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!

 

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: 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! “Cabaret” a Bawdy Cautionary Tale at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

The Kit Kat dancers at SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Every summer, San Francisco Playhouse revives a classic musical and runs it all season long. It’s a brilliant marketing ploy leveraging Union Square tourist traffic, one that gives company principals a breather to prepare for an intense fall/winter schedule. The company’s current offering is a splendid take on Kander and Ebbs’s “Cabaret,” through September 14.

It’s one of several iterations of “Cabaret” to pop up recently in the Bay Area, thanks to the Trump presidency and its supporters. SFP’s bawdy effort is both wonderfully entertaining and horrifically startling—a cautionary tale about the rise of pure evil among seemingly nice friendly people, such as Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn, Jr.), the charming German businessman who befriends American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) on a train ride into Berlin.

Cate Heyman as Sally Bowles works SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Ludwig introduces Bradshaw to Fraulein Schneider (Jennie Brick), proprietress of a rooming house where he soon takes up residence, and to the Kit Kat Klub, the cabaret of the show’s title. There he meets many denizens of Berlin’s cultural underworld, including the fetching Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman), a flighty British singer with whom he’s soon head over heels and sharing a room, both to his regret.

…if you haven’t seen it, make it a priority. If you have, it’s worth revisiting.

Many of the songs in this show made it into the pop repertoire, thanks to the commercial success of the 1972 movie: “Wilkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Maybe This Time,” “Cabaret,” “Money,” and “Married,” a lovely duet performed by Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell), the fruit seller to whom Schneider gets engaged, both of them in late middle age. It’s a lilting note of hope in a show that’s ultimately and intentionally a very bitter pill buried in a thick coating of sugar. Herr Schultz is in deep denial about the rising tide of anti-Semitism, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first. Schneider knows better, and so does Bradshaw.

Jennie Brick and Louis Parnell as Schneider and Schultz. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

But the sugar is sweet and seductive. The Kit Kat Klub’s Master of Ceremonies is convincingly portrayed by John Paul Gonzalez, whose high-energy genderbending is the motive force behind most of the show’s many song-and-dance numbers (choreography by Nicole Helfer), performed by a tremendous ensemble, with music from an ace band under the direction of Dave Dobrusky.

Susi Damilano’s dynamic stage direction is first-rate, as is Jacquelyn Scott’s set design, but what sets this “Cabaret” apart from other very good productions is Cate Hayman as Sally Bowles. A theater student at Carnegie Mellon University (as is Atticus Shaindlin), Heyman brings a depth to her character that other performers have missed. Sally Bowles is usually portrayed as an annoying self-centered airhead, and Heyman encompasses that, but her Sally has an implied backstory that makes her much more substantial than most. Heyman is the best Sally Bowles this reviewer has ever seen.

Also superb is Abby Haug as Fraulien Kost, a resident at Fraulien Schneider’s who earns her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Haug and Heyman will prove justification for many ticket buyers. “Cabaret” at SF Playhouse runs a couple more weeks—if you haven’t seen it, make it a priority. If you have, it’s worth revisiting.

 

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

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byWritten by Joe Masteroff

Music by John Kander and Fred Eb
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Sept. 14th
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
Overall4.5/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

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! “Sunday in the Park with George” is a Winner at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Every summer, San Francisco Playhouse puts on a classic musical that runs from late June or early July into September. A hugely successful business model, the strategy takes advantage of tourist traffic in the city’s downtown Union Square area.

The current offering, James Lapine’s and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” has been so successful that the Playhouse has had to add performances to accommodate demand.  Now halfway through its run, the show is popular for good reasons—among them, superb performances and stunning stagecraft.

…a  beautifully rendered and performed Broadway classic that deserves all the attention it’s getting…

In many ways award-winning director Bill English’s magnum opus, “Sunday in the Park” has amazing sets (also by English) and immersive projections by Theodore J.H. Hulsker that bring the paintings of George Seurat to life, as well as the island in the Seine immortalized in his most famous creation.

The first act’s story focuses on Seurat (John Bambery) and his obsession with 18th century discoveries in optics—in particular, the fact that two closely-spaced unlike colors seen at a distance appear to the eye as a third color. Red and blue appear as lavender, for example.

George (John Bambery) at work on his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Photo courtesy of SF Playhouse.

His pointillist technique was enormously time-consuming, leaving little margin for the proper treatment of his lover/model/muse Dot (Nanci Zoppi, who steals the show).  Zoppi also appears in the second act as Marie, Dot’s daughter, and Bambery is Seurat’s American grandson, also named George, and also an artist. There is some disagreement between Marie and this new George about his exact lineage, and about the direction of his art. The second act spoofs the 1970s art world, but the first act seems to take the artist’s struggle quite seriously.

There are no weak links in the large cast—they range from good to exemplary—but standouts include Maureen McVerry as the Old Lady in Act 1 and as modern art maven Blair Daniels in Act 2, and Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Louis.

George (John Bambery) shares a moment with the Old Lady (Maureen McVerry.) Photo courtesy of SF Playhouse.

The creative team is similarly of high caliber, particularly choreographer Kimberly Richards, costumer Abra Berman, and lighting designer Michael Oesch.

The cast of ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ take their positions in Georges Seurat’s famous painting. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse.

“Sunday in the Park” is an absolute spectacle. Sondheim’s music may give some visitors pause—it rarely rises to the level of recognizable melody, and unfortunately, the composer may have exhausted his considerable lyrical abilities in collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story.”

From the same era that gave us “Company” and “Sweeney Todd,” this show tends toward the atonal and repetitive, but it’s nonetheless a  beautifully rendered and performed Broadway classic that deserves all the attention it’s getting.

 

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?----

 

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! 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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ASR Technical Review! “Born Yesterday” at SF Playhouse Mostly Hits Technical Notes — by Team ASR

Note: These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

Set in a $235-a-day hotel suite in our nation’s capital after WWII, “Born Yesterday” revolves around one Harry Brock, a self-made scrap-metal tycoon-cum-moneybags who comes to D.C. to buy himself a U.S. Senator. Along the way, he also buys (or so he thinks) a New Republic reporter named Paul Verrall to teach culture and manners to his mistress of eight-plus years, Emma “Billie” Dawn, a mink coat wearing former hoofer from the “Anything Goes” chorus line.

Simple enough. But as they often do in D.C., things go awry.

Because as Billie and Paul (quite quickly and with very little ramp-up) bookworm their way towards a romance, Billie morphs into the best looking, best educated dancer-cum-librarian in these forty-eight states (remember: the play takes place in 1946.)

She also turns a now knowing eye towards the ways Harry has been using/treating her – particularly as a “silent partner”, who, it turns out, owns 160 of what-were-Harry’s-but-are-now-Billie’s junkyards, since Harry insisted that she rather than he sign all the ownership documents (mostly unread.)

To Harry’s horror, Paul’s new student turns into a polished (as opposed to unpolished) dumb blonde, a well-read whistle-blowing crusader-cum-moralist who is in love with said reporter-tutor and not the least bit adverse to some not-so-subtle brink-womanship/blackmail regarding said scrapyards.

Next thing you know, love wins triumphant for Billie and her new beau while Harry has (we’re left to hope) learned his lesson(s) and is licking the wounds of his comeuppance. Curtain calls all around.

Not quite.

There are two flies in the ointment of the SF Playhouse production. As a character, Harry is a bully, a shark who is used to getting his way even if it involves slapping a few people around. That’s a given; no doubt. But, and it’s a BIG but, this play is written as a light comedy and the actor portraying Mr. Brock presents his character as a totally unlikeable, snarling woman (and man) beater. And since he’s such an obvious boob, no self-respecting graft-oriented Senator would get within strongarm (or bank deposit slip) distance of this walking Grand Jury deposition. So, if there is nothing at all likeable about Harry, we’re left with two holes in the plot:

  • If he’s such a relentless bully, hoodlum, and bruiser, why has Billie stayed with him for 8+ years? She may start the play as a “dumb blonde” but she’s obviously way smarter than to sign-up for endless abuse, even at Act 1-Scene
    1.
  • For the play to reach its intended comedy payoff, the audience should/must be laughing at Harry’s final comeuppance at the hands of these “born yesterday” newbies, Billie and Paul. Without his outraged sputtering, day-late-and-dollar-short, speechless hair-tearing, aghast flummoxing and proverbial pie-in-the-face downfall the audience is robbed of the comedy crescendo to which this tight script leads. He’s the real country bumpkin boob in this show.

Absent those two points, we’re left with a morality play.

***

Editor’s Note: One thing that’s interesting about “Born Yesterday” — As of February 2018, if you remove musicals from the equation, ”Born Yesterday”, based on its 1946-1949 run of 1,642 performances, remains inside the Top 10 Longest Running Broadway Plays list. And inside the Top 50 Longest Running Broadway Plays list even with musicals in the mix. Wow!

***

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:
SF Playhouse is known for nice sets. This one is, in a word, fabulous. Multi-layered, including a 2 or 3 story window with rear projection of The Mall in Washington, D.C., this is a set among sets. Major marks to Scenic Designer Jacquelyn Scott. Special nod to Projections Designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker. (Score: 9.5/10)

Set Construction:
Nice. Doors close nicely without shaking the two/three story walls. Two center stage columns impress without swaying as people and or doors move. The impressive stairway is quiet and its rails and balusters are sweet. Wall fit, trim and paint details are very, very well executed. The painted floor is also very nice. In short, very nice work all around and kudos to Maggie Koch (Production Manager), Zach Sigman (Technical Director) and all the SF Playhouse production technicians involved. (Score: 9.5/10)

Stage Management:
High-five to Beth Hall, the Stage Manager: the action behind the scenes was almost flawless. Cues were on their mark, entrances snappy, scenic (and projection) transitions timely. Nice work Beth — and Emily Kovalcik, stage management intern. (Score: 9/10)

Sound:
The show doesn’t have an especially large sound cue list, but all of the ever-present Mr. Hulsker’s sounds were executed and voiced well. (Score: 9/10)

Props:
Speaking of omni-present, Ms. Scott of Scenic Design fame also serves as Properties Manager for this production and did yeowoman’s work on this front as well. The furniture was tasteful, the props as period as possible it appeared. (Score: 9/10)

Costumes:
Mid- 20th century (1946) is always a tricky ask of any costumer. Abra Berman took a mighty swing and darn near got all the costumes right. A couple of outfits looked more ‘50s than mid-‘40s, but still a solid job. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:
Susi Damilano knows directing cold. Let’s get that straight right off. She’s a top-flight director. And, comedy – any comedy, anywhere, anytime, in any theater – is hard to direct. Period.

As seen, this show did not represent Ms. Damilano’s very best. Pacing was a solid beat too slow in Act 1 and missed by more in Act 2. Character arcs were left too flat and we missed-out on the comedic payoff of Mr. Brock’s comeuppance (mentioned above.)

To be fair, 1940’s words-and-phrases require more work on the part of actors and directors. Characters of this period often spoke sotto voce, or out of the side of their mouth. (Think Cary Grant, Abner Bieberman, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy in “His Girl Friday”.) These were well trained radio actors who knew how to nuance each line they delivered.

On a related note, actors in this show too often spoke both too soft and off-axis from the audience, making it difficult to hear the lines and the jokes. Vocal projection, from these sorts of characters and with this sort of material, is to be expected. When an audience works to hear or to decipher a line (or ‘accent’) jokes die.

Ditto when line speed slows down. Comedy, especially of this period, needs to be tight, crisp, and rat-a-tat fast. (Score: 8/10)

Lighting:
By and large, Michael Oesch’s lighting design for this show was good. In particular, the upstairs lighting and that of the entryway was very well conceived and executed. That said, there were noticeable gaps between the lights set for downstage. At this production level, the audience should not see a dim zone between lights. (Score: 8/10)

Casting:
Casting by Lauren English and Bebe La Grua was mostly fine, with two notable exceptions: the actors selected to portray Mr. Brock and and Mr. Verrall. Both were too ‘one note.’ On the other hand, Ms. Millie Brooks is delightful actress. (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:
What went right: Killer set. Tight stage management. Solid props and sound. Mostly solid costumes and lights.
What missed a bit: Direction. Casting.

So, excepting a couple of infield ground balls, (which, to be fair, can largely be addressed) this show has the potential to be the sort of solid inside-the-park home-run production we’re used to from SF Playhouse. (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Theater Tech Score: (86.5/100) Good work, worth seeing.

 

Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin

Directed by Susi Damilano
Runs thru March 10, 2018 at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA
Performance run time is approx. 2 hours 30 minutes w/one 15-minute intermission.
Tickets available online at sfplayhouse.org or by phone at 415.677.9596

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! ‘Company’ Storms SF Playhouse and That’s Good News! — by Kris Neely

SF Playhouse has learned a secret uncovered by few community and regional theaters: big musicals in the June 1 to Sept. 1 time-frame can make serious money. Especially in tourist destination cities or areas.

Raising a vodka gimlet to toast their own obvious success with this secret (as witnessed by the near sell-out audience last Saturday night), SF Playhouse’s production of Company, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, went down as smooth as a cocktail and left many patrons with a satisfied glow as a result.

Company is not your typical all-singing-all-dancing musical. In fact, there’s little enough dancing in the show—this is a musical with the emphasis on the music and the singing.Company is not a sort of A-to-Z straight-line plot, either. The show is composed of a variety of scenes that taken as a whole tell our tale.

The scenes/music/singing all revolve around the dating / marriage / commitment / relationships of one newly 35-year-old man named Bobby, played with almost detached studied aplomb by Keith Pinto. A perpetual bachelor and bon vivant, Bobby, and his married friends, are celebrating his birthday; that, in essence, is the story line.

As directed by SF Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano, Company eschews the full orchestration and electric guitars of most productions, relying instead on two pianos, located stage left and stage right. Music Director Dave Dobrusky presides over one of these pianos and surely conducts his charges. The effect of this two-piano strategy is more personal, less grandiose than a full or even partial orchestra.

The set design by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott is elegant on many levels because the set is built on, you guessed it, many levels. The scenic rear projections as designed by Micah Stieglitz add a powerful theatrical touch to the proceedings. The sound design by Anton Hedman works well, as does the lighting design by Michael Oesch.

Stage management by Tatjana Genser is tight with sound and light cues snappily in place. Costume design by Shannon Sigman takes full marks—elegant, well designed, and nicely rendered. All the actors looked darn good in Sigman’s work. The props design is fine—what props need to be in place are in place, work well, and underscore scenes nicely.

Choreography by Kimberly Richards, ably assisted by Morgan Dayley, is sharp and professional, given the limitations on dancing room due to the multi-plane set.

Let’s move on to the acting. Overall, the casting and associated acting of this show is a little bit uneven, but, to be sure, the acting is in general rendered with obvious verve and commitment.

I do wish we’d gotten to see a bit more of Abby Sammons’ (Jenny) good work. This is a talented lady.

Then there is Monique Hafen as Amy.

Can I say, “Oh. My. God.” in a review? There’s nothing else to say. To say Hafen nails the anxiety, the intensity, the comedy, and the speed-singing of Amy, who may not be getting married today, is like saying the Mona Lisa is “a pretty, sort of, mostly OK drawing.” Once Hafen starts acting and singing, almost all the other cast members turn to specters at worst or supporting actors/singers at best. Hafen is the most exciting and engaging musical performer in this cast, bar none. If she doesn’t have a suitcase permanently packed for Broadway by her home’s front door she’s doing something wrong.

Another notable performance is rendered by Joanne (Stephanie Prentice). Never far from a bar or a drink, the fragile, emotional wreck that is Joanne has one of the most powerful songs of the night (“The Ladies Who Lunch”) and Prentice nailed it cold.

Full marks must be given to Morgan Dayley in her character as a flight attendant who spends as much time looking up at bedroom ceilings as she does looking down airplane aisles. Dayley gives the role her all and does so without stepping into cliché or camp. Watch this performer, she is going places.

“Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?” is, I will admit, one of my favorite dance numbers and SF Playhouse did it with gusto. Overall, the music and singing were quite good.

All in all, SF Playhouse’s Company is a fine night on the town.

Company continues through Sept. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco.

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Technical Review! ‘Company’ Rocks at SF Playhouse — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

SF Playhouse has learned a secret uncovered by few community and regional theaters: big musicals in the June 1 to Sept. 1 timeframe can make serious money. Especially in tourist destination cities or areas.

Raising a vodka gimlet to toast their own obvious success with this secret (as witnessed by the near sell-out audience last Saturday night), SF Playhouse’s production of Company, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, went down as smooth as a cocktail and left many patrons with a satisfied glow as a result.

Company is not your typical all-singing-all-dancing musical. In fact, there’s little enough dancing in the show—this is a musical with the emphasis on the music and the singing.Company is not a sort of A-to-Z straight-line plot, either. The show is composed of a variety of scenes that taken as a whole tell our tale.

The scenes/music/singing all revolve around the dating/marriage/commitment/relationships of one newly 35-year-old man named Bobby, played with almost detached studied aplomb by Keith Pinto. A perpetual bachelor and bon vivant, Bobby, and his married friends, are celebrating his birthday; that, in essence, is the storyline.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set design by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott is elegant on many levels because the set is built on, you guessed it, many levels. The scenic rear projections as designed by Micah Stieglitz add a powerful theatrical touch to the proceedings. (Score: 8/10)

Set Construction:

In a word: quality. A well constructed, well thought-out set. No extraneous architecture—nothing that didn’t need to be there was there. (Score: 8/10)

Stage Management:

As rendered by Tatjana Genser, the stage management was tight with sound and light cues snappily in place.  (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

The sound design by Anton Hedman works well. (Score: 7/10)

Props:

The props design is fine—what props need to be in place are in place, work well, and underscore scenes nicely. (Score: 7/10)

Costumes:

Costume design by Shannon Sigman takes full marks—elegant, well designed, and nicely rendered. All the actors looked darn good in Sigman’s work. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

As directed by SF Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano, Company is well blocked with excellent stage pictures rendered on the multiple layers of the stage. This adds complexity to the directorial process because it’s easier to watch/direct actors at the same time on a single level plane versus actors scattered liberally from stage left to stage right and upstage to downstage.

Blocking takes on aspects of choreography in many plays (both musical and non-musical), and Damilano handled movement well. My only nudge would be that cue pick-ups could be quicker, brisker, and the same nudge for scene transitions—a bit faster might have added even more audience energy to the proceedings. (Score: 8/10)

Musical Direction:

Company eschews the full orchestration and electric guitars of most productions, relying instead on two pianos, located stage left and stage right. Music Director Dave Dobrusky hosts one of these pianos and surely conducts his musical charges. The effect of this two-piano strategy is more personal, less grandiose than a full or even partial orchestra. That said, at times it felt a bit like the cast was fighting the sound envelope of the pianos. (Score: 6/10)

Lights:

The lighting design by Michael Oesch in and of itself works well. (Score: 8/10)

NOTE: But I have significant reservation about a couple of architectural lighting issues. The house right and house left tormentor lights spill too much light into the audience area. The same is true of the lights high, upstage center. The light spillage was very distracting and detracted from the quality of what was happening onstage.

Casting:

The casting was a bit uneven. Disappointing, as the majority of the cast ranged from good to superb.  (Score: 7/10)

Overall Production:

As presented by SF Playhouse, Company gives general audiences and those of us inside theater a solid example of taking a musical from some years back and making it modern, energetic, and appealing to a contemporary audience.

The acting of Monique Hafen made this show for me. Her stellar history with SF Playhouse is now the stuff of regional theater legend. Soon, I have little doubt, it will be the stuff of Broadway legend as well. (Score: 8.5/10)

Reviewer Score:

SF Playhouse has demonstrated to everyone that they know how to rock musical theater. From awards won to sell-out nights, SF Playhouse knows musicals. Company continues that proud heritage.

The quality of SF Playhouse musical productions should be a beacon to technical theater artists as well as actors across the US, and, indeed, globally. (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Score: (92/120) Extremely good work.

 All in all, SF Playhouse’s Company is a fine night on the town.

 

Company continues through Sept. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco.

Tickets are $20-$120 (discounts available). Call 415-677-9596 or visit http://www.sfplayhouse.org.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****