimate song is a howl of anguish, but his closing number is one of universal love.

At 95 minutes—with no intermission—Without You is a wonderful show with an inexplicably short four-day run, closing Sunday October 22. Opening night was a near sellout—ticket buyers should jump on the remaining opportunity.

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ASR 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.

 

ProductionWithout You
Written byAnthony Rapp
Directed bySteven Maler
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Oct 28th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$49-$160
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Rags to Riches Hilarity: “Nollywood Dreams” at SF Playhouse.

By Susan Dunn and Barry Willis

An aspiring actress gets her chance in Jocelyn Bioh’s uproarious Nollywood Dreams, at San Francisco Playhouse through November 4.

Ayamma Okafor (Angel Adedokun) works at her family’s travel agency in Lagos, Nigeria, where the entire story takes place. Probably not a well-known fact among Americans, Nigeria’s thriving film industry is one of the world’s most prolific.

Ayamma (Angel Adedokun) is starstruck as she meets Wale (Jordan Covington) and Gbenga (Tre’Vonne Bell) in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Nollywood Dreams,” performing thru Nov 4, 2023.
Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Ayamma hopes to lift herself out of the tedium of her daily work and venture into the glitzy world of film—and fame. Her lackadaisical sister and workmate Dede (Brittany Nicole Sims) has no such aspirations, but does worship film stars, especially the handsome charmer Wale Owuso (Jordan Covington).

…Nollywood Dreams is exactly the feel-good antidote we need today…

The Playhouse is lit with neon and splashy patterns, accompanied by throbbing rhythms of Africa. Your heartbeat is up even before the actors appear. The production is significantly interactive: we are invited to let the actors know how we feel about them and their story by joining in with our own reactions. Breaking the “4th wall,” one scene includes an actor sitting with the audience.

On a huge revolving set by Bill English, Nollywood Dreams features continual scenes across three different locales: the travel agency, a TV studio, and the office of film director Gbenga Ezie (Tre’Vonne Bell). Initially we meet our protagonist, wannabe actress Ayamma—slim, intense, and sincere—who pours her heart out to older sister Dede, an outrageous, outspoken, but unmotivated couch-potato. Their dynamic is loving and hilarious at each turn.

The stage turns and a TV interview is in progress. Now we (the play’s audience) become the vocal audience of a daytime TV show hosted by the queen bee of Nigerian celebrity gossip, the brightly-swathed and head-dressed Adenikeh (Tanika Baptiste), a character partly modeled on America’s own Oprah. Baptiste is totally engaging and effusive as she prods interviewee Gbenga about auditions for his next film, a romantic comedy called The Comfort Zone.

Adenikeh (Tanika Baptiste), the Oprah of Lagos, dishes on her talk show in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Nollywood Dreams.” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Her outsized female persona foils his suave, understated but sweeping masculinity. Our verbal reactions to his story of marital and extramarital love up the ante of our emotional engagement. Through some Nigerian film history projections we meet the final two characters in this play: Wale the endearing lover-boy actor already well-known to Nigerian audiences, and Fayola (Anna Marie Sharpe), an established actress whose career has hit an impasse. Sharp’s wise-cracking subtlety must be seen to be believed.

Who will be cast in this next movie? How will previous dating relationships, careers (or lack thereof) and political machinations solve the casting choices? The set revolves to reveal the director’s office, where auditions of a kind, amid spats and jealousies, play out evoking old loves and new emotional blooming. A favorite scene involves Dede’s curse on the rival actress to aid sister Ayamma’s chances for snagging a role.

Nigerian film director Gbenga (Tre’Vonne Bell) dishes on a talk show in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Nollywood Dreams” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Nollywood Dreams is a terrifically paced production of a laugh-out-loud script, filled with characters who pop with iconic familiarity. The show is blessed with performing excellence, directorial finesse and assurance and production values that excel in every scene. As fabulous or ordinary costumes (Jasmine Milan Williams, designer) change from one quick scene to another we wonder how they can top the previous look.

Theater veteran and director Margo Hall has coaxed the utmost from her richly talented cast. The eye-candy set and projections, and especially the unexpected finale, deliver a luscious dessert of a play that on opening night provoked a sustained standing ovation. Nollywood Dreams is exactly the feel-good antidote we need today.

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Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com.

ASR 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.

 

ProductionNollywood Dreams
Written byJocelyn Bioh
Directed byMargo Hall
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru Nov 4th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Soul Train Musical” Roars into San Francisco

By Barry Willis

A party atmosphere greeted the arrival of Hippest Trip – the Soul Train Musical last week at American Conservatory Theater. Brightly-attired fans spilled out into the street in front of the theater and filled it to capacity for the world premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s dazzling retrospective of the long-running television show and its founder Don Cornelius, wonderfully directed by Kamilah Forbes.

The cast of “HIPPEST TRIP – The Soul Train Musical”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

San Francisco mayor London Breed further amped up the crowd with a high-energy pre-show pep talk delivered from one of the most imaginative sets ever created for a big-production musical: a giant old-school TV set surrounded by extravagant neon in the rich brown and orange of early 1970s psychedelia, running up the walls and onto the ceiling of ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater—a brilliant effort by scenic designer Jason Sherwood.

…one of the most engaging musicals to land in San Francisco this year…

The incredibly confident Quentin Earl Darrington stars as Don Cornelius, a former Chicago journalist who grew tired of producing stories about crime and misery. He envisioned an upbeat dance-and-music show that would uplift his community. Through sheer willpower he made it a reality—first in his home town, then in Los Angeles, and then nationwide. New episodes aired every Saturday, and as Soul Train gained popularity, older episodes were available as re-runs.

Pam Brown (Amber Iman) and Don Cornelius (Quentin Earl Darrington). Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

Thanks to Cornelius’ tireless campaigning, the show featured top talents from the Stax and Motown labels—acts such as Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Four Tops—and superstars such as James Brown. Soul Train was hugely popular not only with its target market, but with music fans of all varieties. His tireless efforts yielded tremendous results, at the expense of alienating him from his family and ultimately provoking a divorce from his loyal wife Delores, evocatively portrayed by Angela Birchett.

In a resonant baritone, Darrington recites the Cornelius tale in the first person, directly to the audience, while other essential parts of the story are conveyed through what we can only assume are historically accurate sketches—and by lots of spectacular dancing propelled by an equally spectacular band. Kudos to choreographer Camille A. Brown and music supervisor Kenny Seymour.

The musical context is very much linear. The early days of Soul Train were a showcase for 1960s soul music, the favorite genre of the show’s founder and host.

Kayla Davion (Jody Watley) and the cast of “HIPPEST TRIP – The Soul Train Musical”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

Like swing era bandleader Glenn Miller, Cornelius imagined that his preferred music would endure forever, and was dismayed—if not blind-sided—by the rise of disco in the mid-to-late 1970s. Disco was a market disrupter for all kinds of pop music, and Cornelius ultimately relented, promoting disco acts such as the trio Shalamar, whose female singer Jody Watley (Kayla Davion) went on to have a solo career. He was further annoyed by the rise of hip-hop, a genre that originated at the same time as disco but proved to have much more staying power. Disco faded—1979 was reportedly the peak year for sales of vinyl records—but hip-hop and its offshoots remain dominant musical forces today.

Cornelius was further irked by the emergence of New Jack Swing, exemplified by Bobby Brown’s hard-rocking 1980s hit “My Prerogative”—in this show, a music-and-dance performance so stunning that it provoked a spontaneous standing ovation in the second act. This reviewer has attended thousands of productions, but until September 6 had never seen such an outpouring of enthusiasm and appreciation. Opening night was truly astounding.

An obsessed, well-intentioned visionary, Cornelius was nonetheless no angel. One of his sons was estranged, but Tony Cornelius (Sidney Dupont) signed on as his overbearing dad’s apprentice, and gradually worked his way into management of the Soul Train empire, a position he holds today. (A very informative interview between Tony and the playwright is included in the playbill. The real Tony Cornelius was at ACT on opening night, as was Morisseau, who delivered a heartfelt speech at closing.)

Perhaps the worst shortcoming of the elder Cornelius was his refusal to pay Soul Train dancers, even after the show was an undeniable big-ticket hit. He found his initial cadre at a Los Angeles recreation center, where they were being mentored by a kind-hearted woman named Pam Brown (Amber Iman), who became Cornelius’ loyal production assistant. Iman is a wonderfully compelling performer with a glorious singing voice. As with “My Prerogative,” she provoked sustained applause in almost every scene.

Roukijah “NutellaK” Rooks and the cast of “HIPPEST TRIP – The Soul Train Musical”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello

There’s a tertiary thread in the show’s narrative where some dancers discuss going on strike until they realize they can’t demand higher wages if they aren’t being paid at all. Spunky dancer Rosie Perez (Mayte Natalio) repeatedly demands a contract, but only with lawyers present, a demand that her boss consistently rebuffs. The tight-fisted Cornelius may have harbored a fear that his eminently seaworthy ship might spring a leak at any moment.

All of this—personal and professional alike—is woven into one of the most engaging musicals to land in San Francisco this year. Both deeply informative and wildly entertaining, Hippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical is a hugely important piece of American cultural history. There aren’t enough stars in our ratings system to shower all the praise it deserves. It is without question the most important show now running in San Francisco.

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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

 

ProductionHippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical
Written by Dominique Morisseau
Directed byKamilah Forbes
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater
Production DatesThrough Oct 8th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA
Websiteact-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 - $130
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.75/5.0
Performance4.75/5.0
Script4.75/5.0
Stagecraft4.75/5.0
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Tina Turner the Musical” Reigns at SF’s GG Theatre

By George Maguire and Barry Willis

“Queen of Rock’n’Roll” is a title that’s been bestowed on several performers—Stevie Nicks and Joan Jett among them. None are more deserving than Tina Turner, who passed away in May 2023. She was a major force during several decades as a pop music icon.

Tina – The Tina Turner Musical gloriously brings her music and life to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater through August 27. The production moves to Broadway San Jose August 29 – Sept. 3.

…One of this year’s most important national touring productions…

Both a staged equivalent of a “biopic” (a filmed biography) and a “jukebox musical,” The Tina Turner Musical tells the tale of her origin in the small town of Nutbush, TN, to her eventual marriage to musician Ike Turner, and her re-emergence as a solo superstar after their breakup.

At nearly three high-intensity hours, the production is so demanding that it requires two performers in the lead role, alternating performances so that each can have a full rest day before the next one. Zurin Villanueva starred in the Wednesday Aug. 2 opener, with Naomi Rodgers taking the lead on alternate dates. Rodgers is presumably Villanueva’s equal in a huge, sumptuous production directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

Zurin Villanueva.

With the lanky physique and endurance of a distance runner, Villanueva tears into the drama and music with power and conviction. Just when you think she can’t possibly top herself as the eponymous lead, she opens her throat and brings Tina Turner straight to the heart. The Golden Gate’s near-capacity crowd couldn’t get enough.

Naomi Rodgers

The show is all about Tina, of course, but it’s marvelously fleshed out by many other superb talents. High praise to Roderick Lawrence who manages to find humanity in the troubled life of Ike Turner, a talented, charming manipulator who abused Tina so hard and so often that she ultimately made a desperate dash across a busy freeway to throw herself on the mercy of a motel clerk who provided her a room, food, medical care, and an armed guard at her door. That true event is a pivotal scene in the film What’s Love Got to Do with It? and the closing scene in the musical’s first act.

A compelling musician, Lawrence’s vocals are pretty damned good too, but he doesn’t quite measure up to Gerard M. Williams as Tina’s lovelorn bandmate Raymond, whose gorgeous rendition of “Let’s Stay Together” exceeds by many degrees the original by Al Green. Roz White stars as Zelma, Tina’s disdainful mother who sends her daughter away to live with her grandma. There’s no evidence of a father figure in the depiction of Tina’s early life, a circumstance all too prevalent among adult women who subjugate themselves to abusive men. White has only one moment to sing in this show, but her contralto is wonderful.

Ayvah Johnson.

The real emerging superstar in this production is child performer Ayvah Johnson, who captivates the audience as young Anna-Mae (Tina’s birth name), first as a very enthusiastic member of her gospel-singing church, and appearing intermittently throughout the show to remind us where Tina Turner came from. Johnson is clearly a crowd favorite. The Ikettes, the big backstage band, and the show’s stagecraft are all superb. While engaging, we found that the new music by Nicholas Skilbeck  just doesn’t compare favorably with the Turner songbook.

Jeff Sugg’s projection design is a force of its own. Act Two is like a psychedelic trip accentuating and building each song with magic, greatly enhanced by Bruno Poet’s lighting design.

Although the adequate book glosses over details, it provides highlights of her life, reminding us that her biggest personal and professional successes happened well after she turned 40. More than a juke-box musical, this is a superbly conveyed story of triumph and tragedy, blazing the life of icon Tina Turner to the back of the capacious Golden Gate. This inspiring, uplifting tale is beautifully rendered.

One of this year’s most important national touring productions, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical is an absolute must-see.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco-based actor/director and is Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre. He is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: gmaguire1204@yahoo.com

 

ASR 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

 

ProductionTina – The Tina Turner Musical
Written byKatori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins
Directed byPhyllida Lloyd
Producing CompanyGolden Gate Theatre
Production DatesSF: Thru Aug. 27, SJ: Aug. 29 – Sept. 3

Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA
...
Broadway San Jose (Aug 29 – Sept. 3)
Center for the Performing Arts
255 S. Almaden Blvd.
San Jose, CA
94102
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$66.50 – $179.50
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 ~~ Theatrical Treat: “My (Unauthorized) Hallmark Movie Musical”

By Barry Willis

A diehard fan creates her own romantic production in My (Unauthorized) Hallmark Movie Musical, at San Francisco’s Top of the Shelton through July 30, with a possible extension to August 20.

A solo show developed and composed by playwright/actress/lyricist Eloise Coopersmith, the production stars the writer as an inveterate viewer of feel-good films on the Hallmark Channel—a pandemic burnout who sustains herself on dark chocolate, red wine, and an insatiable appetite for upbeat escapism. Her character is so immersed in it that she’s become her own writer/director/producer. The concept is brilliant. So is the execution.

…an incredibly clever and charming production…

Flanked by two large video screens, with a larger projection screen behind her, Coopersmith interacts with an ongoing romantic comedy musical performed by a sizable cast of professional L.A. actors including Nina Herzog, Benny Perez, Andrew Joseph Perez, Jim Blanchette, Tess Adams, Monika Pena, Maggie Howell, and Samantha Labrecque.

She talks to them, and they respond—to her and each other—and they sing some really infectious tunes (music by Roxanna Ward, lyrics by Coopersmith). The recorded video is presumably always the same but with the aid of her technical wizard, Coopersmith can pause it whenever she likes to interject commentary and jokes, some of them laugh-out-loud funny.

A unique multimedia production, it’s also a solo show in that Coopersmith is the only live performer onstage. She gears her performance to each audience regardless of number—she says she has done My (Unauthorized)Hallmark Movie Musical for single viewers and for large houses, including a 900-seat theater in West Virginia.

Performances in mid-July at the Shelton (former longtime home of SF Playhouse, before that company moved to Post Street) were not sold out, and that’s a shame because My (Unauthorized)Hallmark Movie Musical is an incredibly clever and charming production—both a spoof of and an homage to an enduring genre. Most spoofs tend toward vicious satire but this one is a love letter from a real devotee. As the Hallmark tag line puts it, “Love always wins.” Coopersmith delivers that sentiment with aplomb.

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ASR 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

 

ProductionMy (Unauthorized) Hallmark Movie Musical
Written byEloise Coopersmith

Music by Roxanna Ward
Directed byAnne Runolfsson
Producing CompanyTop of the Shelton
Production DatesThru July 30, with possible extension to Aug. 20
Production AddressTop of the Shelton
533 Sutter Street
2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.lovealwayswinsmusical.com and

Topoftheshelton.com
Telephone(833) 526-3675
Tickets$20 - $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Over the Rainbow: “Wizard of Oz” Rocks at ACT

By Barry Willis

The Emerald City meets Beach Blanket Babylon in ACT’s gloriously goofy The Wizard of Oz, running through June 25.

The wild production adheres closely to the beloved original, including story and songs, but it’s as far removed from a 1940s Saturday afternoon movie matinee as you can imagine—a hilariously gender-bending extravaganza just perfect for Pride Month in San Francisco.

…ACT’s Wizard of Oz is an amazing and marvelous spectacle…

With her brilliantly-conceived puppet dog Toto never far away, Chanel Tilghman stars as the lonely, spunky Dorothy, swept away by a tornado from her prairie home to the magical Land of Oz. Gifted with an innocent look, a relaxed stage presence, and a lovely singing voice, Tilghman delights as the naïve but adventurous Kansas schoolgirl.

Cathleen Riddley (Zeke) and Chanel Tilghman (Dorothy) in “The Wizard of Oz”, at ACT in The City. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

Also wonderful are the three friends she meets on her way to visit the Great Oz: the Straw Man, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion (loose-limbed Danny Scheie, self-contained Darryl V. Jones, and pugnacious Cathleen Ridley, respectively.)

Add to this list of huge talents Ada Westfall as the pontificating Professor Marvel/Wizard, Courtney Walsh as the Wicked Witch of the West and Katrina Lauren McGraw as Glinda the Good. Walsh oozes evil from several spots in the theater, much to the delight of the audience, and McGraw absolutely shines as Glinda. Ebullient and comical, McGraw was outstanding as Maria in last year’s production of The Sound of Music at Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre. Not to be overlooked are the supremely talented cello-playing El Beh in multiple roles, and Travis Santell Rowland as a glittery whirling dervish wreaking havoc in both Kansas and Oz.

(Top) Katrina Lauren McGraw (Glinda), (Bottom) Chanel Tilghman (Dorothy), and (Background) Beth Wilmurt in “The Wizard of Oz”, now through Sunday, June 25, 2023. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

This Wizard benefits greatly from solid direction and inventive choreography by Sam Pinkleton, but what takes it into the stratosphere of comedy and campy nostalgia are costumes and set design by David Zinn. The set is a psychedelic riot of every imaginable tacky thing, as if the entire contents of a Party City store were expanded to gigantic proportions and scattered at random across the stage. The closing scene is a bit baffling, wherein all the characters appear on stage dressed as Dorothy in prairie garb but it doesn’t detract from the show’s joyous impact.

ACT’s Wizard of Oz is an amazing and marvelous spectacle, very much in keeping with San Francisco’s long tradition of outrageous theatricality—The Cockettes, The Thrillpeddlers, The Tubes, and as mentioned, Beach Blanket Babylon. It’s also a production that would probably be illegal in Florida, Texas, and other less-enlightened parts of the world. Be glad we live where we do.

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Aisle Seat Review 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

 

ProductionWizard of Oz
Written byL. Frank Baum

Music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg
Directed bySam Pinkleton
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThru June 25th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 – $110
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!

ASR Theater ~~ Silly Fun: A Clue to “Clue”

By George Maguire

When I returned home from the SF Playhouse and their energetic, almost frenetic production of Clue, I immediately ransacked my closet and found (ta da!) my own Parker Brothers original version of the game.

I doubt there is anyone who has not played this fun and inventive game sometime in their life. With over 350 scenarios, it’s been translated into numerous other languages.

Among the suspects, we all had favorites—for me, usually Miss Scarlet or Professor Plum. Its popularity engendered a 1985 film starring Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Eileen Brennan and Christopher Lloyd. A Broadway musical followed in 1997, then a Broadway play in 2018, revised in 2022 with additional material by Hunter Foster and Eric Price

All six of our suspects are here: Miss Scarlet (a ravishing Courtney Walsh), Colonel Mustard (a perfectly befuddled Michael Ray Wisely), Professor Plum (a leering Michael Gene Sullivan), Mr. Green (a primly proper Greg Ayers), Mrs. White (a diabolical Rene Rogoff) and finally Mrs. Peacock (an inspired piece of casting with the versatile Stacy Ross).

Boddy Manor’s guests share their suspicions about the murders that keep happening in SF Playhouse’s “Clue,” performing March 9 – April 22. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Add a butler (Dorian Lockett), a French maid (Margherita Ventura), a Mr. Body, a tapping messenger girl, and a police captain (Will Springhorn Jr.) with more accents than all the others put together, plus his cohorts, and you have hilarity in the making.

All six suspects are being blackmailed for their secrets and have received invitations to a very private dinner party without knowing one another. The banquet begins, and as in Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap, the bodies pile up.

There’s one more big star: designer Heather Kenyon’s amazing set. This masterpiece of invention is in itself a suspect, and a hiding place that brings to us every room and hallway from the game. Suddenly we are in the numerous rooms and lounges where the action enfolds. Bravo Ms. Kenyon!

Director Susi Damilano has a blast putting this cast of characters into gyrating and tip-toeing terpsichorean romps of entrances and exits across the stage in beams and bars from Derek Duarte’s lights.

The occupants of Boddy Manor reveal a shocking twist! Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The last fifteen minutes are a roundelay of imagined possibilities as the suspects argue which was the real way the story and murders progressed.

Once you have seen the play, I urge you to see the film, available on Netflix. You’ll recognize the conceit drummed exhaustingly at us. By the end a galloping “Whew!” is sparked in the audience.

Go and have a laughingly good time at the Playhouse. After ninety minutes you’re on your way home—maybe to play the game yourself!

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco based actor and director. and a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. He is a Professor Emeritus of Solano College. Contact: gmaguire1204@yahoo.com

 

ProductionClue
Written bySandy Rustin.
With additional material by Hunter Foster and Eric Price,

Based on a screenplay by Jonathan Lynn.
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesMar 9-Apr 22, 2023
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2022-2023-season/indecent/
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30 - $
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

Other Voices…

"... the show is absolutely fun; light and silly and full of entertaining moments."
www.broadwayworld.com/
"At S.F. Playhouse’s ‘Clue,’ everyone’s guilty — of having a good time"
San Francisco Chronicle
"...this is a drop-dead, bonafide beauty of a black comedy. It’s guaranteed to produce thrills, chills, goosebumps and uncontrollable laughter for the entire 90 minutes of its uninterrupted mayhem."
Chicago Theatre Review
"...the show is a very fun, very silly 1950s-set whodunit..."
The New York Times

PICK! ASR Theater ~~”Six the Musical” Sets the Orpheum on Fire!

By Sue Morgan

Kicking off Women’s History Month a few weeks early, Broadway San Francisco couldn’t have made a better choice than with the much awarded Six the Musical, at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco through March 19th.

With a supremely talented all-woman cast, Six takes the audience on an exuberantly wild ride through the trials, tribulations and jubilation of the lives of the six wives of Henry the VIII, reimagined as contemporary pop stars.

Photo: Joan Marcus. “SIX: The Musical” in The City.

Awards, including a Tony for Best Original Score (Music and Lyrics) and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical of the 2021-22 Broadway season, are only part of the story. With its celebration of feminism and up-to-the-minute Millennial and Gen Z-speak, Six appeals to young (and not-so-young) adults in the same way today’s arena megastars do. In fact, the six Queens’ personas, appearance and vocal stylings are literally borrowed from those very same megastars. Opening night, highly amped attendees cheered after every song and responded enthusiastically to the performers’ prompts.

…the energy at times ratcheted to near fever pitch…

With no pretense of historical accuracy, the premise is secondary to the energy, passion, and powerhouse vocals on display as our Queens engage in a competition to determine who will be awarded the coveted title “Leader of the Band.” The women play off one another beautifully, whether bantering, baiting or backing each other, as one by one they take center stage to make their case.

Choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille is brilliant, blending technical jazz, hip-hop and house dance with a smattering of vogueish posing. In combination with the hard rock-driven intensity and volume of the excellent backing band—the “Ladies in Waiting,” the energy at times ratcheted to near fever pitch.

Photo: Joan Marcus. Gabriela Carrillo as Catherine Parr (center) in The North American “SIX The Musical” Tour

Lighting design by Tim Deiling transformed a very basic set into a phantasmagorical Queendom, while costume design by Gabriella Slade gave the Queens an edgy, almost steampunk vibe.

The Queens, without exception, gave outstanding performances. Power ballad “Heart of Stone,” gave Jane Seymour (soon-to-be megastar in her own right, Jasmine Forsberg) the opportunity to display her remarkable range, tremendous vocal power, and technical virtuosity. Anne Boleyn (Broadway performer Storm Lever) displayed perfect comic timing and garnered the lion’s share of laughs during the performance, riffing on, of all things, the fact that she’d been beheaded! “Haus of Holbein,” featured the Queens wearing demented sunglasses, and with frantic circus-like music propelling their exaggerated Berlin-esque accents, added an element of campy fun to an already enormously entertaining show.

Near the end of the performance, the energy shifted into low gear as Catherine Parr (Gabriela Carrillo in one of the most poignant and vulnerable performances of the production) suffered an existential crisis which momentarily brought the action to a halt. After rallying, Catherine pointed out that the Queens had fallen into the trap of comparing themselves in relation to their experiences as wives of Henry VIII. The previously vacuous Anne Boleyn, garnered more laughs with the revelation that doing so “…necessarily elevates a historical approach ingrained in patriarchal structures.” Then, aside to the audience, with a smug look, “I read.”

After pondering how to turn that structure on its head, the group reclaims their personal narratives and rewrites history, allowing each of them to become their own leading lady. To the delight of the audience, the production closes with an electrifying and empowering remix of the song “I Don’t Need Your Love,” followed by “Six.”

Photo: Joan Marcus. The cast of “Six: The Musical” at work.

A rousing and protracted well-deserved standing ovation was accentuated by glittering confetti raining down on the Queens, ala the “golden buzzer” award given to the very best contestants on Simon Cowell’s well-known talent show.

Random audience members—nearly all grinning and exclaiming animatedly to their friends about the performance—were polled as they filed out of the theatre. Many described the production as “Amazing!”, “Fantastic!” or “Unbelievable!” Several gushed, “OMG, it was SO good!” and “I loved it!” while another insisted it was the “Best musical I’ve ever seen!” How many had she seen? “Too many!”

Need I say more?

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

 

 

ProductionSix: The Musical
Written ByLucy Moss/Toby Marlow
Directed byLucy Moss/Jamie Armitage
Producing CompanyBroadwaySF
Production DatesThrough Mar 19th
Production AddressThe Orpheum
1192 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://www.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
TicketsVariable. Up to $263.50, subject to change (rush tickets/discounts available)
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Compelling “Headlands” at ACT

By Barry Willis

An unsolved murder, a family mystery, and a personal existential crisis all combine in Christopher Chen’s The Headlands at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theatre through March 5.

Phil Wong stars as Henry, a self-described “thirty-something San Francisco native who works in tech.” Wong is confident and convincing, serving as the show’s narrator and principal character.

Sam Jackson (Jess) and Phil Wong (Henry) in the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s “The Headlands”. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

He comes onstage under full house lights, with the relaxed demeanor of a standup comedian, and introduces himself and the play’s primary backstory: the unsolved murder of Henry’s father George (Johnny M. Wu) some 20 years earlier, a deeply traumatic event in Henry’s young life.

…worthy of a full thumbs-up recommendation…

Part memory play, part who-done-it, Henry’s tale moves back and forth in time, from his parents’ first meeting, to his pre-teen years when he and his dad would go hiking in the Marin Headlands, to the present, where he deals with his aging mother Leena (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), his girlfriend Jess (Sam Jackson), and his estranged older brother Tom (Jomar Tagatac), given up for adoption before Henry was born.

Other superb cast members include Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as the younger Leena, and Bay Area theater veteran Charles Shaw Robinson in dual roles as Walter, George’s business partner, and as a San Francisco police detective. A brilliant bit of direction by ACT artistic director Pam MacKinnon and a brilliant bit of acting is George’s accent—early in the show, when he is a teenage immigrant and his future wife’s suitor, his pronunciation is thick, but later, as an adult, he’s become fully fluent and speaks a natural American dialect.

Keiko Shimosato Carreiro (Pat) and Phil Wong (Henry) in “The Headlands” performing at A.C.T. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

The Headlands is a compelling story, made more compelling by Alexander V. Nichols’ combined set and projection designs. Nichols is the offstage superstar of this production. His elegant rotating set is a translucent lath-and-plaster construction that when illuminated with projections gives a ghostly appearance to everything from a Sunset district family home to a headlands hiking trail to San Rafael’s Canal district to the apartment shared by Henry and Jess.

Toward the tale’s conclusion, a slow, over-long scene between these two is the only dramatic road bump in an otherwise very good production. A judicious edit there, and in a couple other spots in the dialog would lift this show from “very good” to “great.” It’s worthy of a full thumbs-up recommendation, regardless.

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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 Headlands
Written byChristopher Chen
Directed byPam Mackinnon
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThru March 5th, 2023
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$25 – $112
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Travelers” — A Wonder at the Magic Theatre

By Susan Dunn

Luis Alfaro exposes our strengths and weaknesses in a climate-changing world with The Travelers at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco’s Fort Mason arts complex.

Five ordinary men appear on a candle-lit stage and start to strip down. Provocative, right? But soon they are covered by cassocks of the Carthusian Order of Catholic brothers. Before we can get to know these individuals, a stranger staggers into their monastery and collapses in a mound of dirt, bleeding from a chest wound.

Excellence abounds in Catherine Castellanos’s direction…

Luckily, the wound did not pierce his heart, but Alfaro’s play is all about heart and the ways we find to mend so many that are broken by circumstance.

But where are we?

We are in Grangeville, CA, a semi-abandoned town of now only 49 in the Central Valley. Drought has forced people from their occupations, many from working the fields. They either leave town or find places of succor such as the old monastery, which is still supported by the Archdiocese.

Important back-wall projections herald each change of scene, such as “Transformation,” helping us understand why the men shed their clothes and enter the seminary. They are desperate and leaving their former lives behind. The captivating set is mostly dirt floor, candles, and ceiling candelabras. The lights create a hierarchy: memorial candles set in the small dirt piles on the floor are for the commoners who worship there, and the multitude of brass candelabras overhead, to which the brothers often visually appeal, sway and flicker as the support from the Archdiocese gives hope and then peters out.

Brian River, Juan Amador, & Ogie Zulueta, at work. Photo by Jay Yamada.

In Alfaro’s inimitable style, we learn the stories and personalities of these brothers, and their new recruit, Juan, who has so dramatically joined the order with a bullet wound and street-trash vocabulary – a most unlikely student for this seminary run by Brother Brian. And Juan in turn unmasks the mystery of the man who lives in the bathtub without a cassock, brother Ogie. Each brother has a backstory of loss: of family, of nurture, of education. They profess a bond with church and God just as long as the tenuous support of the church sustains. When that door closes on them, they become again travelers to parts unknown.

And in “Seminary,” only one heart is lifted.

Kinan Valdez, Ogie Zulueta in “The Travelers.” Photo by Jay Yamada.

This play is a full meal with much to absorb and digest later. Excellence abounds in Catherine Castellanos’s direction of so many quirky characters and scenes, casting of spot-on actors and clear rendering of script. Although some disjointed elements of this play may leave viewers scratching their heads, I dare you not to marvel at its humanity and scope.

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Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager.

An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionThe Travelers
Written byLuis Alfaro
Directed byCatherine Castellanos
Producing CompanyMagic Theatre
Production DatesThru March 5th, 2023
Production AddressMagic Theatre Ft. Mason Center, Bldg D 2 Marina Blvd. San Francisco, CA.
Websitemagictheatre.org
Telephone(415) 441-8822
Tickets$20 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR THEATRE ~~ SF Playhouse Hits the Jackpot with “Cashed Out”

By Cari Lynn Pace

Many of life’s tragedies involve addiction. Theatre stages have presented poignant stories – dramas drawn from fantasy or reality – in the hopes that audiences will be both thoughtfully entertained and well warned. Cashed Out checks both boxes, admirably.

San Francisco Playhouse first presented a dramatic “zoomlet” – a 10-minute reading of a potential new play by Claude Jackson, Jr., during the pandemic. Patrons praised the reading touching upon gambling addiction, casinos, and the Native America community. Artistic Director Bill English recognized it as a story not often heard, and commissioned the playwright to expand it into a full script.

“Artistic Director Bill English recognized it as a story not often heard…”

SF Playhouse took great pains to assemble a cadre of Native American actors to ensure the authenticity of their world premiere. It’s a risk that pays off handsomely in Cashed Out. Director Tara Moses coaxed astounding performances from these largely Actors’ Equity members. They bring a glimpse of their culture, both proud and at times humbling, to the stage.

Cashed Out opens on an adobe duplex complete with terra cotta roof tiles on a reservation in Arizona, strikingly imagined by scenic designer Tanya Orellana. It’s dusty and dry, with a branch shelter and woven baskets in various stages of completion.

Rocky (Rainbow Dickerson) is a pretty young woman full of high spirits and bright expectations. She’s about to enter a local beauty contest and ignores Levi, her eager would-be boyfriend (Chingwe Padraig Sullivan). Rocky argues about native garb with her weary mother (Lisa Ramirez.) while her aunt Nan (Sheila Tousey) sagely serves as mediator. It is soon apparent that Nan is the solid rock in this turbulent family drama.

Rocky (Rainbow Dickerson) reaches out to Levi (Chingwe Padraig Sullivan) for a lifeline in “Cashed Out” at SF Playhouse

Flashbacks and fast-forward scenes intertwine as the stage rotates to show Rocky’s challenging journey with her gambling addiction. She’s hooked on a machine’s payout in a dark casino, dismissive with her young daughter Maya (Louisa Kizer) and desperately manipulative when she cajoles Levi to provide her with a character reference. Her family recognizes she needs help, but is powerless against Rocky’s stubborn and highly volatile character. Nan observes Rocky’s turmoil and shakes her head, sadly intoning “Imagine the eagle not trusting her own wings.”

Act I closes as Rocky continues to explode in an over-the-top performance, re-visiting her mother’s words “You’re not worthy” as mother weaves priceless Pima baskets. Thankfully, Act II opens on a brighter day. Rocky intones the Gamblers Anonymous mantra “I’m powerless over gambling” and appears to have cleaned up her act.

Maya (Louisa Kizer), Buddy (Matt Kizer), Levi (Chingwe Padraig Sullivan), and Nan (Sheila Tousey) receive news about Rocky in San Francisco Playhouse’s World Premiere of “Cashed Out.”

But addictions are not easily conquered, and never completely erased from an addict’s soul. When Rocky’s long-gone father (Matt Kizer) reappears, family tensions completely erupt. It’s quiet only when Rocky is absent, leaving her family tapped out and resigned.

Cashed Out is a hard-hitting and sadly true-to-life depiction of a gambler’s behavior. Rocky’s increasingly manic fantasy is thrown against irrefutable reality. In the sudden stark ending, neither side wins.

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ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. Contact: pace-koch@comcast.net

 

ProductionCashed Out
Written byClaude Jackson, Jr.
Directed byTara Moses
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru February 25th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2022-2023-season/indecent/
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30 - $100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Kaufman’s “Poetic Justice” at The Marsh San Francisco

By George Maguire

“We are worms.” — Winston Churchill
“We are glowworms.” — Robert Lowell

Gifted writer Lynne Kaufman’s structured one-act plays bring us the beauty of language in the pairing of You Must Change Your Life and Divine Madness, at the Marsh San Francisco, starring two of the Bay Area’s top actors, Charles Shaw Robinson and Julia McNeal.

Movingly directed by Lauren English, the 65-minute evening opens first with You Must Change Your Life, where we meet German poet Rainer Maria Rilke answering queries on poetry from Franz Krappus, a 19-year-old soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Krappus sends Rilke a poem and asks for feedback. The resulting ten-letter correspondence forms Rilke’s postmortem masterpiece Briefe an einen Jungen Dichter (Letters to a Young Poet), compiled and published by Krappus himself. These letters were a vital part of my own Bachelor’s Degree German education.

I wish both these plays were broadened into full-length.

Rilke (beautifully portrayed by Shaw with a slight German accent) encourages Krappus to avoid reading all criticism as it “Fails to touch a work of art.” Be true to yourself and ‘Go into yourself’, to find answers and create art. Wearing her own father’s Army jacket, Ms. McNeal plays Krappus with emotions ranging from pained insecurity to the resolve of a gifted artist.

The evening is as much about the performing range of Shaw and McNeal as it is about the poets. (A side note: the letters from Krappus to Rilke were found in Krappus’ estate and published separately in 2020.)

The second play, Divine Madness, dives into the fractured and storied relationship between renowned poet Robert Lowell and writer Elizabeth Hardwick. It is a relationship of intellectual verbal bantering and rage, as Lowell tries to ingratiate himself back into the life of his ex-wife. He left the intellectual Hardwick for Lady Caroline Blackwood, heiress of the Guinness Brewery company.

Two of the Bay Area’s top actors, Charles Shaw Robinson (R) and Julia McNeal (L). Photo Credit: David Allen

Lowell described his erudite and quite beautiful wife Caroline as “a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers.” Kaufman’s play brings out all of this in compiling the evidence, the results of the divorce, and the children involved. Lowell himself documented this relationship in his Pulitzer Prize winning book of poetry, The Dolphin.

Lowell was a manic-depressive artist who was often hospitalized with a bi-polar disorder. The sudden bursts of anger and rage are depicted in Shaw’s range of emotional insecurity as are McNeal’s strong firm grip on Hardwick’s own post-Lowell life with their daughter Harriet. What pervades through pain, frustration and anger are love, passion, and respect.

I wish both these plays were broadened into full-length. They give us a taste, an amuse bouche, and the Rilke piece, good as it is, feels tacked on to make this a longer evening that could be worthy of “Poetic Justice.”

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco based actor and director. and a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. He is a Professor Emeritus of Solano College. Contact: gmaguire1204@yahoo.com

 

Production'You Must Change Your Life' and 'Divine Madness'
Written byLynne Kaufman
Directed byLauren English
Producing CompanyThe Marsh, San Francisco
Production DatesThrough January 29, 2023. Saturday at 8:30, Sunday at 5pm
Production Address1062 Valencia St.
SF, CA
Websitehttps:/cbpr.co/press/poeticjustice/
Telephone(415) 282-3055
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! Aisle Seat Review ~~ Stunning Performances Elevate “Beetlejuice The Musical”

By Sue Morgan

If the measure of theatrical success is audience appreciation, Beetlejuice The Musical – at Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco, through December 31st – is a runaway hit.

Eddie Perfect, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show, clues us in from the get-go that this is not your parents’ Beetlejuice. The play opens on the funeral for Emily Deetz, who has left behind her husband and 16ish-year-old daughter Lydia, (flawlessly played by Nevada Riley, understudy for Isabella Esler) who plaintively sings, “You’re invisible when you’re sad.”

Justin Collette as Beetlejuice and cast at work in ‘Beetlejuice’.

Before Riley’s final note has dissipated, Beetlejuice himself, an exquisitely unsavory Justin Collette, jumps in to bark, “Holy crap! A ballad already? And such a bold departure from the original source material!” before launching into his bravura opening number “The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing,” which left the audience roaring with applause. He also warns us that, as with Tim Burton’s original late ‘80s film starring Michael Keaton, much of the humor is based around Beetlejuice, a lecherously loathsome character, and his vile, wholly inappropriate attention to basically anyone who comes within groping distance.

…a night of madcap fun…

Collette makes it clear that this is not a politically correct production as he jeers, “I know you’re woke–but you can take a joke…?” Apparently, most of the audience at the opening night performance were able to do just that.

In addition to Lydia and Beetlejuice, the story line follows newly deceased young couple Barbara and Adam (astutely cast Britney Coleman and Will Burton, respectively) as they try to terrorize Lydia, her father Charles (appropriately simpering Jesse Sharp), and Lydia’s “life coach,” Delia (the excellently flaky gold-digging Kate Marilley), who have moved into the home where Barbara and Adam intend to spend eternity. Unable to frighten them into leaving the home, Barbara seeks help from self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice.

Isabella Eisler and Justin Collette, with Britney Coleman and Will Burton in ‘Beetlejuice’ (photo: Adina Hsu)

Where Burton’s original Lydia was an angsty and morbidly inquisitive teen, authors Scott Brown and Anthony King have reimagined her as maudlin and depressed. Riley is a talented actor and exceptional singer who performs both song and dialog with passion, flair and bravado that often transcend the often-insipid material she has to work with. Brown and King appear to be attempting to evoke genuine compassion and empathy from the audience, a misstep for a story never intended to be anything other than a quirky, campy romp.

Collette is a believably reprehensible Beetlejuice and manages to repel us even after we learn the backstory about his loveless childhood. Again, this reviewer felt that the attempts to add poignancy to the production fell flat. Collette’s performance, however, is fantastic and his manic antics, as well as the stunning visuals – Beetlejuice multiplied exponentially; the perfectly recreated sandworm; multiple ensemble numbers; stunning costuming – combine to provide a night of madcap fun.

For those looking for a night of off-beat (and off-base) humor and a fantastic cast of outstanding performers, Beetlejuice The Musical will not disappoint.

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

 

 

ProductionBeetlejuice: The Musical
Written byScott Brown & Anthony King
Directed by
Musical direction by
Alex Timbers
Producing CompanyBroadwaySF
Production DatesThru December 31, 2022
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor St. San Francisco, CA
WebsiteBroadwaysf.com
Telephone888-746-1799
Tickets$40 - $264
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Musical “As You Like It” at SF Playhouse

By Mitchell Field

As You Like It, the Musical at SF Playhouse is delightful. Originally presented by The Public Theater, The New York Times named it among “The Best Theater of 2017.”

The performances are terrific, all the actors clearly having a great time onstage, totally invested in giving their absolute best to drive the show along and to entertain. This modern adaptation of a Shakespearean classic is well-directed by Bill English, who on opening night graciously thanked members of the press for attending.

The show is just plain fun!

Entrances and exits are head-spinningly perfect, the rollicking energy spectacular. The spare sets by English and Heather Kenyon are great, the lighting superb, (David Robertson), the choreography marvelous (Nicole Helfer), the costuming charming (Kathleen Qiu), and the live band terrific (Dave Dobrusky + 4). The show is just plain fun! They even threw in a Kanye West joke.

Oliver (front left: Ryan Torres) is summoned into court by Duke Frederick (Will Springhorn Jr. – center back), viewed by (l to r: Renee Rogoff, Jillian A. Smith, Johann Santiago Santos) in SF Playhouse’s musical version of “As You Like It”. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The production has many elements of an English pantomime, a Christmas-season tradition in the UK. This reviewer would have enjoyed seeing even more of this. Slapstick components include topical humor, call-and-response lines with the audience, a “drag” character (in addition to Rosalind, the Bard’s original), and some lame “badda-bing” jokes such as:

  • “Did you know that I own a pencil used by William Shakespeare? He chewed on it a lot though, so I can’t tell if it’s 2B or not 2B.”
  • “Did you know that Shakespeare was able to write with either his left or right hand equally well? Yes, he was iambidextrous.”

“Over-the-top” is a perfect description of this show. My guest loved it and so did the entire audience. The 17 players received a well-deserved standing-O at the end.

Orlando (Nikita Burshteyn) invades the forest community of Arden (l to r: Ezra Reaves, Emily Dwyer, Jillian A. Smith) in the forest of Arden in San Francisco Playhouse’s musical version of “As You Like It,” performing now through January 14, 2023. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Even though the songs in this show are written by Shaina Taub, currently working with Sir Elton John on a musical adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, I didn’t leave the auditorium singing or even humming the songs, My Fair Lady it ain’t, but how many musical shows are? Even so, as a fun, entertaining theater experience, it was “as I like it.”

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Mitchell Field is a Sr. Contributing Writer for Aisle Seat Review. Based in Marin County, Mr. Field is an actor and voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: mitchfield@aol.com

 

ProductionAs You Like It, the Musical
Written byWilliam Shakespeare - adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery Music and Lyrics by Shaina Taub
Directed by
Musical direction by
Bill English
Dave Dobrusky
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru Jan 14th, 2023
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2022-2023-season/indecent/
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Sumptuous “A Christmas Carol” Returns to ACT

By Barry Willis

A fabulous San Francisco tradition has returned after a three-year absence.

Perhaps the greatest redemption story in the English language, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is back at the American Conservatory Theatre, and what a welcome it’s receiving. The show runs through December 24 at the Toni Rembe Theatre on Geary Street (formerly the Geary Theatre).

The sumptuous, big-scale production stars James Carpenter as the dour miser Ebenezer Scrooge.

James Carpenter (Scrooge).

Without question one of the Bay Area’s top acting talents, Carpenter is at his peak in his signature role, one he shares with Anthony Fusco in alternating performances. Fusco is also a supremely talented actor who should bring an unusual interpretation to one of the most hated, most amusing, and ultimately most loved characters in the theatrical repertoire.

Directed by Peter J. Kuo, riffing somewhat on Carey Perloff’s original concept, this Christmas Carol is a joy to behold, with a huge cast of 40 performers including many children, but also many veteran actors (most in multiple roles) such as Sharon Lockwood, Jomar Tagatac, Howard Swain, and Brian Herndon. Lockwood absolutely shines as Mrs. Dilbert, Scrooge’s bitter housekeeper, and also as the lighthearted Mrs. Fezziwig, wife of Scrooge’s first employer.

…A theatrical and spiritual uplift unlike any other…

Dan Hiatt is fantastic as the ghost of Scrooge’s business partner Jacob Marley, who appears early in the tale to warn Scrooge that it’s not too late to change his evil ways.

Dan Hiatt (Ghost of Jacob Marley) in A.C.T.’s celebrated production of the Charles Dickens’ classic tale.

Burdened with the accumulated heavy karma of his earthly misdeeds, he rattles his fetters and intones “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link and yard by yard . . . ” — one of the most potent warnings ever issued by a character on stage, and one that establishes the high-stakes drama to come.

The production sails along with astounding effects. The Ghost of Christmas Past (the glamorous B Noel Thomas) appears to Scrooge floating above him on a celestial swing (scenic designer John Arnone). Scrooge’s office is up a flight of stairs that he climbs repeatedly to lord it over his underpaid and oppressed clerk Bob Cratchit (Jomar Tagatac). Emily Newsome brings a charming sensitivity to the role of Belle, Scrooge’s first love, cast aside by his single-minded pursuit of money.

The cast of A.C.T.’s celebrated production of the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, playing at the Toni Rembe Theater (formerly the Geary Theater) in The City.

This Christmas Carol revives much of the tremendous theatricality that has long been part of ACT’s annual holiday offering. The stagecraft is spectacular and the music and dancing totally delightful. Composer Karl Lundeberg and choreographer Val Caniparoli deserve accolades for their contributions, as do lighting designer Nancy Schertler and sound designer Jake Rodriguez. The show is a brilliant team effort by a huge array of inspired experts.

A theatrical and spiritual uplift unlike any other, ACT’s A Christmas Carol is a wonderful holiday tradition suitable for all ages.

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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

 

 

ProductionA Christmas Carol
Written byCharles Dickens - adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Wals
Directed by
Choreographed by
Peter J. Kuo
Val Caniparoli
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Dec 24th
Production AddressToni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street, SF, CA
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$15 – $140
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

…the #1 R&B group of all time”…

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

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

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

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

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

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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

 

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

ASR Theater ~~ “Red Shades” A Rockin’ World Premier

By George Maguire

 

It takes years to get a new musical up and ready to be seen.

The rockabilly sound-and-light fest Red Shades is no exception. A cast of mostly trans, binary, and renowned queer artists of the Bay Area take us on a phantasmagorical journey in wild comic book style with a heart as big as Golden Gate Park. Started at the El Rio with follow-up work at PianoFight, Starlight and other workshop homes, Red Shades finally opened as a completed musical at the Z Space Steindler Theater.

…For a seemingly simple story of a boy/girl arriving in SF, this one has more twists and turns than Lombard Street…

Three years before the Stonewall riots in NYC, the Gene Compton Cafeteria trans, drag queens and queers riots in San Francisco’s Tenderloin began it all only to be lost in gay “herstory.” It has been re-discovered by playwright Adrienne Price, forging a union with composers Matt Fukui Grandy and Jeanine Adkisson creating this world premier.

Pictured (L to R): Chris Steele, May Ramos, Romelo Urbi. Photo by Jay Yamada

Red Shades tells the story of Ida Diamond, who as a boy in rural Nevada, dons a dress and is accosted by his father. The music and lyrics (which in a genuine and glorious surprise for a rock musical, are at least 80% crystal clear), take us on Ida’s journey. Dad sends him/her off to a hospital. The songs “Daddy Eggshells” and the wonderful “For Your Protection” are sung with panache and total drag-nurse commitment by the estimable Chris Steele.

Adam KuveNiemann gets to flex a host of scumbag sensibilities (and a terrific voice) as the abusive father, the sadistic doctor, and the sheriff. Ida finally escapes and arrives in San Francisco, finding a room with three of the wildest trans superheroes one can imagine (“Welcome to Flip House”). Chris Steele (Genevieve), Ezra Reeves (Tommy) and B Noel Thomas (Sherry) embody these three with amazing style and powerful vocals.

Pictured (L to R): Ezra Reaves, Chris Steele, Carmen Castillo, B Noel Thomas.
Photo by Jay Yamada

It takes Act Two to finally give us what the title is about—a hopefully fixable part in the development of this musical. When the hostility and threats of beatings arise, you put on the red shades and presto – you become a superpower and kickass with superhero strength. The shades bring rage into focus, and we can survive another day. Ida gets the glasses, and gets her life together despite the desperate attempts of her father and the Sheriff to arrest her. The shades win on all accounts. For a seemingly simple story of a boy/girl arriving in SF, this one has more twists and turns than Lombard Street.

 

Pictured, Foreground (L to R): Julio Chavez, Ezra Reaves. Photo by Jay Yamada

Sarah Phykitt has designed the terrific set and video projection work, Lyre Alston does spot on costume designing, and special mention must go to sound mixers Michael Creason and Daniel Hall who (except when the singer feels she has to screech and scream) give us the lyrics and thus the story. Bravo to co-directors Rotimi Agbabiaka and Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe for guiding Red Shades to the stage and to stage manager Marie Shell for wrangling this complicated, multi-cued production. She alone deserves a pair of red shades.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco base actor-director and is Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre. He is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: gmaguire1204@yahoo.com

 

ProductionThe Red Shades
Directed byRotimi Agbabiaka and Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe
Additional DirectionMusic Directors: Matt Fukui Grandy, Sid Quinsaat.

Choreographer: Stacey Printz.

Intimacy/Fight Choreographer: Carla Pantoja.
Production DatesThru Nov 5th
Production AddressZ Space Steindler Theater SF, CA
WebsiteBoxoffice@zspace.org
Telephone(415) 626-0453
Tickets$0-$50 (Sliding scale)
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

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

By Sue Morgan

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

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

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

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

…The women of JLP have the most powerful roles…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

By Sue Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

ProductionTo Kill a Mockingbird
Written byAdapted by Aaron Sorkin from the Harper Lee original
Directed byBartlett Sher
Producing CompanyNational Touring Production / Broadway SF
Production DatesThrough Oct 9th
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$56 – $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Theatre Time Capsule: “Indecent” at SF Playhouse, Best/Worst of History & Hope

By Cari Lynn Pace

San Francisco Playhouse’s play-about-a-play is both an historical recounting and a peek into theatre of today. Nominated for three Tony Awards, “Indecent” marks the Bay Area premier of this critically acclaimed work by Paula Vogel.

Director Susi Damilano staged this production with a skillful hand and an eye toward authenticity, expertly aided by the Yiddish Theatre Ensemble. The changes in place and time come together swiftly in this two-hour production, spanning the first half of the 20th century. Many stop-action tableaux are used to stunning effect, moving the scenes forward as the actors shift years. Three musicians led by Dmitri Gaskin lend joyful klezmer-infused songs onstage as actors intermittently dance and sing.

The set by Richard Olmsted is an open frame where props, costumes, lights, and actors wait on the sides until needed. “Indecent” action centers inside the frame as the narrator, the Yiddish theater company stage manager Lemml (Dean Linnard) begins telling the story to the audience. He’s backed by a solid wall punctuating the actors’ dialog as it flips from Yiddish to German to English and back again.

“…it became the first Yiddish play to be translated into multiple languages and staged across Europe”

“Indecent” follows the true 1906 saga of a young Jewish playwright, Sholem Asch (Billy Cohen), who vainly attempted to have the Polish literati support his new play “The God of Vengeance.” Soundly rejected by rivals in Warsaw for the “immoral and indecent” themes contained, Asch took the play to various international cities, starting with Berlin, to great acclaim.

Set in a Jewish community in Poland, it became the first Yiddish play to be translated into multiple languages and staged across Europe. It was controversial with its themes of sex, lesbianism, a brothel side business, hypocrisy, and the desecration of a Torah scroll. “God of Vengeance” was highly acclaimed and mightily condemned for 17 years. It enjoyed a successful international run until it reached New York City.

Lemml (Dean Linnard*, center) introduces the troupe (L-R): Mayer Balsam (Matthew Stein), on violin , Nelly Friedman (Audrey Jackson), on clarinet, Halina (Rivka Borek*), Mendel (Ted Zoldan), Chana (Malka Wallick*), Avram (Billy Cohen*), Moriz Godowsky (Dmitri Gaskin), on accordion, Otto (Victor Talmadge*), and Vera (Rachel Botchan*). Production photography by Jessica Palopoli for ‘Indecent’ by Paula Vogel at SF Playhouse.

In 1922 “God of Vengeance” was translated to English and premiered in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The controversial buzz—and the police—were waiting when the play opened in NYC the following year. The producer and entire cast were busted for “unlawfully advertising, giving, presenting and participating in an obscene, indecent, immoral and impure drama or play.” Their arrest and the fallout through 1953 form the basis for “Indecent,” which playwright Vogel has captured with astounding sadness, madness, and hope.

Interestingly, “Indecent” reveals it was the local NY rabbi who lodged the obscenity charges against the solidly Jewish playwright. Although overturned two years later, the charges altered the lives of all concerned. Eugene O’Neill(also Billy Cohen), a defender of the play, shares a cameo part onstage with an older Asch (Victor Talmadge) when he commiserates that “Every religion, even Jews, sells God for a price.”

The troupe makes its long journey to America. Photo by Jessica Palopoli for ‘Indecent’ by Paula Vogel at San Francisco Playhouse.

“Indecent” is a time capsule bursting with the best and worst of history and hope. Playing now through November 5th, it’s a welcome opener for San Francisco Playhouse’s 20th anniversary season. They couldn’t have made a more solid choice.

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

 

 

ProductionIndecent
Written byPaula Vogel
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse and
Yiddish Theatre Ensemble
Production DatesTue, Wed, Thu & Sun at 7:00 PM.

Fri, Sat at 8:00 PM

Sat at 3:00 PM & Sun at 2:00 PM
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2022-2023-season/indecent/
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Moulin Rouge” Sizzles at the Orpheum

By George Maguire

As you enter the Orpheum Theatre, gorgeously transformed by designer Derek Lane into the Moulin Rouge, the hottest of hot spots in all of Paris, you are taken into a past of song, dance (the infamous Can-Can of course) and musical revues which had no equal.

The Moulin Rouge (“red windmill”) created itself—there was nothing like it, with its huge iconic windmill of lights, the elephant which contained rooms for the performers, and above all, the stage itself, capable of whatever the director/presenter had in mind. It was the Las Vegas of its time.

The cast of the North American Tour of Moulin Rouge! Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

“Moulin Rouge” has a story as such, based on the exquisite Baz Lurhmann juke-box musical film with its echoes of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and the bohemian life that the characters embodied. Satine (Courtney Reed), is the star of the show, the silver goddess of song. Impresario Harold Zidler (a marvelous moustache-twirling Austin Durant) introduces each act and preps us for Satine, who enters flown in on a swing. Into the fray comes a sweet and innocent songwriter (golden voiced Conor Ryan) who falls for Satine. He has one desire: to compose a love song celebrating their mutual attraction and affair.

As in all tragedies, complications ensue. The Moulin Rouge is in deep debt, and to make ends meet, Zidler coerces Satine into an affair with the very wealthy Duke of Monroth (David Harris) who promises financing as long as he “owns” not just the club but also Satine. Add to this her impending death from consumption, and we can see that the end will not be a happy one. Andre Ward does a marvelous creation of Toulouse-Lautrec.

… This is just the beginning of theater at its absolute grandest.

Then there’s the music, with non-stop modern sources including U2, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Patsy Cline, Whitney Houston’s “And I Will Always Love You” (written by Dolly Parton), the Police, Adele and scores of others. One can only imagine the performance rights being paid to composers for even snippets of their work.

Courtney Reed and Conor Ryan. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

Special mention must be made to sound designer Peter Hylenski who manages to make everything crystal clear in the barn of the Orpheum Theater, a challenge for any sound designer. Multiple Tony Award-winner Catherine Zuber has designed an array of glitzy spangled and feathered costumes which outdo themselves at every moment. Justin Townsend’s Tony-winning lighting enhances every scene with new color and jaw-dropping splendor.

With moving direction by Alex Timbers, lush choreography by Sonya Tayeh (both Tony winners for their work), this ten-time Tony Award-winning musical is simply a “Must See” for a Bay Area audience.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco based actor-director and is Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre. He is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionMoulin Rouge: The Musical
Written byJohn Logan
Directed byAlex Timbers
Producing CompanyBroadwaySF
Production DatesThru Nov 6, 2022
Production Address1192 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://www.broadwaysf.com/
Telephone(888) 746-1799
TicketsUp to $307 (rush tickets/discounts available)
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

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

By Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…Director Fish’s conceptual conceits sink this show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Big Fun in Chinatown: “The Empire Strips Back”

By Barry Willis

San Francisco has a long strong history of audacious theatricality.

Home-grown dazzlers include The Cockettes, The Tubes, Beach Blanket Babylon, and Teatro ZinZanni. Add to this list two or three annual performances of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” periodic revivals of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” an occasional over-the-top production of “Cabaret” (SF Playhouse, summer 2019) and hilarious touring shows such as “Head Over Heels” that rocked the Curran in spring 2018.

R2D2 and dancer. Photo by Kevin Berne.

At Chinatown’s Great Star Theater through October 2, “The Empire Strips Back” is very much in this tradition. The show originated in 2011 for a three-evening run in Sydney, Australia and became a national hit, touring Down Under for years before it went global.

“ . . . some of the most fun you’ll have in a SF theater all summer long.”

Billed as “a parody of Star Wars,” the show is more a Star Wars-themed spoof, with dancers assuming the guises of many Star Wars characters and the stage filled with props from the long-running film franchise. The lack of a through-line doesn’t tarnish the production, a music-and-dance revue that in classic burlesque style features a comic emcee who keeps the audience laughing while stagehands scramble behind the curtain, prepping for the next act.

Old-time burlesque featured not only a comic emcee, but jugglers, clowns, and assorted other diversions between the real attractions: scantily clad female dancers, with which the Great Star is abundantly supplied. Jugglers and clowns are notably absent, unless you count a twerking Chewbacca late in the second act.

In a pale blue “Lando Calrissian” cape, Oakland comedian Kevin Newton serves amiably as emcee, with perfectly paced commentary on everything happening onstage and in the audience—a full house on opening night, and a rowdy one too. Who knew that San Francisco still had so many heterosexuals?

 

The show’s dancers are talented, gorgeous, and aggressive, with moves that encompass every dance genre from the early ‘60s to the hip-hop present. Erin Vander Haar is a standout, a superb performer with a compelling ability to flirt with her audience. The show’s pop music also encompasses the past 60-some years, going as far back as the Spencer Davis Group and into the contemporary era with pieces like “Seven Nation Army.”

Musically, and choreographically, there’s something for everyone in this show, but it’s geared for a young, contemporary crowd—especially those steeped in Star Wars lore, pretty much a definition of everyone born after 1965. Newton generates plenty of laughs with cult-insider humor.

The Empire Strips dancers. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Dance segments are outrageously delightful, such as one that liberally quotes the famous hair-slinging scene in the film “Flashdance,” done here atop Luke Skywalker’s hovercraft. As big as a dump truck, Jabba the Hutt appears onstage with dancers cavorting around and on him. Whether solo, duets, trios, or ensemble, the dance troupe is phenomenal. Stagecraft varies from amateurish to astounding.

Takeaway: “The Empire Strips Back” is as far from serious theater as we can get, and what a welcome departure it is. We have to go back to “Head Over Heels,” more than four years ago, to remember a show where the audience sang along and afterward lingered on the sidewalk out front as if they didn’t want to leave. It’s probably some of the most fun you’ll have in a SF theater all summer long.

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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 Empire Strips Back
Production DatesThrough October 2. 2022
Production AddressGreat Star Theater
686 Jackson St.
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://feverup.com/m/114054
Tickets$39 - $100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Choreography5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ A Redemption Story in “Deal with the Dragon” at Magic Theatre

By Barry Willis

Two rival artists get what they need, if not what they want, in Kevin Rolston’s compelling solo show “Deal with the Dragon” at Magic Theatre through August 13.

On a bare stage with a straight-back wooden chair as his only prop, Rolston brings to life Brenn, a mysterious and potentially malevolent spectre “from the Black Forest” who’s been intervening in human affairs “for centuries.”

Kevin Rolston (pictured) stars in Deal With The Dragon at Magic Theatre.

The tale begins with his hovering over the life of a tormented artist named Hunter, who’s competing against a rival named Gandy for what will be, for one of them, the first-ever exhibition of their works at a major museum.

Rolston’s neurotic but hugely entertaining characters succeed beautifully…

The story’s a good one, made better by Rolston’s superb embodiment of its three primary characters, each clearly delineated from the others. Along the way, he also performs several minor characters, including a museum director, a counselor at a twelve-step meeting, and an annoying teenage girl in a coffee shop.

Rolston is a confident performer with superb timing and an excellent sense of plying his audience, and earned a rousing ovation from the theater’s nearly full house on opening night. Directed by M. Graham Smith, he delves deeply into his characters’ quirks—especially Hunter’s—and closes the approximately one-hour performance on a hopeful note, not something that most theatergoers would expect from what’s essentially a darkly comic recital, its darkness amplified by Sara Huddleston’s sound effects. The bare stage is beautifully enhanced by Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky’s subtle lighting.

Kevin Rolston at work at Magic Theater.

The title “Deal with the Dragon,” of course, is an imperative to conquer one’s demons—psychological, chemical, what have you. Rolston’s neurotic but hugely entertaining characters succeed beautifully in doing so.

Faustian tales are almost always tragic—this one is an unusually upbeat redemption story. And “Magic Theatre” couldn’t be a more appropriate venue, because what Rolston does in little over an hour is sheer magic. As Brenn puts it on first meeting Gandy, “It’s not so much who I am as what I can provide.”

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionDeal With The Dragon
Written byKevin Rolston
Directed byM. Graham Smith
Producing CompanyMagic Theatre
Production DatesThru August 13, 2022
Production AddressMagic Theatre Ft. Mason Center, Bldg D 2 Marina Blvd. San Francisco, CA.
Websitemagictheatre.org
Telephone(415) 441-8822
Tickets$20 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Maximum Nostalgia: “Follies” at SF Playhouse

By Mitchell Field

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical “Follies” first opened April 4, 1971. It was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, won seven, and has enjoyed many revivals.

During her 1987 West End performance, Eartha Kitt sparked a comeback and went on to perform her own one-woman show to sold-out houses after “Follies” closed. Several songs from the show—“Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” “Losing My Mind”—have become standards.

…an awesome, great, and exhausting show, done with San Francisco Playhouse panache!

The latest version of “Follies” arrived at the San Francisco Playhouse July 20, after five years in development and delays due to Covid. The show had never been performed in its entirety by a professional troupe in The City, according to director Bill English, also co-designer of the show’s imposing set and projections with Heather Kenyon.

Phyllis Rogers Stone (Maureen McVerry*, center) reckons with life’s choices through ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie,’ accompanied by (L-R) Jill Slyter, Chachi Delgado, Anthony Maglio, M. Javi Harnly, Cameron La Brie, and Ann Warque. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse. (*Equity Actor)

Set as a reunion of past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies,” (a musical revue based on the Ziegfeld Follies, that played in that theater between the world wars) in a soon-to-be-demolished Broadway theater, the show focuses on two mature married couples at the reunion: Buddy and Sally (Anthony Rollins-Mullens and Natascia Diaz, respectively) and Ben and Phyllis (Chris Vettel and Maureen McVerry, respectively).

Sally and Phyllis were once showgirls in the Follies; both marriages are in trouble. Ghosts of former showgirls as youngsters glide through the crumbling theater without being seen by the revelers. Thus begins a series of musical numbers performed by the Follies’ many veterans, exploring their lives and desires, while “invisible” younger performers mirror them in counterpoint. Other ghosts from former shows appear and the characters try to recapture their youth in re-creations of past performances.

The ghosts of Follies past (L-R: Catrina Manahan, Samantha Rose Cárdenas, Ann Warque, Danielle Cheiken, and Emily Corbo) welcome you to Dimitri Weismann’s theater. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse.

Broadway producer/director Hal Prince said of the show: ” ‘Follies’ examines obsessive behavior, neurosis and self-indulgence.”

Spirited, emotional and touching musical numbers performed by a perfectly-cast blend of seasoned professionals and talened newcomers fill this production with energy and verve, as do many lively and dynamic dance routines.

While the book by James Goldman is thin on plot, as one of the show’s characters opines: “Facts never interest me, what matters is the song!” Originally a one-act show, “Follies” was later expanded into two acts. Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote: “It wasn’t until the second act that I fell in love all over again with ‘Follies’.” This reviewer concurs.

As with several Sondheim shows, the second act is often “where the beef is.” The second act of “Follies” is wildly divergent from the first, as in “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods.” In “Follies,” the first act is primarily the introduction of characters and their back-stories. It’s a lot of exposition in the midst of glittering showgirls and assorted middle-aged matrons at the reunion party. Either by design or possibly due to opening-night nerves, act one got off to a stilted start, making the second act all the more spectacular.

Benjamin Stone (Chris Vettel*, center) reevaluates his priorities during ‘Live, Laugh, Love,’ accompanied by the Follies company (L-R: Emily Corbo, Anthony Maglio, Samantha Rose Cárdenas*, M. Javi Harnly, Catrina Manahan, Chachi Delgado, and Danielle Cheiken). Photo courtesy SF Playhouse. (*Equity Actor)

In the ‘Loveland’ scene, (“the place where lovers are always young and beautiful, and everyone lives only for love”), Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy, perform in a dream-like pastiche of vaudeville-style numbers in which each acts out their own particular folly.

The scene culminates in total hysteria, as the characters reveal their true emotions for all to see, before returning to the theater, the end of the reunion and the rest of their lives.

A long odyssey for SF Playhouse, “Follies” is an enormous undertaking for any theater company, requiring a large cast of triple-threat performers. The late critic Martin Gottfried wrote: “Follies is truly awesome and, if it is not consistently good, it is always great.”

This production lives up Gottfired’s description. Expertly directed by Bill English, with gorgeous costumes by Alba Berman and choreography by Nicole Helfer, it’s an awesome, great, and exhausting show, done with San Francisco Playhouse panache!

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Contributing Writer Mitchell Field is an actor and voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle based in Marin County, California. Contact: mitchfield@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionFollies
Written / Music byBook by James Goldman. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru September 10th, 2022
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Dear San Francisco”, Riotous Fun Opens at Club Fugazi

By Cari Lynn Pace

Fans of Cirque du Soleil will be delighted to learn that “the circus has come to town.”

Seven performers and friends left the Montreal Cirque Du Soleil productions to form a troupe of high-flying acrobats calling themselves “The Seven Fingers”. They moved to San Francisco and now thrill audiences at the historic Club Fugazi on Green Street, a block of which was renamed Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard in honor of the beloved show that ran for a record 45 years until 2019.

The history of Club Fugazi, as introduced by Executive Director David Dower, is astonishing. Built in 1914, it has hosted an historic parade of entertainment, from jazz legends like Thelonious Monk, beat poets of the 50’s like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and even the Grateful Dead. Then came the irrepressible Beach Blanket Babylon, the longest running show in history with 45 years of outrageous songs, satire, and headdresses.

When the Queen of England requested a BBB viewing, a special box was built for her on the second floor rear of the theatre. Although she never attended, her son Prince Charles and Camilla did in her stead. “The Queen’s Box” is available for private parties and has its own elevator, anteroom and WC, otherwise known as a bathroom.

‘“Dear San Francisco” pays homage to the city’s history through video clips and acrobatics both onstage and in the audience.”

“Dear San Francisco” pays homage to the city’s history through video clips and acrobatics both onstage and in the audience. It’s a circus sans elephants or lions, with plenty of high hoop jumping and flying aerials to make you hold your breath. The performers don’t have glittery costumes, but they shine at their astounding feats. They’ll run into the audience to play catch over your head or unicycle on the counter in front of your drinks. They show off, and clearly love what they do.

Co-creators Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider are true circus brats. At age 4, Gypsy’s parents founded the Pickle Family Circus, which Shana joined as a trapeze artist for 20 years. Together they have assembled a fine troupe of jugglers, aerialists, cyclists, and musicians to astound the audience. It’s 90 nonstop minutes of over-the-top energy. The audience can’t stop applauding.

“Dear San Francisco” offers a limited selection of beer, wine, and nibbles. Guests are seated at comfortable backed swivel chairs of varying heights to allow for full viewing. The acoustics are difficult, but non-essential for the surrounding action of this show. Some seats are located onstage, behind and close to the performers. The kids seem to love the action there, almost as much as the adults.

There is no printed program, so you must bring a smart phone to scan the QR code. Who wants to read anyway, when there is so much going on around you? It’s a circus after all!

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionDear San Francisco
Written byShana Carroll and Gypsy Snider
Directed byShana Carroll and Gypsy Snider
Producing CompanyClub Fugazi Experiences
Production DatesWednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM through Summer, 2022
Production Address678 Green Street, San Francisco CA 94133
WebsiteClubFugaziSF.com
Telephone
Tickets$35– $79
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Harry Potter” Comes Roaring Back to the Curran

By Barry Willis

A two-year hiatus hasn’t diminished “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which reopened at San Francisco’s Curran Theater February 24, after a two-week delay due to COVID—after a two-year delay due to COVID.

If anything, the production is more polished and more spectacular than during its aborted run late in December 2019. The new show combines the original’s separate Part One and Part Two in one mind-blowing three-hours-plus production.

Harry Potter (John Skelley) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

The February 24 opening night included a huge rowdy street party before the show with a presentation by San Francisco Mayor London Breed. There is clearly a pent-up desire for live theater among performers and audience alike. Nowhere was this clearer than this show’s opener, from the street party to the entire production. The new production is slated to run through August 31, and is certain to satisfy Potterites of every variety, who may have to horde their shekels to get tickets, ranging from $69 to $229. Discounts are available.

It’s the most spectacular and well-produced show that many of us will ever see…

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” is pretty much a theatrical miracle. Prior to COVID, the large-capacity Curran (nearly 1,700 seats) was closed for a couple of years for massive renovations, only to have some of the new seating and carpeting removed to create a realistic refugee camp for “The Jungle.” Then it was redecorated again, with carpeting and fabric wall coverings embellished with the Hogwarts logo, only to be abruptly closed by the pandemic.

From the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

The new production is incredible, even for those not steeped in Potter lore. It packs in more theatrical illusions than any dozen blockbuster shows in Las Vegas, including characters that step out of seemingly solid walls, or seemingly solid walls that absorb characters the way a sponge draws water, characters that instantly morph into other characters, characters that vanish only to reappear swimming in the sky, characters that emerge and exit through a burning fireplace, ghostly spirits that hover above the audience, and graffiti that somehow appears throughout the theater’s huge ceiling, like a celestial pattern in an observatory.

(L-R) Ginny Potter (Angela Reed), Harry Potter (John Skelley), Professor McGonagall (Shannon Cochran), and Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

Then there’s the amazing choreography of swirling capes and their disappearing owners (Steven Hoggett, movement director). Performers are all first-rate, from the primary characters all the way down to the chorus. There appear to be approximately thirty members in the cast, plus many dozens of specialists in the technical crew.

It’s one whale of a group effort, an amazingly well-polished production on an enormous scale. The imposing set by Christine Jones is amazing both in its audacity and its versatility, subject to instant change despite its size.

Pictured (L–R): Ron Weasley (Steve O’Connell), Hermione Granger (Lily Mojekwu), Rose Granger-Weasley (Folami Williams), James Potter Jr. (William Bednar-Carter), Harry Potter (John Skelley), Ginny Potter (Angela Reed), and Albus Potter (Benjamin Papac) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. — Photo credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The story by J.K.Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany (director of the show) has the now-adult Harry Potter (John Skelley) toiling away as a wizard in the Ministry of Magic, and about to send his son Albus (Benjamin Papac) off to school at his alma mater, where Albus meets Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), a boy his age who’s the son of dark lord Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall).

The two of them form an uneasy but solid friendship and are soon continuing the struggle against the evil Lord Voldemort (Geoffrey Wade) and his offspring. Pivotal roles of Ginny Potter, Hermione Grainger, and Rose Grainger-Weasley are adroitly covered by Angela Reed, Lily Mojekwu, and Folami Williams, respectively. Mojekwu and Williams are especially convincing as mother and daughter.

It’s a wild adventure, but may be too much for very young children. There were no frightened cries from the audience on opening night, even though some of the malevolent spirits haunting the Curran are (youngster) pants-wetting scary.

Casual theatergoers not in the Potter camp would do well to read up on the mythology before the show—a brief synopsis of which is included in the playbill, as well as some fascinating background information that will appeal to hardcore fans.

As we stated when “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” first landed in San Francisco, even those who don’t know Harry Potter from Harry Houdini will be astounded by this production. For true believers, it’s a religious experience. For everyone else, it’s simply the most spectacular and well-produced show that many of us will ever see.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionHarry Potter and the Cursed Child
Written byJ.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byJohn Tiffany
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesThru August 31st
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$69-$229
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR Theater Review — Ambitious “Great Khan” Fills the Stage at SF Playhouse — by Barry Willis

“The Great Kahn” cast at work.

A brave high school student learns life lessons from one of history’s most famous conquerors in “The Great Khan” at San Francisco Playhouse, through November 13.

Leon Jones stars as Jayden, a student whose bravery in defending a classmate from a gang attack has caused his mother to move them to a new home and enroll him in a new school to save him from harassment and possible retaliation. Laudable precautions on her part don’t prevent nightly visits from “Ant,” the girl he saved, who climbs through his bedroom window each night to give him trouble about his gallant deed. Ant (Jamella Cross) seems genuinely confused as to whether she should be thankful or resentful, as if the rescue somehow demeaned her independence. Jayden, in turn, is genuinely confused about what she’s doing in his room.

Two people thrown together by accident: it’s a potent setup for Michael Gene Sullivan’s ambitious and mostly successful meditation on teenage identity. Jayden’s a smart kid but is a worry for his hard-working single mom Crystal, played with some emotional detachment by Velina Brown. He has tough time connecting to school, especially a history class about the European Middle Ages, a field of study that he dismisses as being mostly about “dead white people.” Then his well-meaning but mostly clueless teacher Mr. Adams (Adam KuveNiemann) suggests that he research Genghis Khan, the legendary Mongolian conqueror whose empire encompassed most of Asia and a large part of Europe. Mr. Adams ups the ante by assigning Jayden a project partner, a nerdy girl named Gao-Ming (Kina Kantor) whose encyclopedic knowledge almost compensates for her social awkwardness.

…a good solid effort…

As Gao-Ming and Jayden study, he develops a near-obsession about the conqueror whose given name was Temujin (Brian Rivera). In a delightful bit of magical realism, Temujin begins to appear in his room, telling Jayden all about his life, from growing up and selecting a bride, to ultimately creating one of the biggest empires the world has ever known.

Temujin (Brian Rivera*) gets acquainted with Jayden (Leon Jones) in ‘The Great Khan’ by Michael Gene Sullivan at SF Playhouse.

It’s a life-changing event for Jayden, and for the audience too—Rivera simply commands the stage as the legendary Khan, striding about in full Mongol warrior gear (costumes by Kathleen Qiu), singing lustily in Mongolian, and telling Jayden how he succeeded: by offering the conquered the opportunity to join his horde, and by instructing his soldiers to leave some of their enemies alive that “they might tell the tale”—an early exercise in what we now call “brand building.”

Relaxed and confident, Rivera clearly relishes the role. His performance is so mesmerizing that it has the unfortunate effect of putting his castmates in his shadow—probably not director Darryl V. Jones’ intention, but perhaps an inevitability when an actor is so perfectly suited for his part.

Sullivan’s script, while very good, could use a bit of editing. The early part suffers from too much exposition—Ant makes multiple appearances in Jayden’s room, in an effort to resolve her own feelings about the incident which launched the story, but she might be able to do so in three visits instead of five.

The scriptwriter’s “rule of three”—applied to setups for jokes as well as dramatic buildups—has proven accurate over centuries. And Gao-Ming seems under-utilized, mostly as comic relief. She, Crystal, and Mr. Adams have the shallowest character arcs in the play, while Jayden and Ant have the largest. Temujin doesn’t need a character arc—his presence alone is sufficient to drive the drama.

Ant (Jamella Cross*) confides in Jayden (Leon Jones) in ‘The Great Khan’ by Michael Gene Sullivan .

 

“The Great Khan” is the first big-cast post-pandemic production put on by SF Playhouse. It’s a good solid effort that showgoers will find both rewarding and provocative. A streaming version is available for those still reluctant to venture into indoor gatherings.

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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

 

ProductionThe Great Kahn
Written byMichael Gene Sullivan
Directed byDarryl V. Jones
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru November 13th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35-$100
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: Leading Light of the San Francisco Stage, Susi Damilano

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying 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, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Susi Damilano

Actor/director/producer Susi Damilano is Producing Director of the San Francisco Playhouse, co-founded with husband Bill English, the company’s Artistic Director. In its seventeen years SF Playhouse has grown from relatively obscurity to one of the city’s preeminent theater companies. Damilano is a five-time recipient of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC) ‘Excellence in Theatre Award for Principal Actress in a Play’ for Playhouse productions “Abigail’s Party,” “Harper Regan,” “Bug,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and “Reckless.”

She has also performed in many other leading roles, in addition to directing Playhouse productions of “Groundhog Day the Musical,” “Cabaret,” “Mary Poppins,” “Noises Off,” “She Loves Me,” “Stage Kiss,” “Company,” “Stupid Fucking Bird,” “Into the Woods,” “A Behanding in Spokane,” “Den of Thieves,” “Wirehead” (SFBATCC nomination).

Damilano also directed the West Coast premieres of “Honey Brown Eyes” (SFBATCC nomination), “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” “Coronado,” “The Mystery Plays,” and “Roulette,” and the world premieres of “On Clover Road” by Steven Dietz, “From Red to Black” by Rhett Rossi, and “Seven Days” by Daniel Heath. As will attest anyone who’s been to one of the Playhouse’s legendary opening nights, she is also a world-class caterer.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

SD: When I was 27 I visited a friend in London. She told me that while she was at work during the day, to go to Leicester Square and get a half price ticket to anything. I did, and saw my first professional play, “Les Miserables.” I was hooked. The next day I saw “42nd Street.” Wow! That began my love for theater—the magic of seeing someone jump off a bridge to their suicide, and ‘knowing’ he must have landed on the floor, and believing he landed in water. Beautiful.

Our focus is on how plays impact the audience…

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

SD: The first play I performed was called “Coming Attractions” at City Lights Theater. I got to play tons of different parts, sang and danced and had so much fun. Wendy Wisely took a chance on me and because of her, I was accepted into the Bay Area acting world.

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

SD: As I was learning my craft I took jobs anywhere around the Bay: City Lights, Town Hall, CenterRep, Actors Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Bus Barn.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

SD: We had our first show in 2003.

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

SD: We dreamed of what we could be and decided from the first moment to work as if we were on par with Steppenwolf or Royal Court or Donmar or Almeida … all theaters we admired, and the ones in London that we loved to visit.

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

SD: Our focus is on how plays impact the audience, not on any particular topic, niche or type. The goal is to bring people together, to touch and be touched. To share an experience and create compassion.

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

SD: My husband, Bill English, who is a walking library of dramatic works and knowledge. I learned to direct by sitting next to him for years and observing. My acting work was most influenced by Jean Shelton and Richard Seyd, and my courage has most been influenced by our patrons, who keep coming back and who are in the lobby crying or laughing afterward, confirming that what we are doing makes a difference.

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

SD: We have the most incredible staff and board and patrons. The shutdown happened the week we were supposed to start previews for “Real Women Have Curves.” Everyone took the news so bravely. Actors lost the opportunity to share a beautiful story, our staff went to work calling ticket holders; ticket holders became donors and supporters. We’ve had to furlough many of our dear staff and are grateful that California unemployment will provide that extra $600 to them. On the other hand, we continued with announcing our season. We did a virtual announcement that has received more views and positive feedback than any event in the past.

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

SD: When we announced the season we did not include dates or actual order of the shows. That certainty is simply not available to us right now.

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

SD: My vision (hope) is that we will come out of this ‘big pause’ stronger than ever. Our love and need for the arts have been solidified through its absence. The theatre has always been a place where people gather. Spacing, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer will be likely be the norm in the short term.

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?

SD: It hasn’t impacted our plans other than inducing confusion as to how an artist or designer could be an employee.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

SD: I left my ‘day job’ to run the Playhouse in our 12th season. Besides acting and directing, managing the Playhouse is my day job.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

SD: I love spending time with friends and family, and of course, my dog Emi.

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

SD: I love the arts, and have dabbled with drawing, and film — wish I was a trained dancer and pianist … maybe soon, if we keep staying home.

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?

SD: The words “no” and “but” are forbidden and to be replaced with “yes,” “and.” Honor the environment and keep it beautiful and strong. Be kind.

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

SD: If I wanted to buy one, wouldn’t getting two be great?

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

SD: Been framed.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

SD: My soundtrack is more like the ocean waves, or breeze through the trees.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

SD: Bracelets.

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

SD: None. Too big for my house.

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?

SD: When I was younger, for sure. Not anymore.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SD: It’s from “The Sound of Music” — “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must’ve done something good.”

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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 Review Pick! Lovely, Bold “Tiny Beautiful Things” at SF Playhouse — by Barry Willis

Cast and Crew of ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at SF Playhouse. Director Bill English is up-center-left in jacket.

An online advice columnist discovers that she is a wellspring of wisdom and empathy in “Tiny Beautiful Things” at SF Playhouse, through March 7.

Before each performance, Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English delivers a curtain speech in which he reiterates that his company envisions their theater as an “empathy gym” where performers and audience alike get to flex their emotional muscles. The speech couldn’t be more appropriate than it is for “Tiny Beautiful Things” developed by Nia Vardalos from the autobiographical book by Cheryl Strayed.

English directs Susi Damilano as “Sugar,” the initially reluctant advice columnist, and Mark Anderson Phillips, Kina Kantor, and Jomar Tagatac as Sugar’s various correspondents, who seek guidance on everything from the intricacies of love to matters of life and death. Sugar’s no Ph.D. psychologist but simply a woman of vast personal experience—far more vast than she first understands—who digs deep to deliver heartfelt consolation and hope to her readers, often delivered with gentle humor.

Kina Kantor, Susi Damilano, Jomar Tagatac, and Mark Anderson Phillips make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together.

Damilano is confident and sly as Sugar, who goes repeatedly to her refrigerator for refills of white wine and emotional conviction. At first, amused by her work, she soon discovers that she’s dealing with serious issues, and rises to the challenge.

… a well-deserved standing ovation.

The play’s dramatic structure is a recitation of letters, each beginning with “Dear Sugar,” spoken and acted with palpable gravitas by Damilano’s three supporting actors. Part literary fugue and part call-and-response, the recitation continues in a rolling rhythm throughout the play’s 85 minutes, reaching a crescendo when Sugar incites her readers to find love in their hearts for everything that life throws at them.

Letter Writer #3 (Jomar Tagatac) takes in Sugar’s (Susi Damilano) words of wisdom in ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at San Francisco Playhouse.

It’s a beautiful moment, on a dreamscape of suspended metal poles (set design by Jacquelyn Scott) evocatively illuminated by lighting designer Michael Oesch. Unfortunately, its impact is diminished by an extended continuation of letters and responses, as if Vardalos couldn’t decide what to keep and what to cut. It’s a not-so-unusual theatrical circumstance of less-could-be-more with more careful editing.

Even so, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a rare undertaking and within its limits, a sparkling gem. Author Cheryl Stayed was in the audience on opening night, and got a well-deserved standing ovation. The world could do well with more empathetic advisors like her and fewer snarky commentators.

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

 

ProductionTiny Beautiful Things
Written byAdapted by Nia Vardalos from the book by Cheryl Strayed.

Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos.
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThrough March 7th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

An ASR Theater Review: Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” a Short Snooze at ACT – by Barry Willis

Tony Hale as Guy in “Wakey, Wakey” at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater.

A dying man lectures the audience on the wonders of life in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at the American Conservatory Theater, through February 16.

Former TV star Tony Hale (“Arrested Development,” “Veep”) and veteran actress Kathryn Smith-McGlynn bring nuance and conviction to a muddled script directed by Anne Kauffman, its title not a reference to “woke culture” but apparently an admonition to be alert and conscious and rejoice in all that life has to offer including its inherent contradictions and dead-ends.

The piece opens with Hale’s character Guy lying half-clad on the stage and proceeds to having him engage in an addled monologue in his pajamas while sitting in a wheelchair. Some of his ramblings are absurd observations, a few are poignant remembrances, but most are simply non sequiturs strung end-to-end, all accompanied by old home movies and odd bits of eye candy projected on a huge screen behind him, ostensibly controlled by a small remote with which he continually fumbles. The jumble of letters and misspelled words in the projections  is a recurring gambit, perhaps symbolic of the loss of cognition suffered by those nearing the end of their tenure on earth—or perhaps not so symbolic, and simply  comedic distractions inserted by the playwright to punch up the entertainment value.

This piece has potential…but need(s) much more development to justify putting on such an esteemed stage as ACT’s.

Such confusion is rampant throughout the 80 minutes of “Wakey, Wakey,” a piece of so-called “metatheater” that attempts to confound many of the traditions of live theater. Eno is a trendy playwright whose “The Realistic Joneses” has been performed by many companies and has been generally well-received. His “Middletown” is a pointless exercise in attempting to update Thorton Wilder’s classic “Our Town.”  “Wakey, Wakey” continues the pointlessness, right up to and including the moment when Guy expires, launching a deluge of bright balloons and celebratory music.

Eno may have drawn inspiration from Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist who, while dying of pancreatic cancer, delivered motivational talks about achieving childhood dreams. The script’s amateur construction aside, Hale does a marvelous job holding the attention of the audience and conveying his character’s constantly mutating state of energy and awareness.

Kathryn Smith-McGlynn as Lisa (left) and Tony Hale as Guy in “Wakey, Wakey” at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater.

Smith-McGlynn is tremendously confident and sensitive as hospice nurse Lisa, who comes in late to check on him. She also appears as a community college substitute teacher in the opening sketch “The Substitution,” in which Eno conflates a cultural history lesson with driver’s education. This short piece has potential, as does “Wakey, Wakey,” but both of them need much more development to justify putting them on such an esteemed stage as ACT’s.

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

 

ProductionWakey, Wakey
Written byWIll Eno
Directed byAnne Kauffman
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Feb 16th
Production AddressAmerican Conservatory Theater, Geary Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$15 – $110
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

ASR’s Year in Review: Our “Best of the Best” from 2019 – by Nicole Singley and Barry Willis

Better late than never, the old adage has it. Here (in no particular order) are some memorable productions from last season, a year full of four- and five-star achievements.

The Jungle (Curran Theatre): San Francisco’s renovated Curran Theatre was re-renovated for an immersive recreation of a 2016 crisis in a refugee camp in Calais, France. A huge and hugely talented multi-ethnic cast made this show last season’s most profound and moving theatrical experience. (BW)

After Miss Julie (Main Stage West): Ilana Niernberger and Sam Coughlin paired up for a thrilling pas de deux in Patrick Marber’s evocative spin on “Miss Julie,” transplanting Strindberg’s classic story to a summer night in 1945. A stunning set, great lighting, and white-hot performances brought class and erotic tensions to a boil, culminating in a seriously steamy tango scene that won’t be soon forgotten. (NS)

Rocky Horror Show (Marin Musical Theatre Company): MMTC took this Halloween favorite far over the top at the San Anselmo Playhouse, thanks to stunning efforts by Jake Gale, Nelson Brown, Dani Innocenti-Beem, Pearl Fugit and many others. (BW)

Barbecue Apocalypse (Spreckels): The laughs were served well-done in this quirky comedy, thanks to a witty script marinated in millennial-centric humor and a talented ensemble. Clever costumes, strong technical work, and excellent casting proved that all it takes to survive the end of days is a little raccoon meat and some serious comic relief. (NS)

Romeo and Juliet (Throckmorton): Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre and the streets around it became Verona, Italy, in a sweetly evocative, imaginative, and fully immersive production of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy. (BW)

Sex with Strangers (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre turned up the heat in “Sex with Strangers,” a seductive modern romance that broaches big questions about love, ambition, and the price of success in the digital era. Dean Linnard and Sandra Ish brought the story’s unlikely couple to life with electric chemistry and powerful, nuanced performances. (NS)

Incidents in the Wicked Life of Moll Flanders (Ross Valley Players): RVP gambled and won with Jennifer LeBlanc’s adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel. Amber Collins Crane stole the show as the lead in a compelling tale about a beautiful, quick-witted woman who rose from miserable circumstances to respectability through petty crime, stealth, charm, and unusually good luck. (BW)

Drumming with Anubis (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre invited us along to the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society’s annual campout, where a group of aging death metal fans communes in the desert to beat their bongos. Things got a little dark, a lot hilarious, and surprisingly touching when the Egyptian god of death crashed the party. Local playwright David Templeton’s brilliant new show earned a 5-star reception, featuring a phenomenal cast and beautiful scenic design. (NS)

How I Learned What I Learned (Marin Theatre Company): Director Margo Hall coaxed a tremendous performance from Steven Anthony Jones, who brought grandfatherly wit and wisdom to the role of playwright August Wilson. A master class in story-telling. (BW)

Faceless (6th Street Playhouse): Former artistic director Craig A. Miller returned to helm this riveting courtroom drama about an American teenager caught running away to join her internet boyfriend in ISIS. Razor-sharp dialogue and powerhouse performances made for an intense and memorable experience in 6th Street’s intimate studio theater. (NS)

The Year of Magical Thinking (Aurora Theatre Company): Stacy Ross glowed in a masterly solo recital of Joan Didion’s play from her book of the same name. (BW)

Home (Berkeley Repertory Theatre): In this stunning piece of performance art by Geoff Sobelle, audiences watched a two-story house materialize from the shadows of an empty stage as if by magic. A spectacle of epic proportions, this visual feast reminded theatergoers that a house is just a space in which we come together to make a home. (NS)

Fully Committed (6th Street Playhouse): Patrick Varner channeled 40-some characters in his hilarious one-man depiction of a scheduling manager at his wits’ end in a high-end NYC restaurant, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. (BW)

Merman’s Apprentice (Sonoma Arts Live): Daniela Innocenti-Beem brought Broadway legend Ethel Merman back to the stage with a larger-than-life performance in this sparkling world premiere, brimming with catchy tunes and colorful humor. Innocenti-Beem and teenaged costar Emma Sutherland boast some serious pipes, which made this charming new musical all the more fun. (NS)

Mother of the Maid (Marin Theatre Company): A mother’s love and devotion were never so well depicted as in this lovely, heart-rending piece about Joan of Arc’s mother Isabelle (Sherman Fracher). (BW)

Eureka Day (Spreckels): Laughter proved contagious in Jonathan Spector’s whip-smart “Eureka Day,” pitting parents at a Berkeley charter school against each other in the wake of a mumps outbreak. An all-star cast, elaborate set design, and top-notch technical work combined to make this a 5-star production. (NS)

Cabaret (San Francisco Playhouse and Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions): Both of these productions were excellent and amazing versions of this dazzling but starkly disturbing cautionary tale. (BW) 

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Spreckels): Theatergoers were dazzled by this cleverly written and superbly acted continuation of Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, containing everything an Austenesque story should: delicious drama, a heartwarming romance, and an abundance of humor and witPitch-perfect direction and exemplary casting made “Miss Bennet” the ultimate holiday treat. (NS)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Curran Theatre): Nonstop high-intensity theatrical magic is the only way to describe this extravagant production, running into next July. (BW)

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Spreckels): Hilarity ensued in this madcap musical about a man clawing his way to the top of the family tree. Tim Setzer stole the show as all nine members of the D’Ysquith family, all of whom meet their ends in some of the most creative and comical ways imaginable. Excellent ensemble work, cute choreography, and clever projections made this one killer production. (NS)

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

 

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.

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! “Harry Potter” a Mind-Blower at the Curran by Barry Willis

Unlimited budgets can yield miracles. Especially in theater. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” at the Curran through July 12, is one of those miracles.

And yes, the July 12 closing date is correct—a six-month run! The large-capacity Curran (nearly 1700 seats) was closed for a couple of years for a massive renovation, only to have some of the new seating and carpeting removed to build out the realistic refugee camp for last spring’s fantastic production of “The Jungle.” It’s been redecorated again—this time with carpeting and fabric wall coverings embellished with the Hogwarts logo.

The unlimited budget is apparent both the moment you step into the theater and the moment the curtain rises for Part One, which manages to pack in more theatrical illusions than any dozen blockbuster shows in Las Vegas, including characters that step out of seemingly solid walls, or seemingly solid walls that absorb characters the way a sponge draws water, characters that instantly morph into other characters, characters that vanish only to reappear swimming in the sky, characters that emerge and exit through a burning fireplace, ghostly spirits that hover above the audience, and graffiti that somehow appears throughout the theater’s huge ceiling, like a celestial pattern in an observatory. Then there’s the amazing choreography of swirling capes and their disappearing owners (Steven Hoggett, movement director). Those are a few highlights.

…It’s a wild adventure.

The story by J.K.Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany has the now-adult Harry Potter (John Skelley) toiling away as a wizard in the Ministry of Magic, and about to send his son Albus (Benjamin Papac) off to school at his alma mater, where Albus meets Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), a boy his age who’s the son of dark lord Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall).

The two of them form an uneasy but solid friendship and are soon continuing the struggle against the evil Lord Voldemort (Andrew Long) and his offspring. It’s a wild adventure. The fanciful, quick-moving, and action-packed tale consumes nearly two-and-a-half hours and will keep you riveted to your seat the entire time. It’s a mind-blowing, all-consuming production populated by four or five dozen ace performers.

Among the amazing factoids around this show are stories of the two young actors who so magnificently embody Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is reputedly Papac’s first professional stage acting gig, and Steiger’s prior experience includes a Shakespeare festival in Scranton, Pennsylvania. They nonetheless meet the world-class challenge of what must be an exhausting, demanding production, including Saturday and Sunday performances that include both Part One and Part Two, where the two boys and their Hogwarts associates meet Voldemort’s daughter for a final showdown.

Should your time or budget restrict you to seeing only Part One or Part Two, note that Part One is the more compelling of the two, and more spectacle-intensive. Real Potterites, of course, will want to see both, but casual visitors will likely enjoy the first one more. Part Two’s extensive exposition and lengthy dialog will be better suited for those who’ve read all the books and seen all the films.

Casual theatergoers not in the Potter camp would do well to read up on the mythology before the show—a brief synopsis of which is included in the playbill. Even those who don’t know Harry Potter from Harry Houdini will be astounded by this production. For true believers—they are legion—it’s a religious experience.

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.

 

ProductionHarry Potter and the Cursed Child
Written byJ.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byJohn Tiffany
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesThru August 31st
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$69-$229
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review! “Champions of Magic” an Astounding Show at the Golden Gate by Barry Willis

For the next few days, Bay Area theater fans have a rare opportunity to see the UK-based international touring show “Champions of Magic,” with twice-per-day performances through Dec. 1 at San Francisco’s downtown Golden Gate Theatre.

Five world-class illusionists and one aerialist/contortionist prove that classic theatrical magic is alive and well, with acts that include a mind-reader, a sleight-of-hand performer, an escape artist, and illusionists Strange & Young, who make people including themselves disappear and reappear instantly in ways that absolutely baffle and confound the audience.

Champions … is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families.

Aided by willing audience members, some little children, the sleight-of-hand artist gets an amazing amount of mileage from a Five of Clubs pulled from her deck, cut-and-torn paper, and various ordinary objects including rubber bands. Audience volunteers also propel the mind-reader, who on opening night correctly guessed names and relationships of random people pulled onstage. He also identified one woman as a Navy veteran and former presidential guard, without any apparent prior knowledge. How this is possible will keep you wondering long after the show is over.

The escape artist revives some of Houdini’s best tricks, including getting out of a straitjacket while submerged in a tank of water locked from the outside, a performance guaranteed to induce anxiety in anyone with a hint of claustrophobia. Strange & Young offer plenty of comedic patter as they leap about with a dynamic, quick-moving illusionist spectacle worthy of Las Vegas.

“Champions of Magic,” in fact, is the nearest thing to Las Vegas currently running in San Francisco, save the Cirque de Soleil production of “Amaluna” that runs into January. “Champions” is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families. The show’s run is short and if opening night is a good indicator, tickets may be in short supply. If dazzling spectacles appeal to you, do not miss this show.

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.

 

“Champions of Magic” International Touring Show

  • Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco
  • Two shows daily through Dec. 1
  • Tickets: $59.99 to $169.99
  • Info: broadwaysf.com

Ratings:

  • Overall: 5 of 5
  • Performance: 5 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 5 of 5

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW: SF Playhouse Missteps with “Dance Nation” – by Nicole Singley

Time flies when you’re having fun. And it slows to a crawl when you aren’t. “Dance Nation” at San Francisco Playhouse succeeds in proving that an hour and fifty-two minutes can feel like an eternity. It fails at just about everything else it ostensibly sets out to accomplish. With no intermission and thus no chance for a polite escape, this production feels more like an avant-garde experiment in torture than an illuminating night at the theater.

The premise is straightforward enough. An Ohio dance troupe comprised of preteen girls – played by adult women of various ages, at the playwright’s instruction – is vying for a spot at Nationals in Tampa Bay. The competition is fierce, and things get really strange and gory. But there isn’t much more to the story, if it could even be called that. Instead it merely serves as a backdrop for a series of disjointed, drawn-out monologues, ranging from flat and painfully boring to overly-intense and agitating, like a bad slam poetry throwdown at the local café where angry feminists commune to rail against the patriarchy and destigmatize the female body. It plays like a misguided grab at women’s empowerment wrapped up in a hollow coming-of-age story about resilience and self-discovery. But none of it rings true.

Clare Barron has packed a lot into her characters, but little that’s terribly realistic or relatable. We bear witness to one girl’s narcissistic meltdown, reaching fever pitch as she shouts at the audience “I’m going to make you my bitch, you motherfucking cunt-munching piece of shit prick. I am your god. I am your second coming.” In another scene, a girl who’s just gotten her period smears menstrual blood across her face like war paint. In yet another, a familiar childhood pact takes a warped turn when the girls wipe armpit sweat on each other’s upper lips and kiss (what ever happened to the good old pinky promise?). We watch grown women depicting thirteen-year-old girls strip naked together without a hint of modesty or embarrassment. (Does this match your childhood locker room experience? It certainly doesn’t mine.) And yet despite their comfortable bond, the show opens awkwardly on the troupe abandoning an injured teammate on the dance floor. It all feels gratuitous, ill-fitting and off-key.

Are these the inner thoughts and lives of women? Good grief, let’s hope not.”

The cast of “Dance Nation” at work at San Francisco Playhouse (Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli)

The coup de grâce is the show’s conclusion (dare I call it that), which features the entire cast chanting “I wish my soul were as perfect as my pussy!” – louder with each repetition – so many times that I could hear it echoing inside my head the whole drive home. Are these the inner thoughts and lives of women? Good grief, let’s hope not. None of it serves any discernible purpose but to shock and repulse the audience, for shock’s sake alone. Despite being the work of a young female playwright, “Dance Nation” is so deeply out of touch with its subject matter that it fails to be emotionally accessible in any meaningful way. It tries really hard to be controversial and edgy – in keeping with much of contemporary art – but only managed to leave me feeling tired, bored and angry. It certainly didn’t resonate with my experience of puberty and early womanhood, adolescent rivalries and friendships, the inherent camaraderie in competitive sports, or just about anything else it reaches for.

Without more believable and fully-formed characters or a compelling and cohesive narrative arc, it’s hard to feel all that connected to or interested in anything that’s happening on stage. The dancing isn’t very good, either. It’s just a lot of forced, unnatural dialogue broken up by obnoxious monologues and little to no plot, with some pointless nudity and a lot of fake blood thrown into the mix. The actors commit a commendable amount of energy to their roles, but it’s not enough to make us care about what happens to their characters. The set doesn’t help much, either. It’s clunky and underwhelming, offering little to look at but a shelf full of trophies and large pillars that often block the audience’s view.

In light of this experience, it’s difficult to fathom why this play has received such high praise from other critics. (It won the Relentless Award, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and was even a Pulitzer Prize finalist.) Is Becca Wolff’s direction at fault? Did SF Playhouse simply miss the mark with this one? Given their excellent track record, it’s hard to imagine that’s the case, but without any basis for comparison, it’s impossible to know exactly what to think. All I can say with certainty is that from start to finish, I didn’t find a single minute of this show enjoyable. Seldom have I felt so anxious for something to be over. SF Playhouse calls itself an “empathy gym,” but the only thing “Dance Nation” exercised was this reviewer’s patience.

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.

 

ProductionDance Nation
Written byClare Barron
Directed byBecca Wolff
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThrough November 9th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2/5
Performance3/5
Script1/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Dated but Relevant “Top Girls” Opens ACT Season – by Barry Willis

Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), Dull Gret (Summer Brown), Marlene (Michelle Beck), Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), and Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal) recount their life stories at a dinner party in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls performing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater now through October 13, 2019.

Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” hasn’t been performed in the Bay Area in a long time. It’s been revived as the season opener at American Conservatory Theater, directed by Tamilla Woodard and running through October 13.

About a hard-charging female executive angling to move up the management ladder, the 37-year- old play has lost none of its relevance in the intervening decades, as is made dismayingly clear in several essays-with-statistics in “Words on Plays,” the fascinating booklet that accompanies the show’s playbill. Women still lag behind men in compensation and positions of authority. There’s nothing revelatory in that, but the piece has nonetheless acquired a bit of tarnish over the years.

Director Woodard pulls wonderfully committed performances from her eight-member cast…

At its core, “Top Girls” is a simple tale of a British career woman named Marlene (Michelle Beck), running from the limited opportunities of her working-class origins and pouring all her considerable energy into the pursuit of corporate power. Set in the early 1980s—the play debuted in ’82—it depicts Marlene maneuvering for an executive position even if it means displacing a male colleague who’s the sole support for his family of four. A Thatcherite, Marlene believes in meritocracy – the idea that the cream of society rises to the top – and dismisses the entitlement mentality of leftists and union workers.

Nell (Summer Brown) and Win (Rosie Hallett) arrive to work at the Top Girls Employment Agency in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls performing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater now through October 13, 2019.

As a manager in a busy employment agency, Marlene doesn’t gladly suffer fools. Her interviews with job-seekers are brusque, bordering on insulting, and she doesn’t hesitate to dominate her office-mates. They are not friends. But suffer she does, as we learn in the second act—from the slights she has showered on her family and the personal sacrifices she’s made seeking power in a man’s world. She doesn’t really have a life outside work.

The opening scene could be interpreted as evidence of Marlene’s suffering, and by extension, the suffering of all ambitious women. It’s a comically nightmarish dinner party featuring notable women fictional and historical: 19th-century adventurer Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal); Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), an 11th-century exile from the Japanese Imperial Court; the legendary Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), thought to have reigned during the Middle Ages in the guise of a man; and Dull Gret (Summer Brown), a fearsome warrior immortalized by Brueghel. All bucked the patriarchy; the scene offers each an opportunity to tell her story. Each recitation adds fuel to Marlene’s furious purpose. It also allows all of them to riff simultaneously in multiple accents, an effect that’s literally a fugue of howling madwomen.

We get that they’re angry, even centuries after the fact, but from the audience’s point of view the scene is too long, consuming most of the first act. Here and there in the cacophony we understand a phrase or two, but for the most part, it’s as comprehensible as a long night of Dada poetry.

An esteemed British playwright, Churchill is no respecter of traditional temporal narrative or dramatic structure. The dinner scene—an exercise in art for art’s sake—is followed by an introduction to the employment service where Marlene works, and that, by a scene of two girls at play in a backyard—Kit (Lily D. Harris) and Angie (Gabriella Momah). The first act closes leaving viewers wondering how all this ties together.

 Michelle Beck and Monique Hafen at work at ACT.

The second act is both rebuttal to and redemption for the excesses of the first. In a scene of gut-wrenching earnestness, Marlene has a heart-to-heart with her sister Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe) in her kitchen, where we learn the roots of Marlene’s driving ambition and the nature of her relationship to her worshipful, enthusiastic, but dim-witted niece Angie. The final scene takes place a year before the preceding one, but makes solid dramatic sense.

The play’s difficulties and pretensions are offset by superb acting by a cast of eight women, all save Beck and Momah in dual roles. Performances range from good to exemplary, including Hallett as Win and Brown as Nell, two different but dynamically balanced office workers whose arch banter spices their otherwise tedious workdays. Harris is youngest-appearing of the cast—she looks to be in her late teens—and mid-way through the second act she does a fantastically funny turn as a job-seeker named Shona pretending to be much older.

Shona bluffs with enormous chutzpah and an increasingly absurd litany of business buzzwords during her interview with Nell. She doesn’t know much and the more she talks the more it shows, an expertly rendered comedic sketch that provoked spontaneous applause on opening night.

Aided by Barbara Samuels’s elegant lighting, set designer Nina Ball achieves something remarkable with “Top Girls”—an austere set evoking the coldness of the business world, and another one quite warm and cozy as Joyce’s home. The emergence of Joyce’s residence from far back to stage front is a marvelous effect.

Director Woodard pulls wonderfully committed performances from her eight-member cast, but the standout for this reviewer is Gabriella Momah as the lovable, sweet-natured but intellectually limited Shona. She’s an absolute delight, a bright ray of sunshine in this darkly-tinted story.

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

 

 

ProductionTop Girls
Written byCaryl Churchil
Directed byTamilla Woodard
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Oct 13th
Production AddressAmerican Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 834-3200
Tickets$25 – $102
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Astounding, Shocking Realism in “The Jungle” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Jonathan Nyati and Ben Turner (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

A crisis in a refugee camp comes roaring to life each night in “The Jungle,” at The Curran through May 19. San Francisco is the third stop for this astounding international touring production, which originated in London and then moved to New York.

Conceived and written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, “The Jungle” has won universal acclaim. The co-playwrights lived in the sprawling multi-ethnic refugee camp in Calais, France during its peak, 2015-2016, when its approximately 8000 residents lived peaceably if contentiously with each other while enduring continual harassment from French authorities. The production is a full-immersion experience that puts most of the audience in the midst of a large shantytown café — called “Salar’s Restaurant” or the “Afghan Café”— that served as a community center for the camp. The high-intensity story encompasses the final few months of the camp’s  existence, before it was destroyed by French police in October 2016.

Arya Rose Lohmor and Ammar Haj Ahmad (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

The elegant interior of the recently renovated Curran has been converted to a plywood-and-rough-framing temporary structure where the audience sits on hard wooden benches, sipping fragrant tea while arguments rage among the camp’s residents about what to do in the face of increasing pressure from French authorities. Several British aid workers try their best to help, to intervene, and in some cases, to transport refugees across the channel to Kent — a horrendously frustrating and occasionally comic effort for everyone involved. Two dozen impassioned actors wander among the audience, murmuring and shouting at each other in English, French, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish, and several African languages as the crisis builds, reinforced by real news clips on television sets placed here and there around the café (video design by Duncan McLean and Tristan Shepherd).

…the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.”

A huge extended table serves as a thrust stage where most of the drama and a few moments of levity and hope take place — including several confrontations with haughty French officials and condescending police — interspersed with tales of unbelievable hardships endured by refugees from throughout the Middle East and Africa in their quest for a better life away from the violence of their homelands. Among these are stories of leaving behind all they owned, knew, and loved, walking thousands of miles, enduring kidnappings, torture, and extortion, and embarking on perilous attempts to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded inflatable rubber boats or being packed by the hundreds into leaky ships with little chance of reaching their destinations. Such a tale is told in an unwavering voice by a clear-eyed Sudanese boy named Okot (John Pfumojena).

Ammar Haj Ahmad and John Pfumojena (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

What these refugees endure in their quest for peace and freedom is horrific, as is their cold reception by Europeans. French duplicity gets deserved exposure as politicians pay lip service to human rights while planning to eliminate the camp. Despite its self-image as a nation of asylum, France does not have a glowing history in support of human rights — Haiti’s crushing poverty, for example, is the result of terms imposed by France when the island nation sought independence.

The show’s denouement is among the most shattering you are likely ever to experience in any theater. Its hyper-realism will shock you to the core and at the very least make you reconsider our own refugee crisis. “The Jungle” may be the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.

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.

 

ProductionThe Jungle
Written byJoe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed byStephen Daldry and Justin Martin
Producing CompanySonia Friedman Productions with Tom Kirdahy present the Good Chance Theatre, National Theatre and Young Vic production
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressThe Curran
445 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone(415) 358-1220
Tickets$25 – $165
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Hello, Dolly!” An Eye-popping Extravaganza at the Golden Gate Theatre – by Barry Willis

A multiple Tony winner and perennial favorite since its 1964 debut, “Hello, Dolly!” was for decades a star vehicle for recently departed Carol Channing, the performer most associated with the lead role of yenta and all-around advice giver Dolly Gallagher Levi.

The legendary Betty Buckley handles the lead with aplomb in the sumptuous national touring show, at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre through mid-March. In other productions, Dolly has been inhabited by Bette Midler and other top talents. Ms. Buckley manages to make the character her own without referencing any of the other stars that have taken it on, a major achievement in its own right.

…an absolute extravaganza… nearly everything about this show is incredibly good.”

Backed by what appears to be an unlimited budget, the show is one of the biggest spectacles to land in San Francisco in several years. The capacious Golden Gate is its ideal venue. The show is an absolute extravaganza, from stunning backdrops, costumes, and sets to the supreme talents of a huge cast, including Lewis J. Stadlen as Horace Vandergelder, the wealthy merchant and target of Dolly’s matrimonial intentions. Among the secondary cast, Nic Rouleau is a standout as the lovelorn Cornelius Hackl, one of Vandergelden’s underpaid and underappreciated employees.

Partial ensemble (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

As townspeople, waiters, and other characters, approximately 30 performers do everything from simple walk-on bits to astoundingly athletic dance numbers—all of it appearing nearly effortless, and the show moves along with grace, precision, and enormous energy. There are no weak links in this production—in fact, the only weak link, and it’s a stretch to say this, may be Ms. Buckley herself, because nearly everything about this show is incredibly good. If she’s the weak link, it’s a strong, supple one.

“Hello, Dolly!” is a lightweight musical set around the turn of the 19th century, with some great songs in mid-20th century style—not merely the title song, but others including the heart-rending “Before the Parade Passes By.” Adhering to a time-honored plot device of the matrimonially-minded seeking partners with money, the show has been unfairly criticized for lacking relevance to modern audiences—sold-out performances at the thousand-seat Golden Gate to the contrary. If you have a hankering for a classic Broadway musical the way it was intended to be seen, this is the show for you.

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

 

ProductionHello, Dolly!
Written byBook by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed byJerry Zaks
Producing CompanyNational Touring Production
Production DatesThrough March 17th
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.shnsf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$56 – $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Dear Evan Hansen” a Millennial Spectacle at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Multiple Tony Award winner “Dear Evan Hansen” has finally landed in San Francisco, after a legal tussle between the Curran’s Carole Shorenstein Hays and her former partners The Nederlander Organization. Much-anticipated, the show lives up to its reputation, with excellent performances and stunning stagecraft that make this first Millennial musical an immersive experience.

At its core a simple story about a withdrawn, socially inept high-school boy (Ben Levi Ross, most performances) whose gift for writing has good and bad repercussions, the show is also about family relations—the lead character lives with his single mom Heidi (Jerssica Phillips), who works tirelessly to improve herself and the life of her son, while having little time to interact with him.

It’s also about the intensity of life lived via social media as experienced by young people. Covering the entire stage for much of the show’s two-and-a-half hours, Peter Nigrini’s astounding projections go a long way toward conveying just how intense, immediate, and all-consuming such life can be. The music—also award-winning—is brash, loud, and louder, with only a couple of tender moments. Most of the songs in the first act are shouted more than sung.

Evan Hansen’s distraught classmate Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith) mentions feeling suicidal and ultimately kills himself. Evan’s fictitious email exchanges with Connor gain notoriety and even provide some comfort for Connor’s parents Larry and Cynthia (Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll) and sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna), who falls for Evan, if only briefly.

Phoebe Koyabe does a fine job as Alana Beck, one of Evan’s classmates and a self-appointed busybody who both encourages his subterfuge and later exposes it. Jared Goldsmith appears as Jared Kleinman, an obnoxious classmate and possibly Evan’s only friend.

…the extraordinary level of stagecraft supporting it make ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ quite a justifiable ticket purchase…

The show’s production values are exceptional, but in style it bears a striking resemblance to “Next to Normal,” possibly the worst musical ever conceived. The resemblance is no accident; both shows were helmed by Micheal Greif. Stripped of its glitz, the story would make ideal material for a Hallmark or Lifetime made-for-TV movie.

There are two moments that could use a rewrite: one is the scene where Larry, in surrogate father mode, shows Evan how to break in a baseball glove, something that in a film would be conveyed with a couple of soft-focus shots, but here it demands an entire song (“To Break in a Glove”). The other false moment comes when Larry and Cynthia attempt to befriend Evan’s mother, offering to fund his college education with money they have saved for Connor’s. Instead of being appreciative, Heidi gets incensed and insists that he’ll go to community college until she can afford to send him someplace better.

It’s mostly an exercise in psychological torture for poor Evan, but his misguided efforts—aided by Alana and Zoe—have an unpredictable and somewhat upbeat payoff, even if it isn’t happy-ever-after. “Dear Evan Hansen” is an emotionally exhausting production—not necessarily for the audience, but certainly for the performers, with nine shows per week. Their commitment to the show and the extraordinary level of stagecraft supporting it make “Dear Evan Hansen” quite a justifiable ticket purchase.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Production“Dear Evan Hansen”
Written byWritten by Steven Levenson,

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byMichael Greif
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesDecember 30th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$99 – $325
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?------

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Cirque du Soleil’s Amazing “Volta” at AT&T Park – by Barry Willis

Calling a Cirque du Soleil production “a spectacle” is a bit like calling the Grand Canyon “a big ravine.” Reviewers’ standard superlatives—“tremendous,” “incredible,” “fantastic,” etc—fall far short of describing the scope of talents and risks taken in a typical Cirque show.

“Volta” is the 19th Cirque production to visit San Francisco. At AT&T Park through February 3, the show follows company protocol in avoiding the use and exploitation of animals, but once it gets underway no one in the audience will care that there’s nary a lion or tiger in sight. The dramatic setup is a loosely-organized talent competition—the “Mr. Wow Show”—that somewhat spoofs TV programs such as “America’s Got Talent.”

The talent-show thread gets inexplicably lost somewhere before intermission. No problem: the assorted acts that make up “Volta” are so amazing that there’s no need for dramatic structure. World-class acrobats, tumblers, trampolinists, BMX cyclists, ballet dancers, and more rollout onto the large stage in succession so rapid that at times several acts overlap one another.

“Volta” is a show with appeal for everyone who appreciates the extremes that humans can achieve…

It’s been noted that Cirque du Soleil is where former college gymnasts go to extend their careers. Their abilities and confidence pay homage to long years of training. It’s easy to understand how someone becomes an expert on the unicycle or the trampoline, but there is one act in “Volta” that provokes bafflement: Where does one learn to be a hair suspension aerialist? In “Mirage,” Brazil’s Danila Bim does a riveting aerial dance far above the stage floor, suspended only by her hair, pulled up into a tight braid connected to a cable in the apex of the big top. Her act isn’t the most dynamic—the trampolinists, tumblers, and stunt cyclists have the edge there—but it’s certainly the most beautiful and the most exotic. A perfect blend of intention, strength, and serenity, “Mirage” is ideally positioned as the high point of Act 2.

Traditional circus arts aren’t ignored in “Volta”—there is plenty of clowning, although never a small car unpacking two dozen unseen passengers. The audience also gets to see a scary performance on the “Swiss rings”—a swinging version of the still rings in men’s gymnastics. Also called the “flying rings,” the apparatus was once part of Olympic competition and now has very few adherents outside the circus. Keep an eye on the catwalk from which the rings are suspended. It sways quite a bit when the performers swing out over the edge of the stage.

There are many close calls in “Volta,” particularly in the closing segment with what seems like a dozen bike riders performing tricks simultaneously. The danger is part of the thrill for the audience—and presumably, part of the appeal for the performers—but given its seemingly high potential for disaster, Cirque du Soleil has a low injury rate. “Volta” is a show with appeal for everyone who appreciates the extremes that humans can achieve even if for no higher purpose than sheer exhilaration and the satisfaction of knowing that they can do things that few others can equal.

“Volta” runs through February 3 in San Francisco, then moves to San Jose through March 24. It’s an astounding production. With two shows per day on many dates, there is certainly one that will fit in your busy winter holiday schedule. Don’t miss it.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionVolta
Written byCirque du Soleil
Directed byCirque du Soleil
Producing CompanyCirque du Soleil
Production DatesThru Feb. 3rd, 2019
Production AddressAT&T Park
24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.cirquedusoleil.com/volta
Telephone
Tickets$54.00 and up
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
ScriptN/A
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “You Mean to Do Me Harm” at San Francisco Playhouse – by Barry Willis

A seemingly innocuous statement made at a celebratory dinner party has unexpected ramifications in Christopher Chen’s “You Mean to Do Me Harm,” at San Francisco Playhouse through Nov. 3.

So does just about everything spoken or thought by the four characters in this baffling one-act workshopped last year as part of the Playhouse’s “Sandbox” series. Now given a full production in the company’s main theater, the piece opens strongly with two interracial couples meeting to celebrate an impending new job for Ben (Cassidy Brown), whose Chinese-American wife Samantha (Charisse Loriaux) was promoted over him at social-good non-profit. His new boss will be a Chinese-American named Daniel (Jomar Tagatac), whose spouse, Lindsay (Katie Rubin) is a corporate lawyer who briefly dated Ben in college.

A comment about a camping trip they took some ten years earlier opens a Pandora’s Box of florid and sometimes paranoid fantasies that impinge on every aspect of professional and interpersonal relationships. Racism—private/personal and historical/institutional—is a strong theme.

… The piece opens strongly …

Played out on an austere but imposing set by Angrette McClosky, the urbane banter of the four exposes character flaws and motivations that threaten the stability of their relationships. The job offer for Ben is inexplicably withdrawn. This launches a series of sketches that examine in detail both the outer and inner realities of all four characters.

Harm-Charisse Loriaux and Cassidy Brown as Samantha and Ben – Photo by Ken Levin

These sketches tend to be vicious—especially a shouting match between Ben and Lindsay—but there is one of the two women with a confessional/conspiratorial tone approaching friendship.

The sketch structure is both too little and too much for this 90-minute show: two little in that there are insufficient dramatic/character arcs and too much in the sense that each sketch could be expanded. It’s as if Chen has opened up his notebook and thrown everything onstage that these four characters could do with each other, without considering the ultimate trajectory of the play. The setup is compelling but dramatic development lacking: plenty of conflict, no resolution.

“You Mean to Do Me Harm” begins and ends abruptly and looks very much like an early-stage Netflix series in which each sketch could be developed into a full episode. Director Bill English and his expert cast try mightily to breathe life into it, but as an evening’s entertainment, it’s an interesting but ultimately unfulfilling bit of theater.

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

ProductionYou Mean to Do Me Harm
Written byChristopher Chen
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Nov. 3rd
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! ASR Theatre Review: Marvelous “Hedwig” by Ray of Light – by Barry WIllis

John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” may be the greatest rock musical ever conceived. No matter how you rank them, it’s certainly among the top five. Ray of Light has launched a really engaging production of this fantastic comedic redemption story about an East German rocker whose botched gender-reassignment surgery prompts personal and professional crises.

At the Victoria Theatre in the Mission district through October 6, the production features Coleton Schmitto in the lead role, with Maya Michal Sherer as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s aide-de-camp, fellow performer, and sometimes lover. Hedwig’s band, the Angry Inch—its name derived from what was left by Hedwig’s incompetent surgeon—includes Steven Bolinger on keyboard and guitar, Lysol Tony-Romeo on bass, Diogo Zavadzki on guitar, and David Walker on drums. The group is very well balanced and just loose enough to give this show a semi-inebriated improvisational feel.

…this “Hedwig” is refreshingly street-funky…

Peet Cocke’s rough set perfectly complements the shabby old Victoria, giving it the air of both dive bar and low-budget arena. Schmitto dominates the stage throughout the non-stop ninety-minute show, spouting a litany of ironic one-liners and managing all of his character’s dance moves and gymnastics without being visibly hindered by stiletto heeled boots. Sherer scrambles to sing and draw projected transparencies at the same time. It’s quite a juggling act.

“Hedwig” with Coleton Schmitto.

The pair sing with power and conviction, although the sound on opening night was so unbalanced that during opening scenes, the bass and drums overwhelmed the vocals. This technical glitch was corrected later in the show and presumably won’t be an issue for the duration of its run. Stephen Trask’s music, of course, runs the gamut from incendiary punk (“Angry Inch”) to pop humor (“Sugar Daddy”) to deeply personal (“Wig in a Box”) to hauntingly sentimental (“The Origin of Love,” “Wicked Little Town”)—all of it beautifully performed.

Not an ultra-polished Broadway production, this “Hedwig” is refreshingly street-funky, refined enough for musical theater elitists but grungy enough that cultists will come back for repeat performances. Hardcore fans will regret missing it.

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

 

ProductionHedwig and The Angry Inch
Written byMusic: Stephen Trask.
Lyrics: Stephen Trask.
Book: John Cameron Mitchell
Directed bySailor Galaviz
Producing CompanyRay of Light Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Oct. 6th.
Production AddressVictoria Theatre
2961 16th St.
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.rayof lighttheatre.com
TelephoneN/A
Tickets$35-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! ASR Theater Review: Promising but Uneven “Demos Kratos Theatro” – by Barry WIllis

Political humor takes both expected and unexpected turns in Utopia Theatre Project’s “Demos Kratos Theatro,” at San Francisco’s PianoFight bar and theater, through October 6.

Its title Greek for “People Power Theater,” this collection of short plays and comedic sketches includes plenty of predictable anti-Trump/anti-Republican polemics. Musician Lauren Mayer appears repeatedly with songs whose lyrics are sometimes clever and sometimes entirely too obvious, such as “voter fraud is a fraud.”

There’s one piece, “Daughters of Ocean,” by Carol S. Lashof, that’s either too obscure or not quite fully developed, but two others are excellent, especially “The Polling Place,” Kenneth Heaton’s two-actor sketch about a voter trying her earnest best to participate in democracy in the face of increasingly impossible requirements. Directed by Mary Ann Rogers, veteran professional actor Richard Farrell is superb as a no-nonsense worker enforcing the rules at a polling station. Alicia Stamps is his match as a would-be voter baffled by the obstacle course she must overcome simply to cast a ballot.

Amelia Adams … a trained clown with deep experience in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition … engages the audience fully and never falters.

Another great sketch is Cleavon Smith’s “On the Precipice.” Directed by Melanie Bandera-Hess, the piece features three stoners (Lorenzo Angelo Gonzales, Howard Johnson Jr., and Tesia Bell) who appear ready to do their citizens’ duty until their motivation gets derailed by too much weed. The show’s only piece with a personal responsibility theme, “On the Precipice” is a humorous cautionary tale that should be taken to heart by a wide swath of the politically disenchanted.

The Demos Kratos Theatro cast.

The high point of “Demos Kratos Theatro” is Amelia Adams’s recurring appearances as campaigning politician Sal Monella—a sleazeball self-promoter from New Jersey by way of Chicago. A trained clown with deep experience in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition, Adams engages the audience fully and never falters even at moments when it’s clear she’s improvising. Her hilarious act alone is worth the trip to Taylor Street.

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

 

ProductionDêmos Krátos Theátro: Plays By and For the People
Written byVarious
Directed byVarious
Producing CompanyUtopia Theatre Project
Production DatesThru Oct. 6th on selected dates.
Production AddressPianoFight
144 Taylor St.
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttp://www.utopiatheatreproject.com
TelephoneN/A
Tickets$12.50 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft2.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!---

An ASR Theater Review! Delightful “Soft Power” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Cultural appropriation gets turned upside down in David Henry Hwang’s “Soft Power,” through July 8 at San Francisco’s Curran.

China is clearly on its way toward being the dominant economic force in the 21st century. Its cultural influence isn’t yet on par with its industrial and financial power, but there seems little doubt that its ascendency is inevitable. Directed by Leigh Silverman, the fantastically entertaining “Soft Power” imagines a near future when Chinese film, TV, and theater borrow heavily and indiscriminately from standard tropes of 20th-century American popular culture. The title is code for a nation’s global cultural influence.

Hwang opens the piece with a meeting between himself (played by Francis Hue), a successful screenwriter, and Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), an executive with “Dragon Media” sent to Hollywood to recruit talent for productions for the Chinese domestic market. Xing’s comprehension of English is excellent but he needs help with idioms and cultural details. His slight Chinese accent gradually disappears as the story moves forward in time, an indication that he’s become fully assimilated.

Alyse Alan Louis (center), working in ‘Soft Power’ at the Curran. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

A classic Hollywood trope involves his much younger starlet girlfriend Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis, a fantastically talented singer who also does a superb impression of Hillary Clinton in one of the core story’s many tangents.)

The ambitious but somewhat out-of-control script covers everything from America’s love affair with firearms to the venomous 2016 presidential election and its aftermath to typical American/European stereotypes of Asians in such beloved shows as “The King and I” and similar huge-scale theatrical productions.

Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is especially delicious, riffing on classics like “Billy the Kid” and “Oklahoma.” Watching nearly two dozen mostly Asian performers hamming it up in blonde wigs and mid-South accents is a scream.

‘Soft Power’ is a wildly entertaining celebration…

The script leaps forward to a televised discussion among Chinese cultural intellectuals about the “invention of new theatrical forms” combining speech, song, and dance. Stagecraft is superb, immersive, and at times almost overwhelming.

This is a hilarious must-see production for anyone interested in the future, in the abysmal state of American politics or in an alternate take on the stupidly contentious issue of cultural appropriation. Should Anglo women be driven out of business for making and selling tacos and burritos? Is it fair that white college girls get harassed by their Hispanic sisters for wearing hoop earrings? These questions aren’t hypothetical; both have happened recently.

A visit to McDonald’s, a fine eatery, in ‘Soft Power.’
Photo by Craig Schwartz

The bottom line is that humans copy everything they like—food, fashion, music, art, language, technology. “Soft Power” is a wildly entertaining celebration of this eternal truth. It’s a genius production whose short three-week run does it an unintentional  disservice.

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

 

Production“Dear Evan Hansen”
Written byWritten by Steven Levenson,

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byMichael Greif
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesDecember 30th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$99 – $325
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?------

 

An ASR Theater Review! Amazing, Wonderful “Walk on the Moon” at ACT – by Barry Willis

“A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

1969 was a pivotal year in the United States. The Vietnam War was approaching its peak, as was opposition to it at home. The civil rights and women’s movements grew more intense by the week. In late July, the first astronaut walked on the moon, and shortly thereafter a half-million music fans showed up at a farm near Woodstock, NY, for what would be the defining cultural moment of the decade.

All of this figures into “A Walk on the Moon,” at ACT through July 1. It’s a beguiling tale of a Jewish housewife’s late-in-life coming of age through an accidental encounter with a hippie peddler. Katie Brayben stars as Pearl Kantrowitz, a young mother from Flatbush, whose family traditionally spends a few idyllic summer weeks at a resort in the Catskills with friends and neighbors, all of whom, save Pearl’s rebellious adolescent daughter Alison (Brigid O’Brien), are still very much in the 1950s.

Marty and Pearl – Jonah Platt and Katie Brayben in “A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

Pearl’s TV-repairman husband Marty (Jonah Platt) can’t stay with them as much as he would prefer because business is booming at the repair shop where he works , in anticipation of the moon landing. Pearl spends idle moments hanging out with Walker (Zak Resnick), a local free spirit who sells blouses out of his camper van. Their friendship blossoms and culminates in a psychedelic adventure during the music festival, mirroring a less-intense affair that Alison has with a charming guitar-playing boy named Ross (Nick Sacks).

The story covers a short period in social history but a huge episode in Pearl’s life. She was, as she describes it, almost a child bride—one who went from high school to motherhood with no developmental period in between. Walker, and the ideas he shares with her, are Pearl’s forbidden fruit, and like Eve in Genesis Chapter 3, her eyes are opened.

Pearl and Walker – Katie Brayben and Zak Resnick at ACT

The verdant setting of the “bungalow colony” feels almost like Eden as realized by scenic designer Donyale Werle, and Tal Yarden’s astoundingly immersive projections go a long way toward encompassing the heady events of the late 1960s. Stagecraft at ACT is almost always beyond reproach, but this production is among the company’s most spectacular. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

“A Walk on the Moon’ is a flawless, must-see production.

Developed by Pamela Gray from the 1990s movie of the same name, “A Walk on the Moon” beautifully evokes a period whose effects still resonate almost fifty years later. The music by Paul Scott Goodman, with additional lyrics by Gray, gets the ‘60s feel just right while sounding totally contemporary. The entire cast is superb but Brayben takes her performance completely over the moon (sorry) with all-consuming dramatic conviction, fantastic dancing, and stunning vocals. It’s one of the most complete and fully engaged performances you’re likely to see this year.

“A Walk on the Moon” is a flawless, must-see production. Its only drawback is that it isn’t running all summer.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

Barry Willis is ASR’s Theater Section Editor and a Sr. Contributor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

 

 

“A Walk on the Moon” by Pamela Gray; Music by Paul Scott Goodman; Directed by Sheryl Kaller

Through July 1: Tuesday– Saturday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, 2 p.m.

American Conservatory Theater  Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA

Tickets: $15 – $110

Info: 415-749-2228, act-sf.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

An ASR Theater Review! Adventurous “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” at Custom Made Theatre – by Nicole Singley

“Good. Better. Best. Bested.” at Custom Made Theater

It’s a normal night of gambling and drunken debauchery on the Las Vegas strip until a catastrophic event half a world away sends shockwaves rippling through the crowded streets of Nevada’s most infamous and alluring destination.

Jonathan Spector’s elaborately-woven satire – at Custom Made Theatre through July 7th – crashes the party and bears witness to the aftermath in a series of revealing vignettes. Making its world premiere at this intimate San Francisco venue, “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” is co-produced by Custom Made Theatre Co. and Spector’s own Berkeley-based company, Just Theater.

From magicians, prostitutes, gamblers, and bachelorette parties to costume-clad street performers and obnoxious, selfie-snapping tourists, this 90-minute, nonstop show darts back and forth between characters and storylines offering glimpses into the lives of recognizable Las Vegas fixtures. We watch their night unfold in the wake of devastating news, following along as they struggle to process and react to an unexpected buzz-kill of epic proportions. Can the party continue amid the chaos and confusion, or will doom and gloom prevail?

Jessica Lea Risco delivers a strong and nuanced performance as hired escort Simone, holed up uncomfortably in a hotel room with nervous would-be customer Alan (Gabriel Montoya) when the bad news hits.

Gabriel Montoya and Jessica Lea Risco at Custom Made.

Lauren Andrei Garcia shines as ditzy drama-queen Sue, determined to salvage her bachelorette festivities by any means possible. Tim Garcia nails an impressive, lightning-paced monologue riddled with more casino-friendly terminology than a copy of Gambling for Dummies. He is excellent as frenetic 17-year-old Sheldon, keeping his broke father Walter (David Sinaiko) afloat with handouts from his winnings.

Mick Mize is equally capable in dual roles as disenchanted stage magician Jordan and an inebriated, skirt-chasing tourist (“The Bro”) evoking blurry memories of frat-house parties past. Millie Brooks provides comic relief as Sue’s beleaguered best friend Marla, along for the wild ride whether she likes it or not.

Millie Brooks and Mick Mize at Custom Made.

Director Lauren English succeeds beautifully in bringing the humor and humanity of Spector’s script to life. A less talented group of actors may have made it difficult to see the same faces assuming so many roles, but the cast switches gears seamlessly and convincingly, making it surprisingly easy to forget that the drunken playboy hitting on our hapless bride-to-be was a magician only moments earlier. Noteworthy sound design by Jaren Feeley adds much to the overall production quality, with the well-timed entrances of voices swelling in the background and cellphone sound effects so realistic that members of the audience were seen reaching to check their own devices.

It’s an entertaining, fast-moving, emotional roller coaster of a production, shifting effectively between episodes eliciting side-splitting laughter, serious reflection, shock, and horror, all punctuated by an uneasy sense of sadness and despair that looms over even some of the most awkward and laugh-out-loud moments in this multi-dimensional comedy.

Spector has crafted his characters with empathy and depth, exploiting their flaws when it suits his purpose, but not at the expense of making them both relatable and compelling. “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” is a thought-provoking journey into the heart of Sin City and humankind at large, underlining the fragility of the ever-fleeting here and now.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

 

 

 

“Good. Better. Best. Bested.” by Jonathan Spector

Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Through July 7, 2018

Tickets: $35—$42

Info: (415) 798-2682, custommade.org

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

 

ASR Theater Review! Incisive, Hilarious “Entomologist’s Love Story” at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

SF Playhouse: An Entomologist’s Love Story

“Neoteny” is a scientific term for the persistence of immature characteristics in mature organisms: adult dogs with the look and behavior of puppies, for example. By extension, it could be applied to a large swath of the thirty-something population, many of whom seem to have reached their limit of social development in middle school.

It’s also a strong sub-theme in “An Entomologist’s Love Story,” at San Francisco Playhouse through June 23. Expertly directed by Giovanna Sardelli, Melissa Ross’s tight, insightful script examines the relationship of Betty and Jeff (Lori Prince and Lucas Verbrugghe), two doctoral candidates who work together in the entomology department of the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

SF Playhouse: Lucas Verbrugghe and Lori Prince

Briefly lovers during their undergrad days, the two now enjoy a playful relationship like teenage brother and sister. Their nerdy banter is the source of much of Ross’s comedy—much of it true-to-life proof that “thirty is the new thirteen.” Betty is an expert on the mating behaviors of insects—the play is bracketed by her lectures on the subject—but is obsessed with the mating behaviors of humans, an activity with which she has had much experience but no longterm success. She clings to Jeff, who clearly wants to move on, but doesn’t know how.

Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll, right) shows an insect specimen to Jeff (Lucas Verbrugghe).

Then one day he meets Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll), a young woman geekier by far than he and Betty combined, and soon he knows she’s the girl for him. How to break away from Betty is his challenge, and dealing with that is hers. Then life throws her a curve ball in the form of an intellectual janitor named Andy (Will Springhorn, Jr.), who’s attended her lectures and has read “War and Peace” in its entirety.

It’s a spare, beautifully structured plot without a hint of fluff. Every line and every action propel the story toward its lovely uplifting conclusion, all of it conveyed on a spectacular set—both interior and exterior of the museum—by Nina Ball, one of the Bay Area’s most gifted and adventurous set designers. This show’s scientific setting and dissection of the personal lives of realistic scientists make it an excellent follow-up to “The Effect,” with its theme of love and research. And love-among-the-nerds makes it a superb companion piece to “Tinderella,” running through May 26 at Custom Made Theatre, in SF Playhouse’s former home on Sutter Street. Hilarious and hopeful, “An Entomologist’s Love Story” is a sweet antidote for what ails us.

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.

 

“An Entomologist’s Love Story”

San Francisco Playhouse

Through June 23, 2018

420 Post Street, San Francisco

(Second floor of the Kensington Hotel)

Tickets: $30-$100 Info: www.sfplayhouse.org

Rating: 4 1/2 Out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Loose Cannon — ACT’s “Father Comes Home from the Wars” – by Barry Willis

A great old joke has it that “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” The same might be said about Civil War epic “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” directed by Liz Diamond, at American Conservatory Theater through May 20.

The committee in question is playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, an artist so deeply in love with her own voice that she can’t figure out what material fits and what needs to be jettisoned. She includes it all, like William Faulkner delivering to his editor his magnum opus in a wheelbarrow.

Unlike Faulkner, Parks didn’t have a ruthless editor to shape her material into something compelling. She instead offers a sprawling amalgam of history and personal quest that attempts to be both drama and comedy but ultimately succeeds as neither. The story at its core is quite simple: a slave named Hero (James Udom, superb) elects to serve as valet to his “boss master,” a Confederate colonel (Dan Hiatt) who has answered the call of duty and is headed to the war. Hero wonders if he should go or not, to the point of almost cutting off his own foot to render himself unfit, a fate that has already befallen his friend Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez). He’s also reluctant to say goodbye to his love Penny (Eboni Flowers) and other members of his community, but the lure of adventure, the intoxication of wearing a uniform, and the promise of freedom at the end of his servitude overwhelm his better judgment and off he goes. There are mentions of Hero’s dog Odyssey, who has run off, but we never see him.

James Udom

“Father Comes Home” follows a traditional three-act structure, with enough characters and plot devices to fill a two-season PBS series. In the first act, we meet Hero and other members of his community, their shabby housing represented by the rusty façade of a corrugated metal shack. (Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez.) This introduction, itself introduced by a mellifluous guitar-playing musician (Martin Luther McCoy, excellent), consumes the better part of an hour and segues directly into Act II, which finds Hero, the Colonel, and a wounded-and-captured Union soldier (Tom Pecinka) camped out in a forest within earshot of battle but safely away from it, the damage of war and the forest where they’re hiding represented by huge upended I-beams, more 1945 Berlin than 1865 Appomattox.

The Colonel preens, drinks, and rants, and during lulls in encroaching cannon fire, the three of them engage in a free-wheeling discussion of personal and social freedom, identity, status, value, ownership, man, god, law, and destiny. This act is exceptionally well done by three skilled actors and were it fully fleshed out might prove to be a satisfying resolution to the questions raised in Act I. Or not—the playwright might have her characters ask these questions and leave them for the audience to ponder.

Act III opens with the rusty shack superimposed on the remnants of war, with three runaway slaves cowering on its porch. Over the hill comes what appears to be a crazy homeless person in a wooly bathrobe, flitting about, flipping his hair and gushing about the fates of Hero and the Colonel. A new character introduced in the last act—Parks clearly disregards the laws of drama here—and one who had many in the opening night audience mumbling “WTF?” This crazy homeless person proves to be Odyssey, Hero’s missing dog, who has followed his master, at a distance, to the war and back and has come home to tell the tale. He’s comic relief, like the gravedigger in “Hamlet.”

Greg Wallace

A talking dog. We are now solidly in Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit territory.

Odyssey (ACT veteran Gregory Wallace) spins an elaborate tale, provoking many laughs, and informs the community that Hero isn’t dead as they believed, but in fact survived and is coming home. And Hero does just that, arriving with gifts for Homer and Penny, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that he has copied by hand but never reads aloud. Their reunion is warm and reassuring until Hero lashes out wildly with his knife, slashing at the runaways, his friend Homer, and everyone near him. There is neither justification nor explanation for this outburst. Then he calms down to tell Penny that he has a wife on the way, and it isn’t her. The end, more or less.

Its stagecraft is very good, but “Father Comes Home” is lengthy (three hours), ponderous, and baffling. Parks has worked historical facts into fantasies that never fully take flight. Hero’s journey is an arduous one, especially for the audience, some of whom left at intermission. That may have made for a more fulfilling evening at the theater.

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.

 

“Father Comes Home from the Wars” by Suzan-Lori Parks

Directed by Liz Diamond

American Conservatory Theater

Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street San Francisco

Tickets: $15 – $110 Info: www.act-sf.org

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

 

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ASR Theater Review! Outrageously Great Fun; “Head Over Heels” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

 

San Francisco’s Curran Theater is the last stop before Broadway for “Head Over Heels,” the delightful new musical featuring the songs of 1980s girl group the Go-Go’s.

Reputedly the most successful female pop group of all time, the Go-Go’s helped define the decade with a long run of infectious tunes, given new life in this stupendously quirky production. The opening scene is a fantastically well-done ensemble performance of “We Got the Beat” under a proscenium arch emblazoned with the faux-Latin slogan “Habemus Percussivo.”

Developed by Jeff Whitty from “The Arcadia” by Sir Philip Sidney, adapted by James Magurder, and directed by Michael Mayer, “Head Over Heels” is a pseudo-Shakespearean romantic comedy about a royal family seeking to prevent a prophecy of doom. This involves a troublesome journey to Bohemia, foreboding appearances by a transgendered oracle, mistaken identities, gender-fluid coupling, class-defying hookups, a self-doubting monarch, and some of the most spectacularly whimsical sets ever conceived—all of it propelled by the Go-Go’s great thumping pop-rock, done live by an ace all-female band above and behind the stage. Spencer Liff’s choreography is superb right from the opening drum whack.

Head Over Heels: A New Musical

The story concerns Basilius, the King of Arcadia (Jeremy Kushnier) and his wife, Queen Gynecia (Rachael York) who are seeking a proper marriage partner for their eldest daughter Pamela (Bonnie Milligan). Pamela’s little journey of self-discovery includes the realization that she isn’t all that interested in men, but her sister Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) is—especially Musidorus (Andrew Durand), a handsome shepherd boy with an exaggeratedly Shakespearean manner of speech. His speech is so ornate that at moments the other characters—no elocutionary slouches themselves—interrupt him and demand that he “speak English.”

Class distinctions prevent any immediate linkup between Musidorus and Philoclea. Disguising himself as “Cleophila,” an Amazon warrior woman in Roman armor and a fluffy blonde wig, he joins the travelling party and is soon the object of affection for the king himself. The Queen has a wandering eye, too. Central to the plot is the budding love affair between the marvelously comical Pamela and her maidservant Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), who also happens to be the daughter of the king’s goofy viceroy Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins). Anchoring the production, Jones is wonderfully confident in her role, and a tremendous singer, as proven during Mopsa’s contemplative visit to the island of Lesbos, where she gives the song “Vacation” a whole new meaning.

Kushier does likewise with “Lust to Love,” reinterpreted late in the saga as a revenge song during a sword fight between the king and Musidorus. No worries! Everyone lives—and loves—happily ever after.

Head Over Heels: Peppermint

Arianne Phillips’s costumes, Kevin Adams’s lighting, Andrew Lazarow’s projections, Kai Harada’s sound, and Julian Crouch’s set design all make huge contributions to the wild success that is “Head Over Heels.” The primary actors are superb, as are the ensemble, all of them veterans of multiple big-time musicals. The result is a stunning powerhouse performance that brought the opening night crowd to its feet in sustained appreciation—a crowd, it must be mentioned, younger and more boisterous than typically fills San Francisco’s big theaters, and one that lingered for the after-party in the lobby, enjoying the music of the B-52s, Talking Heads, Devo, and many other contemporaries of the Go-Go’s.

“Head Over Heels” is simply an outrageously over-the-top good time. It may be the most fun you will ever have in a theater.

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

 

What: “Head Over Heels,” the Go-Go’s Musical.

130 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission

Where: The Curran Theater, 455 Geary St., San Francisco, CA 94102

When: Through May 6, 2018.

Tickets: $29-$175

Info: 415-358-1220, SFCURRAN.com

Rating: Five Out of Five Stars

 

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ASR Theater Review! SF Playhouse’s Haunting “The Effect” – by Barry Willis

In “The Effect,”  at San Francisco Playhouse through April 28, a clinical drug trial goes off the rails when two test subjects fall in love, and two supervising psychiatrists revisit an old affair.

The story plays out over a few weeks in a lab belonging to the fictional Rauschen pharmaceutical company. Two young trial volunteers, Connie Hall and Tristan Frey (Ayelet Firstenberg and Joe Estlack, respectively) have signed up to test an experimental antidepressant, ostensibly because they need the money, although that is never made explicit.

Lead researcher Dr. Toby Sealey (Robert Parsons) has great hopes for the potential of this new drug to raise levels of dopamine, a substance naturally present in the brain, but depleted in depressed people. His one-time lover Dr. Lorna James (Susi Damilano) is directly in charge of administering incrementally increasing doses to her subjects and monitoring their behavior. She tries vainly to intervene when Connie and Tristan get involved with each other, because love’s pleasure also raises dopamine levels, potentially masking the effect of the drug. She also tries vainly to suppress lingering feelings for Dr. Sealey, a man she dismisses as “the most notorious fuck-around on the conference circuit.”

Playwright Lucy Prebble’s fascinating script examines the nature of love and mental illness, calls into question scientific objectivity, and makes a deserving target of pharmaceuticals with marginal benefits and many deadly side effects. Dr. James does likewise – she remarks to Dr. Sealey that “the history of medicine is the history of placebos” and later predicts that “one day we will look back on all this chemical-imbalance stuff like the four humors.” Their relationship does not blossom anew. It’s implied that Dr. Sealey may enjoy a big payout if the trial’s results are positive.

Set designer Nina Ball is at her best here, evoking the vaguely pleasant but impersonal nature of corporate environments, with superb help from projections designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker, whose video graphics are chillingly effective.

Director Bill English gets a powerful performance from his cast of four. The show’s dark trajectory is interrupted here and there by moments of near-comedy, but the light at the end of its tunnel doesn’t shine on Dr. James. “The Effect” is a well-done theatrical rarity that entertains, informs, and provokes in equal measure.

 

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

 

“The Effect” by Lucy Prebble

Through April 28

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post Street, San Francisco

Tickets: $25 – $100

Info: www.sfplayhouse.org

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

 

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